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Thursday, 28 April 2022

A kind of tribalism

The way you choose to roleplay is up to you and your gaming group. Of course it is. But if you’re asking me, I don’t see the point of doing anything if you’re not going to commit to it heart and soul. Roleplaying to me means trying to be somebody else, imagining the reality of their life, and acting as they would. It’s fiction in the moment. And fiction is a parallel reality evoked by imagination that, while the spell lasts, should be taken as seriously as the reality we live in the rest of the time.

The road to Damascus ran through Keble College. It was 1980. I was running a Tekumel campaign and Paul Deacon, playing a pe choi called Keq Yossu, balked after hearing the lead-in to the evening’s adventure. ‘I’m not coming along.’

The others were aghast. ‘But… what are you going to do all evening, in that case?’

‘The whole set-up sounds off to me. You do what you like, but count me out.’ Paul dropped out of character a moment: ‘I’ll help Dave roll for the NPCs.’

It was the first time I’d thought of really getting into the head of a character that way. I admired Paul for it, and I admired him even more when he was proved right a few hours later. The whole party got wiped out. Paul imagined Keq Yossu getting the news back in Jakalla: ‘I did warn them…’

Not long after, in my Medra campaign, Mike Polling’s character Dagronel Kabo-Drasden befriended an NPC who was the sworn enemy of several of the other player-characters. When it came to the crunch, Dagronel sided with the NPC. In the game post-mortem, the other players were indignant. ‘You can’t value friendship with a nonplayer character above your comrades,’ they argued.

Mike pointed out that a roleplaying campaign is a fiction populated by characters. Nobody wears a lanyard saying PLAYER; it isn’t a Westworld style theme park with hosts vs guests. To use Professor Barker’s adage, there are no NPCs. Just characters. It’s only in bad fiction that somebody behaves out of character to ensure the plot goes in a pre-planned direction.

Both Paul and Mike are arts graduates, and it was an eye-opener for this scientist to see them insist on roleplaying as an art form. It was about then I started to eschew underworlds and puzzles. I should’ve known from Columbo that the how and the who are never as interesting as the why. Motivation is what matters. Characters who look at their world and say, ‘This is how it affects me and this is what I must do.’

Without that revelation, heaven knows what Dragon Warriors would have been.

I still come across the old-school approach, but these days it baffles me. A few years back I was playing in an SF campaign set in the Mass Effect universe. One character was a law enforcement agent. Some of the other PCs were rebels or pirates or – look, I don’t know anything about Mass Effect; in Firefly terms most were Browncoats and one was an Alliance officer. When it all kicked off, the agent sided with the local planet’s police and tried to arrest the Johnny Rebs.

Afterwards, one of the players in particular seemed to take it very personally – in real life, that is, not as his character. He went away seething. I asked a friend of his what was the matter. ‘He believes strongly in the players sticking together,’ he said. ‘He’s annoyed that player took the side of the police against the rest of us.’

‘But… what did he expect? The guy was playing a federal agent.’

‘He doesn’t think character should trump party loyalty.’

I honestly don’t know why you’d roleplay if you feel that way. Without commitment to character you might as well be paintballing. If you want PCs to stick up for each other, you have to give them a reason beyond the fact that they're all controlled by people sitting around the same table.

On the other hand, I also care that movies, TV drama and novels maintain integrity to the fiction they’ve created, yet a lot of people seem quite happy to excuse out-of-character swerves that are there to keep the plot on the rails the writer planned. To me that’s just not doing the work. It could explain why when I was a little kid and my school took us all to a Christmas panto it was loathing at first sight.

Everyone’s got their own setting on this dial. An it harm none, do as ye will. But what I want is to plunge right in to the imaginary lives we evoke through roleplaying, convinced there’s something amazing to be found there if just for a few hours we can let go of being ourselves.


  1. While I enjoy role-playing and like to encourage it, I've lived through too many incidents at the table where one player screws over another. It leads to bad feelings among friends. It hampers game play because players can't trust their companions, and have to guard their backs from their allies. Weakening yourself as a consequence of heroic actions against the common foe becomes foolish since your own teammates can take advantage of that to prey upon you. Should I cast my last Cure on you, leaving myself weak enough to be taken out by “friendly fire?” Maybe I should save my Charm Person too, just in case you go rabid. You know, maybe I should just Fireball the whole party while they’re sleeping in the inn, for the Experience Points. A lot easier than killing goblins, and more lucrative too.

