Roleplaying vs. Roll-playing – Pen & Paper RPGs Part III
When it comes to sitting around the table with your chums for a pen-and-paper session, there are precautions you will want to take before you get your campaign in gear. Pen-and-paper games are supposed to be fun, cooperative ventures. Nothing is worse than seeing friendships crumble, arguments erupt, or game sessions end over mismatched expectations. This week’s column will help you spot these common pitfalls and roll a natural 20 in avoiding them.
First of all, there is a difference between roleplaying and ‘roll-playing.’ While you’d think all people who come together under the banner of RPG would share a common purpose, you’d be surprised. Roleplaying is a hotly debated term that can mean five different things to five different people. Take a look at Final Fantasy XIII or Chrono Trigger and compare it with Fallout: New Vegas or Alpha Protocol. Even though all of these games are RPGs, they take distinctly different approaches to what being an RPG means.
Some players will sit down at your table and expect to be able to play fully fleshed-out characters with motivations, conflicts with other players’ characters, plot points and narratives, with dice being rolled to further the plot. Dread, which has been discussed previously in this column, is a fantastic game for these eager beavers. Dark Heresy, the Warhammer 40k-based PnP published by Fantasy Flight Games will probably be much less of a hit.
Other players aren’t too interested in roleplaying, making diplomacy checks, or forging elaborate backstories for their characters. These players want to face the worst beasties in the monster manual and win through clever use of tactics. They like to use brute force to bully through dungeons and collect loot to help them take down hardier foes. When an NPC is a hassle, they won’t worry about the moral implications of sending him to an early grave. They’ll be a big fan of Pathfinder or Traveller, but shy away from the FATE systems.
There is no ‘right’ way to play, no matter what ardent players in each camp will claim. However, when there is a group of players with representatives from both viewpoints at the table, things can get messy. When two players want to sit down and talk through their problems and the moral implications of problem-solving methods and two more want to fight through the problem with an axe until it’s solved, you’re going to have tension at the table. It’s generally best to try to see which of your players fall where on the spectrum. Of course, due to the available talent pool, you might end up with a mixed party regardless. Your challenge as a DM will be to try to address each player’s wants in turn without alienating the others — a dauntingly difficult task for even the most hardened of veteran dungeon masters.
Even if you have a group of players who all agree on one side of the issue between roll-playing and roleplaying, you’re still going to have to temper expectations. I recently played in a Traveller game that took place in the Mass Effect universe. Our DM had done a thorough rules’ conversion, the stage was set, the party had all played with each other for years, and after giving us the freedom to make our own choices… everything went to hell. Our team of mercenaries were made up of a sly opportunist, a complete sociopath, a cold professional, a chaotic pirate, and an alcoholic Krogan. The campaign came to an early end after we realized no one was having fun. The problem was we weren’t running a team, we were having a collection of individuals. Roleplaying will be killed if you try to mix together characters of vastly different temperaments and roles with hidden motives and secret plans. I’ve heard many a story of Dungeons and Dragons parties torn apart when the rest of the group finally lost their patience with the kleptomaniac thief who cared more about lining his pockets than saving the world.
As for the more rules-focused warriors, you still have to keep an eye out for schisms. For instance, I played in a game where everyone was intending to play for the combat, not for the story. One person was insistent on making his character mathematically perfect, which held up our session as he spent a couple of hours number crunching the best possible build. Then he spent every fight trying to claim as much personal glory as possible. It was a short campaign due to the fact the spotlight was always on this rules lawyer, and he refused to have it any other way.
A good idea is to sit down with your players before your campaign begins. The best campaigns of my life were ones where every player worked towards a common purpose. In a Mutants and Masterminds superhero campaign, I played a modern-day paladin with an anger problem. Despite my constant attempts at igniting inter-party conflict, everyone enjoyed the turmoil and character building that resulted. Most of that campaign dealt with the effects superpowers had on our characters and how they dealt with a wacky, super-powered world.
On the other hand, in a Vampire: The Masquerade game, we all worked together to uncover the mysteries of the Sabbat and their workings in Baltimore. We were a well-coordinated, tight-knit team – our main source of conflict was the DM and his machinations, as opposed to each other. Mutants and Masterminds and Vampire: The Masquerade were two very different systems with different goals and conflicts, but our aligned expectations resulted in a fantastically fun time.
Ask them what they want from the campaign. Try to spot any conflicts before the game begins. Not every player will be happy every session. There will never be a long-running campaign where every player gets what they want every time. However, it is a noble pursuit to try to minimize the damage by keeping open lines of communication, healthy expectations, and a strong hand as a Dungeon Master.
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