The “Good Roleplayer” Doesn’t Exist and Must Die

Today’s guest-post was written by Danish freeform designer Anne Vinkel. It previously appeared in Danish on the Plan B Rollespil. Translation here courtesy of Troels Ken Pedersen.

Four of us sat around a table, and as we weren’t busy roleplaying, we talked about roleplaying. Eventually, I gave my standard rant about why I dislike the concept of “The Good Roleplayer” and want it horribly dead. Peter Fallesen [a Danish designer] incautiously suggested that I blog about it. In other words, you have Peter to blame. Here comes The Rant.

The concept of The Good Roleplayer is fundamentally useless. Roleplaying covers an incredibly wide field, and attempts to define the good roleplayer either end up being wide to the point of vagueness, or they degenerate into one-true-way-ism by giving “good roleplaying” a single interpretation (be it the knack of immersing for twenty hours straight while wearing hand-sewn shoes, the ability to do impro storytelling, the skill of picking just the right feats and winning the hardest encounters, or the capacity to roll a natural twenty when it really counts), insisting that everything else isn’t proper roleplaying.

Talking about The Good Roleplayer becomes like talking about The Good Singer – there are excellent blues singers, opera singers, jazz sopranos and rappers, but I refuse to believe that anyone does all of it brilliantly, and if we want to talk about Good Singing in an interesting way, we need to distinguish between the various types.

I’m also willing to argue that The Good Roleplayer is a harmful concept. The concept of The Good Roleplayer insists that good roleplaying is a personal quality of some person. When you combine this with the fact that Good Roleplaying (™) includes an absurd variety of qualities,[1] we have here the seed of all that is wrong.

During our conversation, Peter Fallesen pointed out one crucial element of this sorry mess: If I know you personally, I know which balls you’ll catch and which you’ll drop during a game. If I don’t know you, then I know that I must be careful about how I throw balls at you because I can’t be sure that you’ll catch them. But if I know, by reputation, that you’re a Good Roleplayer (because everyone says so), I’ll throw balls that I expect a Good Roleplayer to catch, and whether you catch them depends very much on how well my particular idea of The Good Roleplayer applies to you.

Another harmful aspect of the practice of treating good roleplaying as a personal quality: it encourages look-at-me roleplaying. The Good Roleplayer begins to believe that good roleplaying is what she does, rather than as something that she does with others. Showplay and guitar solos follow, which brings down the group, as for the most part it’s boring to watch other people roleplaying.

Most of all, however, The Good Roleplayer is a misleading concept. We should talk less about good roleplayers and more about good roleplaying. Am I splitting hairs here? Probably. But to say “NN is a good roleplayer” is a lousy explanation of why you had a good experience; it reduces the concrete actions that NN took within a unique context (the type of game played, the social milieu of these particular participants and this particular time, etc.) to a personal judgement of NN.  Doing so diverts our attention from the techniques used in play, how they worked and whether they might work in other contexts, and clouds our ability to distinguish what NN did that worked from the stuff that didn’t. It is simply the laziest answer to the question “why was this good?”

After a good roleplaying experience, it’s unbelievably nice and comfy and socially affirming to tell your co-players that they are good roleplayers. But it’s much more interesting to see the good roleplaying experience not as a magical effect of Good Players but as something both greater – being a result of the interactions rather than of the individual player – and lesser, being the result of concrete things done in concrete moments, techniques to be observed, admired, analyzed, and imitated.

[1]: I know sensible people who opine that good roleplaying is to put aside in-character play when it’s time to be tactical and others who will say the exact opposite. So far the people of the former opinion have given me more cookies, but I’m willing to think well of the latter.

Anne Vinkel came to roleplaying through the Danish scenario tradition, and has been playing, organising conventions and writing games for close to 15 years. She’s fairly sure she’s not a Good Roleplayer, but she’s learning.

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10 thoughts on “The “Good Roleplayer” Doesn’t Exist and Must Die

  1. I concur . Wonderfully put succinctly written . It didnt even read like a rant more like a persuasive viewpoint ( which I totally agree with ) .
    Thankyou Anne Vinkel for writing the post and thankyou Lizzie Stark for hosting the post !!

