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Geek Word Wednesdays: The Definition of Roleplaying

Welcome to Geek Word Wednesdays, where we feature common terms relevant to geeks everywhere; and explore a more critical discussion on geek identity, culture, and discourse. If you have a word you’d like us to study, let us know!

This particular entry was made in celebration of #RPGSEA 2017. Roleplayers from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore are coming together to share articles that put us on the map of the tabletop RPG scene. We’re loud, we’re proud, and we’re out to spread the love for our hobby. Tabletop roleplaying games are for everyone!

Tabletop roleplaying and roleplaying games are two of the most difficult geek things to define.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dungeons & Dragons might be the most common thing that comes to mind when people think tabletop RPGs, but every month brings a whole new set of systems that consistently push the bill on roleplaying and roleplay.

If defining games and gaming isn’t hard enough (and those are two words we’ll get to on this column); what more if you have to add the spontaneity and narrative thrust of tabletop into the equation?

What might be surprising is that scholars are having as difficult time as we are in figuring out how to define roleplay. Perhaps there’s no point in finding a universal definition. The best way to define roleplay and RPGs is to find the definition(s) that best suits the system and/or medium in question.

Rulebooks - definition roleplaying
Photo by Bianca Canoza.


Let’s consider Psychology.

Strategy employed in interpersonal interaction education and psychoanalysis wherein individuals carry out a variety of interpersonal roles in emotional scenarios. Initially refined in psychodrama, has become commonly used in industrialized, academic, and laboratory environments for the functions of preparing personnel to manage sales issues, trying out diverse behaviors and interactions in group and family psychoanalysis, and rehearsing alternative ways of dealing with challenges or disputes.

What is ROLE PLAY? definition of ROLE PLAY (Psychology Dictionary)

This is one good way to introduce folks to the concept of roleplaying and roleplay.

For one, “role play” is a formal term within the field of psychological studies. It is also a technique that counselors use.

The act of roleplaying involves an extended session of “make believe”.

As players and DMs, we slip into “roles”. We change our identities to suit a world that we build together through descriptions and actions. Pscyhologists use role play to immerse individuals in situations that could help them process experiences. Tabletop RPers roleplay for the hell of it.

That said, insisting that tabletop RPGs are “just” for fun may be shortchanging its potential.

In 2011, a writer of Psychology Today took a brief look at D&D and how it could ease adolescent anxiety. BBC and Killscreen both wrote features on Wheelhouse Workshop, a Seattle-based therapy group that uses D&D as therapy.

Players and GMs inevitably put a piece of themselves in the characters they create and the worlds they build together. The space of the table has the potential to offer a safe space. Here, players can confront – and sometimes kill – their demons. On a lighter note, it could also simply be a space where we can live out our wildest dreams.


We can also look at Theater and Performance Studies.

Role-playing is most similar to improv in that players enact spontaneous, unscripted roles, but for longer periods of time in a persistent fictional world. Additionally, role-playing involves a first-person audience rather than external viewership, meaning that the other role-players are the only audience members and are also immersed in their roles.2 Ultimately, we can consider these forms as cousins. Daniel MacKay suggests that scholars view role-playing games as a new, unique form of performance art, offering a detailed description of their aesthetics within this framework.3 Similarly, Jaakko Stenros and Jamie MacDonald have developed an aesthetics of action in order to describe the formal elements of the role-playing experience from the perspective of art and performance theory.4 Regardless of these distinctions, many similarities exist between these phenomenological states, as explored in the following sections.

– Sarah Lynne Bowman, PhD: “Connecting Role-playing, Stage Acting, and Improvisation”

Play is “imitating an action and escaping from the everyday”.

Actors on stage are trained in theatrical habitus, having interiorized a set of rules of behavior that define how they perform. Professional acting involves a number of methods, techniques and disciplines that are considered “proper” by the conventions of theater. This is further informed by the particular demands of the dramatic script at hand. The text, then, governs the fixed space of the theater, and the bodies on stage. The performance mode of improvisation and the idea of play within the context of a game, however, can almost be positioned as the antithesis to acting.

Improvisational theater is a form of stage performance where the actors – or rather, the improvisers – use a variety of techniques.

