[Reign] In-Character Acting and the Higher Level

Started by Frank Tarcikowski, September 27, 2010, 02:26:07 PM

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Frank Tarcikowski

I started to write a bit of a spin-off to the thread Roll-Playing Versus Roleplaying with an actual play report of my own, but then it seemed more fitting to continue the discussion in that thread itself, so I dissected some of my write-up to post in the original thread and now I'm a bit reluctant what to do with the rest of it. I'll try to refine it as a spring-board for further discussion. Let's start with the original quote from Nick (InkMeister):

QuoteI was playing Runequest with my group.  We, the PC's, are guarding a caravan.  The caravan gets attacked by a vampire cult.  After we defend the caravan, the caravan leader remarks that we, the PC's, are drawing enemies to the caravan with our mere presence, consequently putting women and children needlessly at risk.  I retort that the women and children were the very reason the caravan was attacked, and that if it were not for we PC's defending the caravan, many people would have been lost to the vampire cult.  If anything, we should receive extra pay for risking our own hides protecting the caravan.   The GM pauses, a little surprised (I think the story's rails required us to simply disembark from the caravan at this point, so we could go do something else in the game), and, out of character, says "good point..."  Then, "roll a negotiation check."   

I was a little disappointed.  I just acted out my negotiation in character - why do I have to roll?  Why can't the GM act out the caravan leader's part, and come to a conclusion?

In that thread I suggested, provocatively, that Nick and the GM may have lingered, for a small moment, at the threshold of entering a higher level of play (higher level of skill, higher level of engagement, higher level of shared understanding, higher level of satisfaction). Let me also repeat Ron Edwards' point that the "higher level" of play is not predicated on abandoning dice, which I concur with. Here's a bit of actual play of my own I was immediately reminded of when I read Nick's.

Actual Play: Reign of Freeport

We played Reign, the nominal setting being Green Ronin's pirate city of Freeport, but the color and tone of the game being pure swords & sorcery. Me and the GM Jörg were the dominant players in the group, not only the ones with the biggest ego but also the ones who had a strong creative vision and proactively pushed for that vision at the table. I boldly submit, when the two of us got going, we weren't a bad show at all. Without flinching, we would play through a brutally erotic scene, no holds barred. Interacting with Jörg at the table, when we were picking up speed, was quite a challenge to my imagination, quick wits, acting skill, and good judgment.

There was this scene where my character was masquerading as a pompous art trader and trying to sow some vicious rumors about the enemy pirate captain. Jörg was playing the captain's crew and was really testing me, trying to corner and trap me, make me give myself away. I countered his every move. It was an elaborate dance, demanding the best I had. None of the other players at the table could have pulled it off. Then in the end, with the dialogue coming to a natural close, he asked me for a skill roll with a minimum height of 4.

For those unfamiliar with Reign, this means you need a pair of 4s or higher, on a roll of, in my case, 4d10. I thought he didn't really have the math figured out, and pointed out that this was nearly impossible, but he insisted. It was still a great scene but at that moment right there, I felt that he had denied me something I had earned. I failed the roll, of course, so the crew remained suspicious though they did let me go.

The Moment of Judgment, once more with feeling

In this post in the original thread, I linked Vincent's blog post about the Moment of Judgment and expanded on that some more. Biased judgment, which Vincent and Jonathan Walton talk about in that blog post, is one possible issue, but it doesn't have to be biased to not be fun. Simply misguided, misinformed or poor judgment are all showstoppers that keep your game from really lifting off. I am convinced that no set of game rules, however elaborate, can substitute real human judgment, by the individual players and also by the group as a whole. Bad rules can aggravate the problem and good rules can provide a reliable framework, maybe nudge the players into a direction, but without the human mind making a real, personal assessment, you'll never truly engage.

It is the unique and fascinating capacity of role-playing as a medium to enable the participants to combine their ideas, daydreams and visions into a dynamic collaborative process that is more than just the sum of its parts, a shared experience that can be captivating and powerful. But you depend on your good judgment to make it happen. You may or may not judge it appropriate to reach for the dice at one point or another, but you must assess your fellow players' contributions and the shared fiction when you make that decision.

The Higher Level

I know from personal experience that there is boring, unsatisfying or even annoying role-playing, and I know that not all fun in role-playing is equal. I have played in nice, relaxed, worthwhile games, but I have also played in games that excited and captivated me, games in which I lost all sense of passing time, games that left me feeling dizzy and euphoric.

