Not So Grand Experiments: the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese (part 2)

(continued from part 1, of course)

We’re told that the premise of the scenario is that our two teams have boarded an abandoned freighter and are vying to gain control. The goal is simple: wipe out the other team and you win. Theoretically this is only the first scenario and we may play through others if we have the time. As it turns out there will be no time for more scenarios: this one combat will consume the entire game session.

I don’t waste any time establishing that my character is a smart-ass. There’s an equipment draw, the caveat being that there is only one of each thing on the list — if someone already picked it, you can’t have it. Instead of taking the items that were obviously meant for my character (like the big dwarven hammer), I grab things that are essential to people on the other team. The samurai wants the one (foam) katana, so naturally I take it instead. Then I make light sabre noises while I wave it around mockingly. Of course I have zero ability with a katana, but as a player I am trying to start breaking down the simulation and kick start the feuding and the fighting. Forget the scenario: the samurai now wants to find me and kick my ass.

For good measure I provoke everyone else too: as a dwarf I have lowlight vision (or whatever they call it in Shadowrun) so of course I use every miscellaneous draw I have to snatch up all the nightvision/infrared goggles… which of course I don’t need. Now I’ve cornered the market on seeing in the dark. My neck is gleefully festooned with unused goggles and (hopefully) I’ve made myself public enemy number 1.

Big ship floor plans are laid out on the game table and our two teams are placed at different starting points. Theoretically we don’t know where the other team is and we don’t have a map of the place (even though we can see the whole thing) so there is substantial metagaming required to block out all this information. It’s something of a moot point because (surprisingly) the teams start out right next to each other and both have surprisingly good means of finding each other (either magical life detection, or super senses, or just listening carefully for footsteps).

Again I’m thinking: clever! By showing us the whole map and letting us metagame, the GM is diffusing the tactical element and making it easy for us to manipulate events. We can split up and “accidentally” bump into people if we want, setting up interactions with particular characters we might want to face off against.

Of course none of that happens. The two teams collide almost immediately, get locked in a brutal slugfest in a small room. Most of the characters never leave that room for the rest of the game. It’s a long, long point-blank gun fight across a conference room table. With fake guns.

Confusing the Metaphor: Your imaginary character pretends to take damage

Remember when you first started gaming? Someone said, okay we have these imaginary characters in this imaginary world and they’re going to slay imaginary monsters and collect imaginary treasure. And you might have thought to yourself, why would I care what happens to an imaginary hero? Who cares if I jump into the imaginary dragon’s mouth or kill all the other imaginary characters in their sleep and take their imaginary treasure. None of it’s real, right?

This is the first critical step of learning to game: agreeing that the fate of all these imaginary people means anything. Agreeing to treat the whole imaginary sequence of events as being in any way important. Buying in and respecting the fiction.

It’s a crucial skill, but in a game like the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese it can be your worst enemy.

The fight breaks out, and bang bang bang, it’s shadowrunner versus shadowrunner. Katanas slash, monofilament whips slice, and guns blaze… except of course, they don’t.

It’s all fake remember? Our characters are running around in a maze of rooms, but we’re shooting “lazer tag” guns and hitting each other with foam boffer weapons. The terrifying monofilament whip is perhaps a bit of string. Damage was indicated by a wrist gadget with colored bars. You had ten slots and each lit up as you took more damage. When it hit ten you were “dead”, which meant (by the rules) your character was supposed to stand still and refrain from talking.

And here lies the rub. Players at a game table are trained over and over again to look at little figures on a board and roll dice and imagine they are fighting for their lives. Then the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese comes along and says “your imaginary character isn’t taking pretend damage this time, he’s pretending to take pretend damage.”

Intellectually that’s easy to grasp. Reading this description, you get it. But at the table, in the moment, that distinction got lost over and over and over again. Everyone forgot it was a game about a fake fight and acted like it was just a game about a fight, just like every other game. Their training took over.

Overwhelmed by Crunch

It didn’t help that we used the exact same combat rules as normal Shadowrun. There’s a lot of dice rolling, a lot of calculating results and figuring out damage thresholds and all that crunch puts the focus back on the details of the combat even though there isn’t really a combat going on.

“Oh man, that explosion is going to wipe you guys out!” But wait, I say, it’s not an explosion, it’s just a flashbulb going off or something like that right? “Uh, yeah sure. But look at the Shadowrun rules for explosions inside enclosed spaces! The shock waves will bounce off the walls and do damage again!” But there are no shock waves, there is no explosion, right?

We even used the penalties caused by being wounded: you get shot by a faux lazer tag Uzi, take a big hit on your damage badge, but because the Shadowrun rules say wounded people take penalties you now have a harder time doing things like climbing up ladders. Which of course makes no sense — you’re not wounded, you’re fine.

So when a shadowrunner popped up and strafed someone with a (fake) smartgun and then rolled massive damage, the reaction wasn’t “well ha, ha the damage is fake so I don’t care.” Because of the wound penalties the imaginary damage wasn’t really imaginary at all. It really did impair you. So your urge is to react like it’s a real fight, because it is, sort of.

Add to that a very basic psychological factor: if you are getting spanked by mechanics, you want to hit back. When another player spends five minutes rolling dice to heap damage on you (and yes, resolving a single attack took a pretty healthy chunk of time) you want to show that your character is just as effective and smack them back with the mechanics. But it’s another trap: you get sucked back into believing in the fake fight. You play you character fighting for his/her life, instead of playing your character running around pretending to be in a fight.

