Caught a couple of trickers at play a little earlier today.
I just watched an interesting presentation by Antero Garcia called; “Dungeons & Dragons in an Era of Terror, Nationalism, and Gamergate.” Academic discussions of role-playing games (RPGs) interest me for several reasons. It’s a chance to connect interests that I normally experience in different parts of my life (gaming and scholarship on the one hand, and storytelling in gaming and storytelling in other contexts on the other). So, I was excited to see a new source on the topic.
A copy of one of Antero’s books is on the way, but in the meantime…
This talk is a bit of an intellectual shotgun blast. Antero is busy introducing a broad range of themes and analytic tools for much of the presentation, so much so that his main point is barely taking shape at the end of the video here. Still that point, namely that race and gender politics (among other things) are very much a part of the gaming experience is a good one. I wish he had spent a little less time introducing his key terms and more time developing this main theme, because it’s definitely worth considering.
One thing that struck me about this presentation is a point that Antero makes a couple of times in here. He says that players are “supposed to enact racial practices” in games like Dungeons and Dragons. Take for example the following section of the Youtube transcript which starts at the 41 minute mark:
“Oftentimes when I had sit at the table play with other people if someone was a dwarf they would see an elf who’s play who is at their table and say I don’t like elves right and you were supposed to enact racist practices towards other races within the game right if you’re a human you’re skeptical of orcs right if you’re an elf you don’t like dwarves there is there is racism built into the system in terms of the attitudes you’re supposed to carry with other people”
Here we have the basic case for taking fantasy racism seriously. I am amazed at the number of players who don’t see this connection, but perhaps some folks are just being a little too defensive here. We don’t have to give up our dice or even our magical axe of kobald-slaying, but perhaps we could be asked to entertain the idea here that it matters when we choose to tell stories, interactive stories, set in a world where race and racism are built into the setting.
What struck me most about Antero’s presentation is that the norm here strikes me as significantly less obvious than Antero suggests. It may be that he oversimplified the matter in a hasty delivery, and I do think his point is essentially sound, but as presented, this does strike me as an oversimplification.
I don’t know that players in an RPG feel an obligation to play their characters as expressing racist attitudes towards other fantasy races within a given setting. Players are often expected to run their characters on the assumption that such attitudes are pervasive in the worlds where they live, and the significance of such beliefs are serious boosted by a degree of objective differences between the races which is often hard-wired into the games (orcs get a bonus to strength, dwarves to constitution, etc.), but despite all this, players are normally free to shape their own character’s attitudes within such a world as they see fit.
Simply put; players are free to buck the racist world in which their characters live.
More simply put (2.5 edition): Players are free to emulate the heartwarming story of Gimli and Legolas, a dwarf and an elf who somehow find it within themselves to become friends despite the widespread enmity between their races.
But does this happen often, you may well ask?
Yes, it does.
In fact it happens so often it gets a little tiresome. I recall once seeing a satirical bit on some gaming site in which the author complained that not all drow needed to be chaotic good rangers. Misunderstood orcs abound, and odd friendships are outpaced if anything but unlikely romantic couplings. It is sometimes a problem to see just how often and how easily players set aside the stereotypes built into fantasy races and rise above racist attitudes with an ease that belies even the social realities of the fantasy setting (let alone the hardwired elements of racial character built into the game). Sure, people sometimes play the stereotype. That does happen. But they also play against it. That happens too. So, it doesn’t really work to say of any given dwarf and any given elf inhabing the same campaign setting that the players running them are supposed to enact racist attitudes towards each other. It’s at least a little more complicated than that.
One way of thinking about it might be to suggest that the issue enters the discourse in the form of a presupposition rather than a normative principle. The players are expected to act as if their characters are immersed in a world within which elves and dwarves are likely to hate one another. What they are to do about it is another matter. Moreover, players are usually free to imagine the specific history of their own characters as they see fit, which means in practice, they can easily come up with reasons to make themselves the exception. “…oh yes, I’m a dwarf, but I was raised by a kind elven lady who took me in after I was orphaned in the last orc war.”
You get the idea.
