I don't like arguments. I'm the sort of person who gets emotional about something easily, makes a snap response that's way too strong, then goes on to torture himself with guilt over it for weeks. Especially if it's something I'm passionate about -- and gaming would certainly qualify (as would politics and human rights issues).
Nevertheless, I got dragged into an argument on Facebook recently about different gaming preferences. I won't rehash it here, except to say that it boiled down to a hoary old argument -- what is the One True Way to roleplay? (I'm sure the gentleman I was snippy with doesn't see the argument this way, but as I've made abundantly clear, he is free to see it any way he pleases.)
The thing about One True Wayers is that they're not actually interested in engaging about what's the best way to game. They've already made up their minds. And it's really as simple as "My way, or the highway". From there, any argument boils down to "I'm doing it right, and the rest of you are doing it wrong."
This is not a useful way to think about roleplaying.
Roleplaying is a hobby that is negotiated between the players of countless groups spread out across the planet. There is no such thing as a universal truth of what's the best way to do something -- there is only what's best for your group, right this moment. Robin Laws has written at length about how to negotiate a game that's pleasing to the largest number of players, and I have opined that the clear way to have the most satisfying game experience is to start with a group of sympatico players. Common goals means you're all rowing in the same direction. This is helpful, whether you're interested in playing dramatic scenes or bashing some goblins real good.
What I'm coming around to is the fact that there are underlying assumptions to the style of gaming that I talk about here, assumptions which inform a lot of the decisions we make at the table. These assumptions drive HTHD play, and they'd be incomprehensible to people who weren't interested in what we practice -- or at least unrecognizable as "roleplaying".
One important assumption is that play time is limited. This is something that goes hand in hand with being an adult roleplayer -- I simply don't have an unlimited amount of time to invest in the hobby, the same way I did when I was sixteen. I need the time I invest at the table to be as productive and satisfying as possible. Players who proceed with the idea that games are long-arc affairs that unfold over years of play are simply not interested in the same things as a HTHD group who want to wrap up a game in six sessions; the time crunch means you've got to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible, and play hard.
It may be that an ongoing game could be truly dramatic without the pressure of a short arc of gameplay, but I doubt it. Limited time means high stakes scenes, characters that are forced to change, and the real possibility of breaking your toys. These are crucial for real drama.
Secondly, HTHD play assumes that everyone at the table is building the game together, both in and out of game. Although there might be a GM who still serves as the first among equals (I think of it as a position closest to a director in a stage play), everyone shares common goals as far as storytelling goes and helps each other build toward those goals. There's no question that the best decision to be made for a character is the most interesting one (and often, the most dangerous or consequence-laden decision) in a given situation; HTHD players don't worry much about which choice provides the greatest tactical advantage.
Thirdly, the goal of HTHD play is explicitly to create dramatic situations which involve players on a deeper emotional level than traditional RPG play. That means players have to create characters with driving passions, relationships that are fraught with problems, and the characters must have things in their lives they cannot easily walk away from. HTHD play is not interested in building a simulation of an ideal life for a character, but a life which is complicated at best and often tragic.
These goals would be anathema to a lot of roleplayers. And, as I said to my Facebook friend, that's okay. It would do me no good to deny the fact that other people get different kinds of pleasure out of a roleplaying game than I do with my friends and fellow players. The hobby is big enough and complex enough to accommodate a wide variety of different play styles, as it is large enough to include a multitude of different games. Each is as valid as the next.
Having a clear head about what you're trying to get out of a roleplaying game can be helpful no matter what style appeals to you, however.