Deciding What To Care About

Part 3 of ? in the Cultivating a Storytelling Mindset series

The hardest thing I ever ask of a player is to decide what they’re going to care about.

Some games tell you what to care about, right? You’re dungeon delvers, so you’re supposed to care about the treasure. Advancement is a strongly implied goal as well. But there are also games that don’t tell you what to care about. Why is deciding what to care about such a challenging lift?

We’re playing Shattered City, a PbtA game derived from Legacy that doesn’t specifically tell players what to care about, so I can’t stop thinking about this subject. It’s a game design challenge but it’s also a creative, social and emotional challenge for the players. Burning Wheel covered this ground, and workshopping Beliefs and Instincts is a notoriously difficult process. In Legacy games, which feature big shifts in time and an explicit split between big-picture events and small-picture character vignettes, there are no specific economies driving choices other than the ones you choose, I think it’s even harder.

And what does “interesting” even mean? Is it interesting to the player, to the GM, to the other players? To your blog readers? To your Twitch audience?

How does this continue to be so hard?

Such a mystery. Or you could help the players figure it out for themselves.

Where To Look

Sometimes, system provides the player benchmarks and validation. You want to advance, so do the things that earn you advancement. You will grind out food, rest and light, so do things to maximize them.

Other times, the game’s premise provides an answer: you’re a secret society of monster hunters, you crew a tramp freighter, you’re a criminal gang. The shared goals in these games are of course entirely embedded in the game’s fiction: monster hunters hunt monsters, tramp freighters take jobs, criminal gangs claw their way into being bigger and badder. Shared goals are great! But those are all extrinsic goals. They’re not the character’s goals.

Meanwhile, we’ve provided players almost no training at all in developing their own intrinsic goals. Decades of shitty GMing have provided plenty of negative reinforcement though, mostly by ignoring what players tell us. It’s too hard to integrate their backstory. I forgot that NPC you took an interest in. Our session time is so consumed by the job/mission/dungeon that there’s no time left for the characters. You can’t wander off the rails.

I’ve talked on and off for a while about the concept of “holding environment.” To recap, it’s the premise of your game that gives the characters reasons to spend time together, particularly in scenes. And those premises can be all over the place: for emotional support reasons (personal relationships in a closed environment, like the settlements of Sagas of the Icelanders), for tactical reasons (party builds in D&D), for professional reasons (a ship crew like in Scum and Villainy), even for meta-play reasons like “because we all agreed to show up on Saturday afternoons for five hours.” But those are all related to the larger social dynamic of all the players at the table.

I suppose it’s not unreasonable that a player might pick any of these things as their intrinsic goal: what I want to do is support someone else’s effort. But I don’t think that’s sustainable or scalable. What happens when the whole party exists to support…the whole party? Or crew or whatever. At some point, if you’re playing a game where the emergent fiction is the goal, someone needs to care about something.

The secret is that not caring protects you from being hurt. Not to get all armchair therapist here, but identifying what players fear will hurt them is most of the exercise.

Why Should You Care?

Deciding what in the fiction to care about makes some assumptions. The big assumption is that “the fiction” matters, changes, and is part of your overall enjoyment of the medium. And different RPGs care about “the fiction” in very different, incompatible ways. A dungeon delving game puts a lot more emphasis on the tactical fiction than, say, a ships-crew game that emphasizes the fiction around tramp freighter logistics. Or a feels-heavy game that emphasizes emotional context way above tactics or logistics. Or a political maneuvering game that emphasizes social context.

Some games are written in a relatively fiction-agnostic way. Personally I think that’s usually not intentional: the designer(s) just didn’t think about what aspect of “the fiction” they wanted their game to address or facilitate most clearly. But that incoherence can be intentional. You can get a lot of good play even while the players don’t settle into a gestalt.

Because I can’t stop thinking about this topic, I’m starting to think “give me easy things to care about” is something I desperately want and need in a game. “Don’t punish me for the things I end up caring about” is a close second.

Okay I totally lied. Let’s get all armchair therapist!

Get Out Of Your Own Way

I think the difficulty comes down to fear.

Fear of being judged for having a bad idea. Easy and shitty to be judgy about other players’ contributions: it’s dumb or hackneyed or predictable.

Fear of tripping over the GM’s authority or credibility, their prep or plans.

Fear or uncertainty around fitting your idea into established fiction, or external canon (the Star Wars problem, if you haven’t bought into making a canon-rich setting your own).

Uncertainty about how your authority interfaces with other players’, including the GM. What happens if I want to care about something that contradicts what someone else wants to care about? Will the system let me fight that out, or do I need to talk it out? Is that going to be okay or weird or what?

A general lack of player credibility, that the table won’t buy your idea but they might buy the same idea if it came from a higher-credibility player. (How do you build credibility? Glad you asked.)

Not wanting to rock the boat if the table’s goals don’t match yours. Everyone else is there to beat a dungeon, but while you’re exploring your thief’s morality, that’s interfering with your thief’s tactical efficiency. That’s not what the other players signed up for. I’ve done this, and had it happen, and it sucks.

