The Player-Character Divide

The tension at my end of the table was incredible. Here I was, for once the only party member who had an inside scoop on what was going on, but I faced that one make-or-break question from the DM: “Well, dude, you made a decision how you’re gonna play this?”

Rewind a little. Our adventuring party had struck out to explore the kingdom neighbouring ours. A travelling merchant had disappeared and there was no word of what had happened. We hit a tower and there was no-one there. Everyone had decided simultaneously to up and go. We figured the capital would have some answers so I as the party’s Ranger led them down the mountains towards the city. On our trip we saw nothing. My wolf was uneasy.

We decided not to risk travelling at night so we hung out in an abandoned farmhouse. Being on the lookout for zombies (because there were lots of human tracks and a weird smell in the air), we mostly ignored the DM’s talk of a poster in a child’s room and went to sleep. And then, just when night hit, the raven familiar of our Witch Morgana spluttered out, “Look! Look!” In the distance were hundreds of people, distorted people. No, not hundreds, but thousands. And they were sprinting towards our shelter. We were screwed. With no time to prepare, we got ready to make a bolt for it. In no time zombies swarmed the house. Our illustrious warrior leader Jope and the Arcane Trickster (mage-thief) Switch barged through the crowd. I hung back. Something wasn’t right. Only when a huge, bulbous zombie vomited bile over my two companions did it become clear – our game had taken an unexpected left turn into Left 4 Dead 2. And though it came a little later, I had to make the decision: “Do I clue the other guys in, or do we have fun?”

I’m the least experienced tabletop RPGer in our group. We’ve come across bad guys and our brains trust (the Witch and Arcane Trickster) quickly deduced what they were, the strategies we should take and so on. Sometimes this is for the best and done in-character. Nevertheless, excessive meta-gaming can sometimes spoil things. There needs to be a balance of player knowledge vs character knowledge and sometimes it’s tricky to tell where the best trade-off is.

For some RPGs, meta-gaming is key. In MMORPGs, for example, they give you access to the game mechanics modifiers like the speed or damage of a certain weapon. This doesn’t just break the player/character divide, but drops a bridge on it. A +4 sword that has kept you alive through hard, memorable encounters is universally considered to be ditched if you find a +5 sword. Why? Well obviously the numbers are better.

Other RPGs try to keep them separate. The Interactive Fiction folk have talked a lot about the player-character distinction and explored that weird relationship. Rogue-likes like Angband or NetHack use things like procedural generation of dungeons, not auto-identifying items, and scrambling which potion means what effect per game. You can’t just drop out to for the answer because it doesn’t know. Inevitability, spoiler guides emerge wherein experienced players explain the game mechanics and at least outline what you could possibly encounter. Tricks are provided to help players (like feeding potions to your pet, or throwing them at monsters and seeing what happens). There remains a tension between what the player knows and what the character knows (in this case, little) but you mostly avoid illogical behaviour from the character’s perspective.

In our Pathfinder game, I had the choice of playing with player knowledge (i.e. this is Left 4 Dead 2 and I know how to deal with the challenges that can be thrown at me) or character knowledge (i.e. have no clue and treat it based on my hunting background and what I should do in such an event). I ended up with a 90% solution. I relied on my “hunter’s sense”[1. Humorously understood by the DM and the other players as some special Ranger skill they had forgotten.] to decide to focus on out-of-the-ordinary zombies. I didn’t scatter when I saw the Charger (which lead to me getting pummelled), but I did try to avoid being hit with acid from the Spitter because that’s kinda obvious. I expressed severe reservations for wandering near the crying woman with taloned hands, but managed to ninja-flip over her and avoid death. Our Arcane Trickster (to his player Paul’s credit) ran straight into her because he rolled poorly on some perception skills and he willingly accepted the carnage he had walked into.

The encounter came to an interesting head when we barricaded ourselves in an inn (after our church became dramatically unsafe). Upstairs our Arcane Trickster was desperately trying to defuse some Explosive Runes and find some magic items hidden beyond. Meanwhile zombies were smashing through the windows and we could hear a gigantic bellow. I knew it was the Tank and we were screwed. But, faithful to my decision, I kept inside and didn’t yell commands. And then a boulder demolished the front half of the inn.

This thing was huge. An undead cyclops (later revealed to be a retrofitted stegosaurus) was bounding along the ground, ready to tear the inn up and ourselves in it. The DM wrote me a secret note, a reference to the brilliant intro movie to Left 4 Dead 1: “Run or shoot?” The correct answer being: “BOTH!” My character wouldn’t have known it, but if he didn’t take the advice, we’d all be dead.