    Choosing to play a “bad guy” or even just one so selfish that he’ll turn on his partners for a quick gold piece changes the dynamic of the game, and it’s why “evil” parties got such a bad reputation and are warned against in so many gaming advice passages. Excusing it by saying “That’s what my character would do” is as lame as it gets, because you CHOSE to make a character that would be antagonistic towards your fellow players.

    When we play RPGs we’re generally sitting down with our buddies for a relaxing time. RPGs are cooperative rather than competitive – we’re not each fighting individually to conquer the whole board like in Risk, eliminating all other players. We’re a team, trying to achieve team goals. If I can’t dive for the ball while playing sports because my own teammate will break my leg with a well-aimed kick, then I quit. Cops have to depend on their fellow cops to watch their backs. Or they quit.

    So that’s why I make it plain to my fellow gamers that I’m looking for a cooperative game. As a player I insist on it, or I don’t play. In the games I run I tell players that their characters all know and trust each other, they have a history together, and that I won’t condone betrayals, stealing from or backstabbing each other. I disallow altogether characters that by design would prey on fellow party members. And it’s up to THEM to explain to ME why it’s not in the best interest of their character to prey upon his comrades.

    Why? Because we’re all here to have fun. If someone thinks it’s fun to screw their teammates, then our ideas of fun are incompatible.

    1. Arbitrarily screwing over other PCs is just as random as arbitrarily supporting them. The character's actions should come from credible motivations. If they suddenly turn on all the others without warning, that's bad roleplaying.

      I don't insist on cooperative games, because stipulating right at the start that there can be no conflict makes for boring stories. Actions must be free to emerge from events in the game, and characters must be free to develop, or I might as well play a boardgame.

      It's a matter of choice. Obviously the whole group must know what kind of game they are signing up for. Is it Famous Five or Heart of Darkness? Jolly japes or complex motivations. There are many different ways to have fun, just as there are many different tastes in literature and drama.

  2. I'm with you on that, Dave. One of my favourite things as a GM and Player is seeing how the players push against each other and the world, and how that derails the plots of those around them.

    My favourite moments have come from that kind of thing. A Kult one-shot came to a memorable end when the characters had narrowly survived their job and were paid by the mob boss who employed them. One character had the "Greedy" Disadvantage, so he promptly robbed two of the others at gunpoint (including shooting the one who refused to hand over the money). A great moment, and taken in good spirits by the players of the victims.

    I guess it's easier when you have a set of people who have been playing together for a while and know each other's styles well.

    It's tricky with new groups to ensure that everyone has the same expectations. If someone wants to have a group where everyone had each other's back, and someone else wants to play a character who is going to betray the others, inter-player conflict is almost unavoidable.

    I've played in games where players seem to be incapable of differentiating inter-character conflict from inter-player conflict, and it's not very comfortable. I guess you can understand that difference and still dislike inter-character conflict ("I get enough backstabbing at work, thanks..."), but as you say, it's different strokes for different folks.

    I like that idea of their being no NPCs. For me as a GM, there's nothing better than setting up a complex plot, and watching what happens when the characters bump into it and send everything flying off the rails, and how that depends completely on the characters they've come up with...

    1. That's my favourite way to plan a scenario, Ray. I just write the timeline of what would happen if the player-characters did nothing, then let them loose on it to create havoc.

      My most memorable games have been the ones with inter-PC conflict. That doesn't have to mean outright violence, just that each character has an agenda. They are not, after all, highly trained and selfless astronauts; they're usually medieval knights or Tsolyani citizens, and (just like in life) no two of them have the same exact goals.

      But it does require players who can be grown-up about what happens in the game. If they are going to take it all personally and carry grudges into real life, probably better to play Arkham Horror instead.

