I am currently running a Solar system game. Last session contained something I have not often seen in roleplaying, so maybe it is worth sharing. First, some background.
I started the character generation by outlining the general situation and setting: science fiction, mostly hard, characters are people sent to the prison planetoid Pluto. Game can happen there or elsewhere if the characters get away.
Next, players created character concepts (I had a bunch of skill lists as inspiration and guide) and I asked them to pose some question they are interested in, and that is about their character. “Why is your character the main character here?” was something I think I asked. Use the word protagonist if you will. The questions the players came up with were surprisingly high-brow, even though I even gave an example of something more task-oriented. Here’s a few: Was the massacre of Ganymedes worth it? Why is [the character] such a ruthless killer? Do ends justify the means?
Then, each player posed a question about another player’s character. All the questions have mechanical weight: When they come up in a scene, 1 experience. When a scene is about a question, 3 exp. When a session is about a question, 5 xp. When a question is answered (in play), 10 xp, lose the question, and come up with a new one at some point. (I’ll change those criteria in the future. Probably 5 xp when a question is answered and none when an entire session is about some question, since that is hard to judge and does not add much.)
We had some themes related to the worth of humans, the value of religion, and how far can one go to achieve one’s goals. Situation in play: The characters are leaders of one group in power and they are planning to soon leave and in the process stall the life-supporting processes of the entire prison facility (which is an old industrial complex, unsupervised by outside forces as they mostly don’t care). There’s an android or robot (a robot, as they later find out) preaching faith, goodwill and uniting the divided gangs to improve the quality of life of everyone there, and later to build a force of robots to take over as much area as they can (such as the Solar system in its entirety). As it happens, the robot walks to the players’ base and is neutralised, later to be powered up again. Once that is done there is a discussion with all but one player actively participating (and also the robot, so I get involved, too). The discussion is about the worth of human life, what should we do to the scum here, what should we do to this robot (who is judged evil or maybe only mad), and why all of this is right.
This conversation was notable in that it
- happened in character
- enriched the game and deepened the characters, especially the inhuman-seeming robot
- actively benefited from the game to the extent that such views would not probably have been brought up outside this context
- revealed us a new conflict among the characters, hence adding more playable material organically.
Some notable techniques I used to facilitate this were: to not fall back to dice (I had actively removed most persuasive and lie-detection skills from Solar system for this game, or more accurately made them hard to learn outside special training), to actively poke the questions with NPCs who take strong positions with regards them, and to then give players power to judge these NPCs (a trick learned from Dogs in the Vineyard, I think). The rules were there as a framework, but they were not explicitly invoked in this situation, which I think is somewhat optimal for may style of play.
And then the serious part
I have been explicitly called a Swine by the pundit, so of course my gaming must be ponderous and unfun. That is exactly why the robot preacher had the shape of an idealised white male (think of Tarzan or Conan) and used the name Arnold, and one somewhat shifty NPC is called Judas Calgarus, and why there is a bunch of old worker robots reactivated that have a hive mind and negotiated free time and pay to work for the PCs (there was certain speculation involving how they spend their free time, and many references to the strike that elevators did when people did not give them sufficient respect), and all the usual skulduggery and action bits, including neutralising the Terminator-like preacher Arnold by heavy gunfire.
Point being that the interesting philosophical discussion is good content, but much better when it is not too frequent and there is sufficient action and humour to balance it out.