Player Investment and the Unfamiliar 12

For the past several weeks, I’ve been involved in relatively frequent conversations on a related set of topics with Kainenchen, Samhaine, the Wombat Warlord, and this guy. This got started as a result of talking about the theoretical setting in which the veytikka and the beruch dwell. From the start, I had imagined it including humans, and honestly have a hard time getting my brain around a setting that doesn’t include any humans. Kainenchen objected strongly, and favored the idea of a setting (not necessarily this setting, but some theoretical setting) with no humans. We went around and around about why humans are or are not necessary for a setting, and brought the topic up around the above listed gentlemen of note. For the record, I’m now more interested in the player psychology of the whole thing than the anything else about it. I will attempt to represent the views of others in as impartial a light as possible, despite holding the opposite view myself.

For starters, I asserted that humans are a helpful touchstone for players new to the setting. If everything else is going to be strange (not even any other been-done-before fantasy races), having humanity as a clear point of familiarity is useful for making the setting still feel approachable. Kainenchen countered that a setting without humans would establish its own baseline of normalcy that could be (here I’m presuming K’s motives) a purer fantasy. It’s tied up in some rather thorny conversations about otherness that are… materially different if one has grown up as a straight white Anglo-Saxon (okay, I’m actually mostly Norman, I think) Protestant male. I’m going to tear this post away from the issues of race and otherness that this whole line of conversation leads to, though, because… well, I can’t speak about it in a remotely educated way, and I would rather not embarrass myself further on the internet. Fortunately, K has not decided I am a terrible person as a result of these conversations.

Moving along. So you have a setting in which there’s a lot of new, weird stuff, plus humans; or you have a setting in which there is a lot of new, weird stuff full stop. Samhaine approached the question as a GM, noting that getting players to read enough background material to make this feasible has been a challenge in the past. Some percentage of the overall player populace are simply disinterested in engaging with whatever idea the GM wants to put into the world, whether it’s a new kind of magic or a new race.
I’m about to start rambling a lot more.

This connected nicely to a conversation with That Guy (passport photo linked above), which he approached from a PC and GM perspective, and further from a writer perspective. As a PC or GM, he’s strongly in favor of settings that don’t require him to read background material to get what’s going on. He’s going to ignore most of a setting’s published metaplot and fiddly details, and he doesn’t care to read a 400-page tome on the setting. As a writer, he has a solid track record for creating settings with reams of background material. To clarify, this is not criticism of my simian friend; I think this approach is pretty common, and that’s the point of this post. As a writer, you might be able to sell the GMs in your audience on your setting’s cool ideas, but a higher percentage of the player populace won’t care, and will roll their eyes when the GM starts talking about the cool ideas you’ve written into the setting.

This brings me to a countervailing opinion: this post by the Wombat Warlord. He’s addressing cultures that will presumably be human or one of the more standard fantasy races, and railing against the cliches. Now, it makes a difference that WW is (I think) addressing video games more than any other medium, while the rest of this conversation has been about tabletop games. The list of common cultures he lists bites a bit close to home for me; jumping over to LARPing, I think we all felt KG was exploring new ground when they introduced a Mongolian culture, to say nothing of having several cultures that weren’t from the British Isles (note: this is not a shot at any other LARP). But WW wants something still more off-the-beaten-path, and (because we discussed this last night) explicitly does not regard the familiarity of humans as necessary.

Briefly, I want to point out that LARP cultures and races get much deeper player investment than any tabletop game I’ve played. The main reason for this is the difference between 36 nearly-uninterrupted hours, six weekends out of the year, as that race or culture, as opposed to anywhere from 2-8 hours as that race or culture every couple of weeks. My crowd of LARPers (obviously the finest on God’s earth, ahem) also put time into making culturally appropriate foods and costuming, and bringing out the really fun, unexpected details of their culture in conversation, or in reaction to events. Only the last of these is remotely feasible in tabletop settings, and obviously none of it works in video games. (Players of veytikka: Please do not bring roadkill.)

Anyway, my whole point here is wondering out loud whether the majority of tabletop players have a mentality such that they want to “plug and play,” or whether a reasonable portion of players are willing to read a couple of pages establishing the general nature of their race and/or culture. If they are, does that enrich their gameplay, or is it wasted effort? In thinking about games I’ve played and run, the best for getting me to think like someone of my character’s culture was Pendragon; the other characters and the GM gave me enough to play off of that I really felt Roman, for values of Roman that are all in my head and may be disconnected from other people’s perceptions. I’ve also known players who were geniuses of subtle roleplay to highlight aspects of their culture. The long-running AE campaign requires more investment into racial politics in the Diamond Throne than I think most of us ever expected, and while it has sometimes been stressful to play, I think the GM has carried that off very well. (The fact that this game has been running for, um, seven years helps.)

These things have meaningfully deepened my investment in both the character and the game. I can enjoy games without these things – they aren’t the reason that I play – but they help. But judging by Samhaine’s and That Guy’s experiences, it’s a serious uphill struggle to get players to the point of even thinking in those terms. I can’t help but regard it as a goal, when I think about what I want to accomplish as a GM in a tabletop game. There are also players who are looking for more exotic cultures and cultural mixes, specifically hoping to escape the familiar. Obviously, these divergent player desires won’t coexist well unless there is something readily familiar. The closest I could come to satisfying all of these conditions would be to have, say, dwarves, veytikka, and beruch, and… I’m just not sure if that appeals to me. Among other things, I’d have to change a lot of the normal-for-dwarves assumptions to get the images right, because carrion-eaters in underground cities seems… I dunno, just not the right setup.

Obviously, I’m not saying that the players seeking the comfort of the familiar are playing the game wrong. The players looking for something exotic are fine too. I’d like to write a setting in such a way that the elevator-pitch version of any particular aspect was enough to get the former group interested, because if I write a new idea into a setting I probably do think it’s pretty cool. I think there are tendencies, admittedly, among the broader group of the former type of player to regard the game as nothing more than tacking better stats and loots onto their dude, and that does bother me – chiefly, unwillingness to engage with the world or the story can leave me as a GM with a feeling of “why am I bothering?” This brings up the point of how much, if any, effort is reasonable to expect from the players, since games that have GMs expect variously huge amounts of effort from those GMs – why wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect more from players than just showing up on game day?

All right, I’m going to leave off here for now. It’s time to stop rambling; there’s work to be done. (So they gave me a tin hat…) I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

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12 thoughts on “Player Investment and the Unfamiliar

  • samhaine

    Somewhat tangential to your post, you reminded me that I'd like to see a setting with humans where humans aren't the baseline.

    What does it mean if humans get a sensory bonus compared to all your fantasy or alien races? Physical bonuses? Are we the only ones that can access certain forms of creativity? Can you actually say something interesting about being human if humans aren't vanilla, second-place-at-best for all areas of exploration?

    So, more to your point, I'd suggest the problem isn't necessarily getting people to buy into a setting where there are lots of fantasy races and no humans. We already regularly buy into settings where there are lots of fantasy races PLUS humans. The problem is that in most settings humans are a de facto reference point that taints other play.

    Elves are humans that like nature and are really agile and good at magic. Dwarves are humans that live underground and are very hearty.

    If some key feature of being human that we take for granted every day became a feature that advantaged us over the fictional races in some way, maybe that might lead to a more interesting take on getting into character across the board.

  • Shieldhaven

    Now that you point it out, the treatment of humans as the most mediocre at everything does bug me, and I'd like to see a game where human levels of perception weren't the worst of all available races aside from, I dunno, molemen or something (and they'd probably still get tremorsense).

  • Wendy

    "[…] why wouldn't it be reasonable to expect more from players than just showing up on game day?"

    Philosophy: A game's reason for being is to be played. Anything that takes time away from playing (even reading the game itself) gets in the way of that reason for being. If one player can invest time understanding a world, but then a whole group can play without comparable effort, that's a more *efficient* game than one asking all its players to read hundreds of pages of text.

    Learning Style: Some people learn better by playing than by reading. I think boardgame groups are a great example of the learn-by-playing culture in action.

    Centrality of Play: For some folks, playing games is a central part of what they do for fun and work and how they see themselves. Yes, having a group willing to invest in learning about that is a great thing, but there are many great things in the world. When you ask that kind of investment from players, they're giving something else up to accede to your request.

