Thursday, November 07, 2002

GAME WISH #20: SKILL MISMATCHES

Moving on to Ginger's Game WISH #20, and a problem that every GM will eventually run into:

The situation often arises that a player's real-world skills and the skills of the character she plays don't quite match up properly. The character might be designed as a "face man"--a conman with a charming face and a ready explanation--but the player isn't as good at extemporaneous character interaction as her character is. Or the sci/tech geek player might be adept at solving logic puzzles, even when the character is a lumbering cretin with a giant axe.


How do you deal with this mismatch, either as a game master or a player? Do you play it as-played, so that the only character who can seduce the scheming noble's wife is the only player who can pick somebody up at the bar? Or do you play it as-written, so that the character can bluff the guards into letting him pass, even if the player's best effort is "I've got an urgent message for, uh, Lord Blah-blah-blah"?


I first ran into this with my old gaming buddy John Pendergrass. John was playing Nodonn, who was supposed to be a complete idiot fighter. Nodonn adopted the concept of 'hrair' as used in Watership Down, ie. rabbits can't count higher than four, so everything four or larger is 'hrair'. Nodonn just used 'four' to indicate 'large number'. This sometimes led to difficulties with other characters:

NIGHTOWL: Nodonn! how many orcs are coming from your direction?
NODONN: Four.
NIGHTOWL: Er....a big four or a small four?
NODONN: Four.

John is a smart guy but he did a reasonably creditable job of playing a moron. The only time he didn't do well was when he was trying to get on my nerves, which John was fairly good at. He did it, if you can believe it, with geology.

John was a rockhound. Our apartment was always full of interesting rocks that John had found. Then John moved out and left his rocks, which was really not fair. Anyway, John knew a lot about geology, far more than I knew. John liked to take advantage of this in the games by making Nodonn into a kind of geology idiot-savant. Every session would involve a conversation along these lines:

DM: The altar is five feet on a side with smooth stone faces.
NODONN: What sort of stone is it made out of?
DM: (summoning up what meager rocklore he possesses): It's a pink granite.
NODONN: Aha! would you say that it contains a fair amount of orthoclase?
DM: (guessing) Er.....no.
NODONN: (moving in for the kill) Well then, it's hardly a granite, isn't it? tell me about the phenocrysts and we'll decide if it's an andesite.

This led me to develop a fairly hostile attitude towards in-game geology lessons, with predictable results:

DM: You enter the cave.
NODONN: Describe the stone, please.
DM: It's of a sort you have never seen before.
NODONN: Can you describe the characteristics of the rock?
DM: Certainly. It's hard and it holds the roof up.
NODONN: Do I have a sense of the physical processes that shaped this cave?
DM: Nodonn suspects darkest magic.

Anyway, I wouldn't really describe John's little game as a problem. It was more like a comic interlude.

In a more serious vein, I do sometimes have super-charismatic characters played by less charismatic players, and this does create problems. As an example, in my recent Pirates! game, Greg Morrow played the Greatest Lover in the World. I am certain that Greg will not be offended when I characterize him as something other than the Greatest Lover in the World himself, and there were often times when Greg would say "My character says [x], only much more smoothly than I'm able."

In such situations I am much happier when the player fills in the above [x] as much as possible. My criteria for successfully attempting a task is that the player must have 1) formulated a strategy for what it is they wish their character to accomplish, 2) attempted to articulate a rough outline of the way one gets there, and 3) given their best shot at amusing themselves, the other players and me. All three items must be satisfied, generally speaking, for me to allow a roll of the dice. Examples:

"I seduce the barmaid."

DISALLOWED.

"I chat up the barmaid, get her drunk, and invite her up to my room."

FLESH THAT OUT A LITTLE.

"I ask the barmaid to join me. I tell her my life story. I tell her how wonderful it is to have such an empathetic companion, who by the way is extraordinarily beautiful. I ask her compare the two wines on the table and tell me which she likes better. I'll read her some poetry. When the moment is right, I'll suggest that some other poetry I have is better read in a private setting, with the lights turned down low."

MAKE A ROLL.

