Roles We Take, Roles We Choose

The latest "The RPG Scrollbars" weekly column from Richard Cobbett for Rock, Paper, Shotgun focuses on the way role-playing games implement character roles mechanically into the setting. Specifically, Cobbett investigates the way (a few) developers implement limitations and new opportunities to reinforce the feeling of being a character in the world and encourage players to keep in mind the viewpoint of their character while playing. Here's an excerpt:

It doesn't help that most RPGs, rightly or wrongly, don't have much in the way of balls when it comes to restricting the player character in any way. Compare, say, Baldur's Gate 2 with Dragon Age 2 partly because it's a good comparison, partly because it wouldn't be a good week if I didn't annoy someone on the Codex. I'm thinking in terms of magic specifically. Baldur's Gate 2 largely takes place in the city of Amn, and one of the cardinal rules there is '˜no magic without a license'. Dragon Age 2 takes place in a city controlled by Templars, whose job it is to keep mages under control, and not without some reason. Magic isn't just whizzy-whizzy-bang-bang, but linked to demonic possession and all kinds of other health hazards.

Despite this, being a mage an illegal, '˜apostate' mage at that doesn't mean a damn thing. The guards will completely overlook fireballs in the street, you solving your problems with lightning bolts and all kinds of other stuff like that, even before you get to a point where you're important enough to turn a blind eye. It's a continuation of one of Dragon Age's fundamental lore issues, that magic is meant to be rare and special and dangerous, but fuck that because players want to be/fight mages.

The trouble is that in not giving magic users at least some sense of threat or actual sense of being under the thumb, who cares? Baldur's Gate 2 meanwhile made being a spellcaster a problem. Break out the elements and some very tough wizards would show up to impolitely request you not do that, with your three options being a) apologise and stop, b) buy a damn license, or c) prove yourself too powerful for them to stop. The latter especially is one of the most satisfying things you can do in that game. Even before that though, that tiny mechanical demand to keep the metaphorical magic wand holstered made a big difference to both mages and the setting.