Monday, July 20, 2009

What Makes a Beautiful Player? (Part 1)

(I originally posted this essay on my website back in 2000 sometime. I like it, though; I think it's one of my better ones, and so I'm starting my transfer-of-essays with this one. It's long, though, so it's in two parts. I've done a little bit of editing, but the content is the same.)

Much of my time and energy goes into being a Storyteller, but not a player. As I’ve mentioned in other essays, it’s task that’s stuck with me for years, and a hat (black, natch) that I wear well. When it comes to role-playing, I prefer, hands down, to be in the proverbial driver’s seat.

But then, it’s nice to get to play, too. Focusing on one character is great, rather than trying to wrangle a bunch of supporting cast. It’s nice to try to decide where to spend experience points, to try to figure out a Storyteller’s next move (dangerous on the best of days).

All of which got me thinking about what makes a good player. The knee-jerk response is “creativity”, but frankly, that doesn’t say a whole lot. After all, a painter can be creative and not be able to role-play his way out of a paper bag. So, to define a “good” player, we need to be a bit more specific. I’ve divided the traits of a perfect gamer into four categories. We could call them Attributes, or Characteristics, or Basic Abilities...

Ahem. The four traits (Traits works, too!) are Cleverness, Consciousness, Appearance (it’s not what you think) and Initiative.

Cleverness, or Oof! No Illusory Walls Here!

We can’t all be geniuses. We all try to come up with witty one-liners, great dialogue, and combat tactics so incredibly simple-yet-effective that William Wallace would smack his forehead and said “Ach!” But it ain’t always so. Some players, however, have minds like steel traps. They seize upon whatever crisis or problem you present, looking for a way to solve it.

A Clever player knows the spirit of the rules, as well as the letter. If a tactic or twist on a rule is theoretically possible but either unlikely, totally out of character, or completely outside of the game’s tone, a clever player will ignore it and think of something else. However, a clever player knows the rules. In fact, it’s the clever ones who say to you, “Hey, I had an idea for a new spell/Gift/Discipline/skill/whatever that my character could learn or create. How do this system look for it?” A marginally clever player will drop the idea, but not bother with the system (which is fine; it gives you free reign to tweak without stepping on anybody’s creative-toes). A very clever player will give you the system and say, “And I know how to work it into the plotline that we’ve got going!”

Clever players are observant, too. They ask questions. Lots of them. They ask for names for any NPC they meet, as well as descriptions. It can get annoying sometimes. Never, ever let it get to you. The clever player asks for informational purposes, not to tax your Storytelling ability. Answer their questions, and be patient.

Tactics are the clever player’s bread and butter. Some clever players enjoy chess or go or other strategy-based games, and enjoy applying that kind of logic to the problems presented in role-playing games. That’s fine. Throw them subtle clues, literary allusions, deviant behaviors in NPCs, and other puzzles. They’ll miss some of them, but that’s why you give them more than one clue. Watch which clue a player picks up on - it’ll give you some ideas as to how the player’s mind works.

Dangers of the Clever Player

Well, the first one should be obvious. Clever folks can sometimes skip to step C without going through A and B. And that can be annoying as hell, if the Storyteller hasn’t thought through to C yet. The only thing the Storyteller can do is try to get a feel for how his/her players think, and try to step one step ahead of them. (Hint: If you’re making it up as you go along, they can’t outfox you. You can, however, outfox yourself, which is fun.) Don’t - repeat, don’t - get annoyed and penalize players who think of ways out of or around your insidious little traps that you hadn’t considered. Reward that behavior. That’s good; it tests your abilities and makes them feel like a million bucks.

Clever players can be excitable, and sometimes they blurt out their assumptions or conclusions even when their characters aren’t present. An example: I ran a Vampire: The Masquerade game wherein one of the characters (Jack), weakened from hunger and stressed beyond belief, knocked on the apartment door of one of the other characters (Nova). Nova’s servant (a ghoul, which means still mostly human) opened the door and Jack immediately flew into a hunger frenzy, pounced on the ghoul, and started drinking. Nova pulled him off, but not before he’d drained most of the blood from the ghoul’s body. Nova’s player (and Nova herself) wasn’t really cognizant of what was involved in creating another vampire, she only knew that her friend was dying, so fed him some blood to try and revive him (this, by the way, is how you create another vampire: drain someone of blood, then feed them some of yours).

Meanwhile, on the other end of the couch, two Clever Players were whispering “Aw, shit, she’s going to end up turning him into a vampire.” I docked them both a point of Willpower. I let them off that light because nobody heard them. If Nova had known that was going to happen, she might have acted differently - or not. But she didn’t, and neither did Nova’s player, and I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.

Note, by the way, that this isn't about keeping secrets from your players. But dammit, you only get one chance to learn that Luke is Darth Vader's son (too soon?). After that, you might appreciate the moment when you see it, but you can't really get surprised by it, and that "gasp!" moment is fun. Don't take it away from other players.

If you get a reference or a clue that no one else does - and your character has no way of saying anything - don’t give it away OOC. Sit there and squirm. Pass a note to the Storyteller if you must. I’ve actually had people leave the room because it was too painful to watch other players struggling with a riddle they’d figured out ten minutes ago. Do whatever you need to do, but don’t give away information your character doesn’t have.

Another problem that clever players tend to have is remembering that the game is about role-playing, not problem-solving. A clever player’s character may be dumb as a box of rocks, but that player still retains her intellect and she forgets to curb it. I recommend not playing characters that you have to dumb down - it’s hard to role-play, and I don’t find it to be a lot of fun. If you’re capable of playing a less-than-bright character, however, and you’d be entertained by that sort of thing, go on ahead. Just don’t be surprised if the Storyteller asks for Intelligence rolls to see if your character can come to the same conclusions you can. (The corollary to this, of course, is not to player characters that are too much smarter than you, but that’s hard to gauge.)

Finally, clever players don’t always ask what they want to know. They’ve got everything pictured in their minds, so when a player asks, “How wide is the alley?” what he might really want to know is, “Do I have enough space to charge the thug and knock him over, or should I just walk up and slug him?” Often, questions aren’t nitpicking, they’re part of a logical chain of thoughts that the Storyteller isn’t privy to. So, if you aren’t really sure how wide a city alley is (24 paces in Cleveland. I checked), ask why the player wants to know.

Are You a Clever Player?

• Does your Storyteller pause between details during descriptions to see if you’ve got anything to ask?
• Do you take notes?
• Within ten seconds of meeting an NPC, do you have her class/clan/tribe/tradition/race/whatever pegged?
• When your Storyteller drops a subtle clue and your character isn’t there to hear it, do you have to bury your face in a pillow and scream?
• Does your Storyteller often glare at you and hold up a gag or roll of duct tape?
• Does your group look to you for rules clarifications more often than the Storyteller?

If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, chances are you’re a Clever Player.