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Friday, 7 June 2019

Like an egg stain on your chin


Recently I’ve been reminiscing about our roleplaying days of yore. Not in order to wallow in nostalgia, but for the sake of some interviews and podcasts I was doing. I talked about the saturnine loner who achieved enlightenment and saved the people he realized were not lackeys but friends. The civil war that split our party when each player-character came to different conclusions about the right and honorable course. The subtle ways that characters within a legion, even at different ranks, could push their disagreements as far as military rules allowed.

I’m forced to the conclusion that the roleplaying was better back then – more immersive, more nuanced, more surprising – when we just took a Tirikelu character and developed them by playing. Now we mostly use GURPS, which encourages you to plot out every preposterous detail of the character before you start playing. It’s not a springboard for the imagination. More often it’s just a straitjacket.

And by the way, I'm just singling out GURPS because it's the game I've played most in the last ten years. Plenty of so-called narrative systems are just as bad, with their nannying insistence on each player writing down which other character they like, which one they have a grudge against, and so on. It's like being at infant school and being made to write about your weekend. The point of playing is to discover these things, not scribble the backstory to a bad novel.

I already talked about why GURPS’s mental disadvantages don’t work but there’s a problem with character disadvantages in general. Say you cap disadvantages at -20 points. All the players will immediately take the maximum allowed. What's wrong with this picture? Simply that if the disadvantages were properly priced, you'd expect to see some players not bother with them at all.

“Ah, but character diamonds.” No, giving extra points for disadvantages is the junk food version of interesting characterisation. A lame epileptic drug-addicted albino with the regulation five quirks is not the slightest bit interesting. What makes a character compelling is in the gap between desire and duty, wants and needs, feelings and experience. And better by far if those internal conflicts are drawn with a subtle brush, not the cartoonish personality traits offered by the GURPS rules.

So I'd allow players one disadvantage. Just one. That's it. Not a mental one, either, because they're all anathema to good roleplaying. If you take the disadvantage, you can spend the points on an advantage. Again, just the one.

How are you going to get that interesting characterization? Do what good roleplayers manage without any of the personality-by-numbers stuff. As Laurence Olivier said: dear boy, just try acting.

15 comments:

  1. I remember writing notes on my character sheet about certain failings my PC had... but there was no game mechanic for them, no points given to encourage it. My guy had a peg leg, hideous scar, lifelong nemesis, or whatever because I thought it sounded fun to roleplay, that's all.
    All the better if he obtained such a thing during play... but I think current trends are against PCs getting maimed.

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  2. Oliver Johnson has done that with a lot of his characters -- like you, just because it's fun to roleplay. Being given points for doing so would rather defeat the purpose, I think.

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  3. I liked the way the original NWoD dealt with Flaws as they called them. You didn't get any points to build your character, but you did get an extra point of XP if the Flaw became an issue during a game session. That was limited to a single extra point of XP, though, no matter how often or how significantly the Flaw came up.

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    1. That sounds a little meta for my tastes. I'd be forever struggling to come up with a justification why my character flaw should help me get better at a skill. But perhaps within that setting it makes sense?

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  4. Well, on that level, why does finding a treasure, killing a dragon, completing an adventure help you get better at a skill? I look at it from the idea that you get experience from struggling with difficulties. A Flaw increases the level of difficulty and struggling to overcome that difficulty gains you the XP you use to increase a skill or an attribute or gain a Merit or what-have-you.

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    1. Oh sure, I'm not saying that it's impossible to find a justification for it, just that I'd always know that it was really a narrative gaming gimmick looking for us to come up with an in-game reason why it works. And won't it mean that all the more skilled special ops guys, Olympic gymnasts, 5th Dan fighters and top scientists in that world are riddled with flaws? Seems counter-intuitive.

      Do people still give XPs for treasure and killing things? I just award skill-increase opportunities for use of the skill in question, RuneQuest-style.

