Role-playing vs Roll-playing

Well hello there!  It's been a while.  I'm feeling the urge once again to exposit on things, so here we are.  I don't know that I'll be keeping a regular schedule or anything, but I'm gonna write some stuff in any case.

I've been thinking about a number of things revolving around protagonists in games and otherwise and their characterizations.  In trying to find a good place to start in discussing them, I hit upon the age-old tension between role-players and non role-players.  Most of what I want to talk about in the near future ultimately relates back to that divide.

Pretty much as long as games where one plays a character have existed, there's been a divide between those who view that character as a role to be played, as an actor would, and those who view the character as a collection of statistics to be used as a direct avatar of the player (the 'roll-player').  A role-player will develop an internally consistent characterization and make decisions based on that, where a roll-player will base her decisions on what best increases their character's power.  It's easy to see where the conflict can arise; a role-player may make decisions that result in increased difficulty because doing otherwise wouldn't be consistent with the character they've created.  A roll-player may focus on what improves their capabilities, even if the resulting character behavior is wildly inconsistent.

In a tabletop game the gamemaster can step in to defuse a lot of this tension.  He can provide opportunities for the role-player to play their character while still giving the roll-player ways to improve their capabilities.  In video games this becomes more difficult.  The goals of a role-player are difficult to assign numerical values to, so they tend to be secondary to the main game.  Particularly in MMOs, character development becomes a purely numerical affair where the 'correct' choices and the best gear can be determined mathematically.  The player for whom characters are simply a collection of statistics will have difficulty understanding why a role-player chooses a non-optimal path.  Even worse, when the role-player's choices make the game more difficult for an entire group, conflict tends to erupt.

Personally, I lean towards being a role-player.  When I create a character, I generally imagine a basic personality for them to go with their physical design.  I think this is part of why I'm perfectly willing to play female characters as well as male; that character isn't me, they are a separate being who I am playing as.  It's similar to writing a story with characters who are different from me.  That said, I've sometimes had to accept acting out-of-character in-game.

In World of Warcraft I played a dwarven hunter, Thalen.  I imagined him as an exterminator who became caught up in events beyond what he ever expected and went from dealing with minor pests in Ironforge to slaying dragons and the like.  Ultimately, though, he viewed it as all the same.  There were pests that needed to be dealt with, and that was his job.  This led to a matter-of-fact sort of character who focused on the job at hand.  In part, I chose this characterization to try and avoid conflict with non-role-players.

Despite that, there were still occasions where my character was at odds with the optimal choice.  Thalen used guns.  He was willing to use crossbows in a pinch, but bows were just not right.  This was difficult to stick to, however, as often a bow would be the best available weapon to me, particularly in Vanilla.  Eventually transmogrification came along and I never used a non-gun again, at least not visually.  Along the same lines, I was never willing to play as a Beast Master; it simply didn't match my vision of Thalen.  Even in Burning Crusade when Beast Master was the best spec by far, I stuck to Marksman.  Luckily I was a good enough player to still be viable, and I was in a raid that was willing to allow sub-optimal play.  It was still a hard thing, however, having to choose between character and power.

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