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Author Topic: head games  (Read 4576 times)
Paul Czege
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« on: March 04, 2011, 11:55:14 AM »

My current secret design project is a rich setting RPG aimed at longer term play. Thirteen sessions into internal playtesting I'm noticing a vague pattern of player behavior which I don't think is a mechanical problem I need to solve, but which I'm pretty curious about. Examples:

One character is in the employ of an NPC who desperately wants forgiveness from a woman he hasn't been able to find for his own inaction against an injustice a few years ago. He hired the player character to find this woman, and it turns out she is dead. But the player character has come to possess a seed that grew on a plant creature on the grave of the deceased woman, which will instill someone who consumes it with her personality for a time. Well, the player character meets with his employer, tells him the woman is dead, and about the seed, and then proceeds to fake consuming the seed, pretend to embody her personality, and argue that no forgiveness is needed, her own actions against the injustice weren't noble of purpose, but were out of revenge, and that the employer should just get over it.

The player enacted an elaborate head game on the NPC, with no real purpose, and which wasn't particularly creative or dramatic.

Another character is employed by an NPC who reveals that he wants a specific woman killed and then tasks the player character with the murder. Well, the player has his character intentionally flub the murder attempt. Then he makes an inquiry into the life situation of the intended victim, finds out she believes her deceased husband still might be trying to harm her, and starts an unfocused, low energy investigation of the husband. When he ultimately goes to confront his employer, the character he actually knows wants this woman killed, he attempts a bunch of weird head games on him. He suggests the employer's other employee might have been the one to flub the murder attempt. And then he suggests he's arranged a meeting between the employer and a friend of the woman he wants dead, because the friend "has information you need to hear". The arranged meeting is a spontaneous invention. He works hard to convince his employer to go to the meeting. But why, when it's not like the friend is actually going to be there, or that the player character is going to drag her there or something. All that he's going to do is confront, and probably fight the employer himself at the meeting. So why the investigations and weird fictions that just pad things out with delays without adding drama?

Do you see players doing these kinds of weird head tricks on NPCs in your games? Do they think it's dramatic? What motivates this stuff?

Paul
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Caldis
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2011, 12:30:35 PM »


I'm getting a hint of a film noir tone to the game, old time detective shows with Humphrey Bogart.  Those things always had bizarre twists and turns to the mystery, is it possible the players are trying to create those kinds of scenarios?

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Chris_Chinn
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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2011, 12:36:54 PM »

Hi Paul,

Ugh.  Yeah, I've seen these, and usually I figure it comes to a couple of things.

First, abused gamer syndrome.  There's a ridiculous amount of adventure/scenarios which involve "the big reveal" that the NPC you're working for, is actually evil.  It's a pretty piss-poor plot device in rpgs at this point, but it's still common enough that a lot of players have learned to assume that NPCs are either against you or exist to be rescued.  Hence the need to keep all info from NPCs as well as subvert any stated goals they give.  

The second part of that, is an attempt to sabotage railroading, or at least, make the GM work very hard to succeed at it.  "I am a skillful player because I outsmarted your plot and tweaked your nose!"  The plots are always convoluted because the goal is to be as opaque as possible with regards to the GM.  (Also, notice that these things are always a social mind game, something that for a lot of traditional games, you don't have to worry about mechanics getting in the way of this hustle.)

Obviously, if you're not playing a game that has either of these things going on, it's a very "Um what?" moment.

I remember a few years back, running a Legend of the Five Rings game, in which everyone wanted to play the sneaky, intrigue-y Scorpion clan.   The player who was most enthused, and also very familiar with the setting, decided to play a character totally against type- honest, straightforward, cast out from his family, etc. etc.  

I assumed the player either a) was going to play a tragic character against the world or b) had a really sneaky plan to use his honesty to outwit the problems.

