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a column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws
In his influential book on the films of Howard Hawks, the late film critic Robin Wood identified one of the director’s key themes as “the Lure of Irresponsibility.”
This phrase has stuck in my head over the years, connecting itself to a subject far from its original intent.
One of the key appeals of roleplaying is the lure of irresponsibility.
Like the stoic bands of adventurous outsiders populating such Hawks films as Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings, player character groups leave behind the strictures of ordinary society. Whether they’re killing monsters and taking their stuff, solving occult mysteries, or bringing rough justice back to the spacelanes, they no longer have to take the standard guff of bosses and paychecks and paying one’s parking tickets.
In the extremest form of this phenomenon, you get your murder hoboes. The band of outsider heroes becomes a gang of bandits, subjecting others to the rule of the sword and suffering no consequences for its depredations.
Even when the fantasy of irresponsibility stops short of a fantasy of violent psychosis, it can come into conflict with other elements that make a roleplaying session feel satisfying.
As much as a GM may want to establish a particular tone for her series, even after getting explicit buy-in from the players at its outset, the lure of irresponsibility can rear its head and send those plans spinning into the gutter.
Everyone might agree, say, to play Night’s Black Agents in gritty Dust mode, evoking the real-world despond of a Cold War Le Carre novel.
Tone requires ongoing player cooperation. To maintain itself, all the players have to make decisions the way Le Carre characters would, and not as James Bond or Xander Cage.
All it takes is a player or two to show up to the game table punchy and looking to blow off steam, and suddenly the GM faces two choices, both unfortunate:
1) Stick with the tone and slap the characters with the realistic consequences of acting like superheroes in a gray and workaday universe, like Vin Diesels in an Alec Guiness world.
2) Give them their steam-venting, shifting the series to roleplaying’s default mode of crazy, violent nonsense.
As the creator of Feng Shui, I can hardly shake a fist a crazy, violent nonsense. But while some games are conceived with that in mind, all will devolve in that direction without tone enforcement from the GM.
Players don’t necessarily thank you for either choice. Derail the story with realistic consequences, and you’ve followed the setting’s internal logic straight to a disappointing narrative dead end. Shift the tone to Kookytown and even the player who made everything blow up may later wish the series had stuck with the original tone, which was one of the factors making it special and different.
In complex rules systems with lots of moving parts, you can blame the system for outcomes that break one’s sense of what ought to be possible in a story like this. Yep, you stacked that spell with that magic item and rolled a 20, so of course you topple the tower down onto the village and kill all the orcs. Never mind the desire to play in a low-fantasy world; the rules and that die roll had other ideas.
GUMSHOE One-2-One, as seen the system’s flagship title, Cthulhu Confidential, helps with tone maintenance in several ways.
One, there are only two of you, and the experience of playing the game is unusually intense. If one or both of you feel punchy or tired, you’re probably going to either lock in and achieve focus, or you’re going to choose to do something less demanding with your block of time.
Two, much murder-hoboism happens because players are either showing off for each other or egging each other on. Outside of a group setting, that goes away. Likewise the syndrome where one player decides, consciously or otherwise, to steal focus from everyone else by doing something crazy and stupid. You know the drill: the player who has his character punch the king in the face at the royal audience, starts a bar fight where the secret rendezvous has been set up, or decides to murder the prisoners while the rest of the group has its collective back turned. In multiplayer this then forces the rest of the group to deal with the consequences of the focus hog’s actions instead of having the expected story about the entire group unfold. In One-2-One, the focus hog gets all the attention he can handle. He doesn’t have to make it all about him—it already is. (But then maybe This Guy doesn’t choose to play One-2-One in the first place, because his fun comes from wrecking it for everyone else.)
Three, you can frame Challenges to only yield tonally appropriate results. If the player still insists on doing something the audience would reject as stupid in the movie or novel version of the same story, you can ensure that it happens within the bounds of your prevailing tone. Let’s go with the gratuitous bar fight. Where in standard GUMSHOE with its Health thresholds and weapon stats you could conceivably kill an innocent bar patron and throw the rest of the storyline into a cocked hat, here the Challenge could look like this:
Meaningless Bar Fight
Advance 9+: You manage to deck a guy and somehow make it seem like he had it coming. His pals drag him off before you can do any damage that would lead to an arrest warrant.
Hold 4-8: A typical inconclusive tavern struggle breaks out. The chump you wanted to deck has friends, and they hold you at bay until the bouncers can drag you out and throw you out of the bar. “And don’t come back!”
Setback 3 or less: As per above, but the bouncers take you outside and beat you black and blue. Gain Problem Card “Beatdown.”
You wouldn’t write this out ahead of time, but rather improvise something along those lines.
Unless you have a player you know will pull this stuff, who you inexplicably want to run One-2-One with. Then you might want to have a few on hand as responses to his most obvious usual tone-busting moves.