Monday, June 1, 2015

Sociopathy in Role-Playing Games - Part 1 - My First Experience

Why do our first characters tend to kill everything that moves? How can something as grotesque and unthinkable as tearing open a corpse looking for treasure become commonplace and accepted?

Lying, cheating, stealing, and killing serve to further a character in nearly every conceivable way in most RPGs, especially those that play most like a video-game. In many games killing is literally the only way to gain experience and grow your character.

I assumed that my friends' childhoods which were full of violent movies and video games were at fault for our bad behavior, and when we started running/playing Dungeons and Dragons it brought out the worst in us. However, I continued to notice this pattern in new role-players, even those not yet exposed to D&D.

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My wake-up call came when I made my first Shadowrun character. It was to be one of the rare times I got to enjoy the role of player, and I could barely contain my excitement. I made Heist, a rigger with nerves of steel (not literally, I couldn't afford them).

The first session was a blur or fast cars, flying drones, smoke bombs, and shattered windows. I hadn't caught my breath yet when I heard the GM ask, "Are you sure you want to do that to the security guard? It could kill him".

I had co-opted a completely violence-free information-gathering gaming session. At the time the GM interjected I was making a completely unnecessary escape from a mental hospital; when it was my character who should have been in there the most.

None of the guards ever tried to do anything more than restrain me, and they were in the right to do so. I had role-played Heist as an insane and obsessed drek-head despite the fact that he was tasked with gathering information from one of the mental hospital's long-time residents.

The APA defines Sociopathy, now called ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder), as follows:
A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others as indicated by three or more of the following:
  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
My character strongly exhibited every single symptom of ASPD over the course of a 2 hour long game session. I felt remorse afterward, but my character certainly didn't. At the end of the session I left him sitting in his undies in front of the Trid system eating cereal by the handful watching old-school cartoons.

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I learned a lot from Heist as a player, but more from him as a GM.

More than half of the players that have joined my groups since that time (roughly 15 years ago) have displayed overtly sociopathic behavior in character, often within the first session. Luckily for me, my current group is very intuitive and fantastic at spotting antisocial behavior in character. They use non-confrontational, non-accusatory in-game means to head off the behavior; which often sinks in far better than an off-table chat.  If that doesn't work I will try to reinforce the lessons in-game over the following few sessions. At worst they will leave the group for another, but we hope that some of our lessons are taken to heart.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Gamist to Simulationist..

Role-Playing Game Theory
If you are new to Role-Playing Game Theory you might want to read over this great article I found on Exploring Believability first (though I do get into specific examples fairly quickly).

As a GM with intense Gamist roots (console RPGs and AD&D 2nd Ed.) I found out quickly that Simulationism was a dirty word in role-playing circles. On one hand it conjured images of unnecessarily complex rules systems, page after page of charts full of minutia, and on the other, LARPing. I was raised to believe, from reading AD&D manuals and talking to other GMs, that Simulationism is neither an achievable or desirable goal. And that fact was the reason that Gamist systems relied on abstractions.

On My Slow Exodus from Gamism
During an early AD&D game session, while describing the room that the PCs had entered I was asked for some additional description focused on a specific object which the game materials barely mentioned. I complied, feebly, as I had no experience running 'off-the-cuff'. Luckily, my players enjoyed my improvisational description and asked for them more and more often, and I got better at giving them.

The ability to do this seamlessly became very important to me because I didn't want my players avoiding role-playing by "gaming" me (asking about each possibly significant item in the room and waiting for my poker face to crack) to find clues.

This eventually led me to an off-the-cuff game running style. Before each session I prepared a simple overview of what (or, more often where) the PCs planned to adventure (a hastily scribbled map and some notes about the creatures there). Running AD&D this way, a game which required quite a bit of GM preparation, was difficult, but I managed it fairly well. I found that I could 'roll with the punches' my players handed out far better this way.

