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Started by John Adams, August 23, 2008, 08:33:19 AM

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John Adams

I have a feeling I may regret this in the morning, but this idea is stuck in my head so here it goes. Please reply with thoughts and especially AP reports about the following. Is this just me being cynical/satirical or is it perhaps, A Thing?

I have been trying to put my finger on the goals my group had for role-playing lo these many years, and I think this sums up a lot of it:

Adolescent Male Masturbatory Fantasy.

This is a particular Sim aesthetic in which the most important attribute of every player character is BAD-ASSERY, expressed as:

1) He always gets the girl
2) He takes whatever he wants, usually by force
3) Anything that stands in his way gets smacked down, HARD
4) He faces momentary setbacks, but only from cool, BAD ASS opponents, then see #3, #2 and #1

In short, all of these characters are CONAN, as imagined by a 14 year old boy.

Filip Luszczyk

I think you basically, more or less, nailed down a pretty popular gaming goal. Arguably, such an approach might have been quite common historically, though not well suported by the majority of traditional designs (mostly, things like high mechanical whiff factor or strong GM empowerment tend to get in the way). Either way, seems like a valid and worthwhile reason for role-playing.

I'm not sure whether you provide enough AP material for the purposes of a discussion here (i.e. no specific gaming experiences). I'd give some examples myself, only I don't even know where to start...

Eero Tuovinen

Are you positing this as a problem, or is it just an observation? I'm asking because while I most commonly see this particular phenomenon judged as a problem, I'm also well aware of people and groups that actively try to get to this sort of thing - replace "adolescent" with "primal" and "masturbatory" with "focused", and you pretty much describe the classical sword & sorcery right there.

To compare, this sort of thing never came naturally to me and my friends when we were adolescents, and that hasn't changed now, either. Our comfortable and assumed mode of play always was about setting and character adherence - I could just wish that we'd had any aesthetic motivations that were as clear and well-communicated as "I get the girl and look cool doing it." I'm reminded of an early, long fantasy campaign we had where all high points of the campaign were really about our ability to weave dramatically satisfying plot arcs with the tools the game provided (illusionistic tools, understand - whatever content we created in the game needed to happen without overt negotiation) - the coolest thing about the game at the time pretty much was having your character involved in significant interaction at all, and the more dramatic and multifaceted it was, the better it was. As I remember it, the high point of the campaign was when it was revealed that one of the player characters was the brother of the most powerful sorceress in the realm; this was cool because it tied the character into the setting in a manner that was not a given, considering the tools and techniques provided by the game itself. (This was with Elhendi, a Finnish fantasy game that might be characterized in general terms as very rules-light Runequest.) This is about as far as possible from the wish-fulfillment aesthetic you describe.

This is not to say that I'm completely unfamiliar with the phenomenon you describe in the real world, I've just encountered players to get to the table with those sorts of expectations very rarely. The two cases I remember were both superhero games, interestingly enough - it seems that superheroes are a comfortable topic for this sort of thing. In both cases one player reacted with outright anger and frustration at complications set against his character - in retrospect it was pretty obvious that he wanted to narrate how his character succeeds, not let that success be threatened by the rules. Having the player's proposed solution to a situation (interrogation of a henchman to find out the mastermind's evil plan, if I remember correctly) blocked by the GM might seem like a completely unnecessary move to that sort of player.

All that aside, are you familiar with BARBAREN? It's this game-in-development by Frank Tarcikowski, and it seems to me that your group might like it - it's all about the barbarian heroes doing their barbarian stuff in a very unabashed manner. I find this a very interesting design goal, and in case you think it's a problem that your group likes this sort of thing - why would it be? (Of course if you don't like it yourself, that might be a problem.)
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Ron Edwards

Hi John,

Good call. There was some discussion about this in the Adept forum: Character conversion and Elric books for Sorcerer & Sword background (help!), but it was tuned to a pretty explicit version of the topic and I think the more general issue was missed.

