Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Tricky Act of Helpessness

The Tricky Act of Helplessness
by Tobie Abad

EDIT (05/17/2013): Thank you to Dan Noland for informing me of my title typo. Gosh, I feel so embarrassed for not noticing that sooner.

Many games out there have instances where the player is thrown in a state of being helpless.  For example, in White Wolf's Vampire (both Requiem or Masquerade) the Discipline of Dominate can force the player to declare unwanted actions as his player character's actions.  In Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons games, there are spells and enchantments that may force a player to portray their characters in a different way.  Across various game lines, there may be events or powers that force a character to lose their memories of a recent event, or make them black out and fail to grasp why something is happening.  And finally, there's always the plot-based sense of helplessness when the story has the characters dealing with things so immense and powerful that their hopes of taking control of the situation are as unlikely as the cast of Voyager being able to command Q to do something they want.

Yes, making a player feel helpless is one way to induce the feelings of horror and terror.
But when played out wrong, can simply make the game STOP BEING FUN.

So the tricky part of learning to balance the frustration with the drama is very important.  Because if the game isn't being fun for everyone, then it isn't going well.  Yes, it is fine to have players feel annoyed, irritated, terrified and frustrated for a scene or two.  But if the whole game has them feeling that way, then what you have is a game which most likely will be one where the players discuss when you're not around how frustrated they are starting to feel.

Here are some tips on approaching Helplessness without making the game Unfun.

1) Manage How Long It Lasts
Never let the feeling of helplessness last too long, or your players will start wondering why on Earth they are subjecting themselves to the game.   So the character is kept hostage by a bunch of lunatics.  They tie him up, duct tape his mouth, and throw sand in his eyes.  He's blinded, bound and in absolute pain.  The scene sets the situation, and clears how much the player has no control of the events.  That's fine.  That's a valid scene indeed.  But if two or three scenes later, the player is STILL in that same situation, the game stops being fun.  It "feels accurate" so to speak to a hostage situation, but again, that isn't quite a fun situation to be in, is it?

Physical captivity isn't even the only time this happens.  In some games, the GM might be too caught up with "the right course of action to take" that he ignores all the other options the player considers doing.  The player might be trapped in a nightmare as the enemy uses his ability to shape dreams against the hero, basically the player is fighting against someone with god-like abilties, and the GM might be thinking the solution to escape is for the player "to use the enemy's hang up over his parents against him" and keep the scenes going until the player thinks of it.  But sadly, that would mean scene after scene of frustration and annoyance.  Rather than the player having an "Aha!" moment, he will end up feeling "Darn it... finally.." as a response.

2) Never Confuse Helpless and Useless
Consider games where players actually do barely have a hope in the world:  Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and even My Life With Master.  These games place the players in a sad predicament: They face forces larger than they ever will be.  They force them to realize how small they are in the scope of things.  And yet, look how the games never make the players feel useless.
by Tegehel (Deviantart)

Players should never feel like they cannot do something that will matter.  They should never feel like their actions and efforts are pointless.  Seemingly pointless is fine.  But to actually feel like the whole session is one exercise in futility is no longer a game, it is a torture session designed as one.

Player characters are the stars of the story.  Not the non-playing cast.  Not the main villain.
They should always be able to do something that makes a difference.

3) Internal Consistency should be Present
If the feeling of helplessness exists due to say, an in-game mechanism like a rule against magic users, or say, a set of codified laws that are enforced upon the character, the player character should be able to use that existing set of rules to his advantage as well.    For example, a player playing a Paladin might feel helpless to fight against the high ranking individuals in his Temple, given his vow of loyalty towards them, but that same player should be able to find ways to throw the same set of rules at those individuals to his advantage.  Maybe he has noticed hints they are corrupted by an outside force and while his vows state he cannot directly question their commands, maybe the player can cite an obscure rule that allows him to request from them a Blessing before a Quest, effectively having them forced to show the use of "Good" magic as a test if they have been corrupted or not.

If you don't allow the player to make use of the very thing that prohibits him from doing other things, then all you are doing is throwing your weight around and giving your player a frustrating bad time.  Yes, we all know about the drama of Cuchulain being trapped by his vow not to eat dog meat, and not to refuse an offer of food.. but I don't think anyone would want to be playing THAT scene as the rest of their game session.  Or worse, as the chronicle of the character's story.

4) Finally, give the players a Pay Off that makes the effort worth it.
Maybe the character HAD to be imprisoned by the rival clan for three whole days, and undergo horrible tortures of both the body and mind.  Once he breaks free, give him his chance of revenge to beat up those who imprisoned him.  Maybe throw him information which he could have only garnered while in the prison, information which can change the advantage the enemy has had over the others all this time.   Whatever it is, make it feel like the crap he had to wade through was worth it.

If you don't, the player might decide the worst possible option instead:  That the game isn't worth it.
And you'll be left with an incomplete saga, and a game missing one player.
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