Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Medium Is the Message

In an RPG as such, role-playing is the fundamental MEDIUM of the game, just as poker is a card game, and chess is a board-and-pieces game. Without the MEDIUM, you have a different kind of game. Gambling w/o cards, instead using dice,frex, is craps: a dice game. Gambling, as such, is a larger thematic classifier, not a MEDIUM.

So what?

It thus makes no sense for players to be rewarded for role-playing, any more than it would make sense to reward poker players for using cards. If you're not role-playing, you're playing a fundamentally different kind of game.

Now, this doesn't mean that you can't play a different kind of game without role-playing; if you give all your chess pieces names and personalities and have them trash-talk each other while playing, you're still playing a board-and-pieces game. You can remove the role-playing and the MEDIUM remains the same. In exactly this way, you can add miniatures to an RPG without fear of changing it into a war game.

Now, how to define "role-playing", well, that's another whole rant...


  1. Wait a sec - if role playing is a medium, then it's like gambling, not like using cards. We DO reward gamblers for gambling, i.e. taking risks; I would posit that it's the same for role-players who throw themselves into their assumed roles

    Scenario A: Low engagement in the medium
    Poker: You grind out a poker game, playing the odds tightly, and generally make a small profit or a small loss.
    RPGs: You know your stats and play the numbers, and succeed or fail in the session based on the dice.

    Scenario B: High engagement in the medium
    Poker: You play the odds, but you also play the people by engaging in bluffs, strategic betting, etc. You might win big, and you might lose big.
    RPGs: You role-play heavily, making decisions based on the character's perspective (a big dumb fighter!), not the player's (who knows how many HP an otyugh has). You might screw up big, or you might do something amazing.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with the GM rewarding the players for role-playing to even out the chances of something amazing happening (with luck points or whatever). I love people who play like this - the soul of the game is so much better than the probabilities of the dice.

  2. Hey, TJ!

    I would argue that gambling is a thematic context for using the medium of cards (or dice, or souls, or whatever); the thematic context for using the medium of role-playing might be something like "socially-created imaginal space". And you don't get in-game rewards for adhering to the thematic context---gamblers don't get rewarded for gambling; it's a given accepted by all involved. Gamblers also don't get rewarded for using the medium of the game (cards, etc.) They get rewarded for playing by the rules of the game, otherwise any reward is meaningless.

    Now, certainly, cards are a more easily-defined medium than role-playing. Role-playing is, I don't know, a scaled medium? You can role-play (act out a character) with light-heavy immersion in the world of the character, without leaving the thematic context. Think of the space between, say, Brecht and Daniel Day-Lewis.

    I would say your two examples are actually examples of low and high engagement in the thematic context. A given group (gambling or role-playing) might find either end desirable. The problem arises (especially in gaming groups!) when some players want one end and some want the other.