I recently wrapped up our Band of Blades campaign and thought it’d be nice to take a little break on the other side of the table. So my best buddy is running Magpie’s Masks for us for a while.
Masks is a game about teen superheroes. I don’t know much about the teen supers subgenre, but I know YA melodrama (The 100, The Society, etc.). I don’t really know superhero comics at all. I’m a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, though, and I had typical boy-in-the-‘80s era exposure to mainstream stuff from DC and a smattering of oddball indie titles. Superhero roleplaying, though, yeah. I’ve put my time in the Champions mines. And GURPS Supers and Villains and Vigilantes and Brave New World and all the rest.
Trad supers gaming is like most of trad gaming: it’s concerned with modeling the external physics of the game world and leaves the internal life of the characters and the intentional meta-structure of the narrative unaddressed. It’s a semi-fruitful void but it’s vast and unstructured. Masks’ major innovation is to sideline the physics of superpowers, lean on the players’ understanding of the genre, and build the game around interpersonal and internal concerns. This is the stuff I always cared about more than clever superpower uses or “can X beat Y?” type conversations.
In our Masks game, I’m playing the Delinquent playbook. Remember when I said I don’t know the genre that well? Yeah. I can’t tell you the touchstones for the Delinquent but the outline is obvious: troublemaker, emotionally immature, anti-authoritarian. The playbook is designed to get at this stuff: moves that incentivize the character to break rules/laws, moves that provide a veneer of protection from adult influence, a constant push to play in a selfish way. The tension with the rest of the game’s team-oriented mechanics is the point.
That got me thinking about when I played a Thief in Dungeons & Dragons.
The idea was the same: troublemaker, emotionally immature, anti-authoritarian. I played the Thief in a selfish way, stealing good stuff from our dungeon hauls, hanging the other characters out to dry when they got in trouble, all that. Not surprisingly it didn’t go well, neither diegetically nor among the players at the table.
How is it that “I’m just playing my character” is totally awesome and supported in one game and horrible and caustic in another?
Because one game gave me an alibi and the other didn’t.
What’s Your Excuse?
One of my favorite things about roleplaying games is that they provide an alibi to act different in the game than I do in real life. Sometimes this is unintentional: if you are incentivized by advancement, which requires experience points (say), and those XPs are gained by defeating monsters, and “defeat” is understood at the table as winning violent conflict, then you’re gonna get lots of violent conflict. The game gives you an alibi to point your character toward violence. If you don’t want to be violent, you pick different incentives. If that puts you on a different page than the rest of the table, you’re now in violation of a bunch of undiscussed social norms.
Intentional alibis are found here and there quite early. King Arthur Pendragon did it through a combination of use-based advancement, chasing Glory for in-fiction reasons, and personality and trait values. Vampire pushed everyone toward brutal zero-sum infighting via the politics of the Masquerade and the nature of generational power. Intentional alibis aren’t new but they were also not widespread until, I think, more recently.
The things I look for when I’m trying to identify intentional alibis are incentives, the holding environment, and genre expectations.
This is the first and easiest thing I look for. What incentives does the game offer for what behaviors? This isn’t just advancement, although it frequently is. It’s also bonuses in certain conflicts, protection against failure or complication, an expanded palette of play options, spotlight time set aside for certain kinds of interactions, and meaningful authorship over aspects of the game.
Not everyone is incentivized by the same things, though. I feel like games designed with mechanical incentives are often semi-intentional at best. Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane called game design “mind control” once, and he’s not wrong, but only when you’re already incentivized by what’s on offer.
For me, at least, I need more than mechanical inducements. I need the game’s holding environment to tell me it’s okay, even expected, to act a certain way.
I have a pretty good definition of holding environment over in the always-in-progress glossary but to very briefly recap: this is the combination of premise, interpersonal ties, responsibilities and expectations that everyone’s working within. It is, for me, the most important part of my alibi when I play.
