Sunday, October 28, 2012

Role Playing as an Emergent System in DCC

Before I get started on this whole potential fool's errand, let me first apologize to physicists and philosophers and everyone who actually knows what an emergent system is. I actually *DO* understand what emergent systems are, and understand why they shouldn't be applied to social science frame works, but I think that there's really no better way to talk about what I'm about to propose. Furthermore, "emergent system" sounds cool. 

Earlier today, Wayne Snyder, possessor of the most amazing beard in my G+ circles, posted some really interesting thoughts about the actual ability of players to play the roles of four different characters at the same time (times four players, that makes sixteen characters being played) and what that can do to the speed of game play: Grind it to a halt. This doesn't just happen with online play, it can happen any time players are handling more than one character. Couple this potentiality with the fact that when showing up to play DCC, most players I've dealt with so far are looking for gold and glory, what with that being part of the game's tagline and all.

The question is not "should one introduce role playing elements into DCC" but rather "how and when should one introduce role playing elements into DCC?" This is probably just my own personal style, but in my experience, the thoughts that I'm about to share work incredibly well in DCC and could just as easily work in other games as well. Since the bulk of player expectations in DCC revolve around action and reward, I tend to spend the bulk of my time building up these aspects and not trying to force role playing opportunities and instead allow the players to motivate RP opportunities. Essentially, by creating an environment in which I'm not providing the PCs with RP, the stories that the players tell about their characters end up shaping the sort of RP that develops.

Case Study: The Legend of the Shoveler

Not this guy, but kinda like him
If you've been following my blog and the exploits of my Game of Taps crew, you might be familiar with the legend of the Shoveler. You guys can skip to the end. For the rest of you, the character who would ultimately become known as the Shoveler started his career as a grave digger. A completely average grave digger. His only good stat was Luck (15) and he suffered from a pretty low Intelligence (6); all in all, it wasn't really expected that he would live, so his ultimate survival to 1st level was kind of a shock. Along that road to 1st level, the Shoveler had some particularly amazing successes, ones that -- like his survival to 1st level -- no one ever saw coming. During his first outing, this lowly (but lucky) grave digger fought a firey ooze and won in an improbable way. This tar ooze smoldered as it slowly groped toward the PCs, and the young grave digger stepped up with his shovel to, as he put it "shovel it away from the party." A roll, a crit and one very well chopped up tar ooze later and the grave digger had saved the party from burnination; also, the legend of the Shoveler was born. While facing off against the monsters and hazards of that first adventure, the grave digger kept on using that shovel, despite the opportunity to upgrade to a sword, an axe or something else (he actually carries a mace at his belt, just in case he loses the shovel).

During the group's second outing, the newly-christened Shoveler continued to eschew different weapons for no reason other than if he started to use something other than the shovel, he would no longer be the Shoveler. The whole "Shoveler" sobriquet started to create an air of mystique around the character; now, at 1st level, he was no mere Warrior, he was the Shoveler! And with his mighty shovel, the Shoveler shoveled the motherfucking HELL out of a giant catfish and some purple oozes (more oozes shoveled to death). In between adventures, the Shoveler didn't just choose to keep his shovel, but actively pursued obtaining a magic shovel, his player (Chris L for those keeping track) knowing full well that the Shoveler will likely have to go on a long and complex series of potentially deadly quests. This is the stuff that legends are made of. This was an RP opportunity created by a player out of the story that the group of players was building about their adventurers' search for gold and glory.

The Emergent System

Right, so, let me explain an emergent system. I know most of my RPG-playing readers out there are at least passingly familiar with Chaos Theory. You know, the one that's often mis-explained by talking about butterflies and hurricanes and all that. That bad Ashton Kutcher movie stuff (wait, is there a good Ashton Kutcher movie?). So, the basic idea is that, in an incredibly complex system, like air currents, a completely different system can emerge without any apparent reason, like turbulence. Some philosophers even use this to explain the mind: because of the incredibly complex nature of events happening inside of our bodies and brains, we experience a series of emergent phenomena that we call our minds. Sometimes, you just introduce enough craziness to a system and something new and amazing that's not just bigger than the sum of its parts but that is completely different from the sum of its parts. Sometimes, new systems can emerge out of complex and chaotic ones. Can you think of a system that you deal with on a routine basis that's more complex and chaotic than your gaming table?
I have no idea what this means.

The basic philosophy that I'm getting at is to not force the issue of role playing but to let it emerge. The players will find the time for RP when they're ready for it, when their characters are ready for it and when the game is ready for it. Realistically, the RP will naturally, organically emerge from the game-y portions of the game. The sheer amount of complexity inherent in an RPG almost assures that things you won't expect will happen, players will talk about them and eventually these things will show up in the natures of the characters. Don't force this process, finesse it.

So Mr. Wayne Superbeard, here's where I stand on the issue of RP in DCC funnel games: I'd not lead with it. For my tastes, action would start a few moments after the begining of the session and RP would emerge naturally from that action, particularly once the PC count has thinned out a bit and then often to fill in a gap or a need and almost always to help the players flesh out the story that they're building about their characters.  (The thing about the Legend of the Shoveler is that the Shoveler didn't really become the Shoveler until his player had lost two other PCs.) I've found that players will seek to create their own opportunities for RP and that it's best if I keep my fingers out of the pie and allow the players' collective awesome to happen. This is how I run my DCC game and I'd expect more of this out of our G+ game.