Breaking (or Bending) the Rules

September 3, 2006

I wish to start my making a proclamation that all of this is primarily Jonathan Walton’s fault. Blame him for everything I am about to say that has been done before and yet I remain ignorant of it.

I also wish to state that the above paragraph is a lie, bald faced that is, and that it’s my own hyperactive brain that thinks “look it me, I’ll invent a brand new idea!” and yet, anyone who reads this I beg you to free me from this absurd notion and point out places in the fringe that have surely already come up with these ideas and moved on to other things.

During our gaming session last night, near the end, things had really begun to roll (no pun intended) nicely. The story was moving along wonderfully, all of the player’s imaginations seemed to be captured by everything that was being unveiled. The key point that jumpstarted this topic was the fact that nearly half of what began to come out of my mouth was utterly on the fly and completely startling (in a enthusiastically enjoyable way) to me. Developments in the story just seemed to take on their own life. For now, and for the sake of this writing, we’ll give this specific environment of role-playing a nifty new name, like, um, invivo (we can talk about my pretentiousness another time.)

This was beyond cool and to me it is what boils down to the ultimate experience in role-playing. Even though I am the gamemaster the story took so many twists it caught me utterly off-guard. I loved it when that happens (much like I do when I’m directing a play), and as best as I could tell, the players loved it as well.

Now for the segue. Mechanics in games have always bugged the crap out of me. I don’t know why but rolling dice, while kinesthetically exciting has never been something I’ve liked. For the longest time I dealt with the ‘random’ element of dice-rolling somehow being the thing that ‘made it a game.’ Now, maybe this is what ‘diceless’ games like Amber Diceless or Nobilis do, but since I’ve never played them (Jonthan!), I have no idea.

Also, it’s never really sat well with me that the player characters are sometimes required to start of as incompetent beginners. Yes, I know the whole idea of growing the character, going from 1st to 20th is all part of the excitement but when you’re in that beginning phase and everything you try to do ends up failing because you can’t roll high enough on the dice, it just gets frustrating and not particularly fun to play. Seriously, we’re all incompetent in enough things in our real lives, why in the world do we want to be incompetent in our ‘play’ lives. If you look at movies and book and stories that we all love, even if the main characters is a young naive wannabe (everyone from Ishmael to Luke Skywalker) the author is able to tailor the story so that while the character might explore his weaknesses, it’s always his strengths that get him through. Beginning characters in role-playing games very often have virtually no strengths.

But after last night (and years of other experiences just like the one above) I think I’ve decided that the whole ‘randomness’ thing is hooey.

Here’s what I think at some point I’d like to do to experiment with role-playing. (And here is where paragraph two above really applies so those of you who’ve been there and done that before, cut an ol’ grognard some slack and jump in with some honest and good advice.) All of this comes out of the desire to stimulate and encourage invivo style play. Most important of all is that it should be able to fit any genre or any ‘storyline’ be it fantasy, horror, Buffy, sci-fi, cyberpunk, historical french revolution, or whatever.

First off, no character sheets, only character concepts. Encourage players to create their characters with short but specific backgrounds, interesting little tidbits, key phrases and key words.

Meredith is a bookish girl. She loves the color green. When she was nine her daddy once took her to the skeet shooting range and she managed to take second place amongst everyone competing. Her favorite song is “While my Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles. She’s cute but has no idea she is and tends to not give a jot about her appearance (her favorite article of clothing are her Keds sneakers that are pushing five years of life.) She’s an excellent driver but prefers her bicycle. Her favorite place to hang out is, duh, the library. She doesn’t like cats (much) but loves dogs (mostly) and fish are something to be eaten. If she has to read anymore Kant in her philosophy 201 class she will run shrieking from the class room and hurl herself off of the bell tower. She loves tex-mex, way loves that is, and can’t resist an opportunity to gorge on a few fish tacos.

Okay, now we have our character basics. When the game starts, the gamemaster creates a scenario. The scenario begins with the prologue or introduction or whatever/however the gamemaster decides to jump into the game. The players interact. Everything else flows much like a ‘traditional’ role-playing game.

Additional story background happens in game in much the same way as the creation happened.

The group is out one night blowing off some steam. They’re at a local bar, a bit on the shady side but not too shady, and the music is deep country, no Shania Twain here just ol Hank Williams Sr. and a little Tonya Tucker thrown into the mix. Meredith adds a little flavor to the game by stepping up to the dance floor and square dancing like a professional. When pressed, she says her mom was a huge country-western fan and when they were growing up, after her dad died when she was eleven, her mom would sometimes take them out on dance night. She’s terrible at line dancing, though, she admits readily.

Here the character has not only added an interesting element and skill (she effectively just gained Square Dancing – and in other games you’d jot that down but with our new intrinsic invivo system we just add it to the storyline) but we also find out that her dad died when she was eleven, not in her original background brief.

The one caveat for all of this is that conflict resolution (be it social or physical) and character growth occur by joint agreement and storyline development.

In the current storyline our heroes, of whom Meredith is one, are baffled by the mysterious disappearances of a number of their friends. They have no idea why this is happening. Since they are all college students it’s likely that they have some skill at researching in a library but their research has gotten them very little so far. Meredith’s player takes it a step further. Since she’s always played Meredith as bookish and hanging out at the library she reasons that it is completely within the believability of her character to actually have a strong relationship with one of the librarians. This makes perfect sense and the gamemaster rolls with this new development and the storyline progresses as Meredith enlists the aide of her ‘contact’ to help her do some ‘serious’ research eventually leading to their first major clue about the disappearances.

Now, what happens in the case where the gamemaster doesn’t think it makes perfect sense. Do we give some sort of ‘fortune or fate’ pool that allows each player to effectively over-ride the gamemaster? That’s the one thing I’m not sure of. We don’t want to allow the player’s to run rough-shod over the major storyline (and, for reference you can read this article that says I’m still not convinced that the gamemaster shouldn’t be the final arbiter) but then we also don’t want to dampen character creativity and given the gamemaster equal opportunity to enjoy discovering just where the story goes.

Anyway, those are a grognard’s initial thoughts into the realm of role-play philosophy and theory. I’m fully certain that this is a wheel that has already been invented so I’d love to here opposing/collaborating ideas. Or point in any general direction. No mocking though, Mindcrime will do enough of that.