Mechanics Monday: a role-playing redux

Tabletop RPG character sheet (could be D&D 4th edition?)Really interesting Mechanics Monday piece on role-playing in exit games by Mark at QMSM today, which has inspired a few not-completely-developed-but-getting-there thoughts to progress the conversation along, hoping to inspire the people who really know to get involved. Prof. Nicholson’s white paper on exit games notes games with exit-game-like characteristics that preceded exit games as they are known today, and provides evidence of reasonably close direct predecessors having taken place as part of larger live-action RPGs in previous decades.

Choose your own dictionary and pick your own definition, but Collins’ one of the act of imitating the character and behaviour of someone who is different from yourself seems like a fair enough start. This is familiar enough from language-learning exercises, but also from games. Any war game in which you consider yourself to be in charge of military has elements of role-playing. Stretch this back far enough and it’s tempting to stretch to games in the chess family, but the distinction is beautifully illustrated by John Wick:

((…))the focus of an RPG is to tell stories. Let me explain. Chess is not a roleplaying game. Yes, you can turn it into a roleplaying game, but it was not designed to be a roleplaying game. If you give your King, Queen, Rooks, Knights and even your pawns names and make decisions based on their motivations – instead of the best strategic move possible – you’ve turned chess into a roleplaying game.

The extent to which a game has the role-playing nature or not depends on what sorts of thoughts the players have while they’re playing it. There’s a theory that engaging more different players’ senses will engage more of their brain; live-action role-playing games can be much more tactile than tabletop ones in this way, and can be designed to trigger other senses as well. This “five sense” principle was an overt goal for, and an explicit set of inspirations for some of the puzzles within, the brilliant-looking no-charge Sensation exit game run by Dr. Bryan Clair for teams at St. Louis University. Prof. Nicholson’s white paper does report on small proportions of commercial exit games deliberately incoporating unusually multi-sensory challenges.

(Side note: there’s at least one site in North America with a room with a really cute advertising gimmick – being much more coy about the contents of that room than the others other than a higher price and a strictly-applied age limit, letting the players’ imaginations guess at what might cause the extra restriction for that game only, much as the earliest horror movies did. Perhaps it would be cute and popular to have an 18+ room with a higher price, where one crucial part of the gimmick turns out to be that the surcharge pays for adult beverages served during the course of the game.)

One of the ways in which, to a reasonable first degree of generalisation, exit games have a nature different from conventionally-understood role-playing games is that exit games have defined “win” and “lose” conclusions, and players are required to use their own intelligence and resourcefulness as players rather than taking the roles of characters who can certainly have no more intelligence and resourcefulness than the players portraying them. When application of these mental skills may well be a crucial part of what determines whether the conclusion is “win” or “lose”, there is little incentive for players ever to voluntarily take on additional constraints on themselves and attempt to adopt an additional character while encountering the content of an exit game.

There are at least two approaches to play with this. Perhaps getting into character and risking a lower level of success might be a challenge that a particularly confident team might set themselves when facing an exit game which they suspect to be relatively easy, but it would take a team with a particularly high regard for art to find this experience more compelling than playing the game out of character. An alternative approach would be to attempt to give players additional powers compares to the ones they have in real life, and the interview with the creators of Breakout in Avenue K by Escman League touches on this. Enabling people to use these additional powers is something that needs to be very carefully handled or it may risk throwing people out of their degree of suspension of disbelief.

So a question for game operators is the extent to which they intend role-playing to be crucial within their game, over and above participating in the game narrative. It’s still a little of a loaded term; while video games that would be considered fantasy RPGs are broadly known and widely accepted, there’s still the perception of the term being linked to traditional tabletop gaming. The graphic at the top of the article probably doesn’t help, but are there alternative, instantly-recognisable role-playing images that could be used instead? An explicitly role-playing-focused room would be a stand-out positive for some players, but possibly not for many, when people think of exit games as adventures rather than as games.

Perhaps it might be wise to have one room in a facility having more of a focus than others and then continue to work hard that people will first play the room within your facility that is best suited to them, but the degree of emphasis would be carefully handled to avoid turning off players who end up facing it other than through explicit preference for its features (for instance, if it’s the only room available at the time they want to play). Going back to Mark’s original post, his prediction that rooms might have additional role-playing focus as an option rather than a necessity sounds very smart… and potentially cost-effective.

Lastly, if you have a room and you’re aiming for it to succeed from a role-playing perspective, here’s a possible test. If your players manage to solve every puzzle and complete every challenge in the room in good time and then choose not to leave before the time limit because they’d prefer to spend longer in the game and finish with the “fail” ending rather than spending less time in the game and finish with the “win” ending, your room’s evidently doing pretty well!


  1. I titled my article quite provocatively, knowing full well I didn’t have anything close to an answer, with a view of prompting further discussion, so thanks muchly for taking the bait.

    The term can mean so many different things that further breakdown of it is almost certainly required before discussing whether or not it’s a good fit for escape games.

    Even with your simple and clear definition, ‘role’ can still mean different things. Taking on the role of ‘a SWAT team member’ could mean dressing up, using a radio, and giving hand signals to other team members (even if only you know that they mean). But playing “SWAT Captain Bill Dodger, only a couple months short of retirement, but with spiralling debt due to his secret gambling problem” is something else. There could be a role (see what I did there?) for both but the implementation would be very different.

  2. I write and play in “freeforms”, which are a sort of side-genre to LARPs in that whilst we do the whole “costumes-and-props” thing, we definitely don’t do the “rubber sword” thing (which is what most people associate with the genre I think.) In addition, they are very focussed on narrative, with the players given very defined characters and usually a set of conflicting goals (combined with some hidden goals that are uncovered during the game.) And whilst there is no “win or lose” at the end, the narrative will have definitely reached a conclusion. So there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation.

    About ten years ago, I helped write and run a weekend long game with 75+ players that had a Pirate theme. Naturally, this meant that there were quite a lot of “treasure maps”, which were couched as proper puzzles, some of which were physically staged (one involved manipulating huge “stone” blocks; another used glass-bottomed tankards; another being a series of “planks and islands” scenarios. Even the tombstones in our graveyard were full of secrets.) In the end, many of the puzzles were not even found, let alone solved, but since they were very much a side-element that didn’t really matter – the players hadn’t signed up for a puzzle game, after all.
    But it’s true that the players were more inclined to accept the puzzles because they were part of an accepted setting (everyone already knows that “X marks the Spot”.) Whereas they would have been massively out of place in the game I played the following year which had a distinctly Jane Austen setting.
    [But given the small numbers who played that game, and the unlikeliness of the setting, I wouldn’t claim it as being any sort of early exemplar of anything. I’m still proud of much of it though…]

    And it’s certainly true that the players all knew beforehand what roles they were going to be playing, and were therefore able to prepare (at least to a small extent), whereas that doesn’t really work for a scenario that you are not supposed to know much about beforehand, which is what Exit Rooms do. (Yes, I know I am generalising horribly.)


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