Friday, November 25, 2022

3 Quirks of Player Psychology

 There are three interesting quirks of player psychology in Dungeons & Dragons (and I would say most similar role-playing games) that I have both observed for myself and have heard verified by other GMs that I wanted to share with you. 

Partially because it is worth a laugh: you will see yourself in them. And partially because a GM ought to be prepared for them. And also because they are very exploitable to increase impact in your game.

Death Before Disarmament (or Taxes...)

Despite it just being a few words written on a sheet of paper, players get really attached to their characters' treasures and equipment. Once they have it, they will fight to keep it 

This is especially true of weapons and armor. I have never seen a player willing to leave a sword with the burgomaster or check a gun at the door of a cyberpunk nightclub.

The lengths players will go to to have a dagger, hold-out pistol, or their favorite magic weapon with them us ridiculous.

The Cannonball Run

Cover to Shadowrun 4th Edition
©️ 2005 Catalyst Games

Many years ago, I participated in a Shadowrun Missions group for Shadowrun 4e here we decided to play through The Cannonball Run. This is a series of globetrotting runs where multiple teams of shadowrunners are moved from country to country to compete with one another to complete their objectives in a series of challenging criminal activities (here is my GM's blog from the time.). 

  • Because your characters have to constantly cross international borders, they often have to check, hide, or simply give up on illegal technology between runs.
  • They also don't have access to their local contacts in Seattle.
  • They are required to use the fixers provided by the contest organizers they also are not paid for individual jobs. Instead they are required to complete the entire series of runs.
  •  The losers get paid standard rate for every mission they complete. The winners get paid ¥1,000,000. Which meant if you wanted to buy new gear from those fixers you had to find stuff worth trading or find other ways to steal resources on the side.
  • The possibility of having to give up their beloved gear on characters who had already been through a few Adventures drove half the players mad. It seemed particularly unfair in Shadow run where buying gear takes up so much of character generation.

Enter my rigger, Threepwood. Threepwood was a drone rigger, he specialized in using a fleet of legal, but carefully modified robots to help him handle problems. I had in my inventory list a small drone airplane capable of traveling is fast as 600kmph and equipped with footlocker size to drop boxes. I also had a couple of lighter than air blimps with solar power. I cross connected the blimps to serve as solar power collectors and rechargers for the plane and offered to carry the illegal gear of the players and land at some place safe once we were in the country we moved to.

Not only did this make me MVP in the eyes of my fellow players, they bought me a drink, and worked out ways to support my drones in their transatlantic flight. Including spending expensive resources and putting the life of our party's shaman at risk in order to summon a spirit of air that could speed up the drones and protect them from hostile creatures.

The insane lengths my. Fellow players went to to move the gear, so they wouldn't have to miss out on it was insane. We also did a roaring trade in sabotaging, attacking, and robbing the other teams of their equipment.

Renraku Stormcloud from "Rigger 2"' ©️1997 FASA

And I've observed similar behavior time and time again with my own players. If they are required to peace find their weapons, they subtly fray the chains and ropes they are required to use to keep the swords in check. If they're required to check them in town, the party Thief is handed them off and scales the city walls. If there is an extra dimensional pocket, chest, or bag to be used, you can guarantee players will happily carry the most absurd things in their arms and pockets in order to stuff their halberds into a bag of holding.

And this goes double for needless fees and taxes on their treasure. Players hate paying a percentage of their loot to anyone. If you and force a 3% fee to appraise gems, you can be guaranteed that the players will train up one of the party members in appraisal. If you have tariffs to enter town as humble as 5cp, players will find a way to sneak in. And heavens help you if you actually have your players taxed, expect tithes, or guild fees. Anyone who wants a percentage of their treasure had better be willing to hire spies to watch the party like hawks in order to get it.

Into the Marshes to Dodge the Tax Man

From 2004 to 2006 I ran a D&D3e campaign set in a homebrewed setting with a highly fantasized version of the history of Ireland as it's basis. The country was ruled over by a corrupt Queen whom had designs on aggressively expanding her territory.

One of the Queen's plots was to form an Adventurer's Guild that recruited any treasure hunters, mercenaries, wanderers, and drifters and equipped them, gave them a place to exchange rare magic items, had safes and beds for rent,, and offered training. 

