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!