Saturday, January 5, 2019

We Don't Care

[I'm actually back in Seattle now, eagerly awaiting the start of playoff football. This is a post I wrote while winging my way back from Mexico]

Somewhere over North America…

Several weeks ago I had the chance to watch Dan Collins (Delta) and Paul Seagel in their first livestream video about "old school gaming" in which they discuss some of the concepts that distinguish the "old school" from the "new school" (cue the usual groans and rolled eyeballs). Around the 23 minute mark of the video they start talking about high death count as one of the usual indicators of old school play. And while I don't entirely agree with that, Paul has a quote about two minutes later that really struck a chord with that I've been rolling around in my mind ever since:

"I have had moments with players being more used to 'new school' games being taken aback, and needing an adjustment of 'Oh, really? I can die this easily? Well, why do I care about this character?' And the answer is, well, you don't. Like, maybe get attached to them after they've lived through a few things..."

This is literal truth. We DON’T care about our characters…not at first anyway. 

Allow me to walk through character creation, B/X style:

I roll my six ability scores, then take stock of what I have and what looks like a good option for a possible class, probably leaning towards something I think I’ll enjoy playing (*I* tend to be partial to fighty types). Based on how those ability scores look (in relation to my character class and, possibly, my presumed role in the party) I start to form an idea of my character. Then, because of the randomly determined gold I possess, I choose equipment I feel will be suitable for my character and the adventure at hand. At this point, I might (if my imagination is working good), start to form an image of my character in my mind’s eye…though not often.

Finally, I roll hit points, make some notes about armor class and whatnot, give my character a name that feels appropriate, and pick an alignment based as much on whimsy as on setting, image, and/or idea. Alignment gives me some guidelines for how I might play my character, but if I haven’t formed a really solid concept in my head, I’ll probably just pick “neutral” as a default.

At this point, I am ready to play. There is nothing more I need…no background, no backstory, no hometown, family, allies, enemies, blah-blah-blah. None of that matters. It is helpful if I’m familiar with other players at the table, and it’s definitely useful to know what kind of characters they are running, but these things can be picked up on the fly once play begins. Social dynamics are going to morph anyway once the game commences, based on player personality, scenario/situation, and reaction to situation (based on player personality).

If the DM is doing his/her job, I will become immersed in the game world, reacting to situations as they arise, based on my personality, the resources available to me on my character sheet, and the actions of my fellow party members. Depending on the outcome of party member actions, social dynamics might change, and things may develop that impact future play. But when I am fully immersed in game play, all thoughts of character “image” or “concept” melt away…in my mind’s eye, it is me (JB) wearing armor or wizard robes, swinging a big axe or a holy symbol, dealing with monsters, exploring dark dungeons, etc. The personality of my “character” becomes my own, with all other directional pointers (like alignment) simply fading away.

Let me reiterate that last point: when I am immersed in playing, the character has MY personality, and makes decisions as I would, regardless of alignment. A couple of examples:

- A PC who stumbles across an opportunity to steal a bit of decent treasure (say a fist-sized diamond), unbeknownst to the rest of the party, is as likely to do so as the player playing, REGARDLESS of character alignment.  The lawful character might feel (selfishly) that this is something to be used for the good of her cause, church, etc. and best kept from the hands of her dastardly compatriots. A chaotic character might feel it’s best to share such a find with the other party members because the party is the character’s best ticket to survival (and eventual wealth and power). 

- A lawful character might feel it is best to put captive creatures to the sword as it benefits “the greater good” of protecting civilization from the monsters’ degradations. A chaotic character might feel that captives spared might make fine recruits for a motley horde at some future point…barring that, they may prove useful in some more immediate fashion (information or hostages, for example).

There is no rule that says a lawful character can’t act cowardly in the face of danger (despite what Moldvay writes…see page B11). There’s no rule that says a chaotic or neutral character cannot have a personal sense of honor. And even though the rules state “alignments give guidelines for characters to live by,” in my experience player personality trumps alignment every time, and it is always possible to justify one’s actions later, if and when called to do so.

The same holds true for ANY attempt to artificially create a fictional “persona” based on backstory, secondary skills (1stedition), kits (2ndedition), backgrounds (5thedition), non-class professions (0-level DCC), etc.  Assuming the DM is doing his/her job, my attention is going to be held by the game, and I will act and react to the events of the game based on my personality, and the resources I have available. 

Playing D&D is not the theater. I have no need to understand my character’s background or motivation because I am not acting out a script and I am not reading someone else’s lines. In theater, these things (background, motivation) are immensely important to help put yourself in the headspace of a character, in order to deliver a performance that feels authentic. Acting always filters a character through the actor’s own person, but to get the right emotional beats, actors need to recreate (in their own mind) the circumstances that have led to the on-stage actions they are taking.

