To challenge or to validate

18 January, 2008 at 7:53 pm (actual play, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , , )

More theory-related non-dichotomies. Basically, something is validated in play if the it is accepted and engaged when playing. Something is challenged when it is engaged in play in such a way that it is questioned. I’m going to apply the definitions on the level of fiction and particularly characters, though social issues can also be analysed by the same methods.

Most, if not all, games have some portion of character validation in them. Thalin is GM in a Star Wars game that started this Monday in the university group and I am playing a jedi weaponsmaster. I want my character’s skill with weapons to be validated; thus far, there has been training of less experienced jedi and no truly challenging combats. I’m totally happy with that. On the other hand, the character has some dark side influence (which is not as huge a deal as in normal SW, because the setting is quite far from canon and set in the far future) and that is something I do want to be emphasised and challenged. I don’t know how far the character is willing to go if someone, say, mocks him or irritates him, though he is darker than I originally envisioned. Finding such things out would be interesting.

Alignment in D&D, particularly that of paladins, is also a great example. Some players and game masters want the paladin to be a knight in shiny armour, all good and just and so forth. This is, I believe, how paladins were intended to be played. At least this is the way the design points towards, with the extremely great price for falling (paladin becomes worth less than a fighter in combat) and the difficulty of becoming a blackguard unless that was intended from the start. Validating play supports the paladin; opportunities to be good, encouragement to do the good thing, maybe an opportunity to redeem a bad guy in a game not focused on combat.

Some game masters want to challenge the goodness of paladins. Some players want their paladins to be challenged thusly. Should orc babies be killed? A demon has possessed an innocent child, killing whom would banish it forever from this realm. How should one act in a hostage situation? The usual method is to put two goods against each other or make choosing one of two bads a necessity. In this model, the assumption that paladins are good is often put under microscope. Are they really the shining examplars they want to be? Is it even possible?

Both methods are, of course, totally valid. As with all theory and naming, one should be aware of the differences and find a suitable middle ground. Or an extreme view. Whichever. The problem with this issue is that conflicting assumptions can lead to play that is bad (not satisfying, in other words). A GM who wants to challenge the paladin and a player looking for validation can lead to perceived persecution, while player looking for challenging play and facing only validation will feel the game falls flat. This is true on characters not like paladins, but usually to a less dramatic effect.

Riddles and mysteries are another similar issue. I see absolutely no point in them, because that is not the way and the place to challenge me. Other players find them enjoyable. Mechanical challenges likewise: Attempts to challenge the mechanical aspect of a character are something I don’t find particularly interesting. Some play to be challenged in such a way.

I am fairly certain that a game where a lot of things are challenged would lead to more volatile play and one where the central parts of the game are validated would be more predictable, and hence easier to run in scripted way.


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16 December, 2007 at 10:43 am (game design, rpg theory) (, , , )

Omnius of Alephgaming talked about alignment. I have a bit something to say about it, too.

First, assumptions: Alignment has something to do with character behaviour. It may be descriptive or prescriptive, but some sort of connection must exist. Further, alignment does not have concrete and significant mechanical effects for most characters. If it does, at least I count it as a personality mechanic, no longer alignment, which means it gets a bit more tangled. Even further, alignment does not have an exact definition, because otherwise people would argue about it anyway due to conflicting ethics and such.

So. What purpose does alignment have? First, it can be used as a roleplaying guide. This is especially useful to new players, casual gamers, or people just not that interested in developing a compelling personality for their character, but who don’t want to play themselves. When in doubt about what the character would do, check the alignment and act according to that. Otherwise ignore it. I feel that this is a very useful function of alignment. It can be accomplished by personality rules or just writing down some phrases like “honest” or “sadistic”. But alignments are one way of accomplishing the goal.

Second, a bit more controversial, effect that alignments can have is a clear division into good guys and bad guys. Like, as a totally hypothetical example which is not in any way related to D&D, it may be that all bad guys are always evil and all player characters more-or-less good, and good defeats evil. This is very useful for high-action games with little interest in deeper issues. The enemy is evil, so slay them. One can create compelling moral dilemmas in a clear-cut world, of course, they just will look a bit different. It may be that anger leads to evil (or the dark side). Will your good guy get revenge, no matter the cost, even if the good status may be lost in the process?

One can, naturally, ignore the sides implied by alignments. Good people are those who tend to be kind and helpful and hug puppies, while evil ones are hurtful and want to hurt people and kick puppies, but this does not meant that good characters will always get along, due to such factors as personality, goals, scarce resources, whatever. The question I pose to people playing like this is: Why not get rid of alignment altogether and replace it with descriptive personality qualifiers? They do all the job that stunted alignments do and don’t imply an undesired division.

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