Sunday, October 17, 2010

Roleplaying: Niches and cohorts

I have continued toying with the ideas from my last post, emailing with the members of my group, and here are some of my current ideas.

In our group, every character should have some kind of social skills. I've been talking about these skills being different from one another by using the GURPS social skill distinctions (e.g., carousing, fast talking, and diplomacy). Carousing is for a character that is lower class and works more effectively at an unstructured social situation like a bar/tavern or a party. A character with social skills of this type should not be sent to negotiate with the noble. Similarly, fast talking might be a good skill among merchants, in quick negotiations, or when trying to talk your way past a guard but might not be as useful at the aforementioned party or bar. Fast talking is more goal oriented and someone skilled at it may not know as much about "small talk". Now diplomacy is a much more complex affair, takes more time, is very formal because it is different dependent upon the social rank of those participating. Yet in my Fudge build, these would all be labeled the same "Prosocial skill".

My players responded pretty positively to the idea that each player could have their own social niche. From there, I refined the idea that even the method of interacting may be the same but by becoming aware of the "in group" even characters with similar social styles may be more suited to one interaction over another. For example, the Knight and the Cleric may both be skilled at diplomacy but if you want someone to talk with the Bishop, you send the Cleric.

I did get a little resistance to the idea of running a campaign where every character has a niche defined along either type of social skill of in group affiliation. One player commented that of course the Face is going to be better at social interactions than the gun bunny. To this I introduced two concepts; allies and cohorts.

First, the concept of allies from Savage Worlds. I'm a little tired of the concept that the group is 4-5 characters is the one and only perfectly balanced set of people for "saving the world". So, I'd like the players to rely more on allies and supporters. If you knew that you were going into a big fight in real life and knew that your fate and the fate of many others depended on it, wouldn't you bring as many people with you as you could? We're going to have to play test this to make sure that allies don't slow play down too much but I think it can work and keep specialized social roles plus "gun bunny" cohort members.

Second, I'm thinking of divided troupe play as one way of making the world more diverse and of sharing the lime light. The opening of the campaign that I'm considering asks every person to make a character that is present at a particular noble's home on a particular day. These will be the main characters of the players. Each one will have a special set of social skills and an in group. To allow players to violate the trite commandment, "Don't split the party" I want each main character to have a cohort of other people from their in group that can be played by the other players when that main character is in their unique element.

For example, the 4 main characters at the noble's house might be Ivan (Player #1) a bartender from the local tavern brought in for one night to serve drinks at a party, Giovanni (player #2) the thief in disguise as a server, Father Brunelli (Player #3) from the local church invited because he was newly ordained and is a topic of conversation, and Gregory (player #4) a leader of a local press gang hired for security. That night they all experience things that tie them together and give them a common purpose. But sometimes, it just doesn't make sense to go together. Gregory goes into a riot on the Feast of Fools to rescue a young nobleman who got in over his head while masked. Father Brunelli probably doesn't have any business being in that riot. Fortunately for us, Gregory has his second in command, Stephen (played by player #1) who is skilled with a sword, Brock (played by player #2) a former soldier with a bad attitude, and Ug (played by player #4) who carries a club the size of a small child but isn't the sharpest rock in the gravel pile. Gregory is in charge during the riot but the others, though their main characters are off stage are still part of the action. None of these troupe characters are quite as skilled (not as high level or as many points) as the main characters. Later, when Father Brunelli needs to talk with the bishop, he brings, an acolyte, a deacon, and a servant. Now we've got a fully developed world, with deep relationships, potential for complex interweaving stories, and potential for a variety types of conflict and combat.

So far, the players have liked both the these ideas well enough. Personally, I'm really excited. The main way that I know I'm excited about a campaign is that my mind starts conjuring adventures in it. Once I stepped into the combination of troupe play, those wheels started turning a mile a minute.

