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Dare to be Stupid
By Steve Darlington
"Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker"
I watched the Star Wars trilogy again last night - the original trilogy, and was struck once again by how well written the damn thing is. It goes a bit wonky at the end, but I can forgive that for all it does do right. Side-quests, for example, which have little to do with the plot, but make things feel action packed. And the casual heroism throughout. One of the best lines in the movie is that one up there, because it's delivered so casually. It's not a major scene. It's not a major character point or plot point. Han doesn't spend ten minutes hearing the odds and weighing up the pros and cons of going out. He certainly doesn't stare into the distance and say "this is something I have to do, even if it kills me". He doesn't even think, he just leaps on his tauntaun and rides out. Because that's what you do.
Of course, it is a Han Solo kind of action, and not every character is Han Solo. Nor is every story Star Wars. But when it comes to roleplaying, MOST of our stories are pulpy, and a large chunk of our characters, we hope, are as cool as Han Solo (although possibly, not as inept, but see later). And yet, when it comes to PCs, I so rarely see anybody do anything stupid. And I've never seen them do it so casually, or with so little reaction from others.
It's the wargaming spirit. Because these are games, and rarely operate in total real-time, people like to think about things. Very rarely do people act on instict, or out of passion, or on reflex. They don't get emotional or argumentative much either. The social constraints means that the game works better when we all talk things out and get along. And finally there's the rules, which need to be enforced or the game loses all meaning. If the cold didn't hurt your stats, there'd be no heroism in going out into that storm. And players like to win, ie stay alive and do cool things. If Han Solo went out into the snow and froze to death, it wouldn't be much of a story.
But it wouldn't be much of a game either. A GM can do much better than that, even if there is failure. Han Solo in fact, fails a great deal, and often spectacularly. So does his modern counterpart, Malcolm Reynolds.
I'm over-sensitive to these things, I know, but I have lost count of the times I've done something dramatic in a game and had eyebrows raised at me. An example: a few weeks ago, during a car to car gunfight in Shadowrun, my immediate reaction was to get on the roof. Why? Because I was playing a character based on Jason Statham in the Transporter, and he gets on rooves all the time. But everyone was like "what are you doing?". I thought it was pretty obvious really: I was being bad-ass.
In a game of Shadowrun, no less.
I of course fell out the window and got run over, but it was still pretty bad-ass. Especially when I got up, shrugged off the damage and ran towards the now-stopped car (having a dwarf go through your windscreen sideways slows you down, I guess). But technically, I did fail, because Shadowrun, like a lot of RPGs, defines bad-ass as "doing the thing most likely to succeed the most" - ie by min-maxing your stats and the rules. Shadowrun is a particularly good example of this: that RPGs aren't designed around being bad-ass so much as playing it safe. Han Solo shouts "don't tell me the odds!" while the D&D player shouts "I've got a good chance of a critical!"
You can see why designers have slowly but surely made more and more cinematic/narrative mechanics, where being cool either drives success (like Wushu) is the result of the roll (TINS). Otherwise, it's tough on the GM, trying to reward stupidity while still making sure it feels heroic and risky to do it. Not easy. Not to mention the fact that systems are, in the main, designed to give players things they are good at, so they are naturally encouraged to do those things. But that's why Buffy's power points were much better than Adventure!'s, because there were more of them, to be spent more flippantly. That allows the kind of casual heroism pulp demands.
Systems aside, though, nothing depresses me more than seeing players playing it overly safe, and nothing entertains me more than the wildly, stupidly heroic. This is about action, adventure and really wild things. Stop thinking and jump on a tauntaun and ride out into the snow. Run out of your house to go hunt a dragon without even taking a spare handkerchief. Pull a random sword out of a rock if you fail your Int roll to remember to bring one. Grab whatever's handy, make do, have a go. Adventure naturally puts you in situations where choices are limited and time is short, but action comes from doing something decisive despite that, even if it is stupid. You want action, stop thinking. In the words of Weird Al Yankovic: dare to be stupid.
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