Sunday, 10 August 2014

But what do you actually do?

By way of finalising our Demon: the Fallen actual play (coming soon!), I was googling around for the actual game blurb, and ran into a RPGnet thread about the question "but what do you actually do in game X?"

Unfortunately the lack of quote-marking in RPGnet makes their threads a complete pain to read, but At the time, I didn't spot the link to the original thread from the plaintext archive, but I persevered because I thought there were some interesting ideas tossed around, albeit occasionally pebbledashed with smug sneerers decrying the intellect and imagination of D&D-habituated sheeple who could never be happy outside the linear corridors and straitjacket confines of their self-chosen prisons.

I think this is actually a really important question, and one I often ask about games.

The starting point

The original post begins like this:

I've seen this complaint levelled at a few games in the past, and I must admit its one I don't really understand. If you've never played an RPG before, then it would make sense, since you have no prior experience to draw upon as to what player characters do. But if that's not the case, then I don't see how anyone who's played at least a few sessions isn't immediately struck by at least one idea of something their character could do with any given premise.

No matter how thin the setting information or attempt to orient GMs about the main sorts of things PCs in any particular game get up to, I tend to find I can think up at least half a dozen things that could be motivations/direction. Even in games with settings I find totally unappealing.

They are invariably summarised as "have some ties to the world and motivations, and start causing trouble". Because trouble is what PCs do.

So what gives? Why do people even come up with this complaint? What examples of "aimless" games do people have where they couldn't think of things to be getting on with?

So I have a few thoughts, influenced of course by points made on the forum.

The first one is that people asking this may not have understood the game. Maybe the pitch or blurb are not clear enough and need reworking. Maybe you skipped over the "really obvious" premise and moved on to discussing the setting or cool magic system or monsters or organisations or mechanics, without establishing the role of PCs.

Depending on how much choice is given about PCs, there may be a lot of scope for confusion. In D&D, you all play adventurers, and providing the players understand the general concept of an adventurer, they should have some idea what to do. That being said, the D&D adventurer is actually a specific beast with several variants. Actual historical "adventurers" might be involved in ambitious trading ventures, attempt to recover treasure or information of value from archaeological sites, lead small armies to conquer territory or impose trade agreements, live off their wits and gambling skills, or try to marry into money. A D&D adventurer, by contrast, is generally part of a small party that lives by the sword and has minimal merchantile or social ambition. While they are Conan-like in some ways, it's typically assumed that they prefer the free-roaming style, rather than enlisting in armies for the coin or driving their way up political ladders. Basically, most D&D adventurers are either heroically self-sacrificing (defend everyone against threats despite personal danger), bloodthirsty sociopaths (killing is a preferable lifestyle to investing the first load of treasure into a business and giving up the sword for a safer life), or too dim to appreciate their poor life choices.

Similarly, Changeling is semi-notorious for providing an intriguing premise that largely fails to support actually playing the game. After establishing PCs as escaped prisoners with fey powers and links to the fey realm, the game then goes out of its way to emphasise that they desperately want to forget all about their horrible experiences and avoid having anything further to do with fey stuff. This leaves you as basically either getting a job in Starbucks and going about your daily life, or ignoring the fluff and using your cool powers that you're supposed to hate to help with everyday life, or dabbling in fey stuff that you're supposed to be avoiding.

From what I can establish, in Changeling your job is to act like the repentant ex-con in media: you make a pretence of trying to live a normal life free of crime/weirdness, but all the actual interest and excitement comes from you being "reluctantly" forced to use your skills/magic to overcome challenges thrown at you by ex-bosses/fey who won't let you walk away. There is a constant tension between player desire to use their cool abilities as much as possible, and all the fluff that says you should avoid it whenever possible, try to run from Fey Stuff and hate yourself for giving in.

