Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 2)

Now just in case my last post didn't offend anyone, allow me to continue my attempt to get folks riled.

I said that fantasy role-playing occurs when the objective of the player matches the objective of the character. Here are some things I do NOT consider "role-playing:"

- "My character's 'objective' is to use his abilities, powers, feats, and skills in a tactically sound fashion to aid the party is bringing down a monstrous foe," aka The 4E Standard Objective. This is bullshit as far as role-playing goes, pure and simple. Sure, there may be people in this world who have a superficially similar bushido-like approach to their career as a soldier of fortune, but that's not an objective. An objective is something like "to maintain honor/face (even in combat)," or "to die a hero's death in battle," or "to show off my (combat) moves in a display of hotdog, adrenaline junky-ness." But not every person fits that few, in fact, that I'd need much more demonstration from a player character (outside of combat) to justify consideration of these as true objectives.

Some examples? Okay:
  • Samurai guy: must conduct all affairs with the utmost dignity and respect, from bargaining with employers to bartering with shopkeepers. Must be aware of own honor at all times, to the point of challenging/attacking anyone who steps on or snubs that honor (including employers, shopkeepers, companions, etc.). Honor is an inconvenience.
  • Viking guy: must constantly bemoan the idea of dying like a thrall or merchant (in bed). Must seek combat against worthy foes at every opportunity. Never run from a fight (even against a foe that outclasses him) as it is better to dine in Valhalla that slave in Nifflheim. Peaceful resolution is something to be spurned.
  • Show-off guy: must always be first into any hazardous activity (walking point, scaling walls, checking out scary, dark holes). Must brag about exploits to anyone who will listen, talking himself into gigs that might be suicidal. Should always be looking for the biggest, meanest, challenge he can find in order to impress the lads/ladies. Cannot sit quietly or move stealthily; inactivity is painful.

- Indie gamers that role-play (via "author/pawn stance") things happening to characters against the character's objectives because things are "more interesting that way."

Now some indie gamers might object to this, and we can get into a whole debate over what a role-playing game IS and blah-blah-blah. THAT's not up for discussion here. Point is, certain games (for example, Capes) are much more "story creation" games with contested plot points than "role-playing games," even if one is creating a character for each "scene." And games like InSpectres skirt the edge so dangerously that they may well fall out of the RPG category, too.

I am all in favor of players making interesting/questionable choices on their character's behalf that might result in problematic consequences...even (and especially) choices they wouldn't normally make in real life. The key to whether or not this is "role-playing" is the you (the player) share the same objective as your character.

For example, is the player's objective to seduce the barmaid (which would result in trouble) in line with the character's objective? Or does the character want to remain true to his betrothed sweetheart and the player just wanting to cause trouble for him (the character)? Do you see the difference?
  • In the first instance, the character is a dog, and the player is playing him as a dog. That's role-playing.
  • In the second instance, the player wants something bad/interesting to happen to the character (he gets in trouble with the barmaid) while the character ends up becoming some sort of "flawed simpleton" that blunders into trouble and now we can address a specific premise or have some dramatic scene, introverted ("O why did the gods allow me to be seduced? Why did I drink such strong wine that night?") or not (the girlfriend catches him with his pants down). In either case, the player is not role-playing; the player is directing the character in a scene (or scenes) for their own (and others) amusement. While this is a fine and dandy way to play, it is NOT taking on the role of character in imaginary game world.

Okay, so...if you will (for the moment) buy into the idea that fantasy role-playing is matching character objective to player objective, what does any of this have to do with "cooperative play?"

Well, for one thing: how does one resolve players' differing and sometimes conflicting role-playing objectives with each other when the form of cooperation is supposed to be one of shared participation in common cause?

FOR EXAMPLE: Six players sit down to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The assumption is that the five, non-DM players will create characters that work together towards a shared, oh, raiding a dungeon and finding a big heap of treasure. Pop quiz folks: what's the great hope for the session?

A) That players will work together to defeat the insidious dangers of the adventure?
B) That players will role-play their characters, even at the risk of supplanting the adventure goals?

Now before you answer, bear in mind the following:

#1 The main thing an RPG like D&D has over a video game is the ability to role-play. If you're not interested in role-playing, why are you playing in the first place?

#2 The rules of D&D (at least the B/X rules) state that things like "winning and losing" don't apply to D&D games. Gygax wrote a bit about there being better quality of play in the DMG, but I don't recall any emphasis being put on "winning" adventures...only on adventuring itself.

For me personally, I say role-playing takes precedence over conquering said dungeon...which may be a reason why so many of our "dungeon adventures" back in the day were never completed.

And even while that could be debated, one has to consider that Dungeons & Dragons provides the option of throwing together individuals of wildly different backgrounds...the classic example being the paladin and assassin that are members of the same adventuring party. Even if you're playing an edition that doesn't allow this particular combo (like 2nd edition or B/X) you can still have good and evil (or Lawful and Chaotic) individuals in the same group...and both players and characters of such disparate backgrounds will often find their objectives in conflict with each other. What is one to do in such circumstance?

If I get around to a part 3 in this series, I'll give some ideas.
; )


  1. I was really hoping to be a little offended, but I wasn't even miffed. So I bought B/X Companion (finally), and haven't much to add here really.

    When the players are actively trying to "do things" that affect their characters in negative ways, then either their DM is not doing his job (i.e. making the players weep and gnash their teeth) or someone's made a horrible mistake and everyone's accidentally playing a game of [INSERT PRETENTIOUS INDIE GAME HERE].

  2. It's funny that you mention videogames, since I gathered that the main point you were trying to get across is very videogame-like; playing the character as is, not as a representation of yourself. Sacrificing what you would want to do for the sake of a good character story.

  3. Eggselent post, man. I agree with you totally.

  4. JB, this series of posts has stirred up something that was already stirring in my head.

    As you know, I'm running Traveller right now, and in Traveller there are no experience points or other "instant" means of character progression. (You don't suddenly gain a level, or have enough xp to bump your Gun Combat skill up to 4, etc.) The only way to improve skills is to train/study them, which takes only time...unlike most other rpgs, there are no xp or resource or improvement points you have to dump in get it... find the time and a suitably skilled instructor (which might cost some cash) and that skill level is yours. One of my players suggested that his character spends almost all of his time studying combat skills.

    I call bullshit.

    I take wing chun kung fu at a local school here in town. I've been taking it since April, 2008. I can go up to three nights a week. Under Traveller, I should be master with deadly hands of steel by now.

    I ain't.

    There are nights when I don't feel like going. There are nights where I go and just don't seem to get anywhere, training wise. There have been weeks, and months, where I've been too personally distracted with other things to even go. Most of the other guys at the school are like me...even the die hard guys aren't there every time, and go through stretches where they're practicing but not really learning anything new.

    Anyway, where I'm going with this hearkens back to your concept of "player's goal for the character" vs. "character's goals for himself." If I were a character, my player would probably be like "oh yeah, Ryan loves kung fu, never misses practice." Of course not; my player wants me to max out that kung-fu/unarmed skill ASAP. This could also apply to learning an alien language, piloting, or any other "useful" skill. I've also played D&D with characters who refuse to spend gp on food or drink, insisting their character likes to eat trail rations and sleep outside rather than paying for an inn, and I suspect it follows the same pattern... basically using your character as an interface to the game rules, and trying to "win" the game by having enough gp to buy that Vorpal Flaming Dragonbane sword as soon as you can, to max out your kung-fu/piloting/xenology, etc.

    Good posts. Food for thought.