Sunday, February 20, 2022

Hand-Crafted Adventures

There was a period of years early in the hobby’s history when there were no adventure modules at all. In those days, everybody made their own adventures by hand—without computers. You can, too.

Lately I’ve returned to the quiet pleasure of developing hand-crafted adventures and setting materials on my own. I have no intention of sharing my materials with anybody but the players of my games. I draw on sources of inspiration both inward and outward, and a personal sense of vicarious wonder and adventure, to develop playgrounds for the players of my games. I rely on my experience running games and my observations of my players’ preferences, and I ignore what the critics and bloggers think is cool. My games are not about what’s trending in the scene, but about fun for my group. There is overlap but they are not the same.

By hand-crafted I mean just that. I write my notes and sketch my maps by hand. When I have a moment of inspiration I jot ideas down, not with a computer keyboard to be saved in a computer file, but with a pencil or pen, the way I did back in the 1980s and 1990s, before the internet was a basic utility. I’m not trying to make beautiful maps like the pros or clean layouts. These are my setting and situation designs, good enough for me to use in live play. They’re not pretty, but the players won’t see the maps, and I know what my own messy maps mean. The game emerges in live dialogue, not in my hand-written notes.

There are plenty of claims about the benefits that come from writing by hand for cognition, learning, and creativity. I don’t know if these claims are correct but drawing up adventure settings and scenarios by hand feels right. I’m happier with what I produce this way. I type much faster than I can write, so this is slower, but slowing down seems to help. I also focus better writing off-screen, without the constant pings and lures of the internet on the same screen where I type. It took a little time to find the right notebook for me. I am surprised at how much it helps to have something that I enjoy writing in.*

Suggestions for hand-crafting your own adventure game materials

  1. Find a notebook you really want to write in but that you won’t regret messing up. Don’t make your notebook sacred. Graph paper and dot matrix paper notebooks are versatile for mapping, too, but you may prefer an entirely blank page.
  2. Don’t worry about your messy handwriting.
  3. Jot down your ideas as they come. Whenever you have an idea for an interesting encounter, a location that inspires wonder, a cool object or vista, or a dilemma for players to enjoy, grab that notebook and write it down. Imagine interesting choices for players to make. Roads should fork, literally or figuratively. Invent clues and cues to help players decide between the options.
  4. Write fragments when what you have is fragments.
  5. Order is not entirely relevant when you write new ideas. Let it be a jumble if that’s how it comes out. You can reorganize later. Likewise, if you want to make random tables, jot down contents for them by hand. Notebooks are great for lists. You can type them up in a table and print it later, if you want, but start with handwritten notes.
  6. Don’t plan to publish anything. Focus on creating stuff that you will want to run for your actual players, not on impressing an impersonal internet audience that will probably never use what you create. Your maps and sketches can be messy lines. This is for you and for the benefit of your own players. If somebody wants to see your stuff, tell them to join your game. To hell with everybody else’s opinion. Writing adventures to please critics who won’t play them anyway is useless. Applying dogmatic design principles leads to bland uniformity eventually. If your players like it during play, you will all have fun and that’s the goal.
  7. You don’t need to write everything down. If you have it firmly in your mind, it doesn’t need to be written. What matters in the end is what emerges in play, not notes. Nevertheless, writing stuff down by hand often triggers new, connected ideas.
  8. Steal, steal, steal! By keeping your hand-crafted creativity within your private game world, you can borrow shamelessly and with impunity from other sources.
  9. Don’t save your good ideas for later. You won’t run out of them. Now that you have written them down, deploy them in a game at the first opportunity.
  10. Write something in that notebook every day if you can. It doesn’t have to be much. Something as simple as a list of objects found in a room will do. Some days you won’t have any distinct ideas, so just start doodling. Make writing down ideas a habit and don’t be afraid to use those doodles as solid game content.
  11. You won’t run out of pages because you can always get another notebook.
  12. Feed your mind off screen. Read paper books more and read on screen less. Go to any museums and galleries in your area. Go to the physical library and browse free books. Turn off your devices and finally read those books that have been accumulating on your shelf. I am sure that novels provide lots of ideas, but if you are developing situations and settings rather than storylines, I recommend nonfiction.
Soon you will have a stock of material that can be shaped into locations and situations to explore. It’s not difficult. Once you get going, the hard part is reining yourself in.

Do you need to craft adventures by hand? No! If you are happy with your creative expression through a keyboard and on screen, that’s fine. I’m a fan of typesetting, too. Use what works. Still, it can’t hurt to try to make a habit of hand-crafted adventure design. See what happens. Give it several days and you may see what I mean.

* Classy sketch books and gorgeously bound diaries seem too fancy for my scribblings. Cheap notebooks are too flimsy and uninspiring for me. I settled on the Field Notes 64-page “True Black” Note Book with dot matrix pages as the thing I want to write in. It’s sturdier and more inviting than a typical, generic notebook, but it’s just ephemeral enough that I don’t get the feeling that I have defaced a beautiful blank book if I decide I dislike what I’ve done on any particular page. The dot matrix is great for tunnel design and works for map scales. These notebooks are not so thick that I can’t fill them, either, so there is a sense of accomplishment when they are thoroughly used. They are compact enough to accompany me on errands or at work so that if I have ideas on the go, I can write them in a spare moment.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

On RPG Play-styles, Part 2: Amateur Thespianism

Do you enjoy acting out your character’s words, even adopting a different voice for your character? Do you hate it when people do that?