I made sure the guild was a sweet deal. Players could get training, healing, access to low level magic items, and advice from veteran adventurers. Not to mention a constantly rotating cast of potential hirings and henchmen. And, of course, if you were adventuring without becoming a member you are guilty of high theft and subjects to be hanged.

There were two catches. The first one, the one the players were aware of was a 10% excise on all treasure they had acquired.

(The one the players weren't aware of: the Queen had loyal assassins planted high up in the guilds halls. Every player character was monitored, their alignment determined, and their potential loyalty tested. When the queen began her war of aggression against its neighbors, she intended to have anyone who might rebel against her rounded up and killed. And anyone who would gladly serve her invasion of her neighbors placed highly in special units.)

Whatever the player characters collected was to be shown to the guildmaster who would offer free appraisal in order to facilitate taking an excise of the treasure and to confiscate and lock away any particularly powerful, dangerous, or cursed magic items.

To my players, this was unacceptable. So unacceptable, that the player characters, who are playing as ostensibly good aligned characters went to any length not to pay their taxes. 

  • To this end, my player started burying treasure outside of town to sneak later.
  • When that started to become risky, they started looking for other avenues, and heard of a pirate village in the salt marshes of the borderlands.
  • My players braved a hex crawl across a frigid salt marsh infested with giant spiders to find the pirates.
  • They performed a short Dungeon Crawl to help an elderly pirate find a lost magical portal, and spent another adventure helping the Pirates deal with a goblin threat.
  • All the gain access to a fence who would charge them outrageous prices, but at least wasn't taxing them.

All told, the players ended up spending seven game sessions on trying to set up avenues for selling their treasure that would let them avoid that 10% tax. In the process using up valuable healing potions, risking life and limb, and paying outrageously high prices to shop at the pirate hideout.

An activity that got them marked for death by the Queen's squad of assassins later on.

But it didn't matter. At least they were spending their money by their choice.

It also created fantastic drama, because the player characters choice to move to the Borderlands and associate with freebooters and anarchists meant that when the queen began her purge, they were nowhere to be found, and became the last heroes capable of mounting a credible resistance against her.

(Running off to be pirates is a repeat theme in my games. )

I suspect this phenomenon is responsible for training and upkeep costs falling out of favor in Dungeons & Dragons in later editions. Players don't have the easy come, easy go context of old sword and sorcery pulps, the idea of losing that harder and treasure becomes a pretty difficult pill to swallow.

Anarchy in the UA 

As a corollary, player characters see themselves as above NPCs no matter what authority goes NPCs might hold. To anything but the best played Paladin or cavalier, a king or queen isn't, the sovereign ruler, they are a potential rival.

What this means in practice, is the moment the player characters feel like they're not fairly being treated, they are quick to rebel or turn on rulers and become outlaws. Limit player's choices or offend a character's religious sensibilities, and watch the player characters go to war against an entire town's worth of guards.

I have yet to run a Dominion level game where players haven't cleared the borderland, then declared themselves an independent nation. With only one exception that will be covered in the next point.

This has petty implications too. The freedom of role-playing games, plus the sense of the player characters are superior to NPCs means that the vast majority of player characters will lie cheat and steal with much remorse. Even supposedly lawful characters will look for ways to cheat and things as petty as public wrestling matches, drinking contests, or carnival games.

I have yet to see a situation where a player character gets into a single contest, and the players around him don't look for a way to get involved by giving their compatriot and edge. Honest methods like badtic inspiration and orisons come out very quickly. 

If there any stakes, the mischief comes fast and furious: female PCs with plunging necklines distracing NOC competitors, pick pocket checks, sneaky familiars, or strategically positioned player characters in shiny armor will come out like clockwork during card games. Players love to cheat when it doesn't have any real-world consequences.

Feed Them and they Will Love You Forever 

I mean, to a lesser extent this is true of the actual players. If you work at being a joy at the table, you can make friends quite easily through role-playing games. But I'm talking specifically about feeding the characters, not the players.

Player characters exist in a Storm of violence and danger most of the time. And while they consider themselves Superior to NPCs, that is in part because NPCs half the time exists to be untrustworthy, treacherous, or to die in the dungeon while carrying the player characters' stuff. NPCs are fungible. At least, until you can make the player characters feel cared for.

