Mother May I (part III)

Hey, all, 🙂

Content and Meaning (continued)

Before I start into other modes of play, I want to talk about two exceptions to what I wrote in my previous post. So, what follows is a description of two types of situations where all players have a chance to create content and meaning, regardless of the set of rules or techniques in use.

Both of these exceptions have their up side and their down side, and I’ll take a stab and describing those as well. If you feel that you can add to my accounts of the advantages and disadvantages of each, please don’t hesitate to add a comment. 🙂

Exception 1 – Detailed resolution that is the point of play

Take D&D. Now, take a group of players playing D&D and deciding that tactical combat is the very point of play. Say that, for them, everything else, though essential to the health of the game, is really just a mechanism for leading play towards such tactical combat. For them, the game really is about winning and losing fights. And beacuse resolution is detailed and regulated, pretty much everyone is control of both context and meaning, not only through the choices they make during combat, but also through the way they build and develop their characters towards those fights.

Note that this requires that detailed resolution be the actual point of play. Take a different group of D&D players, for whom the priorites are the other way around. For them, tactical combat is great fun but is really just a way to establish context for what happens in the story. When winning a fight has consequences instead of being a consequence, it becomes immediately apparent that the actually important context and meaning are back in the hands of the GM.

(Note also that this isn’t restricted to D&D. I just used that particular game as an example, because it made it easier to explain the concept. ShadowRun, for instance, is sometimes played like this.)

Good side: this is an extremely honest, forthright, and, if everyone at the table is aligned, functional way of playing. Whole sessions can be devoted to huge, complicated tactical fights, or even to just everyone levelling up, procuring new gadgets, and showing off to each other just how cool their characters are. And let’s face it, winning a fight is fun, when it’s a sweaty one.

Bad side: if not everyone at the table is on the same page, pretty much everything I wrote above under “good side” actually belongs here.

In addition: oddly enough, this mode of play is sometimes put down by other players, under the old fallacy of “roll-play vs role-play”. Derrogatory terms like “munchkin”, “hack-and-slash”, “min-maxer”, etc…, when used in this context, are indicative of gamers that simply failed to see the point and are unable to admit that there’s no One True Way to role-play, and that other people simply might enjoy different things.

Exception 2 – Player vs Player

Whenever one player has his character take action in the game world whose sole purpose is to affect another player’s character, that player has engaged in PvP. In these situations, both context and consequences are usually left completely in the hands of the players of the characters involved, although the GM may sometimes limit the direction or scope of that interaction. As such, it can be said that those players are indeed creating both content and meaning.

Note that the “versus” is not necessarily adversarial.  For instance, if I decide to have my valiant fighter try to engage in romantic and or sexual intercourse with another player’s sexy sorceress, that’s PvP.

Note also that not everything one character does to another is PvP. A cleric healing a fighter after combat is not PvP, for instance, it is merely an extension of the fight scene. Unless, of course, the fight itself was strictly PvP.

Good side: players can strongly contribute to each other’s fun in this way. They get to explore their characters in situations that the GM isn’t putting on the table, and they get to help each other define and delimit their characters’ personalities and attitudes, and that is usually a Good Thing ™.

Bad side: all too often, however, PvP results in intra-party bickering, which escalates into inter-player bickering, which escalates into gratuitous use of the resolution mechanics. Many, many times have I seen a disagreement between characters result in dead characters, hurt feelings, spoiled sessions and even whole campaigns dying on the spot because of PvP.

In addition: I’ve often seen PvP come up as a desperate last attempt by players to have some damned input into the damn game, out of sheer frustration. Oddly enough, I’ve also found people that argue that I’m wrong (the old camp n. 2) and then proceed to cite accounts of PvP play as examples of player-created meaning. They fail to recognize, however, that unless the central point of play is PvP, this is just an exception. The bulk of play is still in the hands of the GM. Indeed, PvP is often seen by others in the group, including said GM, as “derailing the session”.

Also in addition: I’ve seen players not even recognize some things they have done as PvP play. They argue that what they do contributes to the fun of the whole group, and so it must be good. Most importantly, because their input actually is fun, and as thus, is accepted by the group, they tend to view themselves as meaningful contributors as regards the whole of the game, which does nothing but reinforce their denial.

Lastly: unless it is overtly assumed by everyone at the table that this is what’s supposed to be done, PvP is especially nasty when it becomes competitive. PvP power gamers, in particular, have a tendency to disrupt whole groups by having their characters backstab other characters whenever there is something to be gained. Again, if that’s what everyone wants, it’s perfectly kosher. Rune, for instance, is a game where this is a constant threat. However, if you’re the sort of player that enjoys this, you’d better make sure that everyone else is on board. And I do mean damn sure.

So, that’s it for exceptions. My next post, probably the last in this series, will finally discuss alternatives to Mother May I play. If you’re in camp n. 3, you should enjoy it. 🙂


2 Responses to “Mother May I (part III)”

  1. Lettow says:

    I have played, as a GM, a campaign that worked differently from what you describe. You would find bits of most ways of playing that you described, sometimes at the same time, but the way it all joined together was not like that.

    We started out by explicitly being against railroading – I don’t like it done to me and I don’t want to do it. Therefore there was more a world than a story. This was shadowrun, which is an open-ended system in terms of skills and abilities and allows huge latitude.

    I will be burned in effigy by roleplayers here, but here it goes.
    There was no “lets build a story” attitude. It was not about combat either, though that was something they liked. It was a game, it was for fun. The story was not an objective, but something that happened as the characters lived in a fantasy world.
    It was not something that they entered as actors with a rough script.

