TMC: RP101 (part 1)

RP101 (Part 1) Roll-Playing vs. Roleplaying
by Wes Platt May 4, 2004

Of more than 1,600 text-based games listed here at The MUD Connector, most of them are hack-and-slash monster killing and loot collecting games. Those games are great. But a smaller percentage of these games focus on interactive storytelling. OtherSpace and Chiaroscuro creator Wes Platt introduces readers to concepts in roleplaying.

RP101: Part 1 | Part 2

The first important lesson that should be learned by participants in our games is the difference between roll-playing and roleplaying.

It’s a fairly common misconception, perpetuated by computer games like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, that roleplaying is just a matter of picking how your character looks, giving the character a selection of skills, and then roaming a virtual world solving quests, exploring and killing monsters to gain experience and cool new weapons and armor.

That’s not roleplaying. It’s roll-playing. When we talk about roll-playing, for purposes of this course, we’re referring to games where dice determine just about everything (although the dice rolls may all be handled invisibly, behind the scenes in an automated system) and the main goal of the player is to gain experience, rise through levels, and, ultimately, win the game. Victory in a roll-playing game is achieved by completing all the quests or reaching the highest player rank.

Most MUDs are roll-playing games. That doesn’t make them inherently bad. Quite a few roll-playing games are absolutely fantastic. But they perpetuate an expectation that causes an occasional problem for true roleplaying games, such as OtherSpace, Chiaroscuro and Star Wars: Reach of the Empire.

Many players who make the shift from roll-playing to roleplaying find the culture shock overwhelming. They come to a roleplaying game without understanding certain basic concepts and principles that stand in stark contrast to what they’ve become accustomed to in roll-playing.

Roll-players are often accustomed to:

  • Gaining levels
  • Killing monsters
  • Seeking out treasure and equipment
  • Automated combat
  • Unrestricted naming conventions
  • Interacting with other players only to take down tougher monsters
  • Around-the-clock activity possibilities, such as automated quests

When a roll-player first arrives in a true roleplaying game, they find a culture that doesn’t usually put much value on levels, killing monsters usually only happens as part of a non-automated plot developed by the staff, combat is refereed by staffers and likely requires consent of all parties, staffers impose restrictions on the names players can choose and may require players to write in-depth backgrounds before their characters can be approved for the grid, most activities run by the staff are scheduled – not automated, and interaction with other players for character development and entertainment is absolutely critical.

It’s like the difference between a video arcade and a dance club. In a video arcade, it’s fine to wander from diversion to diversion. On your own, you can have plenty of fun as long as the quarters don’t run out. But, in a dance club, you’re wasting your time and cover charge money if you don’t interact with other people, either by talking or dancing with them.

Roll-playing prizes material acquisition and scorekeeping; roleplaying prizes player interaction and character development. No wonder it seems like such a disconnect when roll-players make that switch to a roleplaying game for the first time. For them, a true roleplaying game seems too personally demanding, too boring, too reliant on other people for fun. It’s perfectly understandable that, upon first sticking their toe in the water, they declare it too damned freezing cold and go diving back into the familiar pools of MUD.

That disconnect, that shock, is natural. Experienced roleplayers need to demonstrate patience in helping to acclimate such newcomers into this culture. And they need to try not to take it personally when roll-players express disdain or just don’t seem to “get it” right away.

Roleplaying is an acquired taste. It’s about socializing and character development. It’s a sort of improvisational performance mixed with storytelling. People are judged based on how they perform their roles, the quality of their writing, their grammar, and even their spelling. Success is gauged via the character’s experience: The plots they’ve survived, the villains they’ve thwarted, the friends and enemies they’ve made. These accomplishments are satisfying to roleplayers, but to a roll-player fresh out of the traditional MUDing ranks it’s fairly alien.

The gap between roll-playing and roleplaying can be bridged by players who want to cross the breach. But the roll-player must do it from a position of informed choice. A roll-player choosing to play a true roleplaying game without understanding what they’re getting into is likely to experience frustration and embarrassment as they roam the game looking for monsters to kill and quests to solve, totally ignoring other players who are gathered in popular roleplaying hotspots, doing what it is that roleplayers do.

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Wes Platt is the creator of OtherSpace: The Interactive SF Saga and Chiaroscuro: The Interactive Fantasy Saga. He’s a head-wiz on Star Wars: Reach of the Empire. (All games can be reached through his official site at

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