Player Buy-In, or, We All Want To Play
Posted by Nathan P. on January 20, 2006
Here’s something interesting that I’ve observed about the indie scene and it’s development. Because much of it is in response to the general bizarre social dynamics and outright dysfunction of the roleplaying community over the years, there is this wierd kind of over-compensation in design. It goes like this:
I don’t want my game to support dysfunctional play (alternately, I want my design to hilight dysfunctional play so that the group can deal with it in the open).
One of the hallmarks of dysfunctional play is the deprotagonized character – that is, the character with pages and pages of backstory about an ancient prophecy blah blah blah that, who, in play, just sits there as he kills orcs all day. Or the like.
The reaction to always being deprotagonized is that you stop investing in the character, leading to a downward spiral (my char never gets to do anything cool, I’m not going to invest in him and try to do anything cool, etc).
I want to ensure that everyone is invested in their character (alternately, everyones invested in everyones character) in my game.
And tipping over into the interesting part: If I don’t make everyone be invested, they won’t be.
It’s something that I feel underlies some conversations and designs – the idea, or fear, that if something like player investment is not demanded by or supported by the rules, it won’t happen at all. It’s easy to see how this corrolates to the System Does Matter ethos, right? Or do I need to go into this?
But, here’s the thing – in a functional group, everyone is there to, y’know, play. There’s this lingering fear that the people at the table will be intentionally reticent or trying to “break” the game (I know I have it), and the reaction to it is to try to design around or against it – “making” people invested in their characters so they have an interest in sustaining the game.
But the fundemental assumption of roleplay is that you’re making shit up with your friends, right? There’s an initial amount of buy-in that happens just by sitting there, at the table, playing the game. Your interest in investing in your character is that you want to play the game. Your reward for your investment? A good time.
Obviously, there are certainly different forms of investment, aimed at different play experiences, as well as things like investment in the game world or in the other characters. But I feel like starting with the assumption that the people are there in order to play, not in order to mess up play, is one that isn’t necessarily made. And it should be. Its healthy.
Maybe I’m just focusing about this because it’s something I’ve noticed in my own design-think, and that I’m working on fixing. But the basic point is this – social dysfunction will always trump good design. Design for the functional group.