TO THE BRIDGE
The April RPG Blog Carnival considers running for a "Ship of Fools." I’m usually of the opinion that the collective intelligence of the players outweighs my own. I put situations in front of them expecting that they’ll come up with a solution. Usually I haven’t come up with one- perhaps I have some ideas, but I trust players through shared creativity will see something I didn’t. That’s part of why I rarely track character sheets and equipment. I want to be surprised by what they do. They’re off some times, but that’s rare. Rarer still that all of them would be off their game enough to thrown everything off. They goof and joke around- which is why my default mode is to take them as seriously as possible. Some of them learn a lesson and become more careful, while others realize I’m actually listening & accepting and become better about coming up with ideas.
So generally running for a Ship of Fools is fairly rare. Running for a solid crew with a single first mate who seems to have taken a severe blow to the head…that’s much more common. I have, over the years, had some tremendously stupid players. They’re the ones that make the rest of the table go absolutely silent with disbelief. They have a stupidity that’s awe-inspiring. They aren’t being funny, they really believe in what they’re doing. I have two examples, drawn from people I’ve played with and won’t be playing with again. I have some dumb stories from other people, but in a few cases, they’re people I play with or might play with again. In most of their cases, its one or two areas they have a blind spot about, rather than being dim about everything.
MAKE A SWIMMING ROLL
Ryan: Some people combine stupidity with sociopathy and entitlement. When he introduced his new character to a Fantasy GURPS campaign I played in, he announced himself as an Assassin. This seemed a little odd to the group of generally good PCs. We asked him about this, and he assured us that he didn’t take money for killing people. In fact, he only killed bad people. He only killed the bad people the voices in his head told him to kill.
As Scott pointed out, we have a word for that: psychopath.
In another game, Ryan was tired of travelling so he suggested we go down to the beach and wait. Because obviously in a fantasy world ships would just stop off at various places along the shoreline to pick people up and drop them off, like a bus. In the same game he became irritated when another player was gifted with a magic item for a service they’d done. Ryan ungraciously bitched about it. The person eventually gave him Flaming Oil of Slipperiness and he went away satisfied. Then someone pointed out that technically all oil was flaming and slippery. In another game, I'd told everyone that there would be islands, sailing and such as a key component of the campaign. First session began with a shipwreck that stranded the players. Ryan, as you can guess, had taken no swimming skills. Ryan was also convinced that China had no army and that magnets didn’t work in space since there were no poles there.
He was an unpleasant player, but young and no one really wanted to be the one to boot him out. Most of his stuff was passive-aggressive and petty. However in another game, he wanted to run a Paladin character. That seemed like a good idea- giving him a code of honor to follow. The group formed out of a disaster which left many dead. They escaped. Several sessions in, Ryan’s deity appeared to tell him to take to safety a baby they’d rescued. This clearly irritated Ryan. The next session the group sailed and arrived on what was clearly an awful and terrible Chaos Island, with horrible temples to dark gods. There they ran into an “explorer” who claimed he was just exploring the place. But it was pretty clear to everyone that he was a Chaos Cultist of some kind. However, without proof, the party held off and parted from him. In the next scene, I pointed out to the group that Ryan’s character no longer had the baby. When pressed, he explained that he’d given it to the explorer. (Gasps from the party). A year later in the game, that cultist would sacrifice the child to effectively open the gates of hell and unleash the Big Bad on the world. Nice job.
THE TALE OF M
“M” ran an assassin in a campaign. But he’d come up with an extensive backstory about how his cover was as a master cook. I thought that was a fairly interesting twist for a fantasy game. I tried to play to that a little. Oddly, as the game progressed, he kept focusing his character on the culinary side of things over the assassin or thiefly aspects. I would throw out plot hooks and incidents related to that- a chance to showcase those skills and he would completely ignore them. Instead he brought recipes with him. The other players noticed this and commented on it. Eventually they had to get an NPC to help cover some of the traditional rogue aspects in the game.
So at one point I decided I needed to give him a story about the cooking side of things. They arrived at an army camp to meet with a lore expert. The party arrived and found everything in a commotion. A high-ranking general was coming for an inspection and the commander’s personal chef had died. They desperately needed someone to take over preparation of the feast. I’ve sketched out details, come up with a set of interesting kitchen-based NPCs, and had come up with a primary role for M, and secondary support tasks for the rest of the party. The Cook/Assassin pretty much ignored every signal and seemed absolutely uninterested in the story. As it ended up the rest of the group dove in, interacted with the NPCs and got things organized- they had a great time. M reduced his roll to making a few cooking checks.
Clearly, I decided, M wanted something with more action. Assassinating someone with his cooking didn’t seem interesting to him. So later on I went for full-on comedy. The party encountered an evil Food Mage (a variant class from Rolemaster). He’d poisoned a village with his experiments and had dough golems at his command. The pursued him until he fled back into a cavern. The group prepared itself for an assault. At this point, M said he had a plan.
The rest of the party would attack from the front. He would find the chimney flue for the oven. OK, I said, thinking he had some clever stratagem. M made his way to the chimney, which was billowing out smoke and heat. And he began to climb down. Several persons, including myself as the GM, tried to explain why this might not be the best plan- even with his magical heat-resistant gloves. He continued on- refusing other suggestions like figuring out a way to douse the over before going down. Keep in mind, this is Rolemaster, a particularly unforgiving system. He climbed down, burning drama points, taking damage, and sucking up Heat criticals. Finally he landed in the oven and, noticing the sentient Gingerbread men baking, rolled quickly out. He stood up and found himself face to face with the Food Mage, with the drop on the villain!
“OK, I heal. I have some healing potions, I’m going to drink those.” M declared.
I asked him to clarify and he repeated his action. The rest of the table went silent.
“OK, the Food Mage casts and summons a small Pasta Golem.”
…and M kept healing for the next couple of actions. Eventually, the Food Mage teleported away. The party looked at one another dumb-founded.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have gone down the chimney” M said.
I enjoy the goof ups, the mistakes, the wrong paths I can lure players down, and the general “foolishness” of play. That’s fun. What’s not fun is when players get angry about their mistakes at the table. That has, over time, become the real deal breaker for me as a GM. If a player goofs up or makes a bad call, they should live with it- even if it makes them look foolish for a moment. We’ve moved along several different people who couldn’t make that break, who took things seriously in that way. I’d much rather have the goofing around player who accepts the consequences and plays them out than the player who becomes defensive, pouty, or angry at the table when things don’t exactly go their way.