The Most Important Design Aspect of Hobby RPGs Is The Pure Humanoid Avatar
  • The Most Important Design Aspect of Hobby RPGs Is The Pure Humanoid Avatar


    Role-playing has existed for a century, if not longer. Some role-playing exercises (for education or business) are games with active human opposition, others are puzzles. You play a "role" even in Monopoly, and in many other board games, especially wargames ("you are the commander" said Avalon Hill long before "RPGs" existed). Yet most people would agree that hobby RPGs really got going with Dungeons & Dragons.


    So what makes a hobby RPG different from all the "other" role-playing? Human or human-like avatars are the difference. There are three forms of avatar; in hobby RPGs it's the "pure" or "real" form. This is an entity that everything emanates from, the source of all your actions in the game, and if you lose that entity, if "you" die, you lose the game. The avatar is a focus of everything the player does, starting at the avatar, whether swing a sword, talk to somebody, move around, it is all about the avatar. There may have been games before the early 70s that used pure avatars, but none come to mind, and none made avatars famous. (Video games often use pure avatars, but those derive from D&D. Video games owe a LOT to D&D.)

    The second avatar type is that "you" command, but you are not at risk, you may not even be represented by a piece or other asset. Nonetheless the activity emanates from all the assets that you command. In other words, you are a general, or a king, or a CEO. I call this a "virtual avatar," and this is the one used in role-play before the D&D revolution.

    The third meaning is that you have a vague function but not a personage. For example, in long-timescale games like Britannia or computer Civilization, and in some social deduction games such as Resistance.

    In other words, you have three types: the do-er (as in one doing actions) versus the King/general (the one giving the commands) versus the mysterious, omnipotent controller.

    Notice I don't include the usage of "avatar" to describe the little picture we associate with our login/handle in various online communities: "an icon or figure representing a particular person in video games, Internet forums, etc." That's just a picture. I'm talking about function.

    Avatars sometimes have a separate developer- or GM-provided "history" and personality (Mario, Sonic, Conan, Aragorn, etc.). Sometimes an avatar is a blank slate so that the player can more easily infuse his/her own personality into the avatar. But whether the avatar has an extensive backstory, or none, doesn't change the design function.

    Of course, if we were to try defining "hobby RPG", we'd include some mechanism(s) that allow a player's avatar to increase in capabilities, whether through leveling, skill and feat acquisition, loot collection, or something else. A game without this improvement resembles many novels and movies, where the hero is about the same throughout. James Bond, Conan, Indiana Jones, may improve a little from episode to episode, but not consistently, and most other heroes/protagonists even less so. There's rarely anything like a progression from first to tenth level. Loot collection is the most common improvement in novels and movies. Jon Petersen (author of the historical Playing at the World) would add that in RPGs the player can try to do anything, unlike in other kinds of games where there are distinct limits. More about this another time.

    Just as wargames were the hobby of Baby Boomers, video games (and perhaps D&D?) the hobby of Gen X, the game hobby of Millennials is avatar games of all kinds. Which mostly means video games: Skyrim in its first week of release sold $450,000,000 worth, vastly more than the past 10 years of tabletop RPG sales in the USA.

    Did hobby RPGs originate the avatar itself? Not exactly, because many racing games, individual tank fighting games (such as World of Tanks), air fighting games, and others have a non-animate avatar, something other than a humanoid. Even when the pilot is modeled separately, the main action in the game comes from the vehicle. It is the focus entirely on the human (or human-like) character that led to an entire genre of gaming.

    Reference: "A Perspective on Role-Play" by Stephen L. Lortz, Different Worlds magazine #4, Aug/Sept 1979, pp. 26-28.

    ​contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 20 Comments
    1. Benji's Avatar
      Benji -
      I'd suggest that the border between these definitions (especially the first two) is often audience defined though: The players can dictate the level of association between the avatar and the self. My family and friends play Game Of Life as an RPG even though my family don't play RPGs. (To define - it becomes a story a about a group of people moving through life where details of the game are embellished upon. It also has progression into a field of specialisation.)

