Friday, June 21, 2013

The Role of Role Playing in Role Playing Games

I want to talk a little bit about role playing, because it's an incredibly important part of the game to me. There are lots of ways to play D&D and none of them are really wrong, but there are wrong ways to play for the specific group of people you're playing with. Some people want a well-crafted story, that may be lower on the combat side of things, or something that's a pure numbers game, and it's basically all combat-based dungeon crawling. The thing is that D&D is, as a tabletop game, best suited to something that sits right in the middle. If all you want is the combat and loot part of the game, there are lots of co-operative video games, or miniature games that have in depth and strategic ways around combat. If you're more into just a story-based experience, other systems, like Fate or White Wolf or Mouse Guard, are better fits for that kind of game.

I've played with groups who were really not used to having to role play their characters, and it's thrown them off a bit that I've forced that upon them, in some ways. A lot of times it's about comfort level, you have to be okay with pretending to be someone entirely different around other people. Some people are okay with that, but remember D&D's primary demographic trends towards the more awkward side of things. For me role playing a character is huge. Not just as a player, but as a DM, it really gives me an entirely new set of tools with which to manipulate the world. Not only that, but it allows for me to compensate for balancing issues.

It's not a Numbers Game:
Allow me to get into that side of things. Dungeons & Dragons is not a balanced game. They've done what they can, but there are ultimately a lot of ways that you can fundamentally break the game in the way you build your character. There are also a lot of ways that you can take the wrong set of feats, or not specialize in such a way that your character isn't super useful. This is exacerbated by the fact that some character classes are slow to get the ball rolling (Monks, for example) where other classes are really powerful right out of the gate (Alchemists are a good example). One thing that this does often, is when skill or combat testing events are going on in the campaign constantly, characters that are less effective at those things than others may start to feel like they aren't able to contribute to the party, and that's where role playing really comes in handy. By having a fleshed out character, I can bring other uses for that character into the game. Bring their back story forward, or a connection that can only be made by that character, based on who they are. It's something that makes the player feel awesome, and gives them that sense that they're contributing in a way that's important.

I can tell you that, at least the way I've always played, numbers can only get you so far. I recall whilst playing Shadowrun with several of my friends, my dear friend Tavish opted to play a cloned elven version of Pierre Elliot Trudeau because why the fuck not? Now the numbers on Tavish's (nearly 8 page) character sheet gave him absurdly high scores in persuasion, bluffing, intimidation, etiquette, leadership and basically every skill under the sun to let you talk your way out of any situation you put yourself in. The problem is that Tavish himself doesn't always make the best decisions for his characters in tense conversations and it doesn't matter how critical a success you rolled, the drug-addled prostitute with the nerve gas grenade you left unattended is probably not going to care. This goes doubly if you don't happen to ask the right questions (another unfortunate problem that elven-clone PET frequently had). See, a lot of people may play that you don't actually have to say anything specific, you can just roll your persuasion and get the information or result you want. That way works if you want to play D&D from a numbers-only perspective, but that doesn't allow players to be rewarded for strong role playing.

(Don't) Be Yourself:
One of the easiest things to do is to role play yourself, and it's what most people do the first time they have to make a character. It's basically a fantasy version of yourself with a different history, and some cool abilities. That's great, but I try to discourage that. I do this for a couple of reasons, and the foremost one is that it's kinda boring. See, when people are role playing themselves they tend to be somewhere in the chaotic good spectrum of role playing (I'll get to alignment a little later), and they tend to be very reserved in their actions. People play themselves very safe. They're not likely to do anything crazy, or rash, or often just take some of the risks that can make some of the most interesting stuff in the game happen. Part of the problem is that people like their character too much. I'm not saying you shouldn't like your character, but the fact is that your character doesn't need to be someone you'd like, you just have like playing as that character. In the entirety of my experience playing role playing games, I can think of (maybe) two characters who are nice people who I would like if they were real. Every other character I've played would be a horrid person to meet. The fact is that I love playing as them. Because of who that person was, I was doing things that I normally would never consider, or would consider as absurdly short-sighted and stupid. When you fear too much for your own character's life (which you should, to a degree), you tend to play characters in a certain way. It's fine to do so, but I think you'll find that if you start playing characters based on how much you like playing as them, as to how much you like them as a person, you may have more fun.

