Monday, August 19, 2013

The Loonie, or, Chaotic Neutral is the New-tral Evil

Before we start -- last post I used the term "munchkin" to describe the barbarian class; this post is about the "loonie".  These are references to a very unscientific classification of gamers known as nothing other than "The Four Kinds of Gamers".

As our gaming group has been discussed in social circles with more gamers than groups there have been a fair number of requests by players to join, and (not that it's my decision) I've been somewhat of a jerk in rejecting a number of them outright -- not merely because the group is getting rather large, but because of (for lack of a better term) the "job interview".  See, a lot of these players have been quick to mention what they thought of as "enjoyable" characters, and I've snapped right back by calling them "a dime a dozen".  Here's a sample of what these gamers either suggested, or mentioned as favorites:

A narcoleptic kobold rogue
A (chaotic neutral) rogue that stole from his teammates
A basher that hits first and asks questions later

OK, first off, (edit) when I say "jerk" that's not self-deprecating humor so much as a confession; I'll admit I probably jumped the gun, especially considering, again, OUR campaign isn't mine to dictate terms.  This post isn't an attempt to justify it so much as explain the underlying trauma in a raw form.(/edit)  I have no issue at all with silly characters when the campaign expectations are properly set.  If there's mutual agreement from the beginning that the campaign's tone is going to be closer to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than Game of Thrones, fine.  In fact, watch out, because my silly is pretty darn silly.  But in conventional fantasy, I have a problem with characters like this.  And in turn, I have a problem with players who do this.  And the people who wanted to join mentioned the above knowing nothing about the games we're running.  That's a red flag.  Lemme explain why.

In a prior post I covered how evil characters are inherently self-limiting because they tend to eat each other; typically it takes something like bigotry or other form of cultural brainwashing to get otherwise decent people to do awful things.  But if evil characters are self-limiting because of their malice, then loonies are self-defeating because of incompetence.  To put it another way, there's a reason why Frodo and Sam didn't have some cartoony, clumsy, carefree, loud-mouthed sidekick with squeaky shoes and an allergy to orcs with them on their lonely journey to Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings; if they did, they never would've made it -- and death by idiot would've made for a truly shitty story.  Gollum was bad enough and damn near got them killed.  Even if the loonie has no hostile intentions, a guy who never misses a chance to do something spectacularly stupid at the most inopportune time isn't any less dangerous than an outright enemy in any campaign with real challenge, with the added downside that you can't get rid of the player so easily.  So as someone who prefers story-based gaming with character arcs, I'd rather not have a loonie around to begin with.  It restricts the range of emotions one can experience.  An otherwise competent party can certainly get some silly in now and then, but if even one member is all silly, all the time, then you've basically left 99% of the potential of role-playing games untapped.  (Granted it can work in reverse -- an excessively "emo" character can spoil the fun through sheer inability to take a joke.)

It gets worse.  I'm generalizing here, but the players that deliberately make cartoony characters often develop a nose for catastrophe in the name of "just playing my [chaotic neutral] alignment".  It eventually becomes their purpose in gaming.  For example, they may be quite benign if the party is just downing beers at a tavern, but that's only because the stakes aren't high enough to justify acting like a twat.  When granted an audience with the King, though, they'll try to find a chance to commit a faux grande that gets the party driven out, exiled and hunted.  Last time I DM-ed I actually had to stop the session about five minutes in because the 3rd-level party (mainly one guy -- yup, the loonie) wouldn't stop goading a 17th-level NPC!  I had to give the party a Mulligan after warning them that while I won't dictate their actions, I role-play NPC reactions realistically and that they were one more insult away from getting wiped out.  I don't know if the guy knew or cared how destructive his style was to the gameplay, but I don't think that distinction matters to the point.  At this level "chaotic neutral" is really just neutral evil, or even chaotic evil, except instead of accumulating wealth and/or power the character (and by extension the player) is there to watch the campaign burn.

It's not quite the same kind of joker, but if the D&D joker
still gets everyone killed, is there a meaningful difference?

I'm not done; it gets even worse.  The sad thing is that these sorts of disasters aren't lessons to the players as much as fond memories.  Ask and they'll gush words like "awesome" to describe these walking calamities and their worst misadventures even if everyone else flatly says they destroyed the game.  From a behavioral perspective that means there's no corrective mechanism in place except other players abandoning the game, and from a personal perspective it's just plain selfish.  Other players can't get arcs to develop and the GM can't get any story to progress because as soon as the loonie senses the spotlight shifting it's time to do something silly again, followed by an "oops" and a shrug.  No scene is too dramatic to destroy, no situation above mockery, no emotion sacred.  Most people wouldn't have the indecency to laugh at someone's funeral but that's precisely why a loonie would try.  It's nothing as benign as simply playing a light-hearted character; even the hyperbolically obnoxious sidekick in Shrek knew when not to kick the protagonist when he was down (and that movie was a comedy).  Rather, these players just don't give a shit what others are trying to do, so they turn everything into a joke at the other gamers' expense.  It's the worst form of whoring for attention.  When there's delusion that these destructive running gags are enjoyable to everyone else, these players become impossible to reason with.  What makes this particularly baffling is that these same players will be among the first to complain about how annoying Jar-Jar Binks was in The Phantom Menace.  Don't they see that their characters serve the exact same purpose?

Folks, THIS is the face of a "loonie"!
Let me clarify the context by stating that my characters and games are NOT devoid of humor or even silliness.  They're just not always silly.  The difference is that as a human I can sense mood, as a player I can empathize with other players' objectives, and as a character I can be either humorous or serious like any real fucking human being.  Real people use humor for catharsis even in the darkest of situations, but these same people also know when NOT to joke -- namely when they're trying to get shit done.

Now, it is hypothetically possible for a quality gamer to role-play a caricature.  If I was going to play a narcoleptic, yeah, I could probably add depth to it.  But that never actually happens in gaming because it's the gaming equivalent of an athlete handicapping him/herself to create challenge in a less challenging environment.  Sure, "one hand tied behind my back" is a popular figure of speech, but when's the last time you actually saw someone doing it (unless they're coaching kids or something)?  Challenge is easy enough to attain by elevating the game, so people will just do that instead.

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