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The constraints of roleplaying

There’s a couple Dragon Age spoilers ahead, mostly having to deal with the beginning sequence of the city elf character. Nothing in depth though.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been playing quite a bit of the single-player RPG Dragon Age as well as dabble for my first time in tabletop gaming, beginning with the default Dungeons and Dragons. Both of these have been the first serious roleplaying I’ve done outside of WoW in quite a long time. So there was some interesting things I noticed recently.

When playing an RPG like Dragon Age, the focus is primarily on your character and their actions. The world and the events that happen revolve around your decisions. Killing an NPC today will mean that you will never get a quest from them later. Your henchmen have personalities and will warm up to you or scorn you based on what you say and do. I know this is old news but it’s part of my point.

In WoW, on the other hand, the world goes on without you. You are not the hero, the only one that can save the world from whatever evil is going to destroy it. You are one among many other adventurers, being relatively obscure in the big scheme of things. You could have single-handedly defeated the Lich King while wearing your father’s pajamas with both arms tied behind your back…but the next quest giver could still send you out on yet another poop quests. So even if you roleplayed as THE one who killed Arthas, it would all be a bluff. It’s just not allowed within the confines of the WoW universe. If you went back, the bugger would still be standing there, acting as if nothing had ever happened.

However, because the world is not affected by you, you are largely unaffected by the world. Provided you are not bending lore or physics, your character can be whatever you wish it to be. Their background, their personality, even their appearance (because the characters models can only go so far) is at your sole discretion. The only events that they are affected by are the ones you chose them to be. Most of our characters would probably only superficially remember Gerk as just another poor soul who was killed at the hands of the Scourge, whereas his death wrenched Rades’s heart. Just a few days ago, Niqora’s husband Mysthowl passed away for good in Icecrown Citadel along with his adopted sister, Linserai. The world goes on as usual for everyone after that, except for the Bloodriver clan who mourn the loss of their leader and Niqora the loss of husband. This single event will forever change the shape of her personality.

In this way, roleplayers in WoW must interact with each other rather than the world around them. Rades could try to shot Crusader MacKeller full of arrows and Niqora could stand teary-eyed before Cairne, telling him of her loss, but their reactions to us would never change. It were her clanmates Remiska and Barashi that Niqo snapped at when she thought they were treating Myst’s death improperly, and they responded as their characters would. Blizzard may lay the foundation on which our roleplaying is built but it is the other players that make it real. Without them, we might as well be talking to brick walls.

(This is why there’s a debate going over a certain quest chain in the goblin starting area, one where the world defines an aspect of your character for you. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Going back to Dragon Age, because it is a single-player game, the roleplaying must be provided by the game itself. That is why we can be the heroes and why we are given choices during quests and conversations. This provides a different type of freedom, but also a different type of constraint. For one thing, there is no option to NOT be a hero. If someone really wanted to, they could go their entire WoW career never completing a quest or running an instance. It would be rather boring but the option is there to be a slaughterer of everything that moves…simply because. But in Dragon Age, you have to complete the main quest chain or the game never finishes. There is no option to be completely evil and just let the darkspawn consume the world.

In addition, when you make your choices as you go through the game, they are restricted to the ones that Bioware has programmed into there. For example, my character is a female city elf who grew up in poverty and oppression and is being prepared to enter an arranged marriage when a human arl steals her and her friends away to be raped. She ended up killing the arl in the end, but not before her betrothed was murdered in an attempt to save her. This event would be a powerful character shaper normally…yet it is really brought up throughout the plot. No one asks why she still wears the wedding ring that she found on the body of her husband-to-be. One of her companions, Alistair, has professed his love to her but never is there to option for them to muddle their way through her distrust of men that the episode with the arl caused. All she can do is listen and respond a little to her companions’ stories…and while the world around her is very rich and engaging, this leaves my character feeling rather flat.

This brings me to yet another albeit far older type of roleplaying, the tabletop game. It was played with just myself and Kazi, with Kazi being the GM and also having a character to play alongside mine. Here I could be the hero and play out my character’s personality as well as have the world change around me depending on what I did. Perhaps it’s because I’m new to tabletopping but the first time he looked to me to make a decision, I was literally paralyzed with choice. There were no options for me to simply pick from and the background for my character was generic at best because I barely know anything about the D&D universe. He had to make a couple suggestions for what I could do before I was finally able to make a choice. Overall, I did enjoy the gaming session but I realized that here too, there are restrictions. I still have to work within the D&D world, with D&D creatures and D&D classes. So it’s a rather surmounting task when you are really new at the game.

There of course are other type of roleplaying, like message board style which allows as much freedom as the person running it is willing to give you…but there are always rules to follow, as you are interacting with other people and can’t start running the show on a whim.

From what I can see, the only roleplaying (and this is using the word in a looser sense) that is without constraints of any kind is story telling in the form of spoken words or writing. There, the world, the characters, and the plot are all your own creation and never can anyone tell you that you’re breaking the rules. The one downside to it is that any reaction, between you and other players or you and NPCs, is non-existent. The surprise and awe is gone because you already know everything that’s going to happen.

Despite everything I pointed out, I love all of these different kinds of roleplaying for one reason or another. It impossible for me to stick with just one because each fills a particular need that I have for stories. Did I mention that I pretty much live on stories?

Which types of roleplaying do you like if any at all? What do you like and dislike about them? Can anything be done to reduce or get rid of the flaws in any of them? Leave a comment to let me know!

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I prefer D&D myself, just because its a world I enjoy, I know I specifically use Eberron myself and its a blast. Lately though I seem to do a lot of the DMing which means I have very few restrictions. The beautiful thing about D&D with respect to the DM is the golden rule “If a rule and the DM’s decision conflict, the DM is right”. This rule was specifically designed to counter rule mongers, it gives the DM to create the story how ever it be needed for the story he/she is writing.

    Thats just my take on the matter though, very good post though.

    • Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      You make a good point, DMs can counteract any rule. It is still more rule-bound than say a message board, where they have much more ambiguous ones like “no god-modding”. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing because it’s what makes the level playing field for all of the players. I was just pointing out that it is a restriction in terms of roleplaying alone.