19 December 2013

Games End the Same Way

Now this is an interesting one:

"My games consistently and without fail end up with my players ending up saving the world from something or someone. I don't really make the choice for them ever when they are playing but, every time I present them with problems it always seems like they get involved in Larger than Life and grandiose adventures like Lord of the Rings where they end up being the group of 4-5 people that turn the tide of a horrible atrocity/cataclysmic event that sets them up to become BIG DAMN HEROES.
Its strange because when I read books or play games I tend to prefer the more morally ambiguous, gray on grey kinda world. Stuff with lots of political intrigue and characters with agendas. Books like Song of Ice and Fire, or games like The Witcher 2 come to mind. However, every game I run ends like the former.
Does anyone else experience this phenomena?

I think this is another example of the divide between what your players are expecting and what the DM is expecting, but there's another twist; the DM expects a different game than the one he's providing. 

This DM, from his own words, prefers to populate the world with a large cast of characters who have very real and very different opinions on things. They have foibles and character flaws, and often struggle with each other in various ways. But here's the thing- the "shades of grey" approach to the game only applies if your characters are detached, like we are when we're reading The Witcher or A Song of Fire and Ice. We can't make decisions on who "should" win, although we often like to. Look how often people have a "favorite" house or pretender to the throne in the Game of Thrones miniseries! And look at how much people like to argue who's the actual good guy in the Witcher series!

It's only natural to pick sides, after all. And so, lo and behold, when the players are confronted with different shades of grey, they still absolutely pick a side and now that's their side, and the game's been reduced to your basic "defend the good guys, fight the bad guys" kind of game. 

And the players? Well, that's what they're expecting. That's what most players are used to, after all. The current style in vogue in post 3E fantasy gaming is of Big Damn Heroes and their epic struggles against Big Damn Villains. And so when they're presented with shades of grey, they might deliberate in picking the "right" side, but they'll still pick a side. Because that's the way the fiction always works. People who switch sides are looked at as untrustworthy and shifty, even if they change sides from the "wrong" one to the "right" one. People respect staunch opponents who stand by their convictions, even if their convictions are abhorrent and practically evil. 

For the ever-increasing heroism, well, that's partially a tendency of level-based systems, and poor planning as a DM. Realistically, fantasy worlds tend to be at rest, because our own world is basically at rest. The high-level actors, whoever holds the reigns of power in the game world, naturally want the world to stay where it's at, because they're already in charge. The people who want change are the people who stand to gain from it, who by definition are not in power yet. When the power slips, somebody new grabs the reigns and life settles down a little bit, again.

But the players are a bit of a wrench thrown into the system, one that most world-builders, DMs, and systems fail to account for. The player characters are a strong force of change because they're often not tied down, they are often very powerful, and they don't have much of a sense of allegiance. They rampage and roam across the land because it makes for entertaining gameplay and that's what games are for- but that's completely the opposite of the way real human beings act and it throws the world off in the same way that Smaug showing up one day in Constantinople would. 

In real life, of course, people would deal with Smaug in one way or the other, either by slaying it, leaving the area, or dying wholesale and having their rivals come in after the dragon's left and settling down in the perfectly  good land- but something happens.

Very little happens in the average world when the players show up, kill the monsters/slay the necromancer/end the goblin raids/depose the sorcerer-king. Realistically, somebody should step into the power vacuum, and possibly somebody worse. The player characters are destabilizing the world by providing massive change, even if it's positive. If the players clear out a keep, maybe the local Duke decides to repair it, and now he's pressing his claims over the surrounding forests. This starts a war with the next Duchy over, and now there's a small war brewing over what was just a standard level 3 adventure. And off they go to the level 4 adventure, where they slay a tribe of lizardmen, which finally relieves the strain of the goblin tribes they'd been warring with; and soon the goblins will focus their efforts on building ships and make contact with the mainland...

And instead of dealing with the real consequences of the players' actions, and simultaneously giving himself the interesting shades of grey real-world "who should we even be helping here?" thing that the DM so desperately wants to inject into the game, the DM panics and just has them fight a larger monster that shows up out of nowhere, because the players are higher level and don't have anything more to do on the island now that it's been cleared of monsters. Instead of giving the world a breath of life, it's on to the next Monster of the Week special and now to keep up you have to go with the Dragon Ball Z approach where the next monster they're fighting is even bigger and stronger, and the one after that is even more powerful, and so on, and so forth...

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. Monster of the Week is a fun way to play a game, and really rejuvenating. But if it's not what you want, you have to look at why you're not getting the response you wanted to get and changing how you plan, present, and play the game. It's the only way to get things to change, after all.

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