Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Freedom Of Action

Ben, in a comment on the Conan post a few days ago, gave the following definition: "Good roleplaying includes considering motivations for the character that align with the character's capabilities, history, and environment."  I would ask the gentle reader to please read the quote in context, as I don't wish to repost it all again here.

With Ben's perspective, I find myself faced with an ethic to which I'm steadfastly opposed - that a player must, upon being given a history, feel duty bound to continue the "story line" of that history simply because I had given it.  That to do otherwise would be, in that player's philosophy, "bad roleplaying."  With regards to the posts I have written about player backgrounds, this was never my intention.  I presumed that a point would be reached in the character's life where, training to be a mage or fighter or whatever done, they would be free to choose their own future however they saw fit.  My players know that I have never steadfastly required that any player would be expected to take this or that action because they were an orphan, or had been frivilous with their money in the past, or had learned how to juggle.

Perhaps I've been casually dismissive about the whole topic.  I wouldn't play in a world where a DM had such expectations.  And in any event, I feel confident that I could take any group of details offered me and create at least six differently motivated people, one after another, from a serial rapist to a pious town benefactor.  But since people don't tend to characterize as much as I do (in a way, its my profession), and since people DO seem to think that the past is a set of manacles on the present - and the future - I realize that Ben has explained why I received the lack of interest I got when first proposing those background tables.  Why would anyone be interested in wearing a set of shackles?

It's a crying shame that players feel bound by the kind of motivations that are designed for a two-hour movie.  I mean, I like Conan and all, but the characterization on film doesn't compare with the sort of character development that might be found in something like Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, or Les Miserables ... a sprawling, reworked perspective gained by a character as he or she undergoes a series of embattled relationships, events and tragedies.  Exactly the sort of thing that can't be recorded in a film.  Consider, the page of a book typically translates into ninety seconds of action on film; this would mean that even a relatively short novel, such as Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, meticulously transferred onto film, would run about four hours and forty minutes ... minimum.  Because Verne tends to skirt widely over some events without providing much written detail (that was his style), I would guess in reality the length of the proper detailed film would be twice that.

As such, directors and screenplay writers are forced to cut and slash huge bits of the book to compress it into the mere three hours playing time the audience can stand.  There isn't room for all that personality change.  So that even if R.E. Howard had written some deep background to Conan (Howard never wrote anything deep about anything), the film certainly wouldn't have had time to show it.

Therefore, film needs to create motivations in ten minutes or less - and so the motivations must be less rounded, less complex ... and easily gotten by even the dumbest audience member, if the film is to make any money.

Why, oh why, would D&D be limited even remotely in the same way?

One session runs five, six hours; there's plenty of time for players to invent the most profound, complex backgrounds for their characters far beyond those transmitted in a mere movie.  All it takes is imagination.  If I postulate that the Conan becomes a character at the moment his master frees him, then all that came before that point is the background that I provide, and all that comes after is the resolution the character chooses to play.  "Your character's parents were killed by brigands, you were raised as a slave, you were trained as a gladiator, instructed by an eastern martial artist and taught to read philosophy and poetry.  And now your master has now set you free.  What do you do?"

There is no law in the world that says, from that above, that your character's ONLY option is to answer, "I look for the murderers of my parents."  It deeply troubles me that anyone would argue vehemently that to give any other answer is "bad roleplaying."  This speaks fluently of a perceived tradition in roleplaying games that demands blood-for-blood, the saving of face and the demonstration of prowess.

Surely, there must be some room for a player to answer, "My experience with philosophy has taught me that, although my life has been troubled to date, all life is truly pain; to be happy, I recognize that desire is a path that leads only to disappointment.  I shall renounce my past, and seek to teach others that wisdom can offer a freedom from wants that can never be obtained."

Is this bad roleplaying?  Could a player not also answer, "Really, free?  I'm at a loss ... I've been a slave so long.  The murderous bastards who killed my parents are probably long dead by now.  I don't know what I should do ... perhaps I could reach a town, find friends and use my talents as a fighter to improve my life.  There are so many things I haven't tried, so many places I haven't seen.  I want to go see them."

