29 October 2014

The 800-lb Elephant: Romance at the table

There’ve been a couple recent forum threads – and many others over the years – where some posters not only stated that their games don’t involve romance, relationships or any manner of sexuality, not only stated that they’re disinterested in such elements, but went on to express their incredulity that anyone else was and their dismay that any references to the same appeared in published adventure scenarios.

I don't understand this.  For my part, I've been involved in romantic plotlines from the beginning; my very first character, back in 1978, wound up in a politically advantageous marriage with the daughter of a high government official. I've had four PCs married to the characters of other players. (We won't mention the number of marriages and relationships I've had in LARPs and MMORPGs. I can't count that high.)

From the other side of the dice, a great deal of plot has stemmed from romantic entanglements. In my most recent groups, the only PC in one who wasn't romantically involved was a priest of a faith that preaches rigid monogamy. In the second, two PC aristocrats married each other to preempt their families from dynastic shenanigans.  A key element in my wife's one-on-one sessions is the need to keep her young daughter relatively free of the risk of assassination.

A “distraction to the plot,” as many of the antis claim?  Heck, any kind of roleplaying is. Characterization involves ties, bonds, limitations, phobias ... all that can get in the way of a mission. Why, people might be moved by a NPC's pleadings and act other than coldly or logically!

Damn, that leaves out likes, dislikes and character quirks, too. That moron who always insists on wearing red screws up the pattern-disruptive outfit. The fellow who likes cheap tobacco always smells of it, and that can tip off guard dogs. So you want to fight "honorably," blah blah blah ... screw that, just go and do the guy from behind, less risky that way.  Every last little quirk is someone demanding some distracting center-stage time – even if it's but moments – to light up her pipe, recite a prayer over the bodies of the fallen, scritch his cat, grab her favorite pizza or read a few pages from a trashy novel during a lull on the stakeout.  Ego stroking drama queens, the lot of them.  Right?

In gaming groups mature enough to handle the subject (which I agree many aren't), romance is another aspect of the human condition, just as valid for PCs to explore and roleplay as any other. Strange though this might seem to some, not all campaigns are about nothing but the tactical resolution of problems set before the team.

You might ask, "What's the point of having a PC belong to a guild, if it'll only result in trouble - they want help, your status is imperiled, the chapterhouse burns down and they want money from you?" Why bother with the PC having a family, when family members only drag you down in like fashion? Why belong to a church, which only restricts your actions and movements, except in so far as your setting requires it to get clerical aid? Why be a military veteran, because the only time your ex-mates will ever show up is when they're in trouble? Why have neighborhood ties, because getting to know the kindly old priestess at St. Taria's or the tomato seller on the corner just means you're getting sucked into their problems?

And why is it that these questions generally aren't asked, not with one tenth the frequency of angry questions about "Why bother with SOs?" Why is it that ties and plothooks involving PCs are so much more tolerated when the dreaded "R" word isn't a factor?

Simple.

We have a hobby with deeply misogynistic roots: one that stretched back to a day where rooms full of men and boys played wargames with lead miniatures. The games that stemmed from those were overwhelmingly based around tactical, statistical combat and nothing but.  The problems set before the group to solve were dungeons, involving nothing beyond problem solving, tactical acumen, outguessing the Dungeon Master and dice luck.  Players who could tell you in great detail that they "were" 8th level Lawful Good clerics with Wisdom 17, 36 hit points, Bracers of Wondrous Awesomeness and +3 Maces of Big Bad Smiting gave you blank looks when asked to name their hometowns, describe the clothing they wore or to expound on the doctrine of their deities ... when they'd bothered to name their deities at all, not always the case. The notion that roleplaying = acting wasn't common; third person "My character tells the NPC to back off" modes of speech were.

Quite aside from women not being welcome in that world – what stereotype of female players dominated the first decade of the hobby as heavily as the GM's Girlfriend, generally bored, mocked as incompetent and always marginalized? – romance and sexuality weren't either. Oh, sure, a lot of groups regularly patronized the local brothel ... along with locker room grunts and grins, and the dropping of a requisite few gold pieces. All suitably off-stage, with the (inevitably Frazettaesque-female) courtesans never seen or described, let alone named, extant only as part of some peculiar backslapping ritual affirming its participants as Manly Men.