      If you think about games considered 'old' and 'passe', even in monopoly, someone rarely says 'Oh, my dog is losing'. They say 'I am losing'. That the dog in monopoly despite not even resembling a humanoid, is somehow an avatar of the player is understood - they equate themselves with the figure. The human ability to anthropomorphise any and all things means that quite a lot of things end up as an 'avatar'. I'm not sure it defines a 'hobby rpg'. While I was one holiday this year, we placed ourselves inside a giant lawn version of snakes and ladders. No more realistic avatar could be present. But I'd hesitate to say we were undertaking a hobby rpg activity.

      I understand that perhaps I am misundstanding or moving the goalpost for some games. But I think we have to factor in that a) people don't play games as written and b) that the equation of playing piece and player is often dictated by player-audience. Therefore, perhaps the definition of what constitutes a hobby rpg
      is fluid.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Yes and no though. The Dog in Monopoly isn't representing anything though. Nothing changes about your play if you are the dog or the thimble. An avatar, as it's defined here, isn't just a marker. It has an identity in and of itself, even if that identity is "this is a representation of me". If you change the avatar, you change the game play. Particularly in RPG's where your avatar defines how you interact with the game to a very large degree. Playing D&D as a fighter or a wizard is a very different experience, even though the player may be the same.

      I pretty much agree with everything @lewpuls says here. It's actually a really succinct way to differentiate role playing games from other games. In an RPG, regardless of the medium, your avatar is the primary focus of play. Changing the avatar results in a very different game experience.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I pretty much agree with everything @lewpuls says here.
      Woah!
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      It's actually a really succinct way to differentiate role playing games from other games. In an RPG, regardless of the medium, your avatar is the primary focus of play. Changing the avatar results in a very different game experience.
      While I agree that this is one key element, it's far from the only one.

      It's been a trend in board games for many years to offer a variety of starting factions resulting in different gameplay. It's even made its way into the abstract game genre: this year Santorini was released in a new edition that features dozens of characters from Greek myth. When the game starts, each player is randomly assigned one of them. Each character allows the player to make use of special rules or victory conditions, resulting in completely different matches.

      Another key ingrendient of an RPG is character development. But that's also no longer exclusive to RPGs.

      Imho, the most important aspect of an RPG is that your PC/avatar comes with a set of motivations and character traits. These may or may not be expressed in game mechanical terms, but their effect should be that your decisions are no longer just guided by considerations what would would be the 'optimal' course of action to achieve the set goals. I.e. they should create a conflict between the avatar's personal goals and the game's/story's goals.

      I know of very few board games that attempt to model this kind of conflict. One of them is Android. While it's superficially about solving a murder case, it's really about exploring your character's personality and trying to balance your positive and your negative traits.

      A slightly less ambitious approach was taken in the Innsmouth expansion for the Arkham Horror board game: Each character gets a set of cards describing a personal goal derived from their background story. Now, players have to make a choice of trying to resolve their personal stories (which usually results in a significant mechanical benefit) or ignore them and concentrate on winning the game instead (although that can be dangerous, as failing your personal story comes with strong detrimental game effects).

      Arkham Horror: The Card Game also features this kind of thing by requiring each character to include a personal weakness card and a random weakness card in their decks.

      Imho, all three games clearly transcend the traditional definition of board games and allow for an 'RPG Lite' game experience.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      the most important aspect of an RPG is that your PC/avatar comes with a set of motivations and character traits. These may or may not be expressed in game mechanical terms, but their effect should be that your decisions are no longer just guided by considerations what would would be the 'optimal' course of action to achieve the set goals. I.e. they should create a conflict between the avatar's personal goals and the game's/story's goals.
      I think this is an emergent feature of the original D&D/RPG design. If you look at Gygax's player advice in his AD&D PHB, this aspect of RPGing is not mentioned, and from reading those pages you wouldn't even guess that it might be a factor in play - he only talks about "optimal" play (ie proper prep in terms of gear and spells, how to scout and map the dungeon, how to handle wandering monsters, etc).

      It's not clear how alignment was meant to work in the game: it's there in the rulebook, but those pages of play advice make no reference to it as a significant consideration beyond being a factor in determining the team spirit of characters.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Fair enough Pem but dnd wasnít just Gygax. And certainly hasnít been in a long time.


      Sent from my iPhone using EN World
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Given that I treat D&D as a game, not a story (I have a story in the game, the game doesn't have a story it imposes on me), there is rarely a conflict between my character's motivations and traits and the game. My character is me, though it may be a me that's different from the real-world me (as in, I may be neutral or even, rarely, evil). In early D&D we saw role-playing as putting (an idealization of) ourselves into the game, not as being a stage actor for a character. It was always "I do this", not "my character does this". I know many don't see the game that way.

