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That's Entertainment

by Brett Evill

© 1987 All rights reserved

A month or so ago, under pressure to hold up my end in the production of this great publication, I wrote an article on how not to use NPCs. The gods did not look kindly on this piece. The disk on which it was recorded crashed disastrously, the editor lost one hard copy, and I lost two. Unless Tonio can recover one of the missing hard copies from the huge pile of junk and out-of-date copies of ForeSight he calls his "quote 'office' unquote", one of my masterpieces of advice to GMs will be lost forever. I will not attempt to reconstruct Kokkor Hekkus. Instead, I will write about something else I'm very bad at - playing RPGs.

You will of course recall something I wrote in my article in the last ASGARD Bulletin, about role-playing games requiring imaginative input from the players. There was a nifty little example of how a player used imaginative input, first unsuccessfully and then successfully, to elude a pursuer in a shopping mall. That is one part of good role-play, but there's more to it than that.

Everyone is by now familiar with the analysis in which role-playing games are considered to be a form of literature or drama. Somewhat closer to literature, in my opinion, but having something in common with each. I have recently been considering the division of labour between players and GM as a dividing-up of the work of an author or playwright between several people. I have found this to be a fruitful source of insights and reflections. I ask that you consider this (in the back of your mind, of course), while I digress.

Another source of fruitful contemplation is the question of who is analogous to the audience or readership of a role-playing game. We can all get by without kibbitzers, and most prefer not to have an audience, so obviously it is not any third party. The theory has been put forward that the players are the audience, and the GM some sort of complete entertainer. (I will call this the 'Homeric GM Model'.) There are other GMs who seem to think that they are their own audience. These may allow the players to have some input into their fantasies, or they may not. In either case they are a drag, for reasons sufficiently obvious but difficult to state succinctly to justify my not discussing them. There is also an approach in which there is no audience, but in which the GM sets problems for the players to solve using the resources defined by their characters' abilities. This is not a literary form, and is therefore not the same thing as that ideal type of role-playing which is (is a literary form, that is).

The fourth approach, which I will call 'the One True Path', considers everybody playing to be a member of the audience. How does this differ in practice from the Homeric GM Model? Why, in that the players are also entertainers, of course.

Why is the Homeric GM Model not the one true path? Think back to the division of labour. An Homeric GM has to do all of the work of a novelist or playwright, except control the PCs. Having characters take on lives of their own in ordinary writing is bad enough, but PCs are really out of control. Now in order to get the major characters to follow an entertaining plot line the GM has either to seize control of the PCs (by means more or less brutal) or make selected NPCs the main characters, leaving the PCs as spear-carriers or extras. In either case he or she might as well give up on the pretense that the players have an input, and just tell his or her bloody story.

I don't suppose that anyone will have been convinced so far. My last article seems to have produced a conviction in the reader's mind that all my reasoning is specious, and that my conclusions are all absurdities. You will forgive me, therefore, if I ignore the fact that you aren't believing a word of it, and press on under the assumption that you are prepared to concede my point for the sake of argument.

So, we have all been converted to the theoretical view that what we ought do when we are role-playing is to entertain, or at least to try to entertain, one another. What is the practical upshot? I will, out of hyperbole, suggest as commandments a few thoughts that have crossed my mind on the subject:

1. Don't be excessively pragmatic.

The object of roleplaying is not to achieve imaginary goals, but to have fun and amuse one another while (possibly) achieving them. It may be a better resolution of the problem to shoot the fleeing suspect in the back with an FN GP-35 modified for full automatic fire, but it makes a better story if you chase him down, let him draw a knife on you, and then shoot him with an FN GP-35 etc. This excessive pragmatism is part of what I call the 'player character mentality', which is the deadly sin of role-playing. Far too many player characters act with only one consideration in mind - success in the adventure, defined in the most superficial way. They completely disregard danger to their lives and limbs, and all moral and ethical constraints. They may, for instance, gut-shoot a wounded woman to restrain her 'for her own good'. This is not what characters in literature are about.

Eschew the player character mentality. Eschew the in-character mentality. Think like an author. Strive to entertain those around you.

2. Don't be doctrinaire.

I used to (and, let's face it, probably still) make a nuisance of myself in my insistence on what I called 'role-playing properly'. By this I meant never acting on information which my character didn't have, or acting as my character would have acted if it did have the information. I.e. I would deliberately avoid plausible courses of action, or courses of action that I might otherwise have taken, because information I had and my character did not made them optimal. I would congratulate myself in a painfully self-righteous way for this sacrifice to purity, but no-one really had a better time because of it. Rather pitiful really.

The object of the exercise being to entertain, it is perfectly okay to use out-of-game information to direct your character's actions toward making the story better. It enables you to employ dramatic irony to some extent, and helps avoid pointless dithering. You must, however, be very careful. Out-of-game information is a very powerful and dangerous tool, and its blatant or cynical use can destroy all plausibility of, and suspension of disbelief in, an adventure. Although my doctrinaire attitude was a pain, it was better than naive confusion between in-game and out-of-game information.