These techniques allow them to perform spontaneously. The absence of a script means that the burden of establishing the parameters and action of any one scene falls upon the actors. Every spoken word or performed action becomes an “offer”, which defines an element of the scene at hand. Other members of the acting troupe on stage at that moment are expected to respond accordingly. This propels the scene forward in an act of co-creation. And the members of the group are responsible for both producing the dramatic text and bringing it to life on stage; rather than embodying a dramatic situation that has been provided by a figure outside of the actors.

Essentially, roleplayers can be viewed as actors.

Their tabletop game is a “play” in several acts. We perform together to make the story interesting. We adjust our styles and our scripts to the dramatic situations at hand.

Of course, this definition also has its limits.

“Role-play is something very different from theatre. The play happens for the sake of the players, rather than the spectators. To observe without participating provides considerably less than observing a drama performed on a stage. To observe traditional theatre as a member of the audience means to study it from the angle from which it is supposed to be viewed. But analyzing a role-play game from the position of a spectator permits, at best, description of the event without understanding. It becomes very difficult to know what the player’s words and actions entail.”

– Torill Mortensen, “Playing With Players: Potential Methodologies For MUDS”

We are, in this way, our own audience. It always feels good to be told that you’re a “good” person to be at the table with. And a significant part of being considered “good” means acting your part as imaginary character and actual player well.

Guest Cat - Definition of Roleplaying
And sometimes we have guests.


Roleplaying & Gaming.

“It’s impossible to indicate a “winner” of a session of role-play. The loser of a conflict can easily be the better player. The player who has won the hand of the princess feels that he has won. Yet the player who has not won the princess’s hand does not necessarily feel he has lost. He does not have to role-play happiness and satisfaction, and can, instead, put into play a wide range of emotions and motives: jealousy, envy, a shattered self-esteem, self-sacrifice, all of which are good motives for new events and more excitement. “Happy-ever-after” or a peaceful reign, general satisfied desire, is rarely a good background for dramatic conflict and interesting new game-situations.”

– Torill Mortensen, “Playing With Players: Potential Methodologies For MUDS”

The relationship between playing and gaming is complicated.

In his paper “Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications”, Bo Kampmann Walther says that there are important ontological and epistemological differences. Play is “an open-ended territory in which make-believe and world-building are crucial factors”. Games are “confined areas that challenge the interpretation and optimizing of rules and tactics – not to mention time and space”.

Not all tabletop RPGs are collaborative, nor do they have to be.

Many players get a kick out of competitive gaming. Which then turns their sessions into live-action simulations that share much in common with competitive video games. Other players shy away from this sort of setup. They prefer to work towards keeping every player character alive and happy. Still others are more than willing to sacrifice their characters for “the greater good” of building a wonderful story. The truly “gamified” aspect of roleplaying games lies in the systems that the players and GM(s) of a particular table agree to adhere to.

The traditional arbiter in tabletop roleplaying was the use of dice.

Through a healthy mix of luck and mathematics, dice rolls are great at instilling a sense of fairness. They can also keep things exciting.

It isn’t infallible. Dice rolls can be cheated. The dice themselves can be modified to roll a particular way. Nevertheless, as a general rule of thumb, it works.

Dormans puts things extremely well in his paper:

“For many narrative games the rules and game mechanics should remain what they are: an interface into the gaming world. Mastering the rules can help speed up the game and make one’s play more efficient. In this case, the objective of the game is to immerse oneself into its virtual world. If the rules become too complicated, too cumbersome or if dice rolling becomes a goal in itself the game might change from a roleplaying game into a “roll-playing” game, as a friend of mine put it once.

Dice rolling does, however, remain an important aspect of pen-and-paper roleplaying, not because they introduce an element of chance, but because they ideally introduce an element of chance under the control of the player. Good play should be rewarded by an improved chance of success. Hence, these rules contribute to a feeling that the players themselves will have to defeat their opponents, survive devious traps, or track through the mountains. At least they made strategic choices that enhanced their chances, and they have picked up those dice and did what had to be done.

