Posted by : David Guyll February 08, 2011

I'm going to open with a very simple visual aid.

...and...

Got it?

The mission statement for Dungeons & Dragons characters is very, very straightforward: you're an adventurer/hero/glorified vagrant that kills things and steals their shit (often in that order). The game doesn't even try to hide this fact, and so I find it very odd when a player bellies up to the table and wants to play a commoner or "zero-level" character. That's not what the game is about, or even assumes that you would ever do. If you dont like it, then play something else.

I don't mean for that to sound asinine, but it's really as easy as that. I dont jump into a Shadowrun game and get all butthurt that I have to play a cybernetically and/or supernaturally enhanced criminal, a Dragonball Z game and expect there to be plot, or a Rifts game and expect decent mechanics/anything remotely approaching game balance. Good games are made to cater to a specific play-style or genre, and D&D is not about going through a routine existence farming, or meandering around a village chatting it up with NPCs.

Players wanting to play an adventure game with a character barely suited for exterminating rats isn't the only problem I've run across in my gaming experience. I once had a group that was professed an interest in the game, and decided to run Stick in the Mud because I like the cut of Aeryn Rudel's game. Mostly I wanted to run a short session to get the newbies acclimated to the game and see if the veteran enjoyed my game-style. I told them to roll up a small party (which took awhile since one player kept wanting to fucking play Man-Bear-Pig). 

Once we had the party assembled and were ready to go dungeon crawling, I was hit with the following: 

"Why are we doing this?"

I hate, hate, haaate this fucking question. (#゚Д゚)

To me it's valid only insofar as you use it to justify to yourself why you are going to dick around in a dungeon and kill things--especially when put into context of a one-shot session. You're an adventurer. Think up something conducive to acting like one. To make sure that I'm absolutely clear, motivation is fine. It's great. It can help a player become more immersed in their character and get them more emotionally invested in the game. The problem is that no one else is likely to give a fuck about your motivation because they've got their own shit to worry about.

"Oh, you have an estranged brother that you are trying to find? Well fuck you, I'm trying to avenge my father who was murdered by a mysterious figure cloaked in shadows and shit."

Often times the question seems to be directed at me, the DM. Why the hell are you asking me? It's your fucking character, you figure it out. Feel free to bounce reasons off of me to see if its kosher with the plot, but don't ask me to do more than toss a couple tidbits your way, as all too often it's never what you wanted in the first place. Now, the provided hooks for the adventure were good (and generic) enough for me: get mud samples, retrieve an old staff, or just bring back heads for a bounty. It's easy and appeals to multiple player tastes. Dont like 'em, then you give me one that you do like and we'll talk.

Frankly, I prefer it when my players table that shit and work on it off the clock. Don't grind the game to a halt so you can play twenty-questions with yourself, roll with the flow and exchange email messages with your DM between game sessions. It's not a goddamn chicken-egg exercise: you can add to your character retroactively. Dont believe me? In many works of fiction, you start out knowing very little about any given character, and gradually learn more as the story(s) progress. It especially annoys me when I get players that seem to want to psychoanalyze their characters. Like, they can't make a simple decision without pondering for hours if their character would really do that thing, use that item, blah blah fucking blah. The answer is simple: your character does whatever you want it to, because its your character.

I don't recall if they ever picked a motivation, despite it being a one-shot intro game. However, once we'd stumbled through that hurdle, we immediately hit another.

"Do we know each other?"

Fucked if I know, figure it out between yourselves. ┐('~`;)┌

For some reason, players that think that its taboo to start the game already knowing one or more of the other players. Do they think it will give them any sort of advantage over something aside from being able to dodge the awkward, "get to know each other" phase of some games? There's been one campaign that I can recall where this wasn't a torturous trial, but that had two DMs and it still seemed contrived. Personally, I prefer operating under the assumption that the group already knows each other, or at least knows of each other. It makes it much easier to get the game going without having to trudge towards a contrived eventuality.

In closing, I submit the following:
  • You're an adventurer, act like it.
  • You don't have to have your character fully sorted before the game starts. Flesh it out as needed.
  • It's okay to know the party before the dice ever hit the table.

{ 7 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I agree. If I ever heard "Why are we doing this?" at a one-shot, I'd probably let the person know that if they didn't feel like doing it, they could go play at another table. If you come into a one-shot with grandiose expectations about character development and high drama, then you're barking up the wrong tree.

