Wednesday, July 28, 2010

PC Homicide (PvP in RPGs)

Enough acronyms for you? I was reading the latest two posts over at Temple of the Demogorgon about intra-party homicide. Getting killed by another player is a pretty humiliating experience, and I've been in such a situation during game before. It isn't pleasant, generally, and it usually happens with players that have a very problematic level of insecurity in their daily lives.

To quote Brunomac, "I think ___ is one of these spaztastics who live out their dreams of power and violence in games, because they are nothing in real life. Powerless, you know? So games give them an outlet, and as I have seen so many times in my decades, they often take their jollies out on other people."

He hit the nail right on the head.

It didn't happen so much in college or high school. We were all nerds and we got along really well. Even if we didn't get along, it was usually pretty cordial. Having grown up in the Time Before Nerds Were Cool (or at least before we were accorded a degree of mainstream legitimacy), we all basically had a "stick together" mentality, that meant that in The Society for Creative Endeavors at my college (the name of our club), we were less of an organization and more of a large, extended family full of people from all sexes, orientations, races, religions, and creeds with one big thing in common--we were nerds. We got good grades, had somewhat eccentric personalities, could recite every line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Return of the Jedi, Army of Darkness, and Transformers: The Movie.

Intra-party conflicts only really occurred when our characters' personalities literally clashed. It was usually resolved through role-playing the characters out well, and a great example is how two friends in my Dark Sun campaign managed to overcome their diametrically opposed character concepts. Their characters became friends in game. And often, when our characters became friends in game, we became friends out-of-game and in real life.

Which brings me to a little place called Newark, DE, where I went to graduate school.


Newark, DE, has an enormous gaming community, but it is deeply infused with politics. It is the exact opposite of my college experience. Basically, the Newark gaming community is based around a store called The Days of Knights, which is actually a really cool place. However, the community really seemed to take shape in the early aughts when they ran a huge Vampire: The Masquerade LARP using Mind's Eye Theater rules. This seemed to have a catastrophic effect in shaping gamer society in Newark.

In effect, the gamers became incredibly insular, and the politics very much took the shape of the Vampire: The Masquerade world in real life. Status and influence were brokered. If you were low-man on the totem-pole, you literally got screwed by GMs and players until you managed to work your way up and acquire more status. Ingratiating yourself, licking boots, doing favors, all of these were more important than playing well.

Needless to say, I didn't game with these people for very long. Indeed, I stopped gaming except sporadically, and have never again been very comfortable playing with strangers (much like Brunomac seems to feel). Since the most fun I've ever had was playing with (and running for) parties in which we were all close friends (both in-game and in real life), I've never felt entirely comfortable playing in groups with people I don't know intimately well. I can't take competitive gaming because I guess my experience in Newark, DE was so bad.

To me, the hobby is meant to bring people together and cement bonds of friendship, but when it becomes an issue of superiority or seniority, or one player seems to dominate all of the others, I rapidly lose interest. I come to not only immerse myself in a world, but also a character. And I not only want to immerse myself, but to share that immersion with a select group of people to whom I feel close and whom I trust.

This makes finding new groups tough for me. If I don't fully trust a group of players, I have difficulty really letting myself go in game. So when a player starts behaving aggressively, or intra-party conflict begins to dominate PC interaction, I start to get unsettled. When a character I've spent months playing (and perhaps hours rolling up) ends up dead because he was killed in cold-blood by another player, I feel betrayed, both in game and in real life. That person showed a disregard for the time, effort, and emotional investment I put into my character. It might just be a game, but you don't put that much investment into Monopoly. If I lose at Monopoly or Risk, so what? We're supposed to compete. But in a role-playing game, unless it is a particularly byzantine Vampire chronicle, really has no business being that treacherous. The offending player has, to me, broken an unspoken social contract and has trivialized his fellow player. That's disrespectful, even out-of-game.

Now, there can be exceptions, and if the players agree that their characters can never co-exist in the same party and basically shake hands and say, "The best man win," it's fine. But that's rare. Usually, one character strikes out on his own, and the player rolls up a new character. The feelings of all players are preserved, and the old character is still around so he can be taken up again in another campaign, or perhaps return later.

In college, if a player turned out to be homicidal, he usually needed "re-education." That usually resulted in his character getting ditched. Such disciplinary measures were even taken for exceptionally annoying party members (we're talking exceptionally annoying). Once, we cast darkness, 30' radius on a character's room at an inn, and left him there to think it was still night. By the time he awoke and the spell had worn off, we'd been gone for hours, leaving him stranded with enough money and gear to survive. The player was annoyed, but we were clear--this is how we roll, you're welcome to play, but we want cohesive parties.

Graduate school and Newark, DE, were unlike that. Exceptionally annoying characters that could survive were lauded. PKing was lauded (if you got away with it). GMs could be purchased. Influence could be peddled. The GMs "friends" would get all sorts of in-game perks while "newbies" (regardless of how much experience they'd had outside of Newark) got the short end of the stick constantly. If a well-known, "cool" player killed your character, there was nothing to do about it but take it. Even if you were to have a more powerful character, the GM would find ways to screw you over in favor of the "higher status" player.

In competitive tournament play, though, my college groups, being comprised of like-minded individuals who worked well together as a team would most certainly perform better (before an impartial referee) than the Newark crowd. They, or a large part of them (not all), were always too busy competing with one another, living out twisted fantasies in which they were important instead of mediocrities with menial jobs, people who had given up on trying to be successful at anything beyond the world of "make-believe with dice." Some of them were really cool people, but the overwhelming social pressure and cliquishness just really turned many gamers off.

Me, I had a Masters' Degree to get and a thesis to write, so I hung up my dice-bag for a long time.

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