The Relevant Dickweed

One of the issues that’s puzzled me longest in roleplaying is how to provide socially functional opposition in a game. When is fictional murder, thievery, trickery, or hostility all good fun, and when is it “griefing” or bullying in real life? In other kinds of games this line is a lot clearer; players may argue over a foul in basketball but everyone has a clear expectation that yes, it’s your job to put the ball in the hoop and it’s my job to block your shot.

But in roleplaying games we’re telling stories. Some RPGs may have very clear opposing roles, like “It’s my job to try and kill you, and it’s your job to try and survive.” But where the storytelling goals are more subtle, things can get hazy.

Ron Edwards, co-founder of the Forge and author of cool games including Sorcerer and Trollbabe, was recently interviewed by Kevin Weiser for the Walking Eye podcast. At about the 30-minute mark of Part 2 (the interview is QUITE extensive, but worth it if you’ve got the stamina), he remarked, “There’s nothing wrong with playing the guy that I like to call the ‘dickweed character’, who’s causing trouble for the other characters all the way through. The best dickweed character in all of fantasy literature is Gollum. But the point is, is that that character is providing RELEVANT adversity.”

When I read that a puzzle piece slid into place regarding my relationship to other players in my gaming history, times when playing together was satisfying and times when it wasn’t. I recall, especially in my early days, many play experiences where someone’s character was a source of fictional grief, annoyance or pain, and it was also correspondingly exasperating to me as a player. Whether pranks and pestering or misery and murder, the fictional input just felt like a drain on my energy and attention, a distraction from what I actually wanted to do with my own character. Sometimes this seemed to stem from intentional dickery on the real-people level, but even where no malice was present it was a real drag.

So here is a huge key to why: was their antagonism relevant to my own input? Were they riffing off my character’s themes and giving me material to riff off theirs? Or were they just providing antagonism more or less at random, for their private pleasure irrespective of whatever I may be interested in myself?

Contrast with Eilidh, a character from the Celtic Viking Burning Wheel game I played. Taken as a concubine by Norsemen and shorn of the son birthed from that union, she was a cold-blooded and vengeful seductress, like Firefly’s Saffron but with murder in her heart. She left a swath of pain and misery through the village of Tiráth, killing, manipulating, using people up and throwing them away, but for the actual players she prompted not consternation but wicked grins and appreciation. This was because her grim antics were utterly relevant to the other protagonists’ struggles–to hot-blooded young Gabhrán her protector, sacrificing all peace and happiness in his folk to defend an honor that didn’t exist, and to the peacemaking prince Nuallán, also a Viking captive but treated well and with honor, consequently taking the Norse part in the quarrel, and losing his life thereby. Her actions actually invigorated play, drove it forward. Eilidh made Tiráth a hellish place…and we couldn’t have had the fulfilling and cherished game that we did without her and David her player.

Gollum’s opposite in literary antagonism would be something like the fellow on the right. He spends the first portion of the tale generally annoying the other characters and drawing their attention from what really matters to them, and later on makes a key decision, unwittingly, that helps plunge the Galaxy into tyranny and bloodshed. But when he does, it doesn’t feel like a fittingly grim turn of events, but rather an intrusion, a violation, of the story proper and its true protagonists. So the next time you’re tempted toward a little roleplaying dickweedery…perhaps ask yourself, is it invigorating, or just a drain?




10 Responses to “The Relevant Dickweed”

  1. 1 Matthijs
    April 16, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Playing Shock: really taught me how to make this fun.

  2. 2 Joel
    April 16, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Matthijs, cool! That certainly accords with my own experience of Shock:. Care to expand on any particular techniques and practices you’ve gleaned from that experience?

  3. 3 nemomeme
    April 17, 2010 at 8:09 am

    I think relevant adversity is key but expectations are at least as important towards whether another players’ character acting against yours is enjoyable or not. We’d all talked beforehand about the degree to which we wanted “PvP” in our Celtic Viking game and communicated that at least some amount of that was invited and expected. Burning Wheel is a good game for the inclusion of “dickweed” characters because they know exactly what buttons (Beliefs) to push to create relevant and interesting adversity. In this cause, Beliefs are “stab me in the face here” invitations.

    If that stuff isn’t discussed beforehand I think it’s not automatically wrong to assume at least some kernel of a problem on the player level, not “malice” certainly (too strong), but some social jockeying that is apart from the game. At least that’s my experience where adversity was unwelcome. It was unpleasant not because it was boring opposition, but because the player running Golem was being a bit of a dickweed.

    This is part of why “Flags” in all the forms they come in in various role-playing games are among my favorite components of a good game – their facilitation of player and GM expectations towards building an experience that all the participants will enjoy. I’d say even that it’s Burning Wheel’s saving grace as far as being a game for me, but that’s another topic.

  4. April 17, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    I think you’d want to check whether you enjoy playing some sort of opposition, or if you do so simply in a perfunctory, gotta do it for the games sake rather than because I actually enjoy doing it, way?

  5. 5 Joel
    April 18, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Matthew (Nemomeme): you quite rightly bring up two key issues–A) discussing the activity and being on the same page from the get-go, and B) making use of signaling techniques during gameplay to highlight the areas where you’d like opposition. For both, it seems like choice of game text plays a big role; just sitting down to say “let’s play Burning Wheel” says a lot up-front about characters with passionate beliefs getting all up in each other’s business!

    Capes is a game with an interesting take on signaling–players “fish” for interest in opposition by declaring explicit conflicts. If nobody’s interested, you’ll easily win the conflict, which is its own reward, but if others ARE interested in fighting hard over it, you can reap other rewards by losing, which will help you win the conflicts that YOU care about.

    It still requires everyone to be cool with jumping into the shark-tank, though. There’s no room for “this area of the fiction is important to me, and I’m NOT interested in fighting for it.”

  6. 6 Joel
    April 18, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Callan: Are you asking ME, personally, whether I enjoy playing (or receiving) opposition? In that case, yes, yes I do. I’m noting that there are times I’ve enjoyed it and times I haven’t, but through all those experiences the desire to have it happen AND be fun has been there.

  7. April 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Subjects like this – the desire to “weed” out the player-dicks while making the character-dicks more appreciated – are what ultimately led me to make one of my biggest “from this point forward” decisions as a career gm: all character secrets are laid out on the table. When I run games with heavy cross-table character interaction, I demand that all of the characters’ darkest, party-breaking secrets be laid bare for all the other players to know, unless a player has one damn good reason not to share this information.

    At first, most of my players were “say whaaaat? nononono” until they gave it a try. It really helped set up a collaborative secret-driving game, where players would actively encourage the “dick” characters to go wild, hoping to bring those secrets and darknesses into play and make more awesome things happen.

    On a related note, I notice that almost all of the gaming podcasts to which I subscribe sooner or later have an episode whose theme is: How to Take Care of “That Guy” in Your Game. I’ve yet to hear a good solid answer to that one other than “just talk to the guy,” which I don’t think is always the best immediate solution.

  8. 10 Annie
    April 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Now see, I’m giving a perfect example of how this is actually relevant to me in REAL life. I love griefing people–always have. The trick to “growing up,” was learning to negotiate unspoken agreements about the level of greifing the other person can riff off of and find enjoyable. Being able to do this was a developed skill that I didn’t used to have… pretty much all the way through my teen years. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to be the stinker; but when I’m out of touch with others and my own heart, I find myself doing it just to give myself kicks and laugh at my own jokes.

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