The Needs of the Many…

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about goals and motivations as they apply to tabletop RPG’s, specifically how and why they motivate the story of a game.

From reading bankuei, I’ve reached the (somewhat tentative) conclusion that an essential component of Narratavism is that the player character’s goals drive the story. If one PC wants to find their long-lost sister, well, then, that’s what their story is going to be about. If another PC wants to start their own religion, then their portion of the game is going to be about that.

You can probably already see the problem. What happens when players goals aren’t compatible? Or if they don’t want to work together? Well, narrativism doesn’t particularly care, I think. A narrativist game is perfectly happy to let each player pursue their own independent agenda, maybe sometimes working together, sometimes working against. You can see this in the design of narrativist games like “Burning Wheel” or “Dogs in the Vineyard” whose mechanics emphasize one-on-one conflicts and confrontations, rather than group v. group encounters.

From a gamist perspective, the the GM’s goal is to make sure as many people are having as much fun as possible, together. The players, and their player characters, need to be united in purpose and destiny. This is where we get common tropes and unwritten rules like “don’t split the party” and “follow the plot hooks.” If the party splits up, the game falls apart. If the characters don’t chase the plot hook, or, worse yet, can’t decide what to do instead, then there’s really no game. Just arguing justified under the pretext of “Not what my character would do.”

My point is that a gamist GM ignores goals and motivations at their peril. Creating a cohesive game starts at CharGen. Common advice is that the PC needs to have a “stake” in the world. Family. Connections. Something they want to protect. However, in my opinion, this doesn’t quite go far enough.

I read somewhere (though I’m forgetting the source) that a central tenent of constructive play is the idea that “If The Players Do Nothing, Things Get Worse.” The baddie succeeds. The dragon eats the village. Whatever. And, from the very beginning, PC’s need to be the type of people that care.

I think it was the Angry GM that shaped my view of Good vs. Evil alignments as essentially Altruism vs. Selfishness. You see, everyone cares about preventing a Bad Thing when them and theirs are threatened. But the GM who relies on having to make sure every encounter or adventure thread has a reason for each of 5 different characters to all want to participate because of their unique snowflake goals writes them-self into a trap. Instead, characters need to be essentially Good. Essentially Altruistic. They have to care that things get worse if they don’t act. They have to want to try and improve things. Mind you, they don’t have to agree with the GM (or, necessarily, their fellow players) on what “better” looks like, but they have to agree that doing something is better than doing nothing.

It might be argued that this isn’t strictly necessary. After all, what harm is it if the party ignores the damsel in distress if their character’s motivations don’t insist that they help? Well, here, we get into a conflict of the Player’s goals vs. the Character’s goals.

I recently played in a game session where the player character’s each had separate goals. My character wanted to start a business, another wanted to learn magic from an old wizard, and a third wanted to go out and adventure. However, when we sat down at CharGen, we all agreed that we wanted to adventure together. Our goals as players was to go on adventures. To run into problems. To come up with zany plans and execute them. But our PC’s goals, as written, had betrayed us.

In my opinion, the group’s goal must supersede those of the character. The character is just a construct. I’m not a slave to my character or what he wants to do. If he wants to stay home and play house, tough shit. I want him to get out there and kill giant rats. And, if the character’s goals prevent him from doing what the group wants, then you better believe his goals need to change, adapt, or be discarded completely in favor of actually having a fun game.

The next session, we agreed up-front that we were going to leave the city and move on. We weren’t going to let our character’s bog us down in their tedious bullshit. I decided that my character’s goal of running a business meant that he now had taken out a sizable debt, and needed to pay it off. For that, he needed loot and money. Therefore, he’d follow any encounter, chase any lead, in the player-driven knowledge that it would lead him to fortune or his grave. Needless to say, we all had a much better time.

I should note that as an alternative, a party can be narratively coalesced through it’s own bonds. Maybe the fighter doesn’t care about the thief’s lost daughter, but he does care about the thief, and will therefore help him find his daughter. A lot of games try to establish these “Bonds” up front, but I think doing this without understanding the underlying agreement implicit to them is a mistake. You aren’t coming up with Bonds just for the sake of flavor. You are deciding the reason as to why you will put the other person’s goals ahead of your own. Why you will help someone, even when there’s nothing else in it for you save your friendship.

Player characters don’t just need to have goals. They must “share” goals. Because in a gamist game, it is the Party’s goal, not the individual’s, that shapes the story and direction of play into a cohesive and functional game. The needs of the many, and the game, outweigh the goals of the individual.

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4 thoughts on “The Needs of the Many…

  1. “What happens when players goals aren’t compatible? Or if they don’t want to work together? Well, narrativism doesn’t particularly care, I think.”

    Some Narrativist games do have you coordinate goals up front (Burning Wheel, Primetime Adventures), some force the situation to have the characters overlap in situation even if they have different goals (Poison’d, Mouse Guard), some don’t care at all (Trollbabe, Sorcerer).

    Technically all types of creative agenda are about the group having fun – it’s just different types.

    • That is a very good point! Thinking about it a bit more, it occurs to me that in using your same page tool, this issue is explicitly called out: How much are the players supposed to cooperate with one another?

      Like you say, a narrativist game can (and often does) in it’s design have players overlap in their goals. But, I wouldn’t say that cooperation isn’t strictly required in Narrativism in the same way they are in a Gamist game. In a Gamist game, your best outcome is always going to come when all the players are able to work together towards the same objectives and goals. This is by design in the sense of “group v. group” conflicts, where each character in a party is expected to pull their weight and help resolve a challenge. I noticed from re-reading Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard that the rules drive more one-on-one interactions, and there seemed to be some presumption of internal party conflict being a major mechanism of play.

      You’re right, implying that “Gamist” play is the only one that wants to drive fun was disingenuous. I think the idea I was going for is that in Gamism, the mechanics really want “everyone” to be involved as an active participant in a scene. Narrativist games seem to tend towards being okay with some players riding the bench, so to speak. Players in a narrativist games can still enjoy a scene where they aren’t an active participant, which I think is a harder outcome to achieve in Gamism. Not sure about that one, though. Might need to stew on it a bit longer.

      • Well the flipside to consider is that gamism doesn’t require working together at all – many games make excellent gamism on players working against each other – Paranoia, Amber Diceless Roleplay, can swing this way easily, and some games are designed with it in mind: Rune, Agon.

        Working together, or apart, or having goals that point the characters towards each other, or away from each other, is a completely separate dial from the three Creative Agenda categories.

        Mainstream roleplaying assumes the goals have to be identical to “keep the party together” which has more to do with a) assumptions of challenge based on a party build for gamist sorts and b) illusionism play methods taken as the norm from the late 80s and 90s.

        If you cut out those two assumptions, characters can be spread across locations and doing different activities, or have completely different goals without necessarily creating problems in play.

  2. Pingback: Is Fate an RPG? | Rolling the Hard Six

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