Making RP "Worth It" for the Player:
As a DM, I like to reward strong role playing. Offering small incentives, like bonus experience, for role playing a character well and for making decisions not based on what would give the best outcome but based on what they think their character would do is something that's important to reward otherwise the character may as well just do the former and get more out of it. This doesn't just apply to the elements of the game outside of action sequences. I think it says a lot about a player if the way they act in combat or other tense situations is reflective of their character as a whole, and it's important to reward that behaviour. So what if it is (statistically) a better idea to attack an enemy with your weapon than to throw a taxidermy skunk at them, if you think that's what your character would do then fucking do it. I know, as a DM, trying to enacting a plan, or doing something creative with your turn, I will always give a higher chance of success than the standard “slash him with my sword” actions. It's important to encourage this because it adds and incenitivises an entirely new dynamic to the combat setting. If there's no situational elements that a character can use in that scenario, it's jarring and flow-breaking as a game aspect, and you may as well have all combat take place in bare, rectangular rooms.

Some Words on Alignment:
Alignment is always one of the hardest things to explain to new players, and it's a frequent point of contention for veteran players. For those unfamiliar: every character in D&D has what is known as an alignment which determines where they lie on two axes: Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil. This separates all characters into 9 categories: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil. These categories theoretically determine how your character might behave in a given situation. There are no degrees to which you can be a certain alignment, you cannot be multiple alignments, you are pigeon-holed into 9 very loosely defined behaviour patterns. I will say right now that I hate alignment as a system. It is a crutch for bad role-players. Players who have no sense of character are able to determine what their character should do based on an incredibly vague, but restrictive system. “My character would do this because they're Lawful Good” is a terrible way to justify decisions. Your character should be making decisions because you have a good sense that your character would make those specific decisions, regardless of their alignment. Alignment, as I see it, only has a place in terms of being a factor affecting alignment-based magical effects. You could easily replace the alignments with Astrological signs, or Elements, or fucking colours, it doesn't matter. Alignment is a vague, generic trait that determines whether or not the spell Blasphemy can do 5d8 damage and nauseate you.

Another thing that's been a point of contention with a lot of people I discuss role playing games with is evil characters. Now I want to discuss this because I trend towards playing characters that, while not necessarily evil, are most certainly bastards. A lot of people seem to believe that the primary issue is that an evil character will derail a campaign, it will cause in-fighting and problems within the party and generally will create discontent amongst the players. To this I say, “you aren't doing it right, then”. See, the thing is, in many cases people playing an evil character take that as an excuse to kill other players, or rob them. That's the wrong way to look at it. Being evil just means that your motivations are entirely different. It's about cooperation. The Dungeon Master needs to be able to provide motivating factors such that the evil character has a reason to be there. The evil character needs to cooperate insofar as knowing they should not be derailing things. Playing an evil character can be a helluva lot of fun, but you have to remember that it's not just about your fun, so when playing that character, your actions should take into account the fact that the rest of the party also has their own motivations. It's both the job of the players and the DM to facilitate the needs of one another. Basically, if you're playing an evil character because you plan on using that as an excuse to troll the game, you should perhaps find another group. I'm going to mention my good friend Kane again (we'll see how many of these posts I can fit him into in a row). In our most recent campaign, Kane's character was the only evil character in the party. Now, the way he went about things and got things done was certainly evil, but he played his character such that he was either in agreement about where the party had to (or should) go, or played it such that he went along begrudgingly forced by the party through threats or other motivating factors. Kane played evil in his actions, but in such a way that while it added flavor (or corpses), it didn't break the flow of the game (or add the corpses of the rest of the party). What it did do was create tension. I will say right now that in-fighting within a party of characters is not a bad thing and I don't just say this because I've never managed to make a character who gets along with any of Tavish's characters. I say this because distrust amongst the party gives an extra element that the DM can manipulate, and it means that interesting character development can happen between the party, even when there are no other characters around.

I want to have people I'm playing with become comfortable with role playing, and it's something I do my best to facilitate as much as I can. Any of the people who have participated in tabletop games alongside me will confirm that am not afraid to make myself look like an asshat with ridiculous voices, or actions or character concepts in general. It's something I very much do on purpose. Partially because it's fun as hell, and partially because it allows other players to feel like it's okay turn into someone else. You get into character, because it's still less ridiculous than that asshole over there is speaking with a thick Nigerian accent and keeps asking “Where did you get dat a'm? I want dat a'm!”