Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

Roleplaying It Wrong

My thighs forgave me for last night's exercise, but my calves, which I have not driven to exhaustion since I did a set of 200 toe-raises a couple of years ago, have not. I jogged this evening anyway. Now my feet hurt.

But I am not going to write about exercise! Or the Sidekick, which I am not using right now. Making this about the first post I've written at my computer since July.

Instead, I'll write about ... um ... (casts around for a topic) ... Roleplay.

Despite decades of practice, in many ways I'm not a good player in RPGs. For the last several years I've prefered running games, rather than playing. I'm better at setting up mysteries than I am at solving them. As a player, I usually feel stupid: I should be able to figure out what's going on and come up with brilliant solutions to the various challenges, but I don't. I find it's more work to be a good PC than a GM. The GM knows what the important parts of the story are and can keep track of them more easily. The player has to remember everything because she doesn't know what's going to matter later. Also, it's easier to remember things that I've dreamed up than details other people have. But more importantly, I take roleplaying more personally than I want to, and when my PCs fail I take it as a personal failure. When I'm the GM, I don't have as much attachment to the assortment of characters I'm playing, plus it's easier to arrange for things to go well for the NPCs that I like.

I'm not sure why I get so attached to my PCs. On the one hand, this is a feature as well as a bug: when things go well for my PCs it makes me very happy. On the other, I'd rather get the upside without the downside, thankyouverymuch.

tuftears long ago offered me excellent advice: play an underachiever. Don't play James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Play an average guy struggling to get by, a beat cop may be doing his best, but he's no miracleworker. If you don't expect your PC to succeed, you'll be less disappointed when he fails. It's good advice. I really should try it one day.

But I've been pondering lately taking it one step further: deliberate failure.

The idea behind the "Average Joe" is that the player will do things that seem reasonable, but the player isn't going to wrack his brains over every decision, trying to do the Best Possible thing.

Deliberate failure means having the PC do things even you know are going to get the PC in trouble.

I'm not talking about screwing up the campaign's central plot or doing things that are insane ("I charge the fleet of SWAT cars, guns blazing!") -- that kind of thing annoys everyone in the game. It's more about playing a character who is different enough from yourself that they'll do dumb things you wouldn't do. Like deciding to have one drink to calm his nerves before meeting a girl for a first date, and then winding up totally wasted because he can't stop. Or being too proud to accept help and making a hash of haggling with a shopkeeper because she can't speak the native language. Or picking a hideous gift to bring to a wedding because he has no idea what's appropriate for the occasion.

This may seem counterintuitive: if I hate it when my characters mess up, why would I want to make them mess up on purpose? But a significant part of my problem is my sense of personal failure: since I was trying have the PC to succeed, the PC's failure becomes my failure. Whereas if I go into the situation knowing it'll be a disaster for my PC, I can watch the train wreck unfold and not feel like a failure. I didn't fail: I was trying to wreck that train. It also restores a measure of control to me: I get to choose to have this go horribly wrong.

I've seen other players do this sort of thing. Once I was running a game for koogrr and I asked him to make a die roll for his PC. He said, "Can I just fail it instead? I think it'll be more interesting that way." His characters will do crazy things that make sense to them -- and only them -- because it's fun to see the consequences.

I've done this, sort of, in the +terrible butterfly+ PBEM. I wrote out both halves of a confrontation scene between my PC and her mother, and it was an utter emotional disaster for my PC. This wasn't the same as choosing to have my PC screw up, though, because my PC didn't have any options that I could think of that would have made it go well. But it was my decision to have her mother react the way she did; I could have chosen to have the mother act differently, since the GM was letting me portray the rest of the PC's family. But I thought it made a better story as a disaster. And, despite that scene being nightmarish for my PC, it remains one of my own favorites from the game. And there have been other times in the PBEM where I've had the character do foolish or stupid things that I personally thought were mistakes, but I don't think I've done enough of it.

There's another interesting side effect to this strategy: to a degree, when the PCs make their own problems the GM is less likely to make problems for them. Stories thrive on conflict, and if everything is going smoothly for the PCs, the GM will feel obligated to throw in new challenges to liven up the game. But if the PCs are being sabotaged by their own disadvantages, the GM may be less concerned about adding to the burden. This varies a lot depending on the particular GM's style, of course, and it's more likely to let you dodge sidequests than to make the central plot easier to manage. But it can help you choose what your PC's problems will be. If you want him to have good friendships and a crummy relationship with his family, you can probably arrange that by sabotaging the latter and then the GM will give you a pass on the former. For the purpose of a good story, it doesn't matter what goes wrong as long as something interesting does.

Another advantage to having your PC do something you disagree with: you're not personally invested in defending the PC's actions. It makes OOC banter feel more OOC if I'm not trying to explain why I think my character was right. OOCly, I don't want to care if my character was right or not. I don't want to agonize over choices I've made in my real life, and I sure don't want to be doing it over a game.

And there's something cool about PCs who do things that aren't cool. Who get scared when the player could choose to have them be brave. Who do crazy things without thinking through the consequences, based on peculiar logic that makes sense to them. Who make mistakes.

Next time I make up a PC (whenever that turns out to be) I gotta remember this, and try to make someone whose disadvantages will be at least as much fun to play up as her strengths.
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