What’s in a Role?

Buckle up y’all because I’m throwing down some god-damn analysis for this one.

Don’t the the fact that I used references fool you though, this is mainly an introspective think piece of my own experiences with “Role Playing Games” and the pieces which make them (good or bad).

Ron Edwards described the building blocks of RPGs as:

CharacterSystemSettingSituation, and Color

  • Character: a fictional person or entity.
  • System: a means by which in-game events are determined to occur.
  • Setting: where the character is, in the broadest sense (including history as well as location).
  • Situation: a problem or circumstance faced by the character.
  • Color: any details or illustrations or nuances that provide atmosphere.

A fairly standard set of tools, nothing too complicated starting out. But implementing these tools into a cohesive game is an entirely different story. Ron Edwards was actually using his tools in reference to table top RPG’s, but I’m going to use them to look at one of my favorite RPGs: Fallout New Vegas.

Character in Fallout New Vegas is almost entirely player created. The game provides you with the barest of backgrounds, you were a courier shot in the head during a package delivery, and has you set a series of strengths and weaknesses so that you play the role of whoever you built. Maybe you’re a expert marksman who can set explosive traps and nerves of steel, but gets horrible prices in stores. Or maybe you’re a smooth talking peace-maker who can barely shoot a gun. It’s up to you. And while the game does have pre-written responses, the developers obviously put quite a bit of care into making sure all sorts of character styles are supported and represented in the options.

Low intelligence characters are a blessing and should be treated as such

The inclusion and requirement of flaws in the system is a huge part of why the character part of New Vegas works. While your courier is free to go forward with whichever plan they like, their success and the responses of NPCs are based on your characters strengths and weaknesses. You assign your character the role they are playing based on both strengths and weaknesses as well.

While the setting in Fallout is fairly standard and pre-determined, your character’s setting is not. The inclusion of only the barest of details about the player character’s personal setting, namely that they were a mail delivery person in the wastelands, allows the player to fulfill whatever role they’ve assigned themselves without much risk of immersion breaking revelations. The setting around the courier post head-patch-up is equally open for courier exploration. You can head out and follow the steps of the tutorial town, or you can fuck off in a completely random direction and get killed by a deathclaw. The world is your irradiated oyster.

And finally the color of Fallout New Vegas is delightful. Not necessary from a color palette perspective, the game is rather brown for my tastes, but from a world building perspective there are a million fun and colorful characters that help give the game’s setting a personality of its own. From the Ghouls who need your help trying to fly to the Moon to the Cannibals living in a fancy casino hotel and even and entire gang dedicated to impersonating Elvis, there’s no shortage of colorful characters to run into in Fallout New Vegas. The color of the world makes it feel lived in, like it would continue to run with or without the courier and having a functioning world helps the player find their role in that world.

Finally, a gang I actually want to be a part of.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Role?

  1. I really do love how the game takes the Mojave desert — which a developer team could have easily made look boring — and actually make it look as beautiful and breathtaking as it does in real life.

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