Sunday, May 18, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part III: False Investments

 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the second part I talked about what different roleplaying systems do well. D&D/Pathfinder don't really do roleplaying or storytelling well. However, the systems that do those well are often very pigeon-holed into a very specific theme or motif in order to give structured storytelling systems. In this part I talk about another thing that D&D/Pathfinder does well, at least on the surface, which is investing players in their characters.

Beyond the tactical combat, if there is one thing that D&D/Pathfinder does really well, it is investing the players in their characters.

There is something about all those numbers on your sheet. It is by far nowhere near my favorite method of creating characters, but even with my disdain of it, I have to admit that there is a very alluring draw to seeing those numbers and watching them grow.

When I gain a level and suddenly I'm adding all of those +1's to all of the sections of my sheet, it is thrilling. I'm a little better at hitting things now. I have a little more skill in some other things now. My saving throws are a little bit better now.

 It is a carrot on a stick as you are constantly chasing more and more numbers to put onto that sheet of yours. But it works. It is engaging to see those numbers on your sheet grow. It is a tangible goal that you can strive toward.

One Thousand and One Nights has a really interesting character creation system. You create your character by describing them with each of the five senses. So I could smell of oranges and sweat, but I always see the best in the people around me despite the fact that I carry the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth. This is further expanded by your character having something that you envy about another player's character.

While this is a fantastic system to create a character who would be wonderful at being a part of an engaging story, it doesn't have the same draw as those damned numbers. Character advancement is a driving goal, a carrot on a stick. And the problem with character systems like this is that you are compelled to advance the story, which is wonderful. However, advancing the character is missing.

Those damn numbers end up feeling comfortable and happy. I know that I have gotten better because +4 to hit is obviously better than +3 to hit. My god, I remember when I only had a +1 to hit. I was such an amateur back then.

But the thing about this is those numbers aren't what makes a character interesting or even compelling. I don't know why we are drawn to them in the game, but we are.

Like I said previously, they aren't even what draws us to our memorable moments. The stories that I will tell about my characters aren't about my 19 Dexterity or my +8 to hit. They will instead be about the accomplishments and deeds that I accomplished. I will tell you about how I snuck past the guards or how I saved the princess or about how I was able to recover the powerful MacGuffin Artifact of Doom.

That's where those numbers become important. Because they make you better at performing the feats that tell the stories.

But they don't. Not really. Because there are systems in place to scale the difficulty. At first level, I rescue the princess from three goblins. At twentieth level, I rescue the princess from a Demon Lord and his pet dragon.

If I send a great wyrm red dragon at a party of first level characters, they will die. So I would really be a shit DM if I were to attack the party with it. So instead, I'll attack the party with a couple goblins. Similarly, if the party were all well geared 12th level characters, I wouldn't attack them with three goblins. We would be wasting everyone's time in resolving the fight.

So why do those increasing numbers mean so much to us when all it means is that the challenges are going to increase at a well-scripted and defined pace to be equal with the current numbers?

It's purely psychological. +4 is obviously better than +1 even though that means I'll be fighting monsters that also have a +4 instead of just a +1. And advancement continues on as it becomes more and more unwieldy.

Games deteriorate after fifth level as players become more and more powerful and combats are forced to become bigger and bigger with nastier and nastier monsters with more and more effects and abilities and resistances. After a campaign ends, people look back at it and think back about how much fun those early low level adventures were.

But, at the same time, no player ever really adds his +1's when they level and sigh and say, I'm too powerful now. We are conditioned to think those advancement goals are good and we want them.

But those advancement goals, however meaningless they are when threats scale to your current level, are important for investment. You want to feel like your character is getting better and improving. Since D&D/Pathfinder has no systems for roleplaying and story, the only way that you can reflect that you are getting better and improving in any tangible way is to add +1 to the numbers on your character sheet.

But I really feel like that is a false investment. Let's say that you are playing Gustov, an 8th level fighter character and you have saved the town numerous times and are regarded as a hero and liked by the local population. You have established a rivalry with a noble house and you believe that they are secretly trying to hinder your goals. You have won the eye of the princess, but you are not royal and as such you're relationship with her is complicated.

