Power-Driving in Roleplaying Campaigns (or why I hate Exalted even more)

Okay, this post is about pen-and-paper roleplaying games but I’d like to start by using computer games to illustrate a point. Have you ever played one of those strategy based games that involves building a base, collecting resources, expanding technology while battling an enemy? Like Starcraft, Command and Conquer, Rise of Nations, etc. etc. Would these games keep your interest for long if you were the only player and all you did was build? (Right now I know some of you are shouting SimCity at me… but I’m trying to illustrate a point about roleplaying so kept with me for a few more sentences).

I feel like I’m caught in a conundrum here. On one side, players should drive the story and GMs (Game Masters) should not railroad players. On the other side, GMs should be providing a good game and therefore should be driving the players if needs be. Delicate balance.

My current GM gave off recently that not all the players have given character backgrounds (see here for my opinion of character backgrounds) and because of that the characters who had given backgrounds were getting all the lime-light. That pissed me off. — Before I speak further about our current game, I have to be honest. We’re playing White Wolf’s Exalted. “So?” you cry. Well, I think Exalted sucks! Crappy combat system and boring setting. Also the GM and myself disagree fundamentally about roleplaying, what’s important, wants not, etc. He’s dogmatic and, dare I say, conservative? I want to try different things (for better or for worse). I guess I should stop here. I mean, surely anything I say now is biased? Yea probably. But I committed to it 100% (I think). Heck, I enjoyed D&D not too long ago, so I’m sure I can find something I enjoy in Exalted, right? I like my character, like what he can do. The last thing I should mention as well is that I’m one of those awful player that doesn’t turn up to half the games but I have a damn good excuse: my wife, Sophie, is six months pregnant with our second child. I simply cannot make every game or even the majority this year. It’ll get better in time, just not right now. The group knows that and seem happy with it.

I did give a background. I even gave several options for how I could have been introduced to the group, numerous story hooks and goals for my character. That should be enough? The real problem the GM wanted to address is not about backgrounds. This is just some unconscious mis-direction. It’s about players driving the game. The two players who “gave backgrounds” have becoming a driving force in the game, meaning that the other players, including myself, are side-lined. Why are they a driving force? Well because they are building things. One is a captain who owns ships and the other powers-up on the occult side. Hopefully you’ll see why I used the computer games example at the beginning. These two players are building up power. When there is a slow in the action, these players fill it in with “I want to do X or Y”. While I just want to play. Am I a bad player? Looking back at my background, none of the motivations or goals were about gathering power. The GM never once brought in any element of my background into the setting. Now the game has gone on for a while, I can’t just say “right I’m going back to where I killed all those monks to see if the Dragon Blooded know?” That would be utterly “out of character” and counter to my own precious enjoyment of the game. (And yes you can argue too that I’m being sidelined because I can’t attend every game and that is a good reason, but then the GM shouldn’t go on about not giving backgrounds when I did and he ignored it!)

Perhaps it’s the nature of Exalted that’s at issue here. It’s a game where the players can get a lot of mechanical power from the system yet they must always hide it from the Dragon Blooded in the setting. This leads to the “building power” syndrome: gathering resources, making contacts, being secretive always, avoid using powers openly, etc. I guess I’m not driven by that kind of meta-gaming (is it meta-gaming?).

My characters goals and story hooks require the GM to use them. I gave a bit of angst and a dark side to my character’s lavish humour, he murdered his brother monks and fleed his monastery when he become an Exalted. The Dragon Bloods are on his trail. None of this has come up in the game. No hunters came looking for Riptal Verek. His face is not plastered on street corners. The problem, I guess, is that my character’s goals are not independent of the GM’s designs. I can’t drive the game without input from the GM. If he chooses to ignore my background (which he did) I’m nothing more than the comic side-kick to the power-gathers.

In a sense, the GM should be driving the chronicle to a degree (at least for a bit at the beginning) for my character to get involved. I want the GM to drive the game, to keep the pace up, rather than wait for me to act. But the GM is content to let the players drive it, which should be ideal… but it isn’t.

What’s happening is that the driving-players are engaged in world-building, just like in those computer games. They build and build and build. Then when the GM introduces some conflict, we battle. Then we recover and build again. It becomes a big strategy game. And, while I like the occasionally game of Starcraft, it’s no Wii and the fun value comes in diminishing-returns (the more I play it, the less I enjoy it, but the occasionaly one-off game is great time-killer).

I guess those big epic fantasy stories are in a sense “strategy games”, but they are interwoven with sub-plots that are purely character based. It’s like the model for this campaign is “world-building”. We expand the world, building on it, meant to be getting involved in it (but I’m not), but two of the players have got the big stakes. One of the other players is a thief, how do they fit in with this power-gathering drive? How does a thief gather power? Shouldn’t an Exalted thief live from escapade to escapade? That, in my mind, would be what makes a character a “thief” as opposed to someone who can just steal really well or is just a kleptomaniac. There are other models for campaigns (see here for one I’ve tried to develop).

There isn’t anything to conclude except to ask “am I making sense”? I probably not, but it makes me feel better to get that rant out of my system.

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