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Hot Button: Roleplay vs. Rollplay

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On June 6, 2008 @ 12:25 am In Hot Buttons | 16 Comments

Heh, that title alone should probably spawn 50 comments :-)

In the early days of RPG when AD&D was king, my groups eventually crawled out of the dungeons and started running more soap opera style games. Rather than clear out an orc infestation, we were more likely to be found courting maidens (or men, if one of us were in “drag”), running fiefs, and forging alliances. This being AD&D 1e (pre-nonweapon proficiencies….geez, is it that difficult to say “skill?”), the only things on our sheets even remotely related to social interaction were the Charisma and Comeliness scores (Comeliness was taken from World of Greyhawk….later Unearthed Arcana) and the occasional charm spell. As a result, we rarely resorted to dice. Everything was roleplayed out and the DM made rulings based on how well we did.

Later, social mechanics began to crop up more often in roleplaying games. Now, you actually had skills that could tell you how good you were in a social scene, with modifiers based on your sheet (in RPGs with advantages/disadvantages) and circumstance. Essentially, your character was only as good as her sheet; there was no need to roleplay except to add color to the scene. Still, old habits died hard, and it was sometimes frustrating to deliver a stirring speech to rally the troops, only to have a botched roll ruin it. On the flip side, it was painful to strip social scenes down to a couple of half-hearted dice rolls.

Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on whether mechanics should trump roleplay and vice versa. I’ve also gone back and forth on whether to modify a roll based on the roleplay. Currently, I run three games (pick up your jaw, I only run about once a week) and use two methods:

1. We heavily roleplay. However, if a character is attempting to do something of consequence, I have the player make a roll. Quality of roleplay does not modify this roll, although circumstances might.

2. We don’t roleplay much at all. Social interaction is usually third-person and to the point (e.g. “I want to Bluff my way past the guard” or “I make a Diplomacy check to renegotiate the price”).

I want to stress here that I don’t think any particular approach is good or bad. I’m currently enjoying the heck out of running all of my games. In the end, all groups should use what works best for them.

I should also point out that the method you choose can impact the mechanics. In a point-build chargen system, players may not waste points in social skills if they know they’re going to roleplay 90% of the social scenes. On the flip side, judging a player by his roleplay neglects potential “chaotic” elements to the scene that are represented by the dice (e.g. you could roleplay your butt off in a seduction scene, but if your character happens to be wearing the same dress that your victim’s wife wore when he caught her in the arms of another man three days ago, you probably aren’t going to be very successful).

So what say you? Roleplay, Mechanics, or somewhere in between?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Hot Button: Roleplay vs. Rollplay"

#1 Comment By arthwollipot On June 6, 2008 @ 2:05 am

I play narrativist. For me, the roleplaying is far more important than the rollplaying. Or the ruleplaying for that matter.

#2 Comment By greywulf On June 6, 2008 @ 2:41 am

Hi, Walt. Great post!

One of our unofficial House non-Rules is that “role-play gives a bonus to roll play”. In other words, if you role-play the scene in character, and it’s good, I’ll give you a bonus to your roll. Same for combat too. Here’s a few examples, from memory:

Turgid (a dwarf. everyone ought to play a dwarf called Turgid at least once): I pull the shopkeeper across the desk by his shirt. “Listen grubfart. Either you sell me that chain shirt at a fair, honest price, or I’ll make you wish you were wearin’ it right now!”
GM (me, laughing): OK, make your Intimidate roll, +4 for needlessly scaring the poor old guy out of his mind.

Ebrahalladon (elf. But you’d guessed that from the name, right): I leap onto the table with my rapier drawn, slide across knocking the plates all over then land on the other side then salute with a smile. “At your service, ma’am”.
GM (me, again): Roll Tumble, +8. Cool move!
Ebrahalladon: Uho. I rolled a 1. Total 9.
GM: You slip on a bowl of stew as you land on the table sending your arms flailing. The food goes everywhere, and much of it splatters up the front of your tunic and face. You land, somehow, on the opposite side of the table.
Ebrahalladon: Uh….. “At your service……. ma’am!?”

This gives the players an incentive to role-play as well as keep the game flowing. It generally means that if the characters acts like heroes, they’re rewarded for it and their actions (mostly) succeed. Whch isn’t necessarily a bad thing :)

#3 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On June 6, 2008 @ 3:51 am

My players can get by any social situation with roleplaying if they so choose. I handle this like many other aspects of the game: If they can convince me of something, than its done.

“Ok, you explained to the king, that there is an army marching to his castle and told him in detail what that orcs would do to him. He is frightend and grants you 50 of his men.”
“Ok, so you did not say, you had a rope with you, but because your charakter is a cowboy and you got your horse, it’S ok to assume, you have one hanging from the saddle.”

