THROW THE SWITCH, IGOR!

March 20, 2010 1 comment

To inaugurate this bit of online presence, let’s talk about the title a bit, and why it’s there.

Jim has a blog he calls “Struggle, Fast Talk, and Bluff”, named for what he refers to as the core competencies of most of his RPG characters.  Amused by the idea, I asked him, as one of the people who has gamed with me the most, what he felt were the core competencies of most of my characters. “Audacity?” he replied.

He wasn’t wrong.

This isn’t a talk-about-your-character post, but his point was valid.  I have always most enjoyed playing characters who often should not have gotten away with the things they did.  They succeeded, not just by skill, but by acting with a total certainty (sometimes from blind naiveté, sometimes as a deliberate gambit) that the insanely risky actions they took were perfectly reasonable.  These were characters that took time out to browbeat a villain on the evils of collaborating with Nazis while the airship collapses around them.  Characters that walked into highly secure corporate research facilities mumbling in a barely-comprehensible accent about “mhrmuhnuh consortium ferahmmmrhm private investors” until a PR flack gave them a tour to solicit an investment.  Characters that dove out of planes without parachutes or into arctic waters in their skivvies.

Some of this is comedy.  Some of this is genre-convention.  The unifying factor, though, is a willingness to not merely court danger, but walk headlong into it.  This behavior has led to some of the most satisfying gaming I’ve had, and by most accounts seems to increase the overall fun for the other players at the table.  So, I want to kind of break down exactly what I’m talking about as a behavior, and why I think it leads to better gaming.

Most players in games, RPGs or otherwise, are fairly risk-averse.  They would rather not gamble significant resources on a longshot if more conservative avenues offer better odds.  This is mitigated by the severity of consequence.  Players in a video game, particularly with frequent save points and especially with the ability to save anywhere, find little risk in bold attempts and are much more likely to try unusual tactics.  Players in a board game are often more willing to take large risks, as the time-investment is often minimal and another game can always be played.  But players in an RPG often face much more severe consequences, up to and including character death.  The game, as they currently experience it, can truly and permanently be over if they make a poor decision or are unlucky.1

What tends to happen, then, is that RPG players are particularly risk-averse.  They will spend significant time arguing over what gear to take, what path to choose, how to approach the castle/compound/cave.  They spend hours of gaming time trying to avoid trouble, to minimize the risks to their characters, and essentially render them impervious to negative consequence.  Sometimes this is genre-appropriate: Shadowrun, for example, expects a fair amount of pre-op strategizing.  Most of the time, however, this is simply wasted play time.  The players argue over the “best” plan, rarely agree unanimously, then things don’t work out as planned and the new argument is over who screwed up and whether or not the plan sucked.  This is not fun, I think, for most people.  Fun in games comes from the action.  Not combat, necessarily, but “characters doing things”, rather than planning to do them.

A thought experiment:

A group of players plan a daring raid on a castle to rescue a princess.

In Universe A, the players spend one and a half hours of real time arguing over the plan of attack.  One faction favors a stealthy midnight raid, another wants a heavily armed and armored assault, and one guy wants to just try to bluff their way in.  Flaws are found in every plan, accusations are made, tempers get a bit hot.  Everyone is trying to control all the variables and cover all the bases.  Eventually, a crude and grudging compromise is formed, the players spend 20 minutes actually attacking the castle without a lot of interest before they have to go home for the night because they’re out of time.  Everyone kind of grumbles a bit.

In Universe B, the players spend 15 minutes debating strategies, take a quick vote, and run with the winner.  It’s not a terribly well-thought out plan, and things go awry.  One of the characters is captured, and the players spend the next hour and a half sneaking into the prison, meeting the captured character (who has meanwhile tricked the warden, stolen his keys, and is making his own escape), rescuing the princess, setting fire to the place, and escaping on stolen horses.

The Universe A group is risk-averse.  They’ve tried to manage those risks into nonexistence, nobody is really happy with the plan, and they’ve used up a big chunk of their gaming session fighting over the plan.  The Universe B group is risk-aware, but action-focused.  They consider the options briefly, but recognize that no plan survives first contact and instead roll with the punches.  The problems this leads to are seen as opportunities, because they are further chances for the characters to take actions.  In Universe B, the players spend most of the night playing the game.  Now, it’s possible Universe A had more fun, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

“So, Josh,” I hear you say, “you’re saying that players shouldn’t plan?”  No, you foolish little straw man.  I’m saying that planning and playing are rarely the same thing, and that the excitement and energy of a game dips sharply when the former takes precedence over the latter.  I’m also saying that RPGs are about conflict.  Conflict includes the possibility of failure and of negative consequences.  Trying to plan to avoid those consequences and to rule out failure is both futile and counterproductive.  Take a die roll.  Rolling that die determines, say, your character’s life or death.  You can build a bit of tension by shaking it a few times in your hand and uttering a few comical prayers, but once you spend five to ten minutes planning an elaborate die-throwing strategy intended to maximize the possibility that a six will come up, the other players will rightfully want to kill you and the actual roll will have lost a lot of interest, too.  That may seem like a silly example, but it is, in essence, what elaborate planning and risk-avoidance is in most games.  It is a long and mostly-pointless attempt to influence a die roll, operating under the misapprehension that the die roll is the interesting part of the game and that the goal of the game is to succeed on all your die rolls.

JOSH’S MAXIM: Getting out of trouble is more fun that avoiding it.

JOSH’S COROLLARY: It is better to spend an hour and a half getting out of trouble than it is to spend an hour and a half trying not to get into trouble.

When the players are in trouble and trying to get out of it, their characters are active.  As players, they are building the stories they will tell other gamers about their characters.  “Oh, man, there was this time Totally Not Drizzt got caught sneaking into the Forbidden Temple of Blood…”  They are role-playing, revelling in success and improvising wildly when they fail.  When the players are trying to plan to stay out of trouble, their characters don’t exist.  The players are having that argument (usually).  They are debating the likelihood of scenarios, trying to find modifiers to die rolls, looking up charts, and the like.  The game grinds to a halt, and that session almost certainly slides out of the memory as kind of boring and uneventful.2

To bring it back to the beginning, audacity is the quality that players bring to the game when they spit in the face of the whims of chance and accept the risks, confident that a better game comes to those who take action.  Not necessarily success, not necessarily victory, but action, adventure, and a damn good story.

And if you’re not getting that out of your gaming, why are you playing?

1: This post is about player action.  I’ll talk about how the GM fits into this later, but for now, suffice to say that if a GM is allowing for player death as the consequence of anything but combat or the most dramatic and story-relevant of rolls, they should be slapped (my opinion).

2: Yes. There are players who actually consider this to be the fun part of the game. These players should be gently pushed towards Warhammer or perhaps Advanced Squad Leader.

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Categories: RPGs Tags: ,

Turbines to Speed

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Inspired by Jim and Judd, I’ve set up this blog as a place to talk “publicly” about gaming from my perspective.

A bit about where that perspective is coming from:

I am a long-time pen-and-paper gamer, an even longer-time video gamer, and soon (barring misfortune) entering the professional video game industry as a level designer.  I wrote material on a freelance basis for the most recent incarnation of PARANOIA, have a few undeveloped RPG ideas of my own floating around, and like many gamers have more games than I’ve actually played, let alone have time to play.

I love games of all kinds, have no tolerance for “indie” vs. “mainstream” arguments, and am solely devoted to the idea that games should be fun.

The rest of this blog will be an extended, one-man argument over what “fun” is and how to get there.

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