Idiot Plotting and the Gamer Psyche

By Robin D. Laws

The voraciously anticipated Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s reboot of the Alien franchise touched down to howls of disappointment from the fans who wanted it most. So much so that we’re plotting some remedial catharsis, in the form of an Ashen Stars scenario called Tartarus. Without encroaching on the intellectual property preserve of 20th Century Fox, it allows gamers to follow their characters to an irredeemably hostile planet and make terrifying discoveries without necessarily making a series of gobsmacking rookie blunders along the way.

The Alien movies, the new one included, function as procedural narratives. The characters tackle a series of practical obstacles in furtherance of a physical goal. In the first four movies, that goal is survival. With Prometheus the goals get a little opaque, but basically the ensemble is exploring an alien world in an attempt to understand the significance of a series of archaeological finds back on Earth.

To engage with a procedural, we have to be with the protagonists as they struggle against their obstacles. We need to see them want to achieve their goals. This may happen because we approve of those goals, or because we like the characters and want them to succeed. Often both factors come into play. Sometimes all you need is a riveting urgency of intent.

The phenomenon known as “idiot plotting” disrupts that connection between character and audience. This happens when the character creates or worsens his own obstacles by making foolhardy mistakes of simple judgment.

Here we’re not taking of the grand errors that drive a tragic hero to horrible realization and final destruction. Those occur in dramatic scenes, in which characters pursue inner, emotional goals. Lear’s error in abdicating in favor of his flattering daughters bodes ill as he makes it, but we see and understand the misplaced pride behind it. It’s a telling emotional error, not a petty practical mistake.

A petty procedural mistake would be taking off your helmet in the unknown alien environment just because your suit tells you the air is breathable. Or reaching out to touch the albino cobra vagina creature. Or deciding, upon retrieving an ancient alien severed head, that one’s first step ought to be reviving and interrogating it.

As gamers we find these moments especially painful because so much of a typical RPG session is taken up by debates over the best course of practical action. RPGs teach us to err on the side of caution, perhaps too much so. We look for the traps in situations and try to think our way past them.

When players engage in reckless actions like the above, it’s usually deliberate, and happens as the others cry for you to stop. The player may be bored and trying to start some trouble for the characters to confront. She may be acting according to her conception of the character—that is, making an emotional error instead of a practical mistake. Or she might be required to act by a rules mechanism, like GUMSHOE’s drives, that pushes the characters out of their cautious shells and into interesting danger.

In the last case, the other players have to take this with equanimity. As risk-averse as they might be, they know their characters have to take part in conflicts and face hazards.

The middle example depends on how convincingly the player portrays the emotional error, and thus how intuitively the rest of the group relates to it. If every character you play routinely gets the rest of the group in trouble by pursuing suspiciously similar inner goals, you can expect this habit to wear thin. That suggests that you start out wanting the power within the group that comes from being recalcitrant or a troublemaker, and then backwards-engineer the motivations needed to justify that behavior. By doing this too obviously, you create the same kind of sympathy breakdown we experience when we see idiot plotting on screen—the rest of the group withdraws from your character, seeing the contrivance behind the misstep.

The first case—the blatant, unmotivated lurch into trouble—earns resentment not only from other players, but from the GM, who has to find a satisfying response to your actions that doesn’t spin the session’s narrative into a credibility-draining comedy of errors.

(Unless, of course, that’s part of the premise, and you’re all knowingly working toward it, as you would in a Skulduggery or Dying Earth session.)

The disastrous mistake that gets the best response at the gaming table is the one that no one sees coming, that the players stumble into as unwittingly as their characters do. The resulting groan resounds with  mordant recognition, as the pieces of the disaster fall into place. Here the group retains its sympathy for the blunderer, because they didn’t see the result coming, either.

That’s part of the problem with idiot plotting in other story forms: it fails to deliver this sense of surprise. It’s predictable. Yes, we may feel suspense during the gap between the action and consequence. Exciting narratives hand us reversals—they set up an outcome, misdirect us away from it, and back toward it. Or they make us believe that the terrible thing is going to happen, then provide a rescue that surprises us while also paying off an earlier set-up. In both cases, we are surprised and have our expectations met at the same time. Creating expectations and then straightforwardly realizing them adds structural insult to the basic injury at play here.

That core injury breaches the implicit trust between character and audience, leading us to withdraw our identification from foolhardy characters.

Just as we get annoyed with a disruptive player who veers the narrative into tediously predictable negative paths, we refuse to invest in characters who betray our concern for them. We can root for sociopaths, megalomaniacs, the cosmically misdirected, and anti-heroes of all dimensions. In comedy, we can hope for the ultimate victories of the hapless, hopeless, and clueless. But, whether at the tabletop or on the big screen, we can’t make ourselves care about people who should know better, but do dumb stuff for no apparent reason. As gamers, we see this more acutely, and can maybe better articulate why more precautions should have been taken with all those alien contaminants, but everyone feels it.

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