Elusive Targets

Been a while.  Been hard to focus on any one idea or interest.  That hasn’t changed …

Sometimes, I realize I don’t come across as the most consistent person in my arguments, opinions, and whatever.  In some cases, that’s due to being far more precise in what I mean than what is conveyed.  In some cases, I make an exaggerated statement for effect that undermines precision.  In some cases, I’m just not consistent, something it took me quite a while to realize.

Then, even if I were always consistent, as much as I try to describe thoughts in precise terms, it can be torturous to be precise or try to be precise.  Meaning isn’t always conveyed better by adding descriptive modifiers in an effort to be more specific.

There are times, like when it comes to RPG campaigns, when it helps to be clearer in what is desired out of the campaign.  Since I haven’t tried to write down my favorite things about role-playing sessions, I often don’t clearly express what experiences I want to have.  Yesterday, I wrote a couple of e-mails to one of my GMs about the sort of things I enjoy.  While I’m sure it’s kind of painful to follow, at least it’s a start and putting it in writing is better than trying to talk through points.

So, what experiences do I want out of a RPG session?

The Spotlight & Contributions & Cool

I’m not a spotlight type.  To argue for the validity of astrology, I could see someone using studies with sufficiently large sample sizes.  Otherwise, it’s far too subjective.  I bring this up because one of the features of my Sun sign is hating the spotlight.

Many times when I’m being spotlighted, I feel uncomfortable, feeling like I’m taking up other people’s time with things they don’t care about.  This is, yet again, another way that RPGs and fiction differ.  In reading a book, the reader doesn’t need to share the experience.  Role-playing is a social activity.  Meanwhile, I don’t mind other people being spotlighted for stretches.

I build bad characters, just like I build bad decks with CCGs and choose bad strategies in boardgames.  The goal isn’t to suck.  In fact, it bothers me when I can’t contribute my share to games.  Even two-player CCGs, where a lopsided game can be quickly conceded, the experience would have been better by not sucking.  Much of my drive that leads to sucking is the overwhelming desire to be unique.  I might play other people’s decks, but I don’t build other people’s decks (with rare exceptions).  I hate having cookiecutter characters.  I hate taking the well-known strategies in boardgames and, on those rare occasions I play them, wargames, miniatures, etc.

The thing is is that it’s pretty easy to discover most effective strategies.  In order to do something different, one has to either end up using an inferior strategy or discover something new.  Most of the time, it’s the inferior path.  With Conan d20, I tried a low Strength fighter.  Now, Conan is quite favorably inclined towards low Strength Thieves as Sneak Attack damage is insane.  It is not remotely favorable to those without copious amounts of Sneak Attack damage.  Even with new Feats in splat books, Strength or Sneak Attack damage or spells are what matter in combat.

Given my predilection to building (mechanically) offbeat characters, I still want to contribute.  I still want to pull my weight.  What that weight is varies by group.  In some groups, everyone needs to strive for effectiveness; for such a group, I will work harder to make a more effective character.  In other groups, being “sidekick level” or “spearchucker level” is good enough.  Usually, there’s something in between where a party weakness can be addressed.  That Conan character ended up being the primary diplomat of the party and a backup religious expert.

Okay, great, blah blah blah … why does this matter?  So, there’s designing a character and there’s playing a character.  Both should be meaningful to the GM, but GMs often have enough things to worry about without figuring out exactly how a party is going to function before it has some time to work together.  Given a particular build, in this case, a L5R build, to contribute, certain things need to happen.  My L5R character is knowledgeable about spirit realms.  If other (Rokugan’s realm is also a spirit realm) realms are never important, then that facet of the character serves no purpose and my contributions decline.

I don’t want the campaign to be all about spirit realm stuff (travel, invasions, etc.) just because I built a character that relates to that since I don’t care about the spotlight nearly as much as I think others do.  Well, I realize that quite a few people I play with are just as disinterested in the spotlight as I am, but some people care more.  But, since that’s the direction I went in character creation, it should be an element of the campaign.

Here’s where we get into consistency issues.  On the one hand, I eschew the spotlight and am often happy being a lesser contributor.  On the other, I like doing cool stuff.  I like to sneak up on people with awesome, which means being bodacious at least occasionally.  Of course, everyone has different ideas of cool.  I don’t find massive combat overkill cool, maybe when it’s a surprise.  I’m more into saving people who appear lost, holding off a superior force, or making emotional gestures.  Though, sure, sometimes I like one-shotting the high priest who is going to eat all of our souls, too.