Then Gustov dies. You get eaten and swallowed up by a dragon turtle.

You roll up a new character to reenter the game. You get the exact same ability rolls and you make him the exact same race and class. You start your new character at 8th level and you have every single bonus and ability and piece of armor and items that your old character has.

But it's not the same character. Those numbers are exactly the same as the numbers that were on the other sheet. Hell, you even named yourself Gustov Jr.

But the character is different because you lost the stories associated with the original character.

That is the true investment in a character. We get caught up in those numbers and they have an amazing psychological effect. We all want to add the +1's and we are all happy when we can. But that isn't really what the character is.

Many of the independent systems that I wrote about in the last part are really only meant to be played as a single session or over the course of 2-3 nights. They are designed to tell a singular story, but then they are over once the story is over. So there is no real advancement or investment in the characters needed other than to advance that singular story.

But my issue with D&D/Pathfinder is that when you do have that advancement and investment, the only systems in place advance your combat abilities which the challenges are designed to always match. Nothing on that sheet reflects what you gained in story or how your relationships with other NPCs or even the other PCs has changed or increased.

Monster Hearts is a roleplaying game about playing the messy lives of teenage monsters. You could be a witch, or a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghost, or an infernal, or just a mortal. But you are a teenager who is secretly a monster. And being a monster is really almost just an additional allegory to how difficult being a teenager is.

The game is about loss of control and sex. These are two themes that overlap strongly with both monster stories and being a teenager. But one of the fascinating things that it does is that it comes up with a system to represent this urges when it comes to other players.

Whenever you turn someone on, shut someone down, or lash out physically at someone you gain a String on them. Strings are tangible markers of influence over another person. There are systems in place for using your powers to do many of these, such as turning people on. Now, if I turn you on, that doesn't mean that you will suddenly sleep with me. But perhaps I made you blush and I saw it. I now know that I have that over you. I have a String on you that I can spend later to manipulate die rolls with you, or to manipulate them and ask them to do whatever you want (they can refuse, but if they accept, they gain and experience point), or you can use to it place Conditions on them.

But this is a tangible Story investment I have on my character. If I have three Strings on Mr. Bradley, the high school science teacher, it says something and it is a tangible story reward. If I have two strings on your character, then I have a tangible sense of reward on my sheet, but also something that tells a story.

Characters also have sex moves. Essentially, things that occur when they have sex with another character or NPC. If a Fae lies naked with another, they can ask them for a promise. If they refuse, the Fae gains 2 strings on them. When a Vampire denies someone sexually, they gain a string on them. However, if a Vampire has sex with someone, they lose all strings on that person.

Monster Hearts is amazing at making emotion tangible rewards. Sex and sexuality are dangerous though, because you are teenagers. I may be a straight male, but your male character turned me on. My body betrayed me like teenage bodies often do. As a result you have something over me. As my peer you can use what you know about me now to manipulate me. That is what being a teenager is about.

Now, Monster Hearts focuses on a very specific thing--teenage angst and sexuality. But it shows that systems for character development, relationships and story can have deep and interesting systems to them.

Looking back at Gustov and Gustov Jr. Their character sheets are identical, except for the Jr. added to the second one's name. But the characters are wildly different because of the experiences and stories and relationships that one had. But none of that is reflected in the sheet or in any of your stats.

The things that makes a character a real character are not represented in D&D/Pathfinder with any systems at all. Instead we get more +1's to add.

What if, instead of those +1's, you could spend your experience on things like Relationships or Influences or buying off Rivals? What if your character sheet actually reflected the deeds that you did and the relationships you forged and the consequences that resulted from them?

Instead we invest ourselves in those damn numbers and getting those +1's to sprinkle around on our sheet. That isn't your character. If it were, Gustov Jr. would feel exactly the same as Gustov. But he doesn't.

And my problem is that D&D/Pathfinder invests the players in false rewards. Your encounters will scale accordingly. Those things don't mean anything. But the enter system fails to present any meaningful system for roleplaying and what really makes a character unique and memorable to play.

But I guess the question turns into, how much does any of this matter?

In the Final Part I talk about what this means for my Pathfinder campaign and how much it will affect it, as well as my desires for more.

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