  2. I also feel it has connotations ( I am not certain that is the word I am looking for )? ,
    For other areas of life also . Thanks for sparking further thought on the subject and others .

  3. I’ve never personally run across any events which involve awards for roleplaying in LARPs, but I’ve heard about them through various people in person and online. It’s always struck me as a problematic concept, even though I don’t really know much about the specifics. I think this rant sums up some of the reasons why the notion of an Best Roleplayer in a LARP makes me flinch.

  4. I believe ‘A good roleplayer’ is as simple as this. A good roleplayer is someone you enjoy roleplaying with. Thats it. If you enjoy roleplaying then surely you have a bunch of good roleplayers because you are doing it right. Nothing else matters except for the enjoyment of the group.

  5. I disagree with the post; good roleplay is like good acting. There are many methods of good acting, but most can distinguish good acting from bad acting.

    I’ve seen good roleplay pulled out of really terribly written Larp, just as I’ve seen good acting outshine terribly written theatre. Same goes for poorly produced larp/theatre, and poorly sited larp (theatre always gives you a stage at minimum– well, most of it).

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  7. I think that these standards are going to be local to particular groups, because there’s no consensus beyond groups about the *necessity* for good roleplaying. That is, the question isn’t whether there are good roleplayers, or if good roleplaying exists, but whether it’s important or not to the group in question. I know lots of FLGS run D&D games where roleplaying really doesn’t happen at all, and everybody is copacetic with that.

    So don’t worry if the concept matters so much as worry if it matters for your game today. Is this something you and your group are concerned about? Then I’m sure you can work on it. If not, if you’re OK with just generating meaning through decision-making for your character, or even just fun tactical play or whatever, then don’t sweat it. Just try to be on the same page, so everybody is having fun. If you want “good roleplaying” then discuss with the group what that means so you can come to at least a general consensus on what it means for your game.

    From a global perspective, I don’t mind folks talking about good roleplayers, so long as everybody remembers that what the individual is talking about is their preferences for what they like to see out of players during the game. If you’re posting about that, then maybe it makes sense to use that sort of dialectic instead of using the term “good roleplayer,” yeah.

  8. BTW, this applies to forms of LARP… There’s little to nothing of what folks would call “roleplaying” in National Security Decision Making games, for instance. That’s probably not even a conscious decision on the parts of the designers, but it’s sure how those games play. Call it a cultural artifact of a form of LARP that comes from the an ancient LARP form, Free Kriegspiel.

  9. People who try to impose “their vision” of what roleplaying must be onto a system & setting are pretty much the definition of “bad roleplayer”.

    The definition of a “good roleplayer” is within the term itself. Someone who is good at playing a role.

    What those roles could be, are generally within some sort of mechanical framework (rules).

    While the metrics for how to do them well are within the narrative structures (setting).

    If there’s no rules for wireless hacking AI nodes in the game’s rules… guess how many AI hacking Drone-Commanders will exist in your game? X; where X -> 0.

    Since no achievement can have their merit measured without context; what the players characters can achieve in their roles is only validated when their abilities confront the setting’s content.

    If they can defeat the combat challenges; interact meaningfully with the world with their non-combat abilities; and be able to socially influence NPCs who they meet; then, and only they will players be encouraged to play organic & (externally) plausible characters.

    Of course; the referees and Plot will have a massive influence.

    In general, those which are more prone to rewarding attempts to use their characters abilities within the setting tend to make players make their characters act more organically and plausibly.

    While those who punish attempts to use abilities within the setting; are being taught to not roleplay outside of whatever “is” being permitted.

    Most larps tend to become “Grindhouses” of chained together combat encounters because allowing the players to get benefit out of their non-combat skills is scary to weak Mister Caverns.

    Really; it’s all a MC can do to keep the players from hanging themselves on the rope you give them.

    Ultimately; the problem most people have is that they assume “good roleplaying” == “pretending to be a cool character”.

    Unfortunately, “cool” is a description of how a character appears to do things (e.g. calm, collected, unphased); not what they do.

    It’s just that most people don’t care about portraying an accurate to rules/setting character; and simply want to “roleplay at” the other players. @_@

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