Models for Blending GM and Player Interests

As I mentioned in my last post, I am exploring the idea of whether or not it is possible for the players to play with one aspect of the game (e.g., numbers, min-maxing, or gadgets) while the GM plays with another (e.g., story, morality, or themes). I ended that last post by admitting that I have been GMing, to my own frustration as if the answer is "no". The reason that this has brought me frustration is that I have recognized the different play goals between my players and myself, recognized that my job is to bring them enjoyment, and prioritized their fun over mine. This is frustrating because A) I'm just planning for their enjoyment not as much for my own and B) because I just don't get what they enjoy. Case in point, I tried to give my gadget monkey what I thought was an awesome reward at the end of the last campaign, a pile of loot, and he became the new Lord of the Blades. It didn't trip his switch at all, he only accepted the title long enough to pass it off to an NPC. Let me reiterate too that this difference does not exist with all of my players, only some and to varying degrees. I keep using the player I've referred to as Alphonse as my example because, it is with him that the difference with my own style is most stark.

The following are some thought experiments to help me consider ways in my play as the GM and the play of the players might be able to be different. The thought experiments are only experiments. I tend to brain storm this way, generate a lot of ideas, no matter how absurd,

Anthropologist Model
In this approach instead of insisting that players interact with story the way that I would (investment in NPC motivations, backgrounds, and feelings) , I could just accept that the players will interact with the NPCs in the way that they want to. In other words, I change my questions about the play of the PCs from, "When they interrogate the captives what will they ask?" to questions like, "Will the PCs interrogate the captives?" Here instead of being attached to the PCs interacting with the NPCs, the way I would, I switch to finding out whether and how they will interact at all. My play here becomes more direct between me and the players instead of fully immersed between me as NPC and the players as PCs. So, if the players do not interrogate the captives, I might then ask, "What would encourage the PCs in interrogate the captives?" or "If the captives start talking amongst themselves will the the player's PCs become more interested in them?"

Benefit: The benefit of the anthropologist model is that I stop trying to get others to play the way I want and start trying to be interested with the way that they play naturally. I then use the player's natural responses as the source of my amusement. I can dangle new elements in front of the players to test different responses. Do they respond more directly if one of their captives was forced into fighting them? Are they more sympathetic if one of the NPCs was only trying to get enough money to feed his/her family? Do they only care about the back story of guard #4 if guard #4 can tell them about a treasure in the mountains or a magic item owned by the BBEG?

Drawbacks: I might enjoy the above approach more than I have enjoyed GMing this group so far but I don't know if it would scratch my story itch. I really like the fully immersed interaction of NPC to PC roleplay. If this approach does work to bring me joy, I still would need enough game advancement elements (XP, items, gadgets) to satisfy their play and those elements would be extraneous to the anthropologist model.

Risks: The real risk is that I could slip into the mindset I had at the beginning of my Eberron campaign. I kept asking the question, "How would a real person respond given this PC's actions." This went down hill very quickly because one or more PCs kept doing things that were inadvertently threatening or coercive. When the world responded in kind, Alphonse in particular, did not like that one bit. So, while I experimented with different story elements, I'd have to maintain a priority on their enjoyment, drop elements that aren't causing them joy and not get too excited with playing an NPC or faction in a "realistic" fashion. It would be much more like trying and discarding toys until the cat gets interested in one rather than pestering the cat with a toy that scares it (thinking that the cat will eventually figure out how to play with it).

Dual Elements Model
There is nothing that says that gadgets and story are mutually exclusive. No reason both can't exist in the same game world. I know that Alphonse is not only capable of role playing but sometimes really enjoys it too. Why not create a world and use a system that balances both elements? Give a little, get a little. Good old fashioned compromise.

Benefits: Everyone could end up happy even if it may not be ideal for anyone as time and energy are devoted to one or the other set of play priorities.

Drawbacks: There are some competing elements. For example, I'm really interested in a low-magic world. And though it is true that "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" the span of magic items in a low-magic world will never be equal to what Alphonse is familiar with (e.g., swords from +1-+5 plus an additional set of enhancements like keen, bane, exploding, flaming, etc.). Finally, there is only so much time. Both at the table and in preparation, neither element would be experienced in its full glory.