    2. Btw, talking of astronauts and following on from the Lord Greystone's points above, it does annoy the hell out of me in movies when teams of astronauts or special ops soldiers break down into squabbling. The writers are using the mantra of "stories need conflict" without thinking that such people are trained to put their personal grudges aside while on the mission. So if the whole point of the game is to be a crack SWAT team or Starfleet bridge crew or whatever, backstabbing during the adventure would of course be bad roleplaying. That guy would never be on the team. But I wouldn't find a game like that interesting precisely because there's no conflict. That probably accounts for why I prefer social/cultural games rather than dungeon adventures.

      A good balance (for those looking for both kinds of play) might be a game like Night Witches, where the PCs have to put aside any differences during missions, but between missions there's plenty of room for the interesting stuff.

  3. There can be an element of perversity involved here, at the opposite extreme from Baron Greystone. I can remember players creating characters who, reasonably speaking, were never going to be doing anything with the other PCs. For this reason I remember one guy asserting that 'real role-playing could only be done by post' (you can tell how long ago this was). As it happens, though, although this could be a pain, and led to situations like that of Keq Yossu, but on a regular basis, I can't object too much to this level of determination to actually role-play when playing role-playing games. After all, for the last 20 years I have basically not played in any games because I was in the wrong country and couldn't find a game that suited. I'd rather not play at all than have to settle for a dungeon bash.

    1. I'm pretty much in the same boat. I roleplay a little these days, but lack of time and perhaps other factors mean that most players aren't as interested in committing to the game as they used to be. It's like going from the Actors Studio to am-dram, or even panto. I've talked before about players in a Legend game discussing some relics entrusted to them as if they were just souped-up magic weapons, with no sense of the sacredness that would matter most to characters living in Legend. There'd be no point in my running a Legend game now as it would be like putting the characters from Aliens into Excalibur.

      I get that it's perfectly possible for players to enjoy a game like that. One guy on Facebook was even arguing that players should think of their characters as game tokens, not bother striving for "character truth". But in that case I'd sooner play a boardgame. Western Legends is one where your character is just a game token, and as a substitute for poor roleplaying it has the advantage that each game is over in two hours.

    2. How sad to read you two write this! Dave - you are doing a fantastic job arguing for an approach to role-playing that felt emergent and cutting edge in the 80s but has now been eclipsed by collaborative storytelling on the leftfield of a hobby that is still dominated by skirmish wargaming. You are perhaps something of a voice in the wilderness now, but I think your reflections on role-playing here and elsewhere are hugely important in supporting a style of play that means so much to me and others. There are still groups which play what Paul coined as 'culture games' in Imazine all those years ago. I find Ars Magica suits me well for this, I have just started in a Pendragon game and plenty of Glorantha games could be counted as open, character-led culture games. But this kind of role-playing is still at the very margins of the hobby today. Few want to invest the time, or the mental and emotional energy, in an age of easy, instant gratification, and it is not helped by advocates of narrativist gaming (once assumed to be close to character-led role-playing) pushing against full immersion in character in favour of 'story'.

    3. Thanks, David. The whole concept of roleplaying does seem to have shifted from "how can we create an imaginary life?" to the (nowadays far more common) "how can we recreate our favourite movie/TV show?"

      I used to use the TV show analogy myself, eg in the "Keeping the Peace" campaign write-up for The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder, but I always thought of it as one of many guide templates, not as the actual goal of the game.

      It does depress me to think of all the people being introduced to roleplaying via story arcs and backstories and authorial discussion of characters, because they may never be aware there's a completely different way of playing. Those who want their roleplaying sessions to be "pre-vis in the writers' room" have a perfect right to play that way, of course, but I will keep on doing my bit to promote the character-led alternative.