Instead, he proceeded to do all that weird convoluted stuff, not at all focused on his stated goals in any way, and was both confused and frustrated when I followed up on all the plot hook/problems he set up for himself during character creation.   The rest of the players were also wondering where he was going with it as well, and he ran out of the room in frustration at one point.  I never managed to get him to articulate what he wanted or what he was trying to do in the game.

Overall, I see this kind of stuff as the example in the flesh of the problems of long term play under Illusionism, especially when it's promoted as the ideal method of storytelling.   For players who want character agency, it builds up more and more frustration and the only coping mechanism most have developed is bizarre acts in the fiction that are "unreadable" as a form of "gaining agency" (or, the illusion of it).

This is one of the major issues I was thinking about during the giant kerfluffle about White Wolf play impairing the ability to create and interact with stories and fiction in a normal sense- people lose the ability to either trust the fiction presented to them as well as the ability to communicate honestly and clearly their own fictional input, and often, the thought processes or motivations in play.

Chris
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Cliff H
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« Reply #3 on: March 04, 2011, 12:45:06 PM »

I run into this stuff a lot. The player who's the main perpetrator doesn't usually go so far out of his way as either scenario you describe, because he doesn't want to be responsible for intentionally derailing everything, but he does have a serious love of playing head games with my NPCs, and in some cases they're both elaboate and time consuming.

In his case, I'm pretty sure the reason is that it's his way of establishing superiority. He likes to be better than others, but unlike many people, has no particular interest in being the toughest fighter around. His characters are routinely frail and borderline incompetant when it comes to violence.

But put him in a social situaiton, and he's a terror. He loves to fast talk, and pairs excellent role playing with solid character builds to back it up. While he uses this to help the party, he also can't resist getting a "neener neener" moment on any NPC of importance. Where one of my players needs to beat down every even mildly hostile NPC, this one needs to out manipulate those with any kind of power.

I've taken it as quasi-gamist play, with the objective being establishing superiority over those who aren't immediatley subservient. Might your player be trying something similar. In the last situation you mention, for example, the character could just throw down with the employer, but by tricking him first he gets one additional kind of victory over him, besting him twice and proving himself that much better.
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David Berg
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« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2011, 02:39:57 PM »

Hi Paul,

Responding to fictional situations in non-obvious ways sounds creative to me.  In the right games, I've had immense amounts of fun doing exactly that.  "Okay, GM, now what?"  When the GM's enthused about that, the results are dramatic and interesting, with a nice "yes, and" vibe developing.

In my own case, head games were a natural (to me) offshoot of the fictional positioning.  If my main leverage is an information advantage, one of the most fun things to do with that is to trick people.  Caring that much about what NPCs know and believe also seems in keeping with a focus on "rich setting".  Throwing around monkey wrenches to see how the world reacts is a nicely interactive form of setting exploration.

Without knowing anything else about your secret design project, it sounds to me like you just need to give the players more incentive to do whatever it is you wish they were doing instead of playing head games.  Either that or help make the head games fun.  (Or your players are just dicks who refuse to engage with the actual game, but I assume you wouldn't be posting this if you thought that was the case.)

Ps,
-David
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jburneko
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« Reply #5 on: March 04, 2011, 02:48:17 PM »

Paul,

I think what you're seeing is a variation on what I sometimes think of as Therapist Play.  I'm very fond of anxiety-ridden, obsessive, and guilt-ridden NPCs.  Then what happens is that there comes this point in play where the PCs stop taking action and engage in an attempt to persuade, deceive, intimidate or otherwise emotionally manipulate the NPC into giving up his "stupid" emotional dysfunctions.  And yeah, it of sucks from a dramatic perspective.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on.

Here's the conclusion I came to.  The problem is that often these NPCs would make better PCs.  But what I end up doing is attempt to have these NPCs *project* their neurosis on to the PCs by asking them for favors or hiring them for jobs that will fulfill their obsessions.  Then wonder why the PCs (a) say "No" and (b) turn around and attempt these weird psychological plays to try and get the NPC to "get over himself."

