8 Sep 2016

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In general, my gaming group knows me as someone who tends to avoid the lore or fluff part in a game system book -- I go straight to character creation, or just flip through the mechanics to have a general idea of how they work. I don't actively dislike fluff in general, but it's not something I typically have interest in, and in certain situations even feel harangued by. There's something unfair, I find, in a system that encourages what I call the lore trap, where a character's competence depends significantly on how much the player knows of the setting's fluff and gritty politics, and how successful a character is depends largely on how much of the meta the player knows. There's nothing revolutionary or fun about getting trapped into situations that you normally would not get into if you had all the information about the world the GM or even other players do.

I won't deny that I've been salty about Legends of the Five Rings in particular, for example -- while Mahar is a considerate GM who takes great pains not to fall into the GM trap, reading L5R gives me the impression that this is a thing that would be really easy to do with the system. I've talked to a few other L5R GMs/players in recent months, and their in-game anecdotes both involved situations that led to seppuku (or almost seppuku) that could have been avoided if the player -- and by extension the character -- knew the lore of the setting more. In L5R, the smallest action can have really high stakes. It's a game where the setting is backed by a system that will numerically punish you for player ignorance. "Knowledge of the world is power," is practically baked into it.

But I realize in recent weeks that this thinking of mine isn't entirely fair. My own game of L5R isn't like that, though sometimes I get nervous about what I do purely because my character is a challenging one, going against almost all my typical tropes. Clearly, how the lore works for or against the players is something that both the GM and the players can manage with clear communication and table dynamics. But the first session, while manageable, was rather stressful in terms of keeping up with everyone's knowledge of the setting's fluff (and my own confusion at how Japanese but not Japanese it is, and how so many things fly in the face of cultural common sense).

Eventually, after a little bit of experimenting, I realized that a way to cope with the sheer breadth of lore was to ask the GM a lot of questions rather than assuming things and, more importantly, to take a step back from the character like what Erich had been doing with his courtier. I didn't need to say verbatim what my character wanted to say, where my phrasing can be minced -- and rightfully so -- because I can just say it in action. For example, Erich threw an NPC at my character as someone who flirted with the NPC's boyfriend in the past, in his character's effort to get the NPC to move on from this man. Now, I can't do courtier stuff to save my life, and while my character is a social beast, I had not yet been able to encounter that in her adventures. Rather than struggle with what Kyouya would say, I opted to go by the route of: "Kyouya is going to act her way through this. She acts like she is confused but trying to hide her confusion, to make Hiname feel like she caught her offguard and unprepared for once. What she wants to convey with her body language is that in that encounter Hiname is speaking of, the attention she gained from Hiname's lover was entirely unsolicited. Kyouya wants Hiname to think that her lover was at fault for having a roving eye, and that they are comrades in being victims of his bad behaviour."

This is a bit of a step away from what I had been trying to practice as a roleplayer -- which is to refer to myself in first person, as the character, rather than considering the character as a separate individual entirely. But at the same time, it's a healthy way to get things done without inflicting my own ignorance on a character who is supposed to be competent. There's a lot of reliance on the GM here, because it does give the GM a lot of work when it comes to embellishing the scene, so I still try to contribute to the visuals as much as I can with body language. Curiously enough, I find that it is a satisfyingly collaborative way of coming up with the scene, if only because of the negotiations that go around the table.

On the other hand, I knew that being fluff-averse is also not a productive habit to keep. As a player, it's also my responsibility to pull my weight at the table, to not entirely rely on the GM to give me the details of the world. What I realized with some reflection is that if I only focus on a character's fluff, it's actually quite easy for me to incorporate it into my character's background and story, and it becomes easier to digest the rest of the setting by extension.

As an example, I've had to create characters in two games recently that I consider to be fairly fluff-heavy. First is in the new Vampire: The Mage Masquerade game that Erich is newly running, Northern Nights, where I play Malcolm Summer. Malcolm is a 9th generation Lasombra with a lot of baggage with humanity and Kindred in general, but is still in many ways a true blue Lasombra in his mannerisms and mindset. I knew nothing of the setting, but I began by reading the clan summaries Erich gave our table, and choosing one clan that interested me. Knowing their quirks like being snooty and not having reflections allowed me to form a character in my mind, and I had a visual idea of how he would use his powers. I asked about how feeding happens and the mechanics of feeding, and decided that the best way to gain a rotating base of food is by being in the hospitality business, so he became a hotel owner. I created Malcolm as a mortal -- someone who was vengeful, why not? -- and then reading the rest of their creed, attitudes, and opinions on humans and Kindred let me flesh him out a bit more.

The party convened and we created our domain, and I slotted in Malcolm and filled in the rest of his personality: business-minded, intense when spiteful, and good at leading but satisfied to leave carefully-picked subordinates to their job. I made him a little obsessed with contingencies because I realized in further reading of the fluff and some clarification, that I would be a Camarilla Lasombra -- a traitor to the clan, and that his clan would probably kill him on sight. His personality was reflected into his character sheet -- a humanity of 6! -- while other parts of the sheet were reflected into his personality. For example, by necessity, I made him an older generation because Lasombra disciplines are very blood-heavy, and this added to his fluff as a paranoid Kindred due to being a prime target for diablerie, and his role in the party. Erich started throwing facts about the world at us, and further character quirks emerged as I incorporated the setting into the last six decades of my character's existence and had a focus on what I wanted to read in the books, including the fluff of my party's respective clans. In this way, I found myself quite integrated in the lore without noticing it.

A second example is a Warforged Barbarian that I created for Nosfecatu's Eberron game. Chalcedony is a self-proclaimed scholar who works in the Cogs district of Sharn, sorting wands for the Cannith factory there. I entered the game reading up only and only on Warforged, which led to a base understanding of the war they were allegedly created for and the sentient rights Warforged acquired recently. This gave me a mindset of a Warforged who is interested in freedom and fair wages, and I decided that Chalcedony is a Warforged who would be enamored with fairness. Interest in scholarly pursuits gave him the desire for knowledge (that his intelligence score of -1 could not actually support well). He's guileless and dedicated to his job, but selective in his dedication. His view of right and wrong is a bit black and white, but he understands concepts in terms that are laid out in bullet points.

The GM gave us some readings to acquaint ourselves with the city we would start out in, which gave me an idea of my Warforged's status in society and what can be expected of the population's treatment of him. A few rounds of casual RP with fellow Warforged NPCs and some goblins settled him into my head so easily, even I'm surprised at the ease with which I slid into his head. In his first session, the party decided to rob a university in the higher class district of Sharn, and Chalcedony instead decided to walk in and enroll as a student. He wishes to participate in economics, and has asked of the party that hired him as a fighter, that he wants to experiment with a compensation concept he ran across recently called commissions. His fellow Warforged was robbed, so Chalcedony started showing him the modification in his chest cavity that allowed him to keep gold in there, completely made up on the spot, and which the GM rolled with and incorporated into later scenes in a Warforged-centric tavern. It was quite fun, and a great example of how lore worked for me.

So, in effect, I suppose like most of my conclusions: table dynamic is very important in tackling issues at the table, regardless of if it's the group's or an individual's, and how one learns of the lore is a great contributor to how well a person integrates into it (learning style).

On the other hand, in my examples above, I created Malcolm with great involvement of the party, while I created Chalcedony pretty much on my own and just brought him to the session as a character sheet. Character creation dynamics is probably something I am going to reflect on next, in a future blogpost.