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A Response to Gavranovic's "Roleplaying vs Acting"
by Shane McKenzie ©2001
21st Janaury 2001
It is 1 am, I have just returned home from a play-test for Arcanacon 2001, cannot sleep and I have stumbled across Altin Gavranovic's article. As both an experienced role-player of over fifteen years and an ex-theatre worker, some of his comments have left me dismayed at the narrow-mindedness of his depiction of acceptable role-playing.
The opening paragraph to this article ("Roleplaying is not drama. I cannot stress this enough."), I feel reflects more accurately Gavranovic's personal dislike for some of his role-playing experiences, rather than an accurate statement of acceptable or even good role-playing. The contention of his article is that role-players should not "act" or otherwise engage themselves in, or become attached to their characters, in case something bad happens to the character,1 because the player's response might upset the player or others.
Gavranovic writes, "The fundamental difference between the two activities [acting and role-playing] is that a role-player remains an independent, and dominant, entity from his character even when he is most involved." This statement perhaps reflects Gavranovic's stylistic preference as a game-master (GM), however it need not define the only acceptable roleplaying experience. Indeed, many players enjoy not being in control when a good GM takes their characters on a wild adventure? How many people enjoy Call of Cthulu for the sheer terror of immersing themselves in the horror of "Sanity Loss"? Acting in roleplaying can also be done as Gavranovic describes, without the player relinquishing control or being passive. Acting is not a dirty word.
In a number of ways, acting and role-playing can be the same thing. The reader is referred to the Macquarie Dictionary definitions of "act" (n. 15 to pretend) and "acting" (n. 3 provided with stage directions; designed to be used for performance). Ian Livingstone wrote in Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games that "A role-playing game (RPG) is a sophisticated form of make believe in which each player creates a game persona, and verbally acts out the part of that persona in a specially designed game-world controlled by a referee" (p. 5).2 Then again we have "roll-playing", the term used, often derogatively, to describe gaming that depends entirely upon the roll of the dice to determine the action, making the player a passive rather than an active participant in the scenario. The main difference between role-playing and acting in the traditional sense is that the latter involves physically getting on stage and "acting out" rehearsed lines and movement. This rarely occurs realistically in role-playing, even in freeforms or multiforms where players do walk around.
The style of acting to which Gavranovic refers negatively in his article is that of method acting, as taught originally by Stanislavski. Indeed, this form of acting promotes the intense submersion in action and emotion, to help the actor portray the role. While method acting is recognised as challenging and thus laudable, this is by no means the only way that either actors3 (or roleplayers) act. Gavranovic accedes that role-players 'act' as "this makes the activity more engrossing and fun for them". So, what then is his basis for arguing that role-players should not 'act' in this way?
Gavranovic first attempts to discredit "method role-playing" (for lack of a better term) by arguing that it leads to "blocking". This term refers to the situation when a character (or an actor in improvisation) rejects a suggestion by another person, thus breaking the "suspension of disbelief" of the game. An example would be when one player says "This is a beautiful flower", to which another replies, "No, it isn't."
However, Gavranovic's example is not actually an illustration of blocking. Here, the character responds in-character to his defeat and subsequent healing by a "sissy" mage, by becoming bitter, aggressive to other characters4 and perhaps refusing to fight in the future. What is actually happening here is that the player controls the character and offers the other players and GM a character-twist with which to interact and respond creatively. Doing so will often solve the "out-of-character" sulking of which Gavranovic complains; if there is any. If it does not, then the matter may need to be resolved out-of-character.
Unfortunately, the second example is no more a strong argument for discouraging acting in role-playing, although it does illustrate the ultimate in blocking. How can GMs deal with players who use their characters to attack other characters in a party, whether in or out-of-character? (In fact, this happened tonight, and the GM did not address the situation to allow the module to continue smoothly). As always, the GM has final say. They may 'fudge' the reality of the situation, and indeed call attention out-of-character to the inappropriateness of the action. Most importantly, the GM should be able to suggest a more appropriate or alternate way of dealing with the situation.
Gavranovic's third argument is distressing. Here the player could not get into the supposed "Roleplaying mind set", supposedly requiring his character to perform actions he did not wish, and so he left the group. Gavranovic states that he had a clear purpose for this encounter, however the players had other ideas. Unfortunately, this reflects the inability of the GM to work productively with uncooperative players or characters, rather than a failure on the part of the players. Remember the adage, "No game survives first contact with the players".
Gavranovic then turns to the issue of why role-playing is becoming less popular and not attracting as many new gamers. On these points, I agree to some extent, so I will not belabour them. Additionally, one might accuse the software games industry for creating games that keep kids in their bedrooms, alone. However, the increasing number of role-playing organisations and conventions in Australia belie the claim that there is a receding effort to assimilate [pardon, …encourage] new role-players.
While I caution the reader who accepts Gavranovic's version of role-playing as verite, his article highlights two important lessons that role-players and GMs should learn. First, is that all players are different and have different needs. Some players will sit quietly and the storms of imagination will be locked in their heads; others will talk mostly in terms of actions ("I do this and then that"); again others will deliver speeches that capture the moment; still again, others will be unable to sit still and will leap aloft the table or prefer to wander in freeform. Some will appear as "roll-players", others as actors. In the interest of promoting the hobby of role-playing, these diverse needs must be respected.
Second, Gavranovic has highlighted that to GM well is a skill that is learned, often through experience and often in hindsight. One requires astute observation, imagination, preparation, patience, and at times a degree in pop-psychology. Most of all one requires an open mind.
Shane McKenzie tutors in the Departments of Criminology and Information Systems, University of Melbourne, and just walked away from Arcanacon 2001 with an armful of role-playing awards. Go figure.