– Joris Dormans, “On the Role of the Die: A Brief Ludologic Study of Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Games and Their Rules”

Dice - definition roleplaying
The dice pictured here are Fate dice, specific to the system.

This may be one way that a player in an RPG can “win”. The “winner” is the one who manages, through rolls and stats, to overcome challenges in the game.

Personal agency is important to any player.

Few things can match the thrill of seeing how one’s decisions affect the flow of the story. Furthermore, tabletop RPGs can leave a healthy space for changing everything about the game – including its rules – through negotiation. Players and GMs alike familiarize themselves with the mechanics of the system. They then leave some aspects of their campaigns to the roll of the dice, and discuss the rest with each other.

“In a non-digital roleplaying game there is at least the opportunity for flexibility with (typically) a game master who can choose which rules to use when and whether the results of those rules are to be applied unaltered or moderated in some form. More subjectively there may be argument about whether the play of a given game involves actual “role-playing” or not.”

–Michael Hitchens & Anders Draken, “The Many Faces of Role-playing Games”

Overall, it does seem like there’s no real “winner” in tabletop sessions.

At least not in the same sense that one might get in other forms of gaming. All members of the table tailor the system of challenges and rewards of their game at the table, in real time.

The most “successful” groups are tables who cooperate on an OOC level. They agree on the level of interpretation when it comes to the rules, and adjust their expectations for the game accordingly.


Roleplaying Beyond the Table.


MMORPGs always have communities of players that include roleplaying in their gaming experience.

Most players are in it for the achievements and goalposts determined by the game in question. The RPers, on the other hand, make it a point to interact with the world and other players as though their characters have distinct personalities. Their avatars, then, cease to be avatars in a traditional sense. They become citizens of the fantasy world created by the game.

RPing in Forums & PBEMs

Forum-based and play-by-email (PBEM) roleplaying games were narrative-based RPGs; where character interactions and collaborative storytelling took precedence over everything else. The “rules” set about by each game space were rarely ever rules in a tabletop RPG sense.

Characters did not often have numerical stats, nor did players roll dice. There were, of course, Forum-based and PBEM games that were simply online ports of tabletop campaigns, in order to allow players to enjoy things like D&D and World of Darkness across wide distances.

Blog-based RP

Two of the most popular venues for blog-based RPGs are Livejournal and Dreamwidth. These communities have their own distinct “culture” and general guidelines for proper behavior as players.

Definitive statistics on LJRP/DWRP is difficult to come by due to their very nature. But there have been some admirable attempts at studying the community. Thus far, the findings point towards a much larger preference on character interaction than forum-based and PBEM RPGs. RPers from LJ and DW also rarely have any experience with tabletop RPing.

DWRP - Definition Roleplaying
Here you’ve got two players having their characters interact. Charactera have their own journals whose usernames often reflect the character in question. Icons potentially serve as guides to other players on what the characters look like or the looks on their faces. The change in text seems to reflect a common practice in DWRP: using typefaces to determine if the interaction is “online/over SMS” in the game or not.
Furthermore, many LJRP/DWRP is largely GM-less. Games on these platforms have moderators who create their own worlds for players to play in and monitor activities; but don’t participate to the same capacity as a GM at a tabletop gaming session would.

There’s also a very real connection between LJRP/DWRP and fandom.

Most of these players prefer to RP characters from other texts rather than create their own. Moderators tend to create games based off of other stories. This is often in an attempt to explore a narrative’s possibilities outside of the bounds of the original texts.

Last but definitely not the least, a huge segment of LJRP/DWRP deals in writing erotica. Many players “ship” their characters with each other. They play out their favorite ships in memes, “museboxes”, and games set up by moderators.


Want to do some scholarly reading on roleplay and roleplaying games?

The discussion here is, in no way, comprehensive. There’s a LOT to cover, and many people have weighed in on roleplaying. The best part is, some of the nicest readings are up for free!

You might want to check out open-source academic journals like Game Studies and the International Journal of Role-playing! Another good source is the blog Analog Games.

Some players and GMs have also attempted to marry their craft in theater, psychology, and otherwise with their gaming. If you’re interested in a great example of this, check out this article.

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Female, bisexual, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What's a Geek, over at!

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