A snapshot of my approach to roleplaying games

With Gareth still swanning about the UK and struck down by bird flu, Ivan, Mike and I instead sat about discussing various topics of roleplaying. Like most in-person discussions the topics were fluid and interwoven and very information-dense. I have only a slight hope of really digesting everything we talked about without re-visiting the issues. Below I attempt to summarize the main gist of the main topics, really for my own benefit.

General Approach

It’s relatively clear that our gaming experiences have not been convergent on one central way of roleplaying. We didn’t really get too much into the evolution of approach that we’ve each experienced, but it’s clear there are major differences. Principally, there is a narrative/character dichotomy between Ivan and myself. I generally approach both my characters and my games with a view to telling a story, so while I try to bring life to the characters, I am often more interested in a sense of story completion. Ivan’s approach is more about exploration of character, an altogether more nebulous goal. The point was made that with character exploration as a focus you have two undefined variables: a measure of achievement and a story motivator. That is, in a traditional mission-style game, you have a measure of achievement both on a character and a story level because you either succeed at the mission or fail, and either way your character learns something. You have a clear story generator in terms of: do the mission. More on that later.

Generally my approach is also structured, Ivan and Mike play it a bit looser. Mike’s games seem to be driven by story considerations but his approach to building the story is more fluid and adaptive than mine.

We got a little embroiled in discussions of structure about just how artistic compared to craft-like roleplaying is. Ivan argued more for a more artistic approach, more about inspiration/gut feel. I argued for an almost wholly constructed craft, subject to design-by-rule to a large extent with polishing via artistry. Doubtless the truth is some combination of both, as it is in all artistic endeavours. The challenge is for someone like myself who normally has heavily meta-plotted games to break my habit and try to get a more organic story.

For my own up-coming game, which will be in a SF system, most of the constraints on player action that I’ve utilized in the past are not available. In the infinity of space if something is going wrong you can just get into your ship and fuck off. Modern games have the same potential outcome via aeroplanes, but I’ve generally anchored the group to the city by various character means. The supers-in-space game would be intended to utilize travel as a plot feature… So I am very interested in learning about the less-plotted approaches of others. Mike, in contrast, is looking at adopting a more structured plot mechanism in his new campaigns, and it sounds like they might end up being more structured than even I’ve been in the past. He’s also planning some interesting things in terms of game management, but I’ll leave him to explain himself to potential players in due course.

Characterisation

This was a major point of interest for me, because I don’t feel like I always build immensely compelling and complex characters. Ivan’s NPC characterisation is very good as a GM, and I hear the occasional nice word about it as a player too. Mike is able to very quickly and seamlessly shift between in-character and out-of-character which I find very hard. I feel certain I have things to learn from each of the others.

My approach to characters has been to build a chasis of personality, then flesh a background as much as possible. For my moderns characters I generally work out all the real-life biographical info that I know about myself down to which schools they attended (etc). My fantasy characters are by necessity more schematic.

Mike’s approach seems more surface-based. What kind of presentation-to-the-world does the character have? Mannerisms, habits, etc. There is, I think, a much more robust character to inhabit here. Essentially, while there may be a gap between the character’s motivations/personality and his public aspect, the resultant character feels more real to those who actually talk to it.

Ivan didn’t have an easily articulated approach. πŸ™‚

Super Heroes

I plan to run a super heroes game “later”, and it’s something Ivan has been contemplating for some time. I’ve played in various one-shot supers games and I’ve found them universally dissapointing. We had a reasonably long discussion about the genre generally, and some highlights from the genre. The roleplaying-relevant bit which came up right at the end was a suggestion from Ivan to use a conflict-resolution rather than task-resolution system. I’ll see how With Great Power goes on Saturday. πŸ™‚

I was thinking about this briefly last night, and I’m not sure that a conflict-resolution mechanism would have fixed the problems in the various games I’ve played. While I find the punch/block/soak mechanism that seems dominate the supers games to be very tedious, I think there is a more generalised problem in the kind of stories that are being told. I am not really experienced enough in the supers genre to be more specific, but I have an intuition that what I’m finding annoying is a buy-in to the need for conflict as an integral part of the story. I find this hard to articulate, but I’ll think about it some more and get back to interested parties. πŸ™‚

Omissions

Yeah, I’ve forgotten stuff. I’ve also probably mis-understood or mis-interpreted other stuff.

