Role-playing versus performance

In @GusL’s thread about nostalgia and the OSR, @VanWinkle asked this question:

For further discussion in another thread, perhaps: what are the limits of disinterest in performance among those who like gamey games? After all, there are much less performance-oriented yet engrossing games like chess. Presumably one undertakes role-playing games because of some affinity for limited identification with a character, or to contribute to a story. Yeah, that’s clearly another thread.

I feel like I remember a better way to start threads by literally opening a new one from a reply, but hope this suffices!

Anyway, I wanted to clarify the distinction I made between performance and a lack thereof in roleplaying games, since I think that’d help get the conversation going. There’s a definition of performance often used in psychoanalysis and feminist theory that I worry, with my background, I was implying in this case. If we define performance as the appropriation of a social or cultural desire (i.e. “the Other’s desire”) as the subject’s own, and one that the subject is compelled to constantly live out in desiring, then I would be hard-pressed not to identify this definition with role-playing as such. Like, performance is role-playing and vice versa. To play a role is to perform. Et cetera, whatever.

However–and this might be a blind spot on my side–I’d like to use the word ‘performance’, or maybe find another word, to refer to the imaginative indulgence that is expected of players in some modern games like D&D 5e. Retired Adventurer’s blog post about the six cultures of play comes in handy as always:

OC basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players’ roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. OC culture has a different sense of what a “story” is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce “fun” for the players.

For one, I want to offer a take that this relationship to a player-character, or at least the relationship before it enters the space of the game, does not constitute role-playing. Although it is, of course, a reflection of the player’s own fantasies which are socially determined or whatever, it is not yet a role that exists in a symbolic framework external to the player-as-subject’s fantasy.

Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, or not comfortable enough to express infinite permutations of my ideal image to my friends, but this expectation in ‘OC’ play feels very exhausting to me. Being whatever the game wants me to be, and not having to worry about it or plan it ahead, is what makes classic (and even ‘trad’) play more appealing to me.

So the question I’d like to throw back is, how do we constitute identification with a character as a player? Is there a consistent definition of that relationship for what we consider a role-playing game?


I was thinking about this yesterday for some reason. I guess since I’ve been thinking more and more about the time I was playing/reading mainly “Story Game” games. They are still among my favorites, but I was thinking on wether or not it’s the same game as an OSR game or a completely different beast.

This is complicated more because of how the hobby is very diverse and home-brew in approaches to playing a game. I came out mostly with the idea that some people, and games made for them and by them like the challenge of doing problem solving. These people tend towards more Trad play, more OSR, more getting problems and treating that as a challenge to overcome or beat. Other people like acting out scenes and placing themselves in the mindset of someone completely different from them, or to see the drama unfold that “bad choices” will cause.

And I was thinking about how OSR play often talks about player skill, and refers to problem solving and system mastery to be able to solve problems or circumvent them by thinking out of the box. I realized that understanding drama, how to create that and how narrative works is also something you can learn, it’s also ‘player skills’ but for a different type of game. Very often these don’t combine well, since OSR type games often seem to punish with character death, while the story games are 'that’s boring, there are more interesting complications than death." Which causes OSR to teach you to choose the most optimal strategy to succeed, while story games teach to choose the option that creates the most interesting drama.

There probably are games that combine it (or try to), or players that pull the one type of play off in the other type of game, but I feel like the purpose of a game pulls certain types of characters to it. While able to hit some of the same thematic notes FATE still is quite different than, say, ODND. You’ll play ODND very carefully or you lose your character, while you can “drive your character like a stolen car” in FATE since character death is not really on the table, and failing causes interesting outcomes and scenes.


I think that performance here is a tricky word for some of the reasons you spell out.

  1. Performance can mean the various things it means in scholarly performance theory (which is not a unitary thing).
  2. Performance can mean, for some, the experience of immersion in the story.
  3. Performance can mean the “play-acting” that goes with role-playing games.

But, @traversefantasy, it seems like you mean the wish to really “get into character” by developing an elaborate fiction about the characters that engrosses players and referees outside of time at the table. If that is what you mean, I have a feeling that performance isn’t the clearest word for it. Nor am I sure that there is a good name for it yet. How about “off-table engagement”?