Here's my question, which might focus Eero's point: how many game systems, and how many years, did (or have) you spent in trying to reach this? Did it work ever? I'm asking because as I see it, there's a built-in contradiction. If the character never encounters actual adversity, the victories are hollow and become unsatisfying with repetition. Yet actual adversity also means that success is not guaranteed: the character will also suffer loss, despair, and defeat, in addition to frequent setbacks. In the mind-set you're describing, even the setbacks are unacceptable, perhaps terrifying - the character must always win or self-esteem suffers in what feels like an irreparable way.

I've seen this most often in terms of superhero role-playing, with a sort of Wolverine syndrome - he senses anything, can't be ambushed, knows everything about anything military or espionage, ignores nearly all damage, recovers from any degree of damage, cuts through anything, is faster than anyone, never loses his cool except in even-more-cool berserk rages, says wise and blunt things in a way that shuts other people up, et cetera, et cetera, all the time. Playing with someone who's into this (and again, due to the contradiction, is doomed to failure) turns into an exercise where everyone else has to keep stroking this image too, and the whole game becomes a service to this one guy's impossible need to see this image fulfilled.

My question concerns game systems because I'm trying to get an idea of how much and how widely you've sought this goal, and also to see whether you've been successful at it. It may be that I'm too pessimistic.

Best, Ron

John Adams

Well, this is what I'm trying to puzzle out. This certainly seems like a perfectly valid goal. Done well I think this could be really fun and I'm tossing ideas around in my head on how I could design such a game. Thanks Eero, I'll put BARBAREN on my list of games to check out.

But it also seems to me that if this idea was firing on all cylinders it would be nothing less than a pure ego-stroking circle jerk. That isn't to say it would be bad, but let's just call it what it is: pure wish fulfillment. It would have the trappings of Gamism without the teeth, to echo Ron. Although in this case it isn't "oooo! look how EVIL I am" it's "ooooo! look how COOL I am!" As long as Gam isn't the desired agenda, I think that would be OK.

In practice, I insisted as the GM to keep some honest "yes you can fail" challenge in the game, but over time that became mostly talk. What we actually did came fairly close to this sometimes, despite an unsupportive System and the general Illusionist shtick. We went at least a dozen Systems and worked around all of them to try and make this work. Incidentally, it was almost entirely on the GM's shoulders to make this work: not only making sure everyone got to look cool but preserving the Illusion that the players actually earned something when it was all really fiat.

One contrary point: I think setbacks are a critical component of this aesthetic. Die Hard would be what it is if Bruce Willis didn't get his ass handed to him. My players are on board with that, I think. The distinction is that such setback never amount to *failure* in any meaningful way, and they always enhance the cool-ness of the hero, they NEVER make him look weak or incompetent.

Filip Luszczyk

QuoteIn practice, I insisted as the GM to keep some honest "yes you can fail" challenge in the game, but over time that became mostly talk.

This sort of mirrors my experiences with running Exalted, I think. Looking from the perspective of a few years, despite all the talk about optimizing character builds, combat tactics and stuff, in the end we've always had this "nobody fails" assumption that everybody knew about, but nobody acknowledged openly. The contradiction might have been one of the main sources of my growing dissatisfaction with running the game back then.

How to fulfill those goals without the whole bullshit?

First of all, I think that in order for the game to be interesting you need to have some big red question marks hanging over the table, the system directing play towards answering those questions. With a gamist agenda, you'd have the question marks hanging over winning, or at least proving oneself. However, this means failure would have to be included as a real possibility in the system.

So, you know that the characters can't fail. At most, they can experience some setbacks, but only from cool and badass opponents. There is no option of actual failure, though - because if there is such a possibility in the system, it will be overruled by the need to smack all the adversity down and get the girl at the end of the day.

So, the system might just as well make it all a given. Now, what should be placed under those big red question marks instead?

I think that once you figure it out, you have your game.

