Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A small gathering I attended on Saturday, combined with some of the concerns the players had when creating characters for the current HERO campaign, has me wondering if there's an epidemic condition out there.

Observation #1

Some of my players are new to HERO System. Disadvantages have been a part of the game since the very first edition, and the name change to Complications has not changed their function in the least: they're hooks to get the players into the action, to engage and challenge them.

These new players, who didn't know of the tradition, were content to take just 15 points each out of a possible maximum 75 points of Complications. They eyed the section on Complications as if they had their pick of a wide selection of bombs that could be strapped to their groins and detonated at the GM's pleasure. The thought of weakening a character was anathema.

I had to convince them that I took my role as GM more as a storyteller than adversary. I'm still not quite sure they trust me. It makes the decision to make Complications non-adders an interesting decision, but I'm not going to talk about that here—either I mentioned that already or I will later, but not now.

Observation #2

This has to do with that gathering I mentioned above. It turns out I earned serious brownie points with the GM of another game which I play in by writing several pages of potential backstory for the character I was thinking of playing. It wasn't even "I must have this or you're a poopy-head," it was more like "If we could swing this, what if this happened," etc.

This impressed him for some reason. Some of the documentation I sent him had him unable to sit still; numerous times he had to get up or show his wife some delightful bombshell I'd handed him in the volumes of text I'd wrtten. I even coined a term for this condition: Epiphalepsy. It's the condition that exists when a string of ideas gives you virtual seizures.

Conclusion? Oh, just an introduction!

I thought about the two of them together, and wondered, "Is it so unusual for someone to write up a history rife with hooks? Is it so strange that a player give the GM some idea (or a lot of ideas) what kind of trouble he wants to get into?

Judging by these two instances, it may be. And that makes no sense.

PvGM? How about NO?

Some players (and worse, some GMs) believe the relationship at the gaming table should be adversarial. This is bull, to grossly understate it. To understand what I find so abhorrent about this picture, consider the role of the GM and compare that to the resources of the GM.

Which would you rather be: nothing, or God's worst enemy?

The GM, by definition, has complete control over every character that the players themselves don't have authority over. This is why they're called "non-player characters."

Furthermore, the GM can create additional NPCs in any quantity or at any power level to create whatever situation he deems necessary to create the situation or atmosphere he desires.

Additionally, the GM is the players' interface to the game world. He's an integral part of the roleplaying feedback loop. Player states character's action, GM consults relevant tables and rules, takes into account the situation that only he understands intimately, applies whatever fudging he desires, and announces the result.

Thus, to the players the GM is an omniscient, omnipotent being who is decidedly not omnibenevolent. This kind of being makes the worst adversary possible. If the relationship is truly adversarial, the GM can arrange a TPK every single time. The GM can only lose if he consents to it first.

Does this make the adversary GM sound like a Really Bad Idea? It had better.

So why isn't gaming ruined forever?

There's one and a quarter reasons why gaming doesn't fall apart after the first session.

The quarter reason is that games contain rules on balanced characters, how combat can run, what die rolls mean, etc. This would be a full reason, except that it has the -75% limitation Most Rules Are Just Guidelines Anyway. I have yet to see a ruleset that is so justifiably confident in its completeness that they don't encourage the GM or players to adopt house rules, fudge die rolls, etc. to keep the action going. (And before you cite the original AD&D, I did say "justifiably.")

The other reason, the full reason, is that many GMs do not view the game they run as a battle against the players. For many of them, there is a higher calling: Storyteller, and I don't mean the old White Wolf system. I mean they have a story to tell and the players' characters are an integral part of it.

Oh, I am gentle, but I'm not a pushover.

Now, this does not mean the PCs will automatically win. The happy ending is something that in most stories has to be fought for, tooth and nail and sword and rocket launcher. Or something. The point is, if the players don't declare the right actions, or the dice break the wrong way often enough, then they could end up with a sad ending.

Yes, there is an adversarial relationship here, but it can't be between the players and GM. This is between the PCs and those NPCs that are trying to win out in the same situation, usually at the expense of either the PCs or someone the PCs are aligned with.

Another analogy I've used is that the GM is designing rollercoasters. It's his job not just to tell a story, but to thrill the players and challenge their characters. There may well be moments when everything feels out of control, or when the players (the passengers) think the whole damn mess is about to come off the rails and crash into that souvenir stand at the bottom of the big twisty drop.

The characters may hate being challenged in that way, but they're just constructs of simulated personality and stats. They don't care. The important thing is the thrill the players get riding the thing—that's what keeps them coming back.

I have a counterpoint too, unfortunately

Above in "Observation #2," I mentioned a GM that I play with whom I gave a lengthy description of the character, his circumstances, and a great many of the different hooks and barbs which could make the character's life either very interesting or very short. To hear him talk sometimes, one could assume that this isn't a safe course of action to take.

