Tuesday, September 2, 2014

gaming should be fun

I used to play Arkham Horror every week. I have every expansion and I have followed the annual tournament reports, the forums, and the fan sites. I downloaded a program to make my own characters for Arkham Horror based on the members of my gaming group. That should be enough to explain how much I loved this game and how much my group played it.
Despite all of the expansions I own and all of the different ways we tried playing the game one of the guys in our group always played Ashcan Pete.

We played the game so regularly that I was starting to get annoyed that he always played the same character and never tried anything different. So one time we started setting up the game I surreptitiously slipped Ashcan Pete underneath the box. When he couldn't find the character sheet somebody challenged him to try playing something different and he looked crestfallen, like his favorite toy had been taken away. I echoed the challenge and revealed I had hid the character, hoping he would pick something different.

He said "I understand. You don't want me to have fun. I'll play something different."
At that, I felt bad. I handed Ashcan Pete to him and I never brought it up ever again because I never got annoyed by him playing the same character ever again. Even if I thought it was droll or uncreative or predictable, this was his fun, and why should I be critical of that? I shouldn't. Coming down on the way a person plays a game is a dick move.

I've been playing this character in Apocalypse World named Tully. Tully is a grotesque of indeterminate gender. Tully has this weird black slime that grows out of his skin, his eyes are lidless and milky green as if something is growing beneath the surface of the sclera, and he's scrawny and hunched like a corpse come to life. The "tarman" zombie from Return of the Living Dead is literally what I based Tully's appearance off of.
In all likelihood, Tully's gender morphs to be compatible to whoever is near him/her, but in truth I think of him as something entirely different, similar to Pie'oh'Pah from Clive Barker's Imajica. I call him "he" because I named him after Louis Tully, and also in my backstory for him he was declared a "he" by his parents despite their not knowing what he was. He accepts this because it is also easier for others to accept.

He's my favorite character that I've ever made. I've written him up in two different games. I will likely end up playing him again in other games if I'm given the opportunity.

I'm not sure exactly how long I've been playing Tully this time (three sessions? four?) but I know that I have firmly established that Tully does not fight. He is not aggressive or mean or divisive in any way. Yet Tully's hard has been highlighted in nearly every session I have played him. The first time it happened I said nothing, but made a note right under his hard stat on my character sheet "TULLY DOESN'T FIGHT" in all caps and yet, his hard still gets highlighted.

"Yeah I'm a pacifist, you wanna fight 'bout it?!"

Recently Tully was confronted by the presence of some nasty supernatural shit and in that moment Tully decided "This thing is not human, this thing is bad, this thing I will fight." But even in that scene where Tully decided to fight, there was literally nothing I could do. The creature that appeared was made of shadow and ephemeral so I didn't even get to roll dice. Let's forget for a second that making an enemy you can't fight is an obnoxious thing to do on the GM's part and focus instead on the fact that everything I've established about Tully is set in stone, I am not going to change Tully's relationship to violence. Tully doesn't fight, but his hard has been highlighted three times now.

The first time it happened it was irritating. The second time it happened was frustrating. Now it just feels antagonistic. I have a lot of fun playing Tully, but I also have a lot of fun expanding the character and giving him a wider range of options. That I should be distracted from this because somebody wants to see my pacifist get aggressive is annoying. The process of gaining experience and moving my character forward in a game where the characters are defined by the phrase "you are what you do" has become more alienating and challenging than actually playing the game. I am at the point where I've stopped moving Tully forward in a way that I want and I am considering taking moves just to be able to play the character the way I want to play him.

Tully is the third character I have made for this game, and the third pacifist.

The first character was Errol, a driver, who just didn't like conflict. I barely figured out exactly who Errol was when he got into an argument with the gunlugger in the group about how to intimidate people, Errol started a fight to prove a point (because his hard was marked) and a few missed rolls later Errol got killed. I didn't mind too much, but I did mind when I got called an asshole for following my highlighted stats.

The second character was Glitch, a 19 year old girl missing her left arm, also a brainer (with -2 hard). She's not very good with people, but she was also tortured physically growing up. I never established how she lost the arm. It was really easy to figure out who she was, but when her hard got marked I spoke up and pointed out that one-armed teenagers are not exactly fighters. I was, and have been ever since, essentially told to shut up.

The whole process of highlighting stats works in theory. You want to pick the stuff a character is good at, but you also want to see what else they will do. Getting a player to try out different approaches is not inherently a bad thing. Mark cool and hard for the Hocus and maybe he will get a little confrontational. Mark hot and sharp for the Gunlugger and maybe she'll try manipulating someone instead of just going in, guns blazing. It's okay to try things out, push the characters into new directions, and that definitely works really well sometimes. But when a character's philosophy is established firmly as one of peace - and Tully will never hurt other human beings under any circumstances, ever - marking a stat that would force me to change that philosophy and actively seek conflict in order to advance is just rude and unfriendly, if not downright hostile.