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Author Topic: Turtling in RPGs  (Read 4511 times)
Mel White
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« on: October 26, 2007, 02:20:05 PM »

Over the past year or so I've heard the term 'turtling' to describe player actions in RPGs.  I wasn't sure exactly what constituted turtling, although it seemed to be a 'bad' thing.  At DEXCON I played in a couple of games that had disappointing moments because of what I thought of as turtling by players.  Worst of all, one of those players was me! I've been producing a podcast of roleplaying games, Virtual Play,http://virtualplay.podbus.com/, so the silver lining from the games at DEXCON has been the opportunity for me to take a closer look at what exactly is turtling.  The two games were 'With Great Power' and 'Shock'.  I'd played both these games before, and I liked them.  In fact, I'd played with most of the players in both games as well.  I don't want to repeat my comments from the podcast, but in sum, I left DEXCON thinking that my behavior playing WGP and a player named Jeremy's behavior playing Shock, were both examples of turtling. 
Playing a pre-generated character in WGP, I could not get a handle on what my character wanted.  The character was the villain Perjury, but he took on the illusory form of his son, Purge, who was a member of a hero group.  Meanwhile, Purge himself, thought dead, had taken the form of a character named Max Manly and was also part of the group.  In addition, Perjury's former lover and partner-in-crime, Silhouette, had taken Perjury's true form and was committing crimes.  I thought that this complex back-story required equally complex and creative goals in the game-I guess I was suffering performance anxiety!  And the more help I received from the other players in terms of suggestions, the more confused I became.  The end result was that I had a hard time figuring out what to do, and thereby hurt the flow of the game. 
In the Shock game, Jeremy seemed to want to defer decisions rather than take any action that would lead to his Story Goal--an objective determined by the player in character creation.  The excerpt from the game that I use in Virtual Play is less about the scene between characters and more about the interaction between players.  As I mention in the podcast, his rejection of the proposal that the name of his character's Link (an NPC of significance to the character) be on a list of names associated with his Antagonist, just floored me.  The impression I had is of Jeremy wanting to avoid conflicts for his character-it was not a case of the suggested situations being uninteresting to him, he was not interested in conflicts at all.  In any case, play again ground to a halt. 
I wanted to put these two excerpts together as examples of turtling as a type of player behavior.  But as I listened to the recordings, I found it hard to capture both incidents as a single type of behavior.  My brother, Bill White, has pointed out the distinction between uncertain play, and passive play.  It's not clear to me that both are turtling, and it occurs to me that this is a good departure point to discuss experiences with turtling in play.  What is it?  How do we recognize it? How do we deal with it?  Or do we?  After the game, Jeremy described how all the players in his group play similarly to him--avoiding conflict because all the players are willing to see bad things happen to their characters.  So that adds new complexity to the question of turtling.  If everyone at the table is turtling, is anybody?
Mel
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Danny_K
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« Reply #1 on: October 26, 2007, 02:48:27 PM »

I'd rather talk about the WGP game you participated in, since you can speak to your own feelings there.  What were you confused about? I'm not sure if you were unsure about how to make things happen, rules-wise, or if you felt unsure about what would be sufficiently cool to have your character do, and thus you were paralyzed. 

Turtling is a definite problem for me as a player, and I've dealt with it most successfully in two ways: either playing a fearful, cowardly sort of character (who nonetheless gets into all kinds of trouble), or a "go for it" character who jumps right into things.  Either way, I find the task of "playing my character" a useful crutch for getting over my own nervousness.

Quote
...After the game, Jeremy described how all the players in his group play similarly to him--avoiding conflict because all the players are willing to see bad things happen to their characters.  So that adds new complexity to the question of turtling.  If everyone at the table is turtling, is anybody?