Players are not necessarily expected to run their characters as racists; they are supposed to run them as characters in a world saturated with racism. That this is a world in which race is also assumed to be real certainly does complicate any efforts to buck the system, but the reality is easier to ignore in role play than Antero suggests.
So, does this solve the problem?
Are we in the clear now?
No guilt here?
Roll a die 20!
Unfortunately, no, this does not settle the issue. It just makes it more interesting. The problem now is what do we get out of the various performances people enact in role-play? Is a player who imagines his character as the exception to fantasy bigotry really delivering a kill shot to the influence of racism in his life or that of the other players at his game table? Or is he just enjoying a catharsis, perhaps even building up some cheap moral licensing credentials? Will his performance help the other players to see through racism in their own lives, or will they all emerge from the game a little more comfortable with their own prejudices?
The answer to these questions aren’t clear to me, and I suspect the answer varies within the details. Hell, I don’t even want to suggest that the answer varies between one player and another or one campaign and another; I mean, the answer may vary between one moment and the next in a single game. It might well be that a player running a fantasy half-orc expresses some genuine social awareness in her decision to spare the elven prisoners in the wake of a hostile encounter …only to give vent to some real malice when she BBQs a hobbit later that evening. The relationship between the players at a game table and the characters on that table and within the game universe is always complex, and real world issues cannot be mapped directly from one to the other, but neither can we say that what happens in game stays in game, so to speak.
It matters that race is built into so many game systems, and yes, we should be concerned about that, but we can’t say once and for all that a player running an elf-loving dwarf is any more enlightened than a player reveling in the chance to commit fantasy genocide with his Paladin heading off to slaughter every last goblin from the dark swampland..
Okay, maybe we can draw some judgements about the guy running that Paladin.
In the long run, I suppose the real question is what does it mean that a significant portion of the gaming public regularly chooses to interact with each other on the basis of fantasies in which race is real and racism is pervasive? That’s a damned good question. The question is at least a little more interesting when we acknowledge that these people are free to shape their own attitudes towards the issues of race and racism within these fantasy worlds.
I could tell Player X didn’t like the plan. He’d been silent for awhile, and now he was asking a number of pointed questions. He had begun to ask who came up with the plan for the game in question, and knowing this player for the gruff sort of fellow he is, I could see it coming. His character would of course dismiss the whole idea, but would he also do insult the character who had come up with it? I’d seen this happen before, and I cringed.
It’s just a game, right?
That would be a common take on this sort of thing. It’s a role playing game. Whatever the player said, he would be saying in character, and he wouldn’t be saying it to a player. He’d be saying it character to character. So just let the whole thing roll!
The problem as I see it is this is just the sort of thing that’s hard to contain within the game setting. Whatever player character had come up with the plan in question within our storyline, a real person had actually come up with that plan and chosen to express it through that character. In-character, or not, any contempt shown to the plan could well have reflected back on the player. I’ve seen it happen before. One player says; “who came up with this idiotic plan?” and another player sitting there realizes he’s just been called an idiot, all in character of course, but the insult reaches right through the characters and into the room with the players sitting around the game table.
A lot depends on wording of course. If the player characters have well-established personalities, and/or if the terms of criticism clearly touch on those personalities (“hey elf, your pointy ears look stupid!” or “you dwarves are too fond of ale!”), then the insult is likely to stay in the game. It can even be quite fun to role play such conflict, but when the in-game features are thin (when the plan is a real attempt to solve a problem in game and the criticism is coming from a player who clearly doesn’t like that plan), the conflict won’t likely be contained in the game itself. The result can be an argument, or it can be an uncomfortable player. These things can blow up, or they can fester.
They can also be the reason one or more players find something else to do next week.
Luckily, the insult didn’t happen.
This kind of problem interests me for two reasons:
- As the host of an RPG campaign, I am often faced with these little moments of social brinksmanship, and I feel a certain sense of responsibility for containing the carnage, so to speak.
- It strikes me as an interesting example of a larger social phenomenon, namely, the tendency for some stories to skip out of their own narrative frame and into the social context in which they are told.
It’s the second of these themes that has me writing about the matter now. There are of course much more serious examples of the sort of problem I mention her, but this kind of thing happens a lot in Pen&Paper games. So, it’s not a terrible idea, I think, to meditate on this relatively light-stakes example of that problem a bit.
