Monday, March 7, 2016

Allowing For Assumed Things

When I was younger and playing in my first D&D campaign not run by a cousin or close friend I had an Elven Ranger who died at level 11. That in and of itself isn't anything special, but the reason the character died is. See, my character made a pull from a Deck of Many Things and drew the card that read "Be judged by your god, or change alignment." I didn't want to change alignment, I liked being Neutral Good, and I felt I'd been a good ranger and servant to my god so I chose to be judged.

My god, it goes without saying, had a different opinion about how devout I was. In fact, she thought I was about the most piss poor servant she had as far as my faithfulness went. However, I did do my job as a ranger. My character was therefore sentenced to dueling a mirror image of himself (only the mirror image had a cumulative regeneation rate) and if he died he died, and if he lived he would serve his god directly for a year and a day. The fight was fairly epic. I dropped the mirror image to 2 hit points twice before my character fell. Still, I did fall.

The annoying thing was though, I, as a player, had thought my character was being devout. When I told the GM I was doing "Ranger Things" I meant praying to my god (a god of nature) as that was the source of my ranger magic. It was just such a part of the job I couldn't see it not being that. The GM however didn't think that is what it meant. Lately, I've had another brush in with mixed assumptions in my housemate's L5R game. So, with those situations in mind, today I want to talk about that, and why you always want to give the other person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assumed things.

An RPG Is Like A Fun House Full Of Mirrors
Let's be blunt, RPGs are not a perfect medium. I think we can all agree on that. We tell a story, sure, but if you ask 4 players and your GM what the story of the game is - in detail - you'll get five different answers. In a lot of ways its like being in one of those old carnival fun houses with all the mirrors. Sure, the base image is the same for everyone, but it's distorted and twisted depending on where you look.

The reason for this is the perspective we each bring in to the game, and by that I don't just mean us as people but our role in the game as well. Each player has a specific area of responsibility: their character. This means the brain sometimes turns off when the focus is on other characters (everyone is guilty of this, and I won't believe you if you tell me otherwise.) It also means that the information we do take in is filtered from the perspective of our character. As the GM you have a bit more of a pulled back and broad view of things, but because of that you can miss some small details. Also, while the players may miss things due to a honed focus, you may miss them because your focus is spread so thin. You have all the players to deal with, all the NPCs, the world, the rules, the maps. It's a lot to pay attention to. So much that often the GM is the last person you want to trust when it comes to the nuances of an in character interaction, they're just pulled too far apart.

Now, best of all is that on top of all that stuff I said in the last paragraph, who you are as a person is also factoring into this. Ever sit down at the table in a bad mood? Ever notice how your character - even if normally cheery and plucky - also started reacting negatively to things? On the other hand, coming in to a tense situation after a week off often kills the mood in the game because none of the players are still feeling the tension. They've all had days, if not weeks, to come up with a dozen plans out and to get perspective. That mood is gone.

The point being: very little - if anything - is coming through objectively and without filters when you sit at the gaming table.

What Goes Unsaid
Ever have a GM be a stickler for "you have to say it to do it?" It isn't much fun. On the inverse, ever point something out to the GM as "I have always made a point of so can we just assume that this time?" Ever forget to grab an essential piece of equipment for a plan that the character would never forget? Yeah, I thought so. Also, before you deny that last one, it happens so often that I know several games have a mechanic to fix that exact problem in game through the expenditure of things like Hero/Fate/Destiny points.

Thing is, we make a lot of assumptions when we game. When we say we attack, we assume people understand we mean with our primary weapon. For mechanical things like combat this is fine, but it can cause problems in social settings. Take for instance the case of Eiji and Rei. Eiji and Rei are two characters in my housemate's L5R game. Eiji is a Kakita Bushi, and Rei is a Mirumoto Bushi. At the beginning of the game the players decided that Eiji and Rei were having in a relationship. The downfall and damage that relationship has come under in game is one of the big side stories of the game at this point, but some of it came from a simple misunderstanding.

See,  the person playing Eiji assumed that during some of the downtime, even if unsaid, that his character was spending time with Rei. It's a fair assumption to make. I mean, you have a significant other, you spend time with them, right? It's just assumed in real life, why not in game? The problem is that Rei's player, and the rest of the game, thought the absence of that statement meant that Eiji was not spending time with Rei, something made all the worse from his lack of responsiveness to several IC queries that Rei made.

How To Fix The Break
Like most things, communication is the key to fixing these breaks. Well, communication and remembering that it would be weirder for a game to not have this type of break, than for them to come up at any particular moment.

In the case of Eiji and Rei, the players and the GM worked it out. The player learned. The characters spend more time together,and things are still crazy and tension filled but that's for other reasons.

In the case of my D&D character, effectively I learned a lesson about how that GM ran their world and what their expectations were (they were a great GM btw, and I learned a lot about D&D from them.)

As a GM, and a player, it's the kind of thing where you just need to talk it out. Sometimes it means making a hard decision. For instance, with Eiji & Rei the decision was that Eiji's player needs to declare spending time with other PCs and can't just assume it. This was done for both clarity (GM has to track what we're doing, and players deserve to know) and because it was the standard everyone else was playing to. In other situations, things have been allowed to be retconned to be like "so everything happened as it did in session, but also this other stuff happened."

How you deal with it in your game is up to you. Just don't be surprised when a difference in view point causes confusion in your game. We all assume we're right when that happens, and so have no problems acting on it. Instead of fighting about it, just have a quick conversation about what happened, why it could or couldn't have happened, and how things go forward.

1 comment:

  1. There's a trope for that:

    In my game, I'm usually aware of the players having an alternate interpretation of what is going on and interactions with NPC's and such because I've played with them for quite a few years by now. As a GM, I started out as one of 'those' GM's who thought I had to force everyone into the same point of view. Suffice to say... that didn't go very well.

    I've learned to make some space for my players to have their own interpretations. That can be as small as imagining an NPC to be much better looking than I imagine them to be (game example: when I decribe an NPC as runty and rat-faced, I don't expect him to grow up to become Robert Downey Jr).
    These alternate interpretations usually don't have much of an impact on the game, but when they do collide I tend to go with the player's alternate interpretation and allow him/her a moment to convince me and the other players of why their interpretation is better than mine. When I have a specific reason not to allow a certain interpretation, I explain this as well.
    In Ratface's case, I don't mind the player imagining him to be RDJ as long as she doesn't expect him to seduce someone with his manly charm.