When I got back into gaming a few years ago, I noticed that “amateur thespianism” has become one of the things in role-playing games that a certain sort of player now complains about. Thespianism means acting. We are told that acting has no place in “old-school” play.

As an old-time player, this made no sense to me. Sure, everybody has play-style preferences, but I never saw a role-playing game in which players did not dip into acting out their characters at least occasionally. It was not as if my games were degraded by that, either.

Putting down acting in a role-playing game seemed odd to me. So, I decided to figure out where the negative attitude toward this part of the hobby, which I thought to be essential, came from.

This post looks at the phenomenon of disdain for acting out a part in role-playing games and the claim, explicit or implied, that it was not part of the original, intended usage of D&D. Spoiler: the claim is false.

Typical complaints about “amateur thespianism”

Here are several examples of what “old-school” gamers say about “amateur thespianism,” with the terms highlighted. Skip to the next heading if you are already familiar with this kind of stuff.

"Roll over"? "Roll under"? That all sounds suspiciously like amateur thespianism to me. Back in the day with REAL D&D, they're was no rolling for success; you just told the DM what you wanted to do, and they would think about it and say "HaHaHa No. You fail and die." It was so much simpler then.
posted by happyroach at 11:21AM on March 5, 2016

The author of this amusing comment five years ago seems not to have known what thespianism is. Thespianism means acting—not ability checks or skill rolls—but for this comment’s author, “amateur thespianism” represents everything bad in “modern” role-playing (the opposite of “back in the day with REAL D&D”). For this person, thespianism includes rolling to succeed at skills!

The complaint goes back to the beginnings of the OSR. In 2007, Hussar wrote  that “amateur thespians” were those who ruin games by acting too much. (He calls it “melodrama,” but that’s not what melodrama means.)

However, amateur thespians, at their worst, try to turn the entire game into melodrama. Every moment must be played out in full, excrutiating detail. Note, it doesn't have to be this way, but, "Amateur Thespianism" IMO, as a perjorative, means exactly this.

Eric Tolle wrote in 2009, that using first person to describe your character’s actions is “just creepy,” and acting the part is “worst of all”:

Do you know what's worse than creative descriptions and excess verbosity?

It's when players switch from referring to their characters in the third person, to using the first person when describing what they do. "Bob the barbarian hits the shopkeeper" is OK, but "I will go talk to the shopkeeper is just creepy, if you know what I mean.

And worst of all is when they start talking like their character is actually speaking! Saying "Good Day my lady, fine day for shopping!" is going way too far into Amateur Thespianism land.

Just listen to the GM describe everything in a monotone, and then just say who you hit. That's not too much to ask for, is it?

Rose Embolism wrote this in a discussion in 2014 to describe what “Old School” is:

Eh, based on what I've seen, it's pretty much D&D. And yeah, that excludes Runequest, Traveller, The Fantasy Trip, Bushido, Space Opera, etc.. all of those games were symptoms of the upcoming degradation of rpgs into amateur thespianism.

In 2019, one player asked on an anonymous forum,

Anything wrong with incorporating XP for roleplay, or something similar to "Resolving Player Bonds" like in Dungeon World?

An unhelpful respondent, who apparently thinks that roleplay always means acting, answered,

Yes, you risk derailing the already functional gameplay loop, and to what end? Amateur thespianism has nothing to do with OSR gameplay, so if you want that, why run an OSR game?

One player in 2020 asked on Reddit where he could find help learning to do voices in game. A respondent chastised him,

Ask yourself first: do you really want to get good at voice acting, or you just want to do it because others are doing it? D&D isn't amateur thespianism.

I could give links to more general discussions about why acting the part in role-playing games is supposed to be bad, but this is enough to demonstrate that I’m not making this up. At least since 2007, when the “old-school” sentiment was morphing into “the OSR,” this has been a matter to rally around. Acting out the part of your character has been something to fight against.

In summary, for at least fourteen years, “amateur thespianism” has been a pejorative term that describes the degradation of the original, pure game into something that sucks. It’s not REAL D&D, it’s not Old-School—or it’s not D&D at all! For some, it’s even bad if you refer to your character in the first person (as in “I attack!”), but the worst thing possible is speaking as if you were your character during the game.

Having played in thousands of game sessions since 1981 in which players (including first-time players) spontaneously declared actions in the first person and dropped in and out of the voice of their characters when in scenes of social interaction, I had to wonder: how did it get this way? When did “amateur thespianism” become a target, in those terms? Why did the complaint become so sharp?

Hang on. I will explain all of that here. This is a long post.

A problem: acting the part belongs to player skill

As seen, acting the part of a character while playing role-playing games has a bad reputation among some players, especially among those who have created a putative “old-school” approach that claims to recreate the earliest way to play (rather than merely reprinting old rules sets, an effort that predates the OSR strictly speaking).

What’s strange is that “old-school” players also advocate for “player skill, not character abilities.” This means determining outcomes of in-game actions not according to rolling dice but rather according to player ingenuity.

If that is so, then acting out a role in social situations—rather than rolling dice to win allies or saying, “I use my high Charisma score to convince them!”—seems to be what the OSR method is calling for, but these same players look down on acting the part of a character.

The problem of this discrepancy will come into focus below.

