Sunday, April 14, 2013


It was difficult to find a definition for ennui that did not merely reduce to 'boredom.'  It is a state of nihilism.  It is a sense of undefined purpose.  It is lifting one's hands to the heaven and crying, "What is it all for?"

Ultimately, the best definition I could find was from the French Wikipedia page:

"Dans l’existence quotidienne, lorsqu'un individu est occupé par des activités, il sait bien que ce sont ses finalités qui lui donnent un sens, que ce soit dans sa direction vectorielle ou dans son contenu de signification. C’est dans cette quotidienneté que peut survenir un ennui mécanique, par ex. un ennui au sens de quelque chose qui viendrait interrompre une activité, qui viendrait en différer la continuité temporelle entraînant l'individu à s'occuper à autre chose."

The sense that, somehow, one ought to be something better than THIS.

Core to the problem of encouraging players to expand their 'characters' ... that is, to play the character as something larger than a composite of numbers, and to seek something greater than treasure and the next level.  But if the game is ever going to be more than that, you cannot expect to stir players from their habitual play without giving them some sort of reward ... and where it comes to roleplay, more of the same reward - gold and x.p. - just isn't cutting it.

Maybe it is in your world.  But I've made the argument before in my world; I don't increase a character's combat ability by giving x.p. for talking.

There are two ways to motivate behavior, and the first is very definitely the positive.  Player doggy does good thing, player doggy gets treat.  Very simple, very comprehensible, even to the dumbest of players.  Of course, the treat has to be very good.  It has to be so good, in fact, that it continues to be a treat long after it has been given again and again.  And so treats work well for dogs.  Dogs are very stupid.  It doesn't occur to them that the treat today is the same treat yesterday.

People, however ... are a little tougher.  But again, gold and x.p. are great treats, and for the most part fairly reliable throughout a long campaign.

The other motivation is the wonderful negative ... which no one likes, which we are told doesn't work, and that only the most sadistic of game designers would build into a game as something forced, irreconcilable and endlessly annoying.  So naturally, every game designer does.  Inevitably, your Sim is going to have to pee.  Your ammo will run out.  So will your hit points.  One way or another, everything you possess, everything you love, everything that makes you a huge success at the game, will be worn down by old Father Time, in the way the old bastard does.  At least, it will if the game is worth playing past the 80th hour.

This negative aspect to life is something that we are very familiar with in life, and therefore it is central to our sense of pleasure and activity.  We're enjoying ourselves hard core in the here and now because they now is going fast and the here ain't going to be tomorrow morning at work.  Therefore, drunkedness, howling at the moon, wild sex, six days in Fort Lauderdale and 62 hours at PAX is all that we have to make our lives as rich and meaningful as we're able.

If you want you players to see their characters have a reason to howl at the moon, you will have to incorporate something that will make them absolutely flippin' miserable in the in and between time.  And with that in mind, I'd like to suggest - without any intention of incorporation in my own world - the implementation of Ennui.

Ennui is something that accumulated over time.  It is something that is accumulated directly in relation to the collection of gold and x.p.  Every time a character gets richer, gets wounded, comes near to death, travels with dreadful regularity upon the roads, seeing nothing but inns for weeks at a time, there's a little bit of Ennui that's added.  A point here, a point there.  Two points.  Three points.  Slowly, steadily moving towards a tipping point - one based upon intelligence and wisdom, naturally.  The higher they are, the more quickly ennui approaches that inevitable number, the "tipping point," where life just ceases to matter.

The effects?  Listlessness, obviously.  A lack of focus.  A reduction in strength, constitution and dexterity; lacking the will to avoid being hit, lacking the will to hit, for what does it matter anyway?  You kill, you are killed, it's all part of one great nothingness.  In fact, the sooner it happens, the sooner you'll be swept away from this ongoing, meaningless and exhausting existence ... "For the love of all that's decent, I hope the motherbastard rolls a 20 and ends my misery."

The cure?  Occupation.  Purpose.  Novelty, but in the greater sense, nuance.  The gathering of all ones resources applied to something more relevant than gold and x.p.  Yes, yes, we can seek the tavern for a night of debauchery, that might lower the ennui a few points.  We might seek the church, attend services, find greater meaning, that might lower the ennui a few more.  Or perhaps a swift, clean kill in an alleyway, some meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sadistic murder to fill one's spirit with a truly unique moment.  Perhaps a session with a roped whip in one's private chambers ... a little asceticism is good for the soul.  Or else, Festival!  Oh, let's travel the two hundred miles to Land's End to see the Festival that begins in a month there ... wouldn't that be something?  Lift our spirits, destroy a dozen points of ennui, refresh our appetites.  Or perhaps a pilgrimage ... on foot, naturally, eschewing the horses and moving along day by day, as the GODS intended.  When I am climbing the Thousand Stairs of Tuulaj's Sacrificial Altar on my bloody knees, then at last my ennui will be eliminated altogether.

