Monday, September 17, 2012

Roleplaying, True Character, and Letting Someone else Drive

I have a dream that my player's avatars will play in a game where they will not be judged by the numbers of their stats, but by the content of their character!

I haven't had much time recently to play Dungeons and Dragons with space and time contraints due to moving and work, and so my epic "Albion" campaign which I've plotted and schemed on of months has fallen by the wayside.  Usually I would be disappointed, and even greive the loss of the game (or more to the point, the work I put into the world's development).  But, I believe that I developed Albion to the point that the world itself is now a living thing someplace in my head, all I need is to inject players and change the priorities of the world to involve them.  Though my game has died (or at least lies dormant), a world was born, and I am a proud, proud papi!

With that lapse in time a contender has arisen! And by contender, I mean Storyteller who's been doing this much longer then I have.  There was a old Star Wars D20 game on the horizon, hosted by a man named Ryan.  Ryan is a friend of a brother of a friend of mine, who's actually also a friend, but also kind of a brother because my friends' other brother is married to the sister of my actual brother's wife.  So let's just say Ryan is a friend of a friend, and a veteran storyteller and game master.

I've always been afraid that I take my job as a game master too seriously, between things like probing character development questions, and forcing reources like Obsidian Portal on my players.  But, sitting down with Ryan to go over my character concept I realized I'm not the only one who goes to great lengths for the sake of a campaign.  By the time we had sat down to piece together my character, we had spoken on the phone, exchanged emails, and I had even taken an anonymous survey taken by the players to help shape the campaign (I'll be adopting that one).  I usually fleshing out a character after the player has created them, trying to get a feel for my player's character's backgrounds to make the characters seem more real , and less like a group of stats on a piece of paper.

Ryan's approach got in at the ground level of character creation, instead of saying "make a character and show up" asking "what type of character do you want to be?".  At first I didn't think these two approaches were so different, but it became clear to me given the chance to change perspective.  Instead of getting ready to step into you're character's shoes on game day, each step in character creation IS a step in your character's shoes.  The end result was the game starting with you being told, "this is how you got here" and less of "well you're here, now what" (a simple lesson, but one that took me years to actually learn).

"I don't know guys, I just can't shake this weird feeling,
It's like a blaster, right in my back!"
The differences didn't stop there, during the game play, rules and roles were established in character, and soon were flipped, week 1 started with a Jedi led strike team assaulting a seperatist array at the height of the clone wars, and ended with "order 66".  Blessed as I considered myself for getting to play the sole Jedi player character in game, things quickly turned ugly as the other players turned on me, killing my Jedi Master, and knocking my character unconcious and binding him.

I was pissed! Here I was, helplessly watching the other players beat, hogtie, and rob my character and rules, rolls, and the frail Jedi Sage I had carefully built was not enough to stop them.  I know as well as anyone that it is in fact "just a game" and to let things slide, but in the moment, watching other players grind my poor Jedi Padawan's face into the ground, I couldn't help but wonder, "So I drove acrossed town and used some great ideas the create a character so I can stand here and watch him get his ass kicked and do nothing to stop it?".  To boot, not only is it the person who's running the game making your life hard, but 5 of your friends kind of killing your fun.  It's hard not to get salty, and say "why's everyone picking on me!?".

In the end, after my character was taken out of action, the intruige of the story was more then enough to keep me from collecting my things, yelling "I HATE YOU!" like a burning Anakin Skywalker, and running from the house trying to choke back my angsty tears, (ok it wouldn't have been that bad, but I was pretty frustrated.)
"I rolled a 20 against stun and I STILL drop my lightsaber,