Back to the beginning

Although D&D was not called a role-playing game at the start, it wasn’t far from the term:

Before they begin, players must decide what role they will play in the campaign, human or otherwise, fighter, cleric, or magic-user. … First, however, it is necessary to describe fully the roles possible. (Gygax and Arneson, OD&D book 1, page 6)

If roles were indicated solely as fighter, cleric, and magic-user, one might argue that role here referred to function within the party. As it also includes race (“human or otherwise”), there is more to “role” than mere function. “Elf” and “hobbit” are more than party functions; they are roles in the sense of personas.

According to the OD&D rules, players should not roll for their own characters’ stats, but players did have to decide the moral “stance” of their character. We call that moral position alignment.

Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take – Law, Netrality, or Chaos.” p.9

From its first reception, many players did dive into playing roles. They made choices according to alignment and personalities that they generated. In the interest of space, I’ll omit here the many early play reports and zines that document how players got into their roles from the beginning. You can also read Jon Peterson’s book The Elusive Shift to learn about the early thoughts and debates about role-playing and acting. It was there from the first years of the hobby.

In hyping the new game, Gary Gygax expressed the feeling of immersion into the role that one can experience when playing this new kind of game.

Even a brief perusal [of this new book] can infect the reader with the desire to do heroic deeds, cast mighty magical spells, and seek to wrest treasure from hideous monsters. (Gygax in September of 1975, Foreword to the Blackmoor supplement)

In this way of talking, it is the prospective player who will do the deeds (not a neatly distinguished character). This is the perspective of immersion. Gygax continued to write this way when he developed AD&D:

ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality. (Players Handbook 1978, p. 7)

And then... Gygax described that immersion as a matter of thespianism, but as a virtue of play. In the explicit conception of the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, you act out the game and interact with other players as your character and you, the player, become skilled at doing that. Here’s what Gary Gygax wrote:

As a role player, you become Falstaff the fighter. You know how strong, intelligent, wise, healthy, dexterous and, relatively speaking, how commanding a personality you have. Details as to your appearance your body proportions, and your history can be produced by you or the Dungeon Master. You act out the game as this character, staying within your "god-given abilities", and as molded by your philosophical and moral ethics (called alignment). You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric, and Filmar, the mistress of magic! The Dungeon Master will act the parts of "everyone else", and will present to you a variety of new characters to talk with, drink with, gamble with, adventure with, and often fight with! Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by—and you will acquire gold, magic items, and great renown as you become Falstaff the Invincible!

One could scarcely be more explicit. According to Gygax in 1978:

  • player characters have histories (i.e. back-stories) 
  •  you act out the game as your character.
  • you become an artful thespian with time.

The idea that the player IS the character, meaning that the lines between the two were blurred, was commonly heard in the first decade of RPGs. This describes the experience of immersion.

I think of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks (from 1982 onward) that are emblazed on the cover with the expression “A Fighting Fantasy Gamebook in which YOU become the hero!” Same idea: immersion. It was everywhere in the early years.

It wasn’t just Gygax who thought that you were supposed to act out a role. Mike Carr, future author of the module In Search of the Unknown, wrote something similar in the Foreword to the AD&D Players Handbook (dated 2 June 1978), encouraging players to give their personas (characters) unique personalities and to interact with other characters in that way:

Get in the spirit of the game, and use your persona to play with a special personality all its own. Interact with the other player characters and non-player characters to give the game campaign a unique flavor and "life". Above all, let yourself go, and enjoy!

Let go and play your character’s personality! That was the advice.

In his renowned introductory adventure module, Keep on the Borderlands (1980), Gary Gygax wrote a section on “Notes for the Dungeon Master.” While his advice is widely treasured today, substantial parts of it are assiduously ignored in “old-school” discussions:

All of this play [in the Keep], as well as what will come afterwards [on the adventure], requires that the players play the personae (personalities) of the characters that they will have throughout the length of the campaign, much like an actor plays a role in a play.

You, however, have a far greater challenge and obligation! You not only must order and create the world, you must also play the part of each and every creature that the player characters encounter. You must be gate guard and merchant, innkeeper and orc, oracle and madman as the situation dictates. The role of DM is all-powerful, but it also makes many demands. It is difficult to properly play the village idiot at one moment and the wise man the next, the noble clergyman on one hand and the vile monster on the other. In one role you must be cooperative, in the next uncaring and non-commital, then foolish, then clever, and so on. Be prepared!

When the players experience their first encounter with a monster, you must be ready to play the part fully. If the monster is basically unintelligent, you must have it act accordingly. Make the encounter exciting with the proper dramatics of the animal sort - including noises! If the encounter is with an intelligent monster, it is up to the DM to not only provide an exciting description but also to correctly act the part of the monster.

D&D requires that players and DMs play personalities much like actors in a play. Gygax basically said that if you don’t act out the part, with proper dramatics and funny voices, you aren’t doing it very well.

The selectively old school

Players today who envision an “old school” representing the original playstyle have mined early D&D books for every line of wisdom to recapture what they imagine role-playing games were like in their earliest years.

What most characterizes the “old-school revival,” named “OSR” from about 2008 onward, is taking the early D&D books and their rules more seriously than most of the early players did when those early D&D books came out. Early OSR-oriented players closely scrutinized the old rules on wandering monsters, time-keeping, dungeon procedures, treasure types, and much else—all of which early D&D players had ignored freely. The new idea was to play the game as it written back then, how it was apparently supposed to be (although even the two authors of D&D did not play according to their own rules, as they directly testify).