There's only value if it takes a hundred hours of game play to accumulate enough ennui to matter; and only if it takes a hundred hours of game play to reduce it again to nothing.  And one must remember - if the tavern worked last week, surely it won't satisfy the bill today.  If the church is good for a few services, it too will simply fail to register.  True, Festival is only once a year, but if we begin to attend them all, month by month, then again, what is it all for?  It's just another everlasting road, another meaningless milestone that might as well hang about my neck for all the good its done me.

If I had any intention of following through, there would be two tables here ... one very short one for accumulation of ennui, and one very, very long one for getting rid of it.  With kept notes for how long its been since something was tried, and how likely it would work if it were tried again too soon.

But surely, none of us would want to live under this sort of regime, would we?  Let us keep our steady pace towards the next level, and let's not think too closely upon the vicissitudes of life.  Contrast is such an enormous effort ... who needs it?


  1. I'm afraid this is not on topic but nonetheless is something I would like to say- and of course if you do not print it that is in keeping with your standards and I am well aware of it. I did not see if I could contact you in any other way hence the comment. I am from the "new school" of DnD GM's (DM's, referees, ogres...), 25 years old, playing since I was 15 and having scanned many DnD blogs I have to say yours is my absolute favorite by far.

    I find your posts incredibly thought provoking and satisfying to read and I think I shall be purchasing your novel. Your erudition, clarity of writing, and staunch perspective is enriching, and the fact that it all happens to relate to my favorite hobby is a bonus.

    Honestly your writing has made me change my perspective on many things, not just DnD (I am currently working my way through your civ 4 posts and I must say I am learning a great deal about the world in doing so).

    Perhaps all this flattery might sicken you at this point! But it is the nature of posting online that you hear only a fraction of the appreciation that is no doubt felt by many of your readers, hence my comment.

    I have a small request, if possible, my favorite posts of yours involve your accurate reproduction of a campaign setting- ah perhaps not historically, but certainly one more real than the cliched ideas we fall back upon- such as your representation of serfdom and feudalism etc, I am not someone who wishes to indulge in historical recreation in my game but a topic has come up for me and I have found little resources on it.

    I would love to read a post on it- what exactly were taverns and inns like? What sort of food would they serve, and what sort of accomodation did they have? Could someone have a private room, was there security of possessions, would it be allowed for a part to split the costs of a single room, what kind of in game benefits could there be to better accommodation- all in game details that I find come up a lot.

    Anyway it was not my intention to to flatter you so that you serve me, I am honestly just saying your blog is enriching to read! I look forward to your novel (I am currently reading "Number of the beast" as you recommended it for a non-standard interpretation of the planes.)

    Apologies for the length!

    Please write on, and on and on, I hope you write many novels- it may just be me but the quality of writing out their leaves so much to be desired and yours seems a unique voice.

  2. Alexis, this post brings a smile to my face. It is amusing to me because it creates a mechanic within the game that models my feeling while _playing_ it. Moreso, the grasping urge to encode a statistical model for relief of existential need strikes me as the textbook symptom of the disease. I hope you will laugh along with me tonight. Tomorrow I will ask after your health.

  3. That`s an interesting idea. However, I think it is wholly redundant. Whenever the character gets bored with life, the player is going to be bored too.
    On the other hand, some player may be NOT bored with some seemingly repetitive activity. For example, a paladin who donates most of his wealth to his church after each dungeon crawl might be fully satisfied and NOT feel ennui regardless of how many times it has repeated so far because every dungeon crawl has made the world a bit better. Maybe for his money a new church was built or an orphanage increased the quality of kids` meals. He doesn`t even know, but he is still not bored. A player isn`t as well, maybe inventing in his head what exactly was done for his money. Punishing him for his? Why?

    This system is a great tool for DMs to regulate PC`s behavior. You are not satisfied with what they are doing? Add ennui points. You like it? Substract them. It`s basically the same as XP reward, only potentially much more annoying if you are bad at this. Not levelling up for some time is tolerable, getting worse at whatever you`re doing is not.
    I`m not saying that ennui points are bad and unneeded. It`s a great way to teach your players - especially new players - to roleplay better, to give them ideas. It`s probably even better for this than "roleplay XP" because it will have the "rules of good roleplay" codified.

    But basically it`s all the same. You are guiding your players` decisions, the same railroad you were voting against in the post you`ve referenced here. If you respect your players` imaginations, if you believe that on their own they can come up with ideas that might be better than yours, you don`t need this system.

  4. Yes, Liliet ... wasn't going to use the idea. I was just thinking.

  5. Thanks for clarifying (=
    I usually view all your posts on D&D as advices you think are worth applying, even if some aren`t useful to me because, for example, I don`t use hex.
    This time it was so much against your usual stance on awards for roleplay, I was really surprised.


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