PCs and trouble

I disagree somewhat that "trouble is what PCs do". I think PCs usually expect to be surrounded by trouble, and more generally conflict is usually the driver behind gameplay, but actually I'd say the OP has this more or less backwards in terms of typical gaming styles. I suspect the majority of games have a relatively reactive approach, where PCs deal with trouble. Sometimes the trouble is imminent and approaching (Deathwatch, Dark Heresy, quite a lot of D&D, and other protect-the-realm games), at other times a known trouble is kind of hanging out for the PCs to put an end to (most of the rest of D&D, much Call of Cthulhu).

I've mentioned this on the Dixie-2 world creation episode, but my (admittedly limited) impression of gaming is that the majority of games are basically reactive. This is partly because I suspect the majority of literary genres are also reactive, and very passive genres are not likely to leave potential players very much to do. Most games seem to follow one of these two broad structures:

  • Your X is threatened by a Y, and you must Z to restore order. The GM presents players with Y.
  • You are keen to acquire X. The GM presents players with opportunities for X.

Even relatively proactive sandboxy games like many D&D types are still partly reactive. The players do not generally come up with their dungeoneering opportunities, but select from those presented by the DM. Games with a social or political focus probably offer more chances for the players to start trouble themselves and stir up the existing order.

The main genres where protagonists are genuinely proactive are basically crime stories. Heist films are a great example. Some kinds of thriller are proactive, although again, the main reason for getting involved is usually the threat presented by the antagonist.

To my mind, for players to get a satisfying adventure out of going out to cause trouble, they actually need a fairly sophisticated understanding of the setting. They have to know the basic existing power structure and social expectations, their own character's place in society, what kinds of trouble can be easily and safely kicked up, and so on. They also need to be the kind of character who would just go out to cause trouble, which is a relatively rare trait to be honest. I wish I had a better idea of what the OP meant by this.

In any case, my general point is that I don't think "you play unspecified characters in this setting who disrupt things in some way" is a very helpful bit of advice.

Running with the grain

Most games have some kinds of play that they support well, and others that are possible but not well-supported. Some are more overt about this than others.

A good example here is Call of Cthulhu. You can play all sorts of games with this ruleset and setting, but 99% of them will not actually be Call of Cthulhu - they will just be Basic Role Playing. Call of Cthulhu is a sufficiently specific genre that it needs some quite specific kinds of play for the game to happen. Moreover, What You Do will actually depend mostly on the scenario chosen for this game. Broadly speaking, you encounter weird stuff, pry unwisely into horrible secrets beyond human understanding and attempt to fend off threats to yourself and humanity - but the shape of those things will vary a lot. You might be acting like a detective, a soldier, an explorer or a socialite.

In contrast, let's consider Deathwatch. In this game, it is absolutely fixed who you are and what sorts of things you do: you are a Space Marine who investigates and fights alien threats to the Imperium of Mankind by shooting them in the head. You don't jostle for political power, you don't conduct elaborate romances, you don't infiltrate criminal gangs or build commercial empires. If you create a Space Marine and then attempt to do some of those things, you are playing completely against the grain of the setting and will likely run into mechanical issues. There is no point getting frustrated by this.

Hellcats and Hockeysticks is about playing trouble-making schoolgirls. Its mechanics are much more specific than the previous two, which come from fairly broad schools of thought designed for a variety of games in the same line. It is not going to work well as a game of tactical combat between rival schools in a Japanese-style dystopian school deathmatch.

On the other hand, FATE is an incredibly broad ruleset that you can in theory use to play anything. The general scheme intended for action adventure is (as they demonstrate in splatbooks) adaptable for playing geopolitics, firefighters or squabbling middle-class witch covens. One of the inevitable outcomes is that it isn't especially well-honed for doing any of these things in particular. It remains a broad game, without detailed subsystems for handling situations that only arise in one of these genres.

Some of the time, I suspect "what do you do in this game?" can be interpreted as "this game is almost certainly designed in the expectation that certain types of play, genre, plot or event are more common and important than others, and will deliberately or subconsciously support those playstyles better than others, but I can't immediately tell which, please enlighten me".

