RPGs: The Truest Test of Character?

Why is it that role-playing games seem to bring out the worst traits in people? Even people you would never have guessed had it in them, people you may have liked before, but come out liking less. I wish the inverse was true – that players displaying good morals would be surprising or have a nice impact – but it’s far easier to be outlandishly awful than it is to be pretty decent. There are millions of ways to harm people and only a few ways to nurture or protect them. Either way, RPGs keep turning into morality tests, no matter the GM’s intent.

I’ve run situations where all a character had to do was say hello to an old friend, and before long the friend has been encouraged to shoot heroin for the first time with a dirty needle. Where all a group of characters had to do was walk down a sidewalk, have a funny interaction with some randos, then one PC goads another into viciously assaulting them.

And I’m sure most of the fellowship of Game Masters have encountered similar. The adventurers pass a travelling show and end up killing everybody for XP and a few silver pieces, or because the entertainers didn’t sufficiently stroke the PC’s demonic egos. The encounter was just meant to breathe life into the setting, give the PCs a chance to experience a different world. Turns out the life they want to experience is that of homicidal warlords.

You often hear the lament on forums, how do I deal with this terrible player? He’s my best friend in real life, so I can’t tell him to fuck off. How can I rein him in? Sometimes, if it’s extreme enough, the bad player’s friend may wonder if there’s something seriously wrong with them. Is my best friend a potential serial killer?

There are a number of reasons, some addressed in my Pitfalls of RP series, that lead players to behave worse in a game than they would in real life. The most obvious reason is that it is just a game, so depending on how real it feels, one could feel no more responsible than they would to video game NPCs. The flipside of this is that some nice people would never dream of killing the jerk rat-pelt collector in Everquest, let alone a character voiced by a present living person. Still, failures of imagination can be understood. The best of us get big body counts in GTA.

Another failure of imagination is just misunderstanding the scene or the world and its rules. In cinema and in many games, a blow to the back of the head will knock someone out harmlessly. In real life and realistic games, unconsciousness isn’t guaranteed but brain damage is certainly a possibility. Likewise, a PC could read an NPC as more dangerous than they are, and end up shooting unarmed characters.

Excuses aside, many players genuinely feel fine playing characters as utter bastards. Can you play evil? Do you like to? I’ve found that the only way I can deal with that is playing a character who is meant to be disliked, meant to be unpleasant and probably doomed. The aforementioned rando-bashing and heroin needling was conducted by a character that was pretty well defined as a jerk, so it wasn’t too jarring, even if it was gratuitous and ugly.

What blows my mind is that people will write a character as all sunshine and light, cutesy woobliness, then turn around and have those characters commit atrocities. I’m sorry, Braden, but blushing boy band-lookin’ sensitive sighs Oliver comes off like a David Lynch villain the second you make him party to a serial killing. His loverboy styles are instantly upended into depraved creepiness, his looks corrupted by the dark light behind his eyes.

It could be a problem of people playing characters beyond their own natural abilities. We don’t physically lift the castle gates when our characters do, but we do have to make words happen, make actions happen, within the limits of our own real life ability. Playing characters as more intelligent or charismatic than we actually are? Very difficult. Playing characters more compassionate than we are? Maybe it’s impossible. How would you even know you were fucking up?

If that’s the case, then the key is knowing yourself and playing within the limits of your ability and imagination. And if you’re paying attention while you’re playing, you might learn a lot about what those limits are.


There’s a Concept

There’s a concept that occurred to me some time ago, and I see it occurred to others as well. Well, less the concept, which is well known, but the label for it: “cultural gamers.” I’d like to do a more thorough article on it some time, but for now, a quick summary.

One of the articles that brought a writer into the crosshairs of internet shitbabies suggested that “gamers are over.” It also neatly summarized the view of that maladjusted mob from outside. Useful, because for years they’d mostly been described from within, by the likes of sycophantic game journos and gamer webcomics. The concept of gamer culture was now more accurately defined.

Meanwhile, internet nazis decided “cultural marxists” were a thing to fear and fight. This is the thing that makes “cultural gamer” an amusing turn of phrase. It’s an accurate description of people who base much of their identity on that pastime, but also echoes a term their fellow regressive nightmare people use for the rest of us.

So cultural gamers, as people, as cogs in the internet’s human ruining machinery, as distinct from people-who-play-vidya-games. I don’t care for ’em. Can’t think of anything clever to say about that at the moment.


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.


Pitfalls of RP: NonAdventurers

In this post I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the terms I’m using.  Ask for clarification in the comments if you like.  I’m also going to address this in part to GMs and in part to players, but I’m coming from the perspective of someone who is almost always the GM.

