• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is LIVE! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

D&D 5E On Representation and Roleplaying

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The recent thread on not playing "stupid" characters (and/or "ableism") had me thinking more about the nature of roleplaying in in TTRPGs in general, and in D&D in particular. It happened to intersect with not just my continuing thoughts about The Elusive Shift (great present for the gamer in your life!), but also with some recent press regarding Eddie Redmayne and The Danish Girl and my own personal history regarding roleplaying.


1. Roleplaying or Roleplaying? The Great Debate Never Ends!
Sorry Boss, But There's Only Two Men I Trust. One Of Them's Me. The Other's Not You.

So I've had a few posts about the excellent book The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson (Review, First Post re: RPG Theory, Second Post re: Commercialization of 1e), and one of the primary focuses of the book is the early debates between the "SciFi" crowd (aka, the Roleplayers) and the "Wargamers" (aka, the Rollplayer), with an explosion of popularity at the beginning of the 80s solidifying the "old guard/grognards" (Roleplayers) against the munchkins/powergamers (Rollplayers). This is, of course, a great simplification of the issues presented in the book, and nothing is ever so Manichean or cut & dry, but this debate remained integral to the very nature of D&D. The appeal of the game, for many, was that it allowed the control of someone other than yourself- an instrumentality, and alter ego ... the ability to not just play an adventure game, but to play a role.

Look, I don't want to get too Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters here (or too Tom Hanks in Bosom Bodies... the 80s, everyone!), but this idea of roleplaying was a major part of the appeal of the game for a lot of people. The identification with a character. The exploration of a role. You weren't just controlling a thimble (or whatever they have now) around a Monopoly board, you had an alter ego, with a name, and characteristics, who existed in a separate world, and did cool stuff. To quote Ted "Theodore" Logan, WOAH.

And to be honest, there was a lot of wish-fulfillment going on - especially when you had younger players. Fun fact- IIRC, in 1981, 60% of TSR's sales were to consumers between the age of 10 and 14. So this roleplaying could be something as simple as "Ima get more power, more quickly! I will rule everything, all the time, forever!" Or it could be something only slightly more advanced- maybe someone who was weak (or perceived themselves to be weak) imagining that they were Conan the Barbarian ... or, at a minimum, Kronan- Conan's off-brand half-brother.

Of course, D&D never fully resolved this dilemma, this dichotomy, within its rules or to the satisfaction of the innumerable people who still debate it to this day. Other games would pop up and say, "We are about the roleplaying!" Or, "We will just let you worry about battling giant mechas against each other instead of silly human emotions!" D&D never bothered with that- for all practical purposes, D&D remained both a floor wax and a dessert topping, a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll, always remaining inscrutably inarticulate on the issues.

Perhaps that was for the best- as years went out, CRPGs tended to appeal to people who were all about the reward loop of kill-loot-advance, something they did very well. Meanwhile, you had other communities, both new (LARP, certain cosplay/anime) and old (theater) that would appeal to people who were only about the roleplaying. D&D remained in the middle.


2. Advantages of Roleplaying- from Cops 'n Robbers to Dungeons & Dragons.
People Don't Throw Things At Me Anymore. Maybe Because I Carry A Bow Around.

Roleplaying has advantages that many people are familiar with.
Quick side note - I did a quick check to make sure I wasn't talking out of my posterior on the following issues, but I'm not really interested in a long scientific debate about the merits of roleplaying and playing games, or whether X study showed a mere correlation with empathic involvement etc.

For example, people who are neurodivergent (on the autism spectrum, for example) can find TTRPGs, like D&D, to be helpful and they have been incorporated in many support programs. Those who are queer (LGBTQA+, non-binary, etc.) can use TTRPGs as a relatively safe space to explore issues - in fact, this has had long historical antecedents. While there have been times that the overall community has not been as welcoming as it could (and should) be, many gamers from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and on were able to explore identities that were considered transgressive at that time through "just playing a game" and "just taking a role."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the act of roleplaying, of imgaining yourself as "the other," is the very act that can allow a person to build empathy for "the other." We've all heard the trite expression, "To understand someone, first travel a mile in their shoes." Well, roleplaying requires you, on a regular basis, to imagine yourself as someone else. The act of imagining how this other person feels, how this other person perceives, and (to take it a step farther) how this alter ego is interacting with other alter ego ... that's a continual workout of empathy. Admittedly, you might not always think that from looking at the interactions on RPG forums ... but hey, it's there.