Bad roleplaying?  Why couldn't a player answer, "Those bastards who kept me slave these past thirty years are going to die.  I'm going to the nearest town, get weapons, and kill every last one of them!  I can't wait to hear their women lament."

What about, "I decide that slavery is wrong.  I will equip myself, find others who believe as I do and end slavery on this earth!"

Or, "Damn, I'm free at last to raise an army to conquer the world."

Or, "Parents?  Never really knew them.  I have dim memories of my mother being killed.  I have killed many more, myself.  Killing is a good thing - it's made me famous, it's frightened my master so as to force him to let me go.  Think I'll get myself a weapon and do more, and see where that gets me in the world."

Or, "My character behaves like a murderous, wild animal.  I don't think at all, I destroy all that I meet, until the day someone kills me."

Six choices.  Any of which could be - and ought to be - modified with the first set of encounters my character experiences, as I, the player, change my mind about world conquest, blood lust, casual fighting or revenge.  There's nothing at all about a particular background that requires any person - even those gentle readers finishing his post now - to behave tomorrow in the manner their past has dictated.  Any one of us has the power to rise up, quit our jobs, escape to another part of the world, end our marriages, cease acting like an asshole, work more productively, expand our horizons or take steps to rise above our station.  The fact that we don't is hardly proof that we can't.

More to the point, fantasy is about doing everything we don't normally do.  We must not allow our own narrow perceptions about right or wrong, possible or impossible, to cloud our judgement about what our character would do.

Fantasy demands freedom of action.  Let's not lose sight of that.


Anonymous said...

This is from the "Ben" mentioned above:

From the title of this entry -- "Freedom of Action" -- I could tell that this article would be full of arguments against claims that I never actually made. I would also encourage other people to read the entirety of the discussion in that post, as they would find that after an initial correction that I shifted my discussion to a distinction between motivation, action, and how they relate to a character and that character's environment.

Some of the ideas you incorrectly attribute to my "perspective":

1. Players must be bound ONLY by the kinds of motivations designed for a two-hour movie.

I don't think this at all; each form of media has it's own set of storytelling needs. Long, in-depth character studies are going to feature characters that have many motivations that come in from the many interactions that they have with the outside world. What they choose to do will, in turn, have a further impact on their interactions and thus their motivations. However, none of this invalidates the claims I was making about how character and motivation are related on the most basic level.

Strong, driving motivations that work in movie plots still work in books or D&D campaigns, it's just that those media allow for deeper, more complicated motivations as well.

2. Having a player consider the motivations of his or her character is equivalent to forcing that character to perform an action.

I am not such a Determinist that I think this is the case; however, it is absurd to think that characters should be so free in their actions that their desires and wants are essentially NOT their desires and wants!

For example, in D&D, the player alignment is one character trait that defines some fundamental motivations for that character. Doing things contrary to that character's alignment without proper justification is essentially NOT playing that character -- bad roleplaying.

Since these misconceptions about my perspective and arguments against claims that aren't mine make up the bulk of your article, I'm somewhat disappointed by your response.

As to what fantasy is about, it's certainly not about having characters behave in ways that are illogical. Just because a wise wizard is in a fantasy world doesn't mean they should be allowed to make incredibly poor decisions for no reason at all, yet this is the kind of behavior that you seem to be arguing for.

One of the key ways in which works in the fantasy genre become relevant to audiences is by containing characters that react in familiar ways to unfamiliar settings and events. Fantastical worlds may have a different set of rules than our own, but they are still rules. Without at least some rules, there is incoherence, lack of understanding, lack of relevance, and lack of caring.

R said...

I agree with what Ben posted here - my issue isn't that you have to do Action A because you have Background A, but that whatever action you do is justified in some manner (whether it be background ideas the players made up or character traits they said they have or whatever). I don't care what it is, and it can even be "my character is a drunken idiot who listens to his or her every whim."

