Game Buy-In: Embracing Tone and Setting

Recently at Fan Expo (all my best stories start this way, I promise), I was lollygagging around and decided to play a game of Cartel with my friend who was GMing. She had GM'd it at Gen Con and people there always looked like they were having a blast. So I was eager to play it with her. After ensuring the last slots went off, I grabbed my crap and settled in to my seat across from her and with three other dudes at the table.

Dude to my right, almost immediately after I sat down, said, "I wanna play a French guy." 

Let me pause in my story to tell you about Cartel. Cartel is a Powered by the Apocalypse game of Mexican drug cartels set in Mexico about Mexican people. That sentence should give you all you know to see why I was instantly concerned. So I spoke up and said that this was a game about playing Mexican people, not white people. Dude didn't back down, name dropped the designer to me, and proceeded to play a white dude in a game about Mexican people.

I've seen this happen a lot. Not specifically around playing PoC (but that happens a lot because racism), but around how people think their idea is more important than the game. At least, that's my best guess as to what is going on whenever this schism happens. 

Whenever I play or GM a game that has a very specific parameter of who and what you can play, people want to buck the system. I don't know how many times I've sat down to play D&D and heard the GM say "There are no orcs in this world." Only to have a player, within five minutes, go: "I want to play an orc."

I've seen it with Dungeon World, where the GM has removed certain playbooks because they want a certain aesthetic or feel to the game, and inevitably, someone wants to play a removed playbook. I've seen it with Masks. I've seen it with Don't Rest Your Head. I've seen it in Penny For My Thoughts. How many times does someone need to explain the game and the parameters before someone just buys into what's being put before them?

And I've heard the arguments for why people do this. Sometimes, it's done because someone wants to play the outcast, and they have conceptualized that because the game isn't about the person they want to play, they would be Other and thus be the outcast of the game. Sometimes it's because they had their heart set on an idea and these new parameters mean their idea won't work. Sometimes it's because they had wanted to do something different than what the GM has just laid out and to demonstrate that, they contradict what the GM has said. 

Often, I hear people being excited about their push back. They are genuinely convinced that their cool idea is actually better than whatever the GM has planned or that it's so cool it should overshadow what the original intent was. Gamers are notorious for being excited and being vocal about things that excite them. They're also notorious for losing their shit if they don't get their way. These two things can blend together in a particularly spectacular way where GMs often don't feel like they can push back when someone's trying to break out of the parameters of the game.

Almost every time I've seen this happen in game, I've seen the GM pause, consider, and often cave in to the person who just challenged them. Because let's be honest, after hearing "this game won't have fish, only sharks" and someone replies with "but I wanna be a fish" the person is challenging the GM's authority and their ideas. They're inherently saying "My idea is better than what you have planned" along with "even though you did all this work to write/design/create this campaign/adventure/one shot, I'd rather just do what I want than buy in to what you're selling me."

The worst part of this is, this comes from the perspective that our own ideas are so cool and so special, that we don't realize what we're doing. We don't realize that we're pushing back or ignoring one of the key elements of game buy in. We just have an idea and think that this is a game about playing pretend and how we want to pretend is cooler or more important than how the game wants us to play pretend. But I've got some really sad news for us and our ideas that don't buy in to the game:

At the end of the day, that makes us bad players.

Let that sink in. Really consider what that means. Our ideas, while fucking awesome, don't make us good players. Our collaboration and cooperation skills do. Good ideas are starting places. Who we want to play is one of our usual starting points. It's a normal part of our gaming lives to believe we should play a game to have fun, and part of that fun is playing whatever we want. 

But we can't always play whatever we want. Sure, some games will be more open for us, like Pathfinder or Star Wars, and some games will be a little more limited, like Monsterhearts or Urban Shadows, and some games will be very specific, like Love in the time of Seid or Lady Blackbird. Three levels: wide open, archetypes, and a specific character. The more narrow, the harder it is to push against. With the games that allow for more (or a lot) of wiggle room, our GMs must set some parameters on the characters if they want to deliver a specific experience or tone to the game.

I think it's important we think about parameters for a minute. Really, this is a content and tone discussion, where parameters on characters are laid down. The facilitator or group lay down these rules to help reel in characters so that they all match what the game is going for. It would be silly to play Hell 4 Leather and have 3 people playing badass bike club members and one person choosing to be a librarian who has no real role in the story. 

Character dissonance creates issues within the fiction of the game, and can create friction between the GM and the player who's making a character that doesn't fit the game. This can manifest as the character missing the tone of the game, such as creating a comical character in an otherwise serious game, by creating a character that doesn't match the setting of the game, such as making an elf in a modern urban setting, and sometimes people make characters who don't match the intention of the game, such as playing a man in a game about women. 

All three of these will disrupt the fiction of the game.

Usually all three of these things are signposted when you start making characters. If you sit down to play a game of Monsterhearts, a game about teen monsters, and say "I want to play an adult" then you're missing what the game is about. You're actively choosing to ignore the intention of the game and decide you want to do something else. And that's okay! You can want to play something else!