The OSR movement has created immense enjoyment in this way.

But close study of the same early rules shows how selective the attention of the OSR has been. This is one of those examples. I haven’t seen any “old-school” guides to acting the part and playing your character, following the clear lead of the Players Handbook of 1978 or Keep on the Borderlands of 1980, where it says you “must” do that, with “the proper dramatics”? Dramatics looks like a neglected “old-school” topic, yet Gygax delivered his injunction to play the part as clearly as he stated in the DMG, “You can not have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept.”

For “old-school” players who value player skill above rolling dice, acting out a part would seem to be a special subject for commentary. Instead of rolling to persuade the gate guard or merchant, doesn’t the prescribed “old-school” emphasis on player skill suggest you should tell the referee how you persuade the merchant, by playing it out? Or do you roll to persuade, instead, finding the answer on your character sheet under the heading CHA? Where are the blogs of “old-school” advice on how to act out your character skillfully, as a Gygaxian “artful thespian”?

Frames of reference in play

Gary Fine is a senior sociologist who studied the phenomenon of role-playing games as a researcher-participant back in the years 1977 to 1979, when fantasy role-playing games were novel. He worked and taught at the University of Minnesota and ran games in that vicinity as well as played in them (including one of his colleague M.A.R. Barker’s weekly T├ękumel games). The result of his investigations was the monograph Shared Fantasy, published in 1983. It is still worth reading today, one of the most insightful studies ever written on role-playing games.

In the book he wrote about the theatrical aspect of role-playing games:

Fantasy games are similar to theater, but with the difference that the game is improvisational. Significantly, one of the claimed benefits of these games is increased thespian skills.  … The ability to adopt a persona is central to gaming. (p. 205-206)

Fine further cited Ed Simbalist (1979), co-author of Chivalry & Sorcery (1977, a game which he played) on the point that in a role-playing game,

We are all playwrights and actors and audience rolled into one. If it is a good performance, we are highly gratified and, though limp with repeated adrenaline surges, we make plans to meet for the next foray into ‘Our World.’

Fine’s subsequent comments on Simbalist’s words refine our expectations of play-acting in RPGs in the heartland of the hobby in the 1970s:

Simbalist’s rhetoric, however, should not disguise the fact that role-playing is difficult, and players do not always role-play well. … latitude exists in role-playing in the degree to which a person submerges his own self in a role, adopting the identity implied by the role. The relation between person-self and role-self in fantasy gaming depends upon the player, the components of the role, and the expectations of the group. Sometimes the gamer plays himself as his character, on other occasions the gamer essentially becomes another person.

One of Fine’s general arguments in the book is that RPGs are an excellent example of a normal social process, one not exclusive to games, by which we humans change our social and relational frames of reference fluently as we interact with one another. He singles out at least three frames of reference that shift amongst themselves during a fantasy role-playing game: frames of reference of the player, of the game, and of the fantasy.

Fine writes in this vein of “the strain between role-playing and game-playing.” This is apparent in the kind of role-playing game session at hand. Whereas tournament games require winning the game,

This contrasts to many private games, in which success is connected to how one plays, not just how many enemies one defeats. … [emphasis added]

If one is in a regular gaming group that aims for character realism, one is rewarded by the group rather than by the results of the game. (p. 212)

He also quotes a personal interview with M.A.R. Barker, in whose game he played. Barker said to him,

My players tend to try their damndest to put themselves into the role. (p. 213)

I would add that what constituted getting into a role in the earliest games of the 1970s (as today) aroused ongoing discussion that confused at least two different things: (1) getting into a role as reflected in the choices one made for a character, based on alignment, background, and statistics like Intelligence and Charisma, and (2) acting out the role. These two aspects of role-playing blur together as two different frames of reference that players unselfconsciously and automatically blend.

Fine notes that role-playing is not the same as acting out every action of the character assumed.

The game does not imply action by the players;

because, after all, we don’t swing swords or attack each other. Yet:

it does not usually involve ‘speaking’ in the voice of the character.

This is an interesting insight into the early play-styles that Fine encountered in the late 1970s. Acting out a role was not usual, but it was not unexpected, either. He observes that voice-acting a character was often done to entertain and to arouse laughter:

Flowery language [in a faux-medieval style] as a counterpoint to the natural language of players is used as a joke to suggest the dichotomy between the fantasy frame and the natural order of everyday life.

Acting out the part with one’s voice definitely occurred, but it was interwoven with the other aspects of play. This makes sense, of course, as players need to give directions in their players' voices for their characters’ decisions, and roll dice, as players, not as their characters. The simultaneous coexistence of multiple frames of social reference were just what interested Fine. The humor of it comes from the discrepancy between frames of reference.

Fine never reports, in a few years of play and innumerable interviews with players, that acting was offensive or detrimental to the game. As one of his chief concerns was the interrelationships of the hobbyist players, and status relationships between them, we can only assume that when Fine says that “thespianism” was a claimed benefit of the hobby (and cites Gygax to make the point), his fellow players in Minnesota believed it, too. His basic description of the hobby was as something resembling improvisational theater, yet he never observed non-stop in-character acting.