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  5. Not necessarily, but Stephen Hawking occurs as an example of a top scientist who very much struggled with a Flaw. In terms of NWoD taking a Flaw wasn't required and, honestly, the extra XP it got was helpful but not huge. The point was that instead of getting some advance payment of character points, in order for the Flaw to help your character with XP, you had to suffer its effects. No suffering, no XP.

    Also, unless the Flaw did appear somewhat regularly, the GM was completely allowed to simply remove it. If your Poor Sight didn't screw with your shooting/finding abilities, well, your eyes have gotten better. So, you really couldn't take and keep more than maybe one or two Flaws and in any session you could only get XP for one of them, even if more than one came up in the session.

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    1. Well, naturally I'm not saying there are *no* top scientists (etc) without flaws!

      Certainly sounds like a better system than GURPS's disadvantage rules. But then, most things are.

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    2. Basically in GURPS you load up on points by deciding to play a Quirky, One-Legged Mute Albino with a Murder Addiction and Acrophobia while hoping all that stuff slips the GM's mind when your character is stuck on a slippery mountain slope in bright sunlight next to John Wick's new and much beloved wife.

      In "old" NWoD you only get the XP if you roleplay out the Flaw AND survive. So, sure you could be the aforementioned homicidal, one-legged acrophobic albino in NWoD. It's just that it's assumed that none of your "Flaws" impact you all that deeply. Your prosthetic leg is working well. That new skin creme has a high SPF. And your (court-mandated?) therapy session have resulted in a lot of progress on your fear of heights and lust for death.

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  6. I've limited experience with GURPS. I did play in a single session game and spent a while creating a character. It had a Roman theme, and one of the other players created a celtic warrior. I noticed he was taking bucketsful of flaws, which I thought was ridiculous. The end result though was a very powerful and effective warrior... and the player played the social and behavioural flaws and accepted the consequences - I remember that character better than my own! I think GURPS is over-detailed and intimidating to newbies, but like most games it's as good or as bad as the people playing it.

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    1. I agree that the people are the most important ingredient of any game, but the rules do make a difference. They can either facilitate good roleplaying or get in the way of it, and they tend to nudge towards a certain tone and style.

      Taking your example there, it's a good illustration of how GURPS implies a sentimental universe. The Celt, because he belongs to a barbarian minority group, will have got 10 extra points to spend. So he could, for example, have bought 3 more levels in Sword or 5 more hit points than another character starting as a legionary. He's going to face some discrimination in life, but at least he's tougher. Now, that's not at all logical. Why should he be tougher? Life ain't fair -- except, in a sentimental universe, it is. For every disadvantage, you get something to compensate.

      I don't personally care for sentimental game universes. I'd say: play a barbarian if you like and take what goes with that, but don't ask for something to balance it out because I don't want you thinking this is a setting that runs on story logic and poetic justice.

      Still, that's just how I would run a Roman campaign. Other umpires will run their games differently, and fine. But my gripe is that GURPS pretends that there is some precision here, and that's just not the case. How much discrimination will the Celt face? "10 points' worth." Really? How is that measured? I'm willing to bet that the other players, at least, will treat him or her pretty much like anyone else. And if the characters travel to Britain, will the points earned for discrimination now get retroactively awarded to that legionary from Numidia, say? And how many points? Are the Roman Celts as prejudiced against Africans as the Romans are against Celts?

      As I said in the post, if the GURPS disadvantages were accurately priced to reflect their value on a universal utility function (if such a thing were even possible) then we'd expect to see some players opting not to take them. "15 points for having one eye? Nah, the negative effect exactly balances the skills I could buy with those 15 points." Whereas in fact, if you tell players they can take up to 50 points of disadvantages, they will load up the supermarket trolley with the junk items (Shyness, Lecherous, Indecisive, Overconfident) because they know those mean free points.

