Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Role-playing, I Strike at Thee!

There is a certain class of kids, usually fairly young, that experiments rather than role plays in D&D. These are often kids with short attention spans or a more mischievous personality, but not always. In the past, I used to classify their style of gaming as bad role-playing, but now it becomes clear to me, that I was very much mistaken and the tools I tried to apply to fix the situation were wrong as well.

I will give typical example:

DM: After exploring the dark tunnels for hours, you finally find the gate to Doctor Kierstein’s underground palace. A pitiable creature opens the door for you. It is a broken thing that appears to mix the worse aspects of a dwarf, an ape and a bird. The thing eyes you suspiciously and slurs, “Vot zo you vont?”
Kid 1: I roll Nature to see if I can recognize what kind of creature it is and if it’s evil or not.
Kid 2: I tell him, “Show us to your master at once! We have urgent news!” I also roll Medicine to see if I can fix him later.
Kid 3: I, eh, use Eleven Accuracy.
Kid 4: I attack Kid 2 with a harpoon!
DM and Kid 2 in unison: Why on earth would you do that?!
Kid 4: Dunno.
DM: No, seriously, you can do anything you want, just give me an in-game reason.
Kid 4: Okay, I hide in the shadows instead.
DM: Why?
And so it goes . . .

Are you sure this is the best time to consult the map?
Now with Kid 3 it’s quite obvious; the fella is insecure and unfocused and so turns to the words on his character sheet for guidance. After all, it’s easier to pick one of several options than to imagine a new course of action. In combat, often reading a random power from your character sheet is the right answer. Social and puzzle encounters are just the confusing bit between one combat encounter and another. In more extreme cases, I’ve seen kids whose turn has come just look at me meaningfully, roll a die and then shout excitedly, “fifteen!” More often than not, if you look under the table you’ll see them playing with their smartphones.

I have spoken a lot about this problem in the past, so I won’t repeat myself. If you’re curious, here’s a Wizards-era (aka, “before the fall”) article that covers it. Coincidentally, this article was so controversial it was even covered by io9.

Now kid 4 is a different story; his actions are not just misaimed, but also very detrimental to group morale and reek of GTA and its ilk rather than D&D. However, assuming he’s not doing it because kid 2 was rude to him this morning or because he’s a D&D bully, we must wander why is he doing it and what can we do to help him return to the Straight Path.

Yesterday, I had a chance to conduct a candid interview with a kid who plays this way, but is otherwise a good-natured and pleasant boy, albeit suffering from a fairly serious learning disability. He said that his motivation is usually curiosity over what would happen if he did this or that. When I asked him what his character’s motivation is, he replied, “Who cares?”

What I read between the lines is that his character wasn’t his avatar in the imaginary world of the game, but rather his instrument to affect this world. That is, for him, the game is not about portraying a character, but about using a character to do fun stuff without a trace of immersion, storytelling or suspension of disbelief. This would explain why some kids refer to miniatures as "toys" or "dolls," to characters as "players" and to NPCs as "baddies" or "creatures."

Now, I wonder, how to introduce them the joys of real role playing. I am not sure yet, but Pelor willing, I will be sure by the time I post part 2!