I've played in games that weren't bad, slightly abashed by Big Model terms, where the characters, the fictional content and the group were okay, but every so often there was a hick-up: A disagreement in a Moment of Judgment. A spot rule by the GM or a declaration of action by one of the players that made the others frown. The game was never flowing quite evenly. When someone else came up with something, you went along with it but you never felt it was "just the right thing" or "even better than what you had thought of yourself". You never felt that the fictional events fully made sense, were fully consistent in terms of plausibility, genre and tone. You rarely found something to be really crappy, but neither did you find anything to be really it, the essence, the Real Thing.

And then you connected with one of the other players. Then suddenly you got excited about something they said, it inspired you, you picked it up, you built on it, and by the light in their eyes you could tell they were excited, too. You were connecting. You were in tune. You started to trust, to let go of the notion that you'd need to struggle with the others about what was cool, what made sense, or what was an appropriate contribution. Instead, you'd be able to focus on your own contributions, to make them as cool as you possibly could, to give something back to your fellow players and see that light in their eyes. That's what it feels like when Creative Agenda kicks in, full steam.

It's not a question of whether you reach for the dice or not. It's a question of whether you connect, as humans, whether you acknowledge and transform the contributions of your fellow players and, come the Moment of Judgment, make a call they feel is appropriate. In the two examples above, reaching for the dice failed that because the required and expected assessment by the person with authority did not feel right to the one at the receiving end. (In the Reign game, that was the only real Hick-Up between Jörg and me, though. That session overall was a very good one.)

Making the connection is one half of the higher level. The other half is performance, plain and simple. Not all people are equally creative, clever, entertaining, attentive, eloquent, and possess the same good judgment. I like to think that character portrayals are one part of the game where I'm capable of performing well, and that's why I like them and like to play in games that emphasize them. The best games I've played in were always with a group in which all, or most, players put up an extraordinary performance.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Callan S.

Hi Frank,

The thing that strikes me about Nick's and your example is the distinct meta game element. Or to be more accurate, meta fiction element - as in something outside the fiction. You both interacted with the GM and felt he, in real life, was promising you something.

I mean, what's happening in the fiction? Is the character thinking the game world is promising him something? No, your character, upon failing, wouldn't think he was robbed of victory somehow. No, this rappour or something you feel your building up is with the GM is outside of the fiction entirely.

Indeed given you felt you earned something, it almost seems a drifting thrust towards gamism, if not yet a fully fledged CA of gamism. I mean, if in chess I managed to checkmate the other guys king using my wits, but then I have to freakin' roll to see if I actually beat him...WTF! I'm robbed! I earned that! (and incidentally, What a crap ruleset - why'd I ever sit down to that?) I could totally relate to being pissed off in seemingly exactly the same way as you and Nick are describing. I think we had another thread where someone was bummed for strategising, then a roll whiffs all the strategy effort away, too.

Or at the very least, from my reading I see yourself and Nick thinking there was some sort of promise made by the GM, or some sort of expectation he fostered with you which is practically like a promise. And that's all very outside the fiction.

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi Callan, totally. I've used that very example in other discussions, of someone strategizing and then having to roll. Because to my mind, it's the same thing. A common complaint about the whole "social interaction" thing goes: You must not substitute the character's social competence with the player's. But say there's a classic riddle in a dungeon crawl, nobody would ever fall for the idea of making the player roll an intelligence check before he may suggest a solution to the riddle!

I don't know about Gamism, I think that's a red herring. But if you put effort into something, as a player, into something that you care about, and if you put up a good performance, you want to be rewarded for it. You want it to matter.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Callan S.

No, I want to win! But I've read before the idea simulationism involves stiffling and training out the reflex to either go play to win, or soap opera (nar).

I'm reading your higher level and - I'm just not seeing it? Or more what I'm seeing is two people have found the capacity of one of them to throw a ball of fiction into the air, so to speak, and the other actually catch it, add to it, throw it and the other person catches it again instead of letting it just hit the ground. Back and forth repeatedly.

I have no idea? Is it that they are catching not just fiction but something that is very much you - probably somewhat like hearing someone play a song you wrote? And perhaps they change it, but you get how they change it, then you play it back and add more, and they get that...etc? I'm stabbing around - if I notice I'm just taking up thread space I'll just make like an autobot and roll out...