Who Gets to Make My Decisions?

In the midst of a discussion on RPG.net about how one would run Chaosium Publishing, if handed the keys to the kingdom and a large pile of cash, one poster made the following remark:

After you’ve done “Your uncle dies, leaving you with the most unusual…” and “A former colleague sends you a telegram with cryptic news…” you start repeating yourself when it comes with ties to connect characters to scenarios. Once the squamous start showing up and the tentacles are poking around the corner, there’s very little other than roleplaying and the “gaming contract” to keep Investigators involved – the sensible and tactical decision would usually be to get out of Dunwich as quickly as possible. There’s very little mechanical reason for the Investigators to behave as pragmatically as possible.

My kneejerk reaction was “Well, yeah, roleplaying is the point.” It is, as part of the typically unspoken gaming contract, up to the player and GM both to give characters strong reasons not to make the safe, obvious choices, like hopping the last train out of Dunwich.

Then I ran across this post on The Spirits of Eden, where Wyatt talks about how Wizards of the Coast presents the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons as allowing more roleplaying because out of combat abilities aren’t defined by skills like Profession and Craft.

And I realized, good grief, this is the same discussion that has recurred time and time again for years: is it the game’s job to tell the player what happens, or the player’s job to use the game to see what happens? In other words, are there mechanics for determining a character’s choices, like morality in the World of Darkness games, or is it all up to the player’s inventiveness?

I am perfectly happy to take the coward’s way out and say it’s all a question of taste. Some people like having a Humility stat, say, to roll against to see if their character remains sufficiently pious in the face of shameless temptation. Personally, I like those choices to be left up to me. My character’s choices, at least on the emotional level, before one starts making Dexterity checks to see if the crazy plan works, are ones that I make, depending on what seems interesting to me.

One time, in a Stargate SG-1 game set in an alternate universe where SG-4 was way cooler than SG-1, who all got killed at the end of Season 1, I played a Tollan anthropological adviser, a typical mild Daniel type. Now, as is wont to happen in these things, the Goa’uld trashed Tollana. I knew it was coming, the GM told me so. And it made perfect sense. What also made sense was, the next time my character encountered a Goa’uld, he behaved in a significantly less mild manner. Crushed it with a cargo ship, as a matter of fact.

Nothing in the game’s rules told me that would happen. It was just an idea that popped into my head, that this character would develop an unreasoning thirst for revenge against the creatures that demolished his civilization. It was, to me at the time, improvised and fitting. And that’s how I like to play emotional decisions like that. If my character loses their conviction at a crucial moment, it’s because I think it fits or would be interesting or whatever. Having the game rules take that decision away would annoy the crap out of me.

This may be, in part, why I have such a hard time remembering to ask players to make Soul checks on their Madness meters in Unknown Armies. Any game with fear or madness mechanics is making some decisions for the players, namely on when to get scared and in what fashion.

6 thoughts on “Who Gets to Make My Decisions?

  1. Hey there, thanks for the link.

    One of the examples you provided, like World of Darkness’ personality mechanics, are one part of roleplaying games that rather bothers me. Alignment in D&D 3.5, as well, really bothered me too.

    Some games do have a place for these – for example, in Cthulhutech, the Insanity checks are pretty woven into the game, but they also aren’t THAT bad, mostly because the implications of becoming a schizophrenic are left up to the player to roleplay (and because psychiatry and drugs can bring you back to play).

    But some games just make you feel totally powerless against these mechanics and I can’t stand that. Part of why I like 4e is that is that it doesn’t try to put alignment requirements on everything, or having to find some random dude to teach you an advanced class.

    • I’m pretty much with you, but I’ve long been conflicted about how many hoops a player has to jump through to get a special class or ability.

      In the days of the original Werewolf, I remember books saying that the quest to learn the exotic Garou martial art should be the goal of a game in itself, which boggled me. People continuously playing the same character long enough for such a quest to pay off can’t be the norm.

      So I take the perspective that it’s dependent on the game style and goals. Sometimes, you just want to hear the magic bell go “ding!” when someone acquires a new class ability.

  2. A penalty to attack and defend from poor morale? One character might withdraw, full parry to compensate. Another might forgo their defenses and smash away for a quick win instead. A third could try to raise a rallying cry for his comrades.

    So, the game should tell me what my character cannot control, and I should tell the game what they can.

    Any game seeing fit to tell me an enemy rips the sword from my grasp with a twist of his wrist should feel free to make my character quiver with rage through sly invective. How I respond to either should be up to me.

  3. Pingback: Six Months On « Held Action

  4. Lt. Commander Federico De Pena says hi and wishes you to know SG4 mission command, though no longer functional, still misses the crazy phasing Tollan! (Just found your blog!)

    • Hi, Erin! Nice to hear from you. SG-4 was a blast. Nothing’s ever going to top the team sneaking around in the dark before realizing, “Hey, don’t SG teams usually just stroll in and say ‘hi’?”

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