With the previous two articles on the topic of designing roleplayable scenarios or adventures, we focused on a few issues in designing RPG adventures, and how to solve them in practice. While I don’t think the ideas discussed in these two articles come anywhere close to being a magic bullet in terms of adventure design, I do feel they provide a decent enough starting point. In the end, neither game design nor narrative design are a hard science with one true answer. The closest we can come to are decent guidelines that will allow us to develop specific situations suitable for our game and/or our set of players.
However, what I intentionally omitted from these previous articles are certain issues that will crop up in designing and playing adventures in RPGs. These are issues that I feel do not have a proper solution, nor can there be decent universal guidelines to resolve them. We will attempt to define these issues, take a look at what makes them so hard to resolve, and then suggest a few starting points to tackling them before they become a point of contention at your table.
Issue #1: Decision by committee
To illustrate this first point, let’s return to our previous example, wherein our rogue found out that the city will be ambushed at night by the goblins. Let’s say that, instead of only the rogue being privy to this information, the entire party finds out about this. What happens next?
Predictably, the party gathers and discusses what to do. They weigh their options, and based on either the most assertive player’s suggestion or the perceived optimal route, they make a collective decision and go through with it.
Both of these options have one thing in common: the rogue’s player was denied an opportunity to make a dramatic decision in the scenario that should have served as a platform to further define and flesh out his character. This situation will be resolved, and there will be no character development, almost as if the situation never even happened, and was never even designed.
And while it can be argued that the players will be given ample opportunity to engage in depiction of their characters in the discussion itself, in the end the action itself will be diluted by this discussion and likely not as impactful for the rogue as it could have been had he made the decision on his own. Our characters will all get to roleplay in conversation, but it’s very likely that most of them will not roleplay in action.
These situations can even lead to significant friction among the players themselves. This is more likely the more controversial or meaningful the decision is (Do we kill the 50 defenseless orc babies or not?) or if two characters in the party have particularly strong opinions on a certain situation. Handled incorrectly, these situations can cause lasting issues within a game group, which is why creating truly difficult situations for the characters can be a double-edged sword.
This is a situation that will never come up in computer RPGs, simply because they are single player games by default. Any decision, no matter how difficult or trivial, will in the end be made by a single player. This is why I often feel that, much to my chagrin, video RPGs are better suited to really deep and meaningful roleplay in this regard. On the other hand, video RPGs can never be tailor-made for that unique character that a single player can make, nor can they allow or validate such a wide variety of actions, leaving us in a situation where neither option is ideal.
As opposed to RPG, cooperative board games are known to struggle with an issue commonly referred to as ‘quarterbacking’, wherein the most experienced player will be making most of the decisions in play. While these two issues seem to be directly opposite each other, they both boil down to the same conclusion: the very nature or design of these games inhibits individual players making interesting decisions, whether motivated by the game systems or the narrative elements.
Is there a way to fix, prevent or mitigate this issue in RPGs? There are a few, but none of them is ideal.
The first option is to somehow isolate an individual character and force them to make a decision without being able to defer the decision-making to someone else. Ironically, combat is the best situation to do this, which I will probably write more about in a future article. However, in a non-combat scenario, I would advise against frequently isolating player characters to have them make decisions on their own. First of all, it creates a situation at the table wherein only two players are playing the game (the GM and the one player) while the rest are twiddling their thumbs. Secondly, it goes against the core presumption that RPGs are a social event with everybody participating. I would suggest using this method sparingly and only when it would have the greatest impact.
The second avenue is to discuss this issue with your players out of character. Help them understand the issue and reach a consensus on how they want to tackle these situations in general. Do they always want to make decisions by committee? Are they comfortable having individual characters make decisions for the party based on their own preferences? Do they want their characters isolated and have to make decisions on their own? Maybe they don’t want this type of decision-making in their game at all?
Unfortunately, as mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there is not one magical solution to this issue. Discuss it with your players and see what style of play best suits you.
Issue #2: Game vs roleplay
At their core, most RPGs have two sides: roleplaying and game. Each RPG focuses more heavily on one part of this duality, and even different gaming groups playing within the same system lean more on one end than the other.
And while these two sides can generally co-exist peacefully and often even feed off of each other, they can also cause certain issues. To illustrate why, let’s take a look at the core promise made to the players by each side.
Roleplaying is all about expression of character. A good example of this is the barbarian starting a bar fight, even though it will result in him being locked up for the night and/or having to pay a hefty fine. Or the rogue, implicitly asked just how far he is willing to go to gain fame and glory. The roleplay side of the RPG promises to the player that they will be able to express the character they’ve created and the world will validate their actions.
On the other hand, the game side is all about mastery and winning. It is about the challenges that we can tackle using our general mental capabilities and our understanding of the game systems. This is the party’s wizard, turning the tides of a difficult encounter with a rarely used spell. The party’s fighter, creating synergy with his choice of feats and allowing him to hack down monsters by the dozen. The rogue, sneaking behind the enemy chieftain for a deadly sneak attack. The promise made to the player is that through skill and understanding of the system, the player will be able to prevail in challenges.