    4. I think deep down, even back in the 80s and 90s, I was aware that it was inevitably a losing battle; I suspect that this was what made me as unnecessarily abrasive as I sometimes got. It is great to hear, however, that there are still those such as David keeping the flame burning.
      One of the things I'm sad about is the way that 'role-playing' and 'narrativist' seem to have become incompatible. My experience was always that if you viewed a role-playing game in terms of the story it told (which, if I can lapse into cod-psychology here, is often the way people actually view their own lives), rather than moving a token around and acquiring treasure, then you'd get better stories -- ie those with more believable characters and interesting events -- from players immersing themselves in their characters. When I came up with the 'narrative approach' in imazine 14, I saw it in these terms. When, two issues later, Matt Williams basically invented narrativism while writing about 'scripts', he still managed to do it with more sophistication than I generally see in the subsequent history of narrativism. Matt wrote 'There is no reason why a rolegame shouldn't stress the plot at the expense of depth of character, even though to do so is currently unfashionable'. Well, that changed, didn't it!
      One of Matt's key points was about how important you consider the 'illusion of discovery' -- as he described it. I think you can draw a clear line from my idea of 'discovering' the narrative, through my advocacy of 'discovering' culture, and forward into my actual 'discovery' of a life in Japan. But it is evident that Matt was right: and that for many, discovery 'is incidental to narrative rolegaming'. Or, indeed, life.

    5. I gather that schools today set great store by a kind of TV Tropes approach to teaching creative writing, emphasizing story arcs and act breaks and so forth. All useless, of course, as it's an analytical tool that doesn't help much when cutting the cloth of the story. But perhaps it's the reason why an authorial approach to roleplaying is taking over from a character's-eye approach. We're back to the "my half-elf thief checks the chest for traps" beloved of '70s D&D players, only now with a layer of pseudo-Campbellian story jargon.

      As I said in the post, people should play however they like. And maybe the new group storytelling style will help some of them get jobs in a writers' room. But what worries me is that many new players may not realize that there's an alternative to seeing the game as a simulation of a TV show -- that they can take a further step in their imagination to envisage a fantastical reality in which the characters exist, an approach that I think is more interesting and more rewarding.

    6. Thanks Dave and Paul, for taking the time to respond to my comment - very interesting!

      There are a wide range of approaches to RPGs which is fine but what we don't have is a good, settled, generally understood language to describe different styles of play. The merits of different rule systems and settings are debated but there are also a load of tacit rules, understandings, expectations and priorities that we bring to the table which are rarely discussed. This is a great pity because if you end up in a group where everyone has divergent goals no one is going to have a good time, and if your tastes are only held by a small minority you are unlikely to stumble upon a group with others who share them. It would be great to be able to be very clear (in a concise way) about one's approach to role-playing and then to have online spaces where people with similar approaches can congregate and organise games. The GNS model is perhaps partially useful as a way to locate different styles of play on three axes. I think of myself as predominantly as a simulationist - as a GM I am trying to create an internally consistent social, cultural and political environment for the PCs, with webs of personal relationships in which the PCs are entangled and are free to act as they choose, and as a player I want to fully inhabit my character and act freely within such a world. But within general gaming discourse, simulationism (which has few supporters and many denigrators) is generally understood as favouring highly complex rules which can precisely simulate the physical world, and so it entails highly detailed combat systems and encumbrance rules, etc, which hardly helps with verisimilitude from the perspective of the player character at all (unless they have the mental capacity of a super computer), and in fact gets in the way of immersion by slowing down play. But if I say I want to use a lightweight simulationist rules system, to most people that sounds like a contradiction in terms. There is no way to describe character-driven, open, culture games that will be generally understood even though actually I think that a significant minority of players do have some leanings in this direction and can get frustrated by the games they are in.

      I find the OSR scene fascinating in this respect. Clearly some people within OSR are just dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, but others have bounced off more modern games precisely because they feel strait-jacketed compared to the more open games of the 70s and 80s. What I find strange and a bit sad, is that rather than creating something new there is this obsession with using early forms of D&D as the basis of actually a wide variety of creative gaming.

      Paul - I loved what you said about discovery, and it is really nice to read you describe your own trajectory. With the risk of sounding very pretentious, part of the appeal of role-playing to me is both exploring different ways of living with others (different cultures, societies, politics and so on), and also discovering dormant possibilities within oneself - after all, we can role-play characters with very different personalities to ourselves, but we have to draw on our own psychological resources to do so. In ordinary life we present a certain face to the world ingrained by habit and social convention. But in a different place and time, with different influences, we could have been very different, and role-playing allows us to open up these repressed possibilities. Very likely we wouldn't want too much of our role-playing characters to enter our everyday world, but I think facing and temporarily inhabiting these alter-egos is very psychologically healthy.