What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.  When I catch myself doing the weird psychological projection thing, stop, and course correct into direct action what I sometimes discover is a big gapping black hole of play.  Suddenly, I realize that the NPC is either perfectly capable of solving the problem on his own, the resulting problems his actions cause are only of relevant to himself, or his actions will ultimately result in his own self-destruction.  Effectively, I'm playing with myself and there really isn't any reason for the PCs to get involved at all unless they decide to buy into the NPCs psychological problems.

Paul, are you GMing these games or otherwise running these "employers"?  I would like to make the suggestion that what you're seeing may be the result of you and I sharing this problem.

Jesse
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David Berg
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« Reply #6 on: March 04, 2011, 02:52:24 PM »

I should amend my last post to note that in addition to using an information advantage, lies are a way to create an information advantage.  Confusing your enemies and potential enemies often seems like a good way to stay one step ahead of them while you figure out what to do next.  Specifically, I'm remembering a game where my group got the werewolves to think that the vampires were behind the government nuking Staten Island.  We didn't know what this would accomplish, but it seemed generally advantageous to hide our own involvement and to get other factions mad at each other or pulling in the wrong directions.  The GM responded by having the werewolves hire us to kill vampires.  Not exactly what our characters wanted, but as players we loved seeing the consequences of our machinations ripple outward in that fashion.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #7 on: March 04, 2011, 06:41:43 PM »

Jesse,

Yes, I'm running the game and roleplaying the NPC employers. And I can see how this may be true:

What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.  When I catch myself doing the weird psychological projection thing, stop, and course correct into direct action what I sometimes discover is a big gapping black hole of play.  Suddenly, I realize that the NPC is either perfectly capable of solving the problem on his own, the resulting problems his actions cause are only of relevant to himself, or his actions will ultimately result in his own self-destruction.  Effectively, I'm playing with myself and there really isn't any reason for the PCs to get involved at all unless they decide to buy into the NPCs psychological problems.

If so, what's your solution?

Paul
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: March 04, 2011, 06:56:48 PM »

Hi Paul,

Jesse's answer is right there in the text you quoted:

Quote
What would be *better* is if these NPCs took clean, directed action *on their own* and let the PCs decide what to do about that.

This is a big part of playing Trollbabe for me, and also Sorcerer. I'm finding it hard to answer some of Moreno's questions in the Adept forum for exactly that reason. He seems to be asking me about how to keep making Trollbabe players get their trollbabes to buy into NPCs' problems. And I spent pages of text in the book repeating that this is not how to GM, to do X, Y, and Z, in which Z is extreme and desperate action on the NPCs' parts, and let the trollbabe involve herself however she wants to, whenever she wants, including not at all. And there are explicit instructions about how to deal with the latter, all aimed at not trying to force the player, and letting the scenario's chips fall where they may without her, and that's OK.

I think a lot of people GM at two arms' length, or maybe it's better to say, through a double thickness of if's. The first if is whether the PC buys into the NPC's problem. The second if is if the PC does what the NPC wants/tells them to.

I threw out both if's long, long ago. Now I have NPCs do stuff, say stuff, and affect stuff, and I say to myself, fuck the PCs anyway. I don't GM player-characters any more, not one little bit. If they want to do something, they do. Then I only respond mainly by scene-framing, crossing, and weaving, i.e., making paths and effects come into contact with one another to provide maximum opportunity for doing something. But that's all. If they do nothing, I don't stall out. If they do some kind of weird pseudo-mind-game shit, I don't flounder there with them. My NPCs aren't codependent; they're active, and if they get fucked with in the way you're describing, they'll most likely decide they have bigger problems than they were originally working with, namely the player-characters themselves, and take action toward them. This isn't a punishment for the players - it's just the way things go based on what they did or didn't do.

All that said, I do wimp about doing this every so often. My Dice Dojo GMing is often quite poor in this regard, as I described in the Rustbelt thread.

