Roleplaying Blues

I’d mentioned in my private LJ that I’d been feeling sort of frustrated and depressed by roleplaying games in general. Thoughts behind the cut. I have other things I should be doing. But this has been on my mind a lot lately so I figure I might as well get it out.

Lately I’ve been mulling over some of the genius behind things introduced in Amber Diceless, some of it fueled by curgoth‘s series of series of posts about diceless game design. I don’t know how much of the genius is intentional, as the things that I think are awesome in the game are not the sorts of things I saw in the handful of games I’ve played with the Wuj. But it fostered a play style that has come to define what I love in roleplaying games. I can’t think of any games (with a slight exception of Nobilis) that really came as close as this.

It took me years to find a group to play Amber with. Until then I had to make do with my high school and college gaming friends, who were cut more from the old school hack and slash sort of play. In the line between “roleplaying” and “game” they were more on the game side of the fence. When I finally found Amber games to play in… it was like coming home. It was addictive. I caused long-term damage to old friendships because given the choice between playing in my regular Amber games and doing anything with them, Amber always won out.

I’ve never really recaptured that magic. I’ve certainly never recreated it as a GM.

So what do I find to be the genius behind Amber? If I had to say “What is this game about?” I would say it’s about getting into your role and playing it. The way it encourages it:

  • Breaking the “Party” Mold: The auction system really encourages you to look at your fellow players less as members of some adventuring team that you are obliged to trust in order to get things done and more as rivals that you’ve spent centuries feuding with. Even though I don’t go for the PvP style of play that you get with the more Throne War mentality, this shift in relationships is very different from what you get in other games.
  • Mostly Invisible System: For the most part, you don’t need to look at your character sheet. It’s sometimes handy when you buy powers that you rarely use and then forget. But not having to focus on a sheet of abilities means that you can focus more on character interaction and staying in character. It also means that combat, the sluggish miasma that bogs down dice-based gams, is quick, simple and more dynamic. You don’t lose hit points. You lose blood.
  • Exercises to Develop Character: The game book encourages you to love your character. And it gives you a series of things to do in order to get into that character’s head. The character quiz in the main rules is robust. You look at the character questions in something like Vampire: The Requiem and it’s really basic. “Who were you before you became a vampire?” or “How did you meet the other PCs?” In Amber it runs deeper: “Describe your perfect date” or “Under what circumstances, if any, would you kill?” They really work to make you think about your character’s personality and mindset. Additionally, you can get bonus points for selling your soul to a contribution. While quote lists and game logs are fun, the best was always the character diary. While I imagine the reasoning was to emulate the first person narrative of the books, what it really accomplished was to have you reflect on how your character would react to the events of the previous session, helping you to increasingly develop your character’s voice and personality.

    I’ve increasingly approached other games like this. While I’ve tried to cleave closer to the dice-hucking mentality when doing more beer-and-pretzels endeavors, most of my attempts at roleplaying-heavy games have drawn upon those three elements listed above. The results have been decidedly mixed.

    Lately I’ve been feeling like not many people share my angle on roleplaying games. I mean, in the war between roleplayers vs. gamers (or, to use the more fashionable terms “narrativists and gamists”), roleplayers have always seemed like the minority. As I’ve kvetched in the past, encouraging people to contribute to a game away from the table can be difficult. But more than that, with the current trend in roleplaying games (both mainstream and indy), I’m feeling more and more like an outdated curmudgeon uninterested in change. Because increasingly the new stuff coming out feels more like “game” and less like “roleplaying.”

    I’ll readily admit some of the new jargon makes me wince. I’ve gotten to the point where I can hear people discuss “gamist” vs. “narrativist” and not twitch, but I still get a bit of an eye twitch when people talk about “actor stance,” “director stance,” “best boy stance” or whatever.

