Sunday, January 10, 2010

Narrative Control and Player to Player Power Grabs

In my opinion this is one of the hardest things to get right for a group of people playing PBEM/PbP games. It is all about control. The players all want complete control over their character (no brainer really). The DM controls the reactions of NPC’s and monsters... etc.... This all seems pretty simple - and it is - but in PBEM/PbP you can find yourself into situations where these lines are crossed.

Example A: A PC playing a female character walks into a bar where 4 other player characters are sitting at a table... the Player is playing a “hottie” so he/she types in:

“Ezbania walks past the four men at the table to the bar, slowly and confidently. As she nears the bar she pulls a string out of her hair allowing her restrained tresses to flow down her shoulders. All the men at the table can’t help but look over at her, watching her entrance.”

It was going good, until the player decided to tell the other players (probably on accident) what their reaction to her move would be. In this circumstance the other player characters may not mind. But each character should get to choose how they react to this scene. Maybe the barbarian character would want to say, “My character is staring at her, drooling :)” Maybe the thief would want to say, “Noting most of the men at the table are watching a pretty lady and forgetting about our card game, I’ll take the time to swipe a couple of silver pieces out of the pot and check the barbarian’s hand.”

Again, this circumstance is pretty low key - but I find that players can accidently run rampant over each other - telling each other how their characters are supposed to feel/act.

Example B:

DM controls characters. This one is a little harder to define. The DM is always telling the characters what they see/hear/taste/smell/ touch - the part that matters is how much the DM adds in the way of telling the characters what they feel or how they react. For example, the DM is describing a foggy night on a rainsoaked moor, the moon is full, the howls of the werewolves of Areadorn are following them as they push their horses faster. They may not make it to the Tower of Light before they are overtaken by the were-creatures. The DM could add that the characters “clench their fingers tight to the reins, fear gripping them from behind as they urge the horse faster and faster!”

This type of line is really nice when Tolkien describes Arwen and Frodo fleeing from the ring wraiths. However, I try not to run rampant over the feelings of the PC’s and let them describe how they are responding to the situation. The paladin for example probably feels no fear - if the were-creatures close in - he is planning to take them all on, to give the rest of the party time to get to the tower - even if it means his life! The halfling character may be scared out of his wits. The evil mage of the group might be slightly bored since the flight spell he memorized will let him escape no matter what happens - although he would be inconvenienced by the loss of his party he won’t be shedding any tears.

Example C & D:

While in situations like A&B in all my campaigns I strive to keep the same policy, in the next two examples I think there are different ways the game can be run...

C: The players control the feelings or actions of NPC’s. Typically this could happen when a character says something like this:

Crohan the Barbarian (our PC) is fleeing from some back-alley thieves. Turning a corner he comes to a deadend. The character then types, “ I turn on my heels and whip the scabbard off my blade, lifting it up, point forward to my enemies, staring down the blade I summon the wild rage of my heritage and let loose a war cry as I leap forward to attack. The cowards before me tremble in fear, stumbling before my onslaught”.

Well from that ham-handed explanation - you can see than the player took over on the reactions of these NPC’s. As a DM I try to explain at the beginning of a campaign - how much narrative control the PC’s can have. I usually give it out in doses that are proportional to the “power level” of the PC’s in my game. If I am running a GURPS black ops game where the PC’s are the best of the best - cream of the crop - I give them narrative control over all the “forgettable” NPC’s. As long as they aren’t trying to control the Dr.Evil archnemesis types - they are good coming up with as much flavor in their descriptions. The same kind of thing applies to D&D games where the characters are “heroic” powered. In games where I want the characters to have a more “average guy” power level - then I typically recommend that the players try to leave the reaction text to the DM. This really just means in the case of Cohan the barbarian above, the player would only have had to leave out the Italics part of his post.

In the Monsters and Manual’s blog by Noisms - he was recommending Diceless Play for PBEM/PbP - where the PC’s are automatically assumed to succeed in all that they do except where they but heads with other PC’s. They are given all sorts of narrative control over the NPC’s, and the world.

While I think this type of play can work for free-form cooperative story games - I think it is pretty much counter to the D&D spirit and feel. For this style of game - the tension of the game stems directly from NOT being able to automatically succeed. Each door could be locked or trapped, each NPC and monster is an unknown - your chances of survival are based on your skill of identifying situations where you can’t automatically succeed. It is kind of like playing poker - the skill lies in understanding when there is enough reward to justify the risk. Therefore, the DM must control nearly ALL the actions of the NPC’s and the dungeon. In a heroic style game - the PC’s might be able to gain narrative control over low HD NPC’s and monsters

D: Example D is kind of the “null” example - this is where I have most of my problems in running PBEM/PbP games. This is where a PC will log onto the game - and put up a post without saying or doing anything - thus dragging out the game in the worst way. The reason for this, is that they don’t want to accidently step on the wishes of others or put the party into risk. However, the result can be that nobody does anything. Instead, you get a lot of posts that are the PC’s joking with each other, or describing how their character feels, petting their familiars, arguing about which path to take. In one of the worst examples of this behavior, I think I had some players sitting in front of a cave entrance for almost a month of real time. They couldn’t agree on how to proceed and I didn’t want to railroad them.

Example D is one of the hardest to remedy. It is one of these sinkholes that can trap a group, and it is impossible for one player/DM to bring the group out of it. It has to be confronted as a team. I’m thinking that there may be some kind of corporate philosophy for situations like this since they must come up in the business world frequently. I'm going to think about this more and see what I can do in my games to help with these situations.

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