Best, Ron
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #9 on: March 04, 2011, 07:08:40 PM »

Hey Ron,

I think Jesse lays out the potential play consequence of your strategy as well:

Effectively, I'm playing with myself...

And I've definitely had that in the current game, when I have handled NPCs as self-directed characters. I've had to roleplay whole conversations among groups of two and three NPCs while players just observed. In one case I had to roleplay a conversation between a woman and her lover who were trying to decide what to do about her deranged husband. It's not un-fun when it happens. But it feels like a weird violation of group expectations somehow.

Paul

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"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton
stefoid
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« Reply #10 on: March 04, 2011, 07:10:05 PM »

Just beat me to it.  I was just going to say, Paul, that if you think the PCs attempts at headgames were 'silly' (to sum up the various negative vibes you describe them with) then chances are the NPC would also, and the reaction would likely be simple and direct -- basically 'cut the crap' in one form or another.

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Paul Czege
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« Reply #11 on: March 04, 2011, 07:25:23 PM »

I was just going to say, Paul, that if you think the PCs attempts at headgames were 'silly' (to sum up the various negative vibes you describe them with) then chances are the NPC would also, and the reaction would likely be simple and direct -- basically 'cut the crap' in one form or another.

Now that, is good advice. Because of the way the mechanics enable players to sometimes force a favorable tone on outcomes from the resolution system, I may be over indulging some of the bullshit. And there's no reason I should. I can reject wimpy victimization of the NPCs via head games, as you suggest, and still accommodate the sometimes "favorable tone" mandate from the resolution mechanics. I think.

Needs some thought.

Paul
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Renee
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« Reply #12 on: March 04, 2011, 10:01:46 PM »

As a player in the game (but not one whose scenes were cited in this example), I think we should probably talk about whether or not the people involved are having fun or not. If they are, then I'm not sure there's a huge downside here; perhaps you didn't find these scenes dramatic or creative, but they haven't been the only un-dramatic or non-creative scenes we've had. God knows, I've had more than a few scenes that were much more blase than either of the scenes you describe (both of which I kind of liked), and did the exact opposite of playing "head games"...I engaged the conflicts head-on, in ways that were obvious and, I think, expected. Point being, not every moment is going to be gold for everyone.

Matt is sitting right next to me and I just asked him what he thought. His response: "How was that scene undramatic? It was awesome." So what I think we have here, at least in part, is a question about fun...what is fun, and whose fun gets prioritized during play (moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene, session-to-session, campaign-to-campaign, etc.). Sounds like a creative agenda issue to me. Not an irreconcilable one, but one that may require compromise.

Best,
Renee
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Renee
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« Reply #13 on: March 04, 2011, 10:17:09 PM »

Oh, and one addendum to my previous post:

From a game design perspective, I'm not saying design a game that produces play you don't like. Just that as an actual play topic, functional play is going to depend on players with different agendas and/or aesthetic concerns occasionally stepping back and appreciating each others contributions. I immediately got a tone in this thread that one style of play was "better" than another, and I don't think that's true.
« Last Edit: March 04, 2011, 10:23:41 PM by hardcoremoose » Logged
Matt Gwinn
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« Reply #14 on: March 04, 2011, 11:02:43 PM »

Paul, what do you think "would" have been dramatic in those scenes. Was there something you expected to happen?

Maybe my character should have really ate the seed, or just handed the seed to the NPC, but those were pretty obvious choices and to be obvious isn't dramatic at all.  I'm not even sure doing either of those things would have brought about a satisfactory solution to the situation. For one, the NPC was waffling about whether he wanted the seed or not. Based on what my character knew and my view of the situation I didn't think forgiveness from the woman was a guarantee or even useful in solving the NPC's emotional problem, especially since there was a pretty high probability that the spirit in the seed was bat shit crazy.  My character took the initiative and tried to remove that risk and actually help the guy. I tried to do something different, non-cliche, not boring. Yes, my character bullied the NPC around and maybe that's mind games, but so what? I found it compelling and I think the other players did too.
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