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Soapbox: About the Industry

Paradox Redux

by Sandy Antunes
Feb 06,2004

 

Paradox Redux

This column exists largely of words by people smarter than me. Let's look again at the Kilgallon Paradox:

RPGs emphasize combat. But if the game has problem-solving, I'm the best problem solver I know. Therefore, problem-solving isn't roleplay. So why have a non-combat character, since any non-combat details are just schtick.

There's a certain pragmatism to the fact that RPG rules focus on combat. They are essential, as "most games view/contain combat as the primary final arbiter of the characters' fates."[TJ] After all, screw up in combat and the games can _end_ for your character. Almost all other outcomes merely will make life difficult, not end the game.

And, combat is difficult to roleplay. "Most roleplaying rules deal with combat because things that aren't combat can be resolved by roleplaying or referee fiat."[JS]

(Or, put flavorfully, "Roleplaying is soft. Combat is hard."[JS].)

Looking at one rephasing of the paradox, it was proposed that: "A game that is abstract lends itself to better role-playing, but makes event resolution problematic. A game that is detailed lends itself to better event resolution, but makes role-playing useless."[JB]

This was phrased offline by someone once as "Gaming is playing your strengths, roleplaying is playing your character's limitations."

So when folks propose the counterquery "So it's only roleplaying if it is something you do poorly?"[PR] the answer is, no, it's roleplay if you play something at a level appropriate to your character, independent of your own personal talents.

But is that fun as a game?

Things like problem-solving fall back upon the player, not the character, because "if the *game* DOES NOT has problem-solving, socializing, etc., it is not a game but an automatic procedure. Therefore, problem-solving, socializing, etc. is the gaming in roleplay."[SM]

The paradox has roleplaying relevance in terms of story, if one accepts that the "only game that sucks is one that provides a poor, worthless medium through which to tell a story"[JB], then anything heavily handled by rules instead of roleplay is inherently trouble. By Sergio's definition, combat is basically an automatic procedure.

To lift it out of being automatic, it has to be something that either a) you as a player can do better than the character, or b) the GM can adjudicate such as to 'calibrate' your performance to your (perhaps more skilled) character's level.

But the option 'GM calibrates everything' casts everything into a 'game' framework and we begin to have the GM have to step in between player and character.

Now, a quick aside, most games are structured as:

Environment/World/NPCs/etc - GM - player - character

The GM relates the world to the player, who then gives back what the character does. The GM will often give only a subset of information flow such as they deem appropriate for the character, but the player is (in a metagame sense) aware of this and can, if they wish, adjust accordingly.

"Example: "Your character comes upon a small metal object. It is some kind of lump, with straight smooth sides and rounded corners. You notice a fine line about halfway across it, and further investigation reveals that the lump is some kind of container. Inside, you see a piece of string inside a frame of some kind, next to which is a disk standing on end. You notice the strong smell of some kind of fume after opening the lump."

It's just a Zippo. I just described it the best I could to someone who didn't know what in the blue hell a Zippo is or looks like. The player, much like any person with a mind, will then experiment a bit with the device, and by and by learn that it creates a small flame that will burn for a good long while. When it runs out, they'll have to figure out to put some fuel back into it to make it work."[JB]

Despite the GM's obfuscation, a player can metagame to figure this out, or they can ask for a roll against their character's IQ to get a more clear answer. However, in either case the GM _is_ intepreting the character for the player.

(Aside: for the record, I favor 'GM control of information flow' as one resolution of the paradox. Would I really propose a paradox if I didn't have a resolution in mind?)

The purpose of the rules is, in part, so the GM and the player are able to effectively communicate and not have a strong mismatch of underlying principles.

The purpose of the 'gaming contract' (general agreement between GM and players over why they are gaming, whether formally stated or just assumed), includes aspects of:

"RPGs are fun because they are not simply about playing characters. They are about a lot of other things that get bundled in the equation. Things like problem solving, socializing, betting ("I don't know the stats of the monster, but let's try this"), having meals and drinks together, etc."[SM]

Obviously that mix is different for each group. So I'm going to wrap this up with a question derived from the paradox.

If there are rules for something, it's not roleplay. If I'm doing something as a player instead of how my character would, it's not roleplay. Should I build a character that 'uses' the rules stuff and wing the rest, or should I self-limit myself?

Like any paradox, the answer is 'neither'. We'll have to go deeper into what an RPG is (ugh).

Until next month,
Sandy

Thanks to:

  • [JS] = Jeff Siadek
  • [TJ] = Twilight Jack (note also this great illustrative case of non-combat using a law RPG!)
  • [JB] = James Bardin
  • [PR] = Patrick Riley
  • [SM] = Sergio Mascarenhas
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What do you think?

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