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29 Responses to A snapshot of my approach to roleplaying games

  1. I tend to be more character focused as a player. I’m quite happy to play through the GMs story as a vehicle for exploring my character which probably reflects on my Gming style.

  2. I tend to be more character focused as a player. I’m quite happy to play through the GMs story as a vehicle for exploring my character which probably reflects on my Gming style.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “With character exploration as a focus you have two undefined variables: a measure of achievement and a story motivator.”

    I disagree. You are probably right that you don’t have externally obvious “get the gold / did we get the gold” motivators and metrics, but that’s irrelevant to character exploration. The measure of achievement is an internal one: am I deeply engaged with this character? Do I feel involved when I put the hat on? This generally ties in with story motivators, which come from the character’s own background, conflicts and desires. Some of these will be obvious to the group, others may remain internal, deep currents directing the play but never manifesting directly on the surface.

    I take your point though that you don’t know when character exploration is “done.” This is why I tend to think in terms of a framing story arc — ideally built around the characters — with a reasonable degree of elasticity so it can stretch to make room for new character drives and contract if the characters are growing stale.

    On characterisation, I don’t think I have anything that could be dignified with the term “approach,” I just have ideas. If there is an “approach” it is “have cool idea, elaborate with GM.” I usually end up with half a page to a page of background: this is usually history and relationships rather than demeanour (Mike’s starting point) or personality (your starting point) because most times I’ve tried to anticipate how a character will actually play out I’ve got it wrong. (There are exceptions to every clause in the above except “have idea” and “elaborate with GM.”)

    I think you’ll find vanilla “With Great Powers” still results in overly lengthy combats and therefore an excessive focus on fight scenes, but I haven’t had the chance to play it so I could be wrong. I look forward to hearing about your experience. It is definitely a move in the right direction though, towards stakes-oriented conflict resolution and away from detailed resolution of every action, and with a strong emphasis on rounding out the heroes and villains, not just jumping straight to the punch-up.

    I thought it was one of those glib literary truisms that *every* story (not just superheroes) needed conflict as an integral part. Perhaps what you’re complaining about is the assumption that violence is an integral part of the story. I see your point, but that’s part of the genre. You can do superheroes without violence, but it won’t be genre superheroes, and I guess the question arises, “if we’re not going to use our awesome powers, why bother having the characters be superheroes instead of, say, housewives?” To put it another way, if the major trope of the genre is what puts you off, what is it that makes you want to run superheroes at all? Then again I remain greatly impressed by Nigel Evans’ realisation that being a magic user doesn’t have to be about casting spells and I guess the same idea could apply to superheroes.

    A fruitful avenue for exploring your doubts might be to look at how writers have done other genres within the superhero mode, e.g. horror (“Swamp Thing: American Gothic”), detective / mystery (“Powers”, sort of, and maybe “Watchmen”), political thriller (“V for Vendetta”), etc. Or not.

    –Ivan

    • mashugenah says:

      The measure of achievement is an internal one: am I deeply engaged with this character? Do I feel involved when I put the hat on?

      I have no idea how to answer either of these questions to my own satisfaction, so I’m sticking by my claim to it being a difficulty. 😦

      This is why I tend to think in terms of a framing story arc

      Which tells you when the arc is done, but is unrelated to the character development issue.

      All I’m trying to say is that these are very subjective questions. No definitive answer can possibly be available for them, whereas you can make a claim for a quantitative answer for externally-oriented games.

      erhaps what you’re complaining about is the assumption that violence is an integral part of the story. I see your point, but that’s part of the genre.

