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The Fine Art of Role-Playing


by Jonathan Walton
Jan 01,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton


This column assumes that roleplaying is an art form. I considered trying to prove this opinion in the first few installments, but finally decided that would be a waste of both our times. There will doubtlessly be many people reading this column who do not agree with my basic premise. That's fine. Disagree. More power to you. However, while this is not a preaching-to-the-choir column, directed only towards those who agree that, yes, roleplaying is an art, I ask you to put aside any personal beliefs you may have (at least while reading this column) and consider roleplaying as an art form. As Stephen King writes above, you do not have to believe roleplaying to be art, but you do have to believe that I believe it, and respect that.

What does it mean to consider roleplaying as an art form? Well, that's the point of the column, to take that perspective and see what valuable insights can be gained. But, not to cop-out completely... Looking at "the Fine Art of Roleplaying" means applying traditional and modern ideas about aesthetics (the study of art) to our lowly hobby, ideas that developed in response to painting, theater, dance, music, literature, cinema, and other "fine arts." Roleplaying is, of course, very different from painting or literature and is only a far distant cousin of so-called "performing arts" like theater and dance. Still, human beings have been discussing art for thousands of years, while roleplaying has only existed for 30. There is much that we can learn.

Part 1: What is Roleplaying?

You hear opinions like this all the time. For some reason, there exists the general belief that roleplaying is hard to describe. It's complicated. It's something you have to experience in order to understand. Granted, every so often, someone will put forward a definition of the activity, but it inevitably gets rejected by the rest of the community, each person responding that one part of the definition doesn't fit properly. So, in an effort to be true to everyone's personal roleplaying experiences, we often end up with no definition at all. Instead, we fill the hole with a kind of "wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more" understanding, one shared by experienced roleplayers but completely opaque to those outside the community.

It doesn't help that "roleplaying" is a terribly imprecise name for this art form. It is a starting point, perhaps, for understanding what people do when they roleplay, but it is also confusing, vague, and limiting. Roleplaying is not really about "playing roles," even though that's what the name of the art form would have you believe. The name, by itself, is responsible for a number of major misconceptions that continue to restrict roleplaying's expansion and development to this day. However, it seems to be a term that we are stuck with. Other names have been put forward by various interests ("Interactive Storytelling," "Collaborative Imagination"), but none of them have been able to displace the established terminology. As such, you can often observe tension between the form itself, and the limitations of the language we use to talk about it. A prime example of this is the use of the word "game" when referring to a roleplaying work or performance, but this term, like "roleplaying" itself, is nearly impossible to escape.

This is the tactic that we have taken, over and over again. The inevitable "What is Roleplaying?" section at the beginning of game books has become redundant. Do people really decide to pick up a roleplaying text, without any background in the hobby, and invite their friends over to try it out? Sometimes, perhaps, but not often. Instead, roleplaying culture has learned to depend on a strong tradition of apprenticeship. You pass along the knowledge that was given to you (along with anything you've learned along the way) and train the next generation of roleplayers. Consequently, there's no need to articulate what roleplaying is or why we do it. Anyone involved in the hobby was midwifed into it by someone else, so explanatory texts are increasingly unnecessary.

If this is indeed the case, why bother to define roleplaying? Wouldn't it simply be an exercise in futility? Assuming you could even create a generally applicable definition, someone would eventually write a game that broke all the rules. The history of art illustrates this situation over and over again, with non-representational art, found art, and conceptual art all reacting against established understandings of what was and wasn't art. Perhaps, then, we should give up trying to articulate what we do and simply focus on designing and playing games. After all, that is the point. Right?

Mock me. I think this is important.

Not the definition itself. Not coming up with a perfect, self-evident description of roleplaying. That's the grail-shaped beacon, a misguided illusion of something that doesn't really exist. Definitions are like the icons of Orthodox Christian traditions, assemblies of words that point at the actual truth of something, similar to how an icon points to the truth of a divine being like Christ, the Blessed Virgin, or the Archangel Michael. No one would ever dare to suggest that the icon itself was divine. That would be idolatry. However, we are often guilty of idolatrous definitions, confusing them with a reality that is inevitably too complex to express. Will any short definition ever describe all the various interactions that make up roleplaying? No, but that's not the purpose of definitions. That's making the icon into an idol.

So if we can't have a single succinct definition, what can we have? Multiple competing definitions? Certainly, but they are only "competing" when each tries to assert that it alone represents the Truth of roleplaying. If we agree from the beginning that no single description can cover all the intricacies of gaming, the multiple differing views don't compete at all. We can compare them all we want (and we certainly will, over the course of this column's run), but, at the end of the day, one is just as "true" as any other. A definition, under these auspices, is simply an articulated perspective on roleplaying. It can be focused or general, can describe one aspect of play or another, and we have seen a great many perspectives over the course of roleplaying's three decades.

As a quick review, consider a couple of perspectives that were popular at one time or another, the remnants of which can be seen everywhere you look:

Two Ways of Thinking About Roleplaying

Roleplaying is a confusing amalgamation. It emerged as kind of imaginative strategy wargame in the mid-70's, but later was adapted to support stronger narrative structures and extended play based less on numbers and more on personalities. The resulting hybrid can occasionally seem to be of two-minds about certain issues. Nowadays, is it about strategy or storytelling? This perceived duality is partially responsible for the infamous "roll- vs. role-playing" dialectic, which still occasionally returns from the dead to fill bulletin boards with passionate posting. It's mostly a question of how to interpret the history of roleplaying and what it means for modern roleplayers. It's also a matter of developing tastes and community identity. People who are self-described "old school gamers" will probably say you can pry their dice, miniatures, and hexgrids out of their cold, dead hands. Other "progressive" gamers, including those from the rather different European community, are likely to see tabletop play and dice as relics of the past, useful occasionally, but not essential or even desired. Most of us fall between these two extremes and live with this duality (if it really exists) all the time.

Perspective #1 = Roleplaying is a mixture of strategy and storytelling.

Dungeons & Dragons (1974) was firmly fixed in the world of wargaming. By the time Call of Cthulhu (1981) went on sale, roleplaying had already distanced itself from its roots. And by the 90's, there was more of an effort to take roleplaying out of the box of strategy games and connect it with ordinary social activities, especially the games we reminisce about from our childhood. Despite the fact that not everyone actually played "make believe," the idea immediately caught on. Roleplaying was described as something so natural, so innocent, and so fanciful that children did it all the time without even knowing why. The bomb, of course, was eventually dropped by Vampire: The Masquerade (1991), which replaced all references to roleplaying with "storytelling," attempting to distinguish itself from everything that had come before. As with calling on "Let's Pretend," appropriating the word "storytelling" emphasized the natural, instinctive nature of roleplaying, connecting it with the rich tradition that has existed in every culture throughout time.

Perspective #2 = Roleplaying is a natural expression of the human imagination.

What's Next?

So what do these tell us? As much as we want them to. After all, they are merely perspectives through which we can examine this activity that we all share. However, while we'll definitely touch on these three viewpoints in this column, our main purpose will be to try out less commonly practiced perspectives, i.e. those of mainstream art theorists.

Next time, we're going to talk about rap music (no kidding).

See ya then.

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