When it comes to roleplaying games, this has long been a real question that has gone largely unquestioned. What are the players in terms of an RPG? The general consensus when you ask them is that they are “playing” their character, drawing on their understanding of acting and character building to create the role they will be playing within the game. This explanation works fairly well when it comes to the old d20 family of games, and often ones that draw on the sentiment of giving players a way to live out their power fantasies.
In my own design, and examining other games, I’ve been wondering if this is quite the raw limit of the roles that players can play, even in games with GMs. This came, in part, from both testing The King in Yellow and Eclipse Phase second edition. Both of these games have pools of resources that allow the players to drastically change the plot, even creating “props” or altering the “setting” to suit their needs. This goes against the limited view that RPGs used to follow. We’ve also seen games like Legacy: Life among the Ruins, move away from the role of the singular character to more of a guiding force of a family over the course of generations.
Take, for example, the concept of metagaming. Most groups have a way to deal with the dichotomy between what the player knows and what the character knows. One common approach is to try to act as though you do not have that particular piece of information; and we’ve all seen the player who’s character ‘just so happens’ to pursue the right course of actions to reveal a thing that they didn’t know. At a more intellectual level, we should know that this isn’t really possible. The human brain isn’t great at pretending it doesn’t know things. Effective players are just more adept at finding ways to ensure that it doesn’t benefit them in obvious ways.
I think The King in Yellow, and other games in the Gumshoe line, have already been playing with this divide. The resources that are used to model the usage of skills make blatant comparisons to movies and other genre fiction, pointing out that a person great a thing can still fail, and we still think they are effective at that thing so long as it has been appropriately demonstrated earlier in the story.
The usage of these kind of resources is part of the very conscious approach that these are games. Reinforcing and creating a modeling of resources can be used in different ways, and that relationship between playing a character versus playing some other role seems to be, in part, driven by these interactions.
In Red Markets, for example, there is level of modelling that draws you into the panicked management of scare resources, bringing the player and the character that they are playing closer together. They’re both experiencing the same general feeling, just abstracted along different axes. Gumshoe attempts this, instead drawing upon various genre films to inform an even more abstracted use of resources; the capacity to act upon the plot rather than merely within it. This abstraction has been a sticking point for some players that I have played Gumshoe with, the inability to feel like they were something other than merely the character: instead acting in part as the role of director, or perhaps merely a producer sitting on the director’s shoulder.
But, this ability to alter the plot isn’t entirely a function of games like this. In many ways, Call of Cthulhu’s luck roll has been used to determine if someone has access to a key thing they may need (a flashlight, for example). Eclipse Phase’s 2nd edition has the new pools. Even D&D 5e and Eclipse Phase 1st ed have ways of rerolling dice, already another way of helping to reinforce the “other” of the players, helping to set them above the mere mortals that are all the non-player characters.
This is already a way, however, that players can act upon the plot. Instead of leaving things merely to the dice to make these kinds of determinations, they are already finding their way to put a thumb on the proverbial scales.
Why, then, do so many players have difficulties with taking on more control of the plot? It seems to matter, in part, for what their perceived role is. In my experience, the same players have had no difficulty playing an ethereal concept that guides a family over generations, but at the same time had difficulty being the quasi player, quasi director that Gumshoe seems to suggest.
I think that a decent part of this is due to the cultural baggage that goes along with our particular subculture. There’s an understanding that seems to be baked in and passed along as we add more people to our ranks that you are taking upon the role of a character, it is even in the name. Moving past this, or at least continuing to play with this boundary and idea, is likely going to be a huge advantage to us in continuing to develop RPGs and games in general.