But what if I choose wrong?!

Okay, So How Do I Choose?

Sometimes it takes time to settle into the game’s table vibe and established fiction. It’s hard to decide what to care about when nobody else has decided what they care about (including the GM!). Someone has to go in the water first and prove it’s warm, or at least swimmable. That’s usually one of the unspoken responsibilities of facilitation: clearly signaling where it’s safe to put your attention.

You feel that stutter-step tempo during scene framing in GMless games. This can be a tough exercise, particularly if you’ve never done it before and especially if you’ve never GMed or facilitated before. If you’re doing a scene with another player, you both fumble around until you settle on a premise for the scene you can agree to and find interesting. I’m not sure how you speed up that process other than through practice and saying “yes” a whole lot when the other side offers a scene up.

But that’s just related to making the game proceed, and doesn’t have anything to do with deciding what to care about inside your own head. I’m thinking about how I go about settling on a vibe or characterization or whatever, in these set-your-own-scene games. It’s so hard because I’m asking myself what I can care about for the next four hours. And sure enough, I still face all the fears I list above: does this fit with everyone else’s investment? Will I be judged favorably for it? Is it “clever” (ugh)? Does my characterization fit with the premise or setting or genre?

I’ve been playing these kinds of games for a decade and I’ve never really dialed it in. But I’ve also mostly GMed conventionally structured RPGs for four decades, which has given me plenty of training in being comfortable asserting anything.

Okay, finally the useful part.

Subjects To Care About

Again, I’m assuming you’re playing a game where the fiction matters, where players need to pick something to care about otherwise the game won’t go. The set of games that requires this is quite small. Similarly, the set of games that actively reject or ignore this is also quite small. The vast majority of games, either tabletop or larp, work best when the players settle on some set of things. And the table, ideally, supports your choices.

Goals: Personally I think this is a pretty shallow take on “the fiction,” but sure. Let’s assume your character is consumed with the burning desire to do well at their…thing, their job, whatever it is. This is an easy fallback to competency-porn type play: characters who are good at their job, enjoy being good at their job, and look great doing it. There’s no need to justify your character’s goal, just pick something, anything (but please, please pick something in the fiction, not “I want to unlock this ability”). Goals are a terrific jumping-off point to decide that you care about what may have led to this goal.

Logistics: This is, to my mind, a logical extension of investing in goal-oriented fiction. Now you’re caring about how to get the rest of the players as deep into the dungeon as they can get, or fly their ship as far and as safely as possible, all the support stuff that happens in a game. I mean, it’s a thing and you could pick it to care about. Folks who love to be supportive frequently fixate on a game’s logistical concerns (and are frequently frustrated when games simply don’t have them, eg no tracking ship fuel or maintenance schedules, don’t really care about food, rest and healing times, and so on).

Emotions: What does my character feel about things? Are those feelings a rational product of their setting and situation? I talk about this bit a lot in the previous Cultivating a Storytelling Mindset. In short: your character’s emotional state can be literally anything, rational or not. Your goal is to be true to it, explore it, see where their hopes and fears and desires take them.

Relationships: How does your character fit into their larger social context? What friends, families, rivals and enemies are around them? This means choosing to care about your character’s relationships and treating them as real, rather than as (merely) useful or obstacles. This is often ultimately goal-driven, but it doesn’t have to be.

Setting: Tricky one! I feel like choosing to care about “the setting” is some alchemy of social concerns, taking an interest in big sweeping events, and fidelity to genre expectations.

Fidelity: Does the game feel like the genre you’re modeling? How do my decisions advance that feeling? This level of caring feels really meta to me, like, it’s more concerned with “correct” authorship than with interesting or provocative authorship. But genre is a good way to ensure everyone’s on the same page, right? If we’re hunting vampires, it’s practical and useful to invest in your depiction of vampire hunting: describing badass mission prep, complaining about being too old for this shit, relating stories about how vampires ate your family.

Yeah don’t do this.

Just Pick Something. Anything. Many Anythings, Even

The reason this is in my Cultivating a Storytelling Mindset series is that choosing what to care about ultimately means engaging in proactive play. Invested play. Thinking more about what you want your play experience to be and taking measures to ensure you get it. It’s a refutation of play where you simply react to what the GM throws at you in the most tactically efficient way possible. That’s a whole category of play – arguably the biggest! – but it’s not storytelling-mindset play.

And like I go into in some depth in the previous piece, stories are not games and games are not stories. Just because you’ve picked something to care about, that doesn’t mean you should expect your wishes to go unchallenged. In fact it’s now on the GM to specifically push you on the things you care about. And those challenges might not feel like how you imagined things going down. If you want your wishes to be all that matters, write a story. On the other hand, if you’ve picked something (anything! Many things!) and the GM, other players, and evolving events don’t take that into account, that’s worth talking about.

(Which is the next-hardest thing for players to do!)

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