      But neither point of view changes what I've talked about in the OP.

      Yes, the pure avatar is only one defining feature. Trying to define hobby tabletop RPGs more generally will be coming up sometime.

      Alignment was meant to give the GM a tool to help put the brakes on the tendency of most players to act as thugs (chaotic neutral trending toward evil, in alignment terms). That'll come up in columns sooner or later.
      pemerton

      Originally Posted by Hussar
      I pretty much agree with everything @lewpuls says here.



      Woah!
      Yeah.
    1. kalil's Avatar
      kalil -
      So roleplaying games are about playing a role in a game? Who would have guessed?
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Fair enough Pem but dnd wasnít just Gygax. And certainly hasnít been in a long time.
      True. But I think RPGs are still developing techniques to handle the departure from "skilled" play.

      There's something inherently unstable about a game where a good number of players have motivations, in their play, that are at odds with "good" play.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      /snip

      Yeah.
      Hey, I'm not unreasonable. There are just some things that I'm probably going to push back pretty hard on.

      But, no, I can totally see where @lewpuls is coming from here. It makes a great deal of sense to differentiate role playing games from other games this way since it is a pretty concrete difference. Note, that by role playing games, I'm certainly not excluding board games or other games. There are board games that are pretty much short play RPG's. And certainly video games as well.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      True. But I think RPGs are still developing techniques to handle the departure from "skilled" play.

      There's something inherently unstable about a game where a good number of players have motivations, in their play, that are at odds with "good" play.
      Then again, what constitutes "good" play has changed over time and certainly changes from table to table, so, trying to claim that Gygaxian skilled play is somehow inherent to RPG's is a bit off. It's a function of a particular table, but, that's just a function of that table's preference.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      @Hussar, I take your point, but I stick to mine too.

      I don't think that Gygaxian skilled play is inherent to RPGing. But a lot of RPGing makes use of techniques that probably don't make much sense if skilled play is not the goal.

      Just to give two examples, that aren't meant to be universal in any sense, but illustrative of what I'm getting at:

      * It's very common, on these boards, to read posters who advocate for encounters that are not "winnable" by the PCs, and require eg retreat or avoidance to avoid defeat (which often, in these contexts, equals PC death). What is the point of such encounters in a non-skilled play environment? If the goal of play is, say, to make some point about my character's personality, what is the point of the GM setting up an encounter which - if I try to do that - will result in a swift PC death?

      * D&D uses a lot of scaled maps, detailed range measurements, etc. This is just one of many logistical/tactical elements of the game. What is the point of all this in a non-skilled play environment?
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Alignment was meant to give the GM a tool to help put the brakes on the tendency of most players to act as thugs (chaotic neutral trending toward evil, in alignment terms). That'll come up in columns sooner or later.
      Now, that's going to be interesting. Alignment debates tend to spin out of control rather quickly
    1. prosfilaes's Avatar
      prosfilaes -
      I'd say the real difference is not the humanoid avatar, but the roleplaying of the avatar, the point where the question is not "what is the optimal solution to this problem", but "how would my character approach this problem".
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by prosfilaes View Post
      I'd say the real difference is not the humanoid avatar, but the roleplaying of the avatar, the point where the question is not "what is the optimal solution to this problem", but "how would my character approach this problem".
      To that end, it is is necessary that the character be humanoid, though. You can't roleplay as a hydra (for example), because a hydra's brain is not enough like a human's brain that we would be able to guess what the hydra would do based on any sort of output from our own mental processes. At best, we could guess based on external observations of other large predators.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      * It's very common, on these boards, to read posters who advocate for encounters that are not "winnable" by the PCs, and require eg retreat or avoidance to avoid defeat (which often, in these contexts, equals PC death). What is the point of such encounters in a non-skilled play environment? If the goal of play is, say, to make some point about my character's personality, what is the point of the GM setting up an encounter which - if I try to do that - will result in a swift PC death?
      Why assume that demonstrating personality is the end goal? If the goal of play is simply to find out what happens (based on the character's personality, and all other relevant factors), then the death of a PC is every bit as much of a valid answer as the group running away or somehow overcoming the encounter.
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      * D&D uses a lot of scaled maps, detailed range measurements, etc. This is just one of many logistical/tactical elements of the game. What is the point of all this in a non-skilled play environment?
      Details aid in resolving uncertainty. If we want to find out whether the party makes it to the dungeon, or whether they get lost along the way and succumb to the environment, then a scaled map of the region helps us to figure that out. Without those details, success or failure would be left to arbitration and abstraction. (Not that there's anything wrong with abstraction, in this case - you could also solve the question by simply making a skill check - but the point is to avoid having the DM decide important things arbitrarily.) Likewise in combat, a detailed map of cuts down on arbitration, since everyone can see how many goblins are within the area of a fireball (or whatever).
    1. prosfilaes's Avatar
      prosfilaes -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      To that end, it is is necessary that the character be humanoid, though. You can't roleplay as a hydra (for example), because a hydra's brain is not enough like a human's brain that we would be able to guess what the hydra would do based on any sort of output from our own mental processes. At best, we could guess based on external observations of other large predators.
      Meh. You think we can realistically roleplay as an elf that has a century behind them, that lives in a world without science but with arcane magic and the active influence of the gods, a world with objective good and evil? Or a werewolf metis who grow up knowing about a fatalistic fight against the Wyrm? Even understanding what your Call of Cthulhu character who grew up a century ago would do can be hard, unless you have a history degree. Someone could play a hydra, and it would be no worse than any other PC.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      Why assume that demonstrating personality is the end goal?
      I don't understand. I posited that, if that is the goal, then a certain fairly commonly-advocated approach to play makes no sense. Which tends to suggest that either those advocates are confused, or that Gyagxian skilled play is more important to them than @Hussar suggested in the post to which I replied.

