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Player Investment and the Unfamiliar

For the past several weeks, I've been involved in relatively frequent conversations on a related set of topics with Kainenchen, Samhaine, the Wombat Warlord, and this guy. This got started as a result of talking about the theoretical setting in which the veytikka and the beruch dwell. From the start, I had imagined it including humans, and honestly have a hard time getting my brain around a setting that doesn't include any humans. Kainenchen objected strongly, and favored the idea of a setting (not necessarily this setting, but some theoretical setting) with no humans. We went around and around about why humans are or are not necessary for a setting, and brought the topic up around the above listed gentlemen of note. For the record, I'm now more interested in the player psychology of the whole thing than the anything else about it. I will attempt to represent the views of others in as impartial a light as possible, despite holding the opposite view myself.

For starters, I asserted that humans are a helpful touchstone for players new to the setting. If everything else is going to be strange (not even any other been-done-before fantasy races), having humanity as a clear point of familiarity is useful for making the setting still feel approachable. Kainenchen countered that a setting without humans would establish its own baseline of normalcy that could be (here I'm presuming K's motives) a purer fantasy. It's tied up in some rather thorny conversations about otherness that are... materially different if one has grown up as a straight white Anglo-Saxon (okay, I'm actually mostly Norman, I think) Protestant male. I'm going to tear this post away from the issues of race and otherness that this whole line of conversation leads to, though, because... well, I can't speak about it in a remotely educated way, and I would rather not embarrass myself further on the internet. Fortunately, K has not decided I am a terrible person as a result of these conversations.

Moving along. So you have a setting in which there's a lot of new, weird stuff, plus humans; or you have a setting in which there is a lot of new, weird stuff full stop. Samhaine approached the question as a GM, noting that getting players to read enough background material to make this feasible has been a challenge in the past. Some percentage of the overall player populace are simply disinterested in engaging with whatever idea the GM wants to put into the world, whether it's a new kind of magic or a new race.

I'm about to start rambling a lot more.

This connected nicely to a conversation with That Guy (passport photo linked above), which he approached from a PC and GM perspective, and further from a writer perspective. As a PC or GM, he's strongly in favor of settings that don't require him to read background material to get what's going on. He's going to ignore most of a setting's published metaplot and fiddly details, and he doesn't care to read a 400-page tome on the setting. As a writer, he has a solid track record for creating settings with reams of background material. To clarify, this is not criticism of my simian friend; I think this approach is pretty common, and that's the point of this post. As a writer, you might be able to sell the GMs in your audience on your setting's cool ideas, but a higher percentage of the player populace won't care, and will roll their eyes when the GM starts talking about the cool ideas you've written into the setting.

This brings me to a countervailing opinion: this post by the Wombat Warlord. He's addressing cultures that will presumably be human or one of the more standard fantasy races, and railing against the cliches. Now, it makes a difference that WW is (I think) addressing video games more than any other medium, while the rest of this conversation has been about tabletop games. The list of common cultures he lists bites a bit close to home for me; jumping over to LARPing, I think we all felt KG was exploring new ground when they introduced a Mongolian culture, to say nothing of having several cultures that weren't from the British Isles (note: this is not a shot at any other LARP). But WW wants something still more off-the-beaten-path, and (because we discussed this last night) explicitly does not regard the familiarity of humans as necessary.

Briefly, I want to point out that LARP cultures and races get much deeper player investment than any tabletop game I've played. The main reason for this is the difference between 36 nearly-uninterrupted hours, six weekends out of the year, as that race or culture, as opposed to anywhere from 2-8 hours as that race or culture every couple of weeks. My crowd of LARPers (obviously the finest on God's earth, ahem) also put time into making culturally appropriate foods and costuming, and bringing out the really fun, unexpected details of their culture in conversation, or in reaction to events. Only the last of these is remotely feasible in tabletop settings, and obviously none of it works in video games. (Players of veytikka: Please do not bring roadkill.)

Anyway, my whole point here is wondering out loud whether the majority of tabletop players have a mentality such that they want to "plug and play," or whether a reasonable portion of players are willing to read a couple of pages establishing the general nature of their race and/or culture. If they are, does that enrich their gameplay, or is it wasted effort? In thinking about games I've played and run, the best for getting me to think like someone of my character's culture was Pendragon; the other characters and the GM gave me enough to play off of that I really felt Roman, for values of Roman that are all in my head and may be disconnected from other people's perceptions. I've also known players who were geniuses of subtle roleplay to highlight aspects of their culture. The long-running AE campaign requires more investment into racial politics in the Diamond Throne than I think most of us ever expected, and while it has sometimes been stressful to play, I think the GM has carried that off very well. (The fact that this game has been running for, um, seven years helps.)

These things have meaningfully deepened my investment in both the character and the game. I can enjoy games without these things - they aren't the reason that I play - but they help. But judging by Samhaine's and That Guy's experiences, it's a serious uphill struggle to get players to the point of even thinking in those terms. I can't help but regard it as a goal, when I think about what I want to accomplish as a GM in a tabletop game. There are also players who are looking for more exotic cultures and cultural mixes, specifically hoping to escape the familiar. Obviously, these divergent player desires won't coexist well unless there is something readily familiar. The closest I could come to satisfying all of these conditions would be to have, say, dwarves, veytikka, and beruch, and... I'm just not sure if that appeals to me. Among other things, I'd have to change a lot of the normal-for-dwarves assumptions to get the images right, because carrion-eaters in underground cities seems... I dunno, just not the right setup.

Obviously, I'm not saying that the players seeking the comfort of the familiar are playing the game wrong. The players looking for something exotic are fine too. I'd like to write a setting in such a way that the elevator-pitch version of any particular aspect was enough to get the former group interested, because if I write a new idea into a setting I probably do think it's pretty cool. I think there are tendencies, admittedly, among the broader group of the former type of player to regard the game as nothing more than tacking better stats and loots onto their dude, and that does bother me - chiefly, unwillingness to engage with the world or the story can leave me as a GM with a feeling of "why am I bothering?" This brings up the point of how much, if any, effort is reasonable to expect from the players, since games that have GMs expect variously huge amounts of effort from those GMs - why wouldn't it be reasonable to expect more from players than just showing up on game day?

All right, I'm going to leave off here for now. It's time to stop rambling; there's work to be done. (So they gave me a tin hat...) I'd like to hear other people's thoughts on this.
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