      Yes and no. There are certain comics where the characters fight without an accompanying conflict to resolve. In Knightfall for example, there is a lengthy scene where Nightwing and Azrael go toe to toe but which neither side intend to resolve the conflict – Batman even says to Robin ‘don’t worry about helping him, he knows when to disengage’. The fight isn’t even a holding/covering action to allow Batman & Robin to escape, because there are sufficient other things going on in the scene that fleeing would not have been a problem either way. They fight because… well, it’s a super-hero comic and you’re supposed to fight. I tolerate a certain amount of this in comics, where I flip past the relevant panels until the story resumes, but in a roleplaying game where I am forced to explore the tedium of dicery my tolerance is a whole lot lower.

      When a conflict is being resolved, i.e. when a decision about story direction is being made through the mechanism of violence: cool. But that’s not universally what fights in super hero games are about. At least in my experience, which I’m happy to admit is not vast.

      Do you see where I’m going?

      • mashugenah says:

        Yes I’m aware this is a modification of my original statement. I said I needed to think about it more. πŸ™‚

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, they are subjective. I don’t see why this is a difficulty. For me, roleplaying is a subjective experience. I’m more interested in actually feeling interested and engaged than in finding a game structure that would enable a management consultant to quantify my interest and engagement. Not that the two are incompatible, but for my money the first is more important and the second only, er, secondary.

        Re superheroes: yes, and I totally agree with your modified statement, and I will *definitely* be interested to hear how your “With Great Power” game works out. WGP certainly pre-postulates big punch-ups, which has something of the “we fight because that’s what superheroes do” about it, but the stakes mechanism should mean that the fight is *about* something. On the other hand, there’s an element of arse-about-faceism here…

        –Ivan

      • mashugenah says:

        I don’t see why this is a difficulty.

        πŸ™‚ Yeah, I can see that. Perhaps “difficulty” isn’t the right word, but a better one for my sense does not occur. All I really mean is something like “not subject to rational construction”, which is broadly to say: For me, roleplaying is a subjective experience too. (“Objective” being its opposite and carrying connotations of the testable hypothesis and formulaic construction)

        As I was trying to explain to Mike Sands on NZRaG lately, I find closed-form constructions much easier to deal with (the plot arc as primary thing-of-interest, for example) and I suspect that for many others this is the same. (Hence arguing that a “railroad” is easier to write and run than a “relationship matrix”.)

        I’m trying to get a better understanding of how this whole “subjective” thing works, but nobody’s able to really explain it to me in sufficient detail due to its tailored-to-individual nature.

        Do you see why I might use the word “difficulty” even though someone like yourself finds it quite naturalistic?

      • mashugenah says:

        “the plot arc as primary thing-of-interest, for example”

        Come to think of it, you might now turn my own argument against me and say “why do you find such-and-such a story satisfying, but seem unable to grasp the satisfaction of character development”. Alas, I would have no answer at this stage. Maybe later, after yet more thinking.

        My intuition tells me that where I’m coming from is in coming down on a holistic view of “the game”. I am more interested in the system than its components, and cannot in my own mind realise the character as a system in its own right (i.e. see it only as a cog in the machine, not a machine itself).

      • Anonymous says:

        I wouldn’t accuse you of being “unable to grasp the satisfaction of character development.” As I’ve stressed, the pleasure is subjective, and that inherently means it’s something that those who enjoy different pleasures can only recognise, not feel. I realise that what I am describing is fearfully analogous to, say, religious experience or alien abduction: something very real and powerful to the person experiencing it, and possibly rather weird and possibly delusional to those who haven’t.