I'd say, at this point, that 'railroading' became a thing of the past, but it's not true. It never was 'a thing' because my players came from the same extremely Gamist position I did. They played the same linear console RPGs that I did, and never expected to be able to choose the direction their characters went, at least not in any broad sense.

Once my players got a taste of 'true adventure' there was no way I was getting the lid back on that ol' box of Pandora's. My players wanted this kind of open-world adventure everywhere, but with that came a desire for a type of cinematic moments that AD&D's game system had no way to approximate.

"You want chunks of wood flying from your shields, and your armor taking damage from deflected attacks?" Yeah, AD&D can do that with a little GM intervention. The game gets a little more Simulationist, but it's okay. A little house rule here, a little patch of the AC system, and done.

"You want graphic descriptions of wounds?" I think that can be done. I make a dozen critical hit tables and house rule the shit out of Hit Points. But, we try it out and it doesn't work. The tables look good, and there are a lot of interesting variations, but it still feels broken.

The Realization
AD&D kept telling us, each time we modded the game to make it more cinematic, that Simulationism was not achievable. No amount of house rules would turn AD&D into the cinematic high-fantasy game we wanted to play.

My players were sad, but I saw a greater truth. Every edition of every game has its own unique spirit created at the intersection of the rules system and the game setting. To turn AD&D into the cinematic game we wanted to play would have been tantamount to ripping out its soul. So, the problem wasn't AD&D, it was that we were trying to play a Simulationist game using Gamist rules.

But, we didn't even know if it was possible to make a Simulationist game. In fact, we didn't know any game systems aside from AD&D. So, we went to the opposite end of the spectrum. If AD&D wasn't the way to do it then maybe we didn't need dice, or rule-books, or character sheets.

This, of course, didn't work. We were back to Cowboys and Indians.

I played a bit of Vampire: the Masquerade and Shadowrun in high school under different Game Masters. Both experiences were negative and turned me off to systems other than AD&D (the GMs were strictly authoritarian Gamists trying to run what I later learned were Narrativist / Simulationist settings). For years we avoided them, but in our quest to find a Simulationist game system we ended up giving Star Wars d6, World of Darkness, and Shadowrun a shot (I won't mention the hundreds of other games we tried during our "experimental phase").

The Answer
The answer came to us when we realized that we had the wrong definition of Simulationism. It didn't mean 'to simulate reality using dice'. We weren't interested in simulating reality at all. Shadowrun made an excellent stepping stool to get away from Gamism, and World of Darkness allowed us to take a full, unhindered step into Simulationism.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Coming clean...

I don't care for D&D and its derivative game systems. I don't like abstract stats like Hit Points, old-school Saving Throws, and Level. These stats cannot be well defined, and never are, not even in their core rulebooks. I don't like using flat probability dice as a core mechanic in a game (d20 or d%). And, I prefer my players to have a lot of choice when making a character, and Class-based systems don't cut the mustard there.

AD&D 3.5 looked like it was getting dangerously close to fixing a lot of these problems by adding an array of new skills and the feats system, but once my group started making characters we noticed that there remains in place a relatively obvious progression for each class. If you spend your skill points on anything other than those which are completely necessary for your class you will be a failure at your class, and very likely laughed out of your group. Every time your character levels up and gets a bonus feat you have a pretty good idea which feats you are 'supposed' to take, and if you take a different one to give your character a bit of diversity you will regret it later. Don't get me started on multi-classing, which only serves a player when creating an uber-character with a prestige class, min-maxing your character into exactly the same mold as everyone else taking that class.

All that said, I still love fantasy. Lord of the Rings (from the one-on-one fights to the party vs. party melees, and even the epic wars) gets me excited to play a high-fantasy RPG. So many other books and movies give me that same feeling.

When I get that urge I always go back to AD&D because it's the most robust high-fantasy game out there (and, let's face it, I still have all the books [at least from 2nd Ed. to 3.5]).

That is, until I found Warrior, Rogue & Mage by +Michael Wolf of Stargazer Games. The system is robust, easy to learn, highly customizable, and boasts nearly infinite character variations. It fixes just about everything I dislike about d20 systems in a free 41 page, beautifully illustrated pdf download.