3. Good Roleplaying is Hard.
I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther. I want to be Bob Denver on acid playing the accordion.

Now for a truism- roleplaying ... like, really good roleplaying ... it's hard. Think of some example you've seen. Maybe it's acting in a film. Maybe it's watching Critical Role. And then compare it to what you're doing at your own table- it's not easy! Let's compare it to acting (TTRPG roleplaying isn't acting, but it works for this comparison)-
Speaking in a voice different than yours? Hard! We all imagine that we are Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown, effortlessly maintaining an accent ... but usually we are, at best, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, giving a half-hearted shrug towards an attempt at an accent, and then realizing ... eh, seems effortful to keep trying.
Maintaining consistency with the character? Also very very hard! It can be genuinely difficult to make decisions based on what you think the character would want to do, and not based on the fact that you, the player, really want to gain a level before the pizza arrives.
Having the character grow over time? This is even more difficult that being consistent- imagine you've finally gotten to a consistent characterization .... well, people change. How are you modeling these changes as your character grows over times (other than HELLS NO IM NOT GOING ADVENTURING ANYMORE!).

...and so on. I say this only because most of us, even people that really care about roleplaying, aren't that great. It's sort of like watching a middle school play- the effort might be there, but the execution is often lacking. And ... that's okay! We are amateurs, playing a game, and having a good time (well, hopefully a good time). We should be making mistakes, and exploring characters, and enjoying ourselves.


4. Representation, Stereotypes, and Roleplaying.
The killer's a literature professor. He cuts off little chunks from his victims' bodies until they die. He calls himself "the deconstructionist".

There was a brief blip of news recently about Eddie Redmayne (actor). He admitted that, knowing what he knows now, he would not have taken his (Oscar-nominated) role as Lile Elbe, a transgender character in The Danish Girl. The issues regarding representation and commercial acting are fraught for many reasons- they include questions of appropriation, insult, and a long history of tone-deafness. But while some of these issues involving paid commercial acting jobs and roleplaying in TTRPGs are similar, the overlap is, at best, inexact for a simple reason- jobs and money are involved, not to mention what are often world-wide and public issues of representation broadcast to millions (or billions).

... but that doesn't mean that there are no similar issues. If you've played long enough, you've undoubtedly come across a truly questionable roleplaying choice. Maybe it was questionable in terms of morality (the edgelord evil character). Maybe it was questionable in terms of accents (the Triton named Wu Tang Clam). Maybe it was questionable in terms of a characterization that was more of a stereotype (say, a Samurai that was leaning too heavily into stereotypes about Asian culture, as opposed to genre conventions).

This can be hard to stomach. But before leaping down the throat of someone else at the table, before trying to shame them into changing their choices by labeling them (as opposed to their choice), I would point out the things I wrote above- we are amateurs. Roleplaying is hard. People make mistakes. People's inability to create consistent and nuanced characterizations often causes them to lapse into stereotypes.

Most importantly, tables should be a relatively free place for people to try and explore roleplaying. Someone playing an identity that is different than the one that they have is the entire purpose ... even more, at a minimum it might be building some measure of empathy, and at most it might be someone exploring aspects of themselves that they aren't even comfortable being open about yet. This isn't a demand to withhold reasonable judgment if you see something beyond the pale, so much as a call for greater understanding that this is a hobby that involves amateurs and roleplaying.


5. Conclusion.
Shoot him again... His soul's still dancing.

After all that wishy-washiness, what does it all mean? Well, it means that things are complicated. Not easily reducible. But most importantly, it means the following-

If you see someone making what you believe is a questionable roleplaying characterization, talk to that person. Explain why you think it is questionable (the characterization), listen to what the players say, and offer advice on something they could do instead.

Everyone wants to be a bard- part of the problem. But this is the time to be a part of the solution. If a person at your table is roleplaying in a manner that offends you, (1) ask them why they are making that choice, and if that response doesn't ameliorate your issue, then (2) explain why you are having an issue with that characterization, and (3) offer an alternative way to go forward.

