Friday, October 7, 2011

Uniquely Qualified

Nothing breaks my heart more than when I hear a GM complain that he wishes there were more roleplaying in his game. It's tragic because it's always so heartfelt and sincere and is almost always followed by said GM then introducing his new combat showpiece, hardcore dungeon crawl, or puppet show on rails. It hurts because the problem is so self-evident yet apparently completely unseen.

The solutions can also be painful, as the GM attempts to introduce "roleplaying encounters" into a game which neither wants nor needs them, but that attempt at a solution is emblematic of the problem. The idea that these other elements of gaming are somehow contradictory to roleplaying is pretty much entirely false. It's a case where there's plenty of correlation, but the cause is something else entirely.

Now, certainly there are some challenges - system mastery takes time and effort, and during the learning period, it's hard to focus on anything but the game. Sometimes a GM extends this period by following the path of the hard core - by constantly upping the challenge through increased mechanical complexity, he can extend the learning period indefinitely. That's a problem, yes, but not a problem with the games. Even the most complicated of games can reach mastery equilibrium in a reasonable timeframe with the right group or GM (or both).

But the real problem is the idea that the crunchy, fighty dungeon crawl is at odds with RP. It's nonsense, but it's deeply rooted nonsense that owes a lot to the history of the hobby and especially the history of published adventures. After all, books and movies can be full of high adventure and still support banter, character development, drama and so on - why is it a problem for games?

To understand the issue, let's take a moment to look at the heroes of fiction, especially adventure fiction. Generally speaking, they're presented with a challenge or challenges which they must overcome - not unlike adventurers. But the important part, often overlooked in gaming, is that part of the reason that the fiction is about these characters is because they are uniquely qualified to handle the challenge.

This idea of unique qualifications is a broad one because there are a lot of different things that make for UQ, and in fact in most fictions, the UQ is usually a result of a specific combination of non-unique qualifications. To illustrate that, consider that qualifications tend to fall into one of four loose categories - capability, knowledge, care, opportunity, and capability.

Capability is the first thing most gamers will think of. It means the hero is capable of tackling the problem either in the specific (he has the key to a specific lock) or in general (the problem is dangerous and he's badass). In gaming terms, we tend to jump right to thinking about this in terms of powers, skills and levels, but it can be much more nuanced.

Knowledge means that the hero sees the problem, often where others don't. Notably, it doesn't mean the hero knows _how_ to solve the problem - that's a form of capability - only that there's a problem to be solved.

Care means that the hero has a personal investment in the problem, a stake in the outcome which they're invested in. It might be because the problem affects them or those in their circle directly, or they might have a strong position on this particular type of problem. Care ends up being a kind of capability in certain types of fiction, especially noir detective stories - specifically, the protagonist has some moral backbone that allows them to pursue the problem rather than be consumed by the moral failings that surround him, like corruption.

Opportunity is, predictably, the opportunity to address the problem. It might be as simple as an issue of being in the right time and right place, but it might be part of a tangle of available time and conflicting responsibilities. Opportunity can muddle with capability very easily, especially when you start taking about authority or social position. A king can do a lot of things (capability and opportunity) but he may be bound by law (limit of capability) or unable to act due to other duties (lack of opportunity).

Look at any adventure fiction you like, and you'll find some combination of these in the protagonists. Sometimes you'll even find different combinations in different protagonists, and that can be pretty cool, but these unique qualifications provide implicit motivation and engagement for heroes in their own adventures.

Now, contrast this with the bog-standard dungeon crawl. At first blush, it looks like it demands several qualities - monsters must be fought (Capability), there's treasure to be gained (a kind of care) and the dungeon is conveniently nearby (opportunity) but they fall apart when you start looking for uniqueness.

See, by design, a published adventure needs to be able to be run through by any group of adventurers of a certain size and level, which means that, by design , it will demand no unique qualifications of adventurers (except perhaps those which it creates within its own bubble of fiction). Any other group of adventurers could do this (so much for capability), the reward is probably quite fungible (not much care left) and that leaves only opportunity. But thanks to the nature of geography and gaming, odds are good the dungeon of your level is going to "just happen" to be where you can get to it, so that feels like a fairly hollow oportunity.

But the problem is not dungeons! Not even super hard core crunchy ones. The problem is bad habits of framing. If you're a GM who wants to see more RP, then you need to start making the dungeons more engaging, and to do that, you need to figure out how to make the dungeon something that your specific group is uniquely qualified to address. Start from that foundation of generic threats and generic loot and start making it personal. Give your players a reason why _they_ are the ones going into this particular monster filled hole.

You'll find that RP emerges very naturally from that engagement, whatever system or style of play you use.


  1. I'm running a big open table 4e game right now, and one of the precepts of this campaign is that aside from the various player characters (we're up to 20 or so by now, with a 8 or 9 who show up fairly regularly)(but only up to 6 at a time) there are no other Adventurers out there. 4e's mechanics actually work for this, as almost all NPCs only get one Healing Surge a day, so the player characters really are tougher and sturdier (and generally have more kewl powerz) than the average person.

    This has the benefits that if they run across someone fighting bugbears or whatever, they can safely assume that person is also brave or insane enough to join up with them, and so we can easily introduce random new PCs. It also means that the players know no one else is going to take care of things if there's a monster attack or catacomb full of undead or what have you. So just by the fact that the PCs are Big Damn Heroes, it makes them uniquely qualified to take care of issues.