And to a bunch of 14-year-old boys sitting around the table, clutching their dice, each concerned that they've never been laid and worried that they never will be, I'm willing to give a pass. But for everyone else?

Leaving aside those for whom gaming isn't roleplaying, and is solely about tactics, is there any more reason for sniggering than with any other type of plot, if you have a group not comprised of adolescent boys? Alright, let's get the 800 lb elephant out in the open and admit the secret fear lurking in the hearts of many gamers: that the (invariably male) PC having a serious relationship with the NPC (run by the invariably male GM) will carry a whiff of homosexuality.

(I'm quite serene with my stereotyping, because the number of these complaints coming from female players, with the exception of the I'm Freaking Tired Of His PC/NPC Trying To Get Into My Bodice riff, is about 1/100th those from male players.)

How to get past this, that's a question for which I don't have answers beyond an admittedly pompous and patronizing hope that more gamers just plain grow up.

22 October 2014

Basic expectations

How long have I been talking about gaming?  Over thirty years, at this point.  I was part of the Alarums & Excursions APA from 1979 for a few years.  The first online gaming forum in which I indulged was on the UMass computer system in 1983.  I've been in other APAs and many an online forum.

In all those places, what we expect from our fellow gamers is a matter of constant debate.  What classes they play, whether they buy into PvP or not, whether one can play evil in a good party or good in an evil party, whether people should conform their expectations or proudly dissent.  "Murderhoboing," niche protection, how "paladins" or priests ought to behave, we're vitally concerned with how the other character acts, and we drone on at startling length and persistence on the subject.

We're far less concerned with how the player acts, oddly enough.  But that's as much of a make-and-break as anything else, wouldn't you think?  What I want from my players is ...

* Regular attendance. Someone who misses as many as a quarter of my sessions is teetering on the edge. I do not run one of those drop-in games where it's okay to blow us all off if there's a baseball game you'd rather watch on TV or you just don't feel like shaving.

* Buying in. By virtue of showing up, you're telling me you're willing to play the system I play, in the milieu and genre I'm using, in my homebrew setting, and that you intend to conform to the group you're joining.

* Good behavior. We're all adults here. If you're going to be terribly late, you call. If you can't make it, you call or e-mail.  You pay attention to my game, not to your Words With Friends app on your cellphone.  You leave your cigarettes and alcohol at home, and you don't jeer at my cats, kick people in the head or spit in the snacks. (These last three were not cited at random.)

* Good neighbors. Everyone brings some kind of light snack, and everyone takes turns buying/cooking a meal, since we do eight hour sessions and that's a long time to go without a bite. Chronically arriving a half hour late so you don't have to deal with the pre-game socializing is unfriendly. (That isn't cited at random either.)

* Knowledge. After a certain point, I don't want to have to keep teaching you the rules. Learn enough of them to pull your weight, or else reconcile yourself to the fact that your tactical options are going to be limited to "I attack him with my weapon." I want people invested enough in my gameworld to learn about it, and while I don't quiz people on the handouts, I see no reason why more interested players have to keep coaching the slackers on the basics. As in any other field of human endeavor, you get out of it when you put into it.

* Trust. I am not an adversarial GM. I am here to provide the setting with which you interact, not to provide an omniscient, omnipotent, malevolent force Out To Screw You. If you can't trust me to do that, to be fair, judicious and reasonable, we ought not be playing together. Whoever did you dirt in the past, I'm not that guy.

* Motivation. Shouldn't you be here to play the game, not simply be a passive spectator for my storytelling?  That being said, adventures are -- usually -- about conflict.  Accept this.  Your backstory isn’t immune to being mined for plotlines, the people you know and meet aren’t immune to being mined for plotlines.  Someone who deliberately refuses to give me any handles concedes that adventures will never be about you; only about someone else.  I’m not terribly interested in that kind of player.