      We've been playing GURPS for twenty years and (although 4th edition brought in some good changes) it's still ridiculously over-detailed. We're forever finding our games lurch to a halt as somebody has to track down the rule on page 432 or whatever. One day I'm going to pare it all down to a 25-page ruleset. Watch this space!

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    2. Sorry for the slow reply and thanks for taking the time to write such a lengthy one.

      I don't really disagree with any of your points. Some friends of mine put together an RPG back in the 90s and the points-buy system was utterly broken. There was no way it was going to work (the game as a whole was a beautiful mess, but still one of the most important pieces of RPG writing I've ever read). However, the Quirks (which were a mix of advantages, disadvantages, backgrounds, and wild ideas) made for fantastic and inspiring reading. When we used the system, we were using it for ideas more than rules and not at all for balance. We found it didn't really matter if characters were wildly unbalanced.

      So, I've found that the GURPS way works and a lets-go-nuts-and-stuff-the-rules works. It's part of the beauty of roleplaying. But the games I choose to play and love the most are ones with my friends. Even of Rolemaster is involved.

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    3. Ah, well I do like beautiful messes. And often it turns out not to be worth the effort to try and perfect a part of the rules that you only use infrequently and that works fine anyway as inspiration.

      I'm thinking about these things more keenly now because I'm working on Jewelspider (the "2nd edition Dragon Warriors" rules) and I want a way to provide characters with a colourful background without restricting the players' ability to develop them later. Watch this space...

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  7. I feel that the issue with disadvantages here is that each one has inherent positives - the barbarian example above being perhaps the most obvious, but also wooden legs, etc. Disadvantages that occur during gameplay (or in the process of creating a character) should be /painful/ - eg loss of a hand that means that your character can ONLY ever hold 1 item at a time, or wounded leg that slows down the entire party repeatedly, slowly building resentment among the others etc. When I'm writing a character, sometimes these flaws or backstory issues simply appear from my imagination, but I know they need to be kept in if they 1) restrict the plot in a considerable way (driving forward some narrative) and 2) seem genuinely likely or unavoidable. It's a measure of the quality of the character you have created if you choose to pursue their story despite them becoming increasingly hard to play/write. If a flaw gives you more options, not fewer, then it isn't really a flaw at all.

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    1. In GURPS, if you get a hand lopped off in the course of play, you don't get any points to compensate. I was going to add "of course", but GURPS rules are that if you fix a flaw in-game (confronting and dealing with that phobia, say) then you have to buy it off with character points. Something of a disincentive to character growth, that.

      Actually it's not the disadvantages like One Leg that players tend to exploit. That nets -20 points but it's an unequivocal problem in most circumstances. For the same -20 points players can take a freebie flaw like Compulsive Behaviour or Alcoholism, knowing that most of the time it will just get forgotten about in play. And when it does come up, the referee will usually have to find a workaround because the downside of the flaw is boring for everyone else.

      For instance, we had a PC with -15-pt Alcoholism. We were about to go out and square off against some major adversaries but he'd failed a Will roll, gone on a bender, and was now hungover. This required us to look up hangover rules on p439, and cross-reference with another bunch of special rules on p428. Who needs that in the middle of a tense scene? And then it would have meant a bunch of special case modifiers during the big fight. "Why don't you just wait a few hours till I've recovered?" said the player. We did -- and really he should have had no points for that flaw, as he was determined to use it for character effect (which is fine) but still to have points for it (which is not).

      Fiction is full of characters with disabilities that often seem to drive them. Bill the Butcher, Richard III, Long John Silver, Quilp, Tiddy Doll (in Tiger in the Smoke, not the gingerbread man). They all have those disabilities at the start of the story, though, and when a character acquires a life-changing injury it's usually at the denouement. Mr Rochester, for example. It's only in roleplaying that a character might acquire a genuine disadvantage in-play and be spurred by that to develop in a different direction. But then, fiction and roleplaying have entirely different rules and requirements.

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