THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF ROLEPLAYING
NOTE: This article is not about comic books, but is rather a general discussion of fundamental principles of roleplaying. I've updated some of the topical references in it, but nothing is going to save it from the fact that the type of gaming it refers to -- sitting around a table with a group of people sharing an imaginary construction while rolling dice and consulting manuals -- seems to be largely obsolete these days, now that everyone is playing interactive online roleplaying campaigns instead. But what the hell.
My experiences with roleplaying games, while far from comprehensive, have, nonetheless, been fairly extensive. I began roleplaying when I was 17. I'm now 44. In the 26 years that have washed away between those ages (26 years - my God), I have played in probably a dozen or more different roleplaying campaigns and half a dozen different RPG systems, commercial and private. I've gamemastered various different campaigns as well, with my longest and most successful venture being the campaign I still GM today, which has its 22nd Anniversary coming up this year. And after much thought and analysis, I've come to some conclusions, which, I hope, will be of at least some interest to other roleplayers and gamemasters.
The first thing I'm going to say is doubtless going to offend many members of my hypothetical audience, but as it's basic to my premise, I can't avoid mentioning it. Baldly and without window dressing, I believe that the huge majority of 'roleplayers' have never actually roleplayed at all. Or, to put it another way, most so-called 'roleplaying' campaigns and systems are nothing of the sort.
Just as there are three dimensions of space, so, in my opinion, are there three possible dimensions of roleplaying. I'll list them briefly, and then discuss them more fully afterward.
The First Dimension of Roleplaying is Movement.
The Second Dimension of Roleplaying is Background.
The Third Dimension of Roleplaying is Characterization.
Like the spatial dimensions represented by a point, a square, and a cube, each of these 'dimensions of roleplaying', when developed, allows the previous dimension(s) to be shown in more depth and detail.
By Movement (the First Dimension), I mean, quite simply, a goal to attain and obstacles to overcome. In one dimensional roleplaying, this is usually very simple - pick the lock, open the door, kill the monster, get the treasure. In point of fact, without any kind of Background or Characterization, there is little more that Movement can be. Goals must be something simple that are desirable within the terms of the game system itself, rather than in terms of the non-existent world (Background) or personality of the PC (Characterization). In many one dimensional RPGs, the GM gives his players an arbitrary 'quest' which they must succeed in to win.
Whatever the case, without Background or Characterization, Movement becomes little more than a simple, straightline effort to obtain an arbitrary item, in order to 'win the game'. For Movement to mean anything beyond this, we have to transcend one dimensional roleplaying, and at least include -
Background. The Second Dimension of Roleplaying, a real Background is much more than a simple underground labrynth populated with monsters and honeycombed with treasure
chambers. A true Background is a detailed, credible, interactive setting that sensibly and coherently explains itself to the interested player. It does not have to be as elaborately constructed as, say, Nero's Rome, and in fact, it can be relatively simple - but it has to be believable, internally consistent, and multitextured - by which I mean, it has to be more than simply an underground 'dungeon' for people to raid with an adjoining village where people can buy things.
Perhaps the simplest real Background I've encountered is the generic one used by many GMs when they first graduate from 'dungeoncrawls' - a kingdom with a few cities and villages, once ruled by a powerful sorceror, who had many hidden complexes in which he bred experimental creatures, manufactured precious metals and jewels, and
imprisoned exotic creatures and monsters as part of a 'zoo'.
The sorceror who once ruled this land is now long dead (or is he?), but the strange warrens remain, and the denizens therein have bred and mutated in the darkness over the long centuries, waiting for someone to break the mystic seals that keep them within so they can escape their captivity at long last. And they're probably quite hungry for something other than the taste of each other, as well...
As a background, this may not exactly be the work of Alan Moore, but it's quite functional, and where logic does lapse (what the hell did these creatures eat for the last 500 years), one can cover it with magic (the sorceror enchanted the zoo chambers with spells that manufacture food automatically; the sorceror laid spells on the creatures so that they can never starve, although he forgot to make them immune to hunger, so they'll be REALLY happy to see you; the sorceror set up warp gates so that, while the creatures all devour each other regularly, whenever one creature dies, another of that type is teleported into the dungeon to replace it, etc).
When one adds even as simple a background as this, one gains much more flexibility and depth in terms of Movement. While GMs can continue to simply have their parties enter the dungeons, battle creatures, and get treasure, they can also make things a bit more complicated if they choose. Perhaps a party of adventurers might emerge from such a dungeon, covered in gore and laden with treasure - only to find that while they've been inside, monsters have emerged from the door they left open behind them and attacked their nearby home city.
