Sunday, January 10, 2010


As a DM (Dungeon Master, more generically GM or Game Master when discussing games which have a designated mediator but aren't D&D), I often find myself reflecting on the differences between roleplaying games and other narrative media. Specifically, the limits of what a storyteller can accomplish within each. The more I think about it now, though, I see that 'limits' might not be the right word. With sufficient care, almost any situation can be presented in each format. That is not to say, of course, that certain situations are not by FAR easier to accomplish within one frame than in another. For example: trapping/immobilizing/arresting the characters in a TV show, not necessarily all together at once? No problem. Try to run a game session with the whole party stuck in jail for the duration? You'd probably hope to encourage some in-character roleplaying, funny dialog, futile escape plans. In the case of a single character, you might hope to spark some introspection. Problem is, you're likely to get two or three hours of the Not-So-Great-Escape as the party tries every possible hare-brained scheme to extricate themselves from the clutches of the lord regent/police/league of evil.  This is, of course, because that in non-interactive media, the author has total control over the characters. If they need to stay imprisoned, then that happens. If they need to escape, that's easy, too. In a tabletop RPG, however, you're not the only one writing the story; you're sharing the responsibility with several other people...and one set of supremely callous entities of unimaginable power aka the dice. Dice are wonderful because they're sort of necessary to facilitate a player pretending to be something they're not. Without numbers mapped to actions, you need to be actually capable of great oratory in order to convince a non-player character to assist you, to calm a crowd, whatever. Without numbers mapped to actions you'd probably need to know real facts about weilding a sword in order to be an effective melee combattant. The dice also make the game unpredictable, which is a boon insofar as unpredictability creates tension. They also act as a check on the GMs authority over the world (although both Rule 0 and the mighty GM screen are what one might call "counterbalancing factors"*)

Apologies to people who play pen and paper RPGs and for whom this is really, really old news.

Etarran brought back from the holidays a box set of Samurai Champloo this year, and we've been watching it pretty avidly for the past week and a bit, and one of the things I've noticed about the dichotomy between this show in particular and gaming is a dichotomy in power level....well, sort of. In roleplaying game texts, game masters are often advised not to allow characters to begin the game with one skill at the very highest level of human potential (ie. the best at x that the character or anyone else has ever met). Legendary status is never to be granted lightly, and it is generally supposed to be a goal for character advancement. There's a very good reason for this: players need to be challenged by the game, which probably won't happen if they're the best swordsman ever. Unless the GM wants to inflate to comically great proportions the swordfighting skills of the average mook, combat just won't be very interesting, nor will it be very tense for a character at the very top of his or her profession. There are narrative and gameplay reasons. Now consider Samurai Champloo, where each Jin and Mugen are more or less the greatest warriors alive (so far as the audience can tell). The thrill of combat tends to be in the stylization, but hold up - where's the narrative tension if they're so unstoppable? It's all in the character flaws, of course: outside of their utter mastery of the sword, Jin and Mugen are both kinda fuckups in their own way. Even Jin - who is presented as serious, and presumably organized - manages to lose important travel documents. Mugen is compelled to pursue attractive women even though so far they have a 100% betrayal rate. Jin's personal code gets him into trouble, and so on. These are things that ideally players could be counted on to do: rather than take the careful route around the dungeon with 30-foot chicken-bearing trap detecting poles strapped to their shoulders, they would make their own misfortune. To certain types of gamer (and I am no exception), this is pretty counterintuitive: play nonoptimally? GET into trouble without a plan for getting back out? For that matter, are there any players who would - as Jin does in one episode of SC - willingly allow their character to get beaten up for a code of honour?

Sometimes this sort of thing can happen. In Dungeons and Dragons it is actually possible to play a character who would willingly die rather than cause harm to another individual (Vow of Peace and Vow of Nonviolence). In the Serenity RPG we played, Etarran was a psychotic wreck whose impulsive killing actually did cause the party (hilarious) trouble on many an occasion.

I think it should happen more often, though. I think that rather than suggesting a cap on how skillful and powerful a character can be in the world, games should encourage characters to take their flaws more seriously. The meticulous, gamist approach has more or less tactical value alone, and tends to generate enough distrust and perhaps animosity between GM and players that a lot of the potential is lost for characters like Jin and Mugen who make all of their own trouble. It isn't that these kinds of characters are never seen, but the expected state of affairs is that the GM's job is to make up the challenges, and to (within reason) shut down some of the players' more powerful abilities so that they have to think creatively to solve their problems. For example, disarming players is a (tricky) but effective way to make them scared, because weapons are incredibly central to characters in D&D. In Samurai Champloo, both Mugen and Jin are more or less as dangerous unarmed as they are with their swords (and not even much less lethal, one imagines). They are robust enough as not to be a sort of jenga tower of dependent chains of feats and magic items and spells, and yet have layers of vulnerability which make them interesting in the narrative, and indeed forces the writers to challenge them in ways which I would argue must be more creative than the kind of threats one is liable to face on a dungeon crawl.

* For the uninitiated: Rule 0 is that the Game Master is always right
the GM screen blocks the players view of what numbers the GM has rolled, which denies them information about the threats they face, and also allows the GM to fake dice rolls if he or she feels that the rolled result would have too negative an effect on the game. The existence of such power is a big part of the reason why a good game master is crucial to having a good game.


PS. "Extra" U in title is intentional

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