The activities in a pen&paper role playing game involve at least two very different contexts, one is an imagined context in which characters interact with each other in an imaginary world. The other is the game table around which actual people sit, devour snacks and narrate the actions of their own characters in response to challenges posed by the game master. Significantly, these actual players must cooperate to some degree in the construction of the imaginary world within which their character must operate. Even players choosing to role-play conflict must cooperate to understand the terms of the conflict and the potential means of playing it out. They don’t have to share exact interpretations of the imaginary world, but it does help if they share some understanding of the social rules by which their characters operate (and at the very least the mechanics by which the game will determine what happens when character A tries to punch character B in the nose). It is of course all supposed to be in good fun (at least at my games); everyone is supposed to enjoy themselves, even if their characters don’t.
In the example presented above, the imaginary interactions of a group of characters threatened to produce implications that stretched beyond the table and into the real world interactions. It’s not a hanging matter, no, but I did see real potential for one or more players to come away with a bad experience. Significantly, this problem was at least partly a question of contextualization. The metalinguistic framework which made it possible to understand the actions of one player in terms of the game world grew a bit too thin for my comfort. I’ve seen that framework break down entirely. If you’ve played pen&paper RPGs for long, you have too. It happens all the time.
Focus: scene -setting. I once had a pair of players who insisted on focusing on something other than my own narrative just about every time. If I asked them to set the characters up in a marching order, they began asking questions about the politics of the city we were headed to, how to build their characters, etc. If I introduced them to an non-player character interested in talking to them, they interrupted me to set up a marching order. If I told them no marching order was necessary, they focused on it anyway. Eventually, I realized that no matter what I was telling them, these two insisted upon talking about something else. The other players at the table were beyond frustrated, and so was I. We could not attain any kind of immersion into the story-line, because the narrative was constantly subject to pointless interruption. It was like trying to talk to someone on a static line.
It’s not that their questions were bad; it’s just that each question asked was consistently asked at the least appropriate time for doing so. In time, I came to see this as a control issue. Neither of these players were willing to let someone else take the lead. (Significantly, neither would let anyone else get the last word on anything, least of all each other), and preventing me from gaining any momentum when setting the stage served the same purpose. Simply put, neither of these players was willing to cooperate sufficiently to achieve a common narrative framework. I didn’t have a solution for this then, and I don’t now, except to game with someone else.
Which is what I do.
Killing Your Fellow PCs: Whenever a player character kills another player character, the chances that this will be taken personally grow rather high. That should be obvious, but I am amazed at the number of players who will swear that isn’t the case, or at least that it shouldn’t be. It is extraordinarily common to find players defending such actions by saying; “that’s what my character would do” or “my character is evil/selfish/greedy/etc.” …which of course begs the question; why did you role up a bastard in the first place? Simply put, this kind of thing isn’t an in-game problem; it’s an out-of-game problem. When you kill another player’s character, you are (at the very least) bringing to an end, a story-line into which that player has invested time and energy. There may be contexts in which that works out just fine, but most of the time, it just means that you as a player have placed your own fun above that of another.
Increasingly, I find myself saying to the players; “You can role-up any character you like, but please find a reason to cooperate with the others.” If you can find a way for your otherwise-evil character to bond or at least work with with their companions, then fantastic. If you can’t, then please come up with another concept.
Separating from the Group: Some players take great joy in sending their characters off on their own. A few minutes of side story is no big deal. It can even be fun, providing the player (and the GM) remembers that the sideline is a sideline and the character will eventually have to rejoin the others. When a player just keeps doing this, I will eventually stop coming up with reasons to get them back with the rest of the group.
The story-line goes this direction. Either bring your character back, roll-up a new character, or find another campaign.
Generic Disruptions: Along the same lines as the characters who wander off, some characters just keep generating pointless conflict. They pick fights with NPCs while the group is trying to keep a low-profile, steal things from others, knowing it will lead to retaliation, burn bridges with helpful allies, etc. There is a school of thought that says ‘let the players do what they like’ and some campaigns facilitate this nicely, but it doesn’t work well with a pointed plot. If the point of the campaign is to defeat the evil bad guy, save the princess, or find the Magic MacGuffin, then each such sub-plot grows increasingly more irritating. These sorts of disruptions really pose much the same problem as the decision to separate from the group, except the problem isn’t an imagined physical space; it’s a sub-plot that will suck up time and energy at the expense of the larger narrative.
