Recently, I joined an Exalted game a friend of mine was running. After nearly a year of indie-only play, I came to the game with fresh eyes. I was surprised once I got into it, though, at my comparative lack of frustration at the long list of obtuse rules. Don’t get me wrong, many rules in Exalted make me want to set the world on fire. But I didn’t just slam the book down and back out of the game. Instead I got roped into this wonderlandian rabbit hole of Exalted character generation. I wondered why it hooked me so much when I knew that ultimately, Exalted just isn’t my schtick. It got me thinking about pre-play in general, and what keeps people attached to crunch and rules-heavy games like Exalted or D&D.

And then it hit me. At no other point in these more traditional games do you make nearly as many decisions as you do when making a character. The joy, the real good stuff, is in that early sweep of decision-making. You get to define a person, optimize them, stylize them, dress them, power them, engineer them for the moments of badassery you want them to have. There’s a relevant quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail here:

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”

That quote is a little cynical, I think, to apply here wholesale. But there’s a pattern lurking behind it that applies. Once play begins, that flurry of character-related decisions is totally forgotten. As is most of the fun. You go into the dungeon. You kill orcs. You take their stuff. Story happens at you sometimes. Some GMs are better about this than others, but the majority of traditional games don’t give much space for player authority, which is where all the blood and plot and drama worth anything happens. And you’ll notice this odd effect when you give experienced D&D players more player-authority choices to make in-game: they totally deer-in-headlights on you.

So what’s up with that? They know when they want to activate a feat, what stat they want when they level, what prestige class they’ll take and when. But ask them to frame a scene, and nothing! So it’s clear that there are two kinds of choices going on in these game. My best guess is that the difference has to do with the information available to a player. When you make character generation choices, you’re acting with complete information. Every choice you make has an outcome you know and understand. When you make a decision in-play, that outcome is not known. It could help you, it could massively hurt you, it could do something totally unexpected. And the real threat behind that incomplete information is the possibility of being wrong.  There are no “wrong” decisions in pre-play, but people think that there are “wrong” ones in actual role-play. So even when you get players who know their exact build down the points, you might not have the action-loving tragic-hero player you secretly want, because they’re afraid to make the wrong choice.

In the future, I’d love to make a game that was friendly to new players, or to ones unused to making rash decisions in-play. What’s the best way to mitigate that fear of being wrong, I wonder?

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