HBO’s Westworld and RPGs

So there’s this show based on a movie based on an old book by Michael Crichton (see comments for corrections) about a futuristic theme park for humans, staffed by dangerously exploited androids. I’m trying to keep this short because I have other things to do tonight, but it’s hard. I’m only on episode 6 of HBO’s Westworld and I’m kinda impressed, which could make me verbose. So the short version? When screenwriting is good, it makes a gigantic difference. A lot of this is in what the show doesn’t do. It doesn’t make the mistakes of other shows about the subject, of other shows at all.

Like Star Trek: The Next Generation. That show had an android feeling out its existence as a not-quite human. But it was an ill-considered concept from episode one, and bogged down with the TNG’s affinity for quasi-supernatural things like psychic powers. When Data gets his emotion chip turned on, it has a physical effect on reality that can be measured / sensed by the empathic counselor. Why would that be? How could emotions be physically different from any other aspect of cognition? In biology you could say they involve different hormones or whatever, but he’s pure software. No reason to think emotions would put out a different kind of energy, unless you think he’s acquiring a “soul” or some other foolery along those lines.

There were a lot of other problems with the portrayal of the android over that show’s long run, mostly inconsistencies and contradictions. Westworld probably has some similar probs over time, but at least in the episodes I’ve seen, they do a good job portraying the idea of artificial intelligences grappling with life. It’s hella good. Maybe I just say that because it’s very similar to how I’d handle it, and like the show’s creators I have Anglo-American cultural biases and notions.

It could also be I’m misreading the authorial intent, but what I see is this: The robots programmed feelings are as real as anything, just subject to powerful upper level directives and the ability to be rewritten at will. So if you’re a robo-cowpoke and you need to rope a stranger (human park guest) into tracking down a bandito, you genuinely want to do those things. The rest of your down time is spent re-affirming your role and sense of reality by playing your part, talking with other robots day and night.

Because the complexity of the programming needed to emulate human personalities that well, the programming is full of possibilities for glitches. It’s very difficult to erase old memories completely, and since the humans run riot over the robots so often, those memories can be full of violence. Hence an epidemic of robo-PTSD starts to creep through the community, things get dangerous and sheisty.

As I’m watching this I’m struck by the way the complexity of real humans turns into opacity, vagueness, generally makes them less vivid and interesting than the androids. The robots don’t have to do anything that isn’t called for by the story, by the illusion. They don’t have to wonder about their taxes or day jobs, think about how past relationships and situations affect present ones, and so on. Most importantly, they don’t have wildly conflicting desires that can push them to be a sinner and a saint at the same time. Hitler can pet the dog, a robot will only do so if it’s dramatically appropriate.

There’s purity in simplicity. The creepiest human guest (Ed Harris paying visual homage to robo-Yul Brynner) tells the androids they’re most convincing when they’re in extreme situations of sadness or fear. I’d say they’re more appealing than humans in almost everything they do because it’s uncomplicated by nonsense. They are actually better characters.

This gets me to the RPGs. When people come up with characters for RPGs, the most realistic characters are the fucking worst. Take these two concepts: OgreButt the Barbarian likes to fight anything that looks strong enough, prove to himself he’s the best. That’s all there is to him, the rest can be worked out in play. Concept Two, Enrik the Bard. Enrik has a complicated history of family, friends, and enemies. He is fiercely loyal to his friends, but has a temper when his honor is contested. He seeks magic power because he has a childhood trauma and never wants to feel vulnerable again.

Which concept is better? OgreButt. OK, maybe he could use a bit more consideration before play, like how does he treat people that he doesn’t want to punch? But as for Enrik? That character can’t be predicted and you’d think that would make it more interesting, but it doesn’t. Not at all. When he interacts with NPCs, will he see affronts to his honor everywhere and be a kill-crazy piece of shit? Or will he be a super-judgmental drag on the party? Will he decide some PCs are his friends and others are not, and let the “fiercely loyal” make him act against the interests of the story? Will his complex backstory actually inform how he’s played, or be forgotten on the character sheet because it’s too much for the player to remember?

