There are several games I’ve covered (and many more to come) in this series that are difficult to write about. Some are simply too short for me to get much of a read on them. Others are outside my area of expertise. Others are big enough games that I would have to dedicate inordinate amounts of time in order to do them justice.
Others are just kind of weird. The weird games are often the most difficult to write about for a variety of reasons. First of all, weird is an awfully subjective term. For all I know, the weirdest game I’ve ever played could be completely mundane to someone else. What’s more, I always feel like there must be something I’ve missed, some key to help me understand the game, and that I’m not giving it a fair shake.
Cosmic DJ is a short game. It is a game about dance music, a subject where I’m competely clueless. And while it’s not terribly complex or difficult, it is certainly weird.
A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative
When inviting people to play a roleplaying game you should know if any of these aren’t going to work. Where the consequence of failure is character death, and this happens frequently, players who play themselves may be a bit too invested in their characters to enjoy it when they make one bad roll and that’s it. This is also the case when the player wishes to be integrated into some kind of grand plot arc. D&D is, so far, the best game I have played for types 1 and 4 above. The rules make it relatively easy to make characters into heroes.
The problem I find with this is that the path of least resistance for the DM is to present weak challenges and keep the XP spigot wide open, allowing the player characters to take a walk up the gentle slope to godhood. It gets tedious and is ultimately uninteresting to me when there is a shower of rewards without significant risk. It is, therefore, a challenge for me to run an interesting game for people who love to play these characters because introducing the risk of death or irrevocable failure is at odds with huge investment in a single character. It’s a challenge worth taking, I think, because wanting to play those characters is a valid desire for those players and I like diversity at the table. It just can’t be taken too far; if someone wants a pure power fantasy I won’t recommend joining any of my tabletop adventures or campaigns. At the same time, I will refrain from the rocks fall, everybody dies sort of excess sadism unless I warn characters beforehand that I am running something in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors.
Type 3 represents the characters I typically play, which lends itself to some investment in the continued life and success of the same character. At the same time, it means that I should be able to part with a character (or see them completely fail) if my player-ego doesn’t run too high. This, and the wish-fulfillment type 2, can work in D&D but are also a little more suited to World of Darkness where characters are not 100% disposable, but are usually far from gods-in-the-making even with a few extraordinary abilities. Trouble arises when the desire to be the most powerful or the sleaziest man alive overrides the spirit of cooperation required for any group of players to function. I find that these are the easiest types of characters to write for as a DM as long as the players are willing to be flexible and show restraint in their expectations. I only find it challenging when I am the player who really needs to be doing more of those things.
Type 2 is, I think, the only thing that really works in an OSR meat grinder that the “evil DM” wishes to run. You simply can’t go into a game where character death happens at the snap of the fingers with a carefully crafted backstory and emotional investment. I don’t mind playing these, but definitely need to know ahead of time that I am NOT to play a character that I truly care about. I’m probably not going to run a whole lot of this with my regular group, but will for one-off events like Extra Life.
What I am trying to say here is that there is no right or wrong character type for a person to want to play, but that we have had some friction when we try and cram characters of type 1 and 4 into games that just don’t support that kind of investment. Considering character types is just another way to “know your audience” when thinking about starting up a game.
Agency is the character’s capacity to act, rather than simply have events unfold around them. The thing that makes the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) so neat is spreading out the agency among several players rather than having one person, an author, decide what every single character does or does not do. It is not evenly distributed in most TTRPGs; the DM/GM/Storyteller being responsible for most of the characters that exist in the fiction. It’s not appropriately called a “game” if the person running the show narrates the entire thing. Players, in order to be players, must be offered the opportunity to act. The kind of options for action that are available, and the consequences of those actions, remain the purview of the person running the game.
One way to offer players a chance to act is to present choices or dilemmas. Whether between two good options, two bad options, or one clearly good and clearly bad there is a direct choice: kill the werewolves and in doing so break your oath to the moon goddess, or let them sack the nearby village and deal with the displaced families afterwards. The DM who writes/runs these kinds of adventures probably reads up on ethical dilemmas and imagines how to weave it into a tabletop adventure for fun. Having dice and characters make things more fun than imaginary trolleys, after all. This is generally the style I like to play: I don’t get everything I want, but my choices and the choices of those around me matter in an important way.
Another way to do this is to offer deliberately blind choices. For horror games this usually means a choice between bad or worse, with no indications and/or possibly false indications to the players which is which. There really is no “winning” here, no solution to the problem or way to overcome the insurmountable. The choices the characters make are more about showing who the character is rather than what they can do to affect their situation. Although the game is interactive, the characters have a low degree of agency in the plot. If it sounds like I’m writing about this in a negative tone, it’s because this is a type of game that I find it hard to get into. It’s fine to run this game if the players know what they’re getting into, but possibly campaign-ruining if you have been running lots of heroes faced with ethical dilemmas type stuff and then want to show everyone that your new villain is really badass. It’s a fine way to run a game; I know what I am getting into when I play a game with “Cthulhu” in the name. I just don’t know a lot of people who can really get into that sort of thing and I’m a “maybe” at best.