The original thread mentions that sci-fi games seem to attract this question more than others, and that seems quite likely. Most people's perception of fantasy is built on a solid bedrock of fighting orcs with swords, and both sword-and-sorcery and Tolkein feature killing things for their treasure and battling evil monsters: as such I think this is the instinctive assumed playstyle for fantasy unless something else is suggested. In contrast, science fiction has never really had one lynchpin: it ranges from Asimovian thriller-puzzles to Star Trek space opera to Star Wars high-fantasy-in-space, incorporating a wide sweep of less dramatic fiction based on social changes and domestic life in the future. If you're presented with an interesting sci-fi universe with no immediate statement about what you do, I don't think there's any particular reason to assume one thing over another - but it's pretty unlikely that every single option will work as well as every other option.

On a quite basic level, mechanics heavily influence what genres will work well. BRP and Call of Cthulhu are terrible for action adventure, because they are swingy and PCs are pretty vulnerable. Traveller is somewhat better because of technology, but still more suited to Firefly than Starship Troopers. The Warhammer 40,000 rules (even stripped of setting) won't work for a massive range of sci-fi game types, because they are designed for a setting where hardly anyone understands science or technology and most people fear it: they also build in very low skills that mean success is relatively rare.

Group focus

A second reason why the question is important is that everyone really needs to be on the same page about this.

Because of its open-handedness about this kind of thing, Call of Cthulhu is notorious for having parties consisting of a Russian arms dealer, an elderly astronomer, a notorious socialite and a dealer in occult books. And no reason to know one another or do any of the same things, let alone do them together. In other systems, PCs may have incompatible skillsets that mean they can't mechanically work together without someone being irrelevant most of the time: a party with one combat monster, one stealth expert and one confidence trickster might be a great combination that covers all bases, or it might cause constant failure because only one person can succeed at any style of play.

A clear focus makes it much easier for players to think up compatible character concepts, which makes it more likely they will all be enthusiastic about the game and not then be disappointed because it turns out they had incompatible ideas about what they'd be doing.

But is it fun?

As several people suggested during the discussion, it's possible to interpret the question "but what do you actually do?" as expressing lack of enthusiasm. It may be a deliberate soft rejection, on the lines that "the things you would do do not sound fun to me, let's not do that". On the other hand, it may be a genuine question. If you have confidence in your friends, then when they enthusiastically propose a game to you and you don't understand what interesting gameplay it offers, this is a very sensible question.

As I mentioned above, it's entirely possible that the fun possibilities of a game are so obvious to you that you don't actually articulate them to potential players. This is probably most likely where there are differences in genre knowledge, so that "crew on a deep space exploration mission" immediately implies Star Trek to you, but your friend assumes you will be taking instrument readings, negotiating over maintenance duties and marking off the days on your calendar. They ask the question because they assume there must be more to it that they see on the surface, and are waiting for you to convince them.

On a third level, it might be a more mechanical question. If you play literary figures throughout history and Together They Fight Crime, what does that actually entail? Do you carry out detailed investigations with a crunchy system and face real danger from enemies in a gritty injury system? Do you romp from clue scene to clue scene while maintaining cover identities through socialising? Do you race across rooftops battling Hollywood rogues and shrugging off injuries? Do you carry out elaborate social justice programs to tackle antisocial behaviour at its source in accordance with your characters' own established ethical codes? Those are important differences and will appeal to different people at different times.

Breaking it down

A much later post offered the following insight:

I think the question "...but what do you DO in game X"? is often shorthand for a whole bunch of more complicated questions.

  • "What is the day to day life of a typical ordinary NPC like in game X?"
  • "What is the day to day life of a typical character of type Y like in game X?"
  • "What interesting, playworthy events happen to/around a typical character of type Y like in game X?"
  • "What are the expected responses of a typical character of type Y in emergency/extreme situations?"
  • "Can a typical character of Type Y aspire to have a 'normal' life? have mundane friends? pursue and/or sustain romantic relationships? have a career? hobbies etc."?
  • "Should a typical character of Type Y expect to have a tormented life, hunted by deadly foes, all his loved ones and anyone he comes into contact with in danger, unable to hold a real job, etc?"