Trad holding environments are generally super loose. It’s usually on the players to figure out how the characters know each other and why they stick together. It can be totally shallow, like “we go on adventures together because we’re more effective together,” and that’s fine because the fiction isn’t the most important thing. The real holding environment in many cases is just social expectations at the table: we’re playing because that’s what we do Tuesday nights. We’re on a ride through the GM’s adventure because the GM did the prep.
Old-timey storygames made you come up with your own holding environment as well. I recently ran a couple tables of good old Dust Devils at our local con that reminded me of this. The HE of Dust Devils is that every character exists in tension with their worst impulses, and will be provided an opportunity at redemption through play. That’s barely an HE, really just an outline. You look at the character pitches folks come up with, offer up some setting ideas (frontier town, a fort, a sprawling ranch, whatever), and then start tossing conflicts at each other. But those first bits – the worst impulse (your Devil) and striving for redemption – are enough to provide the alibi. Indulging or rejecting one’s Devil is, of course, baldly mechanistic: you either get more cards, or you get less cards plus a chit for later. But the fact that everyone’s struggling in the same way is why I also include it here.
It’s pretty common for modern-era indie games, and even lots of trindie games, to have more tightly defined holding environments. Masks is premised on everyone being a teenager struggling to grow up in a city defined by adult superheroes. Mutant: Year Zero is about being young adult childless survivors embedded in the tight relationship map of a quickly failing community.
Whatever the case, however you get to your holding environment, it is in my mind the biggest part of my alibi. My Masks Delinquent is facing her own struggles against/among the adults in her world, and she does so via delinquency. Playing for maximum tactical efficiency with my team is a secondary, maybe even tertiary concern.
Third bit I am compelled to include, but I have reservations, is genre expectation. Roleplaying has frequently served as the handmaiden of genre emulation. Masks is inspired by the teen supers genre, Blades in the Dark has heavy notes of Assassin’s Creed and Peaky Blinders. Kult is hardcore Clive Barker-esque cosmic body horror. There’s also all the stuff based on existing properties, like Call of Cthulhu or Star Trek.
Genre expectation can provide an alibi as well as holding environment or incentives. When I play Star Trek my Starfleet officer is going to be forthright and honorable and probably spew technobabble. The YA horny teenager melodrama elements of Masks (and Monsterhearts and so on) tell me it’s okay to be a horny melodramatic teenager.
My reservations about genre expectations come down to how much we are exploring or celebrating a genre, versus how much we’re just aping stuff we’ve already seen because it’s easy. They’re my reservations, they don’t have to be yours. It’s just something I think about a lot. I’m always a fan of players being brave in their portrayals.
Begging Forgiveness, Asking Permission
So back to that first question: how is it that character portrayal can be awesome in one game and awful in another? My short answer is alibi, the longer answer is my breakdown of where alibi comes from (incentives, holding environment, genre expectation), but my final answer is the space between forgiveness and permission.
I hope it’s not controversial to point out that every table is different. One group of players will be completely okay with honest, aesthetically and morally consistent play that another group will absolutely despise. My unreliable selfish thief in one game is my conflicted, immature delinquent in another. The thief requires I beg forgiveness from the fantasy adventure table, though, whereas I have permission to play my delinquent at my horny teenage melodrama table.
I think alibis can fall apart when some element of the alibi is out of alignment with where the rest of the table is at. Lots of folks will point at the weirdness of monster-killing badasses in Call of Cthulhu, yeah? The game gives you an alibi to walk into foolish mind-destroying investigations and then run away screaming, but it also gives the players the means to defeat a lot of what they encounter via combat. The incentives, holding environment and genre expectations are out of alignment, so it’s on the table to figure that out. If you don’t establish norms, you end up with misaligned play.
It’s not like storygames are immune, either. I know there’s a player at our table who was vexed when, as we were building our pool of Team points leading up to a battle with some villains, I said my delinquent was not there to support the team. That’s morally and aesthetically consistent but it also violates that player’s desire to optimize our team’s efficiency in the face of shared conflict. Is that okay? I sure hope so!
I was just playing my character.
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