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Roleplaying is for Losers

by Steve Darlington

In which the author suggests that winners don't do drugs - or play RPGs

For Christmas this year, my brother-in-law received a copy of Monopoly. Now, before we go any further, I should explain that I absolutely loathe Monopoly. It's dull, it's spiritless and it tends to emphasise what I consider the least enjoyable aspects of gaming. It also tends to bring out the ugliest spirit of brutal competition, especially when someone gets a commanding lead, since there is nothing left in the game then but the slow, torturous destruction of the remaining players.

But hey, that's just my opinion. And it may have something to do with the fact that I absolutely suck at it.

Anyway, it being Christmas, with the spirit of goodwill, I agreed to play a game. My siblings and I gathered around the kitchen table and spent a fun-filled hour trying to decide which figurine we wanted to be. Then the game began.

We rolled a lot of dice and spent a lot of money; we went to jail and we won the occasional beauty pageant. Pretty soon, a winning player started to appear, and others were running out of money, and I was getting bored. So I decided to start playing the game my way.

Now, one of the reasons I'm not very good at games is that I am basically a really nice guy. I have been known to lose games of Magic because I refuse to attack people, especially if they have Giant Tortoises. I just can't bring myself to attack those guys, or defend with them if I have them. I mean come on - they're so cute! How could you hurt these little guys?

So it wasn't long before I started playing Monopoly this way. When somebody landed on my property and they couldn't pay, I would let them stay for free. I was also lending and giving money to people when they couldn't pay other debts. Pretty soon, the money-lending spread across the board, as did the deals and alliances.

None of this is actually allowed, we found out later. Borrowing is strictly forbidden (although the rules don't forbid giving, so we were technically in the clear). But soon we were also breaking other rules anyway, or trying to. Deliberately spending time in jail. Fudging the occasional dice roll which - oops - fell onto the floor. Trying to bring in the Free Parking rule. Anything, really, to keep us in the game, and to liven up the experience while we waited for the inevitable.

And it was inevitable. Me and my little sister, now a firm alliance sharing the same finances, were going broke at a rapidly increasing rate. And this being Monopoly, there was nothing we could do about it. The game was over for us. So we decided to enjoy the ride. We cracked jokes, we played with our figurines, we enjoyed the play elements and the socialising.

And most entertaining of all - we started to roleplay.

My brother-in-law, the winning player, was clearly the evil developer. Me and my sister were the mom-and-pop company who owned a small string of hotels, and we were ready to fight tooth and nail to keep them. As time went on, we slipped more and more into this persona, even adopting voices eventually. At one point, I landed on one of the big company's places - a cheap light blue place, with only a few houses - and he decided to waive the rent this time. At this point I declared that I may be poor, but I have my pride, so you take your precious money, Mr Potter! And I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

The climax came when me and my sister were reduced to being homeless bums, and by sheer chance, both went broke on the railroads. And so we spent the rest of the game chuckling about how we rode the subways all night, and begged, and ate dead rat for tea. It was great fun.

The point of all this is that none of us around the table realised we were roleplaying at the time. It was just what came naturally. It was only as we were packing up that I realised that this is precisely what we'd been doing, and that was precisely why it had been so much fun at the end.

That's when I started thinking. See, I lose a lot of games in my life. Almost all of them, in fact. So I have a lot of experience to draw on. I went back through my memory and recalled other games where a few players had been losing at the same time, and had no way to change that, and were becoming bored because of it. And in almost every single time I could remember, this situation led to one and only one activity:


The exceptions were games where the gameplay and pieces were purely abstract, such as card games with the standard deck. And it doesn't always happen when the players are all isolated, or are losing at different rates. There needed to be a collegial feel before play became collaborative. It also helped if there was a light-hearted spirit, and opportunities to bend the rules or at least pay them little attention them and still participate in the game. But as soon as you had a situation where winning wasn't possible, and thus collaborative sympathies had arisen, and the rules not strictly followed to demand continual serious play, then in every case I could recall, these situations spontaneously produced roleplaying.

I'm going to say that again too: spontaneously produced roleplaying.

Take away competition, and players start playing together. Take away a chance of victory, and players stop playing the game as written. With nothing left to do, players find their own entertainment with the toys in front of them. They make them talk, and dance, like toy soldiers. And when the primary figure in the game is identified with the player, then the player cannot help but to roleplay.

Of course, this is nothing new. Collaborative, non-victory oriented play and roleplaying have gone together since the beginning. But this is rarely seen as more than mere coincidence, an accident of history.

