Monday, April 18, 2011

A-Z Action: C is for Crutch (Is Writing Good Speeches for Stupid Characters Cheating?)

I'm a bad roleplayer. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons, without significant gaps, for around 17 years. I built my first race about 12 hours after I first touched a PhB. By the time I finished high school six or so years later, I'd written two massive, sprawling campaign worlds, something like 30 races, a like number of classes, untold monsters, and so, so many pages of adventure plots.

I've probably played 200 different characters, spread out over all the Rpgs I've enjoyed. Many of them, I've loved. Many of them, other folks have loved. Occasionally (though less often than you might think) characters fall into both groups. I've played men, women, faeries, robots, elementals, bad ideas, and mythical figures. I've been the hero, the heel, the lover, and the speechless. I've had characters who've grown to dominate games, and characters who've grown to dominate DMs; to the point where they've built games to give the characters a home. I've made characters so vile, so domineering, or so weird that they've more or less broken games, sometimes before they even started.

I know the rules...for pretty much anything. I've spent hours pouring over rulebooks and builds and suggestions for games that I have never played, or played once, or don't even want to play (but love to read). It's pretty fair to say that my life is, barring the occasional John Cusackian romantic folly, dedicated to gaming.

And yet, I am a terrible roleplayer.
Because---despite my enthusiasm for the game, my knowledge of its systems, and the creativity which I wish I could ply in a paying gig of some sort---I consistently rely on certain tropes and methods of engaging with the game. I'm likely to fall back on these tropes at the lightest provocation, or in avoiding them find myself paralyzed in a game. Because I have them at my disposal, my characters are never a perfect blend of sheet, history, and player action; there's always that bit of English spinning the character in a particular direction.

Every character I play tends to be clever, quick-witted, and charismatic (though not necessarily well-liked), as well as given to speechifying. One could make the claim that this is a little Marty Stu at work, and I would leave it to one to claim such. However, when I find myself slipping into this approach---at least, for a character who hasn't already established themselves as being this kind of character---it's usually with a bit of reluctance. What's at stake, though, is that gaming is my thing, my primary means of entertainment. Despite not having had a regular tabletop group in over a decade, I've played in scores of games via PbP. There've been many times when I lacked a computer that had games on it, let alone the kind of stable internet connection necessary to get my MMO on; when I had the latter, my computers have traditionally been incapable of actually running most current or even last- gen games. But a handful of polyhedrals, a word processor (later, online charsheet database), and the ability to click "post" has kept me gaming pretty well nonstop.

So if I'm going to play, I want to play well. I'm not, and have never been, a man of min-maxed character sheets. If anything, my bias runs in the opposite direction; I tend to favor the unpopular classes, and strive to craft exotic and unusual builds because that's so thoroughly my way. I also roll poorly, inasmuch as the gamer's belief in independent probability being altered by one's luck or karma can allow one to roll poorly.

But the primary (maybe even one?) area where my baser nature shines through is in playing every character with at least the level of intelligence, observational ability, and political bent that I posses. If I see something in a DM's plot, or the way that he describes a room, I want my character to see it. Because it's right there. Essentially, I expect a certain minimum threshold of agency; to not be penalized if I'm capable of picking up on a clue, even if Wevin the Barbarian is not.

This trait comes into play when dialoguing with NPCs as well. If I write a speech that is moving, captivating, or even just entertaining, it's difficult for the DM to say "Yeah, but with a Cha of 8, they don't like that stuff you said." Does difficult mean impossible? Or that no DM should ever try to refuse a player the ability to do such things? Obviously, I can't comment on that without bias.

What I can state is that I think the overlap between player personality and "mental" (Cha, Wis, Int) stats is interesting because I don't think it can happen with Con, Dex, or Str. I imagine that most gamers have undergone a self-statting experiment at some point; it's something of a rite of passage. While Int and Str have actual conversions, if you go back far enough, you can't really put numbers to the other four stats based on numbers you derived from your own life. At least, not without devising some sort of awesome gauntlet of challenges that would probably involve a bar and a deep sense of embarrassment.

Even if it was easy to math out your stats, putting them into practice would remain difficult. Maybe you play the kind of game where successfully bench-pressing the DM lets your character negate an enemy's crit. If that's the case you're awesome, dear reader. But I play online, so even if character hit points were traditionally determined based on how many blows to the face the piloting player could sustain, it wouldn't particularly apply in my case. It's also hard to bench someone through a message board. It's not, however, difficult to bend one's vocabulary and agile fingers to typing up a speech convincing that confused ogre to join your party's burgeoning homestead. (As an aside, it helps when you have an awesome DM who decides that the ogre had been cursed with existential uncertainty by the world's most awesome wizard--thanks Kash). I've been planning to talk about some of the other issues where PbPing plays out differently than tabletop, especially as it makes for a great way to hit 26 blog posts; just let it be noted that I recognize it would be harder to monologue in a situation where the party has 3 hours to play.

However, I'd like to at least consider the possibility that the crutches to which I cling aren't all bad. If nothing else, it highlights the question of whether the relationship between players and characters is unidirectional. Let's say that I, as my Vudrani Arjun, speak to "the people," begging them to fund the restoration of a ghost town (which will later be filled with ogre recruits who've been exposed to Sartre). If the speech is compelling, isn't that roleplaying? I didn't tell the DM "I say some awesome shit and the villagers should totally help us now." I didn't have Napan (the aforementioned Arjun) speak as I do---well, any more so than he already does---but used in-game events, landmarks, and loyalties to construct the argument. Drawing on the experiences that the character himself has had, I constructed an impassioned and effective plea that drove them, in droves, to empty their pockets into the construction fund.

That's cool, right?

But the truth is, Napan's got an 8 Charisma and no training in any social skills. If I'd rolled the speech, the best result on the die just beats a hard DC for a 4th level character. And I, as player, know that. Hell, knowing that is a big part of why I had him give the damn speech, and made it a page long and theatrical. I hope the resultant profanity-laced monologue is entertaining, certainly, but I recognize that the same method wouldn't work in combat.

Knowing that I can't write my way into a critical hit, but I can write my way into an NPC's heart, is why monologues are my crutch.

Part of what spurred my writing this somewhat high-concept post is that one of my friends and DMs is running a new game expressly designed around charismatic characters, high-stakes conversation, and double entendre. He expressed this in the game announcement, and was subsequently flooded with Bards, Sorcerers, Paladins, and Warlocks. I knew he would be. And, while I did consider applying with my decadent dragonborn Warlock Sin Spigot (A trio of debased deva are using him to bleed off their sins before they die, to avoid becoming Raksha) I'm now in the final stages of deciding between a Psion|Shaman and an Avenger, neither of whom have prioritized Cha at all. Because I knew, in my heart, that I'd end up playing the game using words more than dice.

1 comment:

  1. We all do this. All of us. At least, all of us that are any good at writing. I've never yet met anyone that can resist squeezing every bit of stirring dialogue or brilliant planning out of a game that they can muster.

    My answer to the problem? I just refuse to make psychopathic half-ogre minotaur berserkers any more, because I KNOW that I'm going to end up running the party anyway. 4E has helped the stat discrepancy by making it much less likely for any character build of any sort to completely ignore intelligence, wisdom, and charisma as a whole, and a lot of social/academic things can be shoehorned into whichever one of the three you didn't dump.

    But mostly it's really just the self restraint: if I can't play the silent grunter the way it's supposed to be played, then I don't write up that character. Leave it there for someone less glib than yourself who doesn't have the ability to effectively write for a front man, instead of taking other people's jobs and then being disappointing when no one steps up to fill your own as well as you could have in the first place.