[heavy Spanish accent] "....and now, gentle radiant lady, I must die. I have enjoyed our time together, but I must now die, because your beauty has struck me through the heart. Like an arrow it has pierced my breast and my life seeps away, and only one thing may heal the wound. Yes, fair one, for the wise say that only love may salve the agony of a soul yearning for the touch of grace -- a touch that...."

OKAY, OKAY, JEEZ, ROLL AT +10.

"Then, ever so slowly, my hand gently strokes down her side, my fingertips trailing along with feather touches, seeking out the secret places...."

UM, THAT'S ENOUGH. REALLY.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that you don't need to be Don Juan to play a seducer. On the other hand, if you have a lot of Don Juan in your nature, you're probably going to do a better job of playing Don Juan. Gaming's a bit like writing in that respect.

I'm not entirely sure I stayed on topic. I think I hit the meat of the question, though.



Monday, October 28, 2002

GAME WISH #19: HEART CHARACTERS

Ginger's Game WISH #19 asks about what leanings one's roleplaying may display:

Today's question is about your heart character. The heart character rests on the idea that over the course of a gaming career, players would revisit certain themes that were important to them for some reason, and that one or two characters in particular would embody those themes or ideas. Whatever it was about the heart character(s) would draw the player back to those themes.

Do you have a heart character? More than one? If so, what makes that character a heart character? If you don't have one, do you think there are themes you revisit with your characters? Or do you think this entire theory is full of it, and if you do, why?


I don't think the theory is full of it, but I think I would describe it in a different way. Or, rather, I'm going to talk about it in a different framework, but it could very well be that my framework and Ginger's paradigm are homologous. I haven't really examined the question closely enough to say for sure. Maybe after I've written this, I'll know better.

An earlier Game WISH question, which owing to the whimsies of timing I haven't yet gotten around to answering, asks about the process by which one invents a new character. For me, a crucial early step is an exercise in answering the following questions:

1. What parts of you do you like enough to retain? call this column A.
2. What parts of you would you like to change? call this column B.
3. Rummaging through these two lists, what combination of items from both column A and B could lead to fun roleplay?

Creating a new character is a balancing act. On the one hand, I don't want to play myself. I play myself on a daily basis, and sometimes it gets boring. I want to play somebody who differs from myself, hopefully in an interesting way. On the other hand, I don't want to play somebody completely different from myself. I would have trouble getting inside a role that was 180 degrees rotated from my viewpoint. What I like to do is sort of start with myself as a beginning template and then make alterations. The alterations tend to be fairly gross, so I rarely wind up playing, say, Andy in a dress. I change a lot of stuff as a general rule. However, there are always elements of me remaining in the character, such that I still feel like I have something of a handle on how that person operates.

The goal is to come up with interesting variations on what changes and what doesn't. For example: I'm fairly organized in thought but fairly disorganized in environment. I tend to argue things in an anal, logical manner, yet my notetaking skills are atrocious and my office is a pit. So, it might be interesting to see what a character would be like who is organized in every way. Would such a person be more or less effective? more or less persnickety in their reactions to other people? Would such a person drive me crazy? Another example: I'm a pacifist, yet I have a very bad temper. What if I played a pacifist who has no anger? (I've played a non-pacifistic, psychotic me fairly extensively during my teen years, thank you, and I don't think I need to do that any more.) I consider creating a character to be something of a personal exploration, and I'd rather explore stuff that presents interesting challenges in understanding.

Okay, so I keep parts of me and dump other parts. The thing is, I like parts of me. I like some parts quite a lot. I like them enough that I don't really want to dispense with them, even if I have an option to do so. For instance, I would rather plan than not plan. I don't particularly want to play a character who doesn't plan. I think I would be frustrated by a character who just did the first thing that came to mind, and damn the torpedoes. So, invariably, there are certain aspects of me that aren't generally changed when I make a character.

This leads, I think, to something of an intersection with Ginger's conception of a 'heart character'. The set of my characteristics that remains largely constant might be seen as my 'heart character'. Now, are there a set of characteristics that I don't have, yet always are incorporated into my PC's? I don't believe so. I don't think that invalidates the equivalency with the heart character concept, though.