Why not just let the player characters do as they like? Because each such diversion is in effect a competing story-line. Imagine what this would seem like in a movie or a novel! One or two side-stories adds a little extra flavor to the story and fleshes out characters. Too many such subplots breaks up the main story-line and increases the odds that you’ll replace the movie with an old episode of The Tic or leave the bookmark right there on page 32 of your book until your grand-kids find it in the attic and end up throwing it away because it bores the Hell out of them too. More to the point, players who consistently generate such side-conflicts are effectively competing with the GM (and the rest of the group) over the story-line for the campaign. Why that is happening is another question. What to do about it is another still. The important thing is to realize that it’s not really an in-game problem. It is a form of inter-player conflict, not a quirk of any given character.
Bully-Characters: I once told a player his character had spent an entire hour (measured in real time) giving another crap about a failed action. He was shocked. He was even more shocked to find out I had timed him on the matter. The player said he could have sworn he had only spent a few minutes on it. I assured him that he had invested over an hour into the process of badgering the other player’s character.
My point was actually that the player had taken to causing his own character to bully that of the other player endlessly all the way through just about every game session. This could perhaps have been contained within the game setting, but the player doing the bullying often made some comments out of character as well, and he never let up, nor did he allow the second player ever to come out on top of the conflict. Once again, the rationale was “that’s the way my character would behave,” and once again I rejected that explanation. When a player character consistently pushes another player character around, there is a point at which it will be frustrating for the second player. In my experience, a player who does this, does so for a reason, and that reason is NOT contained within the framework of the game world.
Fuzzy Rules and In-Character Conflict: If players turn their actual characters on each other, it really helps if the rules are clear at that point. Unfortunately, most of the time players do this they begin by grappling each other, and grappling rules in RPGs are usually a little wonky. The result can often be counter-intuitive. So, when player A says “I grab player B by the balls and squeeze”, the specific mechanics for resolving this are often less helpful than if the player had just said; “I shoot him in the head.” When player B decides to fight back, it gets uglier still. A GM can finesse ambiguities much more easily when players are fighting non-player characters. When two players go against each other, any benefit of the doubt given to one becomes a slight against the other
player character player.
…and the resulting hard feelings are rarely contained on the table.
It’s tempting to look for a solution by improving game mechanics or at least revising the mechanics you have at hand to be as clear as possible while adjudicating the fight. In most cases, though, I find myself asking the players to simply stop.
GNR? I think you could treat the old distinction between gamism, simulation, and narrative playing styles as an example of this sort of problem. Where one player wants to tell a good story, another really wants to see if he can build the best tank possible under the rules, and another may really want to see what a particular setting would look like in this or that particular game system. I somehow doubt that account would pass muster at The Forge, but I’m not interested in debating the ins and outs of this old theory. Suffice to say, that I think the kind of differences Rod Edwards and company talked about could be looked at as factors contributing to the breakdown of an in-game framework. Whether or not they constitute an exhaustive, or even a robust, theory of the many ways a game breaks down is another question.
Okay, so that’s the end of a long-winded rant about role playing games. Writing these points out as I have, I am struck by how obvious the points might seem, almost as if they are not worth saying. And yet, I am also struck by how often players seem to overlook these kinds of problems, or more to the point, how often they insist on trying to understand these problems within the context the game world. Players who consistently disrupt a campaign will often insist on in-character explanations for their own behavior, and GMs often try to come up with in-game solutions. Yet, that behavior will persist from one character to next and even from one campaign to the next. In my experience, the same player whose character consistently disrupted the last campaign will do the same in the next. It is a game of course, but there are real people playing it, and sometimes what’s done in the game really is about the people around the game table.
What is witchcraft?