I just want things to be internally consistent. If there's lots of hand-waving about the ridiculousness and inconsistencies present in a character's actions, then it weakens the character, and essentially you only have a Player. If you take the characters out of Player Character then you're not really role-playing, you're just board-gaming sans board.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I've read both arguments by now and have only two questions for you that would help me understand your position where your voluminous posts have not. Who should decide what is an appropriate or consistent action for a player to take regarding their character, the DM or the player? Would you consider (either as a player or DM) the options Alexis set forth above as both appropriate and consistent actions given Conan's back-story?

Anonymous said...

To James C.,

"Who should decide what is an appropriate or consistent action for a player to take regarding their character, the DM or the player?"

If the DM feels that the player is not taking actions that are consistent with the character's defining traits -- including the character's motivations -- then I think the player should explain how the actions that may seem out-of-character to the DM are actually not. If they can't justify their actions to the satisfaction of the group, they should probably concede the point.

Of course, most of the time, this won't happen, as the player is allowed to define a great deal of a character's traits and motivations at the very outset in character creation. And after that character has been developing for some time within a DM's campaign, players will implicitly understand how the situations, events, and decisions made have shaped their character's motivations over time -- presuming they always ask themselves "what would [Character's Name] do next, and why?"

I think most instances in which players act out of character are because they temporarily forget to ask this question of themselves. Such is the case when a player tries to act on information their character doesn't know about, or treat NPCs as machinations of the plot when their characters wouldn't. In most of these cases, a simple reminder of this inconsistency by the DM will be enough for the player to concede the error.

"Would you consider (either as a player or DM) the options Alexis set forth above as both appropriate and consistent actions given Conan's back-story?"

Since I'm not a hard Determinist, I imagine that at every moment in the film at which Conan makes a decision there are a number of other options that he could have conceivably taken. This number of options is not infinite, but contingent on his personality.

As time marches on, the more that an alternate Conan makes decisions contary to the Conan in the film, the less that alternate Conan aligns in personality with the film Conan; people are shaped -- among many things -- by the consequences of their choices. Thus, an alternate timeline Conan will eventually be able to make decisions that are out of character for the Conan portrayed in the film because they are essentially different characters: Conan A and Conan B.

So even though Conan could have made choices otherwise, he would not have been the same Conan if he had.

Similarly, a D&D character is also a work in progress. An interesting but impractical experiment may be to run a D&D campaign with simultaneous timelines based on different choices and see how much the two characters diverge in personality. What if Conan's motivation wasn't influenced by losing everything meaningful to him at such an early age?

Blaine H. said...

Forgive me for intruding on this...

How exactly should a GM handle back stories for a character?

Should it be in the realm of the GM to dictate the back story or is it up to the player who made the character?

How much influence does the story have over the game?

The Conan story is a great story that helps justify how he got here and how, if looking at it from both player and GM perspective, where he went from there. Could have gone anywhere honestly with the history but that was the route taken.

Some people enjoy the concept of the backstory being important. It helps give them something to pull from personality wise. It makes it more interesting to some to say that they know the town guard or used to play on the town statue.

I personally enjoy the backstories given to me because it is a ready supply of NPCs I can call upon or conflicts left unresolved (unless of course... they were actually well adjusted and happy... then why are they adventuring again?) in the advent that I am in between one of my more planned events or need to pad out a month of downtime in game.

Plus the players enjoy having their work come alive under a GM.

Now, is the story a shackle? No.

Do I think that players should consider their backstory when making decisions? To a degree, yes.

If your character's father is a wizard who sacrificed your mother in a dark ritual... perhaps you are justified in wanting to punish all evil spell casters. Or perhaps it pushes you to understand what makes an evil wizard tick. Or just abhor all magic together. Choice isn't shackled to the history but I might wonder if they are staying 'true to character' if they suddenly started embracing and loving all dark magics without a justification. I might intervene and say the dreaded words... you can't do that.

If they chose that background... it's there... much like choosing to be a paladin. It takes work to make it relevant but eventually... time will take your character away from their origins and makes the character into something far greater than where they began (assuming nothing terrible happens)... but everyone still carries a piece of home with them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarity, Ben. I think there's a vast gulf between the sort of game you propose and the one Alexis and most of his vocal readership, me included, practice. So, I don't think its so much that your position was distorted above as much as it was a case of you and the author speaking two different languages.

