Playing Proactively – A rant?

As both a player and a GM, I have learned that one thing I like is for the characters to improve beyond their traits and skills. I love it when they build up a network of contacts and resources which make them so much more than an operator in that world –  they become a full-fledged part of it. Whether it be obtaining a ship in Star Wars, earning a ‘Mech in Mechwarrior, founding a ranch or staking a claim in Aces & Eights, convincing like-minded individuals to band together as a team to pool resources to achieve a goal in Call of Cthulhu, Mutants and Masterminds, or Shadowrun, or if it be something like slowly gaining sway over a sector of powerful and influential NPCs in Vampire, I tend to feel that the best games involve more than just having one of the players (the GM) working to shape a story or plot. No matter how free player actions are encouraged to be, if they never rise above the level of reaction, and if the setting does not include room for character proactivity, there is nowhere to go but the same old places.

I feel that really playing the game involves going after the tangible and intangible elements of the world as your character would. Relationships, car keys, scrawled notes on the inside of your mech cockpit, a deep-seated hatred of your Public Relations Officer’s ‘Blue Sun’ shirt… What that means is, of course, players and game masters need a level of investment in their shared world commensurate with the level of enjoyment they expect to draw from it.  This level of investment can be blocked by any number of things, but ones that I feel can be addressed are passivity, contrariness, and fossilization.

Waiting for something to happen

Nothing can irk me faster as I lurk behind the screen ready to facilitate the fun, than players waiting for the plot to rise up out of the sewers and drag them  kicking and screaming into a story. I think a good game will be one in which the story has to search all over town looking for the players and then stand in line behind all the cool stories that the players’ actions are spawning all over the place.

  • If you want something exciting to happen to your character; leave your lair.

As a player, if the sandbox has nothing in it but sand, and everywhere I go there is just more sand, and no matter how deep I dig, I find nothing but sand until I accidentally go to the part of the sandbox where all the dragons are buried and I either get eaten for my bad luck or have to make a run for the edge of the map to escape, you can guarantee I will be Sir-Not-Returning in that game.

  • If you want me to be a tourist in the static fairy-world of your imagination; write me a story
Being contentious for its own sake

These days more than ever I find or hear stories of campaign pitches being met with caveat-laden acceptances. If I propose a game built on the premise of playing explorers in HEX, or mechwarriors in A Time of War, or psion fighter pilots in Trinity, or salesmen in Merchant: the Haggling, is it unreasonable to expect players to try to focus their creative energies on building characters along those simple lines for those systems? Why do so many feel that agreeing to play and then asking to play a character with a concept unrelated to the campaign pitch, and/or using an alternate system is even remotely reasonable?

Runeslinger: Are you interested in playing in a low-violence Shadowrun campaign I am setting up where the characters are a group of con artists trying to set up a big score?

Player Y: Yeah! That sounds cool. I will make up a character later tonight!  Can I make a Rigger with a lisp and really gross burn scars, with his own Courier service and a quirk where he will only speak to people over a comlink?

Runeslinger: Are you serious?

Player Y: Oh! And let’s use this new version of FATE I found mentioned on RPG.net… It’s called FRRAGGG 3.9 and it’s perfect for over-the-top CyberSteamWireFuPunk Action!

Runeslinger: …

Player Y: How about playing this cool new board game I just picked up! It’s awesome! I haven’t played it yet, but I really love it!

  • If you don’t want to play the game that is being run; say so

Likewise, as  a player, if I listen to a campaign pitch, agree to it, follow through with a character and invest time in the game – I expect my fellow players, including the GM to be on the same page.

If we are getting ready to blow up the Death Star and you stop to humanize the nameless, faceless Stormtroopers and mourn the loss of the cleaners and elevator maintenance men, I swear I will get the guy playing the Wookie to rip your arms off. I will also have his character rip the arms off your character.