In mainstream RPGs, I think it usually takes the form of a malevolent spell caster standing somewhere behind a few minions blasting away at the PCs. To give her attacks a the flavor of witchcraft, the Game Master might choose a few spells thought fitting for a witch. Polymorph (or some other form of malevolent transformation) is a common choice. (I once put some player characters up against a mean old witch who had been transforming live gnomes into yard sculptures.) In any event, I think players usually experience witchcraft in the form of a conventional battle with a boss, one whose attacks are well known to them.
The problem of course is that this isn’t really the nature of witchcraft as we find it in the real world. I know. Witchcraft ain’t real, but the fear of it sure as Hell is. Having lived and worked in a community where fear of witches is a common concern, I’ve had the subject in the back of my mind ever since. I think about it most when gaming, because the experience of world full of malevolent magic is nothing like the treatment commonly given the subject in role-playing games.
Setting aside for the moment the many benign variations of paganism, the form that witchcraft takes in human history isn’t a toe-to-toe with a green-faced woman zapping away at people with her wand. No, witchcraft isn’t that ugly old lady over there about to hit you with 3d6 worth of fire damage. Her attacks just aren’t that obvious.
Witchcraft is wondering why your crops failed this year. It is the deep suspicion that there is a reason your son fell down the stairs and twisted his ankle last week. Why did the cow stop producing milk anyway? And is that a sore throat you woke up with this morning? Wonder how that happened! Witchcraft is the deep dark suspicion that someone out there, perhaps someone you know and love, is responsible for these seemingly random accidents. It’s the near certainty that someone you know, someone you probably think of as a friend, may actually wish you harm. Witchcraft is the fear that those very people might have the power to act on that wish and actually bring you to harm. It’s the fear that the pEetty disasters of every day life could just be happening because someone you know is wielding just such powers against you.
Of course, this is only a problem if you choose to see it that way, but the challenge as I see it that witchcraft poses for conventional gaming is how to cloak witchcraft in the form of uncertaintVy? Nobody has to do that, but doing so strikes me as an interesting challenge. To carry out this off, the witch must be able to attack without being detected. More than that, the players must not be all that sure whether or not they have been attacked at all. Better still, a world full of such wiItches would present players under no such attack whatsoever with the lingering fear that seemingly minor set-backs might well have been due to malLevolent causes. In such a world, every difficulty, and every problem, no matter how innocent it may seem, is actually cause for suspicion. The question is, of course, how to inflict that level of paranoia on them?
Story-teller games aren’t my favorite flavor of geeketry, but I suspect this is something they can probably hHandle a bit better than the usual D&Desque gaming format. At least part of the problem here is balance. Combining magic with stealth generates a great deal of power. Hence, the rarity characters wielding such power, and the general tendency to nerf that power whenever it is allowed in the world at hAand. Another problem has to do with the mechanics of the games in question. Players usually know when they’ve been attacked even if their characters don’t. (“Make a save! …uh, no reason.”) A third problem is that conventional games rarely incorporate the kind of mundane evils that give witchcraft its pPeculiar power over the imagination. Player characters don’t usually have families or cows to take care of, and they almost never just slip on the staircase. Sure a GM may tell the players that this or that non-player character character had an accident, but when a player character is hurt, she is generally hurt in the course of some meaningful encounter with a clear threat unfolding in a soon-to-be-obvious story-line. You can generate exceptions to these problems, but the fact remains that the mechanics of most such games just don’t lend themselves to the level of uncertainty that makes susPpicion of witchcraft a reality in so many parts of the world.
I once tried to resolve this problem so as to enable attacks from witches and witch like villains. I figured the keEy was to introduce random disasters into the game. So, I generated rules for such things in both 3rd edition and my home brew (Worlds of Hurt). I made-up 3 different kinds of random disasters; diseases, accidents and ill-omens. Player characters then had a random chance to encounter one or more random disasters over the course of a game. They would have to make a defense roll against these disasters, which I ensured would be the same roll regardless of the source. I designed it so that this would be rare, but not so rare as to be freakishly out of place. In general, I aimed for about one such disaster to one player character in the course of any giveNn game session. None with good luck, and more than one with bad luck.
