Designed for roleplaying, addendum

Wed, 03/03/2021 - 23:32

This post is basically just a few brief notes that we failed to cover in the original three posts. I figured, since we're beating a dead horse, might as well go the full length.


1 Designing for pastime and depiction

In part 1, I said that we generally can’t design for pastime and depictions, and I believe this to be true. I fall firmly in the camp of perceiving pastime and depiction as voluntary, player-initiated activities that the GM should not artificially impose upon the players as some sort of surface-level roleplaying obligation. In other words, I dislike GMs (or systems!) that insist that every minor activity has to be covered and described in detail. 

There are entire games built upon the fact that depictions grant you mechanical bonuses. In other words, if you describe what your character is doing, you increase your chances of success at doing that thing. I strongly dislike this approach. By tying roleplaying and mechanics together in this way, we are first and foremost ruining the promise of roleplaying. Our players are no longer engaging in RP with the goal of expressing their character, they are doing so to gain mechanical advantages. Thus, by trying to force roleplaying at some superficial level, what we've done is we've actually removed roleplaying from the table and turned it into a barebones mechanical element. There are better ways to do this - facilitate and enable, don't force.

For pastime, I’d advise giving your players’ characters some free time every now and then to do as they please. Don’t continuously bombard them with new information and new quests, let them take a breath occasionally. Ask open questions such as “What does Sir Reginald do on this fine spring morning?” or “Korg has grown up in the wild and savage frontierland, what does he do in this beautiful elven city?”. Small bits like that if your players need it. Just don’t force it upon them too frequently. The ideal that you are striving for is creating an atmosphere at the table where everyone feels welcome to contribute to the pastime and depiction, but they do not feel pressured or obligated to do so.

For depiction, make sure that you as the GM are engaging in it. Show your players that it's cool to describe an attack, instead of just rolling dice. Lead by example. This way, your players will feel more inclined to engage in depiction, but they will not feel forced to do so. If they are not budging, even let them know explicitly that "Hey guys, it's ok to take a minute and describe what your dude is doing if you want to", or even "It helps me describe stuff if you give me things to bounce off of". They may tell you that they don't enjoy depiction at all, or they may take the hint and help you help them. Collaboration, not coercion. The carrot, not the stick.

This is also an important distinction between pastime and depiction as opposed to action. Pastime and depiction are primarily initiated by the players, which is the reason why we can’t design for them. You can allow and encourage the players to engage in depiction and pastime, but you can’t force them to do it, or more precisely, you shouldn’t. Action on the other hand allows you to create concrete situations for the player characters and place them at a crossroads - they absolutely have to make a decision, and that decision shapes the characters.

Speaking of pastime, while it is generally devoid of consequences, this does not have to be so. Your players will be delighted if you take some minor quirk of theirs and make it somehow relevant to the story at large. 

Player: “Korg goes through his morning ritual of watering the flowers and making sure there are no pesky weeds around”.

GM: “You notice that your flowers are withering away, despite the care you’ve put in. Across the road, you notice the local farmers gathered in a circle, saying how all the crops are dying away. They look at you, and wave with a smile, but you can see the worry on their faces.”

Even if this quest hook would have been presented to them regardless of Korg’s love for his flowers, it feels good for your players when even minor pastime activities are noticed and validated in some way. Validation breeds further pastime and potentially even action, and you want this.

Show your players that you are actively listening to them as they speak through the actions of their characters and then validate those actions, regardless how minor they may be.

2 Implementing consequences

Furthermore, speaking of consequences, in part 2 we discussed Ben and how the players could do anything with him and it doesn’t really matter on a grand scale. This advice may have been a bit misleading and implied that it is good to have situations without consequences.

This is generally not true, and it is preferable to have consequences for your players’ actions as often as possible. I would even argue that your prep for the next session should start immediately after a session, by writing down all the key things the characters did, to see how they can be used in a future session. These can be elements or decisions that you designed for, or decisions that the characters made and that you had not anticipated.

Again, if your players see that their actions are being noticed, validated and that they carry weight, it will feel great for them, and they will be significantly more motivated to further engage with the world and story. In a way, it's like a snowball effect. They take actions, you validate those actions. They see that their actions are impacting play, they take more actions and engage with the world and story. You base or modify the story based on their actions, they are happy and take self-initiated actions even more. A snowball, made entirely of all the good shit we love in an RPG, rolling down the hill with ecstatic cries all around, instead of being arduously rolled uphill only by the GM.

3 On character design

And lastly, a note on the 3M approach. Creating a character prior to playing using this approach is definitely advisable, but I wouldn’t say it’s mandatory. A player can choose to forego defining his character at the very outset of an adventure, and instead decide to set up the 3M during play, and this is perfectly fine.

E.g. the party encounters a group of slavers, and adhering to the follow the fun principle, a player decides to attack the slavers. After this, the player decides that his character has always been an idealistic child and that he will not tolerate the oppression of the common folk. 

The same goes for establishing (or altering) all three elements of the 3M axes. If you are going with this approach, 3M will still be useful to you as it can be used to identify “gaps” that your character has and that you are looking to fill in during play. Just remember, the primary goal of playing these stupid games is for you to have fun. If your character’s personality is preventing you or anyone else from achieving this goal, then that personality must change.

Regarding characters, and the point that I made about characters changing during play... While I will stick to this approach and I believe it to be largely beneficial to the entire play experience, there can be exceptions to this rule that are interesting to play out. In other words, characters that really do stick to a certain aspect of their personality, never letting it change.

As a very simple example, let’s say that our paladin decides that he will forever believe that people are inherently good. And day after day, having encountered bandits, slavers, corrupt kings, greedy nobles and other virtuously-challenged personalities, he sticks to this belief. Even after a corrupt king has a close friend of the character executed, he still believes that the king is not evil, merely a product of unfortunate circumstances.

A character like that could be fun. He has a lot of potential for internal drama, even though his outlook on life will never change. In short, if you believe it will be fun, make a character that will purposefully never change. I personally am not fond of such characters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun for you and your table.

4 Final caveat

And one final note regarding roleplaying and action… While the previous articles may make it seem like it is absolutely mandatory to design for action, this is not true in 100 % of scenarios. If you and your players don't want character development and expression, ignore the guidelines and suggestions laid out by these articles. Seriously, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with doing so. You need to find out and decide what is fun for you, and strip away all the other stuff. If character development is not something you want, focus on other things.

Hell, I've even GMed entire campaigns that had no action in them… A Feng Shui campaign where we drank copious amounts of alcohol, curb stomped caricatures standing in for villains and made a joke out of everything. Did it have meaningful roleplay and lasting consequences? Nope. Was it fun and memorable? Ayup. RPGs come in many tastes, find the one that works for you, and then feast on it with a group of like-minded connoisseurs.

5 Conclusion

And that’s it on the topic of roleplaying in general.

While this series of articles touched on many topics that I know I will want to analyze further in the future, the next article posted here will be a slight change of pace. Instead of focusing on general gaming tips, we will be taking a look at one of my favourite RPGs ever - Blades in the Dark, and analysing something that I consider to be one of its design flaws. As a holistic object of play, Blades are an excellent system, but not a perfect one by any stretch, and I would love to take a deep dive into its design and try and ascertain whether it can be improved with some minor tweaks.