        I don’t think either view is more or less holistic. Your view of “the game” may be on the macroscale, the big structural elements, but that’s not the same as holism (being a wee bit pedantic here). As for systems, David Dunham once wrote that roleplaying is what happens when a character becomes a system instead of a symbol, and from my experience of internalising characters and immersive play I find that a good way of expressing it. But again we are back to subjectivity because although I can say that I think of strong characters as systems in their own right, I cannot actually sketch out a block diagram of how one works. If you are going to think of the game as an ecosystem (an analogy I prefer to “machine”), the structural elements and the characters are *all* participants in that ecosystem: in any given ecosystem, one family may dominate, but the ecosystem embraces them all.

        –Ivan

      • mashugenah says:

        I wouldn’t accuse you

        I’m not too worried about negative imputations here, I was merely trying to in as few words as possible highlight what I percieve as a major weakness in my own position. That is to say, the structure of my relationship with “story” seems to be similar to the structure of your relationship with “character”. The “same weakness” being the intuitive basis for our sense of “this is good”.

        being a wee bit pedantic here

        I am possibly too loose in my use of words. I try not to get too hung up on the meaning of particular words used because ultimately words are always shadow-puppets of the real concepts being discussed. You seem to have understood my gist, and so I am content.

        On an unrelated note, have you read Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life? It deals intensively with systems theory and ecology. I read it 5 or 6 years ago. Most of it was over my head, but it was interesting all the same. πŸ™‚

      • Anonymous says:

        I haven’t read the Capra, but my copy of Alexander’s “The Phenomenon of Life” has just turned up…

      • mashugenah says:

        I hadn’t heard of it, but from the brief blurb on Amazon it seems roughly convergent and also interesting. My reading pile is down to *measures* a mere 43cm, so any month now I can look at adding a new book. :)(Though my spare processor power had best be used to devour the remains of The Golden Braid because sooner or later will realise just how long I’ve had his copy)

      • Anonymous says:

        Alexander is always interesting although not always easy reading. “A Pattern Language” is one of those Books That Changed My Life; “Notes on the Synthesis of Form,” however, went right over my head… got a copy of my own now though so will be trying again soon…

        Is that “The Golden Bough” or “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”? You never can tell with John…

      • mashugenah says:

        GEB:AEGB

        I think I understand enough formal logic and maths to be pretty comprehensively understanding what I read… but it ain’t quick nor easy.

      • Anonymous says:

        Really? I’d had no exposure to formal logic, and only school maths, when I read GEB, and I devoured it. Couldn’t get enough. In fact it became another Book That Changed My Life (we’re certainly getting through them this conversation). Admittedly I had a fairly mathematical brain back then though…

      • mashugenah says:

        *shrug* I’ve done maths all the way through to the end of undergrad, and there wasn’t a heap of the formal logic stuff I recognised. Maths has always been big weakness of mine though, which made a lot of people wonder why I got into engineering… :/

      • mashugenah says:

        “the plot arc as primary thing-of-interest, for example”

        Come to think of it, you might now turn my own argument against me and say “why do you find such-and-such a story satisfying, but seem unable to grasp the satisfaction of character development”. Alas, I would have no answer at this stage. Maybe later, after yet more thinking.

        My intuition tells me that where I’m coming from is in coming down on a holistic view of “the game”. I am more interested in the system than its components, and cannot in my own mind realise the character as a system in its own right (i.e. see it only as a cog in the machine, not a machine itself).

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes, they are subjective. I don’t see why this is a difficulty. For me, roleplaying is a subjective experience. I’m more interested in actually feeling interested and engaged than in finding a game structure that would enable a management consultant to quantify my interest and engagement. Not that the two are incompatible, but for my money the first is more important and the second only, er, secondary.

        Re superheroes: yes, and I totally agree with your modified statement, and I will *definitely* be interested to hear how your “With Great Power” game works out. WGP certainly pre-postulates big punch-ups, which has something of the “we fight because that’s what superheroes do” about it, but the stakes mechanism should mean that the fight is *about* something. On the other hand, there’s an element of arse-about-faceism here…

        –Ivan

    • mashugenah says:

      The measure of achievement is an internal one: am I deeply engaged with this character? Do I feel involved when I put the hat on?