Some possible options for this sort of a system:

1). You get the girl, but which girl? As the game goes, the system helps you gradually determine what the girl is like.
2). You will take whatever you want. Most of it by force, some of it by other means. So, the question is only "How?" The system is all about which of the means available to you will be used to get each of the things you want, and in what order. All about diversification and pacing, in other words. Maybe as you go, you build a suite of options, both combat and other, and expend them, or something like that.
3). Stuff in your way gets smacked hard. But how hard? Can your next smackdown be more effective than your last one, or than that of other players?
4). A certain amount of setbacks is certain. However, the system helps you determine what sort of opponent is actually cool and badass enough to be worth causing them. Are you, as a player, willing to suffer the obligatory setback from this guy, or should we just cross him off the list and move on to the next one?

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

Barbaren is your game. I dunno what else to say. I mean, it's got everything you're talking about with enough humor and enough real effort, and some really interesting but not de-macho-ing ways to fail, to make it worth doing.

This is the Actual Play forum, and I'd really like to see some input from you about what systems you've used and what's happened when you played. I mean, you've been pretty clear about why, but not so much on how.

Best, Ron


One observation: we know that in the movies (or the books) the hero always wins. End of story. We KNOW it. And we ignore it throughout the whole movie (or book). Because while we don't wonder about whether he will win, only how. The "how" is what we watch the movie for.

Conan, and I'm talking classic Howardian Conan not the derided 14-year old claimed masturbatory fantasy, is the best example I can think of for this in literature. We KNOW Conan wins. We KNOW he survives. This is a flat-out given. There's never any doubt. He has setbacks and obstacles, but his life is never in any "real" danger from our standpoint. We know he lives a long life and becomes King of Aquilonia.

Why we deride the idea that such fore-knowledge somehow invalidates the experience is beyond me: did you ever feel invalidated by knowing Howard's Conan lives? If you're like most, probably not. So ask yourself what makes these stories so gripping, and how do you build a game around that? Importantly, CAN you build a game around that?
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Ron Edwards

Hi Raven,

I have two points to make about that.

The trouble with using that concept is that the begin-end of role-playing sessions doesn't necessarily map to the begin-end of published stories. Conan gets his ass kicked and his armies defeated pretty frequently, and in that moment and at that time, the loss has to be real. It's a genuine reduction of power or presence for the character.

In role-playing, such things may be experienced as the end of a session, or perhaps worse (from the perspective of John's description), as the necessary set-up for some other prepared situation. I'm thinking of The Scarlet Citadel, in which the story begins with the end of a battle in which Conan is defeated both militarily and personally (yes, in single combat, our Cimmerian gets his ass handed to him). I can just hear the howls of protest if the GM landed the character in that situation to begin with, or if he ran the battle for five hours of play in order to decree that ending by fiat at the end.

Also, and I think this is especially important, he doesn't overcome the problem simply by hammering it harder in the next part of the story. He has to do something different, which in experiential game-terms, means (the character and the reader) accepting that he was defeated the first time.

In my role-playing experience, people who are committed to the idealized/mutated Conan + Wolverine goal have a terrible time with this. The character is the best. Always. So how can he be forced to "go around" a problem? No way! Coming out on top at the end is not good enough. He has to be depicted and experienced exactly as Conan is at the end of The Scarlet Citadel, all the time.

I think this discussion has reached its limits without actual play to provide context for us. Raven and I are now comparing our own experiences, or worse, generalizations based on our separate experiences, and our ability to critique the ideas is diminishing fast. John, we need you to explain what play of this sort is like for you and your fellow role-players, using what system, and how well it works.

Best, Ron

John Adams

What is it like? Frustrating, both for the GM and players. Works? Just well enough to get your hope up before a bad rool of the dice or a decision by another player or (more often) the GM blows a big hole in your bad-ass image.

We've seen this in AD&D (1st and 2nd ed) and several versions of my Fantasy Heartbreaker. For reference, the latest version was FatE Task Resolution with Level Up and a shallow, linear power curve. Heavy GM authority and Black Box.