Mistaken Authority: Chuck E. Cheese is not the GM

Something I do quite a bit in games is make suggestions in-character that as a player I don’t want to have happen, and then let the other characters talk me out of it.

I have my shady mercenary grumble about how we could forget protecting the village from the bandits and just slink off with our reward money. Why? Because that gives other more noble characters an opportunity to speechify about goodness and the sanctity of human life. No, I (the player) don’t want to slink off. I (the player) want to spur roleplaying. I’m passing them the ball, providing contrast so the other players can show off their virtues. I’m providing a straw man for the other players to beat on.

Where it goes horribly awry is when the other players (or even the GM) don’t get it. You can stop play and say straight to someone’s face “no, I don’t really want to do that, I’m having my character say this because you are going to talk me out of it and it will lead to an interesting roleplaying interaction” yet some people will still look at you like you have two heads. They think you are doing the “why would my druid leave the woods?” slavish roleplaying thing, blocking the game because it’s against your character.

Which is what happens in the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese. I play devil’s advocate and have my smart-ass dwarf prattle on about how we could just find a quiet room and hide and take a nap, wait the whole thing out — we get paid either way, right? Naturally I (the player) don’t want to do that because it would be incredibly boring, but I want to provoke a discussion of why we would or wouldn’t do that and underline that this whole thing isn’t real. Get that roleplaying started, I figure.

It doesn’t fly. Not even a little.

I think I’m embracing the premise and mocking the suits from Chuck E. Cheese.

The other players think I’m rejecting the premise and mocking the GM.

Once again this is a good habit that has gone horribly awry. Any prepared GMed game requires a gentleman’s agreement: the players are basically agreeing to play the game that was prepared. It’s a faux pas to let the GM prep a dungeon and then show up at the game and say “you know what, let’s not go in.” Sure it happens all the time, and sure sometimes it turns out great, but as a player you have to recognize what you are doing. You have to respect the time the GM already invested, just as you respect the time everyone at the table is spending right now, during the game. (and yes, there’s the whole other discussion about how interacting with the prepared game is not the same as doing what the GM wants — you can interact with it however you want, you just shouldn’t walk away from it)

The players in this game have learned that rule and taken it too far. They are confusing the GM and his authority with the NPCs within the game who are giving us the job. They are forgetting that Chuck E. Cheese is not the GM. Breaking the rules of the simulation is not breaking the rules of the game we are all sitting down to play.

So Close But So Far

Mix all that together, and you have a painful, painful game. Sometimes games get bogged down in combat and drag on, but at least then you get to win at the end. But there are no winners in the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese, because the battle was (by design) meaningless in the first place. You couldn’t even weakly cheer about surviving danger because there wasn’t any.

There were bright moments where the game almost broke through, where the players almost crossed the line. We’d established that the different types of armor we got were also just badges, and one of the players got the clever idea to just snatch the uberpowerful assault armor badge off his opponent’s lapel in the middle of the melee. It was an awesome idea, and I jumped up and down and screamed for the player to go through with it even though he was on the other team. I was hoping the whole slugfest — which was now boring almost everyone to tears — would finally turn itself on its head, but he missed his attack roll and the whole idea got dropped. No one else ran with it.

Another time one “dead” character was standing around in the middle of the firefight, muttering to himself about how tragic it was that now that he was dead all he had to do was stand around and wait to collect his pay (“oh the agony!”) but that roleplaying was a few slender seconds next to minutes and minutes of other characters rolling dice and figuring out their attacks (again, overwhelmed by crunch).

There was also a momentarily hilarious exchange where that same “dead” character got frisked in the middle of a firefight by a female teammate desperate for some equipment. They momentarily alluded to how she was copping a feel on the handsome “dead” guy now that she had a chance (“um, that’s not the pocket I keep the medkit in”) but again it got overwhelmed by the needs of the fake fight.

In the end even the people who were interested in roleplaying (my comrades in arms) were just too bored and tired to try anymore.

My Bad

My mistake was thinking there really was a secret plan for this game session. There wasn’t. It was a straight fight between PCs, minus the danger of death. It was a way for the GM to accommodate a bunch of players for a single game session without derailing his usual game. That’s all.

Even without a plan, it could have been an accidental masterpiece. Even completely inexperienced players could have wandered into interesting territory by getting irked and choosing to break the “rules” of Chuck E. Cheese. And it could have been awesome.

But good players don’t break the GM’s rules, and that’s where the tragedy comes in. Great players would have run with the scenario. Even worse players would have probably done better, because they might have rebelled more. The middle path of “following the rules” led to the worst of all possible games.

Tell us who won!

Please… seriously? It’s a fake fight remember? “The only way to win is not to play,” and so on.

I will tell you that the dwarf (harkening to racial stereotypes) was the only character to search for and find treasure. But that coveted treasure turned out to be a measly heavy pistol. Blinded by rage (and a desire to finish the game dramatically since time was up) he sprang on his foes, foam katana flashing, and was mercilessly (virtually) cut down by flashlight guns. Finally. Then we all went home.

    Ben Robbins | November 21st, 2008 | grand experiments | show 9 comments