Listing some core concepts of me that I almost always retain in my characters:

A. I make plans. Sometimes the plans are workable. Sometimes the plans are unworkable. Sometimes the plans are so complex that nobody wants to put them into effect, working off the assumption that the fancier a plan is, the easier it will be for sneaky bastard DM's to break it. It doesn't matter whether anybody likes my plans, I make them anyway. I'm always coming up with watch schedules and marching orders. Whenever my group is presented with a challenge, it's a fair bet that I will eventually propose "Can we spoof [x] in order to circumvent this problem entirely?" The actual process of spoofing [x] may be impossible, but I'm thinking about it.

B. I try to have fun. I'm just not a grim person. I like to make jokes and horse around. In real life, when I'm presented with a bad situation, I try to roll with it and see things in a good light. My characters try to do the same.

C. I find a peer group and stick to them. I'm a very introverted person, but I don't always play introverts -- sometimes I play people who can walk up to complete strangers and be talking with them about personal matters in moments, because that's not me and I am curious about how that works. But I always retain the inherent loyalty-to-friends that being an introvert has taught me -- if you aren't good at making new chums, you stick close to the ones you have. I generally play very loyal characters; even when I'm playing in a game where there is an element of intra-party suspicion, my little games are largely intended to be able to react well in the event that *you* go all funny on *me*.

D. I try to correct injustice. I grew up, I must admit, a fairly dishonest person. I had a kind of epiphany while in college, and nowadays I try to live my life as honestly as I can -- especially since I have children now who are watching. I just absolutely can't stand it when people cheat the system and don't get what's coming. My characters always follow along that same path; even the ones who are basically amoral wind up having a 'soft spot' when it comes to people who are getting screwed. On the other hand, the degree to which my characters allow the world to see their morality varies wildly.

So, I guess that's my heart character: a fun-loving, basically do-gooding planner who loves his friends. Which is really me, minus the stuff that I don't like or don't mind dispensing with.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

GAME WISH #7: MAXIMS

And now for Ginger's Game WISH #7:

List three or more maxims/proverbs/bits of conventional wisdom/etc. that you've learned in your gaming career, and explain what they mean and how you've seen them apply in your gaming experience.

The best three maxims I know concerning gaming all come together. They were written by Greg Costikyan when he created the ever-popular role-playing game Paranoia. These words are meant to be lessons that should be taken to heart by all citizens in the darkly-humorous, violent, backstabbing world in which his game is set. However, all gamers should hearken when I say:

1. Stay Alert!
2. Trust No-one!
3. Keep your Laser Handy!

Taken out of the Paranoia context, these maxims are all useful to remember. Let's consider each one individually.

1. Stay Alert.

I think it goes without saying that most gamemasters are despicable sneaky finks. Oh, sure, they're also our friends and all, but at the core a good GM is a tricky and evasive scoundrel. This is because they are outnumbered by their players. You see, GM's want to advance their plots, often by causing the bad guys to do bad things. They want the bad guys to succeed, right up to the point of maximal dramatic tension. At that point they want the good guys to thwart them. That's because GM's worth their salt aren't really interested in rolling over the players; they just want to present them with a challenge that's, well, challenging. They want you to be at the darkest hour before the day breaks.

Aha, but in most games, there are many more players than GM's. These players are just as smart as the person on the other side of the stand-up screen. Their goals are usually different from those of the GM; they want to break the bad guys as soon as possible and not wait for the moment of maximal dramatic tension. The players are hard at work trying to divine what the GM's nasty little plan is, because they want to foil it before it can come to its wicked fruition. More often than not, because there are many more pounds of gray matter on the player side, the players can figure out what a non-subtle GM is up to long before he wants them to.

For this reason, GM's have had to become sneaky. They throw you little piecemeal clues. They mention important information as an afterthought, hoping to fool you into complacency. They invent convoluted red herrings to throw you off the trail. They hide vital data inside tortuous riddles and brain-spraining puzzles. Sometimes they lie.

You have to watch out for these tricks! Good GM's have a kind of cunning animal instinct for knowing when you are off your guard. It is at that exact moment that they will throw you something underhanded. Don't let this happen on your watch.