The more open and toolboxlike a game the less obvious the default playstyle for the game is, and the less likely that the default playstyle will actually be used in a particular campaign.

For open games, the group generally needs to filter down an open game to some mutually acceptable subset of PC types, game themes etc. In the typical group, some players will object to their character choices being limited.

Some players want to know baseline expectations for the game, and have their PC fit into that framework - I think these types of players are more likely to ask the questions above. Without such information, generating PCs is a crapshoot, and can result in a PC that is to a varying extent out of place in the setting, in motivations, background, skills, aspirations.

Others are eager to do their own thing, regardless of the game or setting conventions. Such players can be very dynamic, but issues can arise between players who value setting fidelity and those who want to do their own thing.

The first few are the most significant as far as I'm concerned, and the third in particular. What is it that this game deems important enough to get screen time and mechanical consideration? And how much mechanical consideration? It is entirely possible to run an AD&D game that doesn't involve combat, but given that the vast majority of the resolution mechanics are devoted to combat, you're basically doing collaborative storytelling.

More generally, there is a substantial difference between a fantasy game where you can play a silver-tongued charmer by talking to the GM in character, one where you do so by rolling on your Personal Interaction skill, and one with ten different social attributes and a detailed social conflict resolution system for handling arguments and differences of opinion. All of them permit charming characters, but are likely to give quite different feels. The mechanical and narrative importance of your silver tongue, as opposed to other personal attributes, will vary with the relative weight given to your social skills.

It ain't interesting, being green

A second related question is "Why do PCs do anything worth screentime?". This is something that strikes me a lot in the kinds of games whose premise focuses on Being An X. All White Wolf games, for example. I don't mean PC motivation, which is a slightly different question, but there isn't necessarily anything intrinsically interesting in Being An X. Often, the answer requires either significant knowledge of the setting and the Place of Xs in Society, or significant genre knowledge about what it is that Xs stereotypically do, or a tacit assumption that you perform quests on behalf of vague sponsors because you basically don't have anything better to do with your time.

For example, Being A Vampire (the classic) is not inherently that interesting. The fundamental requirements for being a vampire are essentially that you sleep in the day and sometimes drink human blood. In a modern-day setting, you'll also need to pay rent and tax and stuff, and you'll want clothes, so you probably need to hold down a job that doesn't require daylight working. The only aspect of this that is particularly noteworth is "human blood".

To be honest, there's no inherent reason you couldn't handwave this or resolve nightly success with a single roll, in the same way that foraging in the wild is usually handled. Vampires are formidable and good at hunting. There might be consequences to messing up, but then when you're out hunting you might step in a bear-trap, kill one of the king's deer or run into a party of bandits. The decision that hunting humans requires screentime and mechanics is just that, a decision. You could perfectly well have hunting happen offscreen, and only bring it to the foreground when you introduce a plot event linked to it - just as a D&D game will tend to ignore shoe repair unless the GM has an idea for a cobbler-related event. Sometimes, this is what happens in Vampire too.

So why doesn't the vampire just mooch along between night shift and windowless apartment, doing nothing of mechanical interest? That's basically what most people do. Having fangs doesn't make stacking shelves any more interesting. This does not sound like an interesting game (although, see Alpha Dregs for some musings on making mundane stuff fun).

However, the game (as I understand it, not having played) establishes that vampires form part of a vampiric society, whose interests include keeping their existence a secret, which requires certain patterns of behaviour. One result is that PCs need to be careful about how they obtain their blood supplies, and this becomes complicated enough that gameplay seems worthwhile. It also establishes that vampires care about the pecking order, and that PCs are expected to do so as well, so social screentime becomes important. This interest means PCs may wish to proactively scheme and work against rivals or seniors. It establishes that there are different clans of vampires with different outlooks and political interests, constantly plotting. And the secrecy, bickering and pecking order combine in such a way that PCs can expect to be given sensitive tasks to do by more senior vampires, whose outcomes are both important and potentially dangerous, which is good for screentime. The burden of these tasks is another reason to fight for social status, of course.