Well, yeah. "Turtling" is an observable behavior at the gaming table, it seems to me.
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Mel White
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« Reply #2 on: October 26, 2007, 05:37:42 PM »

I'd rather talk about the WGP game you participated in, since you can speak to your own feelings there.  What were you confused about? I'm not sure if you were unsure about how to make things happen, rules-wise, or if you felt unsure about what would be sufficiently cool to have your character do, and thus you were paralyzed. 
Definitely more along the lines of what would be 'sufficiently cool'.  I think I was looking for clues in the backstory for a 'right' choice, a course of action that made the most sense. 
Mel
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WildElf
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« Reply #3 on: October 26, 2007, 05:45:40 PM »

What is it?  How do we recognize it? How do we deal with it?  Or do we?  After the game, Jeremy described how all the players in his group play similarly to him--avoiding conflict because all the players are willing to see bad things happen to their characters.  So that adds new complexity to the question of turtling.  If everyone at the table is turtling, is anybody?

(I assume you meant "because all the players aren't willing to see bad things happen to their characters" here)

Turtling comes from multiplayer RTS's I think, so it refers to when a player is playing passively to reduce their exposure to conflict. I'm not sure about Shock, but I imagine its pretty conflict intensive like With Great Power or Dogs in the Vineyard. So if a player is avoiding conflict, that's a problem.  Usually there's a mechanical benefit for getting into conflict, so they might get the clue, but it's probably just best to ask them why they are seeking to avoid conflict.  If its habit because that's how their group does it, it's time to break the habit Smiley  Although, I'd be surprised if his group is turtling and playing Shock or anything indie.  In a traditional game you can do quite well by turtling.  In fact, it seems like a not too uncommon tactic.  Engaging in conflict often reduces resoures and puts the character at risk of death, and thus removal from play.   Turtling is a good way to make sure you keep playing.  And it doesn't break anything because it's the GM's job to throw conflict at you.

Being paralyzed on what decision to make, though, isn't turtling, so I don't think your experience falls under the definition.  Not knowing what to do is overcome with the right kind of information.  I guess if you went "I do nothing!" that could count, but I don't think its the same.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: October 26, 2007, 07:48:57 PM »

Hi there,

Several other folks and I arrived at the term "turtling" through our discussions about seven years ago, and I don't remember who actually used the term first. But here's what we were talking about:

GM (me): All right, so this letter is signed by your sister. The one who died four years ago. What do you do?
Player: I go to work as usual.
GM: And?
Player: What?
GM: Do you do anything at work differently from usual? Any action you want to take, anything you want to do?
Player: No. [becomes monosyllabic, says and does similar things from that point forward]

There are some poisonous outcomes lurking in this situation. One that I always fell into was to prompt further, and to prompt more, providing what I thought were opportunities and seeking for the player's comfort zone of action. What happened instead was that the player would start to resent the pushy GMing, and refer sarcastically to my offerings, like, "Oh, so you want me to do [X] here, then." Another, which I think is pretty common based on observing groups and reading about actual play, is that the player pretty much checks out of play entirely and will only even roll-to-hit when prompted by someone else. Or still another is that the player goes maximum in any action scene, using every combat and damage option on full-bore regardless of what's going on, but otherwise refuses to do anything which makes those action scenes happen. But this is getting ahead of myself - I want to talk about turtling, not about various outcomes of it further down the road.

GM: What do you say?
Player: Nothin'!

But that might give the wrong impression that I'm talking about a silent, disconnected lump at the gaming table, which I'm not. I'm not sure whether I'm making the right point with the example. Here are some other features: ... for one thing, it's not a matter of his goals and actions being shut down; the point is that the player isn't acting upon any goals and actions. The funny thing, though, is that often the character was designed quite lovingly, in lots of detail, and with plenty of attention to relevant rules. (The character is typically combat ready with lots of ammunition, too.) It's not as if the player doesn't want to be there and doesn't want to imagine his character in action. The image of the character is very strong, but the character is merely a noun - he or she doesn't do anything except react to very immediate things that impinge into things like hit points.