What I'm saying is that it goes beyond this. I'm saying if you have the former, you will bring about the latter, that the former is the environment that creates the latter. Indeed, that the former are, in themselves, the building blocks of what makes a roleplaying game.

This is not to say you can't have other games which involve roleplaying. Far from it. Roleplaying can exist anywhere, and not even in games. All that is required to roleplay is to decide you are going to do it - whether you are in a theatre workshop, or a management course or a game of Chess. Roleplaying games are not simply games which involve roleplaying if the players decide to roleplay. If that's all they were, they would be no different from any other game. No, roleplaying games are games which allow, support, foster and encourage the act of roleplaying.

The game mechanics can do other things, of course - simulate reality or fiction, test the tactical skill of the players, bring about exciting gambling situations, produce a dramatic story - but if a mechanic fulfilling any of these objectives detracts from the prime drive to allow, support, foster and encourage roleplaying, then that mechanic is flawed. The whole nature of RPG design has thus always been the subtle art of providing tools for the widest and most accurate simulation, the most intelligently challenging tactical warfare and the most exciting dice rolling which also, simultaneously allow, support, foster and encourage roleplaying.

So this is why RPGs are collaborative, why there is no winner, why rules, ultimately, must be flexible - because these things encourage roleplaying. In fact, they are very powerful tools which encourage it spontaneously in almost anyone. Which brings me to my next point, wherein I'm going to break the laws of logic and try to turn the implication around to state that:

Games which feature lots of competition and a strong focus on victory, and back up these elements with the necessary stricter rules to adjudicate such things, are games that actively discourage roleplaying.

Now, before you lynch me, let me explain. I'm not saying roleplaying can't exist in these games. Simply that it is not being encouraged and fostered in the way it should be in a game bearing those words in its title. How can it be?

First of all, you've cut out what I've hopefully demonstrated are two of the biggest encouragers of roleplaying we have. Unless you can replace them with something even close to being as roleplay-friendly, you've already shot yourself in the foot. Second, as I've already indicated, competition and victory encourage a strict gaming mindset, because this is what games are designed to deal with. If you are playing in a fashion encouraged by rules, rolls and regulations, it's only natural that such elements are going to become more of a feature. This doesn't necessarily preclude roleplaying, but it doesn't help either.

Still, it's not a clinching argument. After all, there's absolutely no reason why you couldn't play Monopoly as competitive as usual, with all the players caring only about playing the game properly, with victory the only consideration, and still roleplay, as long as you are roleplaying being ruthless, money grubbing, capitalist bastards. And the same holds with D&D - as long as your characters are money-hungry, blood lusting barbarians who hate each other, even a purely video-game-esque, back-stabbing dungeon crawl straight out of the Knights of the Dinner Table still encourages some sort of roleplay.

And I actually cannot answer that argument. It's true. Competitive, victory oriented, game-focussed RPGs do allow you to roleplay - but they only allow you to roleplay being a bastard. They actively discourage, if not make entirely impossible, the playing of anything else.

People have often wondered why most RPG characters, despite wearing the trappings of heroes, are fundamentally evil. Why we go on pogroms against other races, why we break the law, kill and torture without a second thought, why no matter what story we are trying to tell, the most expedient and most violent solutions always end up coming to the fore. Some have speculated that it's a way to exude the violence within ourselves, while others have thought that it is just a good way to blow off steam.

But I say that it has nothing to do with it. The reason our characters are so often bastards is because, deep down, most of us are still playing games. And if that's how you think about roleplaying, you can no more play a hero in an RPG than you can play one in Monopoly.

As I said above, the gaming elements of RPGs are fun, and they've always been an important part of RPGs. Many people find this aspect to be the most important, and they are the first to remind people not to forget about the "G" in the abbreviation. And I used to support this view most wholeheartedly. But since that game of Monopoly, I find myself seeing things very differently. Games, or at least the majority of them, and thus the way they tend to appear in our minds, are competitive. They're about using the rules to beat your opponents and get victory in the fastest and easiest way possible. As a result, the characters we take on when we play them have to be fundamentally obsessed, ruthless, expedient and, quite simply, evil.

If we want our RPGs to be about more than being evil, to be about heroes, real heroes, the way we always say they are, then perhaps the less they resemble games, the better. Perhaps, in the name of roleplaying, we really need to stop playing games.

Steve Darlington is Lord and Master of his Domain. He also edits Places to Go, People to Be.

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