Role-playing can be, like acting, that particular strange mix of enervating and energizing. You do it, it gives you a thrill, but you feel a bit wrung-out afterwards. And that’s not surprising! You’ve been performing, and performing improv no less, in front of a bunch of people for a few hours. We never do warm up exercises before a game,1 or anything like that.
We do have some scaffolding, at least: rules and fortune mechanics do a good job of helping us particularly at those moments when we throw up our hands and say “who knows?” We have games like Ben Lehman’s Hot Guys Making Out that wisely exhort us to give ourselves a moment to think.2 We have a small and intensely sympathetic audience. But it can still be hard.
My preferred way of dealing with this is to play characters I hate. For me, there are two easy poles to play: myself, and my opposite. And myself is very bad at making drama—most things I do in life are designed to facilitate understanding and compromise. So instead of asking myself “what would I do here?” I try to ask myself “what is the worst possible thing to do here, that I would hate?” and do that. It’s fantastic fun. I’ve played a few reprehensible characters this way, but you can tone it down a bit—for example, play a character who has similar aims to your own, but very bad execution, a well-intentioned asshole. Or more accurately, someone who takes action that compounds drama, even as they want a good and settled ending state. I’ll inaccurately call them an asshole for short.3
I came across an old bit of Vincent’s blog again today:
The challenge facing rpg designers is to create outcomes that every single person at the table would reject, yet are compelling enough that nobody actually does so. If your game isn’t doing that, like I say it’s interchangeable with the most rudimentary functional game design, and probably not as fun as good freeform.
This got me thinking about the desire to see a character get in hard dramatic situations—to get kicked in the face. And this got me thinking about character advocacy. As many smart people pointed out, you can advocate for your character to get kicked in the face as easily as you can advocate for them to live happily ever after—and in fact, you can advocate for both at once.
I think that what Vincent is driving at is that, at the core of drama, we need to see hard things happen to good people before we see good things happen to them. And in as much as we’re making a game to give us story, we need the game to drive us to do that, because the executive part of our brains doesn’t want to make that happen.
But what about when you are playing that asshole? You want to see that character kicked in the face, so what does the game driving towards it do for you? Well, here’s what I want the game to do: I want it to get you kicked in the face in surprising and unbalancing ways. Because I want to see that asshole get better for their experiences, and come out of it maybe better at dealing with life. And I think that when you, as the player, are forced to react to deeply unexpected circumstances as this character, that journey is more rewarding.
And so, either way, you’re advocating for your character. You’re engaged, you’re trying to make certain things happen for them, whether those things are good or bad or both. And that’s the key: engagement. You’re not turtling, you’re not scared to contribute.
I’ve drifted, but Vincent’s right.4 Games need to be engines of surprise, typically but not always providing surprising negative outcomes.
- Which is something I’d love to try, some time, actually. [↩]
- Some of the best advice for any game is in the preview edition: “Each turn, don’t be afraid to just play from the gut, but also don’t be afraid to take some time to think about what you want your character to do.” [↩]
- There are games, of course, where you can delight simply in playing an asshole, a real asshole, and seeing them get their comeuppance: Fiasco is great for this. [↩]
- As usual. [↩]