When talking about mechanics v roleplay in character actions and interactions there are a lot of people who argue for the sanctity of a player’s choice with regards to their characters. Some go so far as to say that any dice rolls used on non-physical actions are an imposition on the player’s rights. Generally, there is an argument that use of dice precludes role-playing. I would be willing to grant that some variation on this is even a view of the majority of roleplayers.
I don’t understand it.
I look at characters as a composite. Something like the Freudian Id, Superego, and Ego. Except that instead of having a base creature, ideal creature, and the mediator you have the Player, the Rules, and the Result. We all accept this when it comes to "physical" actions in roleplaying;
I want to hit the ogre with my sword says the Player, roll to hit v the ogre's AC says the Rules, and the Result is what everyone accepts as existing within the "reality" of the game.
I want to jump the pit says the Player, roll Body says the Rules, and the Result is what everyone accepts as existing within the “reality” of the game.
Even with some social interactions this works;
I want to seduce that woman in the bar says the Player, roll Presence + Socialize vs her Composure + Empathy to get her attention says the Rules, and the Result is what you work forward from.
But where people start getting skittish is when the character in the bar wants to pick you up. “I have final authority on what my character does,” being the typical cry.
Why? Why does the Player suddenly get final, arbitrary, unilateral authority in this area? Why is his defense against a seduction attempt, or an attempt at provocation, or an attempt at persuasion so much more sacrosanct than his defense against a sword? It’s not like there aren’t stats on practically any character sheet to tell you exactly how good the character is at resisting this sort of thing. Frequently stats that have been ignored or deemed irrelevant by the player claiming it imposes upon their right to steer their character as they see fit. This is the first place that most people get pissed at me; I think it’s a form of powergaming. Who, when they played AD&D, never heard the phrase, “unless you want to play a Paladin just use Charisma as your ditch stat- it’ll never be used?” I’ve played a lot (lot LOT) of LARPS where social and mental traits were simply ignored unless you built a character that ran on them, then a player who used them as dump stats would use his own abilities to cover. I’ve been in a few tabletop games where people did the same. I hope we can all agree that’s bad roleplaying.
Even when that isn’t the case, it’s a call to cut off one of the three major types of conflicts in stories; Man vs Other, Man vs Nature, and Man vs SELF. People aren’t monolithic in their intent and desire. We’re conflicted and constantly weighing options, risks, and benefits. there’s a reason that we have words like regret and guilt. I’m not saying that every decision must be rolled for. “I want to walk across the room” isn’t generally a conflicted statement ether externally or internally. “I want to walk across the room knowing it’s got traps I may not be able to survive” has some conflict, but we can probably ignore it in the face of heroism and interesting action. “I want to keep my cool in front of the court even though a noble is trying to provoke me so I disgrace myself and my companions and possibly lose support necessary to our cause,” is a situation with very direct conflict. A situation with as much, or more, riding on it than any fight. We don’t use rules and dice because we can’t tell a story without them. We use dice because it’s what separates what we do from kids arguing “bang, you’re dead,” “no I’m not.” The things that irritate me wouldn’t necessarily phase my character, and visa versa.
Simply deciding what your character will do doesn’t show how brave, virtuous, or strong willed your character is any more than the people who simply sit down and build an umpteenth level character sheet have a character. A role-playing character exists the intersection of the rules and their personality. A good roleplayer may be able to breathe life into that character sheet within moments, but it takes great roleplayer to admit to you when events overwhelm the character at a time when the player doesn’t want them to. Everyone wants to think of themselves as that “great roleplayer.” Statistically, most of us aren’t. Most of us need a handrail; we have to watch our hitpoints dwindle until our characters fall over.
It sucks when a character dies. It sucks a little less when a character isn’t dead, but is laying there, unable to help themselves, entirely at the mercy of whoever is around with only moments to live. But that’s also when some of the best roleplaying happens. Something has occurred which utterly removes control of a character... and everyone suddenly focuses. Do or die. Even the player without a character should be riveted to the action if play is flowing; will his companions save him in time? Even the littlest things become obstacles, and well used rolls don’t break up that flow so much as add tension to it.
But we don’t want or need that handrail for social interactions? We’re all good enough roleplayers to know not only what our characters want how far they think they’d go to get it but also when they’d fail? Maybe it’s not that we don’t know so much as we don’t value failure enough. After all, aren’t the heroes supposed to win? They’re supposed to win in the end, sure enough. After striving, stumbling, and knowing that they can fail. Characters who never falter become boring and thin. Personalities become replaced by cardboard cutouts striding towards the next door in the dungeon with little thought that the princess might be in another castle, or no castle at all. Or they waste away until they’re named Mary Sue.
I’m sure it’s a different way of roleplaying then a lot of people are used to, and it requires trust. Trust in your game master or trust in the gaming system. Believe me, I’ve played some of the old systems and I’ve played under “me v you” DMs... but you only need one. A good system allows the GM to push the envelope, push the players and their characters. A good GM finds ways to challenge the characters and let the players tell a story even as the system’s support of what they’re doing erodes. Neither have to be excellent, just good enough.
And that, I guess, is my point; this can be an interesting area to play in, but only with drama. The risk of failure and loss. The demands on the player to create drama in these situations is lowered with the use of mechanics, and the demands on both system and GM aren’t extraordinary.