Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cooperation and Your Own Objectives (Part 3)

[please refer to post 1 and post 2 to see what the heck I'm talking about]


Example #1

As a DM running a "sand boxy campaign" like, say, the Goblin Wars, I outline a broad overview of the campaign setting and throw out some "teasers," possible adventure ideas players might explore. One PC states he's interested in reclaiming his ancestral dwarvish home, lost in the war (specific objective). Another PC is intrigued by the possibility of discovering ancient ruins from pre-recorded history, possibly to uncover lore that will make him a powerful magic-user (semi-specific objective). A third wants to make some quick cash doing bodyguard work (weak objective). The other PCs are just "along for the ride" at this point, waiting to see what the DM is going to throw at them. How do we reconcile the separate objectives with the standard "party-up-and-adventure" assumption/imperative?

Possible Resolutions of Example #1
  • DM ignores party objectives ("putting them off till later," whenever that might be) in favor of an adventure he's crafted for the party.
  • DM chooses one PC's objective and crafts an adventure specific to it (whichever one grabs his interest/appears easiest); other PC objectives are ignored or "put off till later."
  • DM attempts to craft an adventure that addresses ALL party objectives at once. Tricky to do (and cumbersome as well).
None of these possible resolutions are particularly satisfying. When I encountered this example, I chose to go with the first resolution (i.e. ignoring everyone). Which raises the follow-up question: why bother crafting a sandbox with options at all? See also my recent Traveller experience at last summer's Dragonflight Convention for a similar scenario.

Example #2

Party is exploring a site-based (dungeon) adventure. Characters are engaged in defeating monsters, avoiding traps, and acquiring treasure. Party consists of a mixed bag of individuals including mostly chaotic neutrals and goods (there is a drow character that is lawful neutral). One player, a newbie to the table-top game is playing a thief. The thief is out-classed by the other PCs in the party in both the fighting and magic departments, and so turns to what she knows: stealing (newbie playing a thief? Perfect sense). Character palms and pockets choice treasures from hordes while the other PCs engage monsters in combat. Later, players are upset with the PC's actions, and "rough up" her character, including strip-searching her making her turn over everything that looks like it might have been "suspiciously pocketed." The player was role-playing in character, but has compromised the "cooperative spirit" of the group. As a DM, how do you handle this situation?

Possible Resolutions of Example #2
  • DM allows the extortion/humiliation of the thief to occur (PC pays the price for going against the group); newbie learns to "get along" with the cooperative spirit or go back to video RPGs.
  • DM institutes a "note passing" policy (or something similar) so players don't know what actions are being taken by other party members (though when the thief starts passing notes or calling for "out-of-room conferences" they still know what's going on and force the thief to cough up the loot).
  • DM exercises "DM force" to preclude PCs from acting against each other unless a character is caught "red-handed;" breeding resentment in players.
All of these resolutions suck...they all seem to be enabling the overall immaturity at the table rather than addressing it, and none of these possible resolutions encourage a character to engage in role-playing, should their character be a scurrilous rogue and thief. Honestly, I haven't encountered this kind of situation since I was a kid, but this specific one is taken from an actual play post taken from the blog of an adult role-player.

Example #3

Players are playing Shadowrun; their run involves kidnapping a celebrity movie starlet (or the Shadowrun equivalent), and holding her for three days so she misses her scheduled commercial appearances. One PC is a sleazy, low-life mage (you know the type...), who decides to have some "fun" with their captive while the group waits for their payday; he has spells that can control the celeb's mind and she has a weak will anyway so he makes her fall hopelessly in lust with him so he can have his way with her in the sleazy motel where they're held up. While this opens all sorts of interesting possibilities, the whole situation makes the other players incredibly uncomfortable...and yet none of them do anything about it, as they don't want to start an intra-party conflict. And it's not like the mage is "hurting her," right? Clearly, the objectives of the player is having a distressing effect but this time it is the PCs with more "wholesome objectives" (um...kidnapping people for pay?) that are being subjugated by the "cooperative spirit." How should the GM address something like this...especially considering there are no mechanical consequences from just being an outright bastard?