Reasons for disliking when players act out the part

I’m not telling you how or how not to play. If your idea of D&D is moving third-person meeples on a grid map and rolling dice to represent their attacks on monsters and accumulating points, that’s great. If your idea of D&D is a soap opera about superheroic cosplay characters, go for it. If you are having fun, keep doing it.

Regardless of our preferences, it’s crystal clear that acting out a role, in the capacity that one can while sitting around a table, was part of role-playing games from the start of this leisure-time hobby. Some did it more, others less. Not just Gary Gygax, but many others, too, assumed that you would act out a part in some capacity and that this was a benefit and a pleasure of the game for its participants. For Gygax, it was a matter of skill for both player and referee. He considered those who couldn’t act out the part not skillful.

If acting out a role was something gamers spontaneously did from the start, and they often enjoyed it, why would play-acting at the table bother some people so much today?

One obvious answer is that some people wince when they witness inept acting. To me that smacks of snobbery and unkindness, especially coming from people who are engrossed in a game of imaginary fantasy adventure that seems absurd and geeky and even antisocial to those on the outside.

But inept acting does have an in-play effect. By drawing attention to itself, the discrepancy between the frames of reference of reality and fantasy becomes conspicuous, momentarily breaking the bubble of engrossment and immersion for others at the table. That’s why it can create laughter. But not all scenes are supposed to be funny. Perhaps, then, a solution to this may be to encourage better acting, as Gygax encouraged it, rather than to shame those who do it badly, just as experienced players encourage unskillful ones to develop their all-around gaming abilities in making decisions for their characters, understanding the dice mechanics, the setting, the trappings of genre, and all the rest.

Another likely reason for the disdain at acting the part of the character as an aspect of role-playing is embarrassment at one’s own ineptitude or lack of confidence at play-acting, especially as a grown-up. If you are already shy, or if you are playing with strangers, you may hesitate to take on a fantasy role and adopt the voice of your character with gusto for fear of the disdain I just described. Some players sign up to roll dice and kill monsters through paper doll characters, using it like a video game avatar, and have no intention of bringing their characters to life. I don’t look down on that way of playing, but when expectations clash over hours at the same table, emotional reactions can arise.

A historically newer reason to disdain play-acting may be distaste for studio-produced actual play videos like those of Critical Role: recorded and staged role-playing games starring professional voice actors who play much of the game as their characters (and use “modern” rules). Gamers who like old rules seem to dislike whatever appears mainstream and whatever makes a lot of money while they approach it as a do-it-yourself hobby. (Never mind that any version of D&D is mainstream within the hobby: it’s all D&D, licensed by Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro.) If acting the part of the character is associated with popular actual play videos, reactionary gamers reduce play-acting behaviors in their games, even those behaviors that are well attested in the “classic” times emulated by the “old school.”

The endorsement of early retroclones

If you look at the earliest “old-school” licensed D&D retroclones, just before the “OSR” took off as a phenomenon, though, you won’t find those books telling people that thespianism is a problem.

OSRIC (2006, p. 144), a recreation of the first-edition AD&D rules, in discussing one of the benefits of town adventures, acknowledges without a negative remark that some players

particularly enjoy the in-character ‘play-acting’ aspect of the game.

The introduction to Labyrinth Lord (2007), an early retroclone of B/X D&D, says,

Labyrinth Lord is a roleplaying game. When you play a role playing game it is like acting in a play. You take on the role of an alter ego, and progress through an interactive story.

Playing Labyrinth Lord is like acting in a play in an interactive story!

There are more retroclones of early D&D editions than I can count, but these remarks in a few of the early ones suggest that the original “old-school” impulse did not include animus against acting out the role. I suspect that the disdain for adopting roles is something that developed in online OSR forums.

Two kinds of role-playing

The “D&D Basic Rules” booklet for the Fifth Edition (2018) is available as a free download. There, on pages 69 and 70, a useful distinction is drawn between descriptive role-playing and active role-playing. The former entails describing what your character does, and the latter means acting out the role. It says, “Most players use a combination of the two styles. Use whichever mix of the two works best for you.” Notice the lack of prescriptiveness.

These D&D “Basic Rules” explain how dice rolls can be substituted for role-playing or blended with it. In this latest edition of the game, characters have a small bundle of skills with statistics of their own. In practice, these are mostly special applications of the six core stats. “Old-school” players tend to decry these skill modifiers as the death of the game, because these skill-stats tempt players to roll for solutions rather than thinking them through on their own.

But the alternative to rolls for success is describing what your character does and then awaiting referee fiat. If the game action is social, you will either be playing out the scene, inviting amateur thespianism, or you roll dice for the outcome.

I guess you could play out social interactions descriptively instead, saying, “My character makes an impassioned plea!” without stating the contents of the plea, as if it were a move in a boardgame (or a move in a PbtA game).

You could also do it by way of summary, saying, “My character appeals to reason in discussion with the wizard, making the case that it is in his interest to help us.” That doesn’t give the referee a lot to go on, though, when deciding the outcome—not without rules mechanics and skills that take the place of player skill.

As I see it, though, players who denounce amateur thespianism denounce player skill (a strange thing to do).

The first RPG mechanics for social interactions (and my own method)

This brings me to a side remark. Even the original D&D rules of 1974 had primitive procedures to roll dice in place of acting out social interactions (just as it included skills, only not by that name).

