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.