If we are investigating a vile cult and have finally found their leader’s inner sanctum and uncovered his stack of blasphemous and mouldering scrolls, and you decide to read one out loud to see what will happen… Your doctor will likely be amazed at the urine content of your mountain dew. Not only that, you’d better start plastering up the corners in your room.

I love character growth, even if that takes a character out of the game and on to other things. I just ask that we all start growing from the same garden.

If we as a group have signed on to play a new game, and no creative oversight was exercised leaving us with characters ill-suited to the game, the campaign, and each others’ characters… what the hell was the point?

  • Games often have a fundamental point. If you don’t know what it is, ask.
RPG does not mean Rote Paleontology Game

Are you really going to play that same character concept again, with just the thinnest veneer of a genre-appropriate skin? Is it going to wade through all the life-altering events of yet another campaign unchanged, unfazed, and unconnected to the characters around it? Will you look at us with that same blank uncomprehending look when we hint broadly that trying a different concept, or hell – just playing as if the character had a different personality – might be more fun for everyone… including you?

Are you going to run this cool new game the same old way? Will all the old plots, twists, NPCs, and complications from our Gothic Dance Troupe in the Old West Campaign follow us into our totally new and unconnected game of Velociraptor: The Mistaken Identity? Are you going to make my overlarge dinosaur wear too much eye makeup and dance to a tinny piano? Metaphorically speaking…  hmmm.

To be clear, will our spy game have the same feel as our gunslinger game, which had the same feel as our vampire game, which inexplicably had the same feel as our Star Wars game? And while we are talking about it, are we ever going to resolve the events of that damned Star Wars game? Every time we play and set a course for the ‘planet of endless hints’ you stop the campaign for months on end.

We are all getting older. Shouldn’t we be getting better at this?

  • Roleplaying games involve taking on roles, and creating strange new worlds. You can have more than one.

If these things can be overcome, or if blissfully, they were never allowed to develop, the games of later life could all come so much closer to those mystical ones we remember from our early days of gaming, where if you closed your eyes, you could almost smell the gramongle berry pies, Half-Ear  used to bake at the Vicious Lie Tavern, two streets over from the Street of Pain and Pleasure, in downtown Port Blacksand.

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Comments
9 Responses to “Playing Proactively – A rant?”
  1. TheClone says:

    Yes, yes, yes and yes! Totally my kind of game as a gm and player. Though I must admit to have a flaw concerning character development, but I guess my co-players have it, too. Otherwise we would be mutually inspiring each other.

    I as a gm hate to put a plot in front of the characters (or even players) and expect them to go though it. I love active and creative player which whom I can develop the world and plots together, who give me ideas I can work with. I don’t like doing it all on my own and for myself and I’m not good at it. And in the end it’s a social game we should play it TOGETHER.

    P.S.: Your color scheme make commenting difficult. Almost can’t read my own writings in this box.

  2. Seth says:

    I’ve actually just stepped away from a couple of threads where players are deeply enmeshed in contention-for-its-own-sake. In this age of “Wow, FATE is incredible” and “Mouseguarding Wheel!” I can understand the enthusiasm for systems; hell, I have quite a few pet systems I love to recommend when someone says “How would I run x?” Shoehorning characters that don’t fit an established plot, though, I’ve never understood. It seems like it just leads to your character being separated from the entirety of plot and party, at which point, how are you playing a game with anyone?

    I am curious, however, (and having just found this blog, maybe this is something in the back catalog I reach eventually) about suggestions you might have for moving players away from the first bit, about hiding in their lairs. I’ve seen it done well—in a sandbox campaign I’m playing in, which is just shy of its first year anniversary–but I’m finding it more challenging to get players in my own game to demonstrate more investment in their characters’ situation, as well as the characters themselves. I end up feeling like I’m going to keep throwing encounters at them so that we’re doing something, and that’s not at all the game I want.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I guess I was ranting because I don’t exactly have an answer that works all the time, and as I am playing less than I’d like the games that don’t work seem that much worse.

