Monday, May 16, 2011

The Meek Shall Inherit The Tabletop

One of the most important lessons I learned from MUSHing (for the unfamiliar, think of it as LARPing online) is the power of weakness. People play games looking for chances to be awesome, but in a game where you're interacting with other players, that creates few opportunities, because everyone else would like to be awesome too. In this environment, the weakest characters were the strongest.

Howso? In this case, I mean 'weakest' in terms of most likely to fail. Some tiny element of this was related to stats, but the vast majority of it was a function of player attitude. In a basically cooperative environment, there was not much you could do to FORCE someone to lose, so the person who was WILLING to lose was a treasure. Immature players who didn't realize this abused it, and mysteriously found themselves unable to find play. For everyone else, the guy who was willing to lose became an incredibly valuable asset, especially if they could lose well. Someone who played a powerful character who was willing to lose? Solid gold.

Now, a cynic might deride this as metagaming. The player who is willing to lose is getting numerous rewards (social esteem and more play, most notably) in return for the willingness to lose in fiction. Personally, I think it's a more than fair trade, but it's worth noting that this does involve thinking about the game (and the satisfaction of play) on more than one level.

Now, that's great for large-scale, multiplayer play, but what's interesting are its implications for tabletop. While this lesson does not translate directly, the multi-level thinking behind it does translate very well, and provides a specific sort of incentive for weak characters.

Now, weakness translates a little differently on the tabletop. Some of it is character power, but there are also elements of making your own life harder. Whatever route it takes, the purpose is a character who easily gets in trouble and can't get themselves out of it, thus providing play for the rest of the group. Again, the player is making a tradeoff - they're sacrificing optimization for the ability to direct play, to be at the center of things and in some cases, for attention.

Now, this is not always a good thing. It can be obvious attention-getting behavior, and when that's what's going on, it can be very frustrating to the rest of the group for obvious reasons. But in small doses, it's highly desirable behavior - it's something you want from everyone in the group ideally. In many ways it's the opposite of the stereotypical orphan-loner.

But here's the rub. Once players understand that their weaknesses pay out like this, the very idea of game balance gets dragged out back and shot. Trying to balance a game on a single axis (like combat capability) becomes amazingly short sighted once players are thinking about play opportunity, spotlight time and game direction. This is not bad in its own right, but it becomes bad when you have mixed understandings at the table. If only one player understands this is what's going on, then he's going to play Tyrion Lannister and all those big strapping knights are going to have no idea how they keep getting overshadowed. If you're lucky, your Tyrion is really trying to help the rest of the group, but if he's not, then god help you. Every argument you've ever had about game balance will get turned on its ear and used against you if you protest.

All of which is to say, be careful, keep your eyes open, and try to make sure everyone at the table has the same idea of balance, at least in broad strokes. It'll make for a better game all around.


  1. I find once your players accept their characters for what they're supposed to do well, then it all sort-of works out. I just ran a Victoriana game last night which is a very classist setting. Upper class don't mingle with the lower class. It seems a hard concept to grasp when you have a mixed group, but implementing it was so thorough and matter-of-fact that everyone just accepted their roles and while the rich folks were sipping tea in the gazebo, the commoners were betting on back alley brawls. It worked out better than I expected.

    What made it even better was when one side ventured into the other side's territory, the unfamiliarity of it made for some really interesting gameplay similar to what you're describing. The upper classes became weak and vulnerable in the lower class arenas, while the lower classes were in over their heads when dealing with the bluebloods. Balance became moot and everyone seemed to have equal measure of comfort-zone and dangerous-ground-to-tread.

    If more games could capture that balance then weakness in the name of excitement wouldn't be as much of a game balance issue.

  2. My Jurt on AmberMUSH was very much the "super powerful but always loses" kind of character. But then, I played him like Guy Gardner, so it made all kinds of sense.