2. Trust No-one.

It really doesn't matter what kind of game you are playing, or what kind of world it is set in, or what the tone of the thing is -- there are certain vital and important themes that underlie whatever it is that makes human situations interesting, and these will inevitably crop up in any game you may play. One of the most important stories is that of betrayal -- a person you know, or trust, or ought to trust because of who or what they are, turns out to have goals that thwart those of goodness. Whether you are playing D&D or Ars Magica, Traveller or Over the Edge, Gamma World or any of the various GURPS settings, inevitably you will run into somebody who wants to put something over on you.

There is really only one way to deal with such a thing, and that is to always hold your cards where nobody else can see them. Do not confess all to that benevolent priest. The cute monkey that attaches itself to you in the bazaar may be up to no good. The urchin that pleads for your assistance isn't telling you everything. The helpful man in the curio shop is actually working for the cultists.

This doesn't mean that you need to play completely paranoid. When tear-streaked ragamuffins tug at your sleeve and ask if you can rescue their beloved pa, try to avoid going straight to initiative. The map given to you by the Faerie Queen shouldn't automatically be thrown in the trash. Every once in a while, an AI may actually want to help you. All I'm saying is, if little Timmy offers to guide you to the bandit camp, by all means go along -- but keep him where you can see him, and sleep with one eye open.

An interesting sub-case is where characters can't even trust other characters. In some games, such as Paranoia and Over the Edge, conflict between characters can often be built into the action, such that it's really quite likely that at some point you'll be exchanging gunfire with somebody played by the dude who drove you to the game. I think such conflict can be a load of fun provided everybody knows it's coming, and it's the sort of game where backstabbing adds to the fun. Otherwise, interparty conflict should be carefully banked by sensible GM's. I've seen too many games die because player #1 saw party cohesiveness as sacrosanct, player #2 cut player #1 off at the knees, and the resulting fallout fragmented the entire enterprise. Limited player mistrust and conflict can be tolerated to the extent that the GM believes the players can handle it. For instance, I played in a Vampire game where my character and Guppy's character were both interested in furthering applied high technology for our personal use; I had a series of moles in Guppy's R&D organization to keep tabs on his activities. Eventually I felt it would be prudent to develop countervampire weapons even though I was a vampire myself, because I was afraid a war would break out. Nothing quite like a crossbow that not only shoots a wooden stake, but then injects the target with a powerful coagulant....

3. Keep your Laser Handy.

Well, okay, keeping a laser handy in a Dark Ages game is probably not strictly relevant. It's the thought that counts.

Many fine games are based on nonviolent challenges. I really like a game that challenges players' skills in diplomacy, subterfuge, problem-solving and wit. The first Traveller game I ever played in was a game of forging a mercantile alliance between planets; the conflict was almost entirely at the bargaining table, as well as figuring out ways to generate markets for the products we had available. Often many sessions would go by without a single shot fired -- which was just as well, because in Traveller combat will kill you quickly and messily. The neat thing about this game was that, despite the fact that my earliest and most favorite gaming experiences were cast in the hack-and-slash mold, I never really noticed the lack of combat.

But....but! inevitably, conflict at arms must result. It's easy to drop your guard in essentially non-violent games. It's been my experience that it never pays to generate a character who is absolutely useless in a fight, because inevitably that fight will occur, and then you're hosed. It's also been my experience that even combat characters, when gaming nonlethally for a time, will 'lose their edge' in the sense that the player stops expecting violence, and then it happens, and again you're hosed. This is only true, of course, because GM's are sneaky bastards -- see item #1 above.

So: Stay Alert! Trust No-one! and Keep your Laser Handy! Also, don't eat all the Cheez-its by yourself, you pig!

Saturday, October 19, 2002

GAME WISH #6: SECRETS

In Game WISH #6, Ginger asks:

Sometimes the plot of a game requires a GM to keep secrets. Is it better for the GM and other players to keep most out-of-character knowledge secret, or to assume that players are capable of keeping in-character and out-of-character knowledge separate? Where and how do you draw the line as a GM and/or player between what secrets should be kept and which ones are OK to reveal?