      I have no idea how to answer either of these questions to my own satisfaction, so I’m sticking by my claim to it being a difficulty. 😦

      This is why I tend to think in terms of a framing story arc

      Which tells you when the arc is done, but is unrelated to the character development issue.

      All I’m trying to say is that these are very subjective questions. No definitive answer can possibly be available for them, whereas you can make a claim for a quantitative answer for externally-oriented games.

      erhaps what you’re complaining about is the assumption that violence is an integral part of the story. I see your point, but that’s part of the genre.

      Yes and no. There are certain comics where the characters fight without an accompanying conflict to resolve. In Knightfall for example, there is a lengthy scene where Nightwing and Azrael go toe to toe but which neither side intend to resolve the conflict – Batman even says to Robin ‘don’t worry about helping him, he knows when to disengage’. The fight isn’t even a holding/covering action to allow Batman & Robin to escape, because there are sufficient other things going on in the scene that fleeing would not have been a problem either way. They fight because… well, it’s a super-hero comic and you’re supposed to fight. I tolerate a certain amount of this in comics, where I flip past the relevant panels until the story resumes, but in a roleplaying game where I am forced to explore the tedium of dicery my tolerance is a whole lot lower.

      When a conflict is being resolved, i.e. when a decision about story direction is being made through the mechanism of violence: cool. But that’s not universally what fights in super hero games are about. At least in my experience, which I’m happy to admit is not vast.

      Do you see where I’m going?

  4. lobbasta says:

    By the way, did you know your favourite Darkness song is also justin’s favourite darkness song…

    http://www.thedarknessrock.com/about/justin/

    Oh, and Richie’s 3 Desert island Disks are all Queen.

    Rock on!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have been thinking (and reading) a lot about Supers recently and would be happy to discuss the matter in more detail. Like you I agree that on the whole that Super RPGs tend be be lacklustre and I personally think a lot of this is a lack of understanding of the genre. I have seen similar things happen to other heavily stylised genres.

    First up I recommend reading Astro City πŸ™‚ You knew I would say that. The reason I say this though is that it includes probably the finest example of the recent reconstruction of the genre. It shows how you can have all the stuff you like in Supers but still be a coherent, touching story.

    The mechanical issue with Supers is that physically it is a kitchen sink genre in that it can include many things. This results in many Supers RPGs being insanely complex with HERO being the primary example. However, the powers and variety are not the only part of Supers and it is the other parts that tend to be negelected and suffer. My personal favourite system is Mutants and Masterminds as I find it hits a really nice balance whilst incorporating a number of genre elements. For something a little lighter Truth and Justice is a nice example.

    I am about a month away from starting my Grand Experiment in which I will be using With Great Power and Mutants and Masterminds in combination. With Great Power is limited but it does a great job of showing some of the things that you should be focussing on in Supers. Fortunately, many of these translate over well into traditional RPGing and I will use them in M&M. Example include:

    1. The need for a central conflict/theme to tie a lot of the disparate elements together, even going so far as having an influence on what parts of a PC get focussed in any story, often giving quite different takes on the same character.

    2. How players can help in portraying Supers in a way that is appropriate in particular the need to introduce suffering, melodrama and how to tie things together. I also plan to allow greater narration rights in the player’s own subplots as a result.

    3. The typical story arc.

    4. How to make a Villain’s plan that work i.e. that contribute to PCs own stories and problems. Why have a Villain who plans to fire a missile at the moon, unless the PC’s lover works for NASA and only the transfering of her brain to a supercomputer will allow the plan to succeed.

    5. Gimmicky props like speech bubbles. This sounds silly but Supers are a visual genre and visual props help. I picked up Hero Machine to allow me to give a visual for each Super PC and NPC. The speech bubbles are exactly that (on sticks) which players can use to signify when they are narrating a thought.