Risks: I could try this and find myself on a slippery slope leading to more and more gadget focus, more and more numbers management, instead of world and story creation, because I'm a people person and I might try to satisfy continuing player interest in those elements. On the one hand knowing that risk may help me avoid it. On the other hand, the slide toward making the players happy is powerful and I may not be strong enough to avoid it even with knowledge of it.

The Competing Elements Model
As long as there are gadgets and powers to be had, the players will focus on them over story. But in the absence of gadgets, the story is the only thing to focus on so they will focus on it. In January 2010, we ended up short 2 players for a session of the Eberron campaign. I had 3 players at the table and no sense that we could just push through with Eberron. I pulled out my old GURPS "Caravan to Ein Arris" free adventure and we ran a few hours of that one shot adventure with almost no prep. The caravan never even left the city because we became so immersed. Though Alphonse was one of the 3 players, we rolled very few dice and the role playing was excellent. There was no time to min-max characters (I just gave them sheets), to vie for a particular magic item, or to advance a character. Everyone had a good time and this stands as one of my favorite sessions.

From this experience I wonder if I'm making too much out of the play interests of Alphonse, myself, and others [I probably am, even if this specific hypothesis is wrong]. Maybe, if I present the players with a game and characters without such numbers and gadgets to play with, they will just play with what is there. As one might if accustomed to playing PS3 but finding oneself at a friend's house without a PS3. So, instead of worrying about trying to separate my play from the player's play, or worrying that I need to satisfy their primary interest in gadgets, I could just pare down the system and the world so that the only elements to play with are those that interest me.

Benefits: I get out of this head trip, take the simple path, create a world and system that focus players on what interests me, everyone focuses on what is there, and off we ride into the sunset happily gaming ever after.

Drawbacks: If this hypothesis is true, there probably isn't any way to know except to test it out. To test it might reveal enjoyment in initial novelty but in long term we could find that it wouldn't scratch the itch for some players.

Risks: It probably isn't that simple even if there is an element of truth here. Alphonse will probably want gadgets, or continue to perceive the game in terms of points and powers. He and some other players may become bored or out right dissatisfied with the soap opera element of good dramatic role play over time. I could get very involved and relax into a story just as the novelty is wearing off for them.

Play to the Strengths Model
I've already stated that all the players in my game can role play and very well at that. The challenge is getting them to do so. I've been thinking a lot about my last post "How much are your characters like you?" I've come to the conclusion that the players, for example, Alphonse, are not averse to role playing. However, most of the role playing opportunities they have encountered have not been suited to their role playing potential.

For example, most of the role playing opportunities that I have given the players have been negotiation oriented. Alphonse isn't a good negotiator IRL. He is good at schmoozing. He makes people comfortable and feel welcome. In the Eberron campaign, his best role playing was a nonconfrontational meeting with warforged refugees from the Mournland. They asked him to help them. It was emotional, it was a meeting between friends. There was nothing to negotiate, no one to convince, and no need to fast talk. On the other hand, if there's a need for fast talking, I've got two players that can do that. I've got another that would be good at convincing people to ally, help, or befriend. I've got another that is really good at laying out a good logical argument.

In the "Play to the Strengths Model" I encourage players to create characters that would interact with people the way that the players interact with the world. Alphonse can be a fixture in the local taverns. He can chat people up, make them feel at ease. Another couple of players can have social contacts that are more complicated and require more negotiation. Each character has a social niche, a social activity that s/he can do better than any other character.

Benefits: Every character has something to do in social situations and the player can pull it off (not just the numbers on the sheet).

Drawbacks: May encourage violation of the RPG axiom, "Don't split the party." Actually I'm okay with this. We'd just split the spotlight, shifting among players in turn like we do at the table for different combat turns. Player stumped? Next player's turn for the spot light. GM stumped? Same thing. Otherwise, it could be difficult to get players to play characters that match their personalities, this may take some player buy-in at char gen.

Risks: This would definitely require complicated world development and a complex series of preparations to figure out how each player can continue to have RPG opportunities in a variety of situations. In a murder mystery what does the carousing character do? At a festival of fools what does the uptight cleric do?

. . . Actually this one is sounding pretty good.