IMO, YMMV, etc.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Nice post, Snarf. I think its equally important to listen to people if you happen to be on the receiving end of one of these RP talks. Folks often have kneejerk reactions that the offended individual is too sensitive or wants to censor them and just ignores everything they say in favor of their own interpretation. I've been there, and I try my best not to be disrespectful of people. Even if I think I have history and Webster on my side. Culture changes, and all people deserve respect and dignity.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
I believe it's impossible to completely avoid being a caricature of something.

At best, you can play yourself and be a caricature of yourself, but a character will never be as nuanced and complete as a real person. That's not because we suck at playing life-like characters, it's because we don't spend a lifetime playing that character, and we don't play all aspect of that character's life. Our characters are constructs of various templates in behaviour, physical appearance, and cultural belonging that we take from art, fiction, movies, people, friends, and family. In short, we all use stereotypes. Yes, even you, dear forum user.

A stereotype is preconceived idea. Judging someone by matching them to a stereotype can be pejorative, diminishing, offensive, or just cliché, but stereotypes are also the building blocks that we use to create our characters. As with everything using building blocks, we can use various degrees of resolution, but we all take certain aspects of our character and emphasize those. We call that roleplaying. Thus our characters are, at least to a certain extent, caricatures that emphasize certain aspects of humankind (not unlike the characters of a novel or in a movie). Note that in this use, the word 'caricature' does not necessarily imply mockery, disrespect, or conveying a (political) message. The point I'm trying to make is that our RPG characters - ALL of our characters - can potentially be mocking or offending someone in their behaviour, traits, or political stance (in which I include racism, ableism, etc).

We can avoid the major pitfalls by educating ourselves, and gain a broader understanding of other people, to avoid voluntary and involuntary offensive behaviour, but we cannot eliminate it all. To a certain extent, we must assume and 'own' these stereotypes, but it all starts with being aware of them. I encourage all sorts of threads about "Be aware that when you play this, it is offensive to these people because of that", but I try to stay out of threads that are like "Don't play this, it makes you that".

As a roleplaying game, exploring a behaviour/gender/orientation/culture/appearance/limitation (etc.) that isn't ours should be encouraged. Being offensive to others should be discouraged. But one shouldn't make the other impossible. I have come to accept that this line between representation and appropriation/offense will vary between cultures, languages, sub-cultures, and even gaming groups, and that's okay and to be expected. Everything can potentially be harmful, but not everything do the same level of harm. When all is done in good faith, people can change, adapt, or keep going with conscious knowledge of what they do. In good faith, we can do all three simultaneously in relative proportions to preserve the dignity of everyone.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Nice post, Snarf. I think its equally important to listen to people if you happen to be on the receiving end of one of these RP talks. Folks often have kneejerk reactions that the offended individual is too sensitive or wants to censor them and just ignores everything they say in favor of their own interpretation. I've been there, and I try my best not to be disrespectful of people. Even if I think I have history and Webster on my side. Culture changes, and all people deserve respect and dignity.

Completely agree.

I was just emphasizing the RPing side- because it can be hard for people to put themselves out there, and we should try to extend compassion and empathy to people that are trying (and might make mistakes).

IME, people that intend to offend & disrespect others aren't very receptive anyway.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Completely agree.

I was just emphasizing the RPing side- because it can be hard for people to put themselves out there, and we should try to extend compassion and empathy to people that are trying (and might make mistakes).

IME, people that intend to offend & disrespect others aren't very receptive anyway.
Sure, there is a public and private face to this. One of the reasons it send some folks into rants is because there isn't quite the divide in culture folks tend to believe there is. Whats happening with Redmayne is about a public facing and representation in the movies. He doesnt think he should do it because folks who live it dont have the opportunities he does, let alone act out something they have lived themselves. This doesn't impact what people do in their private games, but they still feel threatened by this public discussion. Nobody on this site can slap their minis away during their next game session, but they sure feel like they can. Nobody is an island, all im askin is folks be mindful and listen to others before making up their minds. I wont give up on anybody, its just the bard in me.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Sure, there is a public and private face to this. One of the reasons it send some folks into rants is because there isn't quite the divide in culture folks tend to believe there is. Whats happening with Redmayne is about a public facing and representation in the movies. He doesnt think he should do it because folks who live it dont have the opportunities he does, let alone act out something they have lived themselves. This doesn't impact what people do in their private games, but they still feel threatened by this public discussion. Nobody on this site can slap their minis away during their next game session, but they sure feel like they can. Nobody is an island, all im askin is folks be mindful and listen to others before making up their minds. I wont give up on anybody, its just the bard in me.

