In my last post, I complained about the lack of published game systems conductive to tabletop roleplaying with a focus on character immersion. I said that the kind of roleplaying that I like the best seems difficult to put into a published book.
In this post, I’ll attempt to elaborate on the kind of play that to me is ideal with examples, good and bad, from published games.
I started roleplaying with Dungeons & Dragons, but the whole thing really started to click for me when I discovered Vampire: the Masquerade. Especially in the second edition core books and the Vampire supplements of that era, the game had a street level focus. A lot of attention was paid to the player characters and who they were. The books brimmed with advice about mood and theme.
I sixteen at the time, so we had our share of vampires with katanas. Still, the game encouraged social stuff like status games in the vampire community, love, and mentor characters. This was great. Finally a game where we play out social situations while being other people.
Unfortunately Vampire also has systems that are pure poison for character-based play of the type I love, and we spent a lot of energy dodging those systems. At that age, I didn’t have the understanding or confidence just to cut them out.
The worst offender is the idea of Blood Bond, a supernaturally enfored love that is imposed on those who drink from a given vampire too many times. The Blood Bond strikes the closest and most meaningful relationships a character has and replaces them with a supernaturally stagnant, emotionally sterile, fundamentally boring force. The Blood Bond is poison because it neutralizes all organic emotional change.
Vampire and other White Wolf games have plenty of similar superpowers that affect a character emotionally or mentally. I’ve found that when playing in this kind of a game, holding onto character consistency sometimes requires a lot of work and serious game mechanical investment into every relevant immunity that can protect the character from in-game forces that would lead to a loss of character integrity on a metagame level.
So what do I do when I play a game like this?
Normally, when I create a character, I use two tools. One is Markus Montola’s framework of enabling and disabling characteristics, where enabling characteristics (impulsive, helpful, outgoing) help the character to engage with her surroundings and disabling characteristics (shy, reclusive, distrustful) keep the character away from play.
The other tool is perhaps the more important one, and generates the core of the character. This is the character’s central contradiction, or preferably contradictions. The character is selfish and likes to help people, she’s superficial and loves classical culture, she wants fame but needs to keep her integrity. Juggling these qualities then becomes the engine that moves the character forward, and helps me know how she’ll react to a situation in a game.
Keeping the character’s engine running in my head and coming up with surprising, interesting and logical reactions, initiatives and ideas is central as I experience the world through the character in emotional terms. After a while, the character’s engine becomes second nature, and I can reflect on the things that happen around me from this specific perspective.
The result is often extremely emotionally compelling. There’s bleed all over the place. This is helped enormously by good co-players who’re also playing in a way that resonates with emotional truth. The game is subtle, nuanced and resonates with its own reality.
How to Play
In most of the games I’ve played in or ran, the game mechanics exist to regulate and support the kind of play described above, but they don’t generate it. They just fix some of the problems that arise.
A simple one is the way we as players become so invested in the success of our characters, the drama needs mechanics for us to sometimes fail.
The mechanics can also provide another flavor of enjoyment. Fighting using mechanics can be fun, but it’s not the kind of core fun I roleplay for. Perhaps for this reason, the mechanics present in the best social gameplay of my career have been practically non-existent. Just a bunch of people improvising in a room, guided by a game master.
There’s something very traditional about this kind of character based play, especially in terms of how it relates to the role of the game master. This is especially apparent when I look at modern American story games, often descended from the Forge scene.
These types of games often have a collaborative storytelling aspect, a more collective distribution of game master functions, and interesting metagame mechanics that allow situations to be resolved in different ways. They’re also often very playable, in the sense that you can experience a game with a bunch of friends without massive amounts of preparation.
My experiences with these games have been positive and I often recommend them to people. But so far, I haven’t played a game that would really support what I want. One core reason is that the kind of social play I enjoy is essentially unregulated by designed systems. It’s emergent and messy. In some ways, it depends on being able to radically change the content or the direction of the game on the fly.
Sometimes when playing these games, I feel like a boffer larper in a Vampire game: It’s great and all, but where’s my sword?
Most of all, the game’s mechanics simply can’t fuck with the integrity of my character.
Beyond the System
So how to make published games, how to write a book that would describe the kind of play I find ideal?
One core idea would be to consider what’s the role of game design and what’s the role of the emergent social gameplay and creativity of the participants. How to communicate extremely light social systems that depend on flexibility.
From a system design point of view this kind of play is conservative: I’m not trying to revolutionize the field. I’m quite happy with the tools I have. I would merely like to be able to communicate them better.
After all, campaigns of this type I’ve played in, like Jaakko Stenros’s Lohkeileva kynsilakka (Cracking Nail Varnish), Mike Pohjola’s Tähti (Star) and Maria Pettersson’s St Catherine have been some of the best and most defining experiences of my life.
Maybe these also highlight the problem. None of them are based on published games.