    This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the games. I went to Go Play Northwest last year and I’ll go again this year. I co-ran Grindhouse at ACNW last year (I did Primetime Adventures, my cohort ran InSpectres) and I’m considering doing it again in 2008. I also offered an indy game at ACUS this year (using Wilderness of Mirrors to do a Corwin-chronicles style game), but no one signed up for it. And from the point of view of “fun and easy games to organize that require very little prep,” from a GMing point of view they have a certain appeal.

    But in the end, they usually don’t feed my roleplaying bug. Especially when I’m in the position of being a player. There are notable exceptions. I had a shitload of fun playing in Zorcerer of Zo last year and may very well use that system for something else in the future. The problem I run into are with the “story games.” It took me forever to grok what was meant by “story games” and how they differed from what I considered “roleplaying games.”

    I don’t know that everyone would feel there’s a distinction between the two. I know some do, since I’ve brought this up to others. But the other day, when a friend was offering to run something and was looking for input, I said that I really wanted an actual roleplaying game and not a story game. He didn’t quite get what I meant. I suppose I should have said that I wanted a game where I could primarily play in actor stance with an immersionist play style, but I didn’t. In retrospect I feel like Denis Leary, demanding, “Can I get some roleplaying flavored roleplaying?” as though my outrage will change the way things are.

    When I’m playing a roleplaying game, I have no interest in having dice tests in order to determine narrative control. I don’t want to have some dice conflict to see if my character changes his mind. I play a roleplaying game to play a role and that stuff just gets in the way. I want to settle into a personality and, through that personality, interact and explore a world. Ideally there are challenges for me to face, some personalized storylines and some larger plot that I get to explore and beat down. And when I want to run a roleplay-oriented game, that’s the sort of game I like to make.

    The shift from roleplaying to storygaming is one of things that ultimately disappointed me about John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded. There were other factors, but the big one was simply that at some point he moved from a success/fail model to a narrative-control model. I’ll probably still buy it, but it’s not the game I hoped it would be.

    Even the mainstream stuff seems so disappointing. I’ve liked the more generic approach to rules that most mainstream roleplaying games take. My games are about little more than roleplaying (by which I mean actor-stance immersionism) and that’s it. The best systems are those that don’t get in the way of that but provide me with a mechanic to add some randomized risk if I feel so inclined. That’s it. And some games still provide that. New World of Darkness? Love it. It is exactly what I want out of it. The new face of d20…? I’d had hopes for it. Star Wars Saga Edition was a little disappointing in the sense that it was going back to the miniature gaming roots, with only a light garnish of roleplay on top of it. It’s main redeeming quality is that it’s such a simple system that it is pretty easy to disappear into the background.

    From what little I’ve read of D&D 4.0, it’s going to be even worse. It’s their attempt to compete with the MMORPG market, I guess. Obviously I’m not their target audience, but I had hoped that their answer would be something besides, “Let’s make our game more like MMOs!” I want a game that encourages roleplay more, not just an overrated board game. I can roleplay out a game of Yahtzee or Clue, but that doesn’t mean I want to.

    I have two large bookcases filled with roleplaying games. Most of them are D&D, GURPS, Exalted and World of Darkness, but I’ve got tons of other stuff as well. Fading Suns, Blue Planet, Starchildren, Little Fears, Nobilis, Paranoia, Tales from the Floating Vagabond and more. Most of them I’ve never played. Unless I run something with them, I likely never will. And I have lots of ideas for games. I can’t watch a TV show or read a book without ideas for games percolating up.

    And then I wonder, “Well who would I invite?” I mean, who would be willing to learn a new set of rules and a new setting? I’m willing to provide summarized write-ups, but I hate teaching rules and settings. Who would I invite that would be willing and able to teach themselves the rules? Or at least read a summarized version of it?

    Could I get them to do that and also have it be very roleplay oriented? Can I get them to come up with a character that has more concept than “I have a big gun?” Could I get them to answer a character quiz? Provide information about their character? Communicate reliably? Can I get them to provide effort outside of the game to help build up a quality experience for themselves? Or will they just show up and expect to be entertained?