So, yes, asking what you actually do in a game is a jolly sensible idea, all told, and a rather more complicated one than you might think. I've now been writing this for... about four hours, so I should go and do one of the many things on my list that I actually planned to get done today. Oops.


  1. I tend to agree with your (I think) general point that being dismissive of the question "but what do you actually do" is typical roleplayer creativity wanking. It's basically saying "well *I* can think of *millions* of things to do so if *you* can't it must be because you aren't as *special* and *creative* as I am".

    Similarly, I agree that "but what do you actually do" is actually a shorthand for a wide variety of complex and related questions.

    For what it's worth I think I would parse the question "but what do you actually do" as meaning, in essence, "but how does the premise of this game lend itself to player characters doing the kinds of things that are entertaining in a roleplaying game, not the sorts of things that are interesting to read about in a novel."

    In fact I might even go further and point out that the smug, condescending original post is *exactly* the sort of comment to which "yes but what do you actually *do*" is a sensible response. Okay, so you can think of half a dozen motivations and directions for a player character? Great. How many of them are things it would actually be interesting for a party of player characters to do in an interactive game.

    For example, reading through /Vampire: the Requiem/ I can easily think of two dozen really interesting characters who would all have fascinating inner lives, powerful motivations to go out and interact with the world, and generally be fantastic and entertaining characters to *read a book or watch a TV show* about. It's a lot harder to think of characters who will be interesting to play in a party-based role-playing game.

    Thinking about it, I also suspect that "but what do you actually do" is often less a question than a challenge or a mantra. The key point about the phrase "but what do you actually do" is that it includes the word, well, "actually". I have *hundreds* of ideas for games which I think would be really exciting in theory, but I have managed to translate very few of them into successful tabletop gaming experiences. "But what do you actually do" reminds you that at some point you have to put the focus back on actual play, not on the kind of theoretical character study which the OP seems to have been talking about.

    Or, to put it another way, I suspect that a lot of the time the answer to the question "yes but what do you actually do" is "the same thing you do in every roleplaying game, try to use your limited resources to achieve arbitrary goals."


    1. Opening note: it is much, much easier to follow the discussion if you follow the link at the top to the actual forum, which I didn’t initially spot. This features proper quoting and formatting.

      I don’t think I’d go quite as far as you did, but I agree with your general point that it’s quite easy for roleplayers (and quite a lot of other people) to slip into a slightly condescending frame of mind around stuff we’re good at.

      In this specific case, obviously I disagree with the OP, but I read it as being more bewildered or ignorant than sneery (some of the later posts are overtly contemptuous, though). Internet tone is always hard, but I though the last line asking for specific examples was the main point.

      That being said, I’m a bit sceptical about the OP’s statement for a few reasons – I didn’t go into it that much because I was more about the general idea than dissecting it. But now I’m here:
      1) there is a non-trivial difference between inventing a motivation in a setting and What You Do. “My father was killed by orks and I want revenge” is a motivation, but that doesn’t really establish what you might spend your time doing in play without a lot more fleshing out, especially as you probably can’t be a full-time ork venger. “I want to rise to be leader of the Whatever A Boss Vampires Is Called” is a bit more useful because working towards political power within a given society should suggest particular things to do. I’m not really sure what ‘direction’ means in the post.
      2) that they personally can generally think up lots of appropriate motivations. As you point out, an awful lot of cool character concepts, story concepts and awesome scenes are utterly unsuited to a party-based RPG where players have any kind of autonomy and there is uncertainty about outcomes. Without any evidence one way or the other, I can’t say what proportion of the OP’s ideas are actually workable, but I have reservations.
      3) The OP suggests that all their ideas can be summed up as “have some ties to the world and start some trouble”. These are immediately unsuitable for any game where you don’t start with obvious ties (teenager dragged into fantasy world, survivors of starship crash on alien planet, amnesiac wanderer) or where causing trouble is the opposite of the point. Most RPGs that I’ve played or heard actually feature PCs largely as agents of order who put an end to trouble that is disrupting society. In some cases it’s a core assumption. Officially, Numenera is about exploration and wonder. Star Trek games should be very similar, and characters are canonically forbidden from causing trouble. Unless you have an extraordinarily broad definition of “cause trouble”, this strikes me as a pretty limited set of ideas, to be honest. If you do, then it strikes me as a not-very-helpful point.

