Part 1 – The Basics

By on 18 March 2011

Introduction and Purpose

Ah, the hobby we call Roleplaying games. RPGs. Story-telling games. Pen and paper. Call them what you want, if you’re here then chances are you know what we’re talking about.

But that’s the thing: we don’t. Two groups of people can be playing a roleplaying game, sometimes with exactly the same rules and source material and be engaging in completely different activities. One group might be engaging in courtly intrigue and barely interacting with the game’s rules, while another group is kicking arse and taking names, clearing one room after another with handfuls of dice. Yet both tables are littered with the same hardcover books with the same picture of a wizard on the cover and both sets of players have the same character sheets in front of them. Most importantly though, both groups are having fun and both groups are playing roleplaying games. Neither group is “doing it wrong” and neither game can be objectively described as “better” than the other. But it’s clear that these groups are behaving very differently and thse different behaviours are producing different flavours of fun.

I can remember reading articles in RPG books as far back as the mid 80s explaining to GMs the various “types” of players you generally get at the table. You probably know the sort of thing I mean: dividing players into Archetypes like “Power Gamer”, “Puzzle Solver” and “Roleplayer”. These articles are available from any number of sources and often offer useful, practical advice which GMs can use to sharpen their skills and improve the games they run. Like any such work though, they often show the prejudices of the author. Refering to players who particularly enjoy what we’ll describe in Actor Stance later as “Roleplayers” is sometimes a subconscious, passive-aggressive tell-tale that the author of such a work feels that Actor Stance is the “one true way” to play roleplaying games for example.

This is (hopefully) not an article like that. Oh, I’m quite sure that no matter how hard I try to be objective here, my own prejudices are going to show through in this article. What I mean is that we’re not talking about players here, we’re talking about behaviours and activities. This is an attempt to take a further step back and see the bigger picture, then zoom in to look closely at these different players, to see what they’re doing and what they’re enjoying from minute-to-minute.

It helps here to think of other activities we engage in and enjoy. While roleplaying games are unique as far as I can tell in that they require their players to engage in a far wider spread of activities than almost all other hobbies I’ve encountered, there are still lessons to be learned from and parallels to be drawn to other forms of entertainment. We’re going to be comparing RPGs to novels, films, boardgames and a veriety of other things here, but it’s important to remember that RPGs are not novels, films or boardgames under a different skin. Just because that’s how something works in a novel does not mean that’s now it works in an RPG.

“Stances” are a useful term when talking about the behaviours we engage in when playing roleplaying games. It’s a way to break down the activity into the actual things which players do at the table that generate fun. In short, the things we enjoy doing while we play RPGs.

The Basics

Lets think about the activities that go on at the table first. What happens to create the fun when you’re “playing an rpg”? Well, a bunch of stuff:

  • People pretend to be their characters
  • People engage with rules to resolve conflicts or restrict character actions
  • People create and manipulate fictional elements (characters, events, places etc)
  • People watch other the other people at the table (they are entertained passively)

People will do one or more of these over the course of a gaming session. They’ll use the rules during a fight and that’ll hopefully be fun, and then they’ll roleplay their character for a bit (which will also hopefully be fun), some players will create elements in the fiction and with any luck, watching their fellow gamers do these things will also prove entertaining. We’ll call these “stances”, because they match up with activities you can find in other forms of entertainment.

Let’s look more closely at some of those fun activities:

Pretending to be Their Character

Some folks derive pleasure from “playing their character”, acting out scenes and/or getting into the heads of the fictional character. This can be broken down further into people wanting to act like their character (Actor Stance) and people wanting to betheir character while they’re at the table (Character Stance). The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are different: some people do one and not the other, while some (most) switch subconsciously between the two.

We won’t dwell on this point at this time because it’s probably the easiest Stance to explain, but there will be more on this in a future column.

