(Almost) All Games Can Benefit From a Role-Play Attitude

From a young age, I always played as myself in any games (video games or board games) I played. I’d create a character that often looked nothing like me in some of them, only to then make all decisions as if it were me making them. Either that, or I’d be making the decision that I felt would put me in the best position for succeeding in the game. It’s not until relatively recently that I realised that I was missing a very enjoyable facet of most of these games, and in some cases more or less completely missing the point of the game.

I’m talking here about role-play. More specifically, putting yourself in the shoes of a fictional character and considering their motivations, flaws and experience in the decisions that you make, rather than considering your own. It means sometimes making bad decisions because that’s what your character would do in that situation (or even just because it might be funny or interesting), rather than what’s most likely to make you succeed.

I think that generally, games tend to fall roughly on a triangle, where the bottom of the diagram represents mechanics-focused games and the top represents story-focused games. The top is a spectrum between prescribed storytelling and more free-form role-play style storytelling. I’ve tried to make this diagram and position some games on it to try and demonstrate what I am talking about:

I think most games boil down to more or less the following categories:

  • Pure Mechanical (Blue): Pure mechanical or abstract games that forsake story for focus on mechanics.
  • Thinly Themed Mechanical (Yellow): There’s a loose theme to provide some context to your actions, but it isn’t the focus and generally won’t affect your decisions.
  • Strongly Themed Mechanical (Green): The main story is prescribed, but there is room for role play and more story-impacting decisions
  • Structured Role-play (Purple): There is some loose structure to the story and some prompts or mechanics but the story is mostly down to you.
  • Structured Storytelling (Red): You make some decisions and have control, but this doesn’t really affect the overall story.

All this is really just context for what I want to say though, which is that I think that a lot of games can be improved by playing them with a more role-play type mindset. I think this is most powerful for the games in the “Strongly Themed” category above, since for these ones it’s easiest to fall into the trap of playing them as purely mechanical games and missing out on a whole avenue of enjoyment.

Benefits of Role-Play

The key point I think is that role-playing makes a game enjoyable regardless of whether you are winning or losing. If your character fails to accomplish something, rather than being frustrating it can be hilarious. While still getting to share in your character’s successes, you get to enjoy their failures as well. I think that the reason for this is that role-playing games seem more focused on the experience itself, rather than whether you are winning or losing. Both successes and failures are contributing to the experience and the story, whereas failures in an abstract game definitely don’t contribute to winning.

A consequence of both successes and failures being “successes” in the context of contributing to the experience means that you are granted freedom from having to take the optimal decisions. In fact, you can take bad decisions on purpose because it makes the story more interesting or just to see what will happen. You can play an evil character, or even a completely incompetent character even if you know they won’t win, just because it will be fun to see them interact with others and the game. It even means the game can be unbalanced or unfair and still fun.

Applying a Role-Play Mindset

So, when it comes to games that fall in that “Strongly Themed” category, we can benefit from these traits by simply approaching the game with a role-play mindset. A game like Betrayal on the House on the Hill can be totally unfair against one player in the group, but by treating it as a role-playing game rather than focusing entirely on the mechanics you can enjoy the story woven throughout the course of the game even if you aren’t winning. By approaching a cooperative game like Pandemic or Zombicide as a story-telling experience rather than a win-or-lose, it makes a loss feel less like a waste of time.

Even the games outside of that category can benefit somewhat from this mindset. Story-focused but less decision-oriented games like Tacoma or Hellblade mean that you have less control over the experience but it can still be a fun exercise to try and act as you would believe the character would. Even though these games limit decisions, there’s usually still some room to role-play on occasion.

Abstract games or thinly themed games have less enjoyment to be gained from the storytelling experience, but approaching them with more of an experimental/exploratory attitude than an attitude simply to win can still be liberating. Rather than stressing over making the optimal move at every stage, it can be fun (and educational) to experiment with the mechanics instead. In a game like Dominion, while there’s not much of a theme to latch on to there’s still plenty of room for experimentation and creative expression with strategy. Picking a crazy strategy and following it through can be fun even if it doesn’t work out. And of course, hilarious or impressive if it does work out.

(Almost)

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everything. I don’t think a game of Scrabble or Codenames would be much helped by taking a more experimental attitude. The game needs to have a complex enough system at it’s core that is fun to play with beyond the act of trying to win the game itself. Similarly, most party games or dexterity games (Jenga for instance) don’t really fall anywhere on the chart so wouldn’t benefit much from this mindset. Of course, something like Jenga doesn’t need much help making failures enjoyable!