Considering "teflon players" (long)

edited March 2012 in Story Games
In this thread I was asking for advice on how to deal with players who block dramatic entanglement of their characters. There was some discussion of passivity, where the player is shy or has some social hurdle (due to bad experiences for example) and is thus not engaging. Such a player can certainly be blocking, but those examples did not reflect my specific play experiences - I was interested in a different set of dynamics, which brings us to this thread. I have to stress, this is not about introverted or socially reserved (or bullying) players as such, it's not about personality, but about the motivation behind the investment in the game (such as there is).

First off, the blocking discussed is specifically the blocking of dramatic positioning of the PC (There are many other instances and configurations where blocking occurs.). This blocking happens because the player is unwilling or not interested in positioning her character in such a way. You could say they simply "don't get it", don't see what the fun is, or what could be gained from it, or how they could enjoy it.

Here are a few choice quotes about this player (both abstract and concrete) from the previous thread:
"He wants to participate, but his mode of participation will be passive, immersive and supportive."
"He wants to hear the GM describe the world and his character's place in it."
"they want to play a "protagonist" or "dramatic lead" because that sounds cool, and then it's all "I'm happiest when my character gets to be cool[...]"
"give him a genuine choice about whether his character is vulnerable or teflon-plated, and he'll go for the latter every time"
"it's not in his nature to enjoy the dramatic irony of having his character act against his best knowledge"
"he hates it when something his character does comes back as a consequence that carries obligation. It's like a personal failure for him, he was stupid enough to take the bait and act in a way that carries consequence"

Michael (Malefucum):
"I theorize that sometimes 'teflon players' are not protecting their characters, but themselves from (perceived) ridicule."
Then John (jenskot) today on G+, in an unrelated thread:
"Then the conversation got even more eye opening. He said he doesn't even really care about playing his character in any consistent or constrained way. He doesn't like social mechanics or alignment or personality traits or anything that guides his roleplaying because the character is just a costume he is wearing. He's playing himself with super powers. It's not even roleplaying or acting for him. In real life we don't always know why we make the decisions we do, and we spend a lot of time rationalizing and aren't always aware of our flaws. To be immersed in a character, might mean not being able to play that character because you would need a lot of meta to guide you. So when he wants to be immersed, it's easiest for him to just play as himself. And acting as a writer, means being meta, which in many ways means actually roleplaying a character, but it isn't roleplaying that he is primarily interested in. And when he is immersed, it is easier to ignore all the other silly parts of playing an RPG. "

When compared to my experience, all these quotes speak about the same type of player.

Since we're on SG, I think the prevalent reaction is to talk about these players as if they "haven't blossomed yet" or that they're simply bad players. I understand the temptation, but it's a dangerous thing to do. I was trying to position my character dramatically for years in games where it was met with rejection from the rest of the group. As a GM, I've tried to put the player's characters in dramatic situations, without realizing that I couldn't do it without player collaboration. In both instances I didn't have the tools to do so (until I discovered BW, AW, TSoY, etc.). The players who refuse to put their PCs on the line are in a similar position to the one I was in. Their interest and priorities lie elsewhere compared to the other player(s). By instigating untenable situations, I was (unintentionally) throwing spanners into other people's wheels, just as the player who refuses to put her character in such a position is throwing spanners in my wheels while I'm going the other way.

(Now, this is nothing new. It has been discussed at length elsewhere, I'm just rearticulating.)

So, for example, if I'm a GM and I'm trying to arrange a dramatic situation for the player, and they block (and it's not because they're shy or wary), in my experience it happens for two reasons:
-the dramatic situation is antithetical to a tactical situation which is how the player understands the scene
-the dramatic positioning requires a conscious effort, it is unintuitive to the player*

*(there's a kind of a cycle at work here: it is rational on part of the player and thus irrational from the perspective of the character - an outside agency - and having the character act irrationally feels unbecoming to the player - it reflects poorly on them. Thus the rational thing to do, as a player, is to make the player act rationally, to the best of their knowledge. So there must be as little disconnect between the player and their ingame persona.)