This is a very good system in my opinion, because the players get some free room to improvise and the GM has some less stuff to worry about. And applied to social situation, it means, there is much mor roleplay going on. It also leaves you the option to just roll the dice, if you don’t want to barter with just another inkeep for the price of the food.
Of course, this only works if you can trust your players, that they really bought that skill or don’t abuse this to get out of every dangerous situation.
I actually change the rules quite a bit depending on what I would like to achive. So, while it could be a roll for bartering, thats gets a clearly defined discount on the goods abd roleplaying only might give a bonus to this roll, it could also be that roleplaying is all that counts or that after roleplaying that did not convince me personally, I ask for a roll on the appropiate skill.
After all, as a GM, I make the rules. :-)

#4 Comment By age On June 6, 2008 @ 5:18 am

I think it all comes down to time constraints – and trying to cram in more for less. Let me explain. Once upon a time, many moons ago in my youth, we role-played every week – sometimes even twice a week. In those days, ROLE playing was emphasised and encouraged (and heck – even between sessions, we developed and fleshed out characters to the extreme). We played often enough to balance ROLE-playing with the ROLL-playing, and everyone was happy. But today, as life and work has it, we play only once a month. And with 5-6 players at each session, the ROLE-playing has diminished. Given a 4-5 hour session, once a month, Players seem to want to get as much ROLL-playing in as possible! ROLE-playing has taken a back seat – it is almost a dirty word because it detracts from the “invaluable” action and pace of the session. It has become a running joke indeed if someone tries to ROLEplay too much! It is also reflected in the evolution of our Character sheets – Character stats, skills and equipment take up 90% of the sheet, and a 1 paragraph background/Profile is all the Roleplayers get. I don’t know how it happened, but it has. For better or worse, I’m not sure. But the current formulae works – and everyone enjoys the sessions (indeed, we have more players than we can fit in). Can’t see things changing.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 6, 2008 @ 6:25 am

Roleplaying is my preference as most systems have terrible social skill mechanics.

#6 Comment By Gnomatron On June 6, 2008 @ 9:12 am

I can sympathize with the author. I often go back and forth as to which is most important, or rather, which one trumps the other. I feel like there are convincing arguments on both sides. The strongest argument Rollplaying has is that the character is not necessarily the player. The player is the actor, the character is the subject, or perhaps more appropriately, the player is the puppeteer and the character is the puppet… with a long sword. You get the idea. Anyways, a sorcerer with 30 charisma or a wizard with 30 intelligence is far more charismatic or intelligent than any human alive. Therefore, the rolls and the stats of the character reflect an individual that a player might not necessarily be, but enjoys pretending to be (i.e. Roleplaying).

In my games I usually offer a wide scope of modifiers based on the quality of Roleplaying. So, for example, if a player comes up with a really good lie and Roleplays it, but maybe only rolls a 5, I’ll add a +10 circumstance bonus, and vice versa. If a player makes up some completely uncreative nonsense to tell a NPC, I’ll penalize his roll (usually no more than -4 or -6). More so, I’ll announce to the players when I give them these bonuses to encourage them to actually roleplay as a means of better rollplaying.

(PS: Just realized Greywulf had the same suggestion.)
/2 cents

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On June 6, 2008 @ 9:14 am

It varies depending on the game we’re playing (and which group I’m playing with). In the current D&D game I’m GMing, the players usually roleplay the high points of what they’re trying to do then roll the dice. It was similar in the Saga StarWars game I played with my other group.

In the past, I’ve found it valuable to roll the dice first THEN roleplay the result. You sometimes wind up in the strange situation where slapping the maid results in shifting her to friendly… but dark corners of the internet provide plenty of stories where a good slap is appreciated. ;)

More seriously, Spirit of the Century has a cool system where people with academic and social skills can contribute to the world by figuring out traits of your targets, giving you a bonus when you incorporate the revealed Aspects into your narration.

There are a lot of ways of handling it– and even the same group in the same game will change attitudes depending on the day. Sometimes I get impressive speeches, while other times I get a sentence and a die roll. Energy level has a lot to do with how much NPC focussed roleplaying we do. [There’s always lots of banter between the PCs.]

In my experience, there’s one game that always results in detailed, unusually strong roleplaying: Dogs in the Vineyard. I wonder if Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits, with its scripted promptings, would be as effective?

#8 Comment By Tommi On June 6, 2008 @ 9:54 am

The evil (EVIL, I say!) terminology aside, both, in that there is mandatory roleplay and dice generally determine the outcome.

First, the player in question describes what the intent is (“I’ll try to get past the guards…”) and how it is to be accompished (“…and say blah blah roleplay blah blah”). If rolling is a good idea, which happens when the outcomes of success and failure are interesting, then dice are rolled. Content of the roleplay (not delivery) may give a bonus or penalty or determines the difficulty of the roll.

Failing does not usually mean that a stirring speech has no effect; rather, something else comes and spoils the performance.

