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[D&D 3.5] playing amongst the wargamers - advice wanted

Started by FredGarber, June 25, 2007, 05:43:43 PM

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I just discovered that my fellow player is really defined by her past playing wargames (Mechwarrior, Flames of War, Warhammer), so much so that in her mind, the "role" in "role-playing" seems to come across as "tactical job in the party," not "pretending and acting with emotions and reactions and stuff!"
How do I deal with this?

What Happened
We were gathered around the minatures, trying to figure out how to spring the obvious kobold trap, when N (-- our barbarian fighter) announces

"Well, I'm the tank, so I'll move right into this square here."
"Wait," I (the bard) say. "None of us are in position to cover you.
"What's going on?" asks our mage, back from a side discussion.  "Have we started?  Is this where people are standing?"
"No, I really move there."  says N.  "After all, if this one dies I'll just roll up another one."
GM: "OK.  Roll initiative."

This comment throws me, and then I flash back to a previous conversation.
Me: "N - what does your character look like?  I mean, what flavor of barbarian?  Viking Barbarian? Mongol Horde? Celtic? African Pigmy? Sioux? Bandito?"
<< I omit a discussion of whether 'barbarian' means 'outside of civilization' or 'noble savage' >>
N-'s answer: "Gee, Fred.  I don't really know.  I guess I said from the East, from the desert?"
GM: "So if she's from the desert, she's Semetic.  Dark hair, light clothing."
Me : "So she's sort of... I guess, kind of a Bedouin?"
N -- "Well, I never really thought about it." 

N has been playing the 'barbarian' as, in my mind, more of a 'fighter,' familiar with all the theory as well as the practice of her profession: When you should use a spear over a sword, the value of armor, etc.  I was assuming N's character  had this barbarian background history, and N was going to develop her character into a fighter, or maybe some other prestige class , and had a story arc in her head.  No!  It seems that as a tank, she was utilizing all the knowledge that the tank "obviously" must have.  She had very little idea about her PC as a character, instead of a collection of stats.

There seems to be no desire to create a character (low narrativist goals), and a great deal of desire to conquer the current tactical objective (high gamist goals).  I've played in other groups with more gamist players, but most of them, once they build their collection of stats, try and wrap a personality around it, even if it's "grizzled war veteran" or "l33t ninj4 a55a51n!", two personalities that are, shall we say, cliches?

GM's opinion.
"Well, I guess we all play different ways.  I mean, I'm not going to TPK the party unless you all do something stupid."

Is this a common phenomenom?  She was one of my players in another campaign, a GURPS time-travel campaign that collapsed when her "historian / paramedic" suddenly turned into a "commando" because, in her words "There was a threat to humanity. Keeping Donna's code vs. killing was just stupid, a weakness, at that point.  I paid the points to buy off the disadvantage, and did what you do when aliens threaten.  You kill all of them."

I was considering trying out some indie-games with my group (PtA, since we all watch TV, right?), but now I'm not so sure I can.  Can this gaming group be saved?  Can we find a sweet spot that lets me act out a character, and her plan on utilizing my powers & skills as a resource for overall party victory?

Andrew Cooper


Is the rest of the group having a problem with this player or is it more an issue with you?  That's not a judgement on my part.  I'm just curious.  In one of my D&D groups your powergamer wouldn't have a problem fitting in.  In others she'd be a little odd but as long as she wasn't disruptive in her quest for the best tactical advantage she'd be okay.

Sydney Freedberg

Hello, Fred. It's a good question to ask.

I'd be hesitant to throw any babies out with the bathwater, or to start applying GNS terms, which really ought to come with a warning label (for instance, elaborating the details of your character, in and of itself, is probably "simulationist"; you can play "narrativist" with very sketchy characters as long as you make hard decisions about them).

Setting aside the terminology, your friend "N" is definitely very into the hardcore "game" half of "roleplaying game," with the "roleplaying" aspect by contrast reduced to a thin veneer to make the tactical stuff a bit cooler, rather like playing with miniatures instead of cardboard counters. That's a totally valid way to play. It's just not the way you want to play; you want less crunch and more character, which is also totally valid. You may not be able to get it with N. or with this whole group of people. Then again, you may.

What's not working, clearly, is to try to nudge N. into more "exploration of character" (to go all theoryspeak on you) when she's in the middle of crunching her numbers to figure out the best tactical approach. "You can't sneak up on mode," goes the (relatively obscure) Forge saying. Arguably the best way to get a different experience of play is to start a different game -- maybe just a one-shot to start with -- by recruiting people with an explicit pitch of, "hey, I want to try something different, so let's play some [whatever], just as an experiment."

People may just say "no," of course, but don't underestimate their willingness to try something new until you've made the offer. In a game specifically designed to support and encourage more character development and less tactical precision, you might find that N is damned good at "pretending and acting with emotions and reactions and stuff," and she might finds she really likes it.

Callan S.

Well, she's playing to system. You guys are making up stuff that the system your using doesn't give a crud about. What system are you using? I'm guessing something like D&D.

I mean, whether she's semetic or bedouin, or applying some 'grizzled war veteran' concept - that doesn't come into the system as much as your playing pieces sexual preference in monopoly.

She might do very well in some indie games, as they usually ask for certain character traits AND make them relevant in terms of system. In fact you might worry about the other players in an indie game - I've seen a few accounts where people who are used to ignoring written system, just start making up random character traits in indie game play, and don't actually play the indie game, even though it was there waiting to give certain traits and qualties absolute firepower in the game.
Philosopher Gamer


OK.  I've gotten some good feedback so far, and the answer is: maybe N is playing to system, and if confronted with a different system might react differently.  That's good to know.  But if more people want to chime in, that's OK too.

In response to some of your questions (in no particular order)
* The system is D&D, but the gaming group grew out of our fiction writing group, so I KNOW all of us at the table can understand 'character growth/development', 'story arcs,' and 'protagonization,' as well as other non-tactical concepts.
* There's five of us total, and we're a dangerously interpersonal group of gamers : D&D group is the DM F---- (N---'s Brother-in-law), N---, Fred (me), and H------- (my wife).  The group I was the GM for was me, H---, N----, and T---- (N's spouse).  It means that, unfortunately, if any two people have a major conflict, it's better to disband all of us, and stay friends.
* It's not that N's style and mine are SO incompatible, but I haven't ever met a gamer who didn't care if their own character lived or died, or hadn't (by level 2) thought about what their character looked like.  It was like meeting a gamer who said "Mountain Dew? Pizza? Never heard of them before."

I was going to try PtA, but during our writing group I found that except for CNN and the Daily Show, N hasn't watched TV in about two years.
Since we all like Science Fiction, I was going to try Shock, but I want to sound N---- out on the authors that inspire it.

Sydney Freedberg

I've had great results with Clinton Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday -- a free version's online and well worth checking out.


Let the character develop through gaming. Just go with it and see how it comes out. Put in RP obstacles for the characters to develop.


Well, to begin with, you can perfectly well have deep and developed characters in D&D. Although the system is focused on gamism, it is not Warhammer. The thing is, the system doesn't encourage the players to do so, it is all up to them and the GM. So, you can have good and deep roleplay in D&D - I had in my gaming group, for instance. But to have that, the players need to be capable of doing so.

If N does what he does and gets away with it, it obviously means the GM lets him do so. It doesn't bother the GM all that much.
And in my opinion, the problem is that you need to settle on what exactly type of game you want. In my experience, D&D can be taken into many directions. You can play a game all about killing orcs and having lots of cool action without putting much thought into it, or you can have a game with deep characters, lots of thinking and not so many fights. Apparently, you aren't settled on what you want to do. N thinks the style of the game is something one, while you think the style of the game is something else. You should all (the entire group plus the GM) talk together and decide where you want the game to go. If you decide you want a game which is all about tactics and fights, so be it. If you decide you want a game which is more about roleplay and being in-character, so be it.
However, you must understand that not everyone is good at doing everything or enjoys doing everything. Perhaps N simply doesn't enjoy playing in-character much, and he probably isn't really good with it either - and that's ok too, in the correct gaming group.

So, granted, other systems may assist him in doing so, but will he enjoy playing these systems?


I think its definitely Worth A Try, although I would start with something rather more conventional, like Vampire or one of its spawn.  Anything in which character definition provides significant mechanical effects.  Most types of D&D are IMO terrible for all aspects of this, right from the fact that everyone speaks common and uses the same currency upwards.  The only likely result of specifying where you came from is that the GM will try to nobble you with some cultural practice or obligation; best if its far away and unknown, better yet if its totally unknown.  It would be interesting to see how N. reacts to games in which the first question of character creation an important "who are you", rather than "what party job will you fill?".  You might find she completely flips over and starts quoting chapter and verse out of the sourcebooks, I have seen it happen.  This still won't be Narr. play but it will be less jarring and more useful.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


The Shadow of Yesterday is an excellent game for many reasons, and here's one of them: you cannot play the game without serious character development, yet there's definitely ways you can "max out" your character in a power-gamey sort of way.

Also: you don't need to watch TV to enjoy Primetime Adventures.  I barely watch TV at all, and had a great time with it.