As mentioned, these two promises can generally co-exist and even feed off of each other, but they can also cause issues when a player has to choose between either expressing his character, or prevailing in a challenge. Similar to the decision by committee, these situations can cause friction within an individual player, or even within a gaming group.
Let’s take a look at an example.
Our party is fighting the evil demon-summoner whose minions slaughtered our paladin’s village. Combat ensues, and the party wizard is attacked by a particularly mighty demon up close and personal. The paladin is standing near the wizard, and the evil summoner is too far away for the paladin to attack. What does our paladin do?
Does he blindly charge at the summoner, screaming for vengeance? This is what would be in-character, after all. This would be the game fulfilling the roleplaying promise made to the paladin’s player.
Or does he recognize that the mechanically optimal route would be for him to attack the demon, dealing extra damage with his smite ability, and allowing the party wizard to strike the summoner from far away using his powerful spells?
An additional, out-of-character consideration is that the wizard’s player may (rightly?) be upset if the paladin moves towards the evil summoner and ignores the wizard’s plights. After all, there is an unwritten consensus in most groups that we are all playing together. Say that the wizard character is killed by the demon. Is the wizard’s player right to be upset with the paladin’s player?
Note that these are not questions with one correct and one incorrect answer, and this is what makes them so damned tricky. Similar to the previous point, the best thing to do is to discuss these situations with your players in advance, before you even start the campaign. Decide where on the roleplay-game spectrum you’d all feel most comfortable at, and go along with that. It is highly unlikely that you will cover all situations that may come up during play, but it will still go a long way.
With that said, one method that I love in dealing with these situations is to follow the fun. It’s a very simple and intuitive approach, and it basically boils down to your character doing whatever it is that you as the player and your table will find the most entertaining at the moment, and then creating justifications for these actions as the need arises.
Going back to our evil summoner example, let’s say that our paladin player most definitely does not want to let his friend’s wizard get killed, so he charges at the demon. That’s what he believes will be the most fun for himself and the entire table at the moment. He follows the fun, and as a result, the summoner gets away. After the fight, one of the other characters (maybe even the wizard) asks the paladin why didn’t he chase after the summoner? The paladin’s player thinks for a second, and then the paladin replies that he believes his friends to be more important than his revenge. Corny as hell, but it works. Using this approach, we’ve accomplished three important things:
- We’ve done the fun thing for ourselves and our gaming table
- We’ve explained why our character acted in a certain way, making that action motivated by the character and not exclusively by the game side of things
- We’ve dramatically changed our paladin character, the same way that we would via one of the expressions from the previous article
However, do NOT use this approach lightly or just for the lulz. Do not pickpocket stuff from the other party members and then point over to this blog as a justification. Don’t be That Guy. You personally are responsible for not only your own fun, but also the fun of the other players at the table. Too often do the players stick to the "It's what my character would do" mantra instead of making a mental check to see if the actions of that character will result in a fun scenario for the table.
Another matter worth noting is that you as the players can simply discuss these situations out-of-character as they arise. While this can break the flow and immersion in the situation, it’s generally better than causing grievances between the players.
The friction of RP vs. game, as illustrated in this example, will also arise when you:
- Assign your character’s stats (“Tom, I don’t care if your orc is highly charismatic, you can’t play a barbarian with only 10 Strength!”)
- Choose your character’s equipment (“Why would you take a short sword when a rapier does more damage, Billy?”)
- Choose your spells (“What kind of a wizard doesn’t take Fireball, Jerry?”)
Note that these questions are not a binary yes or no. Your character’s design does not have to be motivated exclusively by the game, or the RP segment. This is a spectrum, and not all characters and players need to be at the exact same position of this spectrum to have a good game, but it is a good idea to have everyone approach the game with at least similar expectations.
Most RPGs consist of two fundamentally opposed sides: the roleplaying side, and the game side. The roleplaying side pushes us to engage with the fictional world from the perspective of our character and his motivations, whereas the game side pushes us to engage with the fictional world in order to overcome challenges and obstacles created by the game systems. These two sides co-exist in a peaceful, sometimes even symbiotic relationship, but they can sometimes cause friction.
In situations of such friction, a good one-size-fits-all approach is to do whatever you find the most appropriate and fun at the moment, whether it is game-motivated or RP-motivated, and/or to discuss the issue with your fellow players and GM to make sure your move will not cause any significant grievances.
Furthermore, RP-motivated decisions can often be hampered by the fact that most decisions in an RPG are made as a collaboration between players, and as such, have the potential to take away the promise of expression from an individual player. This issue is referred to as decisions by committee. This issue is fairly difficult to approach and resolve on a universal level, and is best left to discussion at each individual table.
This concludes the three-parter on the topic of roleplaying. I hope it has been insightful and that it will be useful to you going forward. The issues discussed are hardly groundbreaking, but I do hope they will help you perceive RPGs in a slightly different light, or at least more clearly understand things that you had already intuited with the help of your experience.