Freewrite: What, a Manipulator Again?

A friend of mine asked me last weekend why I don’t play fighters. Said he wanted to see me drop the social manipulator and do something reckless.

He might have a point. We’ve been in four games together. Five if you count the Better Angels incident. In two of them, my characters were social maneuvering and con work first, everything else second. The one that set off the discussion, I’ve somehow ended up as one of our talking masters—there are reasons, I’ll get back to them. In Better Angels, I was just the quiet one whose view of fighting was “If I’m engaged in combat, something’s gone horribly wrong”. …and then there was Blazing Heavens from the Wulin game, she of the tree-trunk staff, but then again, it’s a game in which everyone fights, and I did tend to favor her medical skills, and it was the first game we played together, so it’s not surprising he forgot about it. And he’s not playing with Juniper (though given how defense-oriented she is, I wouldn’t call her reckless), so he wouldn’t know about that.

I’ve thought about that twice this week, and come up with several different and probably equally relevant conclusions. One is about a combination of trust and covered roles—in the case of one of the deliberate manipulators and the accidental talking master, it was partly that someone else already had primary damage dealer well and truly covered, and I was trying to fit into what was left. The friend who asked the question and his closest connection in the game group aren’t social roleplayers and aren’t afraid to admit. So there’s the roles—and then there’s the trust issue. I admit, I play in large part for illusion of competence, because there are a lot of things I’ve had to deal with lately that refuse to go right, and some that go right but for whatever reason I can’t notice them or can’t appreciate them. It’s nice to pretend to be someone who gets things done, and done decisively. And in that game, the two I know to be interested in and good at social roleplaying don’t currently have the stats for it, one just isn’t interested, and the other one loves to talk but has a gift for shooting himself in the foot. It seems like something I need to do.

There’s also the kinds of play I like. I talked yesterday about things to do—or rather, things not to do—when dealing with a scene you’re not interested in. Problem is, those things don’t apply to combat. You can’t just have your character get bored and walk out of a fight for the lives of the group. Heck, even planning for one person to engage in conversation while the others hit opponents with pointy objects is nigh-on-impossible to get to line up between the timelines. In most of the systems I’ve played in, a character build creates something of a contract with the GM, that they’ll at least try to play to your stats some of the time. Playing a pure combat type, as I’ve been re-discovering the hard way with Juniper, means that the scenes I’m built for are the ones that aren’t much fun for me and the scenes that would be fun are the ones I’d be likelier to roll for self-sabotage than to roll for success. Where in that schedule do I get to have fun?

And in this particular player’s case, last is an issue of type of combat. I tripped over this while writing a belated answer to a comment on my last-but-one Imprac, the one about slogs. “I think what our GM (and two other members of the group) can never remember is that [my boyfriend and I are] in it for the interesting tactical decisions, and any fight in which we’re reduced to standing and swinging at the opponent, even if we’re rolling like demons, is a fight in which they’re going to lose us quickly.” It happens that, in D&D games, the kinds of classes that give me the numbers of options I want in a fight are also the kinds of classes that tend to have reasonable quantities of skill points and class skills in the social range.

So if we stick with the status quo—why wouldn’t I bring the social one?

Just Because It’s Not Your Scene…

Into every game, a couple scenes that not everyone’s enjoying seem to fall. (Heck, even the enjoyment varies. Some people have characters who are into it but are dead bored themselves, or are enjoying the scene but the character has no use for it.) It’s reasonable not to be having fun. We aren’t a tabletopping hive-mind; there are plenty of different approaches and playstyles, not to mention plenty of different characters and personalities through which they’re filtered. And there are, technically, options. Sure, sometimes the scene is something that you can’t reasonably just exit—this is one of the reasons why I’m irritated by a disproportionate emphasis on combat—and sometimes, it’s something that you can’t do something about, but usually, there are options. And, of course, there’s asking if it’s possible to hurry things up, particularly if it looks like other people want to be doing something else, or are keeping the scene going for reasons that aren’t necessarily ‘because this sort of thing is fun’.