The third is like a puzzle, sometimes literally and sometimes just functioning that way. There is one way to progress. The players need to solve for x. The only way to really lose is to give up, and the way to win is to find the answer (which could be a combination that opens a door or something less concrete like the identity of the person who committed a crime). This is something I can get into when it’s a video game, less so when it is a tabletop RPG, even less when I have created a character and a backstory. It just doesn’t mix well for me. If my agency is to be limited to things that solve the puzzle and things that don’t then I would much prefer to come in with a pre-determined character well-suited for the game to be played. I loved Portal and other such games, but I need my D&D or my WoD to be different than this.
The fourth way is where choices are basically made for you, which is where the word “railroading” has been a popular but possibly misleading way to describe what is happening. I’ve come to the belief that preventing a campaign from derailing is actually a good thing for a GM to do if the general consensus is that the game is intended to be consistent rather than absurd. That doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the players into a single course of action and making them feel more like their characters are being dragged along for the ride. This isn’t how any tabletop campaigns I have played in have been intended to run; it is what happens when a DM wants things to go a certain way so badly that they get a bit ham-fisted about it. I’ve done it as DM. It’s not a good way to go; the complete and total lack of agency almost never makes for a good game. If your group is doing something where the person running the event is more of an author than a game runner and encourages what amounts to audience participation, I guess this can be okay, but it’s generally the thing you want to avoid. And to be clear, prodding the players to leave the bus depot and explore the town after three sessions might qualify as “railroading” in the eyes of some, but that’s not at all what I am talking about here.
There may be more ways that agency in the form of choices for action may be offered in the TTRPG, but these are the four that I came up with in my conversation with the storyteller from my most recent WoD campaign that describe almost all of the TTRPGS we have played so far.
One of the first things I did when my HDD quit after seven years was choose which games to reinstall. I decided that Skyrim was on the list. I have on various occasions tried a second playthrough but for some reason August was a better time than others. I think one of the reasons why I got back into a video game from 2011 is that Tamriel is an extremely rich setting, and the writing is detailed but not overbearing. For example, I chose not to care about the civil war quest line at first because I remembered more about it from my most recent attempt at a playthrough. I thought I was bored with that part. But then I tried to explain to my wife the differences between the Empire and the Stormcloaks and found myself having to take a lot of time to do it properly. Once I got into talking about the facts about both sides I found that there was something to care about even if clearing forts is a little tedious. Despite a little bit of corny dialog, the setting is highly consistent and does not engage in much absurdity. Other games with different kinds of settings, like Great Ork Gods, crank up the absurdity because it’s fun. This is something I and the storyteller from my recent campaign identified as one of the key choices to make.
One of the goals I have as a DM is to run a campaign, not necessarily a super-long one, but something more aptly called a campaign rather than an adventure where people love the setting so much that they want me to run something else in the same setting and/or seek permission to run something in that setting themselves. I don’t expect it will ever compete with Forgotten Realms as a setting, but it would melt my heart if someone could ask for a setting by name rather than “the same world as your last campaign.” One of the things I will be watching closely is the consistency/absurdity balance. As the person running the show I will need to keep the group interested while also considering what I want to build, which will definitely skew towards the consistent. I really don’t appreciate when I or someone else really wants to do build up a world that exists in our imaginations beyond the field of view of the player characters, but others insist on making it into a farce of pop culture references and self-parody. It’s fine to do those things as long as that’s the kind of game the group has agreed to play, but it’s something I find harder to enjoy than when it’s baked into the game from the start. Going from consistent to absurd usually doesn’t work well for me.
However, as much as it is jarring when it gets dark and serious in a setting where I expected something more along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I find it preferable to the reverse (going from consistent to absurd). There is one time that stands out to me where something shed a lot of its absurdity; I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was a player in a Risus campaign which started as a fandom mashup of stuff our group liked, but as we probed into the penal system of a very “enlightened” civilization we came to the horrifying realization that in their desire to eschew traditional prisons they invented a new kind of psychological torture. This wasn’t originally the intention, but if I am going to have intentions about this sort of thing, I hope to be able to strike the balance as well as it was done in that campaign.
As much as I enjoy Skyrim, I can see getting into something more absurd again as long as it’s the kind of game that my group wants to play at the time. Whether by meticulous planning or by skillful improv, it’s something that I think is really important to consider in some way.