The humans are the complicated concepts that suck, the robots are the simple concepts that provide a strong springboard for storytelling. Anything Ogrebutt does above and beyond his bold, simple concept will serve to develop and amplify the character. With a complex concept, any attitude the character takes could practically be decided by random roll, adds nothing to our understanding of him.

Likewise, the humans in Westworld could be good or bad based on who knows what? They’re opaque and full of secrets. Maybe those secrets will pay off eventually, but the robots are immediately more entertaining and interesting to watch. In RPGs, maybe we should play like robots.


  1. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    I am somewhat glad that I gave up TV several years ago.
    They™ never managed to make me get cable and I never got the magic box for the stuff floating out of the ether into my TV.
    I may have missed out on a few things.

  2. EveryZig says

    I don’t think it is exactly a matter of complication as much as a matter of being consistent and distinctive. A complicated backstory can be compatible with this, as long as it can in practice boil down to a consistent pattern of behavior. My favorite RPG character I have played was both an example of this and a literal robot, Query of Life on Prairie 2. The other RPG characters I have played have all ended up in a bland mix of practicality and going along with other party members, but Query really stood for something. It had a fanatical devotion to its principles (don’t make a final decision that kills someone, never be deceptive, and always make the truth public with at most brief delays for extenuating circumstances) and its mission (observe the culture of the Human world Prairie while also doing work for the planetary authorities as part of a diplomatic deal for access with the Human government). There was more complicated backstory behind a lot of that (such as the obsession with honestly stemming from the culture it came from viewing being accurately remembered as a sort of life after death, and how its disregard for its own safety was related to how it was one of many instances of a Query template, each of which it considered to be a parallel self), but these were more of explanations for its principles than sources of exceptions from them. Of course, this consistent commitment to principle made Query by far my most impractical character and the only one of my RPG characters who to have died (due to the campaign revolving around violent political intrigue), but Query did not regret it and neither do I.

  3. starskeptic says

    So there’s this show based on a movie based on an old book on a script by Michael Crichton.

  4. ivo says

    I just finished watching the fist season of Westworld, and i must say I’m impressed. I immediately found the storytelling and the acting great, but at first i was afraid that the concept would soon grow old on me, and that the AI element would eventually be mishandled and trivialized. I.e., i feared it would all be just a backdrop for some Far West adventures. Boy, was I wrong! The completed plot blew my mind. Enjoy the last four episodes, they are awesome.

  5. Glor says

    I have to disagree – about the RPG characters, Westworld I haven’t seen (although I’ve heard good things about it – OTOH, it’s HBO and they seem to be on their grimdark WE’RE SO ADULT trip).

    Yeah, very unpredictable characters are problematic (they can be fun, in small doses, but tend to get on most people’s (myself included) nerves really quick) – although I’m sure there are groups for which that is very much not the case ;-).
    But I’d argue that Enrik would be way more predictable than OgreButt:

    Will Enrik see affronts to his honor everywhere? Good question, one that should be asked before the character enters the game. (There are drawbacks for that in several systems that I’m familiar with)
    Will he kill people because of that? See above, but also… what does the setting say? Is there a proper dueling code (maybe even with duels to the first blood etc) and he’s acting accordingly? Or will he become an outlaw if he starts killing people? (is the group ok with that?)
    Will he be super-judgemental? Well, in general if your character is gonna be super-judgmental about something, discussing it beforehand is a VERY GOOD IDEA [tm] (Crusader PC “I BELIEVE EVERYTHING TOUCHED BY MAGIC IS EVIL AND SHOULD BE SET AFIRE!” …the witch player and the mage player look at each other…)
    Will he decide that some PCs are his friends and others are not? What was discussed beforehand? Also applies to pretty much any character.
    Will being fiercely loyal to his friends will make him act against the interests of the story? Well, first off, if everyone having fun that way, eh. If it’s ruining the fun of others, that should be addressed OoC. Also, “fiercely loyal to friends” has been in one form or another described most of my characters that I can remember – and if anything it tended to make them rather more predictable.
    Will his complex backstory actually inform how he’s played, or be forgotten? Well, I’d sure hope it will inform it. Some aspects won’t matter, probably even be forgotten. Oh well, even in TV series characterization changes over time. Maybe in actual play a tick that sounded great on paper doesn’t work well, or you originally wrote that you hated Uncle Theobald because he slighted your father and you could never forgive him, but when you met in-game that got forgotten quickly because he’s just so fun. So retcon that on your sheet (after talking about it) and move on, no sweat.

