Saturday, August 21, 2010

How much are your characters like you?

In the next couple of posts, I'm going to explore a couple of gaming ideas and questions that have been rolling around in my head. The questions in these posts are intended to help me go back to my GMing role at a later date with more enjoyment and continuing fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, my group started a new campaign just after I finished my Eberron campaign. The new system and world are Cyberpunk 2020. This is a gritty, nihilistic future where everyone is by my standards morally questionable, even the "good" guys if there are any. We were given character class choices across a wide range of options. To me there was no real choice, I had to play the fixer. A fast talking, slick, con artist who buys and sells for profit. All the other options would have started me down a path of gear inflation (bigger and better vehicles, medical supplies, or guns). I just couldn't care less about that stuff.

There is a player in my group, I'll call him Alfonse, who really gets into the stuff his character has. He describes his sniper rifle with a near mystical tone, amplifying his voice as he reaches the crescendo where he finally describes the 6d10 damage his .50 caliber slugs will do. Then he mimics the act of shooting and makes a whooshing sound mixed with harsh consonants. The noise and his gesticulations fall somewhere between those expected in ejaculation and those of gunshot recoil. He then laughs cathartically and pours over the book again to find add-ons and augmentations to said sniper rifle so that his character can shoot farther, more accurately, more powerfully, around corners, in the dark, upside down, underwater, through walls, without leaving a trace, or what ever. He is by profession a silicon valley engineer. Alfonse, narrates his latest computer or phone acquisition with the same spiritual rapture as that sniper rifle.

The parallels that I experience between his character and his person are not direct moral comparisons or comparisons of purpose. The parallels are more like comparisons of perception and world interpretation. That is, he continues to perceive the world through the same lenses. In his case, the quality and strength of gadgetry is a major source of excitement in both his pretend game world and in his real life. I could make less obvious connections between his real life frustrations with "fairness" and his in game perceptions of which NPCs are and are not "jerks" but this comparison would be less clear.

Now, in comparison, I am by nature, training, and profession interpersonally oriented. I focus on the quality and strength of interpersonal relationships. In games this leads me to being primarily interested in negotiation or interactions with PCs and NPCs. I am less oriented toward objects, technology, magic items etc. Even at the table, I pay a lot of attention (maybe too much) to the interactions between the players, their motivations and interests. This blogpost is a case in point.

I've had this conversation with a gamer friend and he argues for the opposite point. To him, his characters bear little reflection of himself. He points to their in-world actions, their in-world morality, roles, and professions. Though he and I consider the same characters and compare them to him, I again come back to the same thesis when I consider his characters. Though the characters differ from him in action and morality, their primary mode of interaction, status seeking, and purpose bears striking similarity to his own interpersonal style in real life. He, like his characters, is quick thinking, takes an interpersonal leadership role, and has the capacity to outwit just about anyone if verbally sparring.

This leads me to my main thesis. Though roleplaying games are fantasy worlds created in part for the relief of escapism, what we escape is the world we are in. We do not escape ourselves. Therefore, we are likely to enact (if not create) characters that continue to perceive the imaginary world in ways similar to the ways that we perceive our real world. In a sense, we will also recreate through our characters the same interpersonal experiences and relationships that we have as people. This may not be as clear in the interaction and relationship with the BBEG. How many of us, after all, work against an opponent or foe on a daily basis that we consider to be irredeemably evil? These tendencies will however be seen much more clearly in the character's relationship to PCs, NPCs, items, and to the player's general responses to the content of the game. Does the player ask for more detail about the magic ring on the finger of the mage or do you wonder more about why the mage is there and what he was trying to do?

If you accept this thesis, it leads to a major question about character creation. When creating a character should you acknowledge this limitation or try to use game mechanics to circumvent it? For example, if Alfonse, the gadget oriented player described above, wants to play a slick talking con artist, should he be allowed to? If allowed, what limitations do you place on or game mechanics do you use to supplement his lack of actual negotiation skill. At the table he might say to an adversary, "If you don't help us we'll hurt you financially" which lacks the finesse of a more positively oriented negotiation such as "If you help us we'll help you" or even a more veiled threat, "We need your help and you need us." If you point out to Alfonse that his negotiation is inelegant, he might say, "That's my limitation as a player, but the character phrases it better, what do you want me to roll?" Do you give him a penalty on the roll? Re-narrate his negotiation to coincide more closely with your perception of a skilled roll result?

Either way you compromise something. If you allow the character to be limited by the player's skill then you shoe horn the player into always playing a character that bears some interpersonal similarity to the player. If you don't then you move from roleplaying toward roll playing.

So, here is where I get on my soap box. I think that roleplaying games, like other forms of play, are a form of practice. The answer for the question of how to respond mechanically to the player's negotiation should be related not as much to some theoretical ideal for a GM or group. The answer to the mechanic used for negotiations should coincide with what the player is practicing while playing the game. So, when Alfonse creates the slick negotiator character, maybe the GM and the player have a conversation about the character to figure out what Alfonse the player is playing with in character creation.

GM: Alfonse, are you playing this character because you want to improve your negotiation skills or because you want to roll dice and make negotiations work?
[Note that this comment does not state the GM's opinion that Alfonse is poor at negotiation. The phrasing above could just as easily be used with a player that is already skilled at negotiation but wants to improve that skill further.]
Alfonse: I really want to roll dice and make it work.
GM: Okay, so let's imagine we're at the table, rpging an interaction, and your dice roll high but your words seem less skilled to me. Do you want me to ignore that disparity and just make the dice work miraculously, re-narrate your words to something that seems more consonant to me with the die roll, or something else.
Alfonse: What about modifying the die roll by the skill of my words?
GM: Well, that could work but it means that my opinion could really nerf a good roll. Would you want that?
Alfonse: Um, not really. But I don't much like the idea that you might re-narrate either.
GM: So, let's just go with the roll as is?
Alfonse: Yeah, that'll work.

In this imaginary dialogue, Alfonse's play practice is similar to what Alfonse enjoys as a person; maximizing numbers, powers, toys, and tools. His orientation to the play is depicted in the discussion of a mechanic for the character's skill. The aspect that he is interested in is the capacity of the number on his sheet, earned by effort and dedicated consciously to that purpose, to change the game world.

The challenge for gaming groups is that GMs often chose to be GMs because they want to play with story, narrative, moral, or interactive elements. The GM may be dissatisfied with participating in someone else's number play (often referred to derogatorily as min-maxing) and prefer a more so called "pure" form of role playing. Now, if that difference is true in your group, as it is in mine, then next question becomes whether or not the GM needs to gain the participation of the other players to play with story elements above, Phrased another way, can the GM can play with one thing (e.g., story and morality) and the player another (numbers and gadgets). I don't have any idea about the answer to that yet. I'm sure that I've been GMing so far as if the answer is "no" leading me to frustration. In the next post, I'm going to consider that question further.

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