* Honesty. If you've got a problem or an issue, I'd like to know it. If you can't hack any of the rules above, I'd like to know that too. Passive-aggressive sullenness does not impress me; I believe that mature adults should be able to have open, honest and civil discussion of their grievances like, well, mature adults ought to do. Problems never go away on their own. And if any of the above is too much for you -- or isn’t the game you want to play -- I hope you're honest enough to give my campaign a miss and not waste anyone's time, your own included.  (Don’t worry.  I won’t be offended.  Should I be offended if you’re not into any of the other things I’m into, from hockey to singing classical music to walking in forests to writing nautical folk songs?)

19 October 2014

NPC of the Day: The "errantry kids"

So ... I've been having private runs for my wife's powerful wizard-princess for a few years now.  One of the customs of the elven empire in which she now lives is "errantry" -- in your youth, you get together with your best buds and go wandering about for a season or two, all under assumed names like "Snowviolet" or "Morningstar" or "Nightflame," and Do Worthy And Good Things, only traveling with what they can carry and accepting no pay for their deeds.  While the tales have it that people on errantry are fighting dragons and battling for the rights of the downtrodden, the elven empire has secure internal borders and good government, and the authorities aren't crazed about young folk wandering across into the truly scary lands beyond them.  So, for the most part, those on errantry wind up teaching schools, helping farmers bring in the crops, building barns and the like ... which is rather the true lesson behind it all.

Some folk make errantry their life, and indeed go out to take on monsters and warring against the over-mighty.  As far as the rest goes ... well, sometimes the teenagers get uppity and want to go out too.  So Princess Elaina, with some restless teens on her own estate, decided to do the local landowners a favor and announce that she was leading a pack of teenagers out on errantry for two summer months: who was in?  Well, damn near everyone, but in the end, she set out with thirteen.  And, much to their dismay, led them to the task she'd already arranged in advance -- helping a village heavily damaged by the spring flood to rebuild.

I did this cheat sheet for the pack, which is far preferable to doing up individual NPC sheets for what is, after all, a group of relatively nondescript teenagers.  It summarizes their race, age, manor of residence, parental background, a couple key skills, and (teenagers being teenagers) whether they particularly Like! or Dislike! those cute kids of the opposite gender, that being in terms of GURPS Reaction Rolls (high is good, low is bad).

The three for which there's scarcely any info are from Elaina's own manor, so I didn't particularly need cheats for them.  But for a pack of NPCs, for which nonetheless you need to RP them and come up with a personality trait or two, this is a good approach and doesn't take all that much work.

12 October 2014

NPC of the Day: Tas


So okay, I'm a packrat.  That's the character sheet (well, filecard) of my first character.  "Tas the fighter" was very much playing against type, but I had fun in the first heady rush of the new hobby.  He was an Empire of the Petal Throne character, and something of a stolid warrior.  He made a brilliant political marriage (fueled by his movie-star looks) to the daughter of a high official in the imperial government, and wangled a post in the Omnipotent Azure Legion, something of a coup for a foreigner in xenophobic Tsolyanu.

A lot of the above is straightforward.  "Eyes," in EPT, are technological artifacts that function, effectively, as magical items: the Excellent Ruby Eye places the target in indefinite stasis (barring another use), and the Eye of Indefensible Apprehension casts a fear spell.  The magic dagger on the right was something like a light saber -- it would flicker out a beam of force extending its range to that of a rapier, and it was Tas' go-to weapon.  The "parrah" on the lower right was a fetish of the GM's -- they're tribble-like familiars which he pretty much insisted every PC have.  Mine was, by parrah standards, a tough hombre.  The "bronze ingot hand" was a bronze ingot which, when palmed, turned the hand into solid, living bronze: great for hand-to-hand brawls or dangerous manipulative tasks.

I traded him out after a while for a wizard, which I preferred -- damn that random gen.

08 October 2014

A troika of bulletpoints

Hey, sometimes I have short rants!  (No need to use ten paragraphs to say something when two will do!)

*  There's a personality problem troubling your game?  All too often, people kvetching to gaming forums about them want the readers to tell them how to solve them without actually having to open their mouths.  In a hobby where most of a GM's job, for several hours in a row, is communicating with the players, I'm constantly flabbergasted at how many of them claim that they have trouble doing so.  This magical thinking -- that there's some way to make evildoers just Get Better without a word being spoken -- is all too common.

There is no way, none at all, to change your players' behavior other than to have an open, adult conversation about your concerns.  Any other way of "nudging" people in one direction or another does not work.  Never has worked.  Never will work. The clueless don't notice, the jerks don't care, and the ones waiting for the aforementioned open, adult conversation resent what they see as clumsy manipulation attempts.

* On gender and same-sex relationships:  It is not my bloody job to dictate to any player the gender and sexual preference of a character. It is my job to provide – and portray – the NPCs with whom the PCs interact. These will be male or female, straight or gay, romantically interested or not, as circumstances dictate.  My masculinity is unthreatened when I play a gay NPC.  Or a female NPC having a relationship with a male PC.  Or a female NPC having a relationship with a female PC. Whatever.  Because I'm not six years old any more, and I see no reason for my reflexive 1960s prejudices to affect my grown-up life.

Screw the squick factor. If a PC wants to murder someone else, do I go all squeamish on him and tell him he can't do it? If he wants to torture someone else, do I go all squeamish on him and tell him he can't do it? Beatings, theft, torture, racism, genocide, slavery, sacrilege, arson, drug use, maiming, murder retail or wholesale, I can set the table for all of it. Torch a village, desecrate a temple, debauch virgins, kick puppies, slit throats, most of us are cool with all of that, but almost uniquely, tabletop gamers draw the line on portraying male-on-male romance?

* “You’re/He’s ruining my fun.”  I stay far, far away from that turn of phrase, if I can possibly help it.  For one thing, "You're ruining my fun" far too often is a code phrase for "I'm a self-absorbed solipsist, and I take failure to conform to my prejudices and whims as a personal attack." It's hauled out as a trump card perceived to end all debate, without examination of how that behavior actually might be "ruining" the speaker's fun, or whether the speaker's POV is reasonable.  I see no reason why it should be used as an excuse to dictate to players what otherwise-legitimate character creation and play choices they’re permitted to pick.

05 October 2014

NPC of the Day: Lady Datia

My wife put in a request for some of her favorites, but I figured I'd ring in an interesting Big Bad.  (Sorry, love!)

Lady Datia, third daughter of the great lord Teraeth val Linix, is tall, willowy, beautiful.  She was the wife of a country squire whose holdings are a day’s ride from the capital, and had a three year old daughter.  Though always careful to display the proper decorum, Datia yearned for the high life, and sought – vainly – to convince her husband to relocate to the capital for the social whirl.

The shenanigans that ensued wound up getting rolled into a plotline, and the party drew her ire when they busted up what she thought would be a permanent gig, forcing her to flee one step ahead of the authorities and leave behind her husband and daughter.  Her pattern since has been to marry rich men, under a false identity, take them for what they're worth and split. 

Feeling vengeful, Datia went to work and learned about the party.  She supplied damaging information about the rogue's father to the rogue's mother, causing the breakup of their marriage.  Her next target was the old alchemist on the corner who was a favorite of theirs, and in marrying and ditching him clipped a heap of gold and a bunch of high-powered alchemical poisons, which she used to great effect -- through cutouts -- in taking out or sickening several folks near and dear to them.  On two other occasions, the trouble coming to the party was provoked by her, unbeknownst to them.

Datia's only significant magical item is a stolen religious relic of some power, much of which she can't use; the key power she can use is that it renders her immune to scrying or divinations. She's a good actress and deft at disguise.  She also has some modest arcane powers, but no one outside of her estranged and embarrassed family remembers that she had a brief wizardly apprenticeship in her teens, and she never lets anyone know.

Beyond that, she’s smart and focused. She doesn't have a gang to betray her.  She's very likeable, and folks trust her instinctively and talk freely in front of her.  If she needs help, she'll beguile a fellow and wrap him around her fingertips, but she'll never let that fellow know where to find her, and she will always have a bolthole and a fast mount available.  She won't let herself get suckered into a confrontation, direct or otherwise.  She doesn't leave trademarks or mocking Ba-Ha-Ha notes.  If a plan looks like it's blown, or she thinks a situation is spiraling outside her control, she'll cut her losses and bolt, and if possible has a secondary mark in hand to take the fall.

In short, she's read the Evil Overlord Rules.

RPG groups, by and large, suck at detective work.  They rely heavily on their widgets and spells, and they count on the bad guys making predictable, cliched mistakes or having blatant, exploitable character flaws. They don't often do patient, and they can't often handle patient.  A hundred times more of these scenarios end because the GM has placed a finite limit on them (and, of course, the PCs always win in the end, right?) or from the foregoing factors than not.

I was proud of her.  It's easy for a GM to beat down a party with overwhelming force, zowie! powers like teleportation or insubstantiality, by a NPC's Epic Uberness, or by a torrent of widgets.  Doing so with guile and misdirection, with a hard-keyed scenario (hey, if they had made all the right guesses and been a little lucky, she could have been nailed much sooner), that's harder.

What they never did attempt was to trap her at the only spots of vulnerability: (1) There's only a finite number of rich, single guys out there who get swept up by a beautiful, cultured woman from Somewhere Else and who loves the city life; and (2)  She still had affection for her first husband and for her daughter.  It took the main party nearly five real years to catch her, and in the end only because they called in some major favors and brought some immense arcane powers to bear.

ST: 9     DX: 11     IQ: 13      HT: 10    Speed: 5.25      Move: 5  

Advantages: Acute Taste-Smell/1; Beautiful; Charisma/1; Comfortable wealth; Empathy; Magery (Body Control spells only)/2; Serendipity; Smooth Operator/2

Disadvantages: Callous; Greed; Minor Medical Ailment/migraines; Social Stigma: outlaw; Major Vow: Revenge!

Skills:  Acting-15; Administration-13; Area Knowledge: Warwik royal demesne-15; Baseball-13; Body Language-14; Current Affairs/high society-15; Carousing-15; Connoisseur/music-13; Dancing-12; Detect Lies-14; Disguise-15; Erotic Art-14; Fast-Talk-15; Filch-13; Forgery-13; Holdout-13; Knife-12; Mimicry (human)-14; Musical Instrument / lute-11; Needlecraft-10; Observation-13; Poetry-12; Poisons-13; Savoir-Faire-16; Search-14; Sex Appeal-17; Vajikry-13

Grimoire:  Arousal-13 †; Birth Control-13 †; Choke-15; Comfortable Seat-13 †; Fair Skin-14 †; Rapid Intoxication-13 †; Resist Intoxication-13 †; Resist Pain-13; Stun-15; Tears-15

Maneuvers:  Ruse / w/Sex Appeal-16

Quirks: "But wealth IS power;" Attracted to "bad" men; Fashion slave; Overestimates her luck; Soft spot for animals & kids

Explanations: Serendipity means something just goes seriously right for you, once per adventure: a tree branch breaks over the head of the guy who's about to run you through, the first box you break open in the warehouse has the Ark of the Covenant, that sort of thing.  Smooth Operator gives bonuses to social skills (which are figured in already) and you’re recognized as a suave person.  Migraines?  Make a HT roll every day.  If she blows it, she’ll have about two hours worth of -2 to everything, at some point (she's taken too many alchemicals over the years, and the headaches are a side-effect).  Yeah, they play baseball on my world, and it’s considered an avant-garde spectator sport in the capital.  Vajikry is a game that's something of a cross between checkers and Stratego.  Her Ruse maneuver basically drops a guy’s combat defenses by heavyweight vamping; letting her top fall open or off is a favorite.

I’ve invented a bunch of spells (well, a couple hundred of them); the ones marked
† are the non-book ones.  Comfortable Seat prevents saddlesores and jostling in carriages.  Fair Skin keeps your complexion mild.  The others are self-explanatory, and I’m quite narked that SJ Games saw fit to exclude a birth control spell, which you’d think would be one of the more fundamental spells in any realistic culture.  If you prefer GURPS RAW, substitute others.

For further explanation of system stats, check this link.