I’ve recently started playing with a new Dungeons & Dragons group, drafted in after one of their numbers upped and left town. It’s my second time playing table-top D&D, after a splendid stint a couple of years back with Jim Rossignol (late of this parish) DMing, and it’s a properly good time. And what I’ve learned is that it becomes a much better time the more flaws you introduce to your character. Which got me thinking: wow, do PC RPGs not follow that rule at all.
I am very much an amateur when it comes to real-world D&D. I’ve learned my way around a D20, but it’s something I came to late and am still getting the hang of. So it is that reflecting on the previous game I was involved in, I’ve realised how wrongly I’d approached the whole thing. I was trying to win the game.
This makes perfect sense, really. Around that table were sat four long-time games critics, who have spent their day jobs trying and needing to win games. And that’s hardly the exclusive territory of critics. Games, in the main (yes, yes, roguelikes), are designed to be won, or at least completed. You’re given a character or a role, a set of tools, and then asked to get from the start to the finish, beating everything along the way. Which, I’ve realised, is not a great way to approach a table-top RPG if you want to have the most fun. Jim knew this – poor Jim. Sorry Jim. And while I had a brilliant time playing, I now realise that we could have let it be a whole lot more interesting for us.
In the new game, arriving midway through their story, I once again rolled a character I thought would be quick and smart and good at the game. And then joined a group of flawed, and frankly strange characters making ludicrous decisions against their self interest. And wow, it’s amazing!
Let me give you an example. One character, Royce, is a half elf and serial con-artist. So much so that he’s no longer sure who he’s conning. And his decisions are, shall we say, not given due consideration. We, our peculiar crew, are presently sailing up-stream to investigate a kidnapping, piloting a ship we’ve stolen that’s powered by magical items. Any magical item, so long as it’s magical, can be thrown into the furnace to keep the engines running. In the engine room is a rapidly depleting box of magical bits and bobs that were on the ship when we nicked it, their nature determined by the roll of a D6, then destroyed to further our progress. So when Royce is told there are only four objects left, and we need to put one in to keep going, he tries to put in all four.
I’d never have done that! I know how to play games! There are four objects, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us, many challenges in our way, and one item is enough to keep us moving. So one item, right! That’s how you win! But that’s not Royce’s nature, as Tom – the human – is dedicated to roleplaying. Royce would just stuff in as many as he could and then not really pay much attention to the consequences.
It went against everything I knew to be Right and True, and the result was brilliant. The results of all the idiotic choices he makes are brilliant. As are the ramifications of Randolf’s half-orc blundering drunkenness. He wins fights, but mostly ones he never needed have started in the first place. Then there’s mysterious and downright weird River Tam, a Genasi, far more interested in dancing and looking at the scenery than planning for battle. And into this arrived Ash, my elf assassin, quick-witted, silent and smart. And I realised I was the dullard at the table. My guy was a video game RPG character, elite and smooth, designed to win the game. And as a consequence, he added far less to the adventure. It only took me a couple of sessions to realise my mistake, and to very quickly vastly improve my character – and my experience – by making him so much more flawed.
In fact, I’ve attempted to parody my own mistake by imbuing it into the character. Ash, now, is vainglorious. His assumption that he is going to win, that he is an expert player at life, is his downfall. He looks down on the others he’s recently joined as idiots, fools, beneath him, and as such doesn’t listen. He’s also hot-headed and deeply impatient, while certain he’s right. And the more I’ve worked on getting my head into this space, of playing someone who might make the wrong decision because of his character, against his own interests, the more I’ve realised that computer RPGs (CRPG) just don’t have room for this at all.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an incredible game. There are few who would question that. It’s running in the background behind the window into which I’m currently typing, tempting me away from work, with the dozens of unfurling plots begging me to return to them, to complete them. It is, I think, the RPG that’s gotten the closest to allowing me to be an imperfect character within its complex world, allowing me to abandon plots, or walk away from those who might have interesting stories. If there’s a game that counters my argument here, it’s this one. But it’s “one”. And it’s still a game that’s asking me to win.
For the most part, RPGs replace the notion of a flawed character with variants of Good/Evil approaches. I can be a bastard, or an angel, but while particular choices can shut down particular stories, none is designed to make me worse at the game. Each, in the end, is written to allow the play to feel like the winner, to be the hero, whether virtuously or dishonorably. And they’re almost always designed around the idea of constant improvement, or outwitting the NPCs, of outdoing the situation, of becoming the champion, whether by rectitude or racket.
Clearly a CRPG doesn’t have the opportunities for improvisation available to a table-top DM. The player cannot simply walk off in the opposite direction to the intended story and see what’s happening over there instead, as one can when surrounded by improbably sided dice. Real life RPGing is replete with wonderful opportunities that just can’t be replicated by a computer game. But I still think the lesson I recently learned is one that games could too. That the player’s character could do well to be given opportunities to be not just good or bad, but also a moron. To make bad decisions with ridiculous consequences. To mess up.
It’s incredibly tough, and yes, I immediately think of all the problems that make this a designer’s nightmare. But perhaps the approach needn’t be so chaotic. Perhaps the answer is creating playable characters who are far more imperfect. Or even better, not on a pathway to perfection. Flaws that are really flaws, dialogue options that cause things to go very wrong in a particular situation. Right now we’re often presented with the option to agree to help someone, or to be crassly rude about not helping them. The latter might feel like what I’m asking for here, but it really isn’t more than a fancily written “No” button. The game might then offer to let you be mercenary or generous about helping them, but it’s far less likely to offer the chance to brightly agree to help, before incompetently failing to do so.
I get why. The idea of deliberately being “bad” at a game feels so entirely wrong to me. Decades of playing to win, of striving to improve and be better until victory, have taught me that deliberately failing a quest is lunacy. But the “RP” part of RPG suggests that it should be possible to play a character who would make bad decisions. Right now, sure, you can fail at a quest, but this is almost always to not complete it. What about a way to complete a quest in all the wrong ways? To bungle it because your character would bungle, and the consequences being fascinating or hilarious or horrendous? And I mean beyond doing it in an evil way. (Because, I imagine like me, your mind might have turned to Knights Of The Old Republic, of approaching a quest ostensibly to reunite warring families by provoking them to further turn on each other until nearly everyone’s dead. Wow, KOTOR was an amazing game. But, again, it was binary – good or evil.)
Perhaps my desires aren’t feasible. Perhaps enough people simply don’t want to play foolish or incompetent characters when sat at their PC, because it goes against the power fantasy that is central to almost all of gaming. But if I’ve learned anything from D&D, it’s that winning isn’t the goal – it’s about the journey, and being as interesting within it as you can.