I'm not of a single mind on this question. I have a number of different impulses on this topic, several of which tend to fight each other. It's hard to say which side will win out. In no particular order, here are things that influence my decisions to tell or not to tell:

First, unlike Ginger, I generally have no faith at all in my players' abilities to keep the secret stuff separate from the not-secret stuff. If a master thespian were immersing him or herself into the script of my game, really wrapping their head around it, and then went directly into intensive filming for the major motion picture to be made from my game, then I expect that person could pull it off. But my friends are not, as a rule, master thespians, and they are not, as a rule, immersed in my game. Generally speaking, my friends are actually slightly scruffy eggheads who only spend a few hours twice a month thinking about my game. I don't believe these people can maintain the mental discipline necessary to partition off the part of their head occupied by their character. And, frankly, why should I put them to that effort? It's a roleplaying game, not Concentration.

Second, I love coming up with clever little plot twists. If there's one thing I love more than coming up with clever little plot twists, it's people patting me on the back and saying 'Gee, Andy, that sure was a clever little plot twist.' So, neat little secrets are awfully fun, but the problem is that nobody else knows how fun they are if they remain secrets. I'm always apt to blab, for much the same reason that evil masterminds confess their entire plan to James Bond.

Third, I have a tough time tracking what information I've given out to people. A year after the party slew the Snorkle, they tend to meet up with Princess Golliwog, and I never recall whether I spilled the beans to them about the Snorkle actually being Princess Golliwog's fiancee under a sinister curse. And I can't very well say "Er, so, last year, I didn't happen to tell you something interesting about the Snorkle, did I?" because of course that would spill the beans. So there's always this paralyzed moment where I wind up telling them nothing, and then later on I get slapped upside the head and get told I denied people CRITICAL NEED-TO-KNOW INFORMATION. Often, rather than trying to remember what secrets are still secrets, I just tell the secret. "But you don't actually know that yet!" I conclude, chuckling nastily to myself over the fact that I've just placed the burden of recollection on the players.

Fourth, sometimes an entire plot is driven by the fact that the secret twist is surprising. If you tell the secret in advance of the money shot, you've just utterly screwed the story. Some secrets HAVE to be kept, because, you know, it's art.

So, if I had to map out the equation I use for determining whether to confess my game secrets, here's how it works:

1) As a default, I tell my secrets. This addresses Condition Three.
2) If the secret needs to be kept to avoid spoiling the story, I don't tell. This addresses Condition Four.
3) If I believe that telling the secrets will cause the players undue agony in not knowing the thing they actually know, I don't tell. This addresses Condition One.
4) Ah, but if it's a really cool secret, or if I'm tired, or if I fuck up, or a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, or or or, I blab. This is the catchall Condition Two, bringing us back to my default, where I happily reside, a cheerful font of Secrets Mankind Was Not Meant to Know.

Everybody got that? there will be a quiz.

Friday, October 18, 2002

MEANWHILE, ON CHANNEL TWO

I suppose I should mention that I have another blog. The intent is to skewer the news as offensively as possible. You might consider checking out And Now The Noose. Just don't complain to me.
WISH 18: STICKING POINTS

Ginger's Game WISH question #18 reads like this:

Every player has sticking points. (Yes, you do. You may not have had your buttons pressed yet to know what they are, but you have them.). What are some things that are absolutely no-gos for you?

I have turn-ons and turn-offs for gaming like everybody else, but it's hard for me to identify something as strong as a 'no-go', a thing that, when encountered, means it's automatically time to seek out greener pastures. I can't recall having had such a strong '...MUST...FLEE!' reaction.

I can tell you what pisses me off in gaming. Does that count? Probably not. I'll write about it anyway.

I just can't stand seeing people be mean to each other for the sheer sake of meanness. That transcends gaming and applies to any situation I can see myself in. I guess a shrink would tell me that this stems back to my years of being an awkward newcomer, despising isolation when I see it. It just drives me nuts to be at a game, a place where people have theoretically shown up to have fun with each other, and somebody's trying to put a bug up somebody else's ass. Aren't there places set aside for such behavior where it's condoned, like debate tournaments, or usenet newsgroups?

I hate feeling stupid. I really like having my brain challenged with puzzles and riddles, but it totally sucks when I can't solve the damned things. When that happens I get a lot of 'why the fuck am I doing this again?' feelings, which are pretty immature, but it's my blog, so shut up and give me a quarter.

