Thursday, November 29, 2012

Serious Business

I wonder if the type of play that happens with experienced players, especially DMs as players, is goofier and more about the impression it leaves on each other than it was back in the day when we were learning the game.
Telecanter at Telecanter's Receding Rules poses an interesting question. He offers the following examples.
The type of play I'm talking about is related to carousing tables. It is a kind of play that says "I want to put my character in a pickle because that will be funny. I will make choices I know to be bad for my character because that will make things interesting." The character that drinks from every pool in a world that has magical pools. The player that releases the demon from the iron bottle when they know it is a demon in the bottle.

I'm wondering if this comes about because the games being played are more one-offs (although Flailsnails allows people on G+ to use the same character again and again) so there is less concern for keeping your character alive to see the next session and also a sense of "We need to pack as much fun into these hours as possible. I may never see these guys again"

I'm wondering if it has to do with playing with folks you don't know as well personally and so the meta-joking is harder. When playing with people you've only known as a name on the internet maybe the easiest joking to do is within the game.

Maybe it is just a matter of jadedness; more experienced players have already survived the hardest dungeons, have achieved name level, have run their own domain. There is little fun left in to trying and eke those earning[s] out yet again.
Unpacking this a bit, I definitely noticed the behavior Telecanter describes at one-shots like the SoCal MiniCons, an attitude of, 'Well, this is a one-shot, so let's play with all the levers and buttons and see what happens,' a willingness to take risks secure in the knowledge that there were no long-term consequences related to, say, an on-going campaign and associated character advancement and involvement with the game-world.

I agree that there's a certain amount of bravado in this as well, a sort of one-upsmanship between the players, though I disagree that it comes from being jaded about the experience of playing the game for a long time. Rather, I think it comes from the same impulse which draws players to swashbuckling games. I recall a post in a thread on Big Purple which described the rivalry between two characters in a cape-and-sword campaign. When a fight broke out in the street outside a tavern, the two characters rushed outside - the first character ran out the door, whereas the second jumped through the window. Not to be outdone, the first character rushed back into the tavern, ran upstairs, and jumped out of a second floor window.

And this is where I think Telecanter hits one of the challenges of roleplaying swashbucklers on the nose.
As I type this I'm also wondering if this is related to one of the trickiest parts of our game; how it tells you to survive on one hand and calls you a coward if you don't try to open doors or chests. It is the whole courage versus caution problem- why even go into this dread place if we know a vampire is there. A kind of nonchalance seems to be a very sophisticated way to handle this problem by sidestepping it and placing on the character's shoulders: "Of course we might die, but Rutherford of the Top Hat is too dumb to realize it."
Nonchalance toward danger is a hallmark of swashbucklers. Doing something with panache can be as important as doing the thing itself, or even moreso. By their nature, swashbucklers are risk-takers.

I've found this important genre conceit can be a real conceptual hurdle for some players, as Telecanter notes. The innate caution bred into many gamers may block or limit the desire to take chances, to show off. This leads to advice like that of Robin Laws, for game writers and referees to blunt the actual hazard to characters as a way to encourage theatrics, but in my experience this risks turning the genre and the game into opera buffa.

Running Flashing Blades as written means that the player characters in my campaign face death and dismemberment by the ill-luck of the die - there are no 'drama points' to rescue them from the fickle finger of Fate, no 'plot immunity' which protects them from an inglorious end, yet the genre conceits remain the same - laughing in the face of danger, the swashbuckler prefers death before dishonor, even when death is just a missed parry or a flubbed Acrobatics check away.

I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it the conventional wisdom, but in discussions of character death among roleplayers, one of the arguments often advanced goes something along the lines of, 'Well, if my character can die on a bad die roll, then why should I take risks? It's a disincentive to roleplay the genre.' It's this line of thought which, in my opinion, leads to Robin Laws' 'swashbuckling with safety rails' approach, but for me, embracing the risk of failure is a big part of what makes cape-and-sword games so much fun.

Telecanter's right - this is one of the "trickiest parts of our game," the desire to succeed with panache against the risk of failing ignominiously, without the benefit of a safety net, particularly in what would be considered a long-term, "serious" campaign in which the players are deeply invested. Cracking wise and taking chances with a pre-gen at an annual game-day one-shot is a lot of fun, but the willingness to do it game-day after game-day, as part of a regular campaign, with a favorite character, may require another mindset altogether. Roleplaying a swashbuckler in a game which holds the player characters in no special regard with respect to failure can be a challenge, but in the immortal words of baseball legend Jimmy Dugan, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard it what makes it great."

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