In true zombie movie style I told the guys to run out the side door. “You guys go,” I said. “I’ve got this.” As the giant undead cyclops advanced I ran towards it, leaving my wolf to lead the rest to safety. With the lucky glitterdust (aka blinding) of the undead cyclops, I did a Matrix-style flip over his arms and bolted beyond him. He didn’t seem to notice me and began tearing through the upper half of the inn like it was made of matchsticks. Quickly checking that I wouldn’t be mobbed immediately, I stood firm, used my hunter’s helm (gains insight into my next shot), summoned all my monk training, and launched off four arrows in under 6 seconds, two of them magically enchanted to cause the cyclops a lot of pain. They ripped through his body (I rolled some phenomenal damage: I think 3d8 arrow damage, plus 2d6 bane damage, plus 3d6 fire damage, PLUS a bunch more damage because I’m real strong). If the cyclops didn’t notice me before, he did then. And if I didn’t run, I’d be dead.

I survived by barging through two zombies and letting our Witch lightning-bolt the heck out of the cyclops. Once we fled for the town bridge, the encounter was more-or-less over. We managed to lose the normal pack of zombies by running for the hills, but not before picking up a wicked great flail from the corpse of the local priest who had slain many zombies before we rocked up.

After all this excitement, our DM read out: “This encounter is in memory of {the local priest}” just like how Left 4 Dead rolls credits. He read out a bunch of statistics and finished with the total body count. After so much stress, having this meta-game break was such a hilarious relief. What was supposed to be an exploration of some ghost town became a scary, awesome mini-adventure where the balance of  player knowledge and character knowledge gave some excellent tension and fun times, despite us almost dying several times over.

I think this is the thing I want for Kung Fu Legends. I want computer RPGs to be like roleplaying again. If you can force players to not game the system, then they have no choice but to role-play (or quit, but hopefully you make it interesting enough for them to play). There are infinite examples of RPGs where the player/character divide is shattered and everyone worries about min/maxing their character build. It’d be nice to have a few more RPGs that just tell a good story.

5 thoughts on “The Player-Character Divide”

  1. My favourite move of that session was the scrolls of “Mount” that I had prepared ages ago, just in case they might be useful one day.

    Role-playing is collaborative fiction. Realism – verisimilitude, believability – is important. We all want the party to survive – including the DM. If we had had to go “ok, the characters run all night and somehow escape the zombies”, it would have been a little disappointing. But these scrolls (that each summon an ordinary riding horse for a few hours) made the whole escape believable in the context of the game. They turned what could have been a Deus Ex Machina in the story of our adventure into a legitimate flow of events.

    The other important aspect for me as a player is that my character – by doing something that no-one else could have done – saved the party’s bacon. I don’t know that this can translate well into a computer rpg. The lure of face-to-face tabletop gaming is that is is social. Perhaps some sort of place where players can describe “best move of the day”, and vote – perhaps putting their group’s chosen “best move of the day” on a message board for the whole community of players. If this could be accompanied by a screenshot of the action, perhaps.

  2. @Paul Murray
    The scrolls of “Mount” were definitely inspired 🙂 And yeah, I liked how that tough Endurance run was dealt with. I think it was a night of awesome moves by all involved.

    I agree, it’s tough to translate the social vibe of a tabletop adventure into a computer RPG. Which is why I’ve never believed MMORPG folks that say raiding is pretty much the same as a D&D session.

  3. Having never really played a tabletop adventure except to serve as a (I’d suggest fairly mediocre) DM, I don’t really know how a (good) session plays out. But I don’t imagine it would be quite so clinical and organised as the average WoW raid. Sure, people raiding might trade a joke or too, but when it comes down to it, everyone is doing the raid for the loot or the DKP (Dragon Kill Points – used to bid for loot).

    At best, you’re doing it because you want to experience the raid content – see the enemies and be part of the effort to take them down. But even as part of that, you want to experience new and more grandiose content… which requires the loot from the raid. I’d suggest that because of that loot focus, an MMORPG is never going to feel the same as a tabletop session.

  4. @AmstradHero
    I guess the difference is that a MMORPG raid instance is more or less static and a tabletop adventure is dynamic. People can prepare a clinical strike on a raid mostly because they already know what they’re up against (having played the raid before, or read the spoilers on the Internet). We’ve learnt with our tabletop equivalents that the less planning the better. Partly because the DM likes to shake things up, partly because we never know what we’re up against. And partly because even if you did the maths, we do much fewer dice rolls than the equivalent MMORPG fight, you don’t get the average smoothing effect, so the fight can swing much more wildly.

    Don’t get me wrong, we’re often all about the loot, but it takes ingenuity (or favourable dice) to get there. While you can equate our roles to DPS, Tanks and so forth, it doesn’t quite capture the group dynamic because tabletop adventuring allows for a much broader scope of play than MMORPGs.

  5. @AmstradHero
    I’d say the main difference is that in a tabletop RPG your character can do anything the player can conceive and describe, for whatever reasons motivate their character. In a MMORPG you can only choose which buttons to hit in what order and are motivated only by what faction you signed up to when you started the game.

    That may be a bit harsh, but it feeds into two strong motivators for me to play RPGs – I want to be surprised and I want to vicariously share my character’s highs and lows. Its this combination of personal investment and as BrettW put it “broader scope of play” that keeps me playing.

    I’m glad that everyone had fun with this session though, it was the first time in a while I’ve railroaded the party – although being the mob they are their first inclination was to retreat and nuke the problem from orbit.

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