Same Table, Different Game: Role-Playing and Differentiation

[This is likely one in a slew of forthcoming posts related to role playing games, learning, literacies, and performance. These are exploratory in nature and a space for me to write through some of the topics I’ve been thinking about in this area. Feedback and pushback are welcomed.]

I’m reading a recently released book about the history of Dungeons and Dragons called Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt. I appreciate the accessibility of the text as a way to describe what could happen within a role-playing game. I think Ewalt’s book offers a good introduction but will also likely be read primarily by people already intimately familiar with the polyhedral dice and tomes of rules charts he carefully contextualizes; as accessible as the book is, it’s not going to turn the world of gaming on its head. Which is tricky… because most people probably see D&D more like this.

A month or so ago, when I came home from an evening playing Pathfinder, Ally asked me, “So, what do you do when you play?” I’ve been struggling with an answer to this: I think there is an assumption that all role-playing looks like the live action sort a la Role Models. And actually, I think the endearing, epic ending of Freaks and Geeks is a good primer of what typical role-playing looks like. (Leave it to James Franco to help clearly explain nerd culture to the masses.)

As I’m reading Ewalt’s book, I’m reminded that even with five or six or seven people all sitting around and playing the same campaign, they may all be playing a different game. For instance, Ewalt notes that “at the most fundamental level, a PC is defined by a bunch of numbers written down on piece of paper–the DNA of an imaginary person” [emphasis mine]. And that’s not really how I see it. In my current Pathfinder game, I’m less interested in the stats that I search for on my page than I am with who my character is in regards to his traits, disposition, outlook on the world. For instance, I might be playing a paranoid thief that gets a little flighty when confrontation arises (which is often). Instead of chasing down villains, it could be entirely in-character for my character to run away: the numbers that frame an abstract set of skills are less important to me than the characterization of how this character behaves.

That doesn’t mean Ewalt’s wrong, it means people around a gaming table are playing different and parallel games. For instance, at the same Pathfinder game, there are players who have made uber-fighters and badass spellcasters. Don’t mess with them: they’re really good at using the game mechanics to ensure that battles end in their favor. This is the game they are playing. Like Ewalt they are defining their characters by “a bunch of numbers.”

I want to emphasize that neither approach is “the right way” to play. Some gamers I’ve played with have spoken disdainfully of the “roll”-players in comparison to the “role”-players: they see gaming as the co-construction of a fulfilling narrative. Others see gaming as building the best and most epic character ever. The name, the behavior, and the backstory aren’t so important. Many people find a balance.

Having to figure out what players want and their own narrative goals, the Game Master (GM) must figure out how to help meet the various needs and interests of those around a table. It’s a tricky proposition to differentiate the needs of players and the parallels between a GM and a teacher are significant (and will be discussed in an upcoming post).

When we ran the Black Cloud game in my classroom several years ago, I noticed that students enjoyed the game for different reasons: several students focused on the story of a cloud gaining consciousness and communicating with it. Some students wanted to “win” by finding the most pufftron sensors in their community. Some students were most interested in the environmental concerns and addressing real world health issues based on data. Regardless of what attracted students to the curricular unit/alternate reality game the same things took place. How students took up the data and story and competitive elements (and standards-aligned English-y “stuff”) reflected the parallel and differentiated spaces for literacy exploration.

As I continue delving into RPG-related research, I’m struck by how complex systems of rules deliver content that is interpreted and enacted upon based on the interests of individuals. When we play Monopoly we (usually) play it in the same way every time. When we play Pathfinder or Fate Core or Savage Worlds, each of us have different interests and goals and they all intersect over the course of several hours of dialogue, dice rolling, and identity formation.

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