Agree, but as I alluded to, I think that the issues are so much more fraught with paid actors than with TTRPGs. I was going to write more on this, but it was already getting way too long (as my posts tend to do).

For example- I think Redmayne was correct in what he said.* I also think that he likely felt it was even more necessary for him to say something given his starring role in a certain franchise, and statements made by that franchise's creator.

...but, the issues are so incredibly different. It's the vanilla ice cream problem. People have gotten so used to vanilla ice cream being used in everything, that they just assume it's the default- that you add other flavors to "basic" or "neutral" vanilla ice cream, that you make ice cream treats (like sundaes or banana splits) with vanilla ice cream, because that's the default. Vanilla ice cream can do anything! Except ... vanilla is a flavor. It can't do anything. Sweet "flavorless" ice cream is sweet cream ice cream, not vanilla. And paid acting, for so many years, has been like that - sure, you could get someone "ethnic" to play an idealistic Mexican police officer, or you could just get some vanilla ice cream... um, Charlton Heston.

That's the legacy- that's the issue. That's the problem with representation, with appropriation ... sometimes, just the issue of basic economic fairness and jobs that needs to be understood.**

But the issues involved with Redmayne taking a role as a transgender person are not the same as someone at a table roleplaying, say, a gender-fluid elf.** Obviously, that could be roleplayed in a disrespectful or hurtful manner, but the mere fact of doing so, or exploring this- well, that is the very essence of roleplaying and assuming alter egos.



*Well, of course he was, in the sense of duh, this is what I feel. But I also think he was correct on the larger issue.

**EDIT- I should add here that I hope this isn't a controversial statement. I don't know that there are always correct answers to representation when it comes to even paid acting, but I do think that most people recognize that the issues are more fraught, simply because of the differences in history, in economic value, and in the fact that many of the performances are consumed and internalized by million or billions of people over time.

***I mean, other than playing an elf. C'mon! That's the real issue.
 
Last edited:

ad_hoc

(they/them)
Good post.

I'd like to add that most people don't actually have a problem with the people who do things that are harmful. Most people recognize that this is part of being human, esp. in the culture that most of us have grown up in.

Doing an ableism doesn't mean that the person is ableist. Just like doing a dumb thing doesn't make the person dumb.

Even if someone says 'hey, don't do that thing you're doing, it's not a good thing' doesn't mean they're out to get you. At no point (I hope) in my thread about 'stupid characters' do I say that there are repercussions for doing it. I say 'don't do it' because I don't think people should do it, I don't say 'don't do it or else'.

A few people chimed in with "I can do whatever I want" which is true. No one is coming to take your books away. It's just I would rather you not do some things.

If a person doubles down on it I'm probably not going to want to play with them but there is no attacking going on.*

*That some people see this as a threat and attack says a lot about the lack of oppression and literal attacks they have faced in their lives but that is another conversation entirely.
 

This is one of those topics that could get vastly different replies depending on the average age of posters. Here, with an older-skewing age and so many of us teens in the early days of gaming, the replies will be quite a bit different than on a site where most of the posters are in their 20's and started gaming with 5E or some of the other newer and more inclusive games. but then, this site may be a bit of an anomaly, in that inclusiveness is encouraged and bigots and racists and such tend to get banned.
 


"... but that doesn't mean that there are no similar issues. If you've played long enough, you've undoubtedly come across a truly questionable roleplaying choice. Maybe it was questionable in terms of morality (the edgelord evil character). Maybe it was questionable in terms of accents (the Triton named Wu Tang Clam). Maybe it was questionable in terms of a characterization that was more of a stereotype (say, a Samurai that was leaning too heavily into stereotypes about Asian culture, as opposed to genre conventions)."

put me down as one of the older players and questions for the younger players. In 1986 TSR came out with oriental adventures and Milton Bradley came out with a game called Shogun in 1986. Looking back in history are these considered to be cultural appropriation (like the actor should i be ashamed for playing)

Not sure why the evil character is coming into bad play. Is Ra Salvatores Artemis character type no longer acceptable at roleplaying. If someone at my table says listen im not loving that your a hired killer (5th edition) should i have to change my ways?

Totally agree with the racist/phobic arguments. Theres no place for it ever
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top