Goals, Part 2
Last week I talked about the different kinds of goals we have in games, with a focus on D&D. But not all goals are created equal. There are kinds of goals which don’t necessarily take into consideration the interests of other players, or which cut off opportunities rather than creating them. I want to outline what I think some of these kinds of goals are. I also want to take the time to look at why, although they could be reasonable goals in certain settings, they’re not constructive for a co-operative role playing game like D&D.
Pete the Pirate pines to perpetuate a peck of piracy amid a pack of poorer places. This means that Pete the Pirate needs to buy a pirate ship, hire a crew, and commence some serious piracy. Gary Gnome gaily grants that it’s his goal to get great gobs of glittering gold, garnets, and gum, by giving and getting in the great game of trade. Building an intercontinental merchant network means that he has to muster capital, travel to various places inland and across the sea, hire associates, and make friends. Walter Warblade wishes he was a worthy warrior; weary of his woad he wants a wicked whip and wightskin armor to wear while working as a worldly warrior-king. To do this, he might need to find a special craftsman, earn a kingdom, and certainly slay a wight or two. Each of their character goals seems perfectly reasonable. However, there’s only one problem. They’re all in the same adventuring party. Pursuing their goals (which are all very interesting) means either breaking up the party or convincing the rest of the party to go along with one set of goals (and abandoning their own). Goals with a problem of scope then, are character goals which become game goals without the consent of the rest of the group. And that includes the GM. In an aquatic game, the entire party making sure they’re amphibious and abandoning the water for an adventure on land can be interesting, but places the GM at the mercy of their goals. Ideally, no one ought to be at the mercy of the game goals of another, because doing so pushes them into a game that they didn’t buy into, and aren’t interested in, hence the necessity for compromise.
Some goals are harder to express in a game like D&D. For example, le Gimli wishes to master the ability of making a flurry of blade attacks in a few seconds. That’s neat, but it makes for a bad character goal, because it’s basically a statement that involves gaining levels. Gaining levels is already a metagame goal that is assumed in D&D. You could have a fun D&D game in which no one gains levels, but it’d be the exception, rather than the norm. Furthermore, there is nothing specific that le Gimli could do to achieve that goal. It demands a general result, because the rewards aren’t based on in-game advancement. It doesn’t motivate. A better way to state goals like this might be to work toward some kind of in-game achievement, whether that’s being high priest, pokemon master, or world quidditch champion. These things allow for progressive results, and motivate a character toward some specific pursuit, whether that’s doing services for the church, seeking out other pokemon trainers around the world to challenge them, or playing a fucktonne of quidditch in a league.
While a character is the sum of his goals, goals ought not to be the sum of a character. While it’s interesting in a literary sense to have a character who is utterly consumed by his need for a single goal (such as Ahab or Arthas), or to interact with such an individual, it is exceedingly difficult to BE such a person in a cooperative game. Both Ahab and Arthas caused incredible grief to those around them, eventually alienating everyone, and ultimately coming to a bad end. Similar to the evil character in this respect, the consumed character has an expiry date, though instead of betrayal and death, it’s usually more to the tune of a fierce argument and someone storming off.
How many goals are too few? The simple answer is when there aren’t enough of them. Think of how many goals you have, long term and short term, whether they’re graduating, finding a job, or just surviving the day. It’s more important to think of them in terms of the categories. You can’t even play the game without metagame goals, so none isn’t an option, but one or two doesn’t seem like enough to declare intent with a character. Game goals on the other hand, seem more likely to be sparse, as they involve negotiation with all of the people involved, but again, having none or only one or two seems inadequate, because ideally you do want to shape the game. Character goals are either the hardest or easiest to come up with, but they’re also the most pivotal and the most personal. None means that a character has no meaningful desires. One means that theirs is all-consuming, be it the lust for power or the desire for ice cream. Two makes one bipolar in a way. For these, it appears that frankly, the more the merrier.
In talking about too few, we must also talk about too many. How many is too many? When there’s too many. When goals stop becoming manageable, conflict with each other in ways that aren’t interesting, or are taken up and discarded willy-nilly. What’s the point of aspiring to something if, next week, it’s gone? There’s certainly room for a dilettante character, but a dilettante’s goals are synergized by their desire to have more goals than average. Too many metagame goals often result in a jack of all trades who’s really a jack of no trades. The consequence of too many game goals is perpetual boredom or a game full of pirate/prince/mountaineers where the whole scope of the game changes every week. And too many character goals usually just means that none of them can be accomplished, since all of them ought to be pursued. Part of the joy of playing D&D is playing people whose lives are somewhat less complicated than our own, with all of our goal-related madness.
Following the Story
Going along with the story is not a goal worth having. Flat out. It’s a denial of agency, and a commitment of a willingness to be entertained rather than an investment in participating in the game. If someone just wants to go along with the story, they should probably go play a videogame. Read a choose-your-own-adventure book, or just read a regular book. The point of a cooperative game isn’t to go along with the story, but to create the story. Even in a linear campaign which limits the scope of the players’ decisions, there are still decisions to be made. Just like D&D isn’t about one single character, it’s also not about the GM’s vision of a tale of epic fantasy. If you’re interested in that tale, just ask to hear it sometime, instead of presenting the illusion of participating in it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some sort of buy in required, that’s what game goals are for, but just going along with the game goals isn’t playing the game. In a game about tactical, strategic, and dramatic decision making, the story follower has chosen to be a spectator.
A key thing to remember about the above goal strategies is that they’re not always bad in every way. In various mediums, they make for excellent goals. But in the context of a cooperative action/adventure roleplaying game, they don’t always work very well, though even then, they can be made to work with the right leverage.
This is the most important thing about goals. I like the S.M.A.R.T. guidelines, but there’s other ones, and if they’re followed, then goals are going to be attainable. This means that you have to think about what happens when you get what you want. This isn’t forty years ago, where the dreams of player characters are merely things to be crushed underfoot by the traps and monsters of a cackling dungeon master. These things are doable, and there are consequences for doing them. Furthermore, they are victory conditions. When you achieve them, you are winning at D&D. In some cases, they represent actual victory conditions, because they lead to a character retiring (which is an expiry date, but not necessarily a bad one because ideally the goal will be very long term and represented in many stages). More likely, they lead to the acquiring of more goals, which takes you back to last week.
There’s a lot that can be said about goals and the nature of them, and it’s something I’ll definitely come back to, but I think this is a good foundation from which to work. What do you think? How do you handle these kinds of goals and work with players to make them constructive?