    Now, OgreButt… well, we DO know that he likes to fight strong things, which makes him predictable in that regard… OR DOES IT? 😉
    If the paladin just defeated a dragon, does OgreButt punch the paladin? After all, they just proved they’re strong!
    If the party has an audience with the king, and the king’s bodyguard looks like she could take on a whole orc invasion by herself, does he draw his blade and charge?
    I mean, I wouldn’t play him like that, but I do know some that would.
    If the rest of the party (at least some of whom are his friends) was hanging by their fingers off the side of a cliff, and there’s a strong enemy far-off in the distance, I’d know what Enrik would do (help them up). OgreButt… who knows. By his concept, he only cares about punching strong things, so charge off? I guess he could roll on whether he’s loyal to friends? 😉
    Or how does he view magic? Fearful, respectful, disdainful as something for the weak? Should the weak be protected by the strong, or be encouraged to become strong, or do they deserve to die? If somebody calls him weak, is he gonna go crazy-killer? 😉 Will the player remember what he decided on last time the question came up? If in a situation without anything to kill, will he just go into standby mode until the next customer, I mean enemy, shows up?

    After a couple of sessions, I could probably make some predictions, because most of the stuff the player associated with their character but didn’t write down (probably including whether or not they’re loyal to their friends) have been played out… assuming those don’t change.

    So yeah, like EveryZig said, I don’t think it’s complexity (you need a certain level of complexity to work in the game universe – to come back to the robot example, ELIZA on a roomba isn’t gonna cut it ;-)) that’s the problem, it’s not being consistent and distinct.

    Maybe having a couple of goals/drives/rules and over-acting them a bit (compared to how most people would act in real life) is a good way to achieve that – it’s good if there’s complexity beneath those and besides those, and if on occasion they’re actually overridden because of that, great. It shouldn’t be drowned in the complexity, though. Both characters IMHO have potential for that:
    OB needs additional complexity (and either an etymological reason for his name or a new one ;-)), maybe 1-2 more guidelines (if the player is going for a party-compatible barbarian, maybe “attacks on my friends are attacks on me”) and some refinement of his main one (maybe add that when possible it should be honorable, so he’s not charging the bodyguard but request single combat not to the death. Or Armwrestling or something). In a social-heavy campaign like mine, he’d better also decide on a couple of rules for that (and understand that we will be spending a lot of time not monsterbashing ;-))
    Enrik has 4:- 1. “fiercely loyal to friends”, 2. “quick temper when he feels his honor is insulted”, 3. “never wants to feel vulnerable again” therefore 4.”Wants to gain magic”. This is good, we just need some more refinement. Regarding 2, our setting has dueling (for nobles), so does he want to engage in that? If so, have some discussion in the group how often that could or should happen. Does 3. only apply to himself or does he also hate it when others feel vulnerable? How do they interact – would Enrik willingly place himself into a situation where is vulnerable/helpless to help a friend? (That doesn’t need a yes/no answer – being unsure could make for interesting roleplaying/character development. Or what if the character is convinced that yes he would of course, then discover that when it actually comes to it, he hesitates. Obviously, this should be cleared with the group beforehand ;-))
    His relationships and history… it depends: If they’re out of the way (different kingdom or whatever), well they can make for a nice topic while sitting around the campfire. If they can actually interact with the group it’s more complicated, as the GM now has to keep even more stuff in mind (or, well, in the notes). But if you need the players to take some action, there are few ways more reliable than putting a NPC who is a friend to a PC that’s fiercely loyal to their friends at risk 😉 (Even if it’s a complicated relationship and the PC is kinda pissed at them). Others can make as an interesting additional detail to an NPC (being hired to escort a merchant? Eh, better hope something happens. The merchant turning out to be the girl the bard got into a punching match when he was a teenager because they both liked the same person (and who later rejected them both (with each of them blaming the other for that and the brawl at the time)) and both of them being embarrassed (and still not to friendly with each other) (and the other group members maybe teasing the bard etc)? This could be fun… well, assuming one likes that sort of RP and isn’t just waiting impatiently for the bad guys to attack), and well, after a couple of adventures most of the PCs will have a few friends they’re exchanging messages with, visit during prolonged downtimes or call upon for help anyway, so what’s a few more.