It's hard to think of an example where this worked really well. Here's a tiny snip that's close. Andy's warrior recently found a magic spear that caused stun and extra electrical damage on a critical hit. During an important battle he rolled 3 crits in a row. Not only are his immediate foes flying through the air into smoking heaps, every enemy nearby breaks and runs in terror which turns the tide of battle. Bad Ass, Andy at least is happy with that even though it was pure luck.

Here's a good example of when it didn't work. Tusk's background mentioned a battle with his master in which he crippled his master's sword arm. Tusk then had to set out on his own. Much later we have a climactic, one-on-one throwdown with the same master. They are beating the tar out of each other when Tusk lands a crippling blow on his master's arm. I decided to apply the rules as written and called for a 50-50 roll to see which arm. (suck rules, but that's not the point here) Naturally Tusk hits the already crippled arm, the fight continues and Tusk loses. Major bummer. All of the players called me to task on that. It would have been SUCH a cool ending if Tusk crippled the guy's other arm, why not ignore the rules and let it go? Alas, I was never focused only on the bad-assery. I always tried to juggle story, challenge and keeping a sensible, consistant world and as such I met those goals very inconsistantly.

For clear example of what it would look like if it worked, I need to turn to film. In "Conan the Barbarian" the big guy suffers a major setback when his enemy hits him on head with a hammer the size of a Volkswagon. Conan is stunned and his nemesis gloats for a while before crucifying Conan on the Tree of Woe. When a vulture lands on Conan to pick at his near-dead flesh, what does he do? He BITES ITS FUCKING HEAD OFF!   Bad. Ass. I can easily picture one of my players annoucing something just like that.

But that attitude is limiting. My players NEVER retreat, it's victory or death. Important NPCs are impossible, my players treat the Emporer of Mankind like some guy they met in a bar: "he had better treat me with respect or I'll kill him." I think the right system and some clear expectations could solve that, but it would be tricky.

John Adams

I should be clear that this was an UNSTATED goal of some players in my group. We talked around it for years but never really expressed it as clearly as I did in the OP above. As the GM I was pursuing other goals (usually several at once, to our detriment) so naturally this never had a fair chance regardless of the system we used.

Ron Edwards

Hey John,

I found another older thread that might be relevant: [Sorcerer] I'm a clueless newbie with broad questions. It's kind of a mess, but we talk about the bad-asses in film and literature on page 2. My point is that they're only excellent bad-asses because they're really Big Softies underneath.

Here, I'll say that's a major contrast to the AMMF character, who is created largely to deny or (most positively) give a little escape from any sort of softness or vulnerability to influences from others.

All of which is to lead up to my response to your very useful post, which is, how often or well have you seen the bad-ass characters go all soft and become even more bad-ass because they cared about someone in the story which, actually, they didn't have to? It may not be a fair question because as you say, the AMMF stuff never did manage to fire on all cylinders in the first place, but I think it's an interesting idea to mull over.

Best, Ron

John Adams

Jonas Negron was a total bad-ass thief. His character-defining adventure was a solo bit where he seduced the rich and beautiful wife of a Noble in order to steal her necklace. But it turned into something more when he realized how unhappy she was in her marriage and stole her away to another city and married her.

This was by far the exception that proved the rule. For whatever reason my players go out of their way to have NO meaningful relationships. Family? Dead. Friends? Nope, I'm a loner. Lovers? Love em' and leave 'em babe. So why are you in this group of adventurers if you're such a loner? Well, I'm also a TEAM PLAYER. Or some such nonsense.

Why is that? Are they afraid the GM will use those relationships to screw them over? Or is it a clear message (which I always missed) that I don't want the game to be about relationships?

John Adams

Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 25, 2008, 04:33:05 AM
Here, I'll say that's a major contrast to the AMMF character, who is created largely to deny or (most positively) give a little escape from any sort of softness or vulnerability to influences from others.