Your question about identification with character has been discussed since the first days of D&D (and before), and every participant ends up grappling with it inconclusively. The designation of role-playing games like D&D as “role-playing games” shortly post-dates the origins of D&D. If you want to dig into what people said early on, I heartily recommend Peterson’s book The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity.

The short answer is that people have disagreed about what kind of identification with character is appropriate or best, and what constitutes immersion, since the beginnings, in much the same ways that people do today. For my part, I attribute that to different needs that we humans bring to the games. The differences in personal needs in RPGs (which I wrote about here), and their interaction at the table, account for different play styles.

So maybe an epimythium for all RPGs comes from the oracle: γνῶθι σεαυτόν!


There’s probably an element of this to most tabletop role play, at least among people who’ve acclimated to the genre, but with a few wrinkles that distinguish it, for better or worse, from performance in the social sciences. For one thing, the Other in this case tends to be self-consciously fictional. Appropriation, as a technical term, points attention to the question of who is being appropriated from, and at what cost. It draws attention to harms that may otherwise escape notice, because they’re indirect or because we routinely ignore or deny the agency of the Other. To some extent, the characters in RP games, both PC and NPC, are constructed to provide us with a less direct notion of Otherness to perform. There may be analogues to real world identity differences, and that can serve as a bridge toward indirectly playing as groups we actually encounter, but it’s not precisely the same as the sort of appropriation that occurs when, say, an American pop star wears Hindu religious identifiers as an affectation. At the most basic level, we’re performing the role of the heroic (or anti-heroic) protagonist(s), but it pays to be mindful of how we construct that role.

And then, more broadly, a huge component of what we do in these games — and I mean we specifically, since I take it most of the people participating on this site are creators, GMs, or both — is building and sustaining the context that gives those fictive Others significance. That’s a major function of world building in the hobby: it provides a stage on which the performance of the role of Other makes a certain kind of sense. At the simplest level, there is no heroism without challenge, and so the dungeon becomes one (enormously popular) pattern, a contextual counterpart to the role we wish to perform. There’s the “magic circle” of the table — our shared suspension of some of the usual rules that govern social life — but the narration of a setting is also a way of creating distance between what we perform at the table and the significances that order every day life.

Obviously, that’s not always successful. If it were, we wouldn’t have needed safety measures, e.g. lines and veils. Under certain conditions, we may even be better of for its failure.

Being whatever the game wants me to be, and not having to worry about it or plan it ahead, is what makes classic (and even ‘trad’) play more appealing to me.

It’s funny you say this—my overall preferences in RPGs are somewhere between 5E and the “OSR,” and I tend to prefer something in the middle of “being whatever the game wants me to be” and developing my character.

For example, in the last 5E campaign I played in, I picked a Human Paladin because there were no humans, tanks, or healers in the party, and I thought it would serve the game well to fill in those gaps.

I created a backstory involving my being raised in a cathedral with my incurably sick mother, but I decided my father was a knight who disappeared before I could remember, to give my DM something to use

My favorite elements of the character emerged not from my backstory, but during play: his mother, as it turns out, had told him lots of stories about knights when he was little, so he was constantly comparing the adventure to a childish vision of what a quest should be like.

Is there a consistent definition of that relationship for what we consider a role-playing game?

I’ll just throw out that I don’t consider role-playing fundamental to role-playing games. I think, rather, it’s a consequence of the more fundamental thing: the simulation of the world in the mind of the GM (or GMs, as the case may be).

It’s telling to me that role-playing in Arneson’s wargaming group (according to the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary) emerged after the introduction of the referee—once someone was judging the battle not just by rules, but by common sense, the players naturally shifted into considering themselves as fictional generals rather than players of a game.

And that leads me to my second point—I don’t think players have to have well-defined roles for it to be an RPG. You can play an unnamed general or head of state, or a group of poorly defined characters, and still be role-playing.

I realize that’s a little broader than the intended focus of the thread, but I hope it helps frame and define the discussion a bit.


Personally “OC” play really doesn’t work for me… Because of the amount of play that happens away from the table like backstrokes and character building. Plus as a player I NEED the challenge element in order to be engaged, that’s one reason why I am drawn to the OSR.