When you use out-of-game information, remember that your explanation must be that your character is unwittingly doing exactly the right thing. THINK CAREFULLY. If your actions amount to a coincidence which would be unsatisfying if it appeared in a TV show or book then you won't be improving the story. =46or example: one of the members of your party has been kidnapped by Mossad after a gun fight in Macy's, New York, and he holds the key to the successful resolution of the adventure. You know that they are holding him in room 666 of the Hilton, and that they have sent agents to search his apartment, but your character has neither of these data. That your character should just happen to go to the Hilton with a shotgun and kick in the door of room 666 is completely implausible. On the other hand, it is credible that he/she might go to his/her friend's apartment to find out why he isn't at work, and, unless the GM has other plans, your character should run into the Mossad agents, allowing you to track them to their lair and surrender to them.

3. Don't hog the limelight.

Insistence that your character be allowed to take part in everything, and calling for others to 'get on with it' whenever you are momentarily left out, is pointless and selfish. Be prepared to be entertained by others. Let them act alone. One of the silliest things about player characters is the way they go about in packs.

If, like me, you have a tendency to dominate play, try to keep it under control. Allow and encourage, perhaps even help and force, others to take centre stage every now and again.

4. Be attentive to detail.

The rules of the game should be used as a system for resolving, i.e. working out the results of, actions your character attempts, not as a substitute for storytelling by the GM and players. It is far better to say 'I'm going to hide the microfilm in the hem of the curtain on the French window' than 'I'll make a concealment roll to hide the microfilm'.

The more you fill out the levels below the game's level of abstraction, the better idea you and everyone else involved have of what is going on. This both enables players and the GM to manipulate the game environment more sensibly and adds to the believability and intelligibility of what is going on.

5. Co-operate with the GM.

Expunge from your mind every suspicion of the adversarial attitude. You and the GM are on the same side - both trying to produce an entertaining yarn. He/she ought not to be, nor be thought of as, an opponent. The last thing you ought to do is deliberately foul up the GM's plans. The poor bastard has a hard enough time, and enough to do, without your making him restructure the adventure in the middle.

On the other hand, you are a partner of the GM, not a servant. He/she is a fellow player, not a superior. Play must proceed by consensus, along mutually satisfactory lines. Preferably these should be thrashed out in advance - before the GM puts too much work into a plot that no-one else cares for.

6. Be conscious of your craft.

Until all becomes second nature you must perhaps work self-consciously on your style of play. Think about the mood and style of the story, and bear it in mind while you are making decisions. Try deliberately to make the plot interesting, entertaining, and exciting. Characterise your character as he/she would be characterised in a literary piece. If it helps, try to imagine that you are writing your character's lines and stage directions, acting the part, or watching him/her on television - whatever gives you the strongest feeling that you know what this character would do.

If you are feeling confident, try to build up a proper climax and denouement. The biggest difficulty here is that you, necessarily not conversant with all the details of the plot, may try to force a climax when, in the GM's plan, an ensuing denouement is not possible. With luck the GM will have read this article and so, or independently, will have arranged that there can be a minor resolution of tension at the point where you feel that a complete unravelling is possible. If the GM's ideas of dramatic pace are so erratic, or so much beyond your understanding, that you cannot pick the points at which he/she expects a climax, then it might be best to leave timing entirely to him/her, for in this case (only) you might bring about a climax where not even a minor resolution is possible.

Attention must be paid to the style and theme of the campaign during character generation. If the GM is running a Champions campaign with two-hundred base point characters and an upper limit of two hundred and sixty-five points of disadvantages, there is no point in generating a character that is 'basically a normal person', as someone I know once did. If the campaign is hack-and-slash, and you generate a courtier, it is your own silly fault. If the PC group is supposed to be heroic, a psychopath is out of place, however much you may want to play one. And if you are playing in a fantasy setting where there are stated to be lots of centaur mercenaries, don't generate a human mercenary cavalry officer. Finally, when the GM is trying to maintain suspension of disbelief, don't try to name your character 'Cliff Lemmingsbane' or 'Hardtfled Magefeatures'.

7. Don't be sadistic.

You may want to play a character who is an enemy, or at least not entirely an ally, of the rest of the group. This may be fair enough under some circumstances, but you must rely on the other players not to misuse information they have but their characters don't. If you can't do this, don't play such a character. Keeping secrets, and holding secret conversations with the GM, or passing him/her copious notes, is antisocial. What the others don't know about, they can't be entertained by, and you are wasting their time on something you and the GM could do alone, while the rest are at work, or at lectures, or having dinner. If you rely for your enjoyment on discommoding others, upsetting their plans, and spoiling their fun, then you are a sadist, won't enjoy social roleplaying, and should stick to wargames.


Later comments (1997) by the author

Here is another of my boring old articles. This one is actually older and more primitive than the last one, but I happen to think that it is basically more sound.


RPGnet wishes to thank Brett for providing this essay.

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