    Psychology: I've found that if I work with what people want to do rather than with what they ought to do, I get a much better result. In other words, it might be more helpful to ask, "how can I get players to want to do more than just show up on game day?"

  • Shieldhaven


    On philosophy, I agree that asking players to read hundreds of pages of text is not so good; frankly, as a GM, once a setting is in the third hundred of pages, my interest is threatened, and by the fifth hundred, it had better be text I can skim at my leisure, but don't need to have read in order to run the setting comfortably (but yes, I own more than a thousand pages of text on the Forgotten Realms -don't judge me). I agree, then, that hundreds of pages is too much to ask players to read, but I think that there is a reasonable number of pages that might be in the low double digits, especially if it's something players don't need to read for the first session, but should kind of get to know over time (but outside the actual span of a session).

    A game's reason for being is to be played, but it is the nature of tabletop games that one can only actually play them a very small portion of the time – once a week, or every other week, or once a month, perhaps. If the GM is going to spend X time preparing, is it reasonable to hope that players would spend .1X on something that relates to and improves the group's gameplay experience?

    On learning style, I suppose an argument that the players are only capable of learning the setting by playing does mean there's no way for them to invest any more in the setting than what they can do at the table.

    On centrality of play, I would note that the GM is giving up time as well, and I don't think that midpoint implied by "meeting the GM halfway" is necessarily just showing up with a character sheet. I may be wrong about all of this, and it's clear enough that you disagree with an approach that would take up a player's time away from the table.

    On psychology, that's a fair question; what do you suggest as viable answers?

  • samhaine


    There are styles of play where a GM spends a lot of time on prep/worldbuilding and players spend a lot of time on downtime/world-understanding. And there are styles where the GM preps heavily but the player's aren't expected to do anything but show up. There are even styles where everyone just shows up, and puts together what they can in the moment.

    But is there a way to run a game where the players spend more time on between-game activity than does the GM?

  • Shieldhaven


    The first thing that comes to mind there as a possibility is a heist-style game, in which the GM establishes the target and defenses in one session, and everything thereafter is players plotting their attack. Once players actually got to the game, they'd carry out any in-character physical preparation (such as having their characters buy supplies or manipulate peripheral NPCs), and then begin the actual execution of the plan. After that initial setup (assuming a multi-session arc for a single heist), all the GM has to do is react within the rules of the game and let the chips fall as they may.

    A West Marches style of game could involve unusually extensive player-side planning, but West Marches as described sounds pretty seriously intensive on GM labor, so I doubt that the player effort would significantly outstrip GM effort. (But I do maintain that everyone's experience of the game could be markedly improved by even some of the players investing some additional energy.)

  • Kainenchen

    So, while my feelings on the conversation are pretty accurately represented here, I'll confess there are some things that I hadn't thought of in terms of addressing the problem of player investment specifically. On that note, there's two layers– the actual level of departure from the familiar, and the manner of execution. Familiar games can be boring, but it's not _generally_ said that you can't run a game because it's "too common," even if it is.

    More likely, you'll hear, "Dear god, no Elves!" Which is another subject entirely.

    Anyway, you can sell the familiar badly, and you can sell the unfamiliar well. Also, there's different levels of unfamiliarity. Offering up a set of different races and forbidding the common (Human in particular, but Elf, Dwarf, Halfling et al maybe also) is less jarring if you're not also acclimating players to a new system, but running them in nice, familiar D&D, of whatever edition you prefer. On the other hand, if running a brand spankin' new system with a lot of fiddly new rules, confining the character choices to something more comfortable seems more important to me, and closer to necessity.

    I further agree that treating humans as the "most mediocre at everything," as you put it, also bugs me. Humans Are Weird Here is a story trope that doesn't really get rules-parsed in games much, and we accept versatility as a human trait as much as we tend to deny versatility to other races in rules design. Hence why I was sort of tempted to run a game where all the races had the human stat bonuses, their racial abilities, and maybe writing up some racial feats for humans that were specific to whatever setting I used for said game.