    As I ask these questions I feel less certain of being able to get positive results. I’ve tried to do a lot of this with the Amber game I’ve been running and have had mixed results. After this game gets wrapped up, I’ve told myself I’m not going to replace it with anything. I’ve had lots of ideas for games? I’ve been wanting to play or run Nobilis so bad it hurts. Would I be able to find players who would be interested in the same sort of game I am? I’ve been feeling like the answer is mostly “No.”

    This is not to say that I couldn’t get people to play. There are plenty of people willing to sign on just because I’m running it. But what I want out of players and what I’m likely to get are two different things. And a sadness and heartsickness builds within me.

    Threaded through this is also the gnawing realization that I’m not the sort of GM I would like to be. People have fun in my games, but I’m always hoping to run something bigger and deeper than I think I’m capable of. And I can’t seem to come to terms with that.

    The wife thinks I just need to take a hiatus from GMing, and she’s probably right. By this summer I’ll probably be entirely free from any GMing commitments. It will be interesting to see what will happen from that.

  • 9 thoughts on “Roleplaying Blues

    1. nakedvillainy

      I think you’ve done a good job getting all your thoughts down succinctly and clearly.

      I really think you’d do well to put some of your gaming-idea energy into a different creative medium, like writing. That way you could stretch your wings creatively and yet not need to rely on other people for the end result. If your gaming isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.

      And I certainly don’t want to see you yelling about “roleplaying flavored roleplaying” and having a heart attack in the Dreaming.

    2. sirriamnis

      First: “In retrospect I feel like Denis Leary, demanding, “Can I get some roleplaying flavored roleplaying?”

      This line is awesome, and I think I understand your angst here. Ogre is far more into the narrative thing than I am. I’ve had fun playing Don’t Rest Your Head and the other Story Games with him, but I’m uncomfortable with the winning narration thing. I don’t want to narrate, I want to “do.” I’m not thrilled with other players narrating me either.

      However, I do have some issues with the diceless system, too. And if you remind me, I’ll tell you more later, because I have to get ready to leave work.

    3. colomon

      I guess I have come to terms with that, more or less. That is to say, I always wanted to run, I don’t know, The Lion In Winter or Lawrence of Arabia. And what comes out is more Brisco County.

      And the thing is, people seem to like Brisco County. And at my best, I can do nearly operatic things in that silly, almost-over-the-top action with a bit of a serious heart genre. And people keep on signing up for the games, so I must be doing something right, I guess.

      So these days, instead of mourning the grand dramas I don’t seem to be able to run, I’m trying to figure out how to get more out of what I can run. I don’t know whether I can make it work — I guess I’m going for being a bit ambitious, but not venturing far from my comfort zone. Except “comfort zone” doesn’t seem right, because it’s not so much what I’m comfortable with as what always happens anyway. The lighter side always comes out, and the gonzo usually does.

      Does that make any sense?

    4. admin Post author

      There are lots of issues to be had with diceless roleplaying. But it also solves a lot of problems that I run into with diced games.

      I guess when I find that most of the dice games I run are mostly diceless, it makes me wonder why I bother running dice games. =T

    5. admin Post author

      I’ve been saying that for years. It’s in the top tier of games I desperately want to play. I’ve only gotten to play in one session, and I only got 15 minutes of actual play after waiting for several hours.

      If you wanna come to Seattle and run something, I’ll hardly object. ;)

    6. a2macgeek

      When I’m playing a roleplaying game, I have no interest in having dice tests in order to determine narrative control. I don’t want to have some dice conflict to see if my character changes his mind. I play a roleplaying game to play a role and that stuff just gets in the way. I want to settle into a personality and, through that personality, interact and explore a world. Ideally there are challenges for me to face, some personalized storylines and some larger plot that I get to explore and beat down.

      Wow, you took the words right out of my mouth. That’s exactly how I feel. The games I’ve enjoyed the most are always the ones where I can immerse myself in the character, where even between sessions I’ll be thinking about it. This is why I can’t stand system like Primetime Adventures or Dogs in the Vineyard, because they break me out of that immersion.

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