    Anyway, we can speak more later.

    Luke

    • mashugenah says:

      Yeah, a lot of that seems like it might be useful to bear in mind while GMing. Not the speech bubble thing though. πŸ™‚

      I like M&M more than any other supers game, but think it allows and even encourages pointless (i.e. outcome-deficient) fighting. Having said that, I have yet to give T&J an actual playtest, and have only skimmed through the rules once.

      Actually, depending on your definition of a super-hero game, I like Adventure!, because while you can have kick-ass powers, it isn’t too complex and doesn’t encourage more violence than your average WW product.

      • Anonymous says:

        The thought bubble thing is quite a good idea unless your group is used to narrate inner monologue out loud. I used a similar technique in Exalted for similar reasons and it works well, though the use of a thought bubble is a more elegant tool. A lot of the goodness in Supers RPG are the Supers inner turmoil.

        Luke

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have been thinking (and reading) a lot about Supers recently and would be happy to discuss the matter in more detail. Like you I agree that on the whole that Super RPGs tend be be lacklustre and I personally think a lot of this is a lack of understanding of the genre. I have seen similar things happen to other heavily stylised genres.

    First up I recommend reading Astro City πŸ™‚ You knew I would say that. The reason I say this though is that it includes probably the finest example of the recent reconstruction of the genre. It shows how you can have all the stuff you like in Supers but still be a coherent, touching story.

    The mechanical issue with Supers is that physically it is a kitchen sink genre in that it can include many things. This results in many Supers RPGs being insanely complex with HERO being the primary example. However, the powers and variety are not the only part of Supers and it is the other parts that tend to be negelected and suffer. My personal favourite system is Mutants and Masterminds as I find it hits a really nice balance whilst incorporating a number of genre elements. For something a little lighter Truth and Justice is a nice example.

    I am about a month away from starting my Grand Experiment in which I will be using With Great Power and Mutants and Masterminds in combination. With Great Power is limited but it does a great job of showing some of the things that you should be focussing on in Supers. Fortunately, many of these translate over well into traditional RPGing and I will use them in M&M. Example include:

    1. The need for a central conflict/theme to tie a lot of the disparate elements together, even going so far as having an influence on what parts of a PC get focussed in any story, often giving quite different takes on the same character.

    2. How players can help in portraying Supers in a way that is appropriate in particular the need to introduce suffering, melodrama and how to tie things together. I also plan to allow greater narration rights in the player’s own subplots as a result.

    3. The typical story arc.

    4. How to make a Villain’s plan that work i.e. that contribute to PCs own stories and problems. Why have a Villain who plans to fire a missile at the moon, unless the PC’s lover works for NASA and only the transfering of her brain to a supercomputer will allow the plan to succeed.

    5. Gimmicky props like speech bubbles. This sounds silly but Supers are a visual genre and visual props help. I picked up Hero Machine to allow me to give a visual for each Super PC and NPC. The speech bubbles are exactly that (on sticks) which players can use to signify when they are narrating a thought.

    Anyway, we can speak more later.

    Luke

  7. nishatalitha says:

    I have most of the Astro City compilations if you do want to read them.

    • mashugenah says:

      Does this mean there isn’t any way to delay reading them any longer? πŸ˜‰

    • Can I borrow them? I’ve got some of the trade paperbacks, but I haven’t read them all.

      • nishatalitha says:

        Sure. I don’t have the Family Album complilation, but Wellington Public Library has that. I do have the latest compilation, Local Heroes, both in comic issue form (apart from a couple of issues), because I started collecting the issues about when that story arc started. I also have the next story arc, Dark Ages in individual issue format, which you are also welcome to borrow.

        Which reminds me – I still have Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Steven Brust. I enjoyed it, but I assume you’d like it back at some stage? If not, I’ll happily add it to my collection…

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