For the past decade, the Israeli RPG theory scene has been developing its own approach to roleplaying games, an understanding of the game and its players that seem to be unique in-, or at least useful for-, the greater landscape of theorycraft. We previously introduced some of our ideas to the English-speaking world when we presented the genre of Israeli Tabletop and the way one community of Israeli GMs design their games using this framework. In this series of articles, we will present some of these insights and terminology, focusing not on high-falutin theory – but on actionable ideas that can be implemented immediately at your gaming table.
We will focus on these topics:
- Characters don’t exist – We can only affect actions and feelings through the players, and not the characters, and this simple understanding can take us very far.
- There is no GM – At the core of the gaming experience there are only “Guiding actions”, actions that powerfully affect the game’s experience for some or all players, and a GM is basically a designation given to the person we expect to use them, but she’s not the only one doing so.
- The game doesn’t have a story – The concepts of story, narrative and plot as we usually perceive them do not really apply to the core activity of tabletop games, requiring a new paradigm.
Before we begin, one important thing: in this series, we will not give a lot of attention to definitions. We could spend thousands of words arguing about edge cases and exact phrasing – and we have, in Hebrew. Here we present our best ideas, in a way that should allow you to try and implement them immediately.
The weird case of the Shoggoth and the Coke
The PCs are walking into an abandoned house. It’s dark and silent. Then, suddenly, something comes out of the shadows! A giant, alien monster, made of black slime, with innumerable floating eyes.
And around the table, the players are laughing and passing around the pizza. One of them, her mouth full of pizza, says “Oh, it’s a shoggoth.” The GM looks pleadingly at the players, and eventually one of them blurts out “my character shrieks in horror,” and another adds, “yeah, my character is scared speechless, could you pass the coke?” It takes less than a minute for one player to announce “I’m attacking the shoggoth!” referencing an old D&D skit.
Most GMs would not be happy with this scene. The game is supposed to be scary, yet everyone is laughing. The players put in a token effort to make their characters act frightened, but no one looking at the game table would even think this is a horror game.
Let’s look at another example. If you’ve ever had a long-running D&D campaign, you probably encountered the following weird juxtaposition: high-level characters, when encountering a huge, deadly dragon for the first time in their lives, are thrilled to rush into combat, no questions asked; yet those same renowned heroes become scared to their bones when a Rust Monster runs into the room. This small monster, with only 27 hit points and a challenge rating of ½, can cause even a group of 5th or 10th level characters to stop in their tracks and ask themselves if entering combat is really necessary. Although there’s absolutely no chance for the characters to die – they are more scared than when they’re facing a deadly threat.
Why do these things happen?
It’s because the characters don’t exist. They are figments of our imaginations. The characters can’t make decisions because the players make decisions as them. They can’t have thoughts and feelings of their own, because those are just thoughts or feelings the players have about the characters. And the characters don’t act, because everything and anything a character does is dictated by the players’ actions.
When the players around the table are laughing, drinking beer and eating pizza, we will never have truly scared characters. The players will act based on how they are feeling, which is happy and relaxed. When these players encounter a scary dragon, they might be able to portray their characters’ fear of dying, but this can feel hollow, because their decisions regarding that dragon will probably be dictated by tactical considerations, not driven by actual fear. However, when the players feel that the pieces of equipment they received as rewards for many hours of game time, and provide them with useful and important bonuses and abilities, and aren’t usually in danger of being taken from them are suddenly at risk from a giant bug that destroys metal, they’ll experience a level of dread that their tough characters are unlikely to actually feel.
When we’re running a game, we can only affect the players, and therefore we should plan our game accordingly. We can’t scare a character when the player is laughing and asking to pass the coke. We can’t make a character excited when the player is completely spent after a long day at work. We can’t make a player worried if the rules we’re using fill them with confidence. Anything and everything we do around the table – we do with players, and not with characters.
Some of these ideas are already prevalent in the GM advice of many games. For example, it is well known that for a horror game to actually be scary, it’s important to control the game’s physical environment (there’s some excellent advice in Engine Publishing’s Focal Point). Many of us learned that GMs shouldn’t tell players how their characters feel, partly because that violates the player’s autonomy, but also very much because it just doesn’t work.
How to use this
We suggest that this outlook is useful in many other cases, for example:
- Using players’ backgrounds: Knowing the players well can make it easier for us to influence their characters’ choices. For example, I once had a player who had a personal issue with authority figures – he didn’t get along with his bosses, didn’t like receiving orders, and so on. In many cases, when I wanted the characters to get themselves into trouble, I had some authority figure NPC tell that player’s character not to go somewhere. His character wasn’t the rebellious type, so my planning was not at all based on the character’s personality. Knowing the player, and how he’s expected to react, I was able to nudge his character, and the entire group, in some direction. I was acting on the player, and not his character.
- Running an engaging investigation: Focusing on the players has a dramatic impact on investigation games. When we imagine an investigation scene, it’s very clear what the investigators do: they look around, flip things over, search in various compartments, and so on. However, when we try to translate these actions into a roleplaying game, we find that while the characters are active, the players are just rolling dice. Some games have tried to solve this problem by getting rid of investigative dice rolls (GUMSHOE). Others have abstracted investigation to focus on the investigative questions rather than actions (investigative moves in PbtA games). But in general, when designing an investigation game, we have to ask ourselves what the players will be doing around the game table, and how to make that interesting. One possibility is rushing to the part where the players have all the clues in their possession, which transforms the game into puzzle-solving – figuring out how to fit pieces together. Another is the “scientific method” approach, in which players create hypotheses and test them until they find an acceptable solution. There are other options, but the main idea is to make sure that what the players do is interesting.
- Externalizing internal processes: Sometimes, your character experiences a huge revelation. Or, your character is repulsed by something. Or maybe she’s really suspicious of someone. But because characters don’t exist, and the game is after all a social interaction, these internal thoughts and feelings don’t really exist in the game unless you make them explicit in some way. Actions like describing that your character looks excited, or how she’s backing off from something and covering her mouth, or saying “I really don’t trust that NPC we just met”, are critical to make sure that what your character is going through actually becomes a part of the game.
To sum up: while in roleplaying games we usually invest a lot of time and effort in imaginary worlds, with characters who act and feel real, fundamentally the game happens around the table. It’s most useful for us, as designers and participants, to see it as a conversation between real people. When we’re trying to create some sort of effect in the game, we first have to create it around the table, with the real people sitting next to us. The characters don’t exist – so to make them do things and feel things, we have no choice but to go through the players. Many RPG designers start by asking “what do the characters do?”, as in, what is the fictional story going to be about. In our community, superstar GM Michael Gorodin puts the emphasis on what’s actually happening in the real world, with a common saying: “the most important question in a roleplaying game is, what do the players do?”.
(This article is a joint effort by a big group of Israeli RPG theory writers. It was graciously edited by the illustrious content editor Eran Aviram, with helpful comments from Michael Gorodin, Itamar Karbian, Yotam Ben Moshe, and Gil Ran.)