A couple of weeks ago we were playing a game of Night’s Black Agents (which you simply MUST try if you haven’t already (imagine “must” said in foppish Hedonism-bot-esque drawl, for it is indeed that much fun)), and our characters’ actions gave me yet another insight into the fathomless depths of Player Logic.
One of our party members had his mother kidnapped by vampires, as vampires with a background in espionage are wont to do.They demanded an exchange where we gave up our employer in order to secure the mother’s safety. The meeting would take place in a massive, isolated underground sewer complex in the dead of night. We were to come alone and unarmed. Oh, and they were friggen vampires.
So, it’s obviously a trap. They have no intention of letting us go alive and the mother is already dead or, at the very least, nowhere near the actual meeting spot. We spend the next 12 hours tooling up for war. We buy explosives, grenades, and automatic weapons from shady Network contacts. We get night vision goggles and prepare enough napalm to set the very water of the sewer on fire.We get a boat and equip it with a whaling harpoon cannon, then hook that cannon up to a palette of car batteries, creating a giant Tas-poon to cover our escape in hopes that vampires do not like excessive volts of electricity and massive trauma.
Then, of course, we walk into the sewer, find the mother nowhere in sight, and are ambushed by crazed vampires with sniper rifles. A few rounds of combat later, we’ve managed to kill a grand total of one of them (Tas-poon FTW) and are burned, shot, bitten, cut, traumatized, and barely alive. We wrap the session up, for some reason happy with that result, and return to our regular lives.
Flash forward a few days and I find myself re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the umpteenth time. I’m at the section near the end of the book when Huck enlists Tom Sawyer’s help in releasing Jim from captivity at the Phelps farm. The boys have a solid cover identity, Tom knows that Jim has been legally free for months, and Jim is imprisoned in no more than a locked toolshed to which the boys have the key. But rather than just unlock the door or say, “Hey, that guy isn’t a a slave,” Sawyer insists on concocting a convoluted plan reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo. Thus, Jim is freed multiple times to help with his own escape, shanghaied into assisting crazy white kids that bake rasps into pies and tame spiders as pets and force him to write letters to his wife in his own blood despite the fact that he is illiterate. The whole thing ends when the boys flee with Jim from the armed militia that they brought to the farm intentionally. Tom Sawyer gets shot and is thrilled with it, despite the fact that Jim has to, as far as he knows, give up his freedom and the chance of ever seeing his family again to tend for this idiot child with a bullet in his leg.
So there I am, finding myself hating Tom’s character and criticizing Twain for putting such ridiculous padding in an otherwise concise and thoughtful novel. I feel the same way every time I read the book. But this time, I realize I did the same thing a few nights ago.
We knew the mother wasn’t there. We knew it was a trap. We knew there was nothing to be gained and only death to be risked. We knew these things both in-character and out. But, instead of just not going–instead of just unlocking the damn toolshed–we concocted a needlessly elaborate plan, nearly got killed, and were generally thrilled for the opportunity.
I’m Tom Sawyer. We are all Tom Sawyer.
Lesson Learned: When I write games, I find myself spending a lot of time trying to give players opportunities to explain their characters’ motivations. Why are we throwing ourselves into danger here? Why are we escalating the conflict and not just leaving? The narrative leaps I concoct to justify these actions strain my creativity more than any monster or NPC I’ve ever designed. Yet I’ve recently realized that all that work is completely pointless. I’m still going to do it–it’s now a comfortable part of my process and I wouldn’t be comfortable with a game until I’d thought through those issues–but I might as well be bedazzling my drafts for all the effect such writing has on actual gameplay. The Sawyer Effect will carry them through, even in instances where protagonist behavior is tantamount to suicide. Nay…especially in those instances.
I hereby propose the Sawyer Effect (the inevitability of a more complex, dangerous non-solution being preferred over the quick, efficient option) as a universal law of gaming. It’s our Occum’s Razor, albeit in total reverse.