If you have created a certain amount of immersion in your campaign, player characters will be open to developing feelings towards NPCs. And once they do, they will become fierce defenders.

The catalyst for this is small gestures of affection toward the player character buy an NPC. Especially if it is a sign of gratitude or appreciation.

Here are some examples of things that cause player characters to become attached to an NPC in my campaign:

  • They chased kiss on the cheek an by a shy village girl.
  • Giving the player characters a crown of flowers during a festival.
  • A humble farmer offering the player characters a safe place to sleep and keep their gear in his farm after they have helped him.
  • An NPC making the player characters a fine meal a farm fresh food and their personal homemade wine or beer, while saying they wish they could give the PCS a lordly feast.
  • A technician giving a player characters equipment a custom paint job after repairing it.
  • An NPC merchant who has previously done business with the player characters holding back something interesting from the shelves until he's let the PCS have the first look at it.
  • Locals cheering and raising their cups when the player characters enter tavern like Norm entering Cheers.
  • An affectionate nickname given to one of the player characters and used by some of the locals.
  • Witnessing children from the community playing "slay the monster" while dressed up in shoddy homemade costumes of the player characters.
  • An in deeper offering the player characters and mug of his private reserve after they did something heroic.
  • Seeing chalk drawings on a wall that look like the player characters doing something heroic drawn by local youths.
  • Finding an embarrassing virtual companion on an NPC's computer that has been modeled to look like one of the player characters.
  • The player character is being remembered in the local community prayers when they are off adventuring.

One or two of these will completely change the way a player acts to a group of NPCs. It works well to override the player character tendency to see themselves as Superior to them.

If you want the PCS to be loyal to a local nobleman, have that nobleman celebrate the NPCs by hiring a bard or breaking open their best wine when the PCS help the town. It changes the dynamic entirely. And it is worth noting that generosity and praise on worthy vassals was considered one of the most important skills of early medieval nobleman.

Once your player character has become attached to an NPC, you have a lot of ways to make use of it:

Putting those NPCs in danger can motivate player characters far more effectively than gold can. You can set timers on things like missions to find medicine or deliver supplies where the stakes are letting the NPCs the players have come to care about down. You will find that that does more to keep them moving than the dangers of the wilderness will.

The Hobgoblin 

Here'sa great example: When I was playing AD&D2e in high school, I started a campaign where the player characters would be facing an evil hedge wizard who had taken control of a clan of hobgoblins. During the early part of The second adventure in the game, one of the player characters cast charm person on a hobgoblin.

At that time, my rule of thumb was to have charm person work by making the creature treat the player characters if they were trusted friend.

While the hobgoblin was leading them back to its headquarters, they needed to camp. The hobgoblin, observing the player characters setting up camp, offered to show them a better way to sharpen an oil their swords. And, when the first player character came off of watch, he offered them a swig of his foul but warming hobgoblin moonshine.

After that, this nameless hobgoblin raider straight out of the 'monster manual cloning vats" became one of the family. The player characters asked him a great deal about the evil wizard, and became determined not to defeat the hobgoblins, but rather liberate them from the control of this villain.

When the hobgoblin died fighting for them in battle later in the adventure. They characters placed him carefully in a protective cairn. After defeating the evil sorcerer, they came back, exhumed him, and took him back to town in hopes of having him raised from the dead, even though that would have taken every penny of the treasure they had earned up to that point.

And, true to form with the second point, when the local Bishop was deeply offended by the player characters bringing this dead monster into his church and demanding it be raised by his god, the player characters grew so angry that they murdered the priest and burned down the temple...

...Which unfortunately, led to a TPK as they were cut down in a hail of crossbow fire from town guards. It was the shortest campaign I ever ran. And really demonstrated how powerful the PCs love for an NPC can be.

Hobgoblin from the  AD&D2e Monstrous Manual
Art bu Jeff Butler, ©️1995 TSR, Inc.

If you want a really poignant example of this, have a look at how players reacted when Elden ring came out, to the old lady who offers the player characters a hug. Despite the hug coming with a mild curse because they old woman is untouchable, the dozens of players kept getting hugs from her anyway and spending their resources to have it cured later.

Small gestures of affection have a huge impact.

Has a side note, if you are incorporating sex into your RPG campaign, be aware that player characters  will not develop the same affection for NPCs their characters have sex with unless they have these feelings of affection first.

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