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

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    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

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    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.

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    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.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
    I pretty much agree with everything @lewpuls says here.
    Woah!
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    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.
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    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.

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    Fair enough Pem but dnd wasnt just Gygax. And certainly hasnt been in a long time.


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    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.

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    So roleplaying games are about playing a role in a game? Who would have guessed?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
    Fair enough Pem but dnd wasnt just Gygax. And certainly hasnt 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.

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