The best-known original social mechanics are reaction rolls, used originally to determine whether a monster would join the service of a player character upon receiving the offer of a reward. You roll for the outcome, with a modifier from the predetermined Charisma score. There is no stated rule for modifying the outcome according to persuasive play-acting. The social effects of the dice and the Charisma stat are also present in the game at this point, taking the place of player skill.

The Charisma stat in this function is not essentially different in function from those used in a 5e Persuasion skill. The old one uses 2d6 and the newer one uses 1d20, making a Charisma bonus of +1 much more meaningful in the old system.

The point is that the means to roll the dice without the need to play out an interaction were there from the beginning. Some players of old editions of D&D disdain the Persuasion stat in 5e as the corruption of the original game-style, yet they happily roll for reactions from strangers, just as they happily roll to determine whether they find secret doors without describing how they search for them. To me, rolling for reactions is similar to rolling to search for secret doors: they take the place of player ingenuity.

Retainers and monster followers in OD&D had loyalty scores, another numerical social characteristic bearing on the outcome of morale rolls, yet another social rules mechanism present in the first D&D set.

In my own games, I avoid rolling for outcomes of social interaction unless it’s a sort of interaction that the player can’t act out. There are different reasons that this may be so:

  • The player’s performance of social interaction may be far below that expected of the character’s. In that case, the player can roll to simulate the character’s greater effectiveness (just as the player rolls to indicate the character’s greater effectiveness at shooting an arrow from a bow, for example). 
  • The dice mechanics can avoid the need to play out roles that are contextually inappropriate between players, one of the frames of reference active in the game. For example, in some groups, one may prefer to roll dice to persuade through flirtation, rather than acting out the flirtation.
  • It may be expedient to roll dice so as not to spend real time on trivial social interactions in which there is a stake for the direction of the game. For example, when player characters go to a market to buy gear and supplies before an expedition, and one or two of them want to haggle for better prices, I prefer to get the game going and not spend a half hour playing out a scene of bargain-hunting. If they insist on haggling and a character has a trait indicating ability at that sort of thing, I may just have the players roll the appropriate tests in the interest of time, to see if the haggling works, unless I make an instant ruling.

But if my players want to attempt to act out their character’s speech and manner, I only encourage them. If they perform badly, well, they aren’t going to get better without opportunities to try. It’s just a game, after all, and nobody is getting hurt. We may all have a good laugh about it, too.

Gygax 1998: against “amateur thespianism”? The origin of the misunderstanding

So, why do self-described “old-school” gamers ignore Gygax’s mandate to act the part of your character? How did this aspect of player skill come to be the object of disdain especially by players aligned with the putative “old school”?

Where does this widespread expression “amateur thespianism” come from?

It actually comes from Gary Gygax in 1998.

The problem is that he didn’t mean what others have thought.

Here’s how it started. Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in April of 1997, acquiring D&D thereby. The D&D property was to be revitalized and made profitable again.

In Dragon Magazine 248, June 1998, p. 120, Allen Varney published a profile of Gary Gygax, in anticipation of the publication of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, based on his early module Tomb of Horrors, and which Gygax endorsed with a Foreword. The Dragon profile includes snippets of an interview Varney had with Gygax. On the revival of the Greyhawk setting, Varney quotes remarks by Gygax, in which the “amateur thespianism” remark first occurs.

Though his future role in the revival remains undecided, Gygax believes the world’s prospects are bright “if the products aim at new [players], as well as the shrinking ‘old hands’ market. It seems that TSR is looking to attract young gamers, so I believe the project will be very successful.”

He [Gygax] feels new GREYHAWK products should resurrect the line’s early-1980s approach: “The Oerth [Greyhawk world] needs demons and devils to plague it, and why not PC assassins and the like, too? Those who object to such things don’t buy RPGs anyway. Similarly, those who want 'storytelling,' an emphasis on 'roleplaying' (read: boring yakking and amateur thespianism), need to be ignored. The action is difficult to create, [but] opportunities for roleplaying can be created easily by even a moderately skilled DM.”

This is the source of the “amateur thespianism” quip.

Gygax’s words “amateur thespianism,” taken out of context twice in a row (first from the live interview, not given in full, and then from the magazine article), sound at first like a reversal of what Gygax wrote in 1978 about “artful thespianism” as a desirable goal for players and referees.

But this isn’t a reversal.

Gygax’s words, in context, are about who would buy what. He was optimistic about new players for Greyhawk products. As a veteran of the ups and downs of RPG sales, he was talking about how to market a Greyhawk revival. He had a financial and personal stake in this.

Understood correctly—in context—Gygax’s complete remarks are about what to emphasize in these products. He indicates that action scenes are difficult to run (requiring rules scaffolding and monster stats and preparation) but even a moderately skilled DM can easily create opportunities for role-playing. He’s saying that role-playing itself doesn’t need rules systems or emphasis in rulebooks because it’s easy to create role-playing opportunities. If anything, his complete remarks are an endorsement of playing a character in role: it’s something he assumes even unskilled DMs can foster. He also expresses clearly his preference that too much talk and not enough action is boring for new players.