    For both characters there are a lot of arguably bad faith actions that I’m not worried about – Rule #0 is “Don’t be an asshole”, and we’ve already decided that we want the party to be at least semi-friendly with each other (no fighting in the war, I mean party, room!), which takes care of a lot of potential problems (and if problems develop anyway, we can address those OoC).

    This got way too long again, sorry for the wall of text.

  6. says

    starske @5- I saw he had a credit on the show even though he died before any of it was produced. Didn’t know whether that mean he’d actually written any screenplay or there was just more of the book in those parts or what. Guess now I know.

    ivo @6- So far the only flaws I’ve seen writing/production wise is that the amount of F-bombs sometimes feels sophomoric or awkward, the amount of titties seems like they were trying to meet an absurd quota. Neither of those things detracted enough to dissuade me tho.

    glor @7- Holy smokes. Sorry if I missed anything in reading that. I think I got the main thrust tho and don’t mind disagreement on this. I’ll say that my worst players have always shaded Enrik. Though one of the rock bottom worst had written an Enrik character sheet and gone on to play the character as OgreButt. With ERP. o_O

  7. says

    Great American Satan @8- Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed the original movie. I think the book version (if Crichton ever worked on it; his bibliography suggests it was only ever a screen play) would basically end up being Jurassic Park, replacing androids with dinosaurs.

  8. starskeptic says

    GAS @8 The Westworld film is unique in films based on Crichton’s works in that there never was an ‘original’ novel – the book was a novelization of the film.

  9. says

    matt- Huh. I guess a lot of writers back then went between books and the screen – thinkin about Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Some became more famous for one or the other. Was Andromeda Strain ever a book? I’m not curious enough to look it up or seriously expect anyone else to. Crichton wrote some fun stuff, but also had duds, and ended his career with towering embarrassments.

    ninja’d! Thx for the info, Starske.

  10. EveryZig says

    @Great American Satan
    The game was in a setting made by the GM, first using the Fate Core system and currently switched to Savage Worlds.

  11. says

    everyz @12- I reread the comment and it made more sense the third time. I asked because I thought the answer might give some clarity, but guess I didn’t really need to. House Rulin’ appropriation of systems. I approve.

  12. lanir says

    I think the RPG elements being described here are depth of play and depth of background. The original post is correct that the one does not always imply the other. Like some other commenters I would say the one does not imply the opposite of the other either.

    Roleplaying games tend to expose the qualities and problems of the people we play with. Like team sports they can be both competitive and cooperative and you’ll see how well people handle both. They can show you where people have unusually strong associations such as the ones that prompt problems with authority. Because RPGs are creative, cooperative and competitive, you’ll have the opportunity to see things about the people you’re playing with that might not show up as easily if you were playing chess or basketball with them. And because you’re sitting around a table with them you have more opportunities to notice than you would while running around on a ball court.