  • Wendy

    To answer your question, my friend, I'm not a psychologist, but this guy is, and he seems to have some useful ideas.

    And, just so you know, this was a thought exercise, not a manifesto. I'm not the Paine of the gaming world, no matter what my GMs might tell you. 😉

    I do think that there have to be reasonable explanations for what you're calling the "plug and play" mentality — and, also, reasonable ways to engage those players in what you, as a GM, see as a better game.

    It's also fair to say that I think "expectation" has limited usefulness as a strategy for user engagement. Your Mileage May Vary. 🙂

  • Shieldhaven


    I fear that I stated my position more strongly than intended in my original post and in my comments thereafter. I agree that it would probably be more productive to approach the question of player investment in a setting from a different angle. A lot of different issues got tangled up together in this post, but it all started with "how much unfamiliarity is right for a setting?" and became "how can I get players to accept more weirdness?" and, later, "why does it seem like GMs and players are perpetually on different wavelengths?" These questions have a heightened relevance for me, given that my current game is probably ending and being replaced with something new.

  • Wombat Warlord

    "How can I get players to accept more weirdness?" is a thing that I would use the Planescape setting as a very notable means of answering the question. In essence, the players can come from any myriad number of cultures, walks of life, and professions that the GM feels up to including, but then the furthering of the game itself (exploration, fighting, plot advancement) takes place in a decidedly alien environment.

    This gives the GM the ability to interject their own "stuff" as part of the setting without needing to write gobs of background setting material that the players either a) won't read or b) don't care about aside from a brief vignette.

    Somewhat more terrestrially, a setting could have more familiar places and races and cultures, but have their safety zone impressed upon or threatened by the outer world, which is far more dangerous and strange than the commoner in said setting is willing to accept or capable of understanding.

    In my original post that you linked, I did mostly mean video game environments when I referred to the tired recycling of familiar cultures. You can get players more invested or interested merely by giving them an actual visual demonstration which can be presented with brevity (and professional voice acting, mind you; I'll care more about something if it's James Earl Jones talking about it). However, tabletop settings do have an edge in this situation; you can give players the familiar as a starting point, and branch out into weirdness at a far more measured pace than the fast-food-style gaming available to us on consoles and computers.

  • Kainenchen

    Come to think of it, I think that Colin's Planescape game is the only game we're in where there are no PCs playing humans. Which is interesting, since it's the largest bunch of players.

    Oh wait, that's not necessarily true– Doug _might_ have been playing a human wizard, but I don't recall. Still, he was one of the last to the table.

  • Mike Lemmer

    Cultural differences isn't something players can really work on by themselves away from the table, unless you want them to come up with something that feels tacked on instead of natural. As an example, if a player spends an hour away from the table figuring out how his race dances, then by God, he's gonna find a situation to showcase it with, even if it means doing the halfling polka around the campfire. Cultural differences are mainly reactive, and unless a player knows something will happen ahead of time, they need to be improvised. Therefore, most of the cultural fleshing out should happen on the spot during the game. This can be tricky.

    A few notes I've taken from my attempts to do so:

    1. Like any good improv, it does require some prep, thinking about various situations and how your PC would react to them. The GM can help this along by looking over a PC's background and pointing out parts he thinks their culture would throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Every culture finds a way to do something, but the way they go about it is interesting. Examples:
    -The relation of sports stadiums to ancient colliseums, and how our ethical system changed that type of entertainment from Roman blood sports to our regular sports. ("My PC's a gladiator!" "What if your society frowns upon needless bloodshed?" "Hmmm… could he be a sports champion instead? A wrestler or a fencer?")
    -Islam's guideline against painting living beings led to an emphasis on abstract art and calligraphy, in stark contrast to Christianity's numerous portrayals of prophets & holy figures as divine humans. ("My PC's an excellent painter!" "What if your religion forbids painting living beings?" "Well, hmm… could I go into calligraphy instead?")

    2. Improved reactions won't always be consistent. Unless your player writes down every quirk & habit he makes up, odds are he'll forget about some of them occasionally. Worst thing to do here is call him out on forgetting it, as that would reinforce it's better to put no effort into something, versus putting effort into it and flubbing up occasionally.