There's a certain ground-level of GM smack-talk and numerous slogans suitable for putting on buttons, but apparently this guy and his group take it seriously: the company of people he GMs with have put bounties on certain players. If their characters die in-game, they get bonuses. Admittedly it is to some extent the players' faults for doing things so bewilderingly, so mind-numbingly bass-ackward that character death is almost a mercy or necessity, like chlorinating the gene-pool or skimming the bloom of scum off the surface. Still, how do you trust someone who can do that?

Simple answer: Don't do stupid stuff. At least make the attempt to play intelligently. Give the GM a reason to respect you, and he can be at least somewhat accommodating. You won't necessarily have an easy time of it, but at least you won't have the GM's friends gunning for you.

Trust: The Foundation on which Any Successful Relationship is Based

That settles the first point: that the GM is not necessarily out to get the player's characters, at least not without very good reason.

You can't boogie with a bucket in the tarpits

Trusting other players isn't about whether you genuinely trust them: it's about making play better. If you're mistrustful, you'll play carefully and conservatively. Instead, force yourself to trust, and you'll take risks.

John Wick, Play Unsafe

The other half of the equation is the part where the players create characters without any hooks, catches, or rough spots. The problem is not that the players don't think about the particulars of their characters, it's that the players have considered the particulars of their characters and want to close up as many of the loopholes, sand off all the rough spots, and streamline the characters to the point that they can't get into any trouble whatsoever. The resulting character may have interesting points, but they're hidden under the layers of virtual plain white cotton batting that keep it so safe it's boring.

And the blandness defense doesn't just work against the GM; it can be used to keep characters safe from the prying eyes and probing hands of other characters, to keep your original concept pure and untouched by anything as troubling as plot.

Easy Come, Easy Go

There's another thing you can do to mitigate the stress of throwing yourself into the maelstrom of fate and caprice stirred up by the GM and other players: ignore it.

Seriously. I quoted John Wick above from a book which is all about taking your character concept and improving the game it's portrayed in by not sweating the little stuff. Or a lot of the big stuff, come to think of it. Throw the chips in the air, let them fall where they may, and just have fun rather than strategizing how to get the most out of your character (and the characters around you).

My Approach (strange though it may be)

Not that I'm any particular paragon of player, but what I'm doing might work well for other people. I'd be interested in any war stories or NSTTWs that may come up as a result of playing like this. Or any counterpoints you might have. Hell, post something in the comments section. That'll let me know you read this.

To draw a line, you need at least two points

I start by considering at least two of three things: where the character was long ago, what he's done recently, where I'd like to see him headed in the near future, or where I'd like to see him a long time from now.

And none of those are necessarily pleasant. I have a habit of creating "broken" characters, which are normal in some regards but have some element in their background or psychological make-up which sets off odd behavior.

Don't knock that technique; if you have some idea why they have a problem in recent history, you might get some novel ideas for boons and benefits to throw into their upbringing. Creating a character this way involves carefully planned destruction, like sculpting is a process of destroying rock to create a particular shape. Handicaps might suggest other abilities, deficiencies may hint at proficiencies, and places where they seem the most helpless might go to suggest areas in which they can kick butt with ease.

Plotting two of those four temporal goals will allow you to plot both where the character has been and where the character's going.

To plot a curve, you need at least three points

Adding a third point into that sequence provides a twist in the background, a time or incident where things started becoming more normal or going even weirder than before. It was moving in a more or less straight line until we hit that bump, and then things changed. Where was the character heading before? What was the change? And where is he headed now? Is that good or bad?

Is bad so bad?

Again, none of it has to be good, or some of it can be. An upward trend broken by a downward turn suggests tragedy and loss, which can be good to explore dramatically. A downward spiral broken by a slight upward deflection suggests some small benefit which may in the long run make things better. But no matter how good things get, the character will still remember the bad times.

The other reason for pre-breaking your characters is to challenge them internally. Before you even encounter the outside world, your character has something to overcome. Those breaks and crumples that some people think make a character a wreck, I think they make interesting.

Your mileage may vary, though; sometimes I think I overdo it.


Don't be afraid to bounce ideas off the GM. Yes, even those ideas that the GM could use against your character. Especially those ideas—if he can't use them, they might not be worth including. And if he can use them, he might have some other ideas what they're good for.

1 comment:

  1. That's two posts in a row that immediately make me think of the Dresden Files RPG.

    See, an integral part of character generation is choosing Aspects, which are story elements that apply to your character, like "Quick Temper," or "Archfoe of the Ruthless Lord Whiplash."

    You can spend Fate Points to invoke these for advantage in a die roll, such as using Quick Temper to add to an intimidation roll. You gain Fate Points when an Aspect gets your character in trouble, such as when your Quick Temper prevents you from being diplomatic at a crucial moment.

    Since the player chooses the Aspects, you could try to find one that would never get you in any trouble. And then you'd burn through your Fate Points in a hurry and not get any more, plus all your friends who have more even Aspects get in trouble and have Fate Points aplenty.

    One of many reasons why I love that game. And I haven't even had a chance to play it yet!