I hate ultra-slow pacing. Things need to happen in games at a certain pace or I lose interest. This pace varies widely from game to game and genre to genre. It's certainly true that the timescale of PBeM is much slower than FtF, and I can deal with that. But when games lag, I find myself comparing the small amount of precious spare time I have to the diminishing amount of joy I get from that activity, and concluding that I could be having more fun elsewhere. It's all about maximizing fun for me. I have a very Utilitarian lizard-brain.

I hate Rice University parking! let's not go there. Suffice it to say that I game at Rice, so it's not a complete discontinuity.

This is a slippery one to define: I hate gaming with people who piss me off. This is different from most instances of 'I hate [blank] with people who piss me off'. For instance, I don't like working with people who piss me off. That's obvious. I don't like having sex with people who piss me off. That's obvious too. (fortunately Dema doesn't piss me off....much.) But gaming with people who piss me off is just wrong. When you're at work, you don't really get a choice of who you rub elbows with, so what can you do? You generally do get to choose your sexual partners, but I can recall one personal example of where a sexual relationship existed in defiance of complete personality disconnect, mostly because the relationship wasn't about personality at all. Gaming, on the other hand, is all about human interaction. It's an activity that continues despite competition for our spare time from television, computers and videogames, I believe because there is a real and elemental need on the part of most people to rub brains with other live humans for fun. So when I game with people who annoy me, there's a feeling that goes beyond annoyance -- it's like I've been robbed.

Finally, a specific subset of the above paragraph, I hate gaming with people who think it's amusing to whack me with a whiffle bat. You! yes, YOU! Sit! DOWN.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

WISH 5: COMMUNICATION

How very easy it is to ignore one's blog when one gets busy. Fortunately, blogs aren't children or pets. There is little chance that my blog will die if left unattended. It will not crap on my bed to express its dissatisfaction. It will not escape my computer, go missing for months, and return with a string of little blogs in tow. I can fail to post to my blog for a week, and nothing untoward will happen.

So, uh, why do I feel so guilty?

Never mind that! onwards to Ginger's Game WISH question #5, which regards you sternly as it asks:

Gaming requires the GM and players to communicate a large amount of information about system, plot, setting, character, and actions (among other things). There are a lot of places where a failure to communicate on the part of the GM and the players leads to disappointments for the GMs and the players. How do you deal with miscommunications and invalid assumptions as a player and a GM? Give one or more examples of situations and how you resolved them or how you are avoiding them.

Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Communication. Uh-huh. So, um, what was the question?

Something about listening, wasn't it?

Right, okay. I will now give two examples of games I have played in, where my expectations going in were not equal to what I got out of it. Afterwards, I will talk about what I did to make the situation better.

Game the First: A couple of years ago I picked up a PBeM game called Tangorea. I ran across it while searching the web for 'world-building', something I was checking out in the spirit of philosophical inquiry. (Possible future Game WISH question: how do you go about building a world, peopling it, filling it with history and geography and physics and character? Do you strive for completeness at the outset or just invent what you need immediately and, if necesssary, backfill continuity?) Tangorea was a game set in a fairly developed world. It was 2nd edition AD&D with a few house rules and great flexibility. For some time I had hoped to find a game wherein I could play a character sort of like the engineering student who gets thrust into a fantasy world in Joel Rosenberg's The Sword and the Chain, and the GM was willing to accommodate this. We created a character class called a 'Builder', who wasn't much at combat or magic but had a lot of secondary skills, and we were off and running.

In this game, us good guys were combating orcs who had raided a town. The GM was fairly graphic in his descriptions of the orcs and their rapacious depradations, including the carrying off of women for purposes that were painted rather obviously. This bothered me relatively little at first -- I came up in gaming circles that featured zero females and 100% male teens, so coarse and immature talk combining sexuality and violence, while not my definition of fun, is also something I have built a tolerance for.

As the game went on, however, it became obvious to me that this sense of violence towards women wasn't just a kind of icky flavor of the game -- it was an attitude that was pervasive throughout the entire storyline. Like John Norman's Gor books, the notion of male dominance over women, often by force, was in the deep structure of this game. The game involved a lot of cool players, the DM put a lot of work into his game and his descriptions -- there was a lot to like about this game, but there was also no way I could continue on playing in a game that, while not exactly condoning rape, sure liked to parade it around a lot. What to do?