    One thing I've definitely noticed in this game, which is certainly far more Beer & Pretzely than previous games I've run, is that the amount of roleplaying has increased dramatically as the game has gone on. Early sessions were mostly just Dungeon of the Week style exploration and puzzle solving and killing stuff. As they've explored more of the world and gotten more in to their characters, the PCs have grown more and more in to actual characters who have feelings and opinions and quirks and what not.

  2. Typo: "four loose categories - capability, knowledge, care, opportunity, and capability."

  3. The 4e Neverwinter Campaign Guide includes this by linking the character themes to plot developments throughout the book. Since the guide is focused on level 1-10 play, there is an expectation that characters will be built for the campaign, and if the GM encourages them to take one of the Themes, then the Unique Qualifications of the adventurers is fairly guaranteed.

    Generalizing that example out to other games/campaigns seems like a good beginning.

  4. I've long been of the opinion that the level of RP is entirely dependent on the makeup of the group + their interaction with the DM: neither one is THE primary cause of RP or lack thereof, but instead they work off each other. And the dungeon itself can be as cookie-cutter as you like - the amount and quality of the RP is, in the end, independent of the dungeon itself.

    That being said, the dungeon can be a CONTRIBUTING factor, albeit not necessarily either a primary or negligible one. It all depends on the preceding two factors; if the group and DM are RP-oriented, no amount of crunchiness is going to get in the way of that, but if they aren't, no amount of cool design is going to jump-start it.

    In short, RP depends on the people at the table, all of them together. But, then again, that could just be my own, possibly relatively limited experience.

  5. I think there's also a problem inherent in the idea that that it's players vs GM, and the players design characters in such a way as to be "capable" of "winning" the particular game challenge. Roleplay -- in terms of characters interacting with each other as characters and interacting with NPCs for more reason than to obtain the necessary clues and information to get to the object -- does run counter to the idea of designing the "right" character or party to defeat the obstacles and gain the prize. Roleplaying has to be a player goal, a sort of meta-goal, something fun that has nothing to do with gaining levels or loot. It means characters have to be rounded out well, with lots of motivations, goals, and problems of their own that have little or nothing to do with the campaign at hand (fish out of water is a great way to run a game, by the way, and another theme you will find in tons of adventure fiction). A campaign can be a way for the players to grow their characters in ways other than levels and loot via roleplay if the GM is prepared to make space for that activity. The characters must have the ability to make changes in the game world via their actions and choices, and the actions and choices they perform should come out of that stew of internal motivations, goals, problems, fears, etc.

    I've run into GMs who seek and nurture those kinds of complicated and sometimes difficult characters, and others who really just want the players to read the script and play the numbers. I've run into a few games where some players became impatient with any roleplay because they wanted to roll their dice and get to the XP. So it is something that should be talked about and decided upon before the game even starts. Some of the best games I've ever played were so intensely about the roleplaying that obvious game goals were tossed out because they lacked any reason for the characters to work for them, and the GM had to be quick on his/her feet (and not married to the documentation) to compensate and either find hooks to bring the characters back to the goal, or create goals that would velcro to the characters as they were.

  6. At its core, if the players can't explain why their characters are doing what they're doing, they aren't roleplaying. Their answers to that question can point to the reason they aren't, whether it be railroading, lack of inspiration, not understanding the character, or what have you.

  7. If a GM just takes a bunch of players characters and tells them to go clear out the dungeon, that's a recipe for nothing more than hack and slash.

    But...if the thief has been asked by the guild to make sure a certain lost artifact stays in their hands, and the Cleric has a motivation not to kill all the undead because one of them is the lost spirit of a matriarach of her religion, and the Fighter is looking for an ancestor's sword...then the GM is providing the ingredients for roleplaying.

  8. Well said! I think that removing the barriers which block or limit role play is the surest way to encourage it, but as Sherri added, the desire to role play must first be present.

  9. @Sherri: I agree. I find that the antagonistic idea that an adventure must be one of players vs gamemaster is probably one of the more destructive mind sets in our hobby. Even if it's just as a failure to remind us that we are all ("gamemaster" and "player" alike) playing a game for fun.

    It's an easy mindset to fall into naturally as gamemasters are naturally apt to identify with the opposition (if they are playing them sensibly). But I also wonder if the fact that many of the early dungeon models were expressly drawn from tournament modules (especially ones where teams of players competed to see who could complete the scenario most effectively), has had an influence in that we see the adventure as a challenge to be overcome, rather than something to be negaged with.

    In tournaments I've been involved in it's interesting to note that play tends to become much more "streamlined/stripped down," with the role-playing elements de-emphasised in order to maximise the level of achievement. But it's also interesting to note that the groups that did the best inevitably had the most fun, and that fun usually involved including the gamemaster (who was invariably a stranger to the group) in the fun (and vice-versa).

  10. It sounds like you got lost between where you outlined your problem and the solution you're presenting. What I got from the problem was the lament of GM's that they can't seem to get their PC's into character, and you're presenting the solution that the dungeons need to be multilaterally tailored to make them the only ones who can adequately explore it to solve the problem they've encountered.

    Don't get me wrong, considering care, capability, knowledge and opportunity are all great things when designing an adventure, but I don't see them as helping to inspire in-character rp in any reliable way. The way to bring PC's to have more character isn't about telling them why their characters are the special snowflakes that can do the job. It's about showing them a world that they have a place in and that when they act the world around them interacts back. It doesn't have to be world shaking, just assuming that the PC's didn't become who they are in a vacuum is enough. They probably had mentors, peers and friends. Those people will talk to other people and those ripples create something that will show the PC's that the world reacts to them and they'll start to play in a way that shows that world the character they want to portray.


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