I also gave the landSscape in my worlds moral characteristics so that PCs could experience a greater or lesser chance of encountering random disasters depending on how well they fit with the local environment. A Paladin traveling through Morder, for example, had a much better chance of stepping on a thorn than an orc thief in that same setting. The Paladin would also have a better chance of getting an infection if he did step on that thorn. Now take the orc into the elven forest, and he’s the one who falls out of the tree house and breaks his leg. When characters are matter out of place, so to speak, the landscape works against them. It tries to get rid of them in subtle ways, and the end result is an increase of random disasters.
This approach was fun for awhile independent of the whole witchcraft theme, but I have to admit, what got me headed down that path was the hope of a scenario involving witchcraft, or at least the suspicion of it. I wanted the players to wonder at some point if a character was under attack. I wanted them to struggle with the uncertainty.
For balance, I ensured that witchcraft would require either direct contact with a victim, or some kind of sympathetic magic (e.g. possession of an item from the victim). I also ensured that witchcraft and any comparable form of attack would take an enormous amount of time to unfold, not rounds but game sessions. Such attacks would be progressive, letting players struggle to grasp the significance of seemingly random events while evil took its course. The potential solution to such attacks would involve divination and/or magical spells which could turn a curse back on its source. This fit with the kind of scenario I had in mind. At some point, it would become clear to the players that they were under attack, and they would have to devote time and energy to deal with it. But would they realize it in time? I wanted the sweet-spot for realization to fall on or near the point where success in fighting off a curse on depended on the players taking action within a game or two. Part of the problem posed by witchcraft would be managing this attack while dealing with whatever other problems they already had on the table. They would have to sort the results of a curse from random accidents before the results became lethal.
My first real test of this approach took the form of a succubus in my home brew. As with a witch, the attack of a succubus shouldn’t be obvious, I reckon. It should be a lingering guilt about those dreams, and perhaps a suspicion that they are the reason your backpack feels heavier and your sword feels just a bit more awkward. Since telling a player about the dreams would be a dead giveaway, I created a process that would put this near the end of the attack. I designed my monster and put one into the campaign.
While in town, the players had a number of odd encounters, but one of them was with an old lady in some kind of need. A PC resolved this by giving her something and got a big hug in response. Having concluded their business in town, the PCS wandered – as PCs will do – off on some new adventure. The next game session, the PC that had helped her had a small accident, nothing major, and not entirely out of the ordinary. The players continued on. The next game session that PC had two or three accidents, one of which hurt him a lot more. The players began to talk about the possibilities. Three games in, the PC had several injuries, one of which proved quite serious and then he fell ill. Somewhere in here the PC remembered an erotic dream, and then he realized it was happening on a regular basis. The players hadn’t encountered a succubus in this system yet, so it took them awhile to get the connection, but they were on the whole witchcraft angle very quickly.
It was time to consult a shaman!
I actually don’t remember whether a Player Character or a random NPC performed the magic in question, but the magic worked and they discovered the source of the attack. By now the party was a good hundred miles away. They tried a healing spell, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Instead they would have to find the original source of the attack. Lucky for them, she was trailing the party with henchmen in the hopes of finishing the whole lot of them while one fighter was badly weakened. (Had they delayed acting a game session or two, she would likely have succeeded!) This of course did lead to a conventional face-off with the baddy, but one that followed at least 3 games of uncertainty and a lot of effort to unravel the mystery. For an extra twist, the attack form used by the succubus would leave a permanent wound unless her victim scored the killing blow. If he succeeded, he would gain an extra benefit, but by now he really needed to be the one to do the killing.
…which of course, he did.
All in all, I’d say that scenario was quite a success. The players were a little more wary of random disasters after that, but no major witch hunts followed. They didn’t turn on each other or any of their NPC allies. To make that a genuine hazard I would need to keep them in once place, which we could do in a different campaign. In any event, I was happy with the succubus scenario. In this instance, at least, my system had worked.
The problem of course was that the system worked well because I had a plot in mind that relied on the mechanic in question. I didn’t mind the accidents, and the players humored me until the plot thickened, then they were as into it as I was (I think).