As GMs, we assume players want to play.  They showed up for a game, right?  But this is not a safe assumption.

There are many reasons why someone who came for a game might end up recalcitrant and useless.  Many roleplaying gamers are children, making them prone to rapid mood swings and erratic behavior.  Some people may feel compelled by social circumstances to show up for something they don’t want to do, and play their characters as inert lumps.  Sometimes a player is being antagonized by a crappy GM or other players, but doesn’t feel bold enough to quit the situation.

Those are all legitimate enough.  It would be nice if people could just admit when they don’t want to be around and have the means and wherewithal to bail, but it’s not always the case.  Still, there are some more cryptic reasons why players don’t play.  I’d like to discuss those a bit…
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Cowboy Jutsu

Howdy y’all. Now, you wanna talk about that there cultural appropriation, you wanna talk about the Japonisme Renaissance of the nineteen-hunnerdeighties an’ thereabout. Folks around the world got themselves the fever for the flavor of a ninja, kinda Part Two of the seventies interest in kung fu, itself a sequel of an even creepier post WWII interest in Japanese culture and judo. The Chinese were into it early on (see movies like Heroes of the East and Five Element Ninjas), but no one went whole hog for it like the U S of A.

During that time, Frank Miller had a run on Daredevil comics which featured extremely ninjatastic plots, that ultimately formed the basis of the most recent season of Netflix’s Daredevil series.  Now, I was on the tumblrs when I came across a screen cap of a hilarious tweet by someone name of Sam Kriss:

“imagine a japanese tv show in which someone investigating a corrupt american corporation is attacked by droves of lasso-wielding cowboys”

As it happens, back in my unselfconscious days of youth, I owned a role-playing game called Ninjas & Superspies, which had dozens of martial art forms.  But it didn’t have Cowboy Jutsu… until now!  You can thank me in the comments.  Now I reckon a lot of you will care less about bonuses to Parry and Dodge, so just focus on the color text for yuks in the following section.  (For the interested and egregiously nerdy, I tried to make this balanced within the system by modeling it off of Triad Assassin style from “Mystic China” but made it a bit more versatile and tough with the excuse I was making it an “Exclusive” form.)
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Pitfalls of RP: Limitations of Medium

When playing an RPG with a GM and your fellow humans, it’s important to keep your imagination engaged – to almost overcompensate for the limitations of the medium. Just consider those limitations and the effect they can have. You can’t see the world and the things in it. Even if you have some kind of visual depiction, it doesn’t include a visceral sense of potential dangers. You seldom have a visual representation of other characters. Especially if your RP is internet based, you miss out on their expression and emphasis in speech.

When interacting with NPCs, you always have an inherent knowledge in the back of your head that they are less central to the narrative – less important – than PCs. Additionally, you may have notions about the players that are not meant to be true of their characters. And you may have knowledge of circumstances in the game that your character should not possess, and (intentionally or not) use that knowledge in game. All of these things can lead you to run your character as if they have an impairment or several that you as the player might not: deficits or difficulties with situational awareness, risk assessment, self-awareness, social propriety, speech comprehension, empathy, imagining characters to have thoughts or qualities they do not have, and so on.
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Pitfalls of RP: Inappropriate Sexy

When the hell did so much online RP become erotic roleplay (ERP)? When I started running games in a public forum, when I opened up a campaign to include people I’d never met, I began to encounter a style of play I had never seen before. Players contriving reasons to have their characters be naked, or falling all over each other dramatically. Literally rolling around on the ground screaming about their feelings while other PCs or NPCs were standing around with question marks over their heads. Breathing into other people’s faces with “kiss me you fool” and the like.
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Pitfalls of RP: Bad Representation

Sometimes people are offensive because they are made out of garbage. Sometimes, it’s because they are operating from a position of ignorance – and possibly amenable to education and improvement. If you want to play characters who are different from yourself without perpetuating bad ideas, let’s talk about it. I love it when character groups are more diverse than the players themselves, as long as it’s done right!
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Pitfalls of RP: Personality Conflict

RPGs are an unfortunately social pastime. I say unfortunately because a statistically significant number of humans have social difficulties which make them extremely incompatible with the significant number of humans who are made out of elbows. It would be a lot easier if you could get the same experience out of a cluster of artificial intelligences, but there is a reason person-to-person play persists as a hobby in an age of video games – the technology ain’t there yet.

Often this is just a matter of people having incompatible personalities. As in the example at the top, an introvert and an extrovert could be quite bad with each other. Political differences can spill into a game, with predictable results. Someone could have a punchy sense of humor while another is sensitive to insult.
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