Friday, December 13, 2013

Discussion: Invest Me

When talking about Eldritch Horror's lack of focus on the character and personal stories, discussion came about on whether or not it is the job of a board game to force roleplaying onto the players. I agree that a board game should not. A group should be willing to bring that to the table themselves and our group does that in spades. We play Ladies and Gentlemen wearing tiaras and chomping on real cigar. Give me a dwarf character and I'll grumble in a gruff dwarf voice all night, bitterly complaining about everyone else. We'll build back stories for our characters and I'll help you to try to romance you. We've played String Railways speaking as train barons, trying to greedily expand through the land.

Basically, we bring the roleplay to our games and I love my groups because of that.

But what I want a game to do, and Eldritch Horror fails to do in my opinion, is to invest me in my character. If I have a character in front of me, I will play as that character, but the game should help me invest myself in the character.

But even without talking in a funny voice or doing actions that are sub-optimal, but totally in character, using props, or any other gimmicky shtick, games benefit from the player being invested in their characters. It makes decisions harder and more visceral. It makes the gaming more tense and the victories more stunning and the defeats more woeful. It enhances so much about a game well before anyone decides to talk in a crap accent for the next two hours.

So I just wanted to collect my thoughts and throw out there the different ways that board games can work to invest a player.

Give Your Character a Name
The only thing differentiating these two unique characters
is their hair color.
This is the simplest step to investing a player, but one that surprisingly pops up now and again. If I am playing Claustrophobia, I'll send the Condemned Brute off to hold the lines while I make my escape. But it would feel so much more challenging and raw if I had to decide if I was sending Gorik the Blacksmith's Son off to die for me. I mean, what would I say to his father, the blacksmith about his son's sacrifice? Even the main protagonist is simply called The Redeemer. Hell, Josh the Redeemer would be better. Level 7: Omega Protocol has a tactical roleplay feel to it, but the game would be improved so much more by simply naming the character "Team Leader" to Captain Reginald Greyson. Yes, we could name the characters ourselves, but without control of the stats and without that psychological impact of having a name on the sheet, I'll always just see "The Condemned Brute" staring back at me instead of "Skippy the Glanduarly Impaired". 

Give Me Something Unique
This covers a lot of ground. I could have a unique history. I could be a unique race. Or I simply could have a unique talent or skill or item. All of these makes a character stand out. If you are different from everyone else, then there is a reason why you would be better than others for some reason. A lot of games miss an easy opportunity to do this. In Eldritch Horror, Trish Scarborough begins with a .45 automatic pistol. That's great. But if she's not in play, that item is just shuffled into the asset deck. What if she began with a unique item of "Trish's Modified .45 Automatic". Keep the generic item in the deck, but now I feel more attached to this character. If she dies NO ONE else will ever get that gun. Most games with characters do, at least, give them unique roles and abilities which is good. But personalizing the character just a little bit more would make it so much better. Witch of Salem is a game that had a few problems, but a big one would have been solved by giving each character (who had their own name and portraits) anything to distinguish themselves from others. Each were exactly uniform in stats and ability.

Give Me Something to Relate To
Instant relatability.
Do you know what separates our game from video games? More of our female characters wear clothes. Sure, we still have those eye-rolling chainmail bikinis, but we are better than video games at capturing (or at least not offending) female gamers with our representations of female characters. And this helps female gamers to play as they have something to relate to. My daughter is seven and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. My wife is in her thirties and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. Robinson Crusoe didn't name their characters, but they gave a character sheet with a bit of character art on them. I could be the Cook and see a gruff, burly male cook. Or I could flip the sheet over and see a female cook. The stats are completely identical, but players can choose their gender and you can relate to the character. I'm fine with characters being set when they are named and have backstories, but this simple act allowed you to relate to your character more just by simply flipping the sheet over. It also broke down the awkward gender yin and yang role assignments. 

Give Me Choices (Even if I Choose Random Draw)
I like taking random characters, but I like being able to choose from a large selection. There should be different choices in characters, not just in play styles and roles, but also in appearance and race and gender. Nothing is more dull than my selection of characters being a bunch of white guys whose differing physical characteristics is their hair color. I want to be excited by the opportunity that I might play a female half-orc warrior wizard. This combines the desire to play something I can relate to as well as the desire for something unique. I might just feel more comfortable playing a female character and the choices allow for it. Or I might want to play a goblin berserker with rifle proficiency. The more diverse options you have, the more likely you will give someone the chance to playing something they want and invest them in their character.

Engaging Backstories
When done right, everyone will enjoy reading their character's backstory on the back of their card or sheet and it'll give you ideas of how your character might think or act. However, more often than not, the backstories are just banal fluff text. Here, I don't even care if you tread into tied, worn tropes. At least it is something we can relate to. Let me read my character's history and find out that I am the last survivor of my race. Or let me find out that my family was brutally murdered by the man I rescued and set free a year before. Or end it with the line "And he never thought he would love again." Anything to make the character's history compelling and interesting.

Character Art
Which tells more of a story from a glance?
Sure, art in a game means paying artists. However, your money is then supporting an artist. These days there aren't too many games that fail to produce character art. I don't mind bad artwork, but I of course, like it when it is pretty. But the art should show a bit of the character's personality or flair. Level 7: Omega Protocol's art is everyone in full body suit with their faces covered. Let me see my character's face. Flying Frog's games of Last Night on Earth, Fortune & Glory, and A Touch of Evil have somewhat cringy-worthy art design choices at times, but I love their character sheets. I look at the picture and I know so much about the character I am playing. It tells you a LOT about a character to portray them well. Although less common, this can also relate to miniatures. Claustrophobia has two Condemned Brutes in it. They are exactly the same models and builds and paints, except one is Condemned Brute with Brown Hair and the other is Condemned Brute with Blond Hair.