Hey. I can sympathise with your predicament. I ran D&D a few months ago, and I found my players were generally more comfortable slotting into a 'tactical miniatures wargame' style than a 'play your character and we'll see what happens' style. The problem is, I tend to DM the latter style a lot more, and the previous one a lot less. I'm a total 'if it isn't right for your character to die, you won't' kind of DM, even in D&D. I had one player, whose wizard 2 / ranger 1 had got hosed in the previous session (through a total party stupidity situation) roll up a human fighter 1 / ranger 1 / barbarian 1 character. No backstory, no attempt to justify his class choice. He did come up with a name, after being badgered about it for some time.

But more generally, the rest of the group didn't really get involved in roleplaying anything. There was a lot of "Well, we should go back into town and buy some rope, in case we need to explore that pit," and "I stand back and let the fighter with more hit points advance," kind of roleplaying. Kinda typical D&D, but I really wanted to get the rest of them more on board, and to get this one player to at least see his character as, well, a character.

Here's what I did

Start of one session, I gave them five minutes, where I asked them to right down 5 'aspects' about their character. They were just sentences describing them, and could be anything about the character, but they couldn't be just words (so you couldn't just write 'elf', but you could right 'raised by his elven parents in the shadow marches'). The experience itself was interesting. Most of the players ran with it, some making up pretty cool background hooks for their characters once they realised they could write down anything. The player in question took ages with it, and for a moment I thought I might have to call time on the idea and leave it, but eventually he came up with four (not five, I let him get away with that) aspects. Most of them were bordering on the bleedin' obvious ('enjoys learning different fighting styles," and "uses a spiked chain in combat,") but the effect on play was noticable.

I ended up running a 'between adventures' style of session (they had to travel across the wilderness). And all I used was the MM and the random encounter table for the swamp they were travelling in. And the session was great. A random encounter with a giant spider led to all of the players trying to introduce their aspects, which meant more roleplaying and less tactics, and them setting up camp in an abandoned farm house became an exercise in 'proper roleplaying' rather than a tactical discussion of points of watch.

Sorry for the length of this post. It's just, it worked for me. And if I ever need a (close to) zero-prep session for a D&D game in the future, I'll try this. It felt like, instead of it being a journey that the players had to get through to reach the dungeon, this was their chance to talk about their PCs and bring their backgrounds to the fore. Kinda like Priming WGP: aspects.

Callan S.

Hi Millsy,

What could the aspects they wrote down actually do in game?
Philosopher Gamer


Hi Callan

Here's the kicker; absolutely nothing. I didn't even give extra XP. They had no system effect whatsoever. Now, they did change what happened, because they changed the way the players ran their characters. Because the paladin had "always cautious in unknown areas" as one of his aspects it meant that when they found an abandoned barn to sleep in he searched all round the area before entering the place. I didn't give him any bonuses on his Search rolls, it just meant he definitely took a search roll, and he was doing it because of his PC's personality, not because he thought the DM would hose him with traps.

I guess I was deliberately shying away from any kind of game efffect; I wanted to address players who, while not being power-gamers, were more concerned with the system than either the story or their characters, and so I didn't want to put any more system on to it. I was concerned that if I gave some sort of bonus, I was going to get "never surprised" and "knows a lot about geography" from players eager to dig up bonuses. As it happened, I still got those kind of aspects, but they were played as character traits and made an issue of, rather than adding a bonus to a dice. There was still a big game effect from having the players try to play their five aspects. And it was an efficient use of five minutes of game time to improve the rest of the session, making them do it.

One other observation I forgot to mention: the player who found the exercise really difficult has been playing RPGs for, as far as I can estimate, well over 20 years. We had a 14 year old in the group who's been playing less than a year, and had never played D&D 3.5 before, and he had his aspects written down almost before I'd finished explaining the ideas. And they were good, juicy, useful aspects. Just goes to show.

Andrew Cooper


That's cool.  I find it extremely interesting that it worked out that way for you.  When I tried to do essentially the same kind of thing with my group they just ignored the "aspects".  Since it didn't affect the mechanical part of the game in any way, they just didn't care.  It's neat to see what works with some groups and doesn't with others.

Callan S.

Hi Millsy,

I'd say it does have a mechanical effect and that is "Talking about your aspects IS part of the game, it wont be a distraction from the game". Like if you play chess, you don't shout and scream while the other person has their turn - that's an important mechanic. Here its the other way around - talking about and getting into your aspects IS part of the game.

I'm just noting it that way because you can see that if it's doing this, it's doing nothing to generate the excitement about the aspects - it's just a flag waved to show that if they have excitement, to pour it out cause that IS part of the game. And they did, except for the gamer you mention, who I'd estimate from what you've said, has no excitement about that.

In other words, mechanics can only create opportunity, mechanics can't create the urge to use an opportunity.
Philosopher Gamer