Possible Resolutions of Example #3
  • GM lets the game play out as the most natural thing in the harm, no foul and the other players aren't saying "boo;" screw 'em.
  • GM draws the line on what lines can and can't be crossed in the game world, instituting a morality that isn't present within the game text for the peace of mind of the other players.
  • GM takes the player aside and asks him to refrain from indulging his sick fantasies in this particular instance, if only for the good of the "group spirit;" considers not inviting the player to future games.
As usual, I'm not a fan of any of these resolutions. In this instance, the problem is (for me) a lack of morality or rules of conduct within the game system. Certainly, if this were D&D and a chaotic wizard was pulling these shenanigans, the party paladin would step in and clean his clock; here, there are no alignments. In a world where everything is permitted...well, you get the idea.

In reality, this particular scenario happened in a game of Shadowrun I was running, and the "sleaze mage" in question was an NPC the other PCs had hired. I had the NPC engage in his lewd behavior and questionable conduct specifically to force a reaction from the players...but their only reaction was to be turned off by the whole thing. They had no interest in intervening or worrying about ethical questions. Bunch o' pansies, if you ask me...however, I place it here as an example of disconnect between "cooperative play" and "individual objectives" because I can see myself doing this as a player, given the right set of circumstances. Why not? Cyberpunk (even fantasy cyberpunk) IS, drugs, and chrome. But some folks just want to shoot imaginary guns I guess...

Example #4

The game is Vampire the Masquerade, there are eight players besides the GM. All characters reside in the same city, which has a small group of NPC vamps in addition to the PC. Each player creates their own character the "White Wolf way:" character concept, backstory, some ties or connections to the city. Characters are not expected to be a "party;" they are expected to be interesting characters and get involved in the drama of undead life. The players are all smart, hip college students...they all are able to come up with fairly specific concepts for their characters if not outright objectives. For example, the sewer-living Nosferatu wants to dig up dirt on all the vampires of the city so that he can blackmail them all as a way to power. The Ventrue club owner just wants to own a really cool bar that is popular with kindred and kine alike (and, in fact, already has the bar as part of his backstory and background points "spent" during character creation). You, as the Storyteller (GM), have some ideas for possible conflicts but the group seems hopelessly do you get them all involved in a scenario or plot and still provide them with in-roads for meeting their objectives?

Possible Resolutions for Example #4
  • Storyteller ignores the player objectives in favor of his own plot, railroading as necessary to get PCs involved (such as blowing up the Ventrue's bar in the opening scene).
  • Storyteller offers his conflict/plot without railroading, possibly "throwing bones" here or there for PCs to pick up or not (like allowing the Nosferatu to find useful pieces of blackmail material during the session).
  • Storyteller takes all the character sheets home with him after session #1 and attempts to craft a scenario that addresses all stated objectives in some coherent fashion...and then throws his hands up in disgust and walks away from the game.
Once again, these are all pretty awful ideas, even the 2nd one which is immensely difficult to do in practice (it requires both specificity of objective AND a clever player to pick up the clues/indicators laid down...unless you're just rubbing it in his face).

In actuality, I (the GM in this story) did kind of a combo of these ideas, though mostly number one and number three. It's just damn hard to craft an open-ended scenario for this many players...though in my defense, I played in other White Wolf games run by other storytellers (including both Ars Magica and Mage the Awakening) that had FEWER players and yet still completely failed (and for pretty much the exact same reason). At least my game got to session 3 before I bailed...

Now I can hear certain game designers reading through these examples and my last two posts and yelling, "Who the f-- cares, JB?!" They may offer suggestions like:

a) cut down on the number of players (to better manage individual player's objectives better), OR
b) choose the players that sit at your table carefully so that they don't get any "funny ideas" in their heads and "roll off the rails," OR
c) play a game where the object isn't anything more than using your abilities tactically (and in cooperation) to beat up monsters and take their loot. Who needs the other silly drama stuff?

