My vampire’s hapless, disheveled, Bugles-eating professorial ghoul may die on Thursday at our game, and if not on this Thursday, some other future Thursday. Given that he’s involved in a turf war between clans in an increasingly unstable Domain, it’s really pretty likely.
Intellectually, I’m prepared for it, because it makes sense in narrative terms. Still, that doesn’t mean that I–as a player, not just as a character–am not going to be really upset when it happens. (My only consolation is that I suspect our ST is going to be upset, too, because he’s also rather fond of that particular NPC.)
Now, my ghoul isn’t a super valuable +12 sword of macguffin-slaying that ends up turning the tide of the game. In fact, the Doc has generally been more trouble for my character than he’s worth, as he has a tendency to be imbibe at all the wrong times and take books from the Tremere at all the other wrong times, leaving my character to answer drunken text messages and discuss lending library hours with a hostile clan when she ought to be running from something dangerous and toothy. Yet I like the NPC enough that I have put serious thought into retiring my PC just to move him out of the Domain to safety.
I’m just going to stop for a minute to let that sink in: I’m tempted to retire a PC I love to save a relatively minor NPC.
Part of me is really horrified to admit that. I’m fairly certain this puts me squarely into the “unquestionably insane” category. On the other hand, I think it indicates how much I’m enjoying this particular game.
Between the upcoming peril and an interesting conversation elsewhere on the internet, I got to thinking about the relationship between good RP and the extent to which any given group of players allows itself to be vulnerable around a table. By definition, all roleplaying requires a base amount of vulnerability, as you’re telling a group story. Yet some groups reveal things about themselves more comfortably than others, and some GMs/DMs/STs encourage that sharing better than others.
I have to say that my own tendencies in this area aren’t always great. When under pressure–in both RL and in game–I have a tendency to turn into a manic Oscar Wilde. This is why people like to sit next to me during meetings. If given free rein, I’ll do much the same in game. Even when I’m at my comedic best, though, those moments only go so far in furthering the storyline itself, and they invite other players to riff off of the comedy, not explore the atmosphere or the framework of the moment.
In many ways, my (and many of my friends’) impulse to be funny is a reaction against revealing too much at the gaming table. I’ve noticed that we often do it when things get rough, either when we aren’t sure how to tackle a particular difficult task or when we are being asked to respond to a story element that may get emotionally tricky. It’s an avoidance tactic, and many gamers feel they have the right to it, since we game to have fun. Yet I’d argue that many of us game to stretch ourselves intellectually and emotionally, too, and that’s where the comedy routine weakens the aims of gaming.
Let me back up for a minute. I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago next to our Vampire ST; as usual, I was being funny via text message with a handful of friends around the table. Then I was struck by the realization that I would never want to be sitting across the table on the other side of a negotiation from my ST, especially one in which we disagreed. It’s unlikely to happen, since we’re in different departments, but I suddenly realized that he knew more about my negotiation strategies, soft spots, stalling tactics, and overwhelming desire to collaborate (even when it’s an incredibly poor choice) than people who have known me for years. Ditto for the other players. It struck me suddenly that I played this particular game more honestly than I had played a game in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of outstanding gaming over the last few years. Yet still, I’m fairly certain our Vampire game is the most satisfying RPG I’ve played in a long time, partly because we have built a table around which we aren’t afraid to take some risks. Quite a bit of that comes from having a group whose gaming goals match so completely.
Let me give some examples of varying goals. My WFRP players were deeply invested in the bizarre storylines of that game; they weren’t minmaxers in the traditional sense, and they weren’t always all that interested in the mechanics of the game. They wanted to find out what was going on behind the scenes, and did a lot of snooping around to figure out why things were as they appeared. A handful of recurring NPCs elicited some strong feelings (the annoying orphan Waltrout was one and an actor-turned-kidnapper named Klaus was another,) and they loved lightheartedly bantering with one another, constantly egging the dilettante on to ask about getting her clothing cleaned in the Inns they visited or suggesting to the Priest of Sigmar that he indulge his desire to start fires. Overall, narrative motivated them, both the prewritten narrative of the adventures themselves and the evolving narratives they were creating on their own. The group had a lot of warm, positive interactions in character, but for the most part, they were light and without much long-term consequence. I will take quite a bit of responsibility for this as the GM, since the Warhammer world tends to fascinate me; I undoubtedly encouraged my players to look at the world and its narratives more carefully than, say, the NPCs or the combats.
The Pathfinder group I played in years ago and still play with intermittently during summers solved puzzles. Where could we best orient ourselves to kill the monster in this particular room? How might we negotiate the best deal for this doodad we need to finish the adventure or steal it if nobody had a decent negotiation skill? Was there a skill or item that negated the problematic spell just cast by the NPC, and if many of us had it, who should best spend the charges to use it? Again, we had a lot of fun tabletop banter, but a good two-thirds of it was out of character; we talked about the game much as you’d talk about a board game and dipped into character when we had to do a negotiation or somesuch.
Our current game has slightly different stakes: can we outwit and out-negotiate these NPCs, most of whom elicit pretty strong feelings? Can we keep doing it week after week, despite the drastically changing fortunes of our Domain? Can we find out what those NPCs don’t want to tell us openly? With which PCs and NPCs will each of us build relationships, and will those turn out to be short-term alliances or long-term friendships? Certainly we go “do stuff,” but the majority of things that we do in game have the reward of increasing our characters’ reputations and opening new doors to build relationships.
When pressed, most of us would say that most RPGs can encourage all of these types of play, and most games do have a smattering of each these elements from time to time. Generally speaking, though, any given player will likely have more strength in one area than in another. A given system will likely encourage one kind of behavior over another. Most of us play in groups with a split talent pool: you’ll have one player who wants to build relationships, a couple who want to solve puzzles, and one who wants to discover narrative. These players often get stuck negotiating the added complexity of the ST/GM/DM’s own vision of ideal play and the extent to which the chosen system allows that play. Once in awhile, though, you luck into a group where all the players have the same main goal and execute it equally well; once every Brigadoonish number of years, you’ll luck into a group with a unified play style that has chosen a system wisely and that has an ST who manages that play style well. At those moments, then, players can take risks at the table without worrying that their play detracts from another player’s game or from the ST’s vision of the game as a whole. For me as a player, that’s when the real magic happens, as everyone around the table seamlessly supports each other in the goal of good gameplay. That’s also when a player decisions feel truly meaningful because the scope of play has narrowed enough that events can have a genuine impact on a dynamic game world–like when it feels reasonable to retire a PC to save a hapless little ghoul.