In this article I once again delve into the awesome ‘The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide’ by James D’Amato to bring you another advanced technique to enhance the narrative of your tabletop games. This time, we’re looking at Looking For Trouble – the art of landing your character in fun but perilous situations.
Most protagonists in stories do things that the audience don’t want them to do in order to create drama and interesting stories. However in RPGs we protect and control our characters so they stay away from harm and failure, because we see our characters as either extensions of ourselves, or people we care about because we inhabit them for hours at a time. Getting our characters into trouble can create a lot of fun moments and sessions in games, and let our characters feel more satisfying to play. Playing To Protect is probably the default setting for someone approaching a TTRPG either for the first time or one hundredth time. But why?
Well first of all, RPGs are games, and the games they have evolved from task the players with quests and objectives to complete to ‘win’ or progress through. Reserving resources such as health, ammo and spell slots all seem like a natural way to play. Touching the obviously evil orb in the centre of the chamber is most likely going to be a bad mechanical ‘trade’ in terms of resource and reward.
Second, playing protectively is a self-defense mechanism. If you’ve ever been in a haunted house or watched a horror film with others, you’ll notice people cling on to reality and logic to avoid getting scared, i.e. “It’s not real! They can’t touch you! It’s all make-up! It’s so unrealistic!” When playing RPGs, there can be this same instinct to avoid getting affected by the game, even if it closes you off from emotional payoff.
Thirdly, we play RPGs as a group, and we also want to protect our friends. We also want to protect ourselves from scorn from our friends when we run the unoptimised path. Something GMs should do more is calling out the scorning done by more experienced players when newer ones play outside the optimised path like this is a cooperative board game. An TTRPG actually has very few failstates, and the margin of error between progressing the narrative in an optimal way and, say, a total party kill (TPK) is quite large.
The unforeseen consequence of the above is that the GM is then tasked with breaking apart these protections by creating an antagonistic world to have something interesting happen, and this turns the game into a war between the players and the GM. If there is no trouble created by the party, the world has to throw it at them instead.
There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about this play style, and as usual I will say that playing out dungeons as mechanical puzzles or out-of-character gaming is valid. After all, this is how they were first intended to be played – dungeons in D&D still work like this today. But it means the dungeons have to squeeze out those health points, items and spell slots in ways that can feel malicious or manipulative because the designers know players won’t expend them unless they have to. ‘Oh you pray at the statue of that god? Receive 3d6 HP! Oh you pray at that statue? You are poisoned!’
So why change the formula if it kind of works? Because if you’re looking for something more narratively satisfying, we need to look at how drama is created in other media. There’s a piece of advice given to players in the game ‘Technoir’ to embody the noir style character we see in film and read about in books – I’ll paraphrase: go out and shake the world until something falls out. Noir characters go out and investigate scenes of interest, they get beat up, they go back to their office for a drink and a plaster, they go back out to get answers from a suspect, they rile people up to force them to make a mistake, etc. They are, you guessed it, moving the story forward by Looking For Trouble!
As James says in his book, ‘the philosophy of ‘Looking For Trouble’ is a change in priority’. Instead of going from A to B in the most efficient manner possible, it’s about trying to fill that journey with interesting moments. Again James compares RPGs to improv, where performers are encouraged to create interesting scenes by acting out a heightened state of reality. And yes that is why some actual play performances sound almost soap opera-esque in their self-created drama – a far cry from the pragmatic approach to handling quests most of us are used to! Whatever is happening, this should be incredibly important to your characters, and they should be invested into these – quite often – life or death scenarios. Looking For Trouble is finding out what it takes to get your character become invested in this way.
If we go back to the idea of things that characters do in media that drive us mad because it seems counter-intuitive (James uses the example of a ‘spooky door’ that characters will open in horror films), we can tell they only do it to drive the narrative forward. However, when we look at the scene as a whole, the character can be in two situations: on the safe side where they are finding reasons to not open the door, the tension slowly fizzing away, or they have come through to other side, and are dealing with the consequences. Which side sounds more fun to play out in an RPG? Would you rather be fighting that monster or finding out what your character would do in a daunting situation, or would you rather spend time working out ways to avoid it by bending rules and hand waving immersion? The GM has done their part by putting the door or monster there in front of the players and giving them some reason to move towards it, the players should meet them halfway by engaging with it in a fun, dramatic way.
