Game Culture Five: Middle-Aged, Middle-Class Professional Syndrome
I can remember it well. I was 16 and we were playing Ninjas and Superspies. Each of us was a highly trained martial artist and secret agent. Banded together by a shady intelligence agency, we were tasked with infiltrating an embassy party. The GM turned to us and asked ‘So, how do you do it?’
We all looked at each other, bemused. Every plan that was concocted was poo-poo’d by the possible ways that it could fail. We debated how to do it for about an hour and eventually we decided that, as amazingly skilled operatives, we would disguise ourselves as British Gas engineers and pretend that there was a leak called through that we needed to investigate. The GM then asked ‘Where are you getting the uniforms from?’ so we undertook the heroic hijacking of a British Gas van, to get the uniforms … only to be reminded that we are all buff martial arts types and these were doughboy gas engineers so they didn’t fit well. So, we continued, with our badly fitting uniforms and got to the door of the embassy, only to be blocked by the NPC on the door. Skill rolls followed, we failed, and we were rumbled. So we punched the NPC and slipped in, but the alarm went off and the place was in chaos. We were spooked. We didn’t know what to do. Game over…
Now, this might be funny nowadays, but it exemplifies a problem with the logic of RPGs – the extent to which you are your character. One of the core concepts of RPGs is that you play a character right? But the degree to which you are expected to personify that character can cause some interesting issues.
Example 1: You’re admittedly not the cleverest person at the table, but you’re playing an INT 20 Wizard – is it fair to expect you to be able to work out the riddle that your character is faced with?
Example 2: You’re quite socially anxious and find that words don’t always come easy to you, but you’ve got to make a critical Persuasion check and your DM expects you to play it out in the first person. Is that fair?
Example 3: You are a superpowered mutant with telepathy powers, and you are interrogating a villain, so your GM expects you to read their mind.
Stop! What? Well, clearly Example #3 is a joke, but the way I see it, so are the other two. You simply cannot roleplay someone cleverer than you, or more eloquent than you, in the first person. You have to rely upon third-person descriptions and then a skill check of some sort. You might as well ask the person to read someone’s mind as ask them to be amazingly intelligent when they are not.
But some game groups really do not like this and they like the player and the character to be far closer than they can be. So it is the player’s verbal skills that are measured, rather than the character’s. It is the player’s mental gymnastics that are tested. It is the player that finds the way around the trap or formulates the battle plan, rather than the character. In many ways, the player’s skills and knowledge trump those of their characters. Of course, there are limits – the players are never asked to perform the incantation for an actual spell, or play out the sword move that they will make. I’m not sure why not? It seems to apply to other skills…
When this is applied to plotting some sort of operation within an adventure, you get one of two phenomena happening regularly. The first is what we call Middle-Aged Middle-Class Professional Syndrome (MAMCPS) – rather than the plans of a load of superspies, cyberpunk operators or steampunk pirates, you get the plans from the perspective of an accountancy lecturer, a lawyer, a project manager and a biology teacher. Because that’s the experience that they have on offer. The GM laughs and blows great holes in the plan … because guess what? Their spies/hackers/pirates cannot act like their fictional personas because their players are being forced to be the character.
This leads to the second – the carbon-copying of something that has been seen in film or TV. Come on, how many times has your group carried out the Chewie Move from Star Wars? Stolen an infiltration tactic from Mission Impossible? Now, as a shorthand, there’s nothing wrong with this at all, but it just limits you in what you can do. It’s predictable and if it is done over and over again, it is very boring indeed.
So what’s the solution?
Well, for us the big realisation was that it doesn’t matter what our players plan because it is a valid plan simply because the characters planned it. Want to infiltrate the embassy through the sewers? Awesome. Want to paraglide onto the roof? Amazing. Want to slip in as British Gas engineers? Cool. That all works. Whatever the characters choose to do is the best thing to do because they are competent protagonists, rather than middle-class middle-aged professionals.
Does this mean they automatically succeed? Of course not, but they fail because of the threats and conflicts in the environment or through the plans of the nefarious villains and not because their experiences thus far in life have not prepared them for superspy infiltration etc.
We have rejected the absolute concept of PLAYER vs ENVIRONMENT and replaced it with CHARACTER vs ENVIRONMENT
This makes an almost seismic emergent play change to our gaming table. Suddenly, the players have the ability … almost the expectation … to just narrate the things they want their characters to do without any fear of MEMCPS. We can have entire campaigns where the functions of magic, for example, are built from the player’s descriptions. When, early on in the campaign, you describe your magic in a certain way, you are writing in the lore of the game there and then. It is never wrong because what the character does is always ‘right’.
As an example, at the climax of our recent Fate Accelerated Werewolf game, Redclaw – my werebear shaman – fulfilled the foreshadowing we had laid down across the game and started the process of waking the hibernating werebears around the planet to aid their Garou cousins. I narrated him getting blind drunk and staggering out into a snowy field, falling to his knees, and then start pounding the ground in a deeply rhythmic drum beat. I narrated him doing this for hours, increasingly sending ripples of spirit magic across the planet. Succeeding in my roll, I then narrated various werebears waking from their slumber, around the globe and joining the drumming until the ritual ended with a mutual roar.
There was NEVER a question of whether this was the correct way to do it, whether it could reach the werebears around the planet, or whether it was viable to punch the earth for hours without someone interrupting. It was the right way to do it because I was Redclaw, Shaman of Ursus and I knew what to do!
The other emergent play benefit of CHARACTER vs ENVIRONMENT play is that it reduces the arbiter role of the GM, where they are blocking play by finding errors in plans, rather than facilitating play by showing how the plans make the characters look awesome. It can virtually eliminate some versions of the dreaded railroading approach as the GM has no chance to really plan the ‘how’ of an intended action because that is down to the player. Just create the crucible for them to work inside and let them go wild.
And if there are any of you reading this that are thinking ‘But Neil, surely the players could just say that their characters walk through the front door without any drama or planning’ then you would be right, but we have dealt with that too and that’s where I am going with my next column …
Next: For the love of all things roleplaying, TALK TO THE OTHER BLOODY PEOPLE AT THE TABLE!!