Thursday, October 11, 2012

Simple made Easy - Roleplaying that Thick-Headed Fighter

This time - a special treat: this post was written by Ben Haker, a friend and a member of my current D&D 4th Edition group.

I asked the guys to step forward and write something about D&D, the group or the campaign, and Ben came up with this post. Honestly - I got more than I bargained for. Here's why:

Sometimes, playing a simple-minded character can be difficult.

If you think about it, playing the typical "Thick-Headed Fighter" can be very difficult. Unless you just wing it, playing a "dumb" fighter can be more difficult than playing the scholarly Wizard, the sharp-minded Cleric or the quick-thinking (and acting) Rogue.

Why? because we, RPG players, are anything but simple-minded (the DM in the back, I can hear you laughing).
There are three main reasons that make the task of playing such a character nontrivial: The player, The Group and The DM.

The Player

Playing a character with low mental attributes is challenging, as opposed to playing a character with low physical attributes. Low physical attributes (Strength, Constitution & Dexterity) are simply reflected in the character's statistics. Your fighter can either lift the rock above his head, or he can't. He can either run 20 miles without sweating, or he can't. End of story.

Low mental attributes are more problematic to role-play properly. We usually don't play down our characters. We are used to think of them as heroes, able to do things that we are not able to. This is part of the 'fantasy' in a fantasy role-playing game. They can cast spells, swordplay all day and slay dragons. We, except for a few gifted players - myself included, are not able to do all of these. But we can think

Playing down our natural intelligence and cognitive capabilities does not come naturally to us. Sitting around the table, looking at a puzzle the group is struggling with, knowing the answer and keeping quiet is hard and, let's face it, not very rewarding. You need to go against your natural instincts and stay quiet (or describe your fighter scratching his head for 30 minutes) in many encounters that require cognitive abilities, or social interactions that your character will probably blunder. This does not mean that you do not have great role-play opportunities in these encounters, but they are counter-intuitive and sometimes destructive. Fooling yourself in-front of a Lord may be problematic and reflect badly on the group. You can do it a limited number of time before your friends start moving in their seats uncomfortably.

The Group

Last time the group I was playing with went to read and research in a library. I, playing the simple-minded fighter, got bored and went to look for a promiscuous serving girl. The effect was that I was excluded from the "action" in the library (the group acquired some valuable information there) and from the decision making that followed after acquiring the information as it took place in the library. I was faced with the fact that the group decided upon a course of action without talking to my fighter (who was, at that time, having a great time - high Constitution and all).

So, when playing a simple-minded character we need to take into account the following:

  1. The character (and therefore, you as a player) might be excluded from encounters requiring mental abilities, as your character does not have much to contribute. This is not a bad thing on its own, but in many cases you will also be excluded from the decision making that follows, unless you meta-game and contribute your opinion even if your character is not present/have nothing useful to say. That is a problem as you may have a lot to contribute as a player, even if your character simply cannot contribute a thing. This may drive your character to a semi-NCP position or may drive your character to a continues conflict with the group, as their decisions seem out of context or plain wrong to your character.
  2. You, as a player, might be considered a "bad role-player". During encounters that require some character thinking, your character have to "fade to grey", or contribute little. After all, what does the thick-headed fighter have to say in a room full or wizards debating the results of the summoning ritual the heroes payed for? And if your character does say something, you might be forced to have your character say things that are purposely off the point. Not a lot of players can appreciate that and give your credit as a good role-player.
The DM

As it turns out, the DM is both the solution and the biggest challenge to overcome. 

It all comes down to the question of the DM's ability to "get" what you are doing and publicly commend you.

A lot of DMs hand out additional rewards for good role playing. If your DM awards your un-traditional role-playing, it sends a certain message to the other players. But in most cases, a DM that sees your character break away to do things "out of boredom" will see your way of role-playing as shallow, obtrusive and problematic. 

Such behavior, if not properly explained beforehand, might cause the DM to think YOU are bored as a player, and the way to a collision course is guaranteed. Always keep in mind that the DM is human too. He probably worked hard to build and design an encounter or an episode involving thinking that your fighter ignored or "broke" in away. He may be offended not understanding your behavior. Some DM's might even punish such behavior, or (if they plainly ignore it and not recognize your way of role-playing for what it truly is) might miss the opportunity to provide appropriate encounters for you in which to excel (other than combat).

So what can we do to make playing a simple character an easy task?

In my opinion, the best way to avoid all these issues is to talk about them before the games starts with the DM and the other players. 

Explain what kind of character you are going to play to your DM and group members. Tell them that it is not easy to play a simple-minded character, and tell them how hard it is to play against your basic instincts - especially at the areas in which we, as players, feel secure and capable. 

Ask your DM for support (by providing role-playing opportunities and by recognizing these moments you "drift" to role-play your character), and work with the other players to ensure they understand why you are playing your character the way you are, and encourage them to role-play their characters' response to that thick-headed fighter of yours, instead of rolling their eyes in disdain, or worse, totally ignoring your efforts.

So, it turns out that asking your players to say something about D&D, the group or the campaign might result in getting exactly what you asked for...

Roll those 20's!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Playing the King

Every role-playing campaign comes to the point in which the player-characters meet "the king".