Let’s give this even deeper context. In 1998, LARPs (live-action role-playing games) were in the midst of a boom in popularity. They were role-playing games blended with theater improv. One of the very biggest RPGs at the time was Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) and the biggest LARP was Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Masquerade (1993), based on that. The Vampire RPG system, with its many well-selling spin-offs, was called the “Storyteller System.” The emphasis in those days was to see RPGs as producing stories, relegating early old games like D&D to an inferior status. In 1998, if you said, “storytelling RPGs,” you thought of this line of games, and games like Ars Magica. I remember this personally.

Greyhawk was Gygax’s creation. He had hopes for bringing a new generation of young gamers in, as it was in the early 1980s, when he presided over a massive boom in D&D.

All in all, I interpret his remarks about “amateur thespianism” as saying, in effect, “In a Greyhawk revival, don’t be shy about including edgy content that was already in first-edition AD&D, like devils and assassins, that later iterations of D&D played down. People worried about that stuff aren’t in the hobby, anyway. And I don’t think you need to take into account the recent influx of players who are invested in Vampire games and LARPs, either, because they similarly [his word] won’t buy Greyhawk revival materials. We need to find young new players instead, players who like action.”

The whole point of his remark was to illustrate what he meant by saying if the products aim at new [players], as well as the shrinking ‘old hands’ market.

The next year, the Living Greyhawk campaign (2000-2008) was launched by the RPGA, timed alongside of the new Third Edition (2000). Gygax must have profited from royalties from this nine-year “living campaign” in Greyhawk involving tens of thousands of players and many publications for sale. It certainly boosted his presence as a revered old-time RPG world-builder.

Gygax was not saying you shouldn’t act the part of your character or that your games should not tell stories. He was saying that new Greyhawk products would not find a market with the recent influx of new players that came into the hobby with the Vampire and Storyteller system craze, and LARPing, and the obnoxious pretense of that time, used to market those games, that those games evoked a more deeply felt kind of roleplaying and more profound storytelling of character arcs. He was saying that new Greyhawk products should not cater to those interests because that approach would not be successful. They should aim at young new players instead, players who liked action in their games.

Therefore, it is false to hold that Gygax was telling people not to play their parts or to tell stories, at least here in 1998. Yet that’s what his words have been taken to mean.

What Gygax actually wrote about thespianism was that players should develop it artfully.

It’s also interesting to see this early remark, from 1998, about “resurrecting” an “early-80s approach.” These are early hints of the brooding nostalgia that would soon be given a vehicle through the Open Games License in 2000, on which the “old-school” movement has always depended.

Gygax’s attitude toward “amateur thespianism,” based on marketing considerations specific to 1998, has been taken out of context and redeployed to win points against fellow gamers who like to enliven their role-playing with a little acting.

In 1998, people were getting internet access in a huge boom of online participatory development (which I remember well from my grad school days). Gamers were among them, and some were reacting to Gygax’s “amateur thespianism” quip, read in an electronic version of Dragon, on Immediately, the words were taken out of context. William McCarthy approved the remark.

I did enjoy the 'amateur thespianism' jab though... it always strikes as ridiculous hilarity when I witness the common affliction of extreme over-acting at convention games. Most role-players would not be invited to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company for good reason.

Apparently, if you can’t perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company, you shouldn’t even try to act out your role!

The responses to McCarthy in turn focused on whether Gygax was “still an arrogant, egotistical asshole” or not, with gamers predictably either swearing their loyalty to the man or stating how vehemently they disliked him.

The mistaken idea of what Gygax meant by “amateur thespianism” has been out there, and it is still with us, evolving further out of its 1998 context and repeatedly misapplied to the point that it is embedded in the dogma of the OSR gaming movement.

There were a few defenders of “amateur thespianism,” such as Doug Ironside of Ontario, who wrote a letter printed in Dragon Magazine 295 in May 2002, saying,

Gary Gygax seems to think (or used to anyway, just read the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide) that amateur thespianism was something ridiculous that wouldn’t be tolerated at a table of “serious gamers.” I think what that opinion is lacking is the perspective of time; Gary wouldn’t be able to recall half the stories he does about his old campaigns if the narrative wasn't prominent. Pretending to be an actor at the table doesn’t necessarily mean the experience will be memorable, but rather, having everyone accomplish something notable does.

This is odd, too, because Gygax never used the word “thespianism” in the DMG (1979), and he only advocated for thespianism in the PHB the year before, as I showed above.

Thus, within a few years of Gygax’s reported remarks in 1998, his meaning had been twisted to make a quite different argument about play-styles and spread far and wide via internet. Gygax was portrayed as being against acting out roles in RPGs. But there is no support for this that I have found, only misinterpretations.

Gygax’s complete view: acting and action

In October of 1985, Gygax would be ousted by surprise from his leadership role at TSR (a story told well by Peterson’s new book Game Wizards—my review of it here). In that month’s issue of Dragon (#102), Gygax included a substantial article entitled “Realms of Role Playing: Let’s Start Pushing the Pendulum the Other Way.” This was apparently written when he still thought he’d be leading the future of D&D and the RPG field. It’s his last big statement about how he thought the game should be played before he left TSR.

In the article, he described two components of RPGs: action and role-playing. (These are the same terms he would use later in the interview of 1998, discussed immediately above.)

Already in 1985, he was concerned that the exciting action component was giving way too much to role-playing, and that the character of the game as a game was not emphasized enough:

Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type, be it sword swinging, spell casting, or anything else.