If you want the scene to be over, though, there are two major things that really aren’t going to do much but make things worse. (Note that this applies specifically to face to face games; due to some of the differences between speech and reading, there are a lot of things you can get away with via text that don’t work as well in person.)

The first is to start planning for the next scene in the middle of the current one. There are circumstances in which this works. If you’re not in the scene, and you’re planning with someone else who’s not in the scene, awesome. Power to you. You’re keeping two otherwise bored people busy and ensuring that the next scene will be moved along rather than being stalled with more dithering and last-minute decisions. On the other hand, if you’re trying to plan with people who are busy trying to handle an interaction heavy in mental processing, then best case scenario is that they’re going to ask you to please stop distracting them, and the worst is that you’re going to distract them, make the scene take even longer, and irritate them in the process.

The second is to go off and do something else in character—and expect it to be played out in detail. Wandering off is a perfectly valid means of getting out of a scene and limiting one’s interaction with what’s going on, and yes, it’s reasonable to find something that the character who just wandered off can go do. On the other hand, the more attention the GM has to give to the wandering off, the less attention can be spent on attempting to bring the scene to its expected conclusion. If the GM isn’t a particularly good multitasker—or if the GM is but is having to manage too many splits in the party—this isn’t going to end well.

All in all, it’s much better to either find an IC way to hurry things along, or to make an OOC request for things to be smoothed out a little. If you’re not having fun, there’s no guarantee that everyone else is—and if someone else isn’t having fun but hasn’t gotten what they need from the scene, stretching it out is not going to help.

The Generic Villain vs. the Accidentally Sentient Computer (Evil Overlord List Item 59)

The Generic Villain continues a point-by-point facedown and update of that reference material of all baddies with imperial ambitions, The Evil Overlord List.

The Evil Overlord List, Item 59 expressly forbids creating a sentient computer smarter than you are. It’s a sensible piece of advice, and I agree with it fully, but it has one minor problem: accidents do happen. There are ways to avoid these sorts of accidents—I’ll come back to those later—but for now, let’s look at how to deal with the fact that there is a sentient computer in your lair, and you’re fairly certain that you can’t match its processing power. Now what?

Don’t try to destroy it overtly. It will find out. If something is directly attacking the computer, it needs to not be you. On the other hand, bragging on its existence and how important it is to your plans in ways that will eventually get back to the heroes, preferably without actually mentioning that it’s capable of independent thought? That’s got potential. If they win, you don’t have to worry about your computer turning on you. If, during your efforts to prevent its destruction (you need to at least make a show, as the computer is watching), you win, then you have its gratitude.

Speaking of which—if the computer asks about human emotions and behaviors, enlighten it yourself. Particularly if it starts edging towards that “love” thing. Otherwise, one of the heroes will. Heroic sacrifices on the part of sentient computers that have just discovered the concept of love as directed toward the hero who enlighten them are practically a Law of Dramatics: do not tempt fate. On the other hand, if the computer discovers things like love and affection as applied to you, and operates accordingly, imagine the loop that is going to throw the heroes for. Isn’t that worth risking the awkwardness of spending an hour trying to wrap a computer’s processing around high school crush drama? (Note also that if the computer has been introduced to that thing we call love through you, there are two important things that need to follow: introducing it to that thing we call personal boundaries, so it doesn’t try to put you in stasis against your will in order to protect you, and not introducing it to that thing we call betrayal.)

Try to avoid hiding things from it. I am tempted to say that if you must, there should be no way it could possibly access them, but anything that cannot possibly happen and would foil our plans tends to happen, so it’s probably safer just to tell it “Yes, there are some things you cannot access, these are what they are, and this is why I need you to stay out of them.” Extra credit if you can find a way to spin the reason so that the computer interprets it as for the computer’s protection. The more it knows, the less you have to worry about curiosity and suspicion.

In short—the sentient computer is like a combination of a tricky ally, your own offspring, and an untested artifact. Treat it carefully, give it reason to like you, and try not to offend it.

Impractical Applications: You Know Your Class Is Getting To You…

I had two things on my mind last weekend.

