See Page XX: Self-Control Freaks

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Those of you familiar with the Dying Earth roleplaying game know its Persuade/Rebuff mechanic. To emulate the twists, turns and connivances of Jack Vance’s sublime source material, the game treats persuasion attempts as having the same structure as combat. You engage in a series of passes against your opponent, and vice versa. Once entered, a battle of wits is difficult to disengage from. Its contestants are gradually worn down; the loser in this battle of attrition suffers a disastrous consequence.

In literal combat – also an option in Dying Earth, and a quick and nasty down-spiraling one it is – the loser dies, or is incapacitated and then killed. Being killed has a long provenance in roleplaying, and although we rarely like it when our characters die, we accept it as a necessary unpleasantness. Without the threat of death, the thrill of adventure loses its zest. So, while death is something we prefer to see happen to monsters, GMCs, and occasionally the PCs of other players, when its hoary hand points at us, roleplaying culture teaches us to accept it with a sporting equanimity.

In Dying Earth’s persuasion contests, the disastrous result is infinitely less permanent than death. You may enter a ridiculous wager in which you’ll likely lose a few coins – already an eminently transitory commodity. You might open a door you don’t want to open, or be forced to wear a ridiculous hat. In short, your PC will suffer embarrassment.

Seems a significantly smaller setback than death, doesn’t it? But roleplaying culture, or at least a vociferous strain of it, bitterly resists any such mechanic. Control of a PC’s actions must always remain in the player’s hands. Any rule that flouts this, including Pendragon’s trait mechanic and its many descendants, is anathema.

The answer to this conundrum lies in that emotional center of the roleplaying experience, power fantasy. We play adventure games not only for excitement, but for a sense of larger-than-life mastery and control. To many players, the possibility of death is just part of the bargain. Besides, the rules are skewed so that their PCs almost never die – the bulk of the gasping and expiring is left to hordes of orcs, goons, and space mutants, all of them rich in experience points.

To many players, loss of control is much worse than death, because it’s much less imaginary. If Sir Gilbert gets impaled by at the gnarled hands of an ogre chieftain or is felled by poison gas, that’s an extreme event that has little emotional reality to it. Episodes of embarrassment, on the other hand, are something we all suffer, on an all-too-frequent basis.

To experience a split between one’s conscious desires and one’s emotional impulses, to behave in one way while knowing intellectually that you ought to be doing anything but, is to be human. For certain of us, though, the experience is so highly charged it’s positively radioactive.

Mild controversy warning: Some folks get very hot under the collar at the mere suggestion that there is a personality type or sub-culture associated with roleplaying. The rest of this piece will really piss them off, so they should probably stop reading now.

I don’t think I’m exactly going out on a limb when I say that we are a glorious geek tribe, and that, as a whole, we tend more to certain personality quirks than others. Further, I submit that we contain more than our fair share of people for whom the split between thought and feeling is particularly fraught. Many of us are to one degree or another uncomfortable in standard social situations. The entire roleplaying form can be seen as an alternate mode of socialization in which the boundaries of interaction are mathematically codified – and plus, you get super-powers.

It is therefore the ultimate form of entertainment for smart people who distrust emotion and have boundary issues.

Except when the games come with persuasion mechanics. They smash the boundaries, dredging up feelings you’d rather not deal with. To lose control over your PC is like losing control over yourself. Worse, the things your PC does while persuaded or controlled are highly likely to be, if not unsettling, embarrassing. They get you worked up, and steal the power you’ve come to the gaming table to experience.

No wonder players who feel this way avoid games with persuasion and other behavior-altering mechanics.

Yet almost every fantasy game, starting with that granddaddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons, includes spells that control characters and alter their behavior. They’ve done so since the form’s earliest days. Yet they attract no such flack. Why is that?

It’s not a question of genre logic, as one might at first assume. The difference lies in the depth at which the potentially upsetting mechanism is placed in the rules set. Dying Earth’s Persuade/Rebuff and Pendragon’s traits are core mechanics. They can happen at any time to any player. Embedded deep in the rules, they’ll come up a lot. All players are expected to deal with them.

Spells like Charm Person, on the other hand, are not buried so deep. They’re what I call a system’s crunchy bits – one of a zillion powers that a character might or might not have access to. They’re encountered much less frequently than a core mechanic.

In fact, I think it’s largely a fallacy that players who hate behavior-altering effects accept them when they’re labeled as spells. They hate the spells, too. But to avoid this class of crunchy bits, one can take steps. Within the game, you can load your character up with Wisdom or Willpower, or whatever other number protects you from this most hated of eventualities.

On the GM-lobbying level, the measures they require are more passive-aggressive than for games with deeply embedded behavior overrides. To avoid them in DERPG or Pendragon, you have to put your foot down and refuse to play the game at all. But you can agree to play D&D or another crunchy bit game, and then pout and fuss whenever you get zapped with such a power. You can even tell your GM in advance that you hate being charmed or controlled, and would sooner have your character die. Most GMs will allow you to continue playing, instead targeting your fellow players for any control spells the GMCs might be packing. Or they can drop the entire crunchy category.

Is catering to a player with control issues any different than supplying roleplaying opportunities to Method Actor types, or butt-kicking scenes for action-lovers? Not at all. While we designers shouldn’t feel constrained to appeal equally to all tastes when we create rules mechanisms, neither should we be surprised when those whose tastes we ignore decline to play our games.

Until we fully develop our globe-spanning mind control powers, that is.

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