Or perhaps your party of PCs might well encounter another party of adventurers in the dungeon, out for loot just like you. As one adds depth, one adds complexity, and begins to approach a roleplaying experience that is more credible, detailed, and realistic.
The concept that the godlike wizard who originally built all these mazes might actually still be alive in some secret chamber in one of them, in suspended animation, perhaps, or wandering senilely with most of his memory but none of his power gone... this is fascinating story material that simply would not be possible in one dimensional roleplaying, since it requires a sensible and consistent Background to work.
When 'roleplaying' first eventuated, as basic D&D, it was entirely one dimensional. Dungeoncrawls were the norm. Anything else was unheard of and bizarre. Since then, roleplaying has evolved, to the point where virtually all the RPGs being run today are two dimensional - all of them feature some kind of coherent, detailed, campaign area as a Background, which allows more complex and sophisticated Movement. Most people seem to consider this to be the utter zenith of roleplaying, and cannot imagine how things could get any more detailed, more complex, more realistic, than, say, Greyhawk or RIFTS or Rolemaster. Yet, in actual fact, the highest and most important dimension of roleplaying is being all but ignored by the vast majority of gamers.
Characterization. This does not mean 'alignment', nor does it mean 'quirks', or any of the other basic, fundamental substitutes for true PC and NPC personality that most or all commercial systems use. True characterization is something that transcends the gaming system itself. Picking various positive and negative character traits and playing your character scrupulously within them, while an excellent start, is not the entirety of true Characterization. And without true Characterization, one cannot truly roleplay; one is roleplaying two dimensionally at best.
The basic concept of real Characterization, or real roleplaying, is simple but profound - instead of the PC doing what the player wants, the player does what the PC wants.
To use an example - Chad is running a PC named Wyldar, a holy warrior for a lawful and honorable church. Chad, when building Wyldar, decided to make him a gentle, thoughtful warrior, and gave him traits like Honorable, Altruistic, and Uses Violence Only As A Last Resort. Now, Chad's been having a really bad day today and is in an utterly foul mood, and blowing off some steam is exactly what he needs. In the RPG, a vicious mercenary strides up to Wyldar, spits on the ground at his feet, and calls him a stinking coward.
In two dimensional roleplaying, Chad says "I pull my sword and swing on the scum". It doesn't matter what Wyldar would do in this situation, all that matters is that Chad wants to kill this guy, and Wyldar is merely an extension of Chad's desires.
In three dimensional roleplaying, Chad realizes that he is not Wyldar, that the PC does not react in the same way Chad would (or would like to), and therefore, he, the player, makes his decisions based on what Wyldar would do - not what he wants Wyldar to do. Thus, instead of the PC doing what the player wants, the player does what the PC wants - Chad opens his mouth and says, "By my oath as a holy warrior, cannot we reason this out, man?"
It's a matter of realizing that the PC is more than an extension of the player's impulses, whims, and desires. And it's the last and most crucial element in true roleplaying, in which, for a brief span of time, we actually step outside ourselves and become a different person.
With Characterization in the mix, both Movement and Backdrop take on a whole new depth. The goals that a character has and the obstacles he or she must overcome can be more than simply an arbitrary mission; they can be based in the character's own personal history and viewpoints. It's easy to have a party be hired by a rich merchant to rescue his favorite daughter from bandits - but suppose that one of the PCs is aware that the kidnapped daughter is actually his illegitimate child? Suddenly, the RPG has much more depth and impact.
Sending the PCs off to recover a stolen magic item is all well and good, but suppose the magic item is a precious heirloom originally belonging to a noble house that one of the PCs has been exiled in disgrace from? Now the PC has to choose - does he return the item to the person who hired the party to get it, or does he make off with it himself, to return it to his house and perhaps be reinstated?
Most gamers have never experienced three dimensional roleplaying. And, to be perfectly honest, it's quite likely that many gamers would not like it if they did experience it, since it's a far more complicated, somewhat slower, and enormously more detailed style of roleplaying than typical hack and slash 'kill the monster get the treasure let's go go go'.
I myself have had some trouble getting and holding on to new players over the years for my own RPG. Most of them who come to me from D&D or similar backgrounds quickly find my style both bewildering and tedious, and rarely show up for two runs in a row.
And I'm not trying to say that they're wrong. Gaming comes in all levels - in all dimensions, I suppose one could say - and if you're happy with what you're doing, then more power to you. But I simply take some exception when I hear people describing some high-powered, 'shoot anything that moves' scenario as 'roleplaying'. Most 'roleplaying games' that I know of seem to be the tabletop gaming equivalent of DOOM. And DOOM, although enormously entertaining, is not three dimensional roleplaying. It has Movement, and it has Background - but it has no Characterization, and without Characterization, it's just a video game.