When I sit and ponder the games I am involved in, a lot of the time is invariably given over to considering the relationships my characters have with others in the game world. Whether it is about understanding the plot or deciding what direction to take, I spend far more time on this than planning my next level changes. I would consider myself a keen roleplayer, but to be truthful I find it easy to forget to role-play in the heat of the action and revert to type (I end up making the decisions instead of my character). For this reason, I thought I should share my opinions of the subject in the hope I remember some of the important aspects myself!
Roleplay and Rule Systems
Roleplaying is fun for players for a whole lot of reasons. One is because it allows them to influence a game that the GM really controls completely. Without it, a game is just that – a tactical skirmish wargame. Both game types require a system but the skirmish game lacks any roleplaying aspect. For me, the mix of system and roleplay determines how much I get out of a game and everybody has an opinion on the right mix. Chris would admit he is biased towards roleplaying and could in theory play a game without a system, dice and rules (communist!). Another gaming friend Pete is clearly a system addict. His characters are always extraordinarily well put together and get the best out of the system as a consequence. I should say that Pete happens to be a fine roleplayer as well. What I think is essential to a satisfying game is having a good mix of system and role play that all enjoy. A GM who spends an evening steering his adventurers through one round of combat is probably going to spend next week on his own if the players prefer bantering and talking in character.
The Dangers Of System over Roleplay
System complexity is hard to balance and I do not envy system writers at all. A game’s mechanics have to get the right mix of depth, accurate representation, speed of play and durability to give a few examples. The system is also a source of role play idea triggers so make sure you agree what rules you play and what you ignore. In D&D, there are a whole host of character attributes, feats, skills etc that build a character and have an influence as to how it is played. There have been times when I have built a character around a feat or skill only to find it pointless as the GM does not play in detail the system it needs to be effective (“eschew material components” being a good example) But they are only the tip of the iceberg. An astute player can choose to have a huge influence on the game and the GM by roleplaying character aspects the system does not cover (so long as the GM allows it). Part of the entertainment for me as a GM is being surprised as the players dismantle my prepared scenario by roleplaying around or through the tasks I have anticipated and scripted.
Maintaining Interest through Role Play
Good roleplaying can make an average campaign a success. I believe if there is the right mix between the system and the role playing, a campaign will have more colour and hence be enjoyed for longer. I am sure there are still gamers who enjoy a good dungeon bash but for me, weeks of action and “system based” challenges no longer appeal. Character interaction gives the players more active participation and more ownership. Assuming they are enjoying it, the game is more likely to run to its completion and be remembered. Chris’ Rome campaign has run for about a year but the combat mat only comes out on average once every other session. It works very well and maintains players interest through intrigue and plot development.
Role-playability of characters
Certain characters probably only have a limited entertainment value. Whilst “evil” has a certain appeal, I personally feel evil campaigns should be treated with caution. A short evil campaign with a fairly clear remit can be fun. The trouble is that for most of us, the choices made by our evil alter egos are far from natural. Maintaining the façade of evil for a prolonged time is hard. Narrow character types like the priest of St Cuthbert are another to treat with caution. When the behaviour choices of the character are so transparent, roleplaying can be formulaic or too subtle. These types are again ok for a dungeon bash but probably a bit too shallow for much else.
My Roleplaying formula for success
Whatever you do, make sure your group agree. Balance system against roleplaying with a mix everybody likes. When you start a game, make sure the players understand the roleplaying pitch; dungeon bash or character lead. Avoid playing prolonged evil campaigns unless you have a clear understanding of where it is going and the parameters. Above all, have fun, but make sure everyone is enjoying the game!