Playing D&D is not about delivering an “authentic performance;” that isn’t the objective of game play. The objective is to have one’s character survive and thrive in the imaginary environment provided by the DM. And if the DM is pressing the players hard, providing situations that make survival difficult and thriving complicated, then the player is likely to experience the immersive type of game play that is unavailable in any other medium, outside of certain “First Person Shooter” games (and those only provide a similar experience in a limited, restricted sense). When players experience this type of game play, all the pseudo-storytelling write-ups in the world have little impact on how a PC behaves. 

Why do we care about this character? The answer is: we don’t. At least, not for a good, long while. After a few game sessions…depending on the particular inclination of the player…we start to identify more and more with the scribbles and numbers on the character sheet as being “me,” i.e. ourselves. And it is at that point players start to form an attachment, sometimes a deep attachment, to this alternate identity we’ve created. Even our fellow players may begin to look at the character sheets as “us” (at least at the table) alternately calling players by character names and referring to characters by the names of the player.

But it’s never really the character that we care about. When the DM is doing their job, what players care about is the game being played. And the character as a vehicle is our means of interacting with that game. As characters develop over time, we players become more and more attached to the character sheet that represents ourselves in the game world…not only because of the character’s increased effectiveness (fighting ability, spell inventory, magic item stockpile, etc.) but because of the character’s impact on the campaign itself…the creation of a shared history for the fantasy world based on the adventures experienced, and the stories of past exploits experienced by members of the gaming table.

Losing such a character…this fantasy avatar to which we’ve formed a deep attachment…can be a devastating blow. Having that character diminished (in any number of a variety of ways) can cause us to suffer real anguish, even in those of us who don’t usually feel terrible losing a game of, say, Uno or Monopoly. And from my own experience as both a DM and as a player, I can say that the loss of a long-term character (beloved or not) can have a dramatic impact on the other players at the table as well, not just the player whose character was lost.

Personally, I think that all the additions to character creation over the years...additions that draw out the chargen process…has been done in part to facilitate us becoming attached to our character sheets, trying to make us care about these scraps of paper from Session 1. Yes, I know there are other reasons the designers will cite: providing players more options, adding interesting systems, giving players a means to distinguish themselves from the other characters at the table. Those things are part of it, sure. But really, that's all in aid of trying to make us CARE from the get go…and the thing is, what we truly cared about was never the character itself. What we cared about was what the character was allowing us to do.

And that only occurs with a competent DM and long term play.

All right, we’re preparing to land at SeaTac, so it’s time to put away Ye Old Laptop. I’ll post this to the blog sometime tonight or tomorrow. G’night!
: )


  1. Excellent cogent thoughts. Completely agreed! Not caring about low level characters is part of the charm of the game. Really makes me miss a good B/X game. Woe! Woe!

  2. This is something I've been trying to explain to new players for a while. You explain it much better than I ever have.

  3. You’ve explained one way of playing your character but not the only way. You don’t need an elaborate backstory to start thinking about your man as a person and getting into character. That’s okay even if it’s quite possible for him to die.

    In fact, making up a little bit of character for your man makes his death more meaningful and interesting.

  4. JB, I don't know if this is a recent insight or if you've been feeling this way all along ... but I have been shouting this from the treetops for ten years now.

    I agree with Lance. An excellent construction of thought and message. This was to have been part of my discussion on player values in my RPG 201 course; I hope you don't take that as my stealing any of your message here. It is brilliantly stated and I stand to applaud.

    1. @ Alexis:

      Ha! "Brilliant?" Really?

      No, this IS a more recent insight, the seeds of which were planted long ago by YOUR discussions on why PVP play cannot be defended on the basis of "playing in character." This, plus my examination (over the last couple years) of the "experiential" nature of the game, and why and when the game "works" has all led me to this conclusion. The final "click" came with the video, but it's been a long, slow boil with a lot of contributing ingredients (including The Dungeon's Front Door).

  5. Fantastic! Thanks for writing this, as I plan on showing it my group. Very well written indeed! :-)

  6. This is a fine and fun way to play, but it is not the only fine and fun way to play. It may be the easiest to teach new players though, and that is certainly a strength to point out.

  7. I wish I could have put it so clearly.

  8. This entry really resonates with me, especially as I'm playing a campaign with a more old-school gamer on Fridays and had lost a character after the first adventure to, of all things, her falling to her doom off a crumbling balcony.

    I really like the mention of player motivation being explainable for characters of varying alignment. The examples seem the opposite of your typical Lawful or Chaotic motivations most people give, but make sense when one thinks about it.

    And as a roleplayer in various forms over the years, not just in tabletop RPGs, I can safely say that reacting as one if one was in that scenario is not only a good way to roleplay, but is one I'd stuck by for a long time.

    All-in-all, this post knocked it out of the park. \o/

    1. I've been watching a lot of how-to D&D content lately on YouTube and I cannot believe how many people are fixated on "telling their story" or "making compelling characters" for when they sit down to play.

      How can you tell what your story is going to be before you get together and make it?

      How can you tell who your character is going to be before he shows you through play?

      Story is what you get out at the end, not what you put in at the beginning.