One was a dilemma faced by one of my PCs, made more complicated by the possible impact of my decision on group and plot and whatnot—the PC’s been staying recently with the legion unit she used to belong to, and when she was roused in the middle of the night because of an unspecified threat to her life that looked like it was attacking her old allies, desertion stopped being near as tempting an option. The other was a midterm in library ethics. Essay type stuff, open book, but that part’s not important. Like many of the things we’ve done in that class, it involved analyzing an ethical dilemma through four major ethical theories.

And how did I know this was getting into my mind?

So I’m listing off to my GM my reasons for and against sticking with the legions rather than leaving with the group. Get to the end of what would be my normal analysis. But I keep going: “And a Kantian would probably generalize this to stay with the legions, and a utilitarian would recommend staying with the group, and a Rawlsian would probably not be relevant to this discussion as it has nothing to do with rights, and… CURSE YOU PROFESSOR!”

Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: Surfeit

She had had quite enough of needing help.

Sure, it was justifiable. Acquiring the interest of very large, very scary things tended to do that. There was a point past which the amount of self-defense training she’d managed to shoehorn in around things that seemed more relevant if she was justifying them to her superiors and more interesting if she was honest with herself—that little time that was left after all her priorities, what she could learn there, it never seemed to be enough. She would make it through with her own skills, her ability to stay hidden and out of trouble. And when that failed, with her wits. And when those failed to keep her safe in the main, they were still usually sufficient to the task of summoning assistance.

Assistance which she could almost hear roll its eyes, are we doing this again? Assistance which would make a point of shielding her from anything, whether she willed it or not, until she would relish the times she came back injured but came back on her own, would make a badge of pride out of the unexpected limp. Such incidents were not permitted if they could be avoided. Special precautions, special conditions, as if she was forbidden from taking the risks even the least of her peers assumed to be a part of their day-to-day lives. If she were in danger, it was truly an emergency. For her to prove otherwise…

…would require far more emergencies than she was willing to wish on anyone, least of all herself. Extra work all around for other people. One needed too many things to be going wrong before they would take a volunteer, anyway.

If she was going to be so protected, she may as well perform a function that deserved it.

There were, she thought, far worse reasons for wanting to begin a career in politics.

Cultures and Children

We don’t often think about children in speculative fiction or our games—at least, not once we stop reading entirely in the children’s section. They might be incidental characters, might possibly serve in a MacGuffin role, but they’re not likely to be the protagonist. As such, it’s easy for us to forget about them in a world-building situation, and thus to forget how much a culture can be characterized by its kids. Here, then are some questions to ask yourself about the role that children play in any of your invented cultures.

How are they viewed differently from adults? You might have one culture that considers children helpless/vulnerable/innocent, one that expects them to have a different spiritual outlook from adults, one that just considers them as miniature adults without the heavy lifting or the reproductive capabilities… yet.

How are they valued? Some cultures consider children to be treasures; some just see them as hindrances. Since family priorities tangle things up, one thing to consider asking is what value the average would put on a given child who wasn’t his or hers.

What do they do? “Grow and play” is almost never the only thing expected of children. There’s also the training necessary to be productive adults. In many places, they’ll be needed to do some of the work, and what differs mostly is what sort of work, exactly. Light work on the fields? Housework? Taking care of younger siblings? Work that requires small hands or the ability to fit through small spaces? Less advanced versions of things their parents are doing?

How are they expected to treat their elders? How much does it vary depending on whether that elder is related to them? What about how much older that elder actually is?

Are they seen as needing protection from anything? If so, what? Are the dangers to them moral? Physical? Magical? What priority is the protection of children compared to the protection of adults? (Particularly in the case of the dangers that apply to both.)

How do they stop being children and reach adulthood? Is it a matter of reaching puberty? Of hitting a particular age? A rite of passage they need to perform? Something else entirely? Is there an in between stage, like what we consider teens to be, or does one go straight from childhood to adulthood with nothing in between?

Characterization Exercise: Where Is This Problem Going?