Game the Second: Rick Jones used a modified version of the Star Wars d6 system to run a game in the Star Wars universe. The Empire has fallen a while back, and now evil Sith guys are running around trying to collect evil Sith artifacts for their evil Sith purposes. The good guys, us, are Good guys trying to find the Sith artifacts before the Sith guys do, thereby neatly combining two Lucas franchises (SW and IJ) into one game. Neat premise, Rick!

I decided to play a droid. I had an idea for a robot that would buck the system of Bots as Chattel. My little repair droid would have a will of its own and a kind of Black Panther ideology that self-aware droids should throw off the mantle of biologic ownership by force if necessary. When we had created characters and gotten into the game, however, Rick pointed out that this went against the grain of the Star Wars universe. Star Wars is all about things being black or white, Rick said, and certain factoids about that world, pleasant or no, are accepted as givens. Hence, bots are still property.

This was a problem. I had built a character around a certain mode of play, and now was being told that this mode was not acceptable. I couldn't play the character that I had designed. What to do?

I have delayed mentioning what I did in both scenarios up until this point, because I now would like to point out that these two situations really reduce down to the same question: when player vision doesn't match gamemaster vision, what happens? Although these games are very different, this fundamental problem is an invariant. I don't believe it is ever the case that a player and a GM are picturing the exact same thing when they agree to game together, although the degree of discrepancy between their viewpoints can be great or small.

I've spent all this time getting to this point because I believe it points up the fact that Ginger somewhat begs the question with the phrasing of Game WISH #5. Is it really the miscommunication between GM and players that causes the disappointment and the conflicts, or is it the mismatch in expectations itself? Phrased another way: even if the GM and the player communicated via telepathy, with no nuance or idea fragment lost in transmission or reception, wouldn't there still be a conflict between me and my GM's in the two above examples?

I will now say how I dealt with these two games. I believe these examples will show that communication is certainly important, but even more important is flexibility on the part of both parties -- the ability and willingness to shift one's game paradigm to more closely approach that of the other.

In game one, I confronted the GM. I told him, hey, I have a problem with the way that violence towards women is presented. I feel you have a good game going here in many respects, but the theme of rape and degradation that I am perceiving is incredibly offensive -- so much so that I'm considering quitting. Can you tone it down a little? The answer came back: no. The GM didn't seem to be particularly defensive, but he also was firm on the notion that his game had a certain flavor, and the substance of that flavor wasn't negotiable. He and I agreed to disagree on whether that flavor was 'Mature' vs. 'Beat a Chick for Fun and Profit', but we found that this difference of opinion was sufficiently great that we couldn't continue to game together. I quit the game and haven't looked back. (Although I have kept up with some of the players.)

In game two, I also confronted the GM. Rick, sez I, what are we going to do? I don't particularly want to play in a game where I'm somebody's slave. There that whole free will thing, you know. Besides, in the Star Wars movies, the roles of bots are usually limited to 1) waiting with the landspeeder, 2) getting comically disassembled and reassembled, and 3) burbling cutely to maximize merchandisability. How fun is that?

Rick was pretty flexible. Look, he said, your fellow player Pete von der Haar has made a Han Solo analog; you can be sort of like his Chewie. Maybe he takes a liberal view of bossing around his bots. Maybe you can even harbor ideas of being your own bot, even if you don't advocate for AI Lib. Rick also allowed me to build a 'design flaw' into my droid (the reason he was the only bot of his kind left in the universe): his memory doesn't wipe cleanly, so even if some rascal decided to have me blanked, there was a chance I could come back from it. So, I accepted being somebody's bot, took a liking to screaming 'Boss! boss!" at inopportune moments, and generally did everything as cherub-enticingly as possible to guarantee that QT-107 ('Cutie') would wind up on every lunchbox in America. I had fun in that game as long as it lasted.

I posit here that communication, while imperfect, was probably about as good as could be expected. Had I communicated perfectly in game one, however, I would still have had the same argument with the GM. The argument would have come before the game instead of months down the road, but I still would have had the same bad feelings. (and wouldn't have met some cool people who I like.) The main reason game one ended unsatisfactorily for me was that I had a game view, the GM had a different game view, and the two could not be made to approach. In game two, however, the GM and I each made compromises. We examined the final product of that bargaining and both decided we could have fun with the results. Hence, owing to this flexibility, game two was successful.