Specifically, the Conan movie was an apt and convenient device to express how a campaign should be run in terms of player-driven action. It was not presented as a means of expressing why campaigns should adhere to the storytelling conventions such as plot and characterization one finds in a movie. Indeed, doing so only arbitrarily limits the possibilities of the campaign.

The DM gets to have the idea. "What if the Nazis won the Second World War?" "What if the real world of the 16th cnetury were populated with elves, clerics, wizards and dopplegangers?" He gets to build the world, place the obstacles and boons. It's a big task. Shouldn't the players have the freedom and responsibility to do the rest?

Alexis Smolensk said...


You are one of these people on the Net who says, "No, you misquoted me, what I really meant was..." just before saying exactly the same thing you said before.

You have now had five chances to repeat this argument. We all understand now what you believe.

Therefore, you are done. I've allowed you your say. That is the end of my responsibility. I don't want to see you say another word on this subject. If what you've said so far doesn't reflect your actual belief, tough fucking luck. You should have gotten it right the first time.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry James, we posted at the same time. Ben has said his piece. He's free to email you at your site to give you an answer, but he's done here.

Anonymous said...

No worries.

Zak Sabbath said...

I feel like there is an interesting point to discuss here, which I'd like to hear Alexis out on.

i.e. What is Being Good At A Role=Playing Game?

-Ben thinks (roughly) being good at a Role-playing game requires (roughly) Role-playing. In somewhat the acting sense--or at least int he "writing a character for a screenplay" sense.

-I think (roughly) it involves playing in such a way that you -consistently- make the game more fun for everyone. i.e. if everyone has fun every week you can't possibly be bad at it.

-Raggi thinks it involves mastery of (I think--I helped edit something he wrote on the subject) the puzzling situations in the game.

So: I'm guessing you're the kind of person who'd say that role-playing games can be played poorly even if everyone's having fun.

Would you say that it is an art wherein you're trying to achieve that "Ranger Rolls A 5" moment?

I feel like your definition of good DMing is pretty much the subject of half the posts on this blog. But what about playing? What makes a player "bad"?

Alexis Smolensk said...

An answer to that, Zak, deserves a blog post.

Chris Wolfe said...

@Blaine H. :
You're asking for a point on a continuum which cannot be universally defined. There is no right proportion of DM vs. Player provided background that works for everyone. I've played extensively in D&D and a number of other games under the 'player proposes, DM approves' method, and it works well for responsible and creative players. It can be troublesome in systems with a canon setting such as v:tm or Forgotten Realms D&D if a player tries to leverage their background into in-game advantages.
I played briefly in Alexis' online campaign where my background was fully DM-provided, and it worked well to make me think about what to do with what I was given. I hadn't played in so long that it was nice to have such a rich background, rolled by chance, to spur thoughts about my character and his motivations. If I had come into the game with my heart set on a specific character fully-fleshed in mind, that might not have been so nice.

Anonymous said...

My $.02 USD, for what it's worth: backgrounds for characters are a fine thing, whether randomly generated, DM-spawned, or the product of character concept discussion between players. I do not accept that backgrounds are a straitjacket meant to limit my decision-making ability with regards to my character, any more than I accept the notion that alignments are anything more than a very general outline of my character's ethics and morality at the time of character creation.
No DM should ever feel that he/she has the right or obligation to tell a player that the character's being played wrong. It's my character, and my decisions for that character. If I choose to do something that will result in the loss of paladinhood for my character, the DM can remind me that there will be consequences, and it's my choice to continue or not. Beyond managing the details of the game world, he or she has no input with regards to my character's motivations, thought processes, likes or dislikes, or anything else beyond arbitrating the game.
The DM is not a director, my character is not an actor, and your game is not a damned movie.
The DM that tells me how to play my character will be handed my character sheet, and told to go fuck himself. I arbitrate the results of my players' decisions, and I accept no less from any other DM.