      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      If the goal of play is simply to find out what happens (based on the character's personality, and all other relevant factors), then the death of a PC is every bit as much of a valid answer as the group running away or somehow overcoming the encounter.
      I don't think the goal for those advocates is to "find out" that (say) bold PCs die. The goal is fairly clearly to discourage players from playing bold PCs; that is, to encourage players to adopt the sort of cautious approach that is typical of Gygaxian skilled play.

      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      Details aid in resolving uncertainty. If we want to find out whether the party makes it to the dungeon, or whether they get lost along the way and succumb to the environment, then a scaled map of the region helps us to figure that out. Without those details, success or failure would be left to arbitration and abstraction. (Not that there's anything wrong with abstraction, in this case - you could also solve the question by simply making a skill check - but the point is to avoid having the DM decide important things arbitrarily.) Likewise in combat, a detailed map of cuts down on arbitration, since everyone can see how many goblins are within the area of a fireball (or whatever).
      There's any number of ways of managing all this stuff without maps.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I don't understand. I posited that, if that is the goal, then a certain fairly commonly-advocated approach to play makes no sense. Which tends to suggest that either those advocates are confused, or that Gyagxian skilled play is more important to them than @Hussar suggested in the post to which I replied.
      Sorry about that. I was apparently missing the context, in the absence of a direct quote. I think I'm agreeing with you, here, that such a goal is inconsistent with such a playstyle.
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I don't think the goal for those advocates is to "find out" that (say) bold PCs die. The goal is fairly clearly to discourage players from playing bold PCs; that is, to encourage players to adopt the sort of cautious approach that is typical of Gygaxian skilled play.
      Those goals aren't entirely inconsistent. Both goals are consistent with a true motive of encouraging everyone to treat the world like a real place, rather than as a story or board game. The type of cautious approach which is typical of Gygaxian skilled play might also be typical of role-playing a dangerous world where adventurers have to use their judgment because they have no guarantees that they can possibly overcome every challenge - if they live in a world where bold adventurers are likely to die.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Yeah, I'm not really convinced that we must play humanoid avatars in order to properly role play. I've played far too many SF games to think that's true. While D&D is rooted in the idea that your PC will (most likely anyway) be pretty close to humanoid, even within that general outline, there's a huge amount of variance.

      As @prosfilaes says, the idea that it's somehow easier to role play a century old elf, or a millennia old vampire than a hydra isn't really borne out in play. I remember a neat anecdote in Dragon years ago talking about how the writer played a Darkmantle PC with a 2 Int. He would only speak in two word sentences. "Door?" "Not door." That sort of thing.

      The whole point of roleplay is to make the attempt to place yourself in that persona and try to make it as believable as possible.
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