This is not to say that tactical situations can't have a sense of drama to them, they certainly do. But a tactical situation requires you to make optimal choices that will maximize your ability to get to your goal(s), while a dramatic situation requires you to make an "impossible choice" which thus becomes a moral choice, since there's no other value to judge it against ("Do you abandon your fiance to hunt the villain?"). I think this is perceived as an attempt by the GM to trick or trap the player in a no-win situation, and thus bullshit. I'm not specifically talking about this tactically-oriented person either, even though he can certainly be a "blocker" in dramatic games.

I partially relate the intuitive mode of play to mask work, described by Keith Johnstone. It's not the same but close enough that I will steal his terminology. The mask can work in two directions. On one side it allows us to "truly be ourselves", our dream self, the person we want to be. On the other the mask takes over, it is possession (in the best sense of the word). Dramatic situations demand change, they cannot remain unresolved. Some masks may strike up such situations and conflict, but more often situations threaten the mask, and they recoil from them. Uncertain, dramatic conflict undermines the integrity of the mask. The mask is not about acting, or authoring, but being (including being yourself (but better)).

So, in my experience such orientation within play usually produces several of these traits:
-the player would prefer to personally engage mechanics as little as possible, but still wants some external confirmation of "objective" reality that dice can provide
-they're creatively passive in the context of the game's fiction, they seek immersion, which, as I've been arguing for a while is a passive endavour
-the player is either seeking to get a character "right" with the character "taking over" or is not interested in engaging in the character beyond a fantastic (idealized) personal avatar - both are "trance-like" in their introspective (day)dreaming function
-the player is more about experiencing situations rather than acting in or upon them (which is not necessarily true of the character)
-in tactical games they often emerge as the "party leader" or "main character" (but are almost never protagonists in the sense of "passionate character in untenable situation") or become a sort of MVP support player, who is always at the rear, but without whom play can hardly continue
-in character-driven drama games they usually slip into a side role, more an exposition-vehicle for the GM rather than a character in their own right
-they show contempt for (non player) characters who display "stupid", embarrassing, irrational, less-than optimal behaviour that generates conflict and tend to avoid such behaviour in their PCs at all costs
-they desire a strong player|GM divide, where the player's authority ends, quite definitively, with their character

To speculate about game texts and design...I'm drawing on my limited knowledge here, but I'll try anyway. Since game design has traditionally always been constructed from the GM perspective, especially the GM as the person who is "in charge of the story", most game design attempts to support this mode of play have been set up to protect the integrity of plot, setting, mood and genre, the cost of which was often the sacrifice of player agency in name of accuracy, which is sometimes problematic and sometimes desirable. Game design attempts to protect the integrity of the character have always veered into meta territory, which is extremely successful as far as enforcing concepts is concerned but fails hard at immersion. Since I perceive this playstyle as heavily GM-driven, the player's side of the game should be high-colour, but low-system, while what the GM side is most severely lacking (ime) is a reliable way to identify and empower character integrity, without relying on metagame questions or flags. I believe this kind of play is in some way profoundly related to the sort of freeform roleplaying that happens online, where fans play characters in official universes, but it's also remarkably distinct in some ways that I'm still thinking about.

The main point here is that there is a kind of passive and blocking player that is easily mischaracterized and introverted or turtling/playing it safe, but is really going after a certain kind of experience that is contrary to typical creative impulses that I believe are shared by the majority of posters here. I also believe that while there is a fair number of people playing like this, the seeking of this experience has been largely marginalized and unsupported in the (online) community at large.


  • Posted By: Teataine-the dramatic situation is antithetical to atacticalsituation which is how the player understands the scene
    -the dramatic positioning requires a conscious effort, it is unintuitiveto the player*
    Well, there's a third option, which is that they think the particular dramatic situation you're offering at this exact second sucks and want no part of it, and have limited tools at their disposal to express that.

    Cool post.
  • Yeah, that, too. Certainly.

    But I kinda started on the assumption that people "interested in what we're doing but momentarily disengaged" were not included in the sample. Fucking up in the moment is a very real thing that happens to us all the time, but sometimes there are larger patterns that I find worthy of investigation.
  • Sure...individual moments can add up to an erroneous impression. If you've already got a "character issue" in mind, but the game gives you limited means by which it can be expressed, the rejection of others' overtures could be interpreted wrongly. Of course there's a continuum here too, from promiscuity ("what, the GM wants to address romantic relationships? wow, okay, I guess, let's try it!") to pickiness ("nope, I only want to handle family problems") to total refusal (the OP options.)
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