In general, doing things others don’t is important to cool.  If everyone studies the glyphs, it’s just rolling dice.  If everyone else is looting the sarcophagi while I study the glyphs, that’s interesting to me.  One of Robin Laws’ gamer archetypes is the specialist.  I came out in the quiz mentioned in this post as 58% specialist.  That sounds reasonable.  I don’t always feel the need to be an expert in some area, but I like having my niche.

Looking back at the examples from HoR2 mods that I listed for my L5R GM, it’s clear that doing thing others didn’t and, maybe, couldn’t pleased me.  Though there have been instances where combat prowess or the like have been these things, usually it involves interactions with NPCs.

The World As We Know It

This is not going to be all that enlightening, but without a world (and people in the world) to interact with, interactions with NPCs aren’t going to happen.  So, one of the things I look for from my GMs is having NPCs, preferably NPCs with some depth, even better NPCs who are recurring characters.

I’m not going to like every NPC.  Nor am I going to hate every NPC.  But, I should fancy some NPCs and despise others.  To an extent, it can be forced.  A party villain may have done horrible things to every PC’s family.  I’m very much into subtlety, especially my own, but when it comes to NPCs, I don’t know that subtlety matters much.  Some things about a world just need to grab the player.

On the other hand, I realized only recently just how little interest I take in other PCs.  It’s not that I don’t care about them being successful, it’s that I don’t feel a need to interact with them since they don’t help the plot move along.  I am, after all, primarily a storyteller archetype, so I care a lot about plot.  Sure, sometimes I like to interact with another PC, but that’s typically because the PC’s player is female.  Then, there are campaigns where players drive what happens, not campaigns I play in nor campaigns I would be all that excited by as I hate driving the action – I have an extremely reactive personality.

There are other things I like to see in the world.  I like the world to be biased towards the PCs.  Yup, I said it.  I’m not looking for fair, though fair is a step up in some cases.  I want the world to be more pleasant than the real world.  Otherwise, might as well play real life.

I want the world to be oriented towards telling stories.  I play RPGs to get away from mundane crap like worrying about money, worrying about my career, worrying about food and shelter.  Shopping is not an adventure.  Nor is a lot of the other minutia that crops up.  Not every moment needs to be about dramatic challenges, but I want to do things that are sufficiently engaging that I would write about them later.

What about the PCs’ place in the world?  While I’m a high fantasy kind of guy, when it comes to RPGs, I don’t know that it matters a lot to me how important the PCs are.  I don’t want to be constantly reminded of lack of importance, of course.  Look at L5R.  A newb character in most campaigns is going to be Status 1 or 2, maybe be an Emerald Magistrate with effective Status of 4.  If a campaign constantly pointed out that the Status 3+ NPCs got to sit at the big kids table and we were nobodies, that would be fairly irritating.  On the other hand, knowing that there are lots of more important folks but having them be off stage is fine.

Eeps & Toys

I hate stuff.  Not always.  Not even usually for some kinds of stuff.  But, in general, equipment, magic items, and the other stuff that define the specialness of D&D characters, et al, just turns me off.  I can’t stand the idea of a +1 sword or a Bag of Holding.  Those are videogame toys.  I don’t even like the idea that armor is useful and I have virtually no interest in distinguishing one weapon from another beyond ranged vs. melee.

However, I do like rewards.  I like experience points, especially in games where you can buy precisely what you want rather than games where you only level up.  In terms of other rewards, there are a couple I like.

I do like “useless” stuff with flavor.  L5R has a lot of potential for this where superior equipment is scarce but a scrap of the banner held by some dude when some force held off a thousand goblins means a lot.  My favorite mod experience in HoR2 came from Words and Deeds.  One of the things that happened in that mod was gaining possession of a notable shogi set.  It had some mechanical benefit, in fact even a benefit I used in the mod to win the shogi tournament, but the coolness to mechanical benefitness ratio was extremely high.  I think part of it was also that it had a significant cost.  I burned a bunch of allies and/or favors to afford the set.  And, when I gave it away at the end of the mod, I was quite pleased with myself.

I’m also more inclined to favor stuff, even useful stuff, when it’s one of a kind and is the result of what a character does.  Being handed Stormbringer is not interesting.  Fighting Yyrkoon and Mournblade to get it is somewhat more interesting, only being kind of a fail because someone has already done that.  Forging one’s own blade from a scale of a dragon that the character slew – that works.

I’m even more into intangibles.  I liked the Reputation mechanic in Conan until I eventually gave up on it as it wasn’t serving to distinguish characters from each other and it was just a tedious accounting exercise.  I like that L5R has a Glory mechanic, though I wish it actually did something – a suggestion I made to my GM.  I like being thought of favorably (or feared) by nations, towns, NPCs, factions, cults, etc.  There’s a reason people donate money to universities, et al, and have their names put up on the buildings.  And, think about the adventure creating advantages of having a library named after your character; that library ain’t burning down without a pile of corpses.

Rocks Fall, Massive Damage Save Of 50

I don’t feel a need to be constantly challenged.  That is, there are times when playing when it’s okay for things to be happening that aren’t an obstacle.  On the other hand, weak challenges are lame.  More specifically, if I think the challenge was easy, I’m not interested.  Even if it is easy, if I think it felt challenging, then I’m happy (just don’t tell me differently).

In particular, I hate easy combats.  For whatever reason, even though I can get deeply into what proper tactics should be, combat just doesn’t interest me a lot to begin with.  Pointless combats or combats that are just resource drains are annoying, even in videogames.  I hated random encounters in the slums in Pool of Radiance because they just wasted my time getting to interesting stuff.

Dangerous combats are a different story.  I often get excited by combats that don’t seem survivable, though it helps if the system isn’t insipid.  Then, combats where there’s a particular goal, like rescue a kidnap victim or protect a helpless character or prevent some building/object/whatever from being destroyed, tend to be interesting to me.

Similarly, other challenges should be engaging.  I tend to find riddles to be obnoxious.  Usually, either someone knows the answer immediately or it’s just painful trying to come up with an answer.  Other forms of puzzles, like logic puzzles, don’t really work for me, either.  I like logic puzzle books, some more than others, but the experience of having a bunch of people try to work a puzzle out is not one I’m interested in – I don’t like shared efforts for such things.

Talking to NPCs can be good or bad.  Arguing a point, court drama style, might be good.  Bartering, negotiating terms, and the like tend to just be irritating, which is probably why I’m so uninterested in HoR’s political interactives.  Logistical challenges don’t do it for me, either.  It’s too close to “accounting nonsense” to worry about how much water we have, how fast a horse can go in a day, and so forth.

Traps are not as exciting to me as intelligent opposition.  Some traps, like ones where you have to figure out what order to pull levers in and the like, don’t interest me at all.  I’m more inclined towards physical challenge traps resolved with dice rolls.

I do want decisions to matter.  However, very often, there’s not enough information to make an educated decision, in which case it didn’t matter.  Just recently, our party had a decision as to whether to take a shortcut or not – there wasn’t enough information to determine the advantage over one path or the other, just a guess that the shortcut’s increased risk would make up for the shorter path, so it was a non-challenge and an irrelevant decision.

Like combat, other challenges should tie in some way to the party’s goals (or PC’s goals).  Arbitrary obstacles, whether traps, puzzles, or whatever, are just as bad as arbitrary combats.

Grandpa, What Happened?

Ultimately, the experiences I’m looking for are ones that make for good stories after the fact.  I want to do things I think are cool without bogging things down for everyone else or stealing their thunder.  To be cool requires that there be context, with the world being the context.  I want to be rewarded for things that I do, appropriately of course.  I want to overcome meaningful challenges, i.e. challenges that seem challenging, whether they really are or not.

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One Response to Elusive Targets

  1. Andrew H. says:

    A very focused blog post from you Ian, I find myself in agreement on just about all points. I would say that I don’t interact with player characters more often because I interact with them outside the context of the game more often. Though I think other people have similar problems to myself where they don’t feel like they have a great idea of their character, so trying to convey a personality to other players can be quite difficult.
    The generally lackluster response to “Introduce yourselves..” I think is another result of the same phenomenon. Its why I generally try to makes some effort to respond to those opportunities. I should probably make more of an effort to interact with other PCs though and see if it changes my experience substantially.

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