    Note: I was dealing with a bunch of players whom I know well.

    a – I provided a basic scenery; after all they had to meet somehow, and have a reason not to murder each other at the start (if you know Shadowrun, this is an issue. A street samurai’s cybered corpse can be worth a lot). I also made sure there were no overly powerful characters compared to one another. This was achieved by criticizing poorly pimped designs and helping them pimp it as well as possible.
    The result was that no character was irrelevant and all were very good at something USEFUL.
    Note: they were explicitly ordered to get the character they wanted, not the character the group needed.

    b – It was assumed from the start that they were not required to play Luke Skywalker. The emperor wouldn’t do, but Darth Vader could work.

    c – The world is a logical place where logical things take place. Characters and foes do go to the bathroom. They go to work, and they return to their families. They have a dog and little children.

    d – Consequences are logical, not mystical. If you beat someone that person does not like you (well most of the time). If you kill someone you raise the stakes; his side becomes more brutal and desperate, the police may take an interest. If you do it without anyone finding, though, you get away with it.

    e – I played the opposition. This meant I had characters made by the same rules as players. They had doubts, they made mistakes. They rolled to learn information.
    When one of the players was caught alone or they split, I asked the others to play the badguys in the engagement. Everybody had fun.
    “2 gangsters face a rushing troll, who wants to run over them after stomping them to mush. One of them says “I shoot my mate in the leg and run away”.”
    This is an example of a player playing the opponent. His lowly gangster character wanted to live.
    Those same characters on another occasion managed to kick said troll (who had a tendency to wander off) unconscious with hastily made kickboxing practitioners at a neighbourhood gymnasium.
    The troll decided to pick a fight for no reason other than to prove himself.
    Then said troll lied to their main characters and got them off on a bloody vendetta against the ones who attacked him.

    f – Rules arguments and decisions end up being consensual. Abuse is prevented by players knowing that the same rules abuse will be very much abused by the oposition.
    “Do you REALLY want this to be possible?”

    g – The world chugs along without them. Things happened and were news and they COULD have gotten involved but didn’t, or they saw it going on but it was unrelated.
    Opportunities come along and are caught or missed, or just dismissed. There was one about a hunt for mexican gold. Started with a fight, had no consequences.

    h – Players tried to derail me and force me to deal with the consequences.
    When you prepare a nice biker street-gang scenario which, approached with some caution, is quite easy to negotiate, you have a few expectations of how it may turn out. Then the conversation starts with an armoured truck with a turret machinegun blasting the shit out of the bikers and killing several, followed by a ruthless siege and hiring of mercenaries to shoot the hell out of their den.
    A simple manoeuvre turns my “Be humble” hitman into a sitting duck that is quickly ventilated.
    An impossible roll shoots a rocket out of the sky (with a shotgun).

    i – It goes both ways. A mission that had little danger and paid a lot, plus the agent supplied guns and ammo and then entry vehicle- wouldn’t you be suspicious?
    They ate it up hook, line and sinker. A single check would have sufficed for them to detect the trap – but pure greed made them blind.
    They actually emptied the truck, took out the radio and internal fittings and spare wheel and one nut out of each wheel before they went at it.

    j – Information is everywhere. A lot of it on the net. You just have to remember to ask about it.
    A corporation has legal records, phones, registers.
    A person lives somewhere, pays rent, has a bank and an account, their kids go to school, they have a car with a license plate.

    I learned a lot. Mostly that there is danger in letting bloodthirstiness come out, as people will compete on that.

    As a GM, it is disappointing to see a very nice scenario you worked on simply passed over as they did not notice that it was relevant. It also takes some effort not to force it back into view, but it is rewarding.

    I also found that freedom is daunting – people will try to find a rail to follow. It is reassuring to have a beaten track, it can be frightening to be alone and have no hand-out clues, even if they are only one question away. Sometimes there is NO overriding objective, no supra-quest that shapes it all.
    Because you decided to turn away at a point.
    But that- that is an option.

    Players did NOT feel disenfranchised. They paid for their food, their whores, their information. They opened a bar and got employees. Their characters blatantly lied to each other while the players looked on amazed at the sheer effrontery.

    Finally, freedom is fun.

  2. joao-mendes says:

    Hi, Lettow, 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this, it was fun to read.

    It does seem, however, that you were arguing against my claim that campaigns without creative input are “railroaded”. If that’s the case, let me make absolutely clear that I made no such claim.

    I did claim, and I still do, that campaigns like the one you describe are entirely and unmercifully in the hands of you as GM.

    Take a look at your point h where you describe how players tried to derail you. Think back. You were the one who decided whether or not the derailing would work and what its consequences would be.

    In point c, you claim that the world is logical, whereas in reality, the world does not exist. It’s a construct, one which is shared among the players, and where you build a fiction as a group. (Note that fiction simply means collection of imaginary events, rather than adherence to pre-scripted plot or other such nonsense.) And if you think about it, the real world, the one we live in, is not logical at all. It is random and fickle and arbitrary. Quantum physics says so. Meaning, the “logic” of your SR world was totally and completely in your hands.

    Now, per your description, it sounds like you were being highly cooperative and tolerant of your players, and that’s fine. You were still playing Mother May I, only you were answering yes all the time, and giving them huge steps that they could attempt. And I’m sure it was fun.

    In fact, if indeed your players never felt disenfranchised, that’s clearly tribute to your talent as GM, and if your sessions were consistently fun for everyone, that’s even more of a tribute. I congratulate you.

    Just don’t confuse it for something it’s not. Freedom is an illusion.