Creating and Manipulating Fictional Elements

When someone at the table creates or manipulates something in the fiction, they’re acting an what’s called Author Stance. At first glance this might seem like it’s traditionally the domain solely of the GM, but this is incorrect. While it is true that a lot of newer games (and some older ones) have the concept of player authorship codified into their mechanics somewhere, even the most oldschool and traditional requires players to engage in Author Stance occasionally. Players create their characters in Author Stance for example, but more importantly not every action a player’s character performs is born out of Character or Actor Stance: they also spend time simply pushing their characters around, direct his character’s actions “from the outside” rather than immersing themselves in their character. That is, they’re getting their characters to do things without trying to see things through their characters eyes. Often this is trivial stuff that the players don’t want or really need to engage with, like having characters travel from one place to another when the journey is neither important nor perilous, or purchasing mundane supplies. This is almost purely an Author Stance activity: you don’t really need to put yourself in a character’s head to realise that buying more arrows when you have run out is almost certainly the thing to do.

There are also times when a player will simply have their character act in a certain way because they want them to to further a particular plot or for some other out-of-character reason. A common reason for this is that the player wants their character to interact favourably with the other player’s characters. But there are also players who simply do not wish to actually pretend to be their character and just want to create a story about them instead. Again, this is perfectly normal and fine, and it’s pure Author stance.

The GM in most traditional games will be engaged in Author Stance most of the time. He’ll be creating and manipulating fictional elements pretty much all the time. New NPCs are created and interact with the player’s characters. Their motivations and physical states change. New locations and objects come into existence and change as well.

Director Stance is very similar. In fact, it’s often hard to tell when you’re engaging in Director Stance and when you’re engaging in Author Stance. To a large degree it doesn’t matter, and you could easily think of them as one and the same. The distinction between the two is subtle, but basically Author Stance is creating elements whole cloth, while Director Stance is manipulating parts of the fiction which other players have some ownership of. For the time being, it won’t do much harm in the grand scheme of things to think of then as one Stance rather than two, so we won’t dwell on the differences right now. The question of ownership will also be discussed later because exactly who owns what in the game’s fiction is pretty important.

Using Rules

Using the rules of a game can and shouldbe fun. We’ll call this engagement with the rules Gamer Stance, which is a bit of a catch-all. Defining the different personality types who enjoy different aspects of gameplay is a whole topic on it’s own, but basically if you’re interacting with the game’s rules, that’s Gamer Stance.If you don’t think using the rules of the game you’re running or playing is fun, play a different game, use different rules or do something differently. Because if you’re doing something for fun and it’s not fun, you should probably do something else. If you’re not enjoying interacting with the game’s rules, you need to find a different game, one better suited to your tastes.

There are a lot of people who claim not to enjoy Gamer Stance. Many take this to a whole new level by claiming that it is simply impossible to enjoy Gamer Stance and still “be a good roleplayer”. This hilarious level of snobbery is not only ridiculous, but also shows a lack of understanding of how the hobby actually works. Arguments about fish needing bicycles and lesbians having just not met the right man aside, it is inescapable that the “game” part of “role playing game” is just as important (if not more so) as everything else. System matters. The wrong system will, at best not help produce the desired experience for the players and at worst be inimical to that experience.

Watching Other People do Stuff

Like it or not, you spend a lot of time at the table being entertained by the other players. This is a good thing! If you’re not enjoying other people’s contributions, you need to pipe up and either steer them towards making more valuable and entertaining contributions, or find more valuable and entertaining people to play with. We’ll call this Audience Stance. What other players do while in the other stances is where you derive fun in Audience Stance, but you also enjoy the fruits of your own creativity. In short, your group of players is also it’s own audience, usually the only audience.

Next time: “That’s fascinating Rich, but how does any of this crap actually apply at the table?”

About Rich Stokes

Rich has been gaming for over 25 years and during that time has played or run more-or-less everything. Having spent his early years as a recruitment consultant, web designer and videogames reviewer, Rich eventually settled down and got a proper job in the IT industry. More recently, he's responsible for writing Umläut: Game of Metal and running semi-annual Pubcon events, as well as writing for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. He clearly spends too much time thinking about this stuff because he's writing this column. He currently lives in Southampton with his partner, Claire and an elderly cat called Charlie.

One Comment

  1. Ooooshie

    30 March 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Enjoyed reading Part 1 looking forward to Part 2 :0)

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