  3. I know one guy who's super-powerful and loses well: the Dungeon Master.

  4. This is one of the reasons why I think gamemastering is much more successful, especially for large groups, when you are acting like the director of a play than when you are either the author of the story or just "the opposition" of the players. Control of the spotlight is a wonderful tool for getting characters to stop blocking other characters. You just have to remember to coax the hesitant players into the spotlight and let them shine (and they will). And the "star" of the show will be quite happy expounding his or her cleverness to his or her fellow players, without monopolising your critical attention. After all, they are mostly in need of an appreciative audience for their cleverness. They don't need you to be that audience.

    [Which is why I like playing with (a) large groups (since it allows you to play with player interactions to a greater extent), and (b) mixed groups or experienced and inexperienced gamers (since the inexperienced players often spur the jaded sensibilities of the experienced players, and the experienced players are usually pretty good at helping the newbies with the game mechanical aspects of play). I suppose I'm really a LARPer at heart, even if I spread the group over time and space in a sandbox tabletop game.]

  5. I've thought about this from the other side, since I've occasionally run into the situation where somebody does a really annoying "I've put my dick into an electrical socket and you have to help pull me out because in game I'm your brother and out of game the PCs must stick together". Not with malice, of course, but every once in awhile there are players who sidetrack the parts of the game that interest me and use social pressure to make the game about what interests them, and every once in awhile it's such a stupid move that it's hard to see how someone who really lived in the game world could do it.

    My answer has been to make characters that have some kind of hard streak, which may or may not come into play depending on whether or not I feel like someone else's plot contribution is irritating.

    The social cohesion that is required for this sort of "weakness providing play" thing to happen is a game mechanic like those of formal GM-duty-sharing RPGs. Like any game where the GMing dictation is shared around, it can go wrong when the person GMing at the moment doesn't understand about the world or types of challenges the other players like, or about making the other players awesome. However, since it's a bit sub rosa, sub rosa stuff like saying "I have my secretary send flowers to his mother with the note 'I regret that there was nothing to be done to save your sons's electrified dick'" can work without dire social out-of-game consequences.

    For the joyous and good uses of the technique, though, it is worth pointing out... It's an elaboration on niche protection. "How do I help make sure other people at the table are doing cool things and having fun?" "Do like Helmsman says and have areas where you're out of your element and other PCs can help you..."


  6. I think the difference here is inherent in the difference between design and play. A designer designs the game he likes. A developer makes sure that game is fun for as many people as possible. And then the player does whatever he wants with it. Take GTA for example. You can do all the missions or you can run around kill pimps and hookers. It's up to you.

    That said, a fundamental flaw in the design of MMOs and non-tabletop RPGs is the lack of team coherency and unity. If everyone is vying for control of "top dog" then the game becomes a pissing contest of who is better at min-maxing their character and so on.

    And that's no fun.

    A good game designer designs numerous paths to victory. And that's usually some sort of "meta" design. Take D&D1 for example. Not a well-designed game by any means, but if a wizard is really powerful at 10th level, but not very powerful at 1st level, is it meta to wait it out and hope for a powerful character later? Sure. In the purest sense of the word, yes. But that's not a bad thing. People use META like a pejorative. But it's not.

    As a player, I get to be Actor, Author, and Audience all at once. And that's where META is far better than some of these simulationist or immersive players can understand.

    Why limit myself to a single point of view and only enjoy one aspect of play? It makes no sense to me.

    In all fairness, I gave up DM Authority games a long time ago. The INDIE movement got one thing right. Everyone at the table has the brain capacity to make decisions about how the world works and what constitutes success.

    I hope that if the MEEK have taught us anything, it's that playing at the table with the right group of people is more important than worrying about which die probability curve is best for this situation, when the real question is... will the story be enriched by me failing right now?

    If more games gave out points for failure, you'd see more people flub things early on so they can have more "special points" for later on in the "adventure."

    Sorry. That kinda got away from me. Good article, I might add.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.