Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Role of Players

Last time I talked about the role of individual players in truly giving a game wings. However, as anyone who played any White Wolf or White Wolf inspired game of the 90s knows, individually compelling, proactive characters alone won't make a game go. Vampire and games of its ilk introduced a whole new level of character depth into role playing, but it did so in settings riven with conflict.

Now, that's great. Anyone who's read anything about fiction knows that conflict is what creates and drives a story. The thing is that the situations present in those earlier games set up deep intra-party animosity. Everyone hated one another, and while characters in those games were often proactive, rarely were they working toward the same goals.

That sounds really interesting in theory. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I got a little quiver in the imagination at the possibilities. However, in actual play I never saw it work well. More Storyteller games were spent screaming at and plotting against one another than actually doing anything. I even remember one game where the players were so worked up that they actually told the GM to shut up when he tried to move things along.

I remember once I ran a D&D game that I tried to make character oriented. There was plenty of questing and the like, but I tried hard to get it to ultimately be about who the characters were and who they became. It worked, to an extent. The characters mostly had well defined personalities and many of them routinely engaged the world at large. The problem was, they all did it individually.

One character decided he wanted to play an evil character, which I allowed as long as he would work with the rest of the party. He said that would be fine. And he did. He worked with them, helped them track down needed information, most certainly stood by their side in combat, all of it. He also, on his own, plotted how to kill all of them after the campaign ended so he could destroy the world and turn it into a massive necromantic planet. In fact, he spent 99% of his time plotting what he'd do after the game ended. One session, this bled into the ongoing campaign. He took some actions that would help him later, post game. It didn't really screw with the party, but it definitely wasn't something they were cool with.

Another character was a strict moralist. Any time the party did anything that he didn't personally agree with 100%, he'd refuse to participate. This party at one point decided they needed to break into a bank vault to recover some potent magical items. Said items belonged to people long dead (the party's prior incarnation, in fact), so it was only stealing in the technical sense, but this character wouldn't stand for it. When the heist went bad and magical security responded, he stood there and let the party deal with it without him. He wouldn't aid them in what he judged to be a crime. So, they lost.

Individually these were interesting characters. But they clearly didn't work together. In fact, no character in that game worked with any other. And as you might imagine, the campaign didn't go very far.

Now, the idea that players should work together is hardly new. But it does seem to be an unfortunate dichotomy that you either get a passive group, or a splintered party filled with individuals chasing their own agenda.

Back to that old storyteller setup for an example from the other side. I ran a game once where all the characters were elder vampires recently elevated to the status of archon and invited to a city to serve the prince directly. For those not familiar with the jargon, they were basically cops with a lot of authority and political pull. And because they were all functioning with the same mandate, the party as a whole had a unified goal. It was pretty general, and there wasn't much direction in how they were to go about it, which meant plenty of room to argue over procedure and proceedings, but everyone was on the same page as to what needed to get done. It was awesome.

Where all this rambling and piling of anecdotes is leading is this: everyone always talks about how hard it is being the GM. Read any book with a GM section, or any book on running a game, and you'll see a line somewhere in the introduction that states how much more difficult it is to be the GM than the player. After all, the player just needs to show up.

I've come to believe that's antiquated thinking. Being a mediocre player involves just showing up. Here's the real rub though: the GM absolutely cannot tell a tale without the help of his players. Can't be done. He can try; he might even get the illusion of a story, but it's almost certainly going to feel like a B-movie, full of missed potential and lacking much depth. Truly great stories in any medium is borne up and carried on the backs of vibrant, compelling characters. And those characters are the one thing that GM has no control over. That's in the players' hands.

Being a good player involves creating a compelling character, i.e. one worth telling a story about, and then actively telling that story using the tools the GM provides. Being a good player group means you do so collectively, working with a number of other people who also have compelling characters and story interests of their own. Ask anyone who's done it, collaborative writing is much more difficult than writing something on your own.

The GM's (falsely) assumed task is to write a story solo. The good player's task is to write a good story in cooperation with the others at the table. That's rough. It's really rough. But the payoff can be rich indeed.

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