Setting Expectations at the Roleplaying Table – Brawling and Playing a Role
One of the tricky bits about getting a group together to play a tabletop roleplaying game is the expectation of each individual joining the group. Although a rule set appears to promote a set of expectations for play, roleplaying games are, ultimately, a group of folks sitting around and having a conversation about a story they’re all making up as they go along. How each person at the table wants to approach that story can vary widely – and sometimes, those approaches may not be compatible.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we as gamers can do about this. Most often, it can take a conversation about the conversation to help folks realise how to mesh together well at the gaming table.
I was talking to a fellow gamer at my FLGS about Star Wars: Force and Destiny recently. He told me that he and his group had tried all three of the Star Wars RPGs, but Force and Destiny was the most fun, because it let the players be strong in the Force and wield lightsabres.
He told me how a lot of the players had gone down the path to the Dark Side of the Force during the game. One example he cited was how the GM had placed a sniper’s nest on top of a building, possibly expecting the players to enter, ascend and engage (or, at least, hide from the snipers); instead, a player whose character was particularly good at moving things through the Force used his power to bring the building – which the GM had specified was full of civilian non-combatants – down beneath the sniper’s feet. No one, sniper and civilian non-combatants included, made it out alive.
The general gist of the conversation (as I remember it) was that this wasn’t a big deal. My compatriot in gaming didn’t talk about how the action had capped off an epic downward trajectory; to me, it felt more like the player had made a tactical choice and didn’t mind the resulting deduction in Morality score. (I’m reminded of a redneck Darth Vader joke: “Y’all come join the Dark Side, son; it’ll be a hoot!”)
Now, I can’t speak for the GM or player in question, who weren’t part of the discussion, but I can talk about my reactions and what they mean for how I (try to) come at RPGs.
Do I Enjoy Spending my Roleplaying Time With You?
My preference for entertainment in general is characters with whom I enjoy spending time. I also enjoy decent drama, where the characters experience some sort of internal struggle at some point.
Star Wars: Force and Destiny (a quick aside: You know how I mentioned in that article about not being a villain that I was eyeing the copy in my FLGS off? Well, I blew my fun money budget and bought it while that article was in the CfG publishing queue) seems built for this kind of engaging, emotional play.
One of its core aspects is (the perhaps awkwardly termed) Morality, where every character has a paired Emotional Strength and Weakness (like Compassion and Cruelty, Curiosity and Obsession, Enthusiasm and Recklessness or Mercy and Apathy). Your path to the Dark Side depends on which one you follow, and I love the thought of the small moments where a player teases their character’s Weakness, like a Cruel character (whose Compassion for the downtrodden might lead them to doing ill to those who tread down) eyeing off an oblivious thug and laying their fingers upon the hilt of their lightsabre before controlling themselves (just) and moving on (this time).
I like the idea of everyone buying into the game’s Morality point system (the fewer points you have, the closer you are to the Dark Side) as an emotional barometer that can inspire how the players play their characters’ personalities (to borrow an idea from indie game designer Ron Edwards, the “background music” for their characters). It gives them a chance to build toward going to the Dark Side, so that everyone at the table can enjoy the drama of any eventual turns.
That’s why that story gets to me.
Worn Down by Murderhobos
There’s this trend in the way players have their characters engage the world of RPGs so common that it has a name: murder-hobos.
If you know D&D, you know that the main concept for a player character group is itinerant by definition; a pack of mercenaries / heroes who wander from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, slaying monsters and bad guys for fun and profit. Things veer into murder-hobo territory when the players start addressing any opposition, no matter the intent behind it, with combat to the death. (The crew of one RPG podcast popularised a phrase that sums this attitude up: “You’re speaking with my experience points.”)
When it comes to my own games, I’ve always had a negative reaction to this sort of play. While everyone likes the idea of playing the Ultimate Badass (and again, there’s some value in exploring your violent side), I’ve discovered that when players portray their own characters as casually murderous (e.g. killing nameless non-player characters who are at their mercy) right off the bat, I get – well, “pissed off” is perhaps the wrong phrase.
Instead, I find myself tired out. My energy drops; I suddenly lose some interest in proceeding with the game. I don’t want to spend energy playing to those characters (at least, not until we’ve had the chance to get to like them before their fall to the Dark Side) – maybe because, to me, they’ve become meeples for the players rather than alter-egos. (I’ve been narked with this kind of play as far back as the first edition of Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying in the late nineties.)