    For extended campaigns, I typically like to do some collaborative character generation, sometimes taking an entire session for it. During this time, I let the group flesh out their characters goals, whether or not they know each other, what they think the goals of the campaign ought to be, and other details. That the correct time to ask, "Why are we doing this?" - and then come up with an answer that satisfies the group.

    Ultimately, it's not the DM's job to provide entertainment for the other people at the table. It's everyone's job to bring the fun and make everything work. As the DM, through, I think there are a few things that you could have done to address the problems that popped up at your table. Namely, you could have answered the questions quickly and directly as soon as they popped up.

    Q: Why are we doing this?
    A: You're getting paid. You need the money.

    This should end that line of questioning completely, especially for a one-shot.

    Q: Do we know each other?
    A: Yes, you've worked together for a while now.

    This is always the correct answer to avoid the "getting to know you" problem.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm not opposed to answering questions, except when a player seems to want me to define their character outside of mechanics. Working with them is fine, and I'm happy to furnish setting lore (especially if its widely known information). I've had too many situations where a player comes up with a concept that has no place in an adventuring party, ranging from a wanting to play a NPC-type character, to having a goal that is so focused as to make them ill suited to cooperative play.

    I've also had players balk at collaborative character generation, which, when combined with not knowing each other, makes it even harder to get them together (and justify it).

    Mostly, this is a rant about players that like to make characters that defy the genre/play-style in one or more ways.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Classic fourth edition bullshit. 4th edition was made to appeal to young dweebs with no patience for story-telling - which many people find rewarding.

    3.5 had the right mix for story-telling AND the smash and grab style, but it got old and started not selling as well...so they made up 4th for clowns who don't want any depth. That's fine, but stop coming off like killing monsters and grabbing treasure Munchkin-hood is the best part of D&D.

    That's plain, limited-imagination ignorance.

    Go play D&D online and smash all you want.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Anon: I appreciate you taking time out of your obviously busy day to come to a random blog and spew shit on the comment thread, but perhaps you could indulge me a bit and explain what about 4E makes it intrinsically harder to add depth to a character than any other edition?

    How about any other game?

    To distill this blog entry: I don't mind players having motivation, I just don't like it when players want to play farmers or blacksmiths. That's not what the game is about.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Taking a queue from the Dungeon Master's Guide II( DMGII), a DM could turn these questions back upon the players.

    Player: Why are we doing this?

    DM: You tell me, why is your character here at the entrance to these ruins?

    Player: Do we know each other?

    DM: (to other player) Tell player 1 where you guys met.

    I have been playing D&D since 1981 along with various other RPG's and it wasn't until DMGII came out that I saw such opportunities for a DM to allow the players to help create the setting and be able to make up interesting stuff for the other players. They have created a game mastering aid that would be useful to any GM.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have no problem with players creating their own content and integrating it into the campaign. The sooner the better, because it increases the chance that I can work it in.

    This is one of the reasons why I like published settings like Eberron or Dark Sun: players can read the guides and figure out what works best.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sorry for the late post, Antioch; I haven't opened my Reader in a few months.

    I completely agree with what you're saying about the unspoken expectations of a player character. You're writing for a party of adventurers. They should act like heroes, maybe even villains, people that barely break a sweat after kobold genocide or the recovering of an ancient world-changing artifact.

    As far as characterizing characters, for me, it takes a lot of coaxing. My players all have great ideas in their head; it just needs a little bit of help from me. "Hey man, have you thought of a personality?" and "what kind of profession you think suits your guy?" helps. I've also found that giving two characters similar backgrounds bolsters roleplay exponentially. My best in that was... the Berserker was best friends with an NPC ranger, who had been childhood friends with the Arcane Archer. The most memorable series of scenes of my games, the other year, was when the ranger was killed during a scouting mission.

    I enjoy seeing how interesting a character's background can be. But I agree with you in that they have to try, at least a little bit, to fit in with the genre. If anything, don't let 'em de-rail you. A blacksmith hired by a big bad guy, now on the run for knowing the Empire's secrets or a farmer with a previous military background whose daughter was kidnapped by the Snake Cult makes for some good story. Take what you can and run with it. If it's not epic enough... make it so!

    Keep up the good work, Antioch.

    ReplyDelete

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