Telling Stories: Off the table

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.If you started roleplaying far enough back, you almost certainly started it with tabletop games.  Heck, that might still be where you do most of your roleplaying.  The great thing about tabletop games is that they are pretty much fixed points in time, and if you want to start running a Vampire: the Masquerade first edition campaign, no one’s going to stop you as long as you have players.  The books do not unwrite themselves.

A lot of what I write here is just as applicable to tabletop games as it is to online roleplaying, and I’ve said before that my background in the latter makes me far better at the former.  But if you’ve never roleplayed online, it’s easy to erroneously assume that you can just jump in with all of that experience and take off.  Realistically, there are substantial differences between playing online and offline that you have to get used to first.  Some of them are better, some of them are worse, but none of them exist in a vacuum.

Hey, points for determination.

“If the world isn’t revolving around me, the conclusion is simple… something is wrong with the world.”

The world doesn’t revolve around your characters

In a good tabletop game, the player characters are not the most important point in the universe… but they kind of are.

A good GM will do everything in their power to create the feel of a living, breathing world, one wherein events keep moving along regardless of what you do.  The Lion daimyo is going to make his move on the southern provinces even if the player characters ignore the news about that sword-rattling, the Nosferatu are stirring up the anarchs in the background no matter what the players have going on, and there are machinations in motion elsewhere in the Imperium despite the Chaos cultists currently being beaten on by players.  You are not the center of the universe.  But in a good tabletop campaign, you are the center of the narrative.

You shouldn’t feel like the world ceases to exist when you’re off the stage, but fundamentally, it’s all there to interact with you.  Things happen without your direct intervention, but their overall relevance is tied to how they ultimately affect you.  You will generally not go off to raid some stronghold only to find that someone else already raided it unless it’s meant to be a plot point.

In an online game, though, there are too many people around for that to work.  Not only does the world not stop and start at your convenience, there are always going to be things going on that you’re only loosely involved in if at all.  Instead of being the narrative focus of the story, your narrative is one of many that’s running simultaneously.  On the plus side, this means that you get a strong sense of a living world in a way that tabletop games simply can’t offer; on the down side, this also means that it’s very possible for you to see an interesting plot thread and wind up missing it altogether.  You have to be more aggressive in seeking things out, because the relevant ones will not eventually affect your world; they may never even show up on your radar.

Actually a doctor, yes.

Flying around on a platform, sending electric shocks through monsters, writing scrips, doctor stuff.

Mechanics sit further back

Every game has mechanical weirdness.  Some of them are almost nothing but mechanical weirdness, really.  But there’s still a certain interplay between story and mechanics.  I can quibble with you about whether a character needs a Medicine at 70% or 80% to be a doctor in Call of Cthulhu, but we can both agree that no one with zero points in Medicine should be an in-character medical doctor, right?  That would just be silly.

However, in an online setting you usually don’t have the benefit of a Medicine skill.  Even if you have Medic as a class, you sort of have to assume that not all doctors are Medics and not all Medics are doctors.  Your indicator comes down to more or less “does this character say they are a doctor, yes or no.”

This has other implications which I’ve discussed elsewhere, but the important point for this particular discussion is that you can worry a little less about mechanics as they interact with roleplaying.  It’s, again, a good and a bad thing.  You don’t have to shortchange your combat effectiveness in order to play a psychologist, for example; even if he’s perfectly well-equipped in-game, he could be a lightweight in-character.  At the same time, you have to rely much more heavily upon what characters claim to be rather than what they appear to be.  It also leads to issues wherein there’s no mechanical blocks in place against making a character who is a master of combat and dozens of scientific fields at age 12; minmaxing extreme, if you will.

You are both GM and player

In theory, GMs do not play characters in a campaign.  Being realistic, I’ve seen several GMs who have their personal guy who hangs out with the party, but that’s more of a recurring guest star sort of thing, and when done well it doesn’t really chafe.  (When the party is meant to be tagalongs for the GM’s pet guy, well, that’s when you find a better GM.)  The point is that the line between player and GM is fairly clear, even if there’s a bit more give-and-take than a strict reading might suggest.

Online, though, there is no GM.  Or, more accurately, you are the GM at the same time that you are also the player.  You are the ultimate arbiter of what does or does not happen to your character.  Which creates a measure of problem, since you are the one who interprets incoming actions and gets to decide if something unpleasant happens to you.  In other words, it’s easy to hit the worst excesses of childhood games of pretend, wherein your friend supposedly throws the moon at you (“I’m Superman!”) but you dodge it and then you throw it back at him (“Superman’s dumb, you missed me!”) and the whole thing ends with actual physical violence.

So you don’t get screwed by dice rolls, but you have to constantly be determining how screwed you are by other circumstances.  Remember, though – no one wants to play with you if your character never fails at anything.  In some ways it’s a bit like Amber in that it’s more about raw capability and environment than direct comparisons.  Just remember that failures make things a lot more dramatic, and that drama is no longer tied to the whims of polyhedral globs of plastic with numbers.

Next time around, I want to examine the process of doing post-mortem examinations on your rleplaying and how that can help you as a player.  The time after that, I want to discuss the most dreaded of all stories, the repeat.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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