The issue happens when instead of acknowledging that you don't want to be playing Monsterhearts, you're just going to fight the system and try to make it do what you want. Sometimes at the expense of the fun and play of your GM and fellow players.

When we actively ignore the tone of the game, and start making characters that push against it, we undermine the efforts of everyone else to make a game have a solid feeling. If we go to play Fall of Magic, and everyone is making scenes that are dreamy and sad, and then we come in as a murder hobo and go gonzo, we're ruining the fun of everyone else by breaking the social contract of game tone. The shift away from the tone of the game make fellow players and GMs groan and can make the game unplayable.

When we actively ignore the setting of the game, in favour of playing someone out of time and space, then we're disrupting the basic rules of how the game should work. Bringing up guns in D&D doesn't work because the setting itself doesn't support having guns. There just aren't rules for it. Any shift like that requires that the system accommodate it by supporting it with new rules. Not all systems can (nor should) accommodate our gonzo ideas.

When we actively ignore the game's intention, we're not playing the game. We're deciding that what we want is better than what the game is doing. It's time to find another game. Most importantly, though, we're missing one of the key steps in playing a game. We're not buying into the game itself. 

When a game says "Hey. I'm about playing women in WWII" and we're like "But... I wanna play a dude" then we're not buying into the game itself. In worst case scenarios, ignoring the game's intention can come across as supporting an ism, like racism or sexism. Like if we try to play a man in a game about women, or a white person in a game about people of colour.

Instead of fighting the system, embrace it. 
Buy in.

Rebelling against the game we're about to play, whether it's the setting, tone, intention, or simply what story our GM is trying to tell, isn't good gaming etiquette. It's a jerk move that makes most people on the other end of the table frustrated.  

Part of the fun of a contained game is to play within the rules and try to get what we want out of them. We can still play the outsider or the weird one in the group by infusing what we love into a character that fits the game you're playing. Ultimately, if we feel we can't, we should leave the game. Not all games are meant for all people. And that's okay.

Instead, let's take our passion for playing the character out of game context and consider how that would feel if watching the movie of our game. You don't want to be the weird director who added in a heart breaker just because they loved them. Be the director who gets what they were hired to do and make something awesome within the scope of the game. Buy in. 

If it's a game about vampires, play a vampire. If it's about women, play a woman. If it's about serious feels and emotions, give 'er. If it's about hack'n'slashing, kick some ass. Embrace what the game is trying to do and acknowledge that we chose to play the game. When we choose to play the game, we're deciding to play what it's offering. Just like when we buy a ticket to Star Wars, we know we're getting some awesome space action. Or if we buy the new Tomb Raider game, we know we're up for some badass times as Croft. 

We don't buy Tomb Raider and then get bummed we can't play 007. That would be silly. It's just as silly to sit down to an RPG and try to play outside of what's been set up. Buy into the game %100. Say "Fuck yes I will play this" and run with it. Deadpool wouldn't fit in an actual X-Men movie because of how different the tone of his character is. Don't be a Deadpool in a sea of X-Men.

No one has time to deal with our characters being too special. We're busy gamers with lots of games to play. Let's refuse to make the game suck by demanding it accommodate what we want to play. Be a better gamer than that person. Decide here and now we'll quite being a bad player and that next time we sit down to play a game that asks us to play specific characters or we have a GM who only wants certain characters, we'll jump in both feet first.

We're all excited when we have cool ideas, but we can't let our cool ideas mean more than the game we're gonna play as a group. When we have a cool idea that doesn't work, try asking what the idea was actually about. If we're playing a game about wizards and we wanna be a muggle, why? Do we want to be unique? Do we wanna be special? That's cool! Awesome! Find another way to communicate that specialness. Whatever emotional beat we're trying to hit by playing what we're not allowed to play, find another way to explore that in the game within the parameters the game has set out.

Challenge ourselves to do better.

Finally, to all my wicked GMs out there who feel this push back all the time: stop. 

When a player decides they want to play outside the scope of your game or your setting, tell them no. You have the right to say no to your players. You can explain why, if you want, but really, you're allowed to just say no and tell them what they are allowed to play. 

We're told we need to be accommodating and accepting as GMs. And while in part, that's true, we are also allowed to say we're exploring a specific story as the GM and only a certain type of character is allowed. We're allowed to be champions of game integrity and shut player shenanigans down when they happen. Do it with love, but still do it.

I would never allow a player to play a white character in a game about being a Mexican character. I would never allow a fish in a game about sharks. You don't have to either. It's time that we stop giving way because someone needs to be the special character who's different. It's time we stick to our guns, get player buy in by being clear in tone and setting conversations what is expected, and tell people what is and isn't going to work in the game.

And us players who are being good players and buying in? It's time we also call out this crap and say "hey, it's not about that" and have our GM's backs. 

As a community, we can get rid of this ridiculous behaviour and start breeding good player culture.

This is an easy step in that direction.