Personal Motives
This could be written into the backstory, but it can also be presented to players in much more engaging ways. Innsmouth Horror introduced personal stories for each of the Arkham Horror characters in existence. You had a backstory and a goal that you had to fulfill with trigger to pass or fail the backstory challenges. This was incredible. Players would have to try to save the world, but would also stop and try to resolve their pasts. We always played where the pass/fail card was hidden and only read once you passed or failed. This way, you didn't know what was on the line and the stakes were so much more higher.

But even non-customized, random personal goals help a lot. They give the character a unique purpose and direction, thus making your experience different from everyone else's. Secret goals or agendas can work as well, but once you start hiding information, the Battlestar Galactica traitor mentality pops into players mind and you might start playing a different meta-game.

Threat of Cinematic/Thematic Death
At least if I'm going to go, I'm going out
swinging and taking some of them with me.
You know what invests me in a character? The chance that he might die. I will innately fight to keep myself alive. But you know what invests me even more? The idea that I might die in some horrific, fantastic and thematic way.

What I love about Last Night on Earth is that Amanda the Prom Queen could be holding the keys to the truck to leave, but have five zombies in her space. So, Billy rushes to her space to defend her (I mean, he's always had a crush on her, but never said anything before). He gets an extra die in combat for being in the same space and Amanda and when the zombies attack, he can try to hold each of them off to let her escape. Yeah, he'll probably bite it and die horribly. But what a fantastic way to go out and the game allows--and even encourages it. And you know what the best part of it is? If Billy manages to fight off the zombies and survive and save Amanda, well, you know he's getting laid tonight.

I don't mind dying in a game at all, but give me a chance to have my dying moment be spectacular or cinematic. I won't seek it out, but I'll be invested post-mortum.

Chances to Act in Character
Give me a dwarf character and I'll be talking like a dwarf for the rest of the night. True, some groups might not play this way and would roll their eyes at me. That's fine. I don't need them. All I need is me grog anyhow.

But beyond silly voices, giving character decision points creates narrative. It isn't enough that a game has a location deck for each space. Then my decision is merely which space do I move to. When the location cards offer choices, it becomes more interesting. Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror does this with their location decks. When I have an encounter in a location, the person to my left reads my card for me. They stop reading when I am required to make a decision or make a skill check. I don't know what the results will be if I fail, so it becomes more tense as I have to decide if I want to spend my hard earned clue tokens or not. In Arkham, it is even more tense because choices or bad rolls could easily see you devoured. However, we are making choices and we are making choices in character. I'm not reading ahead to see what would happen if I were to accept aid from the mysterious stranger. Maybe I'll get a spell. Maybe I'll get a spell but be delayed. Maybe he'll remove a Doom Token from the Doom Track, but I'll gain a Dark Pact. I don't know, so I can't weigh the results to the state of the game. Instead, I have to make the decision in character. The games we can do this in are so much richer.

Leveling Up
Anyone who understands this picture knows how
important leveling up is.
I am a roleplayer. There is nothing in the world as beautiful to me as being able to level up a character. Adding points, gaining health, getting a new ability... These are the nectar of the gods.

But as I level up a character, I am getting tokens and reward for the effort that I put in with that character. It is physically represented in some manner. But more than that, if my character were to die, I would now lose all of that hard work. Leveling up is good enough, but leveling up with a threat of death is even better.

I'm down to two health. I could fight that zombie, but if I fail, there's a chance I could die. But then I'd lose those four skill points I put into this character. I'd better back off and heal up first.

Right there, you've made a sound decision mechanically that also represented investment in your character and also provided a good, realistic story point. You've decided that you want to live. You might be a bit of a coward for it, but the game is more real because you don't want to die. And that's wonderful.

Phat Lewt:
This is another simple, basic way to invest players. I don't want to die because then I'll lose all of my cool shit. The real investment, however, comes from you dying and it being gone forever. Eldritch Horror does something where if a character loses all of their health or sanity, you can go to their location and pick up their belongings. Sadly, this loses that investment in keeping characters alive since you know you can always go and pick up their stuff if you need to.

Campaign Mode
Some of these ideas (especially Leveling Up and Phat Lewt) can be extended through multiple scenarios and the stakes of them are risen as they go. However, a campaign generally tells an over arching story and, hopefully, takes into account the victories and losses of the characters along the way. But playing the same character also builds familiarity, which means you are more knowledgeable about how to play your character. This also builds investment since you playing the same character invests you more.

Most games with a campaign mode don't allow for permanent death and equipment loss from it, and it is understandable since coming in with a first "level" character with starting equipment halfway through the dungeon puts everyone on their side at a disadvantage. However, there are games that still allow for it and I commend them. I don't think that the mechanisms or gameplay of the Pathfinder Card Game really invest me that much, but the idea of permanent character death during a campaign does. It hasn't happened yet, but we have an unspoken "no do-overs" rule in place for when it happens and that idea weighs on our decisions the further along we get.

So, at the end of the day, I want to feel invested in my character. We are an easy-going group of gamers who are eager to jump into any role. But there is nothing like feeling like it when a game brings that around and reinforces a character's worth by investing the player in it. And if I'm invested in my character, I'm invested in the game. I should not expect a board game to force me to roleplay. But have the expectation that a game will invest me into my character isn't too much to ask for. I'll do the rest. And quite possibly, with a shit fake accent.

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