Archive for November 4th, 2009

04
Nov
09

in praise of poor role-playing

In an earlier post, Eric laments his players’ cruelty toward NPC’s and their preposterous pro-PC favoritism.  (I’m one of the players in that game and guilty of the behavior he’s talking about.  I dispute some details but he’s the Dungeon Master and I’m sure his recollection is better than mine.)

As a player with raging anti-NPC sentiment, I suspect that a large part of the problem is that I’m a douchebag who doesn’t want any unnecessary louts hogging my share of the treasure and the experience.  But I do think the problem is more analytically rich than simply a sense of entitlement run amok.

So this is the first of several posts about PC/NPC interaction, which is to say, “What expectations are we bringing to the table?”

What should be the level of role-playing in assembling the Adventuring Party (and in Dungeons & Dragons generally)?

In the original post, Eric takes a player to task for favoring another player’s character over a perfectly sensible non-player character when recruiting new party members.  I didn’t attend this game, but I’ve certainly been in the situation often enough: someone has rolled up a new character, and the others just decide to “party up” with them without any substantive role-playing to determine if the character is trustworthy, shares our alignment or long-term goals, whatever.

The adventuring party is a contrivance, and if you dwell on it too long it completely ruins your suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, it’s a contrivance forced on us by the nature of Dungeons & Dragons (and most other traditional role-playing games that employ a party structure): if you’re at the table, the only way you can share in the fun is if you join the party.  So–welcome aboard!  If you can find your way to the job interview, you’re hired!

The desire to shack up with whoever’s at the table is so blatantly artificial and absurd that it’s really funny, and as a player I love to wallow in that artificiality.  Like fire-and-forget spells, inflationary hit points, and level limits for demi-humans, it’s just another goofy absurdity that’s basically inseparable from D&D play.  Thus, efforts to fix or side-step the artificiality through role-playing are (in my view) misguided: the preposterous “if you’re breathing, you’re hired” approach to party building is a feature, not a bug, and doesn’t need fixing IMO.

The trouble is that this attitude implies a certain degree of Out-of-Character (OOC) attitude: the characters are just little globs of numbers that we push around, and the real parties-in-interest are the humans playing this game and socializing at the table.  I have no problem with this.  But if you’re looking for a more immersive fantasy role-playing experience, such an attitude is a huge obstacle.

It’s an obstacle, however, which I think D&D fosters to a very large extent, and it shows up in play in numerous ways.  It’s very difficult to play this game straight.  Set aside the deliberate joke monsters: the very concept of “adventurers” made out of tissue paper, who die by the truckload yet intrepidly soldier on, is inherently amusing.  Not to mention we’re so bad at our jobs that the only way we can survive is if we hornswoggle some unsuspecting dupe into running a risk or giving us some help.  This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory.

As a result, in practice we don’t usually take the game very seriously.  The fact that our hiring procedure is blatantly unfair is just the beginning!  At our table, most of our “heroes” are broad caricatures, buffoons, and nincompoops: they’re not deeply realized “people” in any sense.  (I have a lot of affection for my character Arnold “Zolobachai” Littleworth, but he’s shallow and broad as the Great Salt Lake.)  We generally resort to playing in-character when the situation turns especially farcical: either we’re trying to bullshit someone into giving us some fleeting advantage, or we’re bemoaning how suspicious everyone has become.  In other words, we’re in the game to make mischief in a fictional world and keep each other entertained.

I guess I could go on, but I’ll stop for now.  There’s nothing wrong with deeply characterized immersive play!  I love that stuff too.  But when I sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons (of any edition) that’s not what I expect to get.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

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