Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Peculiar Challenge of Play

I've been thinking a lot about the player side of things lately. This is unusual for me. Before Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord game, I hadn't played in a regular game since before I started this blog. Short campaigns, the occasional one-shot, sure, but nothing like a long-term, meets-every-week game.

And heck, even before that, I've never done a whole lot of long term play. A couple of weeks ago that game became the longest game I've been in, period, and it became the longest game I've been in as a player a while ago. My group in high school always tended towards short games, and I was the GM as often as not, so my play experience is somewhat lacking in general, and deficient in the area of long-term play specifically. There are trade-offs to that -- I've run a bunch of different kinds of games -- but it's nice to get this experience now all the same.

And interesting, as it's an opportunity to learn about my playing style. First major item of note: playing is really different from GMing. I mean profoundly different.

Obvious, right? Different power level, different responsibilities, different rewards. And people tend to be one or the other, so that's a pretty powerful marker right there. But I'm thinking of one item in particular, that's at the core of all the other difference: as a player, I have only one in-put into the game.

I'm used to running NPCs, and even fairly complex ones, but a PC is an entirely different animal, and in ways that I'm only just now really appreciating. The surface qualities are pretty similar: I talk in-character. I make decisions in-character. I create a personality, appearance, backstory.

But when I'm a GM, and I create an NPC I turn out not to like, it's a pretty simple matter to kill him, ship him to another continent, or just plain forget about him. But as a player, I'm stuck with the decisions I make (to an extent depending on the GM, so if I end up with something really loathsome I can make an appeal) and those decisions take on a whole different kind of significance, because this character is the main, and in many ways only, way for me to interact with the game.

So that guides my decisions. If I want, I can make an NPC who's incurious, or obnoxiously argumentative, or sort of stupid. None of those are options for the only character I can play, because I'm curious about the world, need to stick with the team, and like to figure things out and try different ideas. My needs as a player drive the development of my character.

But that in itself is a fun sub-game, and one I don't get to play as a GM. In this game, my characters have started out fairly simple -- more playing piece than character, really, because I haven't figured out what would be interesting to play. I make decisions based on what I, as a player, think is interesting. But then that gives me something to work with. Once I find out that I like exploring dungeons and asking questions about their makers, I decide that my character is curious and likes history. Once I find out that the GM will let me get away with doing slightly crazy things as long as they're interesting -- and even reward me, occasionally, for taking risks like running off into the woods alone after the pixies who took our stuff -- I adjust my earlier idea of her being fairly cautious and make her, while not reckless, willing to take those leaps of faith that I'd discovered were so interesting.

Setting up a character before play and letting her run out like clockwork wouldn't be all that interesting to me. But exploring the tension between "this is what I want to do" and "this is what my character would do" fascinates me. It's a constant challenge, and a constant source of new ideas. The particulars of the rest of the group will encourage me to switch I a role I'd intended to play off of one party member over to another. An offhand comment and an NPC's reaction will spark an entire new dimension to a backstory. It's a very different kind of fun than GMing, but a very satisfying one.


  1. I know what you mean. I’m hoping to get into a B/X game with Mr. Armstrong of OtBD, and it makes me a bit nervous, to tell the truth. Most of the games I’ve PLAYED as opposed to run as GM have had intricate character creation processes (even 1st edition AD&D provides a slew of choices) which allows a GM-type like myself to create a strong, individual character for my Character, just as I would with an interesting NPC.

    The rules-light game and reactive style play is outside my realm of experience. I’m not used to being confronted with open-ended scenario and the question “what do you do?” What do I do? What’s my motivation, dammit? Lawful Elf? How am I supposed to play that?!!

    Good work adapting to a different style of playing RPGs. From my end, it looks daunting.
    : )

  2. Nice to see more frequent postings. I'm wondering how this relates, in general, to acting vs. directing.

  3. JB: Good luck! Trollsmyth's game really clicks with my style, so it's been great. Your mileage may vary, but obviously I hope you'll have fun in that game. The only advice I can offer is that it helps if your character has an interesting reason to want treasure. (Though this is mostly true if treasure is how you get XP.) Whether it's power, comfort, the ransom of a family member, or whatever else you can think of, that gives you a reason to go out adventuring, and a good handle for future development.

    chinakids: Thanks. And . . . wow, I hadn't thought of that, but now I'm going to have to corral some of my theater friends and talk about it. I'm not sure I have enough experience with theater to comment intelligently, except that the kind of character development I'm talking about is very much like good acting in that the question is, "Why did this character do what they did?" In acting, you're asking that question based on what's in the script, instead of what you've done because that's interesting as a player, but it's a similar kind of process.