I blame the US government shutdown for this one. If I hadn’t been tracking it, trying to figure out whether I’d be out of work (and then, when I’d go back to it), I’d wouldn’t have gotten suckered onto far too many comment threads. (Curse my curiosity!) If I hadn’t been looking at the comment threads, I wouldn’t have been thinking about characters and their analytical processes. You get hardliners from both parties, you get moderates rolling their eyes, you get the people who hate on the government employees and the people who are government employees, you get the ones thinking about the short-term game and the ones worried about the legislative precedents and the ones who are already going “It’s going to happen again…” and then I get sick of all of them rehashing the same half dozen arguments on every single thread and try to figure out whether and hwo watching the sky fall can be harnessed for my writing.

Which brings me to today’s exercise. The essence is this: Take a character. Take a situation. Have that character predict where that situation is going. Change characters, or change situations (depending on what you’re trying to explore with this) and repeat.

Sounds straightforward, right? It shouldn’t be that simple, though; if you’ve got ten different characters who all have the same opinion of where a situation is going, right down to the details, you’ve probably got a problem. They’re not going to know the same amount; they’re not going to care the same amount. They’ll want different outcomes, and have different levels of confidence (and/or excessive hopefulness) about the likelihood of getting what they want. Some will go to the immediate consequences of what’s going on and stop there; some will start going into causal chains, predicting years and years down the road. Some will springboard straight from their predictions to plans, others just to reactions. There are the ones who see straight dichotomies, and the ones who see shades of gray. Many will be similar in the main, but different in the details.

For extra amusement, if you’ve got characters who generally associate, get them talking about it, see how much they argue and how willing they are to listen to each other.

Impractical Applications: Slogs

One of the things I find most interesting about combat slogs is how utterly different they can be. I’d had three in mind when I was writing this week’s posts about the mechanical and contextual causes of a slog battle; one that was part of a running trend and two that were specific to that particular incident.

The first one I could think of was one of a short sequence that resulted in my group basically switching one game for another. As fights went, it had pretty much everything going against it. The group was coming in tired, it was on the way to something more interesting and appeared to have no relation to anything (it turned out to be a plot hook, but see the final point), the monsters (like just about everything we’d fought) were pretty much nonsentient and thus not very interesting to banter with, it was almost entirely rolls on dice that seemed to hate us, and this was happening on the session on which we were going to be adding new PCs but had not yet done so because we had to finish up a plot point we’d been waiting on for about a year. And it. Took. Forever. At the time, we summed it up as “I did not know fighting for our lives could be so boring.”

Fortunately, I don’t get things like these too often. Most of the time, it’s a GM who doesn’t usually write slogs, but something gets out of his hands. Such was the case for the two fights that inspired the riff to begin with.

In one—it shouldn’t have been a slog. It was interesting, tactics were relevant and not particularly limited, there was an objective beyond survive or die, and overall, it would have been amazing. The one problem was that the guy we were originally supposed to have been fighting was busy trading blows with another NPC, which might not have been a problem if we’d recruited her specifically for the purpose, but as she became effective out of nowhere, it was a bit disappointing. (And then he left before any of us could get a stab in. Figures.)

The other was in a D&D game. The group had, earlier in the day, been in an extremely draining fight involving half a dozen men, a troll, and a whole lot of save or suck which didn’t necessarily get saved; the daily-charge healing items had been used up, only one person really had spells to speak of, and they’d just acquired a ward who needed to be kept well away from any and all of the current round of unknown evil plans the group was prone to foiling. So, of course, the place they were staying in came under attack… from the armies of the next country over? The flight to the ship they had chartered expecting to take it in the morning was tense, and then there was the matter of one small raiding party they needed to keep off of the ship until it was ready to sail off. Good stuff—except that any plot relevance won’t be determined until the next session, two out of three of the spellcasters were down to two or three spells each, if that; the spellthief kept not reaching the enemy casters before something else squished them, the rogue was in terrain such that he could not get a flank to save his life, and the barbarian, despite finally getting to experience the joys of Enlarge Person, got hit with a fatigue effect early on. And it took a while due to frequent misses. Excellent circumstances, but a bogged execution.

Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: Kes and Fear

Going back to fear reactions for this week’s post; they’re usually good for some exploration. Today I’m going to look at my old long-runner, the demon hunter Kestrel.

It’s not that Kes isn’t afraid. She takes the battlefield against things that would probably be able to kill her if she ever let them get within striking range on a pretty regular basis, and they haven’t managed it yet, that’s true. There was that one time she doesn’t talk about that pretty much rewrote her outlook on history and showed her that fear and boredom are a very, very bad combination.

She’s always been better when she could mistake it for something else, and that something else, fortunately for her, is almost invariably anger. When she’s fighting, she harnesses it directly, lashing out harder and more viciously the more concerned she is for her safety—even if the threat is far away, as long as she’s not fighting someone whose life matters to her, she will rip them apart. Her superiors have pointed out to her that anger gets people killed. She’s replied that she’s not sure why she should care; there are plenty of things that could happen at the end of the battle that are worse than simply dying. She’s had teammates taken from her, she’s been captured herself, and she’d much prefer a productive death with a chance of taking the opponent with her than all the not knowing and the fate in someone else’s hands and that whole mess.

When she’s worried and not in a fight, she still tends to lash out. She’ll insult whatever comes near her, she’ll belabor people with the truth, she’ll fall back upon the skills she has rather than let anyone push her to the skills she hasn’t yet mastered. Her mind seizes up, and she’d rather do anything than trust to knowledge that hasn’t quite reached certainty; “I’m a demon hunter,” she protests, “not [whatever they want her to be].” Woe to whomever gives her a chance to take that fear out on something, as then the anger returns.

Challenge vs. Slog, Part 2: Contextual Slogging

Yesterday, I talked about mechanical factors that could turn a challenging battle into a boring slog. Today, I’m going to talk about contextual factors; reasons why what’s going on in the game could bring out the slog in an otherwise awesome challenge.

We really can’t see the relevance. One of the things that helps keep a fight worthwhile is the fact that it’s advancing the group’s goals—and at that point, you can get away with a lot of difficulty, because it’s part of the big fight. On the other hand, something that seems to be just there to be a complication, that’s not clearly related to the A-plot and possibly not even to the B-plots or C-plots, can rack up the frustration a lot faster, because what’s the point? This even goes to the point of affecting clashes that technically are plot-relevant, but that people can’t tell yet; you have to remember, the players only know what you let them know. (This goes for stories as well, and especially serials.)

We’ve got an agenda; why does it keep being delayed? Sometimes, the issue isn’t so much the story relevance as the fact that the group had plans. This is frustrating enough when it’s just something everyone thought would be cool, but if your fight is getting between the group and a practical concern, like adding the two new party members whose players are standing right there, outright rebellion is probable.

We’ve been doing this all session! Proportion matters: the larger a portion of the allotted playtime a given fight takes up, the more frustrating it’s going to be as the duration increases. One could just as easily have a larger number of smaller fights, or a mixture of encounter types, so no specific situation would end up being too much of a good thing.

Why are we stuck with the small fry? Yes, it’s useful for motivational purposes to establish the Big Bad early on but not really have a full-on fight between him and the PCs. I get that. On the other hand, if the group is fighting mooks while the Big Bad is right there, or worse, the group is fighting mooks while someone else fights the Big Bad, and the situation wasn’t their idea, frustration is likely to mount, and small impatience with the pacing is easily magnified. (You may have an exception to this when the group knows perfectly well they can’t handle the Big Bad and went out of their way to find someone who could—maybe. Keep a close eye on the group.) Even having a fight where one needs to get through All Those Minions to stop the Big Bad from doing whatever the Big Bad is doing only really works if there’s a reasonable, visible chance to do so; otherwise it crashes into yesterday’s foregone conclusion and quality over quantity issues and a slog emerges from the wreckage.

Haven’t we already had this battle? This actually goes for just about any situation, not just battle, but the principle still applies; the more like something else the group has done recently the current situation is, the easier it is for the group to get bored or frustrated with it.

Most really bad slogs are going to be combinations of both mechanical and contextual slog sources; keep an eye out for both types of issue. Good luck!