Why was this a problem? He thought that acting, by itself, without game rules and action, was childish and boring:

Too much emphasis in this direction tends to make playing out an adventure more of a children’s let’s pretend activity than an action-packed game which involves all sorts of fun, including the playing of a role but other fun aspects as well.

Notice the word “action” again. That’s the opinion of a veteran wargamer. He liked rules that structured action: the rules that he was, at the time of writing, in charge of selling for a profit.

But was Gygax against acting in role-playing games? Absolutely not. He wrote:

Games are not plays, although role-playing games should have some of the theatre included in their play.

He explicitly stated that some of the theatre should be included in D&D. This is the opposite of what the current opponents of “amateur thespianism” state.

It gets more interesting. Gygax was explicit that you grow more and more to become your character:

A role-playing game should be such that players begin the personification portion as role play, and then as they progress the activity should evolve into something akin to role assumption. This does away with stilted attempts to act the part of some character. In place of this, players should try to become that person they are imagining during the course of the game, and conduct the actions of their characters accordingly. A spy, for example, speaks in one way to his superiors, in another way when he converses with his equals, and in yet an entirely different way when he is attempting to penetrate an enemy installation and is impersonating a plumber, perhaps. Implemented in this fashion, the concept becomes one of roles within roles.

This applies to all role-playing games, of course. Straining to play a role is certainly contrary to the purpose of the game. The actual reason for gaming is fun, not instruction in theatrics or training in the thespian art. Role playing is certainly a necessary and desirable part of the whole game, but it is a part. Challenge, excitement, suspense, and questing are other portions equally necessary to a game of this nature.

This is a nuanced argument. Let’s break this down.

Gygax advocated for inhabiting the role of the character increasingly as one plays, so that one can interact with (and speak with) others in different ways, assuming that role fully. But “straining to play a role” as if one were taking acting classes was contrary to the game, because its purpose is a more light-hearted fun. He argues that inhabiting the role is a matter of progress, and that it should evolve, lest it be “stilted.” The more you become the character, immersed in it, the less strained your acting would be (so he argued).

Put simply, though, it sounds as if Gygax is saying that it takes time to get the feel for your character, and that it’s desirable to do so. Notably, he was saying you should act out your character, immersively, without straining. He regards that as “a necessary and desirable part of the whole game,” but insufficient for the game by itself. He puts it again in another way:

While some considerable amount of acting is most beneficial to play, this is by no means the sole objective or purpose.

Gygax further stressed that players should play as they wish. If they want to stress acting, let them do so:

Not every game of this sort must be completely balanced with regard to all of these aspects [of play]. Such a decision is entirely in the hands of the game master and the players. If a particular group desires to stress acting, or combat, or problem solving, or any other singular feature of the whole, that is strictly up to the individuals concerned. How they enjoy gaming, and what constitutes fun, is theirs alone to decide.

He then offers a view on why RPG products had begun to emphasize role-playing in that time:

The current vogue of placing seemingly undue importance on the role-playing portion of the game is simply meant to inform and educate participants about a very important segment of what differentiates these games from other types of games. … Once it is understood that role playing is a vital ingredient of the game, and players understand how to actually accomplish it, the undue attention can be discarded.

This accords with my interpretation of Gygax’s later views in 1998 as well as his ideas expressed in 1978. He wasn’t against thespianism. On the contrary, he thought it was an essential part of the game. It took time to develop it as a skill. He was just concerned that the action and excitement would disappear if acting was all it was. Importantly, teen boys would not get into the hobby, and buy the products, if the games lacked action. He didn’t think that there needed to be in-depth discussion of role-playing or emphasis on it because it would develop automatically as players become skillful and mature. It did not need special emphasis because it would happen naturally by necessity.

Summary and conclusion

Some players, particularly self-described “old-school” players, disdain “amateur thespianism” as alien to “real D&D,” and even as a corrupting force within the whole hobby. The idea is that you shouldn’t act out the part of your character, because it’s a game, not in any way theater.

The punching bag for this dubious notion, “amateur thespianism,” derives from a misinterpretation of an interview with Gary Gygax in 1998, which was picked up immediately by internet users and spread in increasingly decontextualized ways. Gygax came to symbolize a very particular and mostly unprecedented playstyle, which he had never represented, that denies a traditional aspect of player skill.

The real record shows that Gary Gygax, the co-author of original D&D and author of AD&D, strongly believed that players and referees should act out their roles as one component among many in the game, and some theater is a part of D&D and role-playing games generally. He stated directly that if you like your games to emphasize acting, you should do it that way as long as it is fun, but he warned players not to lose track of all the other aspects of the game.

This post does not tell you how to play. “Old-school” players should, of course, freely avoid play-acting in their own games, as they like. But they are incorrect when they assert that D&D did not include thespianism in the old days. On the contrary, it was specifically advocated by that name as a part of the hobby from its beginnings.

They may also consider dropping the complaint that “amateur thespianism” is bad fun, too. Reactionary attitudes can rally sectarian support, but it divides hobbyists into factions.

The parroted doctrine that “amateur thespianism” is bad and corrupting illustrates the dogmatic and selective tendencies of the OSR movement. It’s not just that other people’s fun is wrong, but that their own fun is the correct fun. In this case, the appeal to the authority of a founding figure is completely false. It is contradicted by the record, not to mention millions of hours of play in which role-players have enjoyed playing out their parts, whether they were embarrassing and awkward or inspired and skillful.