Wow, that sounded like a commercial. I promise that it wasn't. It was a way to show role-players that it can be done. AD&D isn't your only option for fantasy.

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I'll leave you with the story of how I realized AD&D wasn't the system for me:

I was watching Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The mini-series was nearly complete, and one of the heroes took a villain hostage putting a crossbow up to her throat. This villain was known across the world as one of the greatest warriors and treasure hunters to have ever lived, and the hero was in no state to fight her. She verbally resisted him and said, "You struck me as a hard man to kill." He inclined his head, and bowed slightly, but his eyes did not move, and his hand remained steady. "And you strike me that way too, dear lady. But a crossbow bolt to the throat, and a fall of several thousand feet may prove me wrong, eh?"

I audibly gasped.

I know that, like me, when many people (especially Game Masters) start getting into role-playing they begin to look at the real world through the lens of the fantasy game system that they know so well. I was subconsciously doing that with Neverwhere. I translated the crossbow bolt into a likely damage score, assuming a critical hit, then translated the fall damage into AD&D terms, 20d6 (terminal velocity).

I was aghast at the idea that she would survive that. Heck, if she's over level 16 she's just about guaranteed to survive it no matter how badly that damage is rolled. Oh, System Shock, the old stand-by rule to kill characters that obviously should have died from massive damage. I think she'd still have a 75% chance to pass that roll at her relatively high level.

So, that was it, I put away my 2nd edition books and luckily, very soon after, picked up the World of Darkness games.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Info for Prospective Players - Live Gaming

This post covers what new players to a live game need to know, and will act as an introduction to role-playing games for new players.

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The following section in is for players who are new to role-playing entirely:
A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which you make and play a character who resides in another world. The game is a social activity for two to six players and one Game Master (like a referee).
In a RPG there are no pre-defined goals (at least no winning conditions), only unique goals that you give to your character. Each player's character works together with the rest of the group to overcome conflicts that you face as a team.
When making a character it is important to take into account how much experience you've had acting improvisationally. If you have had very little experience you may feel more comfortable making a character that shares a lot of traits in common with you. More experienced players often make characters that are very different from themselves for an additional challenge.
The differences between the game world of "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" and our world include a gothic aesthetic and the presence of supernatural creatures. Most 'normal' humans in this game world (known as the World of Darkness or WoD) are not aware that such creatures exist.
Dice are used to determine the success or failure of a character's actions. Specifically, Werewolf requires roughly ten pentagonal trapezohedrons (ten-sided dice).
If you would like, you can sit in on a game session or two before you decide whether you'd like to make a character and join the game.
Our "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" game is set in modern-day New York City and the surrounding areas. The game runs on Friday evenings near Five Points in Columbia, SC from 7pm until 11:00pm (4 hours).

To begin, each player makes a werewolf character (Fianna and Children of Gaia are preferred in this campaign, but no Werewolf tribe is completely off limits) or a human character. Each character should in some way compliment the rest of the characters, and have motivations that draw them into the group. Experienced players will have significant leeway generating their characters as long as they can be easily incorporated into the group.

Our house rules are simple, be respectful of each other and don't interrupt another player or the GM. Feel free to bring snacks for yourself or others, they will be greatly appreciated. We have a large play area that can fit about eight players comfortably.

Our group can descend into geekiness pretty easily, but we're all at least averagely socially adept and play well with newbies. Since we play a Storytelling game (as opposed to a tactical RPG with a lot of specific rules) there isn't a lot to learn as far as "how to play", most of it can be picked up in a single session. You don't need to bring anything in particular to watch the game, and if you want to join we can provide you a character sheet, pencil, and dice.

Email me, add me on Facebook or Google+, or comment below if you are interested in the game or have any questions. Remember, the only dumb question is one left unasked.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Game Running Styles

I have thought, for a few years at least, that there are two broad types of role-playing Game Masters, the tactical or encounter-based GM and the storytelling or world-based GM.

The tactical GM crafts many combat encounters, arranges miniatures on a battle mat, and tells short-burst stories that they weave into an arcing storyline with character progression. They also often follow the early D&D trope that as characters become more powerful the game morphs into a tactical army game rather than tactical game involving player characters.

The storytelling GM crafts a game world, arranging civilizations poised at the precipice of conflict. They craft intrigue and mystery, and spend a lot of time worrying about character motivations rather than a character's combat ability. The encounters come as they come, some combat will inevitably occur as the game proceeds toward final (often global) conflict and resolution.

These are generalizations and there is a lot of cross over, and I'm certainly not saying one is better than the other.

Both types of GMs (the best of them anyway) let the players make all of the decisions about where to go and how to handle any encounter that they stumble into. Both try to craft adventures that are challenging (potentially involving intrigue, mysteries, tactical combat, puzzles, riddles, etc..) and are fun for the GM as well as the players.

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I met a third type of GM recently, and he nearly shattered my two styles theory and certainly changed the way I see role-playing games. He told me:
"The only thing that matters is what [the player chooses] to do... The story isn't something that play is focused on developing. When the unconnected events are related later they [might] take the form of one... [but that's not the GM's concern]." 
He also implied that by making decisions about the game world I'm making advanced rulings on what can and cannot happen in the game, taking those choices away from the player. In his mind, a GM's job is only to adjudicate the player's choices, not to create or run a story (either in the form of encounters or on a grander scale).

This GM has himself taken a tumble down the "making decisions about the game world that limit the players' choices" slippery slope by deciding what monsters will populate his dungeon, what traps he'll install there, and what treasure resides there.

How is the GM who creates kingdoms with rich governmental structures, trade routes, and deep interpersonal relationships between NPCs any different from the GM who populates a dungeon? How is a GM that designs the crises that befall a character who tries to interject him or herself into those interpersonal relationships any different from the GM who decides what kind of trap to put on a chest? The scope or setting changes slightly, but nothing else.

Most of all, what is wrong with telling a story if that's what your players want? Why is telling a story through the medium of a game setting a faux pas? They are, after-all, called role-playing games.


Let me break that down.

Game: A form of play, played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

Playing: Engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation.

Role: A character assumed for a play, movie, or (in this case) game.

A game in which you are playing a role. But, he was telling me that all that matters are the decisions that the player makes (not even the player as a character, or the character as a member of a group. The player alone, no role necessary).


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The problem I have with this type of GM is precisely that this style of play necessarily prizes player skill over role-playing. He insists on calling his hobby role-playing, but despises the very process. I'm not asking him to stop what he's doing (and ostensibly enjoying), but I'd love to see a different name applied to it.

I would call him an "old-school gamer". Not as a slur, just an observation of a genre of gaming that is currently making a resurgence. These old-school games often contain only trace amounts of role-playing (i.e. If your character is an elf  then your 'role' is simply to make use of your character's Infravision and can Detect Secret Doors abilities). "Now, grab your ten foot pole and your mirror, roll up some hirelings, and let's clear out this dungeon."

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Please remember that when you are at your gaming table and I'm at mine we should feel free to do what we and our players enjoy. Whether we're telling a story or not let's avoid telling people they are "doing it wrong" just because they enjoy rolling more or fewer dice than you do, prefer intrigue over combat, or prize player skill over role-playing ability.

However, this GM managed to offend me mightily by implying that I'm a bad GM for telling a story while running a game, and I ask for your forgiveness for the following micro-rant that breaks my own rules about friendliness and tolerance.
"You can keep your no story-telling allowed, no role-playing desired old-school game. I want to part of it. I ran those kind of games when I was 16, and my players and I outgrew them."
As a GM I happen to enjoy telling an interesting story and challenging my players' skills (both tactically and their role-playing ability), and as a player I want to take on new and exciting roles to help me learn what I can from experiencing the game world in their skin.