Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Player Perspectives In Game

At this distance, you can hardly see me by that wooden piling.
An interested thing I have noticed while behind the GM screen is how often the player's perceptions are warped by their character's minds.  Other character's antics, enemy plans, and NPC motivations which are quite clear to an observer become nonsensical to a player - not because they didn't hear or see the information but because the character's perceptions warped what they saw and heard.

While yes, I could be wrong.  It *is* possible that it's just insufficient knowledge, I have a feeling that it isn't the case.

You see, the more detrimental the actions are to the character in question, the more likely that character's player will misinterpret the action and consider it to be a failing on the part of the character.  The negative interaction seems to cloud the player's empathy and ability to consider the motivating forces behind certain behaviour, *especially* if such motivating forces are actually due to that player's character's actions.

This matches what has been found in psychology.  People tend to attribute negative actions performed by other people to be fundamental parts of those other people's psychology while they consider any foolish actions they take to also be the result of external forces (generally other people).

While players can be quite capable of interpreting fictional actions without this bias, generally, and while a conversation which encourages them to put themselves in the other character's shoes ("What do you think might have caused them to act like that?  How did it benefit them?  How might the situation beforehand affected them?") tends to re-activate that empathy and allow them to better interpret those actions, *unless* the player is forced to do so (or is in the habit of that kind of detached introspection), they tend to carry the same assumptions as their character.

Now obviously this doesn't happen all the time in all cases.  It also likely occurs less to players who don't put themselves in their character's shoes so firmly but it is something I have noticed.  Since I rarely play and most often GM, I haven't been told whether I do the same but I imagine that I do.

What's the point in an article on this?

Partly to talk about an observation and partly because it means that the GM may sometimes need to step in and encourage a detached introspective position in a player who is having difficulty accepting an NPC or PC's negative actions - thinking them arbitrary and mean.


  1. Interesting stuff!

    In particular, there can be an awkward clash of realisms when PCs and NPCs are working at cross-purposes. Players expect quite a lot of leeway in their actions and interactions, according to relevant genre tropes, doing things like:
    * talking about NPCs in front of them (openly or by blatantly forming a whispering huddle)
    * attempted bribery
    * deliberate or semi-random threats, sometimes just to test the waters
    * assuming their interests and goals are the most important to everyone
    * generally giving excellent grounds for suspicion
    * intruding on privacy without appointments
    * asking large amounts of nosy and personal questions of strangers
    * being highly reluctant to give away anything about themselves
    * omitting small talk and niceties
    * chopping and changing approach between flattery, formality, threat, wheedle, deceit and frankness
    All of which would be disastrous as regular strategies in real life.

    At the same time, they tend to expect NPCs to be fairly simplistic, having one attitude to the party (from Hostile to BFFs), a small set of motivations and very little sense of personal pride, honour, politeness or ethics.

    This isn't a simple case of player fault, though. Both genre tropes and the mechanics of games encourage this kind of thing. NPCs do have to be conveyed very rapidly, which tends to mean broad-stroke characters who can be portrayed and understood quickly. Most people don't want to spend ten minutes having a series of getting-to-know-you conversations over a month of in-game time before they can talk about anything relevant.

    Games also tend to assume that you can rely on Intimidates, lies and bribes to get your way, with minimal effort at sounding out the mark beforehand, and that this won't cause any future problems. Of course, partly that's because some genres treat that as true. In a lot of cases, though, trying to bribe the wrong person would IRL effectively shut down that route, and quite possibly get you arrested. Intimidate attempts might be successful in the short term, but have law enforcement (or someone's mates in the gang) looking for you tomorrow - or of course, just kick off a fight on the spot. A failed lie makes people very, very suspicious.

    Sorry, that's getting tangential. I think my point is that players may actually tend to think of NPCs as working differently from their own characters, which may be *part* of the reason for the phenomenon you mention.

    1. That's some very good observation. Many rulebooks give the advice to avoid creating such one-dimensional characters, but I'm actually quite in favour of them. It's the same thing why these flat characters work in literature: they are easily recognisable and understandable.

      Now, understanding is key in gaming; if players don't know their options and their consequences, they can't make informed choices. Thus, relatively simple NPCs are quite good, because once they have figured them out, they can interact with them successfully.

      Suppose there are two cops, one clear and honourable, one dirty and corrupt. Say, they both hold valuable information. The way of getting that information should be fairly obvious to the players; say, earning their trust. But because one of them is bribeable, there should be at least one clue giving away on which of the two it could be pulled off without further involvement of law enforcement.

    2. The alternative is to allow them to be multi-dimensional yet larger-than-life so you get a really good feel for what they want and how they will react. Either option works. Simple characterisations are definitely best for any minor or once off character.

  2. Great bit of observation. Though, is this really a problem? As long as you're getting irritated with the NPCs and not the GM it seems a great way to get into the mind of the character.

    1. I think it can be a problem sometimes. One thing is if players leap to assuming bad motives or disliking an NPC rather than considering their motives, they may miss out on clues, bits of plot or opportunities.

      Also, if this happens a lot it may lead to very cardboardy roleplaying, where NPCs end up either being fawningly helpful, completely subservient to PCs or antagonistic, because players insist on treating them as acting that way regardless of how they were intended. It will reduce opportunities for some kinds of roleplaying because if PCs don't consider NPC motives or their own behaviour, it's harder to have much convincing interaction.

      Sometimes it will be good for getting into character, but at times it may also be limiting in terms of what kind of character you end up getting into...

    2. Basically, yes and no. It *can* be helpful, so it shouldn't be dispensed with entirely but taken too far and it can really grind the game to a halt. I'm more talking about it here as it's something both players and GMs should be aware of if things are starting to get out of hand.

      If a player gets to the point where they can't use any empathy when dealing with NPCs, then their characters can't successfully navigate the game either as using social skills requires a person to guess what influences another person.

      If a PC is being downright rude and threatening to an NPC yet even the player can't see why the NPC responds negatively and gets frustrated, you have a problem.

    3. In my ongoing face-to-face campaign, there's an NPC who is perceived by the players to have some kind of grudge against them (probably due to fearing their interference or something like that), when in fact he is only protecting his superior's name and honour. Of course, they have missed out on a capable ally (although they are on very good terms with said superior), but we have gained fairly amusing conversations, the players' attempts to exclude said person from the action, etc.; plus whenever he shows up, everybody gets super-cautious.

      Is that a bad thing? I don't think so.

  3. This whole article and subsequent conversation has given me an amazing [-ly horrible] concept for a character.