Heh. You answered that question before I asked it. Nice.


Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 24, 2008, 01:51:31 PMIn my role-playing experience, people who are committed to the idealized/mutated Conan + Wolverine goal have a terrible time with this. The character is the best. Always. So how can he be forced to "go around" a problem? No way! Coming out on top at the end is not good enough. He has to be depicted and experienced exactly as Conan is at the end of The Scarlet Citadel, all the time.

Yep, I recognize that, and I recognize the "badass Wolverine" archetype as a problem. It seemed to me John was asking how he could go about making the AMMF thing be challenging/insightful-interesting despite already knowing the outcome, which isn't really an answer to the "how do I be badass all the time" problem. On reflection, I think my response was more geared towards Eero's "I don't get power fantasy" and Filip's ideas at dealing with "knowing the outcome" than John's actual issue, so I'll step out unless I have something better to add to his insights/troubles with the ego-play he is describing and ways to deal with it.

And then I immediately realize I believe I do have one relevant bit to add: it seems to me we're just talking about the "Mary Sue" phenomenon as it expresses itself in gaming.

That is, a self-insertion into the story (or by way of proxy via a character who serves) to provide wish-fulfillment for the author. Such a character is usually exceptional, flawless (or nearly so, with all flaws just making them more likable), exotic and/or powerful (beyond the other standard characters), the center-of-attention, easily-fixes-everything-that's-wrong, well-liked by everyone (except the bad guys, and even then, grudgingly respected or feared), and no matter if any of these other traits exist, is always absolutely "lucky" (that is, everything always goes their way as they would want it to).

Mary Sues are bad because they do not allow any real conflict to be provided, and serve only to stroke the ego; they are personifications of perfection: what the individual wishes they were, in a safe world with empty conflict that never actually endangers anyone or anything the individual cares about. The problem with them is that they are illusions: the hard, cold exterior of the "badass" doesn't exist, because it doesn't need to. There's nothing there to actually challenge or upset it, the whole world is a set-up that will never expose the "hard" exterior to anything harder than freshly-spun cotton candy.

But I think it important to note criticisms of the Mary Sue idea and the real dangers of its usage, given its too-broad definition: it's too easy to call everything a Mary Sue that does not conform to our own expectations and desires, and makes it easy to quickly dismiss something as broken/wrong by using a "sophisticated argument" (ie: when we accuse someone of expressing some "obvious" trait or irrational behavior as a form of counter-argument, especially any highly specialized claim, when we disagree with or dislike them without adequately showing our accusation to be true -- it becomes an easy, generalized criticism).

Thus a "Mary Sue" (or "AMMF") is also a simple and irrational way to dismiss a character or plot or whatnot that we personally don't like or want to deride, and is often unfairly used as such: "Oh, that's just a Mary Sue!" or "Ugh. That would only happen in Mary Sue fic." and we don't notice our biases or own faulty logic in supporting that statement or following arguments about why it is. Meaning not all "badasses" are empty caricatures in safe, personalized worlds.

But, I do think the "badass Conan-Wolverine" description Ron provided has a clearer definition than Mary Sue, indicating not just a "macho badass", but a character that exists solely to look badass, all-the-time, never suffers setbacks, and would, if such a setback occured, cause the player real emotional upset and injury beyond what should or could be expected from such a situation (and I think that is the important distinction). Which is unlike the real Wolverine and the real Conan, both of whom are strong, cold, strutting, nigh-unkillable, and also deeply, humanly, flawed characters with human connections and interior struggles as difficult as their exterior ones, which can't be solved by titanium bones, bulging muscles, or a steely-eyed stare -- completely the opposite of a MS or AMMF.

The former--the MS/AMMF--is a problem, even though playing a cool, hard-nosed, (self-)destructive, badass isn't. So, what kind are your players?