    2. There are also different levels at which you can apply “actually do”. What our Deathwatch characters “actually do” is variably:

      * fight the enemies of the Emperor to protect humanity from alien threats.
      * go on missions ordered by their superiors where they will encounter aliens and stuff to fight.
      * travel to various worlds scattered across the stars, meeting with NPCs whose allegiance is open to question, and looking for the signs of infiltration or heresy that call for their intervention with the full authority of the Emperor. Single-handedly battle enemies with limited support from Imperial forces. Uncover sinister secrets and ancient mysteries, and avoid paying them too much attention because technology and the alien are bane to loyal citizens. Visit fantastical places and encounter astonishing entities: raze the first with promethium and the second with bolt shells.
      * combine semi-tactical combat with rudimentary skill-based social, investigative and physical challenges in order to uncover and destroy their enemies and protect their allies.
      * fight mechanically-dangerous battles which, as a result, are necessarily brief and highly subject to both OOC strategizing and the luck of the dice.

      Any one of those could be the level of information the player is looking for. There are some superficial similarities to a common D&D 4E playstyle, but anyone looking for the tactical focus of 4E will find Deathwatch a let-down because victory is more about strategy and approach. Someone who wants self-directed play deserves to know that it’s primarily a mission-based game where you are expected to have in-character loyalty to both your organisation and Imperial society, and where divergence from these is canonically disastrous. Someone looking for space exploration or the wonders of future science won’t find them in a canonical game.

      On the other hand, a player might be wary of what seems like a military game, and find the news that it’s really squad-based missions with limited combat reassuring. The paranoia of the Imperium is good fodder for investigation, mistrust and confrontation, especially for powerful individuals like Marines – this isn’t a case where only specific named baddies exist and can be tackled. You do get to visit all kinds of interesting places with peculiar inhabitants, despite being under pretty strict direction, and have a lot of freedom once you’re there.

    3. I may have interpreted the original post too harshly.

      I agree that "what do you actually do" is a very open-ended question that could mean all sorts of different and (arguably) contradictory things. I think I'm inclined to parse it as meaning primarily "what do you do in actual sessions of play" rather than "what do you do in the game in general".

      This is why I'm so *very* sceptical about the "motivations and directions" thing. Okay, so my character wants to become Head Vampire. Great, but what am I actually doing in game sessions? And is the answer "arbitrary missions" like in most other games.

      Of course I have a very mechanicsy attitude to these things, to to an extent my answer to "what do you do?" tends to be very, very focused on the game mechanics. So "what you do" in Deathwatch is "structured missions with tactical combat" and "what you do" in Fiasco is "take it in turns to narrate scenes focusing on each other's characters."

    4. It strikes me that this comes back to the observation I made about Demon: the Fallen. I can think of loads of cool ideas for Demon characters, and loads of cool ideas for what I want those characters to do *in abstract* (balance a mortal life with an immortal legacy, find Lucifer, make war on Heaven and so on) but none of that tells me what I will be doing in *practice*.

      The one-shot Arthur ran was fairly reflective of my experience with White Wolf games. Whatever your character *concept* is, whatever their *motivations* and *directions* are, what they basically do is arbitrary missions.