In D&D, the adventurers might answer the call of a powerful lord looking for some mercenaries. In Dark Heresy, the Inquisition might send the acolytes to investigate a murder that took place in a creepy space-station owned by a wealthy merchant. In Eclipse Phase, Firewall Agents might stumble upon a still active AI in its hidden virtual-reality hub.

Depending on the intensions of the players and the Game Master, the encounter can be comprised of a simple exchange of words, or blow into a full-scale combat scenario - swords/guns/plasma rifles blazing and all.

One of the toughest parts (at least in my experience) of running these encounters is "playing the king". Namely, playing that powerful individual the characters are interacting with. Think about it: in most role-playing games, the heroes (the player-characters) are powerful individuals, most often more resourceful and, well, important, than the high-ranking non-player character they are interacting with.

Classic D&D adventures (such as the well-known King's Festival) have the player-characters act as heroes, otherwise someone suffers (in this case, the town's people due to the possible cancellation of the festival).

But in a more "mature" gaming environment, such noble-causes are often smiled upon, and considered naive. Sure, it's fun to rescue the princess from the claws of the dragon - when I'm playing with my kids. But when I'm playing with my friends, the campaign's story is more about shades of grey, and less about obvious, black-or-white motives and goals.

So when I arrange for the player-characters to meet the "King", I often see a much different approach to the encounter than that taken by my kids (or by a younger me as a player).

For me as a young D&D player, meeting the king was meeting someone so much powerful than my character, wealthy and worth of my highest respect. But as a more mature gamer, you treat that same king somewhat differently, since there is always the question of sheer power.

Statistically speaking, if a mid-level, well-armed group of adventurers decides to act funny and draw steel in the king's court, there is a good chance (unless the Game Master stomps the so-called heroes with his god-like foot) that the king ends up with a blade at his royal throat. This is especially true in D&D, where a well-placed spell or a sneak-attack can end a battle before it began.

Obviously, the Game Master can wave his hands and make this problem go away by making the king more powerful than the heroes (a difficult task in D&D 4th Edition, see Epic Characters for more details), but such an approach is problematic in my opinion. If all the "powerful" individuals dealing with the player-characters are more powerful mechanically (rule-wise) than the heroes, why do they need the heroes?

The opposite approach - to accept things as they are and let the heroes be more powerful (in terms of resourcefulness, wealth, magical power or combat prowess) - can lead to players feeling that these powerful individuals they are dealing with are buffoons.

The way to solve these issues came from an unexpected direction: Chess. My son was recently taught the rules of the game by a relative, and I had to learn them myself so we can play together.

In chess, every tool have a specific mode of movement across the board. The goal of the game is to corner the king in a way that every movement ends with the king being captured. I totally expected the king to be the "best piece on the board", but it turns out that it's not.

The king, while being the most important piece, is usually the weakest piece until a later phase (the endgame). All other pieces are used to guard the king, and manoeuvre to capture the opposite side's king.

It occurred to me that in D&D, kings should be treated the same. Mechanically, kings should not be the most powerful characters around. Mechanically, even a low level player-character might be a threat to a king. But the king should be surrounded with people (non-player or even player characters) that need his safety guaranteed. As in Chess, the king should seek safety behind friendly pawns, taking an active role only to help other "pieces" achieve their (and his) goals.

This way, a king should have the protection of wizards, knights, priests, merchants, diplomats, assassin guilds, inquisitors and even loyal servants and cooks (after all, the kings eats what the cooks prepares). There should be layers upon layers of protection, some obvious (such as the armoured knights standing beside the throne) and some subtle (such as the trained assassin posing as a manservant, or the invisible wizard lurking around when the king accepts guests).

Even if there are no "mechanical" layers of protection in the form of mechanically powerful individuals guarding the king, there should be contextual layers of protection such as player-characters (or non-player characters) with something to lose if the king dies/loses face, or whole organizations built on top the king's influence - organizations that will not stop until the individuals responsible for the loss of their source of power are caught and taught a lesson.

While it's possible to peel all these layers and "capture" the king - the way to do so should not be easy, unless someone makes a dire mistake. This keeps things fair, and can help a DM to give a plausible explanation for an unlikely event. But more often than not, the players need to feel that the meeting with such a "king" is a special event, full of intrigue, opportunity, and danger - some obvious, some not...

"Welcome, adventurers." Said the King. "Word of your deeds reached my ears, and I would require your services in investigating a delicate matter - the recent assassination of my court wizard."
"Surly your majesty have resources far beyond ours," Smiled Aladon, looking back at this group of fellow adventurers. "Why would you require our services, which are, expensive?"
"My resources are indeed far beyond your own." replied the king with a smile of his own. "Using my resources, I found out that the Laughing Death Cabal is involved. Too dirty of a business for a diplomat like me, but hopefully not below your standards, yes?"
Aladon cursed under his breath, but kept smiling. His fellow adventurers gulped. Gold seemed a lowly prize for dealing with the Cabal and their flesh-eating assassins...but helping the king in this might prove fruitful, and backing off now will make Aladon and his fellow adventurers the joke of the court...
Damn the lord who arranged this meeting, thought Aladon. Reward worthy of kings, the lord said, but Aladon felt that this whole charade was orchestrated - leading them all straight into a trap. But why, and most importantly, who...?

photo credit: loco's photos via photopin cc