Every person has differing thresholds of tolerance for viewpoint mismatch, and differing abilities to flex themselves. On the matter of violence towards women, I wasn't willing to move much. On the matter of free will, I was more able to accommodate. Other people have almost no ability to flex on any axis; such people don't last very long in games that aren't of their own creation.

So: Communicate, yes, by moving your lips when you have a thought that needs sharing! but also, once you have sent and received, be willing to alter your own message as much as you can and still have fun.


Friday, October 11, 2002

WISH 17: PROPS

Here is presented Ginger's Game WISH question #17, for your delectation and enjoyment:

How do you use props in your game? Give three examples, and discuss why you use them. What do they bring to the game? Are there any downsides to using them? For those who do convention games, are there differences between the props you use in campaigns and the props you use for con rounds?

I like to buy bloody carcasses from the butcher and flop them wetly on the gaming table to graphically illustrate the nasty business of hack-n-slash.

No, I don't. I'm not a hugely prop-intensive person as a general rule. I've written about Eop the Raven and the use of a bat puppet to bring him to life, so writing about that would be cheating. So, something else, something else....

I'm a big fan of maps. I love to draw full-color game world maps and present them for the players' use. I also like to draw sketchy maps and update them as the players explore the world. It's fun to do, and it's a reasonably useful tool, especially if the group needs to do a lot of travel planning and logistics. I also use AutoCAD to plot out custom battlemats for 3E D&D fights and other encounters.

In my most recent round of DUDE I used two props to good effect. In this game, I was playing the executive producer, and the players were playing action movie actors. After an initial phase of wrangling over the direction of the picture we were about to shoot, one of the players was designated the 'Actor/Director'. I had bought a black beret for that individual's use. The Actor/Director would then artily lay out how the forthcoming scene would be shot. Meanwhile, I had bought a prop for my own use: a novelty cigar, as large as a cucumber, that really blew smoke without being lit (although a tiny LED lit up at the end when it was puffed on). I think these props added a bit of ambience to the proceedings.

It's not really a prop, but it was a definite artifact in use during games: when I ran my long-running AD&D game in college, we had the rattiest comfy chair you can possibly imagine. It was a scum-green armchair with the stuffing spilling out of numerous rips in the fabric; also, for some reason that was never quite clear to me, the legs had been entirely sawed off. My freshman year this chair was rescued from a dumpster and brought to our room. During gaming it was used as the DM's chair; despite its low stature and gnarly appearance, it was really quite comfortable. This chair was dubbed the Chair of Power and remained in use for quite some time, despite horrifying substances spilled on it and its increasingly moldy stench. I can't say that the Chair of Power actually added much to the games, except that it was so low that I could sit in it and scootch it backwards under our quasi-bar table, thereby lurking in shadow while governing the proceedings.

The coolest prop I think I've ever seen in a game had to be some papers painstakingly penned by Jason Modisette. Our characters were in a library researching old crime scene records which had been handwritten with poorly blotted penmanship. The record we were really interested in was missing; the bad guys had spirited it away. However, we shortly realized that the poor blotting of the ink had led the missing record to leave a backwards imprint on the piece of paper that had lain on top of it; by taking that page and looking at it in a mirror, we were just barely able to make out the information we needed. Jason had worked quite a long time on getting the writing to read right backwards, and making it faint enough to not be terribly obvious.

I really like illustrations. I don't generally do a lot of research to procure them for my own games, but I always enjoy games more when there are pictures to look at. I still fondly recall that first heady experience of playing in AD&D adventure S3, which contained an illustration booklet with quite a number of gorgeous pictures of bizarre encounters (S3 is set inside an alien spaceship). Nowadays Kenzer and Company has brought back the illustration booklet for their Kalamar d20 adventures, which makes their adventures worth a look, if not an actual purchase.

For my games, the prop that sees the most use must be the whiteboard and pens. There is always some need to explain the situation the players find themselves in graphically. I make a lot of use out of sketching and doodling.