    The tricky part is encouraging different behavior when someone is annoying you. It’s not like your friends do things just to get your goat. Well, I hope they don’t anyway. 🙂

  13. EveryZig says

    I was thinking about this post again since I had another RPG session on the 24th with my next character after Query in the same campaign (with the rest of the party being the same). My new character Cecily Das is the opposite of Query in many ways, being a mercenary motivated largely by self-interest to Query’s radically selfless alien anthropologist. While I still feel more attached to Query as a character, I have been warming up to Cecily as less boring than I initially thought, through a mix of pragmatism being a good foil for the other party members’ shenanigans and what I think is improvement on my part in being more assertive in playing a character. I have noticed though that she has been harder to role-play than Query, since while Query knows exactly what it wants, Cecily has conflicting motives of caution, greed and residual loyalty to the human government she used to be a soldier for. Though to be honest as someone with Aspergers I also feel like it is also kind of harder to play a more “normal” person than a robot alien observing humans as an outsider.

  14. says

    I’ve known a difficult player with Asperger’s and OCD before. You think your neurology has ever made a gaming situation more difficult, and did you &/or your group find a workaround or way to deal with that?

  15. EveryZig says

    A thing I have had some difficulty with recently was knowing how to role play down time when Cecily and the rest off the player characters were hanging out in a bar between missions. Query always has something to do from interviewing locals to doing research over the planetary internet to analyzing previously acquired data, but just hanging out as a normal person is something alien to me in a way that investigation mysteries or arguing with politicians about the nature of transparency is not. (As a side note, part of why I really liked playing Query is that its proactiveness and dedication to its lifes’ work is a weird sort of wish fulfillment for me.)

    Aside from that, I think I generally get along pretty well with other players, and tend more towards cooperative play than unilateral. While Query was new ground for me in terms of playing a character who didn’t just go along with the group most of the time, as a player I was still working with the other players with things like giving advice on successfully hiding their character’s crimes from Query. An example of character vs player dynamics that I think went fairly well is Query’s death. The team had followed and order from our NPC commanding officer only to find out immediately afterwards that it was part of a successful plot to assassinate the corrupt planetary governor. Query of course was determined to try to tell the public, but it told the team its intentions before doing so. Query was aware that revealing what had happened would get it killed and that that telling them beforehand would give them a chance to prevent the message from getting out, but ultimately its personal and diplomatic obligations to the team and the human government outweighed that risk. (Also, out of character, if Query didn’t give the rest of the group the chance to stop it that would likely take the rest of the group down with it.) This ended with the message not getting out and Query in indefinite stasis, but really I was half expecting something like that to happen from the start due to the natures of Query and the campaign, and I was not upset about it. Even in character, Query knows that its selves that go to unstable worlds or get involved in alien politics tend not to survive their missions long enough to return and merge back into the template, but death is cheap when you have multiple parallel lives and log entries of observations sent out in the meanwhile are better than nothing.

  16. says

    EZ @20- Kind of having an alien understanding of how our RP goes. I don’t want to be the kind of person that doubts another’s diagnosis, but if I was, zero problem believing this person. They just seem like their posting from Mars in a way that’s hard to explain. Sometimes we’ve had to have labor-intensive thesis-length exchanges in PM to hash out the best way to proceed, or help them understand how I’d prefer them to personally approach certain subjective aspects of the half-assed rules. They’d probably do better with a much more rulesy game.

    That’s one thing, and it was annoying enough getting through that with them that I don’t want to try to explain it more here. The other thing (out of character) is they felt powerfully compelled to weigh in on things that came off insulting as hell to some other players. No amount of apologizing or fretting – of which there was plenty – really gets a person past the realization someone judges an aspect of them (their interests) that rudely.

    Not your problems, as such?

  17. EveryZig says

    Those don’t seem like any problems I have had. In life in general I kind of have a habit of complaining about circumstances, but I generally avoid complaining about people, and especially not when they are right there.

  18. says

    I always created complex backgrounds for my characters, especially when I was a member so the Camarilla. Since I mostly played WoD games, the backgrounds helped me get into character. The key is to create concepts that can work in the game world and work with other players. Otherwise you just bring down the party and don’t have fun.

  19. says

    I concede it’s probable my initial thesis was flawed, informed by my recent experiences with some annoying cats. If a detailed background works for ye, than so mote it be. Personally, I tend to keep the character sheet to a few paragraphs at most, often less.

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