The Force in Balance
That said, though, I can understand why players do it. One of the big attractors of RPGs is the break they give us from the responsibilities and pressures of the every day; the chance to create an alter ego with a little more autonomy and authority than we might have in our own lives. There’s a delicate balance between that autonomy and authority and the desire to create an entertaining story for everyone at the table (the game master included).
Linking that back to the sniper nest example, RPG combats are typically in-your-face and short range. A sniper on a distant rooftop could feel as though the game master (not the NPC) is breaking the rules in order to coerce the players (not the PCs) into taking a course of action without a fair chance to do something about it with the faceless and when it comes down to it imaginary masses in the building as blackmail.
It’s something that a player could see as impinging on their character’s autonomy and authority; as reducing the options that the character has to respond to the situation the GM has introduced. In return, the player lets go of some of their investment in the imaginary world everyone is creating and may well act accordingly. Oh, a sniper on the rooftop of that residential building? Really? I *have* to do what Lieutenant Imperial Officer says? Nice try, Mister GM. I use my Force powers to bring the whole building down. Now my buddies can give the Lieutenant a lightsabre-ing. Deduction of my Morality points due to civilian casualties? Oh, just take ’em; I don’t give a shit any more.
Fight or (Fantasy) Flight?
That reminds me of another trend: players will rush their characters into almost-certain death rather than be captured, because, as entertaining as a well-handled prison scenario could be, it’s also the ultimate reduction of responses.
Or maybe it’s even simpler; the entire group is treating Force and Destiny more casually, playing with the cool stuff of the Force (the powers, the lightsabres) just to see what they can do, and going to the dark side is a minor consequence of the fun they are having instead of a gripping emotional journey that their character is on. There’s nothing wrong with it, really… it’s just not my taste. Again, a good part of my fun as a GM is to be as entertained by the PCs’ personalities and choices as the players are by my NPCs and situations. If that’s not happening, I’d rather be doing something else.
Having ‘The Talk’ – Session Zero
So how could I help to avoid a situation like that between myself and the folks I’m sharing a gaming table with? How do we have this “conversation about the conversation”?
In may cases, the best time to talk about preferences is what we gamers call Session Zero, a session before play proper begins when the group gets together to create characters and get a better idea of the sort of adventures the GM has in mind. It’s the perfect time to everyone to discuss their expectations, the things that they want to try and the things that could harm their interest.
While it can be hard to identify these things in the midst of the GM’s high over system and setting and the other players’ highs of character creation (heck, it took me a couple of decades to work out how to express this), coming to Session Zero with a little self-awareness can help make for a great campaign.
The beginning of any RPG campaign is tricky when it comes to character. As much as character creation gives the players some cool stuff to play with, sometimes you simply don’t know the character you’re playing until a few sessions in. Heck, you might not even know what you’re going to enjoy (or not) about the game until you’ve played it.
Still, though, many games give players and GMs a few things to go on. The current fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons gives players Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws; as well as the Morality score and Emotional Strengths and Weaknesses (see above), Star Wars: Force and Destiny also gives players Beliefs, which help players build personalities around their basic character concepts. I’d suggest that characters play to those personalities; if I were GM, I’d offer that I would like to tease the player characters’ Strengths and Weaknesses in play with little moments that would give them opportunities to play out resisting temptation or holding back their better instincts rather than acting.
For a Star Wars RPG, I could also point out the “Taken Out” rule; where the assume that once a character’s wound total meets their threshold, that character is “taken out” of combat, i.e. their fate is up to the opposition (some versions of the FATE ruleset have this as well). Jumping straight to “taken out = coup de grace with a lightsabre” without a few sessions’ examination of how your character might feel about killing, or at least, none of the other player characters batting an eyelid, could change the tone beyond what some players might prefer. If you can clear it up during the first get-together, you may save yourself getting into a game with players whose tastes strongly conflict with yours.
Finally, I could encourage the group to work out how to handle any personal, player-level limits that get struck during play. Try as you might, sometimes you just don’t realise how a situation the GM presents, or a choice a player makes, might affect you until it actually happens (perhaps it was simply outside your experience until that moment). I’d discuss options to address those issues, whether making a note and raise it at the end of the session whether as group discussion or more private feedback, or, if you find yourself reacting strongly enough at that moment, asking for a time-out to explain what’s bothering you and why.
You Talk a Good Game
For people who love a game that is pretty much all about sitting around and talking, sometimes we gamers aren’t aware of the conversations we need to have so that we can identify whether we’re really sitting down with like-minded people. With a little self awareness, patience and willingness to talk, we can improve our chances of starting games that we’ll want to keep coming back to every week (or two).