The night ended with my character bound, and the group fleeing the newly formed Galactic Empire.  A week in realtime (and game time) gave me time to reflect.  Walking away from the house, I was threatening player characers and plotting vengeance for my fallen master, but the week between the games gave me an opportunity to do something I haven't been able to do in literal years.  Take time to myself, drop into character, analyze what had happened, plot my next move.  Even better was that my character follows a monastic tradition, so while a week had passed, I read up on the Jedi code, reflected on it's teachings, and returned to the game the following saturday (mostly) free of angry thoughts of vengeance (in character and out).  What's more is that during the course of the evening, there was discussion in character about the current events in the galaxy, what the next step as a group was.  Most of which wasn't moderated by the Storyteller, just a few of us stepped aside, agreed on what our characters knew and didn't know about current events (to avoid "metagaming", I believe I mentioned it in a previous post), and spoke about possible paths and our goals.  For anyone familiar with Star Wars cannon, the conversation between a Jedi padawan and two clone commandos post order 66 was surprisingly respectful, diplomatic, and well played.  I'm not going to say what took place was "LARPing", but actually standing aside with two other people and speaking openly in character, it's the closest I've been.

Got a little side-tracked there.  Long story short, I reached a level of immersion I've been seeking my players to experience for quite a while.  Despite a lot of my experience coming what can be concieved as a negative experience (really frustrated), I was still hooked! Not just because the GM sets a compelling story, but also because those setbacks, both planned and rolled, helped give my character direction and set a challange before me much more exciting and important then target numbers.

So, personal story aside, let's talk a little about character development, more specifically, character development in a tabletop gaming atmosphere.

A character developed in a tabletop gaming session is quite different from a literary character, as they are forced to overcome forces that you can not control.  When writing a book or a short story, you have the liberty of setting challanges before your character that will help shape them into a character you desire, tabletop gaming is quite a bit different.  Your character is forced to weather the crucible of a fiendish DM, and the choices made by other characters (all of whom are every bit as important to the story as yours).  It's easy to forget (especially starting out) that your character is not the main character, that the story revolves around your group, not your persona.  Building a story with multiple main characters is hard on a player who's got a very interesting plot line, and a storyteller who is trying to follow an interesting plot line, but might risk leaving out other characters.  It's alright to play a character who's more of a supporting character then a lead, but even the most avid wallflowers need light, and in leaving someone to take a backseat to the rest of the group langwish you risk at best wasting that person's time and at worst that person becoming disruptive to the rest of the group.

"Trouble" Players are easy to spot, usually they're
holding a rule book, and arguing with the game master.
The key is constant is to be mindful of your surroundings and keep communication between your fellow players and storyteller.  It's easy to start the accept the atmosphere of the game (especialy Dungeons and Dragons, with it's "Adventure Game" roots) as something as more competative, with your Storyteller seen as an adversary and the other player as independant plot lines that speak when you're not speaking, and help keep you alive.  The fact is that like De Niro said in Brazil, "We're all in it together, kid.", that is to say instead of jockying for your turn to talk, you should wait to make sure to wait for others to react and have their say.  Instead of pulling levers in a room you just walked into, make sure the other players have time to check out their surroundings before being "that guy" that says "Hey! What's this do!?".  Sure you could reason "I have an impulsive character! That's just how they are!", but frustrating other player because "that's how my character is" is a slippery slope.  A few slip ups makes for interesting  (and frustrating in a good way) situations, but simply saying "That's how I am, deal with it" is either going to make player characters reconsider inviting your character on future adventures, or make your friends reconsider inviting you to future games.  Your "dark and mysterious" character is interesting, but when their "dark and mysterious" decisions start to step on the liberties of other characters, you've got some explaining to do, opening the way for some great story oriented conflict.  If it doesn't go the way of story oriented conflict (and that which actually reaches a resolution in a timely manner), and you dodge questions and accusations instead of confronting them, prepare to reap the consequences of the wedge you just drove between yourself and your party.

In closing, it's hard being a good game master, but even harder is being a good player, balancing your enthusiasim with patience in a world of adventure and excitment is enough to drive anyone crazy, but remember to share your enthusiasim with the people around you, create bonds with the other characters in the game (and game masters, create situations that force players to work together!  A room full of monsters is not enough to fulfill a team building exercise!).
You could make a thousand characters, and never know adventure
like this heating engineer.
Be prepared to make compromises on how you play your character, to leave room for others.  The only thing worse then a character who doesn't stick to their beliefs, is one too obstinate to make room for the people closest to them, and fictitious or real, people like that don't keep friends for long...ficticious or real.