    7. A lightweight simulationist system is what I'm aiming for with the Jewelspider rules. I liked the simplicity of the Powered by the Apocalypse system when I was running Sagas of the Icelanders, though I was aware I wasn't applying it the way most PbtA players would use it. The problem is to get out of old school thinking - my first iteration of Jewelspider combat was threatening to get as gnarly as GURPS. Well, maybe not quite, but I had been impressed by the way PbtA could breeze through almost any action with one or two rolls. At first that seems as though it will rob the game of any drama, but milking drama from a fight scene (that is, *just* a fight scene) is something TV gave up doing in the '60s. What I'm looking for are rules that allow you to resolve any action a character takes using a streamlined yet simulationist system, precisely in order that players can spend more time in their characters' heads and less steering them around like game tokens they have to roll dice for. That, at any rate, is the objective -- but I'm am still wrestling with elements like ranged weapons and (the dragon in the room, this) magic.

    8. I am very much looking forward to Jewelspider! I am in a PbtA game at the moment and am finding the rules work fine for us, but then like in many good games we only end up rolling the dice a few times per session so we are not seriously testing the system. I suppose I find Moves a bit too close to Kewl Powerz, and I find the range of Stats a bit restrictive but we are playing with rules directly based on Apocalypse World and I am sure other PbtA games must vary from this a lot. With combat ideally I would want the players to feel they are actually in combat, and so having to act very quickly without being able to think much. If the character is skilled they can fall back on training (but they will then act how they are trained to act, which is not necessarily the best way for that particular situation) while untrained characters will likely make a lot of poor decisions in a state of panic. Combat systems where there are a lot of tactical choices can be fun, but I am not sure how well they simulate combat because while the player has time to coolly assess their options as they wait for their turn to come up, the character most definitely does not have that kind of time.

    9. Incidentally I just ventured onto the Facebook and saw a question: "When creating a campaign, what's the first thing you do?" Answers included: "Define the PC roles within the narrative" and "respect genre conventions". So I'd say Writers' Room thinking is pretty dominant there.

    10. I do like PbtA and the Forged in the Dark system used by Blades in the Dark, precisely because they fast forward to the drama in rolls. I enjoy the highly tactile play of D&D and WFRP, where a lot of it is about positioning and managing resources - but basically combat is like a separate minigame from everything else. I guess that's not surprising, as both developed from wargames that had the role-play bolted on.

      In FitD and PbtA combat isn't something separate, just part of the ongoing flow of emerging events. I also like that the mechanics are intrinsically linked to the fiction, so how a character does something determines how the roll is interpreted.

      Mind you, I enjoy playing a range of different games precisely because of their different styles. I quite enjoy playing a wargame skirmish where the stakes feel much higher because of the character development that happens between combats and the context a combat is given by the fiction. So that's what I look for in D&D and WrFRP (and Dragon Warriors to be fair), but I really value the narrative focus of PbtA and its ilk. That's why I'm interested in Jewelspider - a PbtA style game set in Legend will, I think, be a very different beast from Dragon Warriors and offer a different angle for exploring that world.

    11. A very useful analysis -- thanks, Ray. The other night I was playing Tirikelu and we got into a fight that lasted over two hours. And I was thinking even at the time, "This is fun, but it's really PCs as game tokens rather than as characters." Jewelspider definitely won't veer off into those kind of tactical digressions (the separate minigame you mentioned) but so far that's presented difficulties in playtesting as the groups I was trying it with turned up expecting something like DW, and even the style of adventure is very different.

    12. Jumping back to David's most recent comment above, this is why I prefer the approach used in Tirikelu (quick choice between attack & defence, roll the dice, describe the result however you like) to GURPS (spend ages thinking about what to do, roll the dice, the outcome is precisely defined by the rules). Both simulationist systems, but GURPS fights take five times as long and are no more dramatic or memorable.


    1. Lol. I also like Hugo Dyson's exasperated cri de cœur when JRRT turned up with more LotR pages to read: