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The Play's the Thing

What do you want?

by David Goodner
Nov 18,2002


The Play's the Thing

What do you want?

by David Goodner

Hello again. We've spent a long time talking about all the work you do leading up to a group, so now I figured it was about time to start talking about some playing. Let's talk about goals. Put simply, we've talked about who you are. Now what do you want? (oohhh. B5 Reference. I'm a geek)

What are the goals of an RPG?

The over-simple answer is "To have fun." Everybody leads off with that one. I don't really know why, but who am I to defy tradition. Actually, it's kind of good to mention it. I've played in games that weren't fun. A sort of social inertia builds up, an unpleasant cycle that's not easy to break out of. Discussing the goals further down the pyramid is a good way to make sure that the big goal at the top is met.

So what are the other goals? Basically, I see three.

  • The GM's Goals
  • The Players' Goals
  • The Characters' Goals

The GM's Goals

The GM bought the book. He makes up the campaign. He probably has to clean up his living room (or needs to) so everyone will have a place to sit. Obviously, he has something invested in the game. The GM could have lots of goals, like "kill all the PCs" or "get laid by the cute gamer chick." For our purposes, I'm going to ignore most of those and state the GM's basic goal as "guide the PCs through the story." Even that isn't perfect, but it's a lot more elegant than the three paragraphs it would take me to cover all the nit-picky variables.

The GM has a story to tell. If he's a good GM it's either very flexible or so compelling and well constructed that it never occurs to the players to deviate from it. Still, there are characters the GM wants to use, events he wants to unfold, and possibly themes he wants to explore. For example, in my Now is the Winter Chronicle, I had a bunch of NPCs, primarily the St. Croix family, the brood of Dr. Killian, and some Faeries who were playing out their own conflict. I knew that what would happen eventually was that someone would open a Fairy Mound on the edge of the city and unleash the old god who was bound up there, along with the dark entities who had been trapped with him.

The GM's goals are the most pervasive in the game, since he does more work than anyone else to shape the world. (Though that's not always true. There are some modern games that spread the GM's role out to other players, and even in "old school" games there are variations.)

The Players' Goals

The Players are the prime movers in the game. If the GM doesn't have players, then his story is not going to happen. In my opinion, if any game was produced as a TV series, the PCs should be the people in the opening credits sequence. If someone else would be in the opening credits, then those characters should be the PCs.

The Players' basic goal could be fairly well stated as "to use their characters to overcome obstacles and defeat adversaries." Once again, you could argue the details, but that's the basic. Players may have individual goals for their characters, like "to get to 20th level," or "to become Primogen of Clan Brujah." Those goals may or may not be what the Characters want for themselves.

The Characters' Goals

There are, of course, two broad sets of characters. There are PCs and NPCs. Many and complex are the possible relationships between them. The characters have goals. The "Bad Guys" probably want to destroy the world or do something similarly antisocial. The "Good Guys" probably want to stop them. ("That's where I keep all my stuff!") Further, there are individual goals: rivalries, aspirations, romances.

Baring some fairly deep bits of psychology, the Characters don't really have any goals that the various players don't give them, but in a way they can. Good roleplayers will often realize that the "right" thing for a character to do isn't necessaraly the smartest thing. In fact, a well-fleshed out character can be downright stubborn.

But what does it all mean?

So, we have three, or two and a half, perhaps, sets of goals. Fortunately, they're not mutually exclusive. They do take some care, though. The GM has the largest responsibility. He's likely to do the most work, and what he does has more potential than just about anybody to make the game fail. The GM should really try to make sure the story he wants to tell is one the Players want to participate in. He needs to tailor it to the characters they want to play (though there's quite a bit of give-and-take in that).

The Players also have some responsibilities. I've already talked about picking characters who will fit into the group and into the story. My Now is the Winter game was a mix of political maneuverings and supernatural action. No matter how interesting he was, a character who was only interested questing for Golconda and avoiding political entanglements would have been hard to work with. However, it could have worked if the Player wanted his misbegotten vampire to be continually frustrated in his goals and drawn into Vampire politics and violence.

Beyond just fitting in, it's good if the Players will pursue goals that advance the game. In an old-school D&D dungeon crawl, the PCs don't really need any goals beyond "kill monsters and take their stuff." "Save innocent peasants from evil humanoids" is a nice addition, but not strictly necessary. In more character-driven games, it's nice if the characters have some goals of their own, though. For example (since I love these), let's look at Now is the Winter again.

  • O'Neil wanted to serve the Prince. He believed that Prince Marcel held his un-life in his hands, and he'd do just about anything the big guy said. This made him really easy to manage from my perspective. In fact, I occasionally felt like I was railroading his Player. He also had some secondary goals, though, and we got a lot of drama out of the way those goals conflicted with his loyalty.
  • Zhou wanted to increase his own power. He was on the way to developing his own Path of Thumaturgy. This was a goal that was much interrupted, but fortunately it wasn't a major goal of the Player.
  • Catlin wanted to be safe. She was always trying to find someone to protect her. Unfortunately, "Player Character" is rarely a safe occupation. Catlin's player told me she enjoyed the game, so I suppose she didn't mind.
  • Jason wanted to be more powerful. I gotta say that his goal was incredibly disruptive to the rest of the game. His Player didn't really seem to care about my plot or about intraparty relations at all. Everybody was at his throat after a while. Eventually, I found a way to
  • Miles wanted to win the love of Moira Pendragon, the Tremere Regent. I was kind of disappointed with Miles' romantic subplots. I tried hard to paint Moira as not being worthy of Miles, but his Player never got the picture. Not even when I threw in a cute Toreador chick to woo him. Still, it was fun. Miles kept involving himself with the Tremere even though he tended to get in trouble for it.

From the above example, you can kind of see where GM, Player, and Character goals overlap and conflict. Jason's Player was so focused on his goals that he drove me nuts sometimes. I finally managed to work his pursuit of political power into my apocalyptic plot, but it took some work. Then the guy had to move to San Antonio for a new job. I hate it when Real Life gets in the way of my gaming. By playing Sire Miles' infatuation for Moira, Cathy ran some pretty heavy risks. Just about everybody at one time or another did something that annoyed the other Players. They were a really dysfunctional little group.

So, what does it all mean?

It means that a good game is going to involve some compromises. Unless he's incredibly talented, the GM is not going to get to tell exactly the story he envisioned when he was planning the game. Important NPCs will get killed before they get around to delivering key clues. PCs will become obsessed with "vital clues" that the GM only threw in to add a little flavor. Players will have their own preferences, which the GM needs to take into account.

The Players also need to be ready to compromise, both with the GM and with each other. While the PCs may all hate each other, the real people involved need to be cooperating on the shared goal of "having fun."

It's easy to forget that the other people in the game aren't there for your entertainment. You should be trying to have fun, but when your fun stomps on someone else's, you should consider pulling back. If you really want to do a lot of investigation and interaction, and the rest of the group just wants to kill monsters, maybe you can work on a timeshare system. Maybe you can PBeM with the GM between sessions where your character goes off and investigates things, then comes back and tells the group where the monsters they want to kill are hiding. After a while, the other Players might get interested in what you're doing.

If all you care about is fighting and the rest of the group wants to play a soap opera, then you should probably just take the Narcolepsy disadvantage and play Diablo between combats. Your utter lack of knowledge of what happened while your character was unconscious will seem like good roleplaying.

(More seriously, there are limits to how far compromise will go. Some people shouldn't play with some other people. That's just life.)

So, I've talked about what Players should do a little bit. The GM is beyond the scope of this column. I haven't really hit on the Characters too much. The complex relationship between Character and Player deserves its own column, which, not coincidentally, is what we're going to discuss next.

Till then, have fun.

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What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg