Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who's Bad? - Part Two

So in my original post I tried to illustrate what I have observed as a potential problem in some old-school style games; the idea that sometimes the villain becomes too powerful, as a result of the GM conflating their own knowledge of the PC’s actions, with the notion that the main villain should be more powerful and intelligent than the GM would be in a similar circumstance, leading to a very high degree of difficulty for the PC's possible victory.

To the mailbag, Mash asked: “Looking at your example: if the PCs don't really understand how powerful the villain is, then is there scope to downgrade him without creating a continuity error with what they do actually know?”

I think there surely is, my point on this topic is that the GM is not willfully nor consciously doing this. It is a problem that creeps in, often undetected except in the final throes of conflict after a TPK. Let me go to an example:

I have primarily experienced this in older D&D games, where the villain’s level was a predictor of his or her relative powers, and as such, far exceeded that of the any given PC (as a way of equalizing the cumulative power of all of the PC’s fighting the villain at the same time). However, the actual manifestation of this was that as PC’s, we encountered the villain’s hench-people and defeated them without really understanding much of the why’s and wherefore’s of the situation. The consequence of that action would be terrible and extremely powerful revenge visited upon us, usually through a pre-prepared ambush, which would often defeat or kill the PC’s.

The result from the player’s perspective was a degree of confusion: ‘why did we just get our asses kicked? That sucked!’ and the response from the GM would often be ‘that’s the consequence of meddling in the villain’s schemes, you guys should have been smarter’ and also ‘had your characters actually survived, you might have learnt your lesson’. This might be a 'fair' outcome from the GM's perspective, but because we didn't ever undertsand all the variables involved we couldn't assess the fairness, only the fun-ness, and it was not 'fun' (for me at least).

To be fair I have run a similar situation myself; several instances of Delta Green come to mind, where the villains in question were a race of sentient insect fungus from space. Possessing advanced technology they are able to easily spy upon the PC’s without detection, and while their motives and actions should be appropriately abstract in terms of plot, I had difficulty in having them overlook the PC’s plans for violence or disruption of their plans. I tried to give some clues of this infiltration, but what occurred in the most recent game of Delta Green I ran was that the players acted hastily (in the context of the government agents they were playing, not in terms of some tired gamers around a table) and enacted a raid that was a spectacular failure due to the villains having made preparations along the lines of the Branch Dividian in Waco (one of the villains listed ambitions was to cause the federal authorities significant embarrassment to back off future operations). I’m not sure the players enjoyed the experience, and we didn’t play Delta Green again.

Which brings me to the next point of discussion. If the GM might sometimes attribute additional intelligence, perception or power to the villain’s interaction with the game-world, then who exactly are the PC’s?

To illustrate this point with an example, a friend of mine recently complained that despite having a high Charisma score in his recent D&D game, the GM often belittled his attempts to elicit information or charm NPC’s because the GM did not find the player’s strategy for achieving this to be successful, irrespective of the characters ability. He was equally miffed that the other PC’s did not treat his character in a manner that befitted the natural charm and charisma that his character should exhibit in the game-world. His argument was that the PC’s and NPC’s should all act as though his character was the extremely charismatic and charming individual the system said he was, largely irrespective of his own personality at the table.

Obviously the same argument can be leveled at investigation games, where the PC’s are playing expert and professional investigators, yet the players are often stumped in situations that their characters would not be (enter the GUMSHOE debate).

I know that when I run a game I try and keep a mental picture of each character distinct from the player, and try to overlay one with the other when they interface with NPC’s, but I suspect I’m not always successful in doing this.

To be continued again...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who's Bad? - Part One

I have observed, over the years, the power creep of creeps. Or, to be more specific, how hard can be for GM’s to distance themselves from their villains. It’s a problem I can understand only too well. When you create an adventure or dungeon or campaign, you usually arrange for there to be an adversary for the players, a villain, or in special cases even a super-villain (being an especially successful villain). This NPC is vested with dastardly schemes, and likely a range of accomplices/underlings/hench-people that can be deployed to achieve these ends. Often the villain’s actions which do not involve the PC’s directly are unscripted, left to the imagination of the GM, as this NPC interacts with the game world through his or her imagination alone initially.

Naturally, during the course of the game, the PC’s will encounter some aspect of the villain’s plan, either by accident or intent, and inevitably confront underlings or allies in a manner which will either thwart, or otherwise inconvenience the villain’s schemes. It is, therefore, only natural that the villain will take measures to stop/eliminate or distract the PC’s once they become aware of them. It’s pretty much the plot of any bulk-standard Hollywood action flick right? So far, so good?

Here’s where it gets tricky. The GM has watched events unfold, probably with a smug look, as PC’s bicker and blunder their way through plots (by which I mean quality roleplaying of course!). The GM is aware of just how lucky they have been to this point, whereas the NPC villain may only be aware of something going awry with a plan, or the sudden death of a minion in a very remote way. Can the GM adequately separate his or her own knowledge and intellect from that of the villain?

The problem is that most villains are extremely successful operators within the game-world. Where players have fluked or blundered their way through encounters and survived often by luck (or the use of GM fiat), villains have risen to their position through force of personality, ruthlessness and cunning. They are wealthy and powerful in a way that is remarkable. In most cases, they are more successful in these ways than the GM, so it is somewhat natural for a GM to justify superior reasoning and capability to the villain.

What does this mean? Well, sometimes it means that no matter how clever or well thought out the actions of the PC’s the villain will be neither surprised nor prone to sudden defeat. It sometimes means that the villains will lways achieve their major aims because they can tap into the game-world better than the PC’s. It also can mean that the villain will rarely suffer a major defeat or die in a non-epic way. It might even lead to the GM berrating or belittling the PC's due to perceived shortcomings, when their actions are compared with the villain's.

It might even have serious consequences for a game, but is there anything we can actually do to combat this phenomena?

To be continued…