As a GM I don’t mind prep but for some reason I find “player prep” to be unenjoyable.

I also don’t mind running for people who play in the OC style. Incorporating their stuff can be fun (if they are good at it), although I think OC players tend to move to other tables due to the lack of arcs and plots in my games.

On the other hand I don’t think I have ever gone a session without trying to do a funny voice or thinking “what would my character do?”

Woah, that’s a lot of dense academic language to get through. I read and reread stuff and I think I understand, but I might not. So if I got something wrong, please kindly let me know. I tried, but fully accept that I might have failed in understanding.

First I wanted to call out what OC stands for and what it means as defined by one of the originally linked articles.

The term “OC” means “original character”

OC / Neo-trad
OC basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players’ roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. OC culture has a different sense of what a “story” is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce “fun” for the players.

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Now to address the specific questions asked. The second question first as I think it’s easier to ask

No. I mean I think both the linked article and various definitions and conversations all over the place and in this thread will show that there is no consistent definition. Different people have different definitions.

Rant about messyness of language

In my opinion, one problem with language in general is that the same words don’t mean the same thing to everyone. It would be nice if they did, but everyone brings their own context, connotations, and feelings to the conversation when the see/hear words. Communication is hard.

I understand that the messy way language works makes it hard to talk precisely about things, and that often means trying to use very technical clearly defined words. BUT to me that also makes communication hard in a different way.

I don’t like overly academic language, even if I can use it or understand it. When I see overly academic language I have an immediate feeling to become defensive and want to dismiss and find holes and flaws in the arguments… rather than trying to discuss and understand. For me, academic language is about debate and arguments and technicalities and to me, actually hinders understanding rather than facilitate it. But that is likely just my reaction to academic language.


Onto the other question,

I’ll be honest, I don’t understand what this question is asking. I think it means, “When you are playing a ‘role playing game’, what makes you feel like you ARE that character?”
I’ll answer my interpretation of the question (and hope it is more or less what @traversefantasy was asking).
For me, I think I am that character, when I can pretend and imagine what it would be like to be that person in that situation. For me the important part where “game” comes into play is when I get to make decisions as the character. If I have no decisions to make period, it’s hard for me not to think of it like another media that has no decisions (books, novels, short stories, tv, movies, etc.) If there are decisions but not decisions in character, it can totally be a game. But for me it’s hard to think of it as a role playing game.

So, I guess for me, a key part of what makes a role playing game a role playing game is being able to think and make decisions as a character that is a separate persona from my day to day persona.


I’m not an academic, but I come from a discipline equally mired in highly specific language. I don’t know if RPGs have the density and depth to really justify linguistic density, jargon and such (thoughly clearly we have multiple fandoms churning it out) but I do appreciate that terms of art can allow us to talk about and link to more complex and in depth sets of ideas.

In my experience Marcia’s use of academic language is backed by explanations and clear definitions, which is always good, especially when our terms of art are contested. I find it interesting to think of the dungeon adventure and mechanics that support it as a Lacanian desiring machine, even if my Lacan knowledge is cursory and 20 years out of date. It offers another perspective and position to view my hobby from.

When it comes to performance and what I call the Contemporary Traditional play style/design I think some distinct term of art is needed (performance - feminist and queer theory complexities aside, but useful) to describe the ludic joy that the play style manages to capture by creating community around encouraging fan works.

It’s something I’ve noticed that’s seemingly distinct to 5E communities and play culture post Critical Role – the amount of play that those in the community get from thecproduction of art, fiction and performance (in game interactions, but also soundtracks and such) based on thier characters. It’s interesting, because the social media enabled community aspect seems amplified, or even only possible, because of the highly structured narratives - railroads to be snotty - that are the hallmark of the play style and the character/setting design that’s so highly codifed and referential.

Trying back into performance, the ContempTrad paradigm at times seems to be that of actors performing a play. Instead of describing ones experience of playing Hamlet and the twists one put on the role, it’s how one played through Lost Mines of Phandelver with a Dragonborne Cleric of Fire. Producing art,cstories, and ultimately dramatoc performace as a stream of a shared story and set of archetypes defined by WotC’s rules and adventures.

That needs a term, because I can’t rewrite that each time I want to express the idea.