      In campaigns that I run that are designed from the ground up to be Generation or Legacy Games, or designed to run with multiple GMs I can usually keep things from character generation through to completion of the campaign flowing in a more proactive direction. Part of that is the very nature of those games inspiring players to focus more on the generations to come, and trying to connect with messages and resources left by the previous generation.

      I have also gotten things going in campaigns where I have the players run troupes of opposed characters with loosely overlapping plot-lines, such as a group of 5 players running a family of mortal Hedge Magicians, a coterie of Neonate Kindred, and a gang of Renegade Restless, never really knowing which group they will play in any given session. With the broader influx of in-character and out-of-character knowledge and the desire to spend more time on to the characters that they like to play best, investment goes way up.

      In more typical campaigns however – particularly those we are all new with… I can find fuel for posts like this.

      I mean, ultimately, it returns to communication between the players being of prime importance, both in terms of getting everyone to understand what the game entails, and what each player hopes to get from the game. Once the group is in harmony from the pitch through to the last roll of the dice, this problem vanishes. It’s just getting to that point of harmony – through communication, honesty, inspiration, insight, empathy, and feedback that can be a pain.

      Please do look around, you may find some tips and tricks scattered about here and there. Hopefully, you will also have some to leave, too!

      • Seth says:

        Thanks, I surely will!

        I think I agree with you that harmony smooths (or abolishes) a lot of these issues. Perhaps I’ll give my recent game sessions (well, thread posts since it’s PbP) a re-read with an eye towards seeing where the dissonance comes in; my players have all worked together, and with me, numerous times before so I don’t think it’s an interpersonal thing. I wonder if they’re not connecting with the characters, the characters aren’t connecting with themselves, or they’re just not grokking the setting.

        What you describe with the five players running three different groups—at random, sounds like—is incredible. I could definitely see that leading to a story that owes everything to the motivations of the characters; and what better antagonists than the players themselves!

  3. TheClone says:

    I partly have the problem to get the players into motion, too. They just wait for me to let something interesting happen. Maybe the key to changing that is getting them to be more emotionally involved. In fact that not an advice as such but more of a goal. I was just thinking of having the players in the key role for decisions and having to make decisions that are of the kind “the lesser of two evils”. If they choose A, some people form the village will die. If they choose B the child they are protecting dies. Something like this, so they are also the cause for a reaction of the world towards them and are responsible for things. Just my spontaneous thoughts.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Difficult decisions, and reasons to care about the outcomes are really important, I think: as long as the players and you enjoy the game environment those decisions create.

  4. Excellent piece. I don’t tend to run into these problems a lot, but I’ve had fairly similarly minded gamers for the past decade or so. The building the character just to be different and piss off the GM thing did occur: this was a player from long ago who thught it would be fun to play a Starfleet officer who didn’t much care for the lifestyle but was so darned awesomeat what he did that everybody would have to put up with him. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

    We had one player float what all but one of us thought was an excellent idea for a Serenity campaign — a Celtic/Gypsy band that played gigs by night, and were grifters and thieves by da (or later night…) the one player hated it enough it’s ack burnered until I can figure out a night and group that can get together to do it.

    As to one of the comments: on the Fate thing…right now, I couldn’t care how good a set of mechanics it is; after they got Fate into my Cortex, I’m dead set against the trendy systems: Fate, Savage Worlds (which I have)…I’ll get over it, but right now I’m so tired of them getting mixed into the systems I like!

    • Runeslinger says:

      @ BlackCampbell~ re: mixing or switching systems
      I agree. It would be nice to let a system run unaltered for awhile to see how it really works under the hood, before posing suggestions which will enhance or improve play. Doing so when people are just learning the system is counter-productive, and trying to mix in previously liked systems for no other reason than that they were liked previously has just got to go. Even a so-called ‘generic’ system has a way of flavouring how everything tastes in a game. For me: Fate tastes bland.

      The Serenity pitch sounds really good. I hope you find time to do it. It is that sort of situation my face-to-face group is in now – except that due to the widening divergences in interests, we are playing nothing at all. I am down to my PBeMs.

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