You say:
QuoteMy players NEVER retreat, it's victory or death. Important NPCs are impossible, my players treat the Emporer of Mankind like some guy they met in a bar: "he had better treat me with respect or I'll kill him."
and I've been there: I had one player who thought it fine to mouth off to an ancient dragon, fully expecting that whatever happened, her character would get out of it alive. At the time, I went with it because I thought I had to keep the characters alive because it was expected, but it never felt right. When I started realizing that wasn't what I wanted, that it was boring and broken, and when I expressed that the next game we played would involve no player-coddling and characters would die if it were appropriate because of situation and/or player choices, that player left the group with haste.

And there's the difficulty: MS players will expect that they can and will kill the Emperor if he mouths off to them, while players of the cool badass will expect they can try to kill the Emperor and not necessarily succeed, just as long as they look badass in the attempt.

Or, to return to the Conan example: players of badasses will expect to end up crucified to a tree, biting the heads off vultures trying to kill them, while players of MS never expect they will be crucified to a tree and put into a situation where they really failed, unless they design it to happen that way.

There's the difference: "No matter what happens, I'm cool under pressure." vs. "No matter what happens, there is never any real pressure."

The former is doable, the latter is not.

But I'm not sure there's a way to fix that with "the right system" or "clear expectations", because it really isn't about the system and "I'm really great and cool all the time, watch me be great and cool and have the answer to everything in a snap" isn't much of a game. However, if you can shift those expectations towards the other type, the one where "failure isn't an option" but setbacks are OK and help drive the story, help set the mood, help make the character that much more cool and awesome when he brings down the pain in the final scene, then you have a chance.

You also stated you had one exception that proved the rule, which possibly shows your players can and do want to do something other than a bad AMMF, and can see how to get there, but it seems they might be scared of something jumping in their way: "If I open myself up to injury and failure, the GM is going to hose me with those damn rules of his and destroy my badass image with some aggravating sight gag or humbling moment."

You can't humble the badass: he gets pounded into the dirt, and looks like a badass doing it. He doesn't lie there twitching. He is sprawled heroically, coughing blood and grimacing. See the difference?

Conan gets hit in the head with A GIANT FUCKING HAMMER. And DOESN'T DIE ON THE SPOT. Badass. Then he's NAILED TO A TREE and BITES OFF A VULTURE'S HEAD. Badass. And then he COMES BACK FROM THE DEAD because he's too STRONG and COMMITTED and ANGRY to die. Badass.

What happens in a normal game? Conan gets hit in the head with a regular old warhammer. And his skull is crushed so he drops to the ground. And the cleric heals his lame ass so he can get up and get smacked in the head with a hammer again. And if he ever ends up nailed to a tree? The vultures peck at him until he fails a saving throw from bloodloss and shock and passes out to die, even if he gets to roll to attack the vultures to do 3hp of damage with his teeth. And if the rest of the party can't get there in time to save him, the cleric just casts Raise Dead on him and he gets up like someone turned on a lightswitch. Maybe spends a couple days resting and healing. woo.

That might be fixable with the rules, but it's more how the shared space is being imagined and interpreted by the group and particularly as it is being distributed and colored by the GM in his choice of environments, scenery, and (especially) presented conflicts.

Ultimately, then, denouncing "Mary Sue" or "AMMF" is a cop-out, because it doesn't do anything but label and grouse. You have to go further. The real issue here is asking your players, and being a part of the process, "How can we make Mary Sue interesting?" and asking yourself, "How do I avoid deprotagonizing your concept in the process?"

That is, the player wants his character to be someone who can mouth off to the Emperor, without you hosing him for doing so, because the character wouldn't be hosed or humbled, only given another chance to show off how bad, cool, and strong he is even if he fails to kill the Emperor for trying to humble him. He shows the Emperor and the audience that's the kind of guy he is. That's the concept. You need to be able to run with that: helping the players showing strength and unflinching persistence even when in full retreat, because that's what the player (hopefully) really wants, a chance for the concept to shine without the GM knocking the concept down. Task success is secondary.

Well, that was much longer than intended, but hopefully valuable.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio