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.


12 Responses to “in praise of poor role-playing”

  1. November 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    While I agree that D&D does not encourage immersive play, I do not believe that it discourages such play to the extent that you propose. Yes, there’s not a lot of immersion in our game, and some of that comes from running things more or less by the book. But ultimately, immersion is the goal of a specific play agenda. If you’re seriously interested in pursuing immersive play, D&D’s peculiarities (fragile characters, odd monsters and assorted rules absurdities) aren’t much of an obstacle. Contrariwise, if you’re not interested in immersive play—or if immersion runs counter to your agenda or your playstyle—then you won’t find it in any game, no matter how much it’s encouraged by the rules.

    It’s also worth noting that when it comes to the tenor of a game, levity trumps seriousness every time. If the referee and the majority of the players want a serious game, there are various social tools at their disposal to rein in—or, if necessary, expel—their more flippant cohorts. In our D&D games, no one’s gone to such efforts, so frivolity has become the order of the day. But this is the result of what certain players have brought to the table, not an inevitable by-product of play. If you’re going to be goofy at the table, you can’t blame the game for your own goofiness!

  2. November 5, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    As a player I’m a big fan of levity. One thing I notice, though, is that in old-school D&D, being funny is more likely to be the same thing as playing my character. Erwan is a ridiculous dude; he thinks his mule is his reincarnated wife, and he’s willing to risk his life for a bottle of green slime. As a result, the silliness at the table is part of the roleplaying. In contrast, my 4E shaman and my mouse Saxon are serious business; one of ’em has a ton of hit points and powers, the other has beliefs and instincts and everything. In those games I spend as much time being silly (that’s part of my social enjoyment) but it’s usually out of character chatter.

    I do think this is a function of the game (the culture of play & expectations of the players as much as the system). When I’ve tried to make my shaman more absurd and thus fun for me to play, I feel like I’m going against the grain; other players persist in thinking I’m cursed or mind controlled, because no powerful & serious 4E character would act so weird. In old-school D&D the correct explanation – this character is simply irrational and prone to wacky actions – is near to hand because going into a dungeon with two hit points is fundamentally absurd. I find that’s actually more immersive; Erwan’s experience is closer to my own, and when his fears and drives emerge from the stew of craven greed and paranoid delusions I feel them more deeply. As a character Saxon is more consistent and deep – his actions reliably reflect his essential tenets – but he seems more idealized than viscerally real to me.

  3. November 6, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    One way to look at dealing with PC-glow is that it’s an opportunity to introduce stuff into the fiction. The suddenly established beef between the NPC-turned-PC and his lazy compadres is wonderful! True, it would have been a nice bonus had the other new PC worked something in to justify his instant acceptance into the party, but as James pointed out, it’s part of the game that’s unavoidable.

    One way to handle it is to only play out that “meeting the party” scene if people want to inject some fiction into the game. If not, just cut to carousing or traveling, as they would in a movie, and come back to it another time (or never).

    Or more in line with the old-school thing, I suggest a table of “reasons” why New Guy gets in with nary a job interview. Things like “served in the army with PC x” or “apprenticed with the same master as PC x” or “too scary to refuse”. I leave the rest of the entries as an exercise for the reader. :)

    A similar list of reasons why NPC x suddenly gets a full share of the treasure would be pretty fun too. Things like “I’ve got a plan!” or “I’m sick of [party leader] bossing everyone around. Now I’m in charge.” Stuff that puts the party on new footing or in a new, fun rp situation is best! (Even if things return to status quo moments later: “Shut up 2 hit points!”)

    And though I love James’ apt summary of the Basic D&D experience (“This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory.”), I agree with Q that it’s a choice. Though certainly it’s hard to devote too much time to serious play when, as Tavis says elsewhere, your character’s choice to adventure is pretty irrational in the first place.

  4. November 7, 2009 at 12:29 am

    I like the idea that there should always be a reason incorporated into the fiction as to why a new PC is accepted into the group. I wouldn’t want a mandatory random table, but as an option, it would be very handy for when the players involved can’t think of anything on the spur of the moment.

  5. November 7, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Hmm, I was thinking that it’s an optional, yet awesome addition to the game. Since sometimes you might not feel like dwelling on the party when there’s monsters to be robbed.

    What about an incentive program? XP for fiction? 100XP per level for the new guy and the party member to whom he’s connected?

    Full disclosure: I’m always giving away XP in my game…

  6. November 7, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I’m firmly in the “D&D is a game” camp, it’s not group storytime, nor a scientific simulation. There are gamey aspects to role-playing GAMES, go figure? They are there to make it fun (btw if they aren’t fun toss’em).

    A couple great quotables:

    “In other words, we’re in the game to make mischief in a fictional world and keep each other entertained.”

    “This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory.”

    [btw Got here via link from Planet Agol]

  7. November 7, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Sure, it’s a game. But that doesn’t mean that engaging with the fiction doesn’t make it more fun. Otherwise, why not play a miniatures battle game?

    Anyway, I always feel like I’m intruding on a private conversation when I jump onto the NYRB forums or here. I hope I’m not a buzzkill for you guys. You’ve been and continue to be a huge inspiration. I hope to have a big pool of regular players like you someday.

  8. November 7, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Nah, we are a) absurdly pleased to have a Canadian chapter, and looking forward to the day when every city boasts its own Red Box group and b) hoping to have a public conversation that folks can jump into and participate.

    I think the fact that the conversation grows out of shared gaming experience makes it more concrete, but also hard to know if we’re being too insular. I sometimes feel the other way – when I talk about “my players” in a blog post, I’m like “they aren’t objects I own, they’re friends who have names” – so it’s hard to know what to keep private.

    I was talking to my non-Red-Box friend Mark, who was a player in the Savage Tide adventure path I ran, and he was very upfront about not understanding the appeal of sandbox play. He wants to know ahead of time that there’s an epic arc planned for the narrative, and is happy to design his character around the goal of that arc. I think that one of the differences between us is that I’m happy to have the story never rise above petty and absurd squabbles over gold, as long as I get to choose which direction we take on that level; while he is happy to give up choice (at least on a strategic or story-level) for the guarantee that the story will steadily build, with foreshadowing and such, to a world-shattering climax.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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