Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Choices, Religion and Roleplaying

I have mentioned more than once my hobby of tabletop roleplaying games, and have already used player actions within games to draw comparisons with the differing emphasis on free will in different schools of theology.  I like these posts, because they allow me to combine two things that I end up thinking about a lot; roleplaying and theology.  Yeah, I know.  I’ve never claimed to be one of the Cool Kids...

I’ve run a great many games over the years, and if it isn’t blasphemous to say so, I’ve made very much the same mistakes (or, rather perhaps, choices) as God, with similar results.  Again, it is a question of permitting choice and then living with the results, although this time it is not a question of the player characters within the game world, but of the players.  (Any of my regular roleplay group who read this, this isn’t a criticism of you at all, it’s just my reflections on perceived mistakes I’ve made with regards to the smooth running of games.)

Now, I like to try and give my players as much choice as possible, and I am talking about the players, not their characters.  The problem is that they very often don’t choose what I would consider my preferred, or even the optimal choice. 

A prime example of this is a steampunk game that I ran a few years ago.  The player characters were to be the crew of an airship in an alternative version of the late 19th century.  My intention was that they would be the crew of a tramp trader of medium speed, and with light weaponry; an all-rounder capable of fighting if need be, but also of acting as a merchant ship, transport or what have you.  Unfortunately, I’d come up with deck plans for several variants of a smallish airship, and decided to let my players choose what type of ship they wanted, from a list of all-rounder, smuggler, merchantman or mercenary warship.  As far as I was concerned, with my mighty omnipotence, the all-rounder was by far the best and most versatile choice.

They chose the warship, with rather more than four times the firepower of the tramp trader, but a very small hold.  As a result, aspects of the plot played out rather differently and in hindsight, not quite how I would have wanted it to go.

More recently, it came round to my turn to run a game again, and again decided to allow my players to make a choice.  This time it was between playing a fantasy game, or completing the historical swashbuckling campaign that we started last year.  At the time I was more or less ambivalent as to which they went with, and they chose the fantasy campaign.  Since then I’ve found myself far more in the mood for swashbuckling than fantasy.  This isn’t really my players’ fault; my moods are notoriously mercurial when it comes to these sorts of things.  However, if left entirely up to me, I may well have gone for swashbuckling.

So a fantasy game then.  Again I gave them a choice (why don’t I learn?) between a complex but detailed set of rules, including a complicated but realistic combat system, and my own home-made system, which is simpler, and which we’d used for the swashbuckling game, and which I have used for multiple different genres of games over several years, with continuous tweaks and adjustments.  Obviously it is perfectly in line with what I want out of a set of RPG rules, but that is purely based on my preferences.  However, I’m wary about forcing it onto other people, and using it for every single game I run.

They chose complex-but-detailed.  Since buying these rules, I’d not had a chance to try them properly, so I was perfectly willing to do so.  However, after two sessions, it’s clear that the combat rules especially, given the large size of our group, are a little bit too much, and I now wish that I hadn’t given them the option.

I’m reasonably sure that my players don’t deliberately choose the option that I don’t favour, since I try not to make my preferences known ahead of time.  The obvious response is not to give them a choice at all, and just enforce my sovereign will, but I don’t wish to do so.  After all, I am running the game as much for their enjoyment than mine, if not more so.  It is true that since I already know all the rules, and already know what the plot is going to be, and how things are likely to unfold, I am in the best position to make these decisions, and not bother consulting my players at all.

It might well be that they would in fact enjoy the game more if I did just autocratically impose my will, certainly I believe that the games would have gone more smoothly, but I want to offer my players choices.  I want to give them choices.  However, because they lack my insider knowledge, they often don’t choose what I would consider to be the best option.

And now: the theological analogy!

On the face of it, the whole free will thing seems like a bit of a mistake.  After all, we lack the knowledge to make the best decisions, at least in the long term.  Unlike me, God does make his preferences known, but then follows it up by saying, “But, y’know, it’s up to you.  Your choice.”

And then we choose the wrong thing.  But at least we did choose.  We are not puppets or automatons, we are responsible for our own actions.  I’ve seen atheists say that religion is an abdication of responsibility onto God and/or the devil.  I consider the opposite to be true.  We believe that not only do we have a genuine choice, outside the constraints of the hormones and electric impulses that modern neurology tells us are all that make up our minds and wills.  Not only that, but we believe that those choices have consequences that are not only real but eternal.

We have been given the choice, and we have been given the rule book.  We don’t know the plot yet, but I believe God to be the kind of GM who would rather let his players make choices than have the smoothest possible game.

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