#9 Comment By Swordgleam On June 6, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

I general like to have my players at least attempt to roleplay any social scene, with a bonus to the roll for really good roleplaying. Even in the crunchier games, I feel like roleplaying is pretty important.

On the other hand, as several people in various places have pointed out – “We’re okay with characters swinging swords when their players can’t, so why aren’t we okay with characters making stirring speeches when their players can’t?” I’m totally fine with, “I wouldn’t know how to deal with this, but my character does, so can I just roll it?”

As painful as it is to watch a socially awkward player attempt to roleplay a charismatic character, I wouldn’t penalize it. If someone comes up with a stupid plan who really should know better, they might get a malus, but if an all-around awkward guy is doing his best to give a stirring speech, it’s not his fault that he can orate about as well as I can fence. At least he’s trying.

#10 Comment By Eclipse On June 8, 2008 @ 3:15 am

I ask my players to at least make an attempt at roleplay before rolling the dice. I’m not strict about it, a sentence or two will do unless they really want to make a stirring speech. This is for a couple reasons.

The first reason is it gives me an idea of the approach a player wants to use in the given social situation. For instance, with bluff, one lie is not as good as another. If a player attempts to tell a duke that an ally he has contact with daily is invading, it’s a worse lie than talking about how that unknown band of orcs will be coming for his people soon. In one case, the duke is friends with the supposed invaders. In the other case, the duke has no idea about the supposed invaders, and may even be prejudiced against orcs. This may modify the roll. I don’t judge based on how eloquently the bluff is delivered, just the ideas being used in the bluff. This applies to other social skills as well.

The other reason is that it helps keep the story continuous. “I bluff the duke into helping us” doesn’t tell us the how the duke is convinced to help the party. However, if there’s a supposed orc army coming, he’ll want to protect his people and/or himself. I think it hurts the immersion not to have an attempt at roleplaying made. Also, roleplaying leads to interesting opportunities to flesh out PCs as well as NPCs, as well as for the players to learn about the people populating the world.

Finally, if we really get into the roleplaying as a group, I’ll let the die rolls slide in the interest of the cool plot we begin generating. Of course, players still have the option to take a die roll at this point if they feel they aren’t adequately representing their character, but if we’re into the roleplaying enough they usually feel good about their representation.

#11 Comment By robosnake On June 9, 2008 @ 1:27 am

Both! The system should bolster the kind of game you want to play if at all possible. If nothing else, it should have sub-games for what you want to happen. But I don’t want to make that choice. I want my roleplaying to be supported by my rollplaying, and vice-versa. I have trouble accepting anything less in a system – a big reason why I have so many house rules…

#12 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 9, 2008 @ 6:57 am

Right, the roleplaying comes before the dice rolls. My group is pretty good at handling NPCs; I only call for rolls when things go south, or they just aren’t offering the NPC the right things in exchange.

#13 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 9, 2008 @ 9:14 am

Thanks for all the responses!

I can’t emphasize enough that there are many valid solutions, and no one way is better than another. All offer benefits and drawbacks. It’s really determined by your group’s social contract.

The best advice I can give is to make sure that everyone at the table understands how the game will be played prior to character creation.

#14 Comment By Omnus On June 9, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

One major thing to consider when deciding what is best for your group is your player base. The three main types of gamer are: Power-gamer, Problem-solver, and Role-player. (I know there are more, but these are the biggies, the others are mostly subsets). Depending on the make-up of the players role-playing may be lost completely, making a session heavy in role-play painful. Maybe this is too obvious, but I always believed you have to take the players where they are at. If it’s a hot, muggy day, and the players look worn out and not in the mood for getting fully into character, it’s good to be flexible; drop in a few combat encounters when you had intended a city-based role-fest and you can really salvage an evening. As a DM, I’d love to always go for role-playing, but I also have to be realistic and keep on the same page as my players.

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#16 Comment By Lord Inar On May 7, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

As I often like to say, No GM ever asked me to convince him how hard I actually hit my opponent.
I think there a few levels here and I’m probably paraphrasing, but there are essentially two ways to do combat and three ways to do non-combat. The two ways to do combat are 1) purely mechanical – roll dice, apply result and 2)mechanical with description – describe how you are fighting. If the description comes before, it can be used to influence the combat (usually in the form of a bonus). If it comes after, it’s usually just for cinematic enjoyment, or an explanation of the die roll result.

Social interactions have the same 2, but with the added third level of actually acting out the social interaction. This switches from third person (the description of what you will do or what you just did) to first person “What were they thinking, giving such an obviously capable warrior as yourself the petty job of guarding this gate, and on such a miserable night as well”

The Combat corollary to this third way of doing things, unless you LARP SCA, just isn’t there.

As to the answer, even within a given game, sometimes I (as a player) may want to act out scenes one week and just roll the dice the next, so it’s hard to have consistency even within a given game.

So my final take is: enjoy the 1st person interactions and do them when you can, but don’t penalize others for not joining in.


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