27 February 2009

The Ninja and the Cabin Boy

To paraphrase a business studies aphorism there are no bad players, merely bad GMs. This is a perspective that many people on the inside of a poor GMing situation are blind to. It doesn't help that most games are not constructed to support an inexperienced GM. This makes it very easy to blame the game. It is true that the game is almost always partially at fault; GMs are supported in some tasks but not others and unless the GM has a natural ability they may not even realise this is the case. Players instinctively recognise how much work a GM will put into even the most tedious campaign in the world. What's perhaps less palatable is when a GM realises their failure in a game that's going well.

The campaign playtest of Marauders is under way now and I'm really enjoying it. So are all of the players most of the time. As is usual in such situations, or rather not unusual, there is some character tension as the characters have only just met. One of the characters, a ninja, has even threatened another of the characters, a cabin boy, that he may kill the cabin boy during his sleep.

The player portraying the cabin boy is, rightly, worried about the threat that has been made. The joy and curse of Role Play as a form of entertainment is that, in theory, if the ninja wants to kill the cabin boy then he is at liberty to try. After a lengthy discussion with the player who has carefully crafted this cabin boy character it comes to me that concerns for the life of the cabin boy are not because of another character's hostility towards him but rather because of my continuing failure to Host properly.

The fact is that players entering the role playing game have to feel a certain kind of safety. The safety one feels when watching a horror movie or other movie with extreme content might be comparable. One may feel unsettled or disturbed by an effective horror movie but in the end dedicated horror fans are fully of the understanding that it is just a movie. Similarly you might feel a cold creep at a particular game's atmosphere but you, personally, should not feel attacked.

Unlike watching a movie or playing a computer game against the computer an attack on your character by another character could be seen as a personal attack on you. After all computer bots and movie characters are unthinking, whereas another player is an actual person. In computer games allowing such attacks has a term - PvP - and areas where PvP are allowed are seen as distinct from those where such things are not allowed to occur. The fact that having your virtual avatar in a computer game harmed or killed has a pejorative term associated with it - to be pwn3d - just indicates how much of an attack it is.

The concept of being pwn3d in a computer game is an accepted part of the digital gamer's community. There are several factors that mitigate the pwnage. It's quite an involved process to get into a PvP game. You must boot up the machine, log in to the server, activate your character and choose to participate in a PvP match. There is a reassurance that all player avatars are roughly the same, or at least playing by the same rules. If you are pwn3d you have no one but yourself to blame. You volunteered. Besides the pwn3r is probably miles away, a faceless opponent known only by a community handle, they are a ghost, they can be made to fade away to nothing in the memory.

A fellow role player is in the same room with you, it's the nature of the hobby. If someone you know is putting threats of killing into the mouth of a character and the player is sat a few feet away from you that could be interpreted as a personal attack even if it is only meant as "authentic" role play. I can sympathise with both players on either side of such a difficult situation (giving benefit of the doubt that the threatener is only trying to be authentic).

So how does one deal with such a scenario?

Having a non PvP rule may work, if everyone agrees to it. Such a rule is mostly presumed in most RP situations anyway. The problem with making such a rule explicit is that if a player does want to be "authentic" threats their character may make toward another character start to ring hollow. Everyone in the room knows that should the threatener attempt to enact threats of vengeance they will have broken an important role play rule.

Even so I think the idea has merit. People should make plain whether they wish to be involved in a PvP situation or not before the game begins. This will allow latitude for aggressive authenticity between players who have opted into it.

There is, even there, one final objection from the player who wishes to play a moody aggressive sociopath: "But my character just wouldn't back down like that".

In my time acting there were actors who reported difficulty with lines because their interpretation of the character made the lines in question ring hollow or sound funny. Basically the script contained utterances that the actor did not consider to be "in character". The advice for such actors is the same as the advice to players who want carte blanche to be nasty to other players in the name of verisimilitude. If your interpretation of your character breaks the story then your interpretation is wrong and needs to be modified.

Being a good Host is about making sure everyone in the game is comfortable and happy. Being a good player means respecting other player's wishes not to be involved in inter-player aggro. There is always a spin you can put on a circumstance that will allow your character to remain wholly intact whilst still, essentially, being the character you wanted to play. Surely the price of having to do a little work is worth paying to ensure that you are gaming in a safe and comfortable environment.

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