Random disasters are interesting when they really could be central to the story, not so much when they aren’t. But of course, that’s the point. Sometimes random disasters will be just that random, and then they quickly become tedious. These factors have been interesting when the game is heavy on role-playing and I’ve had time to develop the setting. Questions about who does and doesn’t thrive in a given physical setting can carry the interest in random disasters when no witches are around. So, the idea that the physical environment can increase the risks of random disasters makes it a bit more interesting. Still, in a hack and slash campaign, I usually don’t bother with them. The trouble is, I mostly do hack&slash campaigns these days. Nobody I now know has time for in-depth story-lines.
Ah well, one day!
In any event, I think the trouble with this approach is that it only really works if you are focusing on stories that use the mechanic, but the point of the mechanic is of course that sometimes it won’t be that important. If you want to run a couple game sessions of a conventional orc war, or maybe even do the standard bar fight, then the effort to deal with random disasters quickly becomes an unhelpful distraction. Still, this is one effort to try and reproduce the experience of a world saturated with suspicions of witchcraft. I wonder if anyone else has tried anything with a similar effect, perhaps using a different approach? What interests me about this is the uncertainty of evil magic. There must be many more ways to set that up.
If per chance you noticed a typo or two in this post, I ask only that you consider the possibility that it might not have been me.
Malevolent forces are out there!
Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…
I think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.
One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.
If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.
Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.
I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.
Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.
Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?
Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?
In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.
How to go about it?
I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.
One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…
Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.
Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)
What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.
What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.
Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.
This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.
Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.
On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.
I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Five: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.
I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.
Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.
For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.
Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.
The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.
No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.
SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.
…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!
It was a good New Year here at the top of the world. It began at about Texas-Midnight when Maria Falvey posted one of my old Blackberry pictures to her blog. She cropped the picture perfectly and just generally made it much better. So, I was pretty psyched as I headed out at 11;30 to watch the fireworks. Course I didn’t realize the fireworks actually start before midnight, so I could see them going off as I walked down to the lagoon where the whole event took place. Luckily, there was plenty of bang to be had last night, so I still made it in time to see plenty of cool pyrotechnics.
I tried to get some videos of the fireworks, but my camera kept freezing up. It wasn’t working at all during the grand finale. Still, it was pretty cool standing just about directly under some of the blasts, but I have to admit the Aurora may have pwned the whole display shortly thereafter. Conditions (which include a bad photographer and a camera that wanted to hide in my pocket) were less than ideal, but I finally got some pics of the Northern Lights worth showing.
So, I walked over to the elementary school to watch the last night of the Winter games. This is an annual event here in Barrow, the community spends a week on a variety of odd contests late at night, all of it ending with the New Year. Tonight, the contest was between singles men and married men, and the same for women. The women were neck-a-neck, but the single men were getting their asses kicked. If only I had the courage to go down there and join in, …then I guess I would have to say that WE got our asses kicked.
…and I guess we did anyway.
Suffice to say, I stayed in the stands last night, but I had fun just the same, as did most everyone I could see.
Things got started a little after 1:00am in the morning and they were still going strong when I wimped out at about 4:00am. Anyhow, the photo-gallery is just below, and I’ve included a few videos afterwards. You may click on a picture to embiggen it. I don’t know everyone featured below, so if anyone from Barrow sees themselves and prefers not to be featured here, speak up and I will be happy to take your picture down. In any event, it was a great evening, and I really enjoyed all the activities.
Happy New Year everybody!
A brief clip of fireworks.
Both the men and the women have moved on to new games.
If you’re curious about the counting in this one, it’s because no-one had stepped up to challenge the singles-guy on the neck-pull. A ten-count is essentially a way of saying step-up or it’s over.
I don’t recall what this men’s game is called, but the women’s challenge in this one looks especially tough.
So, we recently celebrated Piuraagiaqta here in Barrow. That’s our Spring festival for those of you whose tongues aren’t feeling adventurous. I was pretty busy during this several-day event, but I snuck outside on a few occasions to catch the outdoor games held on one of our lagoons.
Simon Says “Click to embiggen!”
A view of the games from above.
The Final Race. It was held at 4:00pm Barrow time, which turned out to be about 5:00pm. For the longest time it looked like they were going to have 3 racers, but a fourth showed. (and my battery died just before the second place guy crashed. I think he was okay, but maybe his machine wasn’t)