Maybe this point will help: the player is active in his walling-off of the character. This isn't a player who's shy or not speaking or otherwise hesitant about play itself. The player is quite clear about what the character does, says, and thinks. The problem is that the character doesn't do anything proactive, doesn't say anything except for dismissals and denials, and doesn't think anything except stuff like "I don't care about that guy."

Does that help any? It's not just risk-avoidance, either ... I remember in a game of Shattered Dreams a while back, all the players were aware of how dangerous and scary any scene or situation could become. So one player did a really good job of instigating other players to do things with their characters, in their locations (the characters were rarely together), through ordinary person-to-person conversation. The net effect was for her character to have less scenes and therefore be exposed to less harm.

However, that wasn't turtling, as I see it. The player did have her character do neat stuff and get into all sorts of trouble, just at a lower rate than everyone else. It was a tactic, not a strategy, I suppose.

Let me know if any of this makes sense.

Best, Ron
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Mel White
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« Reply #5 on: October 27, 2007, 05:53:48 AM »

What is it?  How do we recognize it? How do we deal with it?  Or do we?  After the game, Jeremy described how all the players in his group play similarly to him--avoiding conflict because all the players are willing to see bad things happen to their characters.  So that adds new complexity to the question of turtling.  If everyone at the table is turtling, is anybody?

(I assume you meant "because all the players aren't willing to see bad things happen to their characters" here)
 

That's the interesting part!  There are no conflicts because the players are willing to see bad things happen, so the player-characters don't fight the situation.     

Several other folks and I arrived at the term "turtling" through our discussions about seven years ago, and I don't remember who actually used the term first. But here's what we were talking about:
GM (me): All right, so this letter is signed by your sister. The one who died four years ago. What do you do?
Player: I go to work as usual.
GM: And?
Player: What?
GM: Do you do anything at work differently from usual? Any action you want to take, anything you want to do?
Player: No. [becomes monosyllabic, says and does similar things from that point forward]

There are some poisonous outcomes lurking in this situation. One that I always fell into was to prompt further, and to prompt more, providing what I thought were opportunities and seeking for the player's comfort zone of action. What happened instead was that the player would start to resent the pushy GMing...   

I think this is very similar to what happened in the Shock game.  Our suggestions to Jeremy became counter-productive as his decisions seemed to take longer the more ideas other players offered.  But I couldn't tell why.  Either he was pondering the new ideas, or he was growing resentful at the implication that he couldn't think of something himself, or some other motivation.  All we saw at the table was long periods of silence.  However, if a component of turtling is that the player is active in walling off the character, then turtling isn't what was happening.  That's a surprise to me!  I suppose in actuality it was a simple matter of a player who wasn't having fun and wasn't enjoying the game.  I appreciate the feedback!
Mel
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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: October 27, 2007, 10:56:42 PM »

I think Ron's example is strong, just needs a different perspective (I'm gunna be naughty and one line quote!)
Quote
the point is that the player isn't acting upon any goals and actions.
Quote
Maybe this point will help: the player is active in his walling-off of the character.
I think the player is active in the pursuit of a goal, and that is conservation of resources (which isn't disagreeing with the quotes terribly much).

The goal of conserving resources is really strong, I'd estimate - you can gain a win in chess by pursuing it, you can gain a strong game of capes by pursuing it. It sounds passive, but if you outconserve your opponent, you've kicked his ass! In fact I think it's so strong, it can choke a game to a standstill - it's that strong! Smiley

The catch is, you can't keep designing the game after play commences. Just about anything you can add is a threat to conservation of resources. If the play itself grants the player some choice to refuse it, they will refuse it - and since the shared imagined space relies heavily on real consent/real choice about what we agree is there...boom!

My estimate is that conservation of resources is a great thing for a player to do, it's really active. But the practical issue is that any threats that should be in play, need to be prepped into some sort of system before game play begins/before the conservation cannon ball starts rolling. Once that balls rolling, forget trying to add anything except through the system of resources that already exists. Well, that's some estimates, might be of use. Smiley
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