So how do we go about Looking For Trouble? In his book, James has outlined three steps which will help you get there: playing off your weaknesses, finding what is fun, and creating agreement. Let’s take a look at each:
Strength Through Weakness
We’re not talking about mechanical weakness here, and I’m not a fan of the ‘I have a low score in Intelligence so I’m just going to do stupid things’ kind of play. Incorporating weaknesses or flaws into your character mean that they have beliefs or character traits that can get the better of them, if the situation calls for it. I can’t stress the following point enough though: a flaw is something that everyone battles to outgrow, but we can’t always. A normal character should be able to keep a lid on it in unstressed circumstances.
If your character’s flaw is that they have a chip on your shoulder regarding their poor upbringing, your character is not going to be murdering every noble they meet. However, will this tip the scales when a rich merchant who has done wrong is at your mercy? Perhaps!
James provides a list of questions to help you generate any interesting weakness in your character:
- Is there something here that might tempt me to take a risk?
- What strongly held belief might blind me to something obvious to another person?
- What point of pride can I not afford to let go?
- Who am I trying to impress?
- What limitation do I refuse to acknowledge?
- What answers do I believe will set me free?
- Is there something I’m underestimating?
What Seems Fun?
The GM has placed trouble in the world in the form of the quest/adventure, but it’s up to the party to decide how to confront it. Recalling our examples from noir, there are many ways in which the party could go about getting what they want, and sometimes it pays to just think what would be the most fun! The answer to this may be “going in all guns blazing” like you’re playing GTA or CoD, which is valid but not very interesting, and will only get less interesting the more you do it. If there is a narrative to explore, you’re not going to engage it much by doing this.
The more risky but potentially more fun and rewarding options may be using stealth to sneak around, finding ways to blag your way through using deception, leaning on contacts and other NPCs, etc. Expanding your narrative arsenal, especially if it relies on a weakness (“I’d love to see the look on the commander’s face when they find out I walked in under their nose and stole their codes”) will pay dividends in entertaining play. And a frontal assault will still fit a character who’s reached the limits of their patience.
This is the legal bit at the bottom that is here to make clear that by doing the actions above, you should not frustrate your fellow players. If it ruins their fun, it’s not worth it. So how do you make sure you don’t? Communication. Talk with the group about your plan, and if it gets shot down (again, please don’t do this other players), hit them with not only ‘this is what my character would prefer because of X’, but also, ‘I think this is going to be way more interesting’. In order to develop a good Looking For Trouble scene with buy-in from the rest of the group, James provides us with the following plan:
State a goal – Let the other players and GM know what it is you’re trying to do. What weakness are you leveraging, how do you want this to affect play?
Establish boundaries – Make sure the group knows who this action affects, and if those characters agree. Also establish what failure looks like, in order to limit consequences to just your character if needed.
Check in – Discuss choices being made, especially if this will escalate the trouble to go beyond the boundaries set. We don’t want a GTA-style 1-star digression to become 5 stars at the expense of the quest and the party because of cascading effects. Play with the rest of the group to find ways to contain the trouble, even if it means taking further hits for your own failure.
With that framework in mind, Looking For Trouble should be a useful tool for implementing dramatic moments into your campaigns and sessions. The key thing to remember is to frame your campaign as a story, and let your character be vulnerable, emotionally and physically! If you can only perceive (or be bothered) to play power gamer or chaotic stupid, and you are interested in more narrative plays, then start with creating weaknesses in your character, and try playing off them in game. Your GM will talk through it with you in ways to limit the damage, and you can have some fun with your character who you should be excited to play every week.
And that is Looking for Trouble! I hope you enjoyed it. As before this is what you would call an Advanced Technique when it comes to TTRPGs, and focused more on narrative games and getting the most out of your roleplaying, so don’t think this is something you definitely have to do especially as a newer player. But establishing how important narrative is to a campaign is always recommended.