Ugh, people! That's defeating the whole point of my posts!

Here's what I'd like to see happen:

[oh,'s 2:14am...I am going to bed, folks...we'll continue this tomorrow...]



  1. Another possible resolution of that Shadowrun dilemma:

    The starlet remembers what happened, and using her money, hires another shadowrunning group to get her revenge on the players (alternatively, she hires the players in order to set them up).

    That's what I'd do anyway. Lawlessness does not mean that actions don't have consequences, but I don't know if this apparent solution would work in the context of your wider point.

  2. @ Kelvin: it wouldn't have...we were playing Queen Euphoria.

    I should point out that the NPC had other indiscretions along the run, if I'm remembering correctly (this was 20 years ago)...things like trying to score drugs or BTL chips. At the time (if you'd asked me) I would have said I was trying to make the game "more interesting" by giving the NPC a quirky personality (that's why I say this could have easily been a PC). Now, though? I think I was trying to push the game into a certain depth or level of play that the other players weren't quite willing to follow...

  3. Personally, I'd probably go with "If you don't like what the mage is doing, stop him. It's not my job to keep from doing it." in the SR game. Of course, as Kelvingreen brought up above, later consequences may occur, but at the time that they're dealing with this, it's up to them to change things, and if they aren't willing to, that's their problem.

    Capcha: Milds.

  4. Great series of posts. Got to read them all at once, for once.

  5. This reminds me of something I posted about my RIFTS group a few months ago... I was playing a good-aligned Body Fixer, but the rest of the party were fond of habitually killing unarmed foes who were fleeing or had surrendered. If I were sticking to my guns playing the character the way I imagined him, he'd have simply quit his association with them. My "reward" for playing my character would be that I didn't get to play him anymore. My tastes as a player would be subverted because I'd have to create a character who was ambivalent, or even enthusiastic, about killing prisoners. As it stands, I did end up retiring the character, but I did get a bit of sweet vengeance on the most murderous of the party. (His body was smashed to bits, doc saved his brain and put it in a cyborg body with certain...inhibitors.

    I also totally agree on the White Wolf stuff. Though I haven't run much WW in the last decade, I used to run it all the time in high school and college...and the default method of WW creation, (each character is a concept and an island unto himself, no game consideration for group cooperation) makes it really damn difficult to keep a group together. If I were to run WW again, I would require each player to have a connection between his character and at least one other. It isn't technically WW by-the-book, and it might step on the players' toes slightly, but that opens up another question: would you rather accept certain creative restrictions on your character, or would you rather have the game fall apart after three sessions because everybody wants to fuck everybody over/everybody is totally uninterested in the goals/particulars of every other character?

    Keep up the thoughtful posting.

  6. I think Example #1 is a fundamental difficulty of DMing old school games and if you're going to offer solutions, I'm interested.

    Example #4 is the reason I don't mess with extensive player backgrounds/fleshing out pre-game. The situation in #1 is bad enough without exacerbating it by pushing players towards even more specific and concrete but different goals.

    I don't see #2 as a problem. If you're roleplaying character goals and a member of the party essentially betrays everyone's trust, that member should expect to face their wrath. Does this mean a thief has a hard time being thiefly or that parties can't have paladins and assassins at the same time? Tough. Players can't aim to roleplay character goals only to conveniently forget them when it comes to party formation and coherence.

  7. It's not D&D's fault that its character classes are mostly taken from stories of solo heroics and picaresque capers, while its overarching conceit is Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. Without the Big Quest a party of Conans, Grey Mousers, Rhialtos and Holger Carlsens is going to fall apart if each of them pursues their character destiny.

  8. @ Roger the GS:

    See, I think it IS D&D's fault. Or maybe "responsibility" would be a more apt term.
    ; )