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Consent: A Cooperative Approach of Role-play
[02/14/2007] [Glen]

Imagine you have a player base of 500 people in a fantasy setting. Imagine most of them have never met each other face to face. Imagine they are playing behind the safe anonymity of a computer screen. Imagine you have a system where casual violence is the norm. Imagine characters are free to equip themselves with any magic, weapons or armor they desire, constrained only by the barest limit of "weapons more advanced than a modern firearm function poorly in most places" and a few rules about magic operating slowly enough that other people can notice and react to the casting of a spell before the spell completes. Having imagined this far, you probably expect this setup to require massive moderator oversight or a massive, complexly programmed combat resolution system. Instead, this setup worked for many years with no more than a relative ranking of characters in very broad player skills (E.G. You have a 50 in the broad category of "warfare.") and a simple comparison program that allowed two players to compare categories and describe the difference. (E.G. Your "warfare" is "noticeably better" than Aitri's.)

What made this apparently impossible system work was the concept of consent and the resulting need for negotiation. If my character, "Aesil", wanted to shoot Matt's character "Aitri" in the head, I would initiate violence in-game and then I would have to contact Matt Out-Of-Character (OOC) to negotiate outcomes. Matt would rarely be amenable to my character outright killing his. Like many systems, death was permanent and a considerable setback to game play. Instead, we would negotiate a resolution that was mutually acceptable to both of us, aided by the "who wins" mechanic of comparing rankings (which were typically secret and thus unknown to the other players until the actual comparison was made) and taking situational modifiers into effect. We might discover that "Aitri" was far superior to "Aesil" in the whole arena of armed combat, thus meaning that not only was I unlikely to shoot Matt's character in the head, I stood a good chance of getting my own character perforated. We might also discover that Aesil really was one very dangerous dude and was perfectly capable of defeating Aitri in armed combat, especially since Aesil gained an initial advantage by sneaking up on Aitri while Aitri was trapped in a restaurant booth.

The point is that we would negotiate outcomes. At any point, both Matt and I had the option of saying, "No, that just doesn't work for me. I'm not going to allow that to happen to my character. How about if this happens instead?" You had to consent to everything that happened to your character. Surprisingly, this didn't mean that awful things did not happen to people's characters. It did not mean that characters did not die. It didn't even mean that people did not become distraught over some catastrophic turn of events. What it did mean is that, even if they were losing, they felt some measure of control. It meant that the weak were not utterly at the mercy of the strong. It meant that the weak did not instantly recover the moment they were free of the grasp of the strong. It meant that the system was able to work.

Role-play in Amtgard, however, usually does not work this way. The reason is that only two of the three vital ingredients are present in Amtgard. First, Amtgard has a consent based system. You can not permanently kill off my character without my agreement. I can be the same guy in the next game. Realistically, you can't even kill or wound my character without my consent, since we call our own shots. What makes people take their shots? Peer pressure and a common consensus that that is the way we will play: the same things that can enforce consent and consequences in a role-playing system.

Second, Amtgard has a system for resolving who is going to win a fight, which is the game itself. People can generally tell who is the better fighter, or will at least have an opinion one way or the other. More directly, however, we have a system to actually fight it out and determine who the winner is.

What Amtgard has lacked is the sense of negotiation to gain consent and consensus that the previously mentioned system had. If some random warrior spouts off about how he is mighty, there is nothing to prevent me from calling him a "cow-hearted cur" and killing him over and over again until he is shattered, and then severing him. Likewise, there is nothing to prevent him from just coming back and doing the same thing again in the next battle game or quest. There is no negotiation of consequences, which often means there are both excessive consequences (immediate slaughter and severing) and no consequences (no permanence of these results.)

A fair amount of role-play, especially role-play that leads up to the Climactic Battle between Companies or The Big Quest, takes place on-line. A little time spent discussing play-goals and acceptable and unacceptable long-term consequences can go a long way to stimulating both persistence and mitigation of consequences. After stomping the random warrior into the ground the first time, a few moments Out-of-Character discussion with him before he heads to Nirvana can both prevent frayed tempers and establish some framework for our interaction. Likewise, with live role-play on the field, past discussions and negotiations can guide current role-play. If things begin to progress into uncharted territory and one side or the other feels the need for some Out-of-Character limits or guidelines, a few minutes of discussion can save hours of future headaches. Even a quick "Hey, Out-of-Character, no severing, okay? Everything else is cool" can do the trick.

When negotiating for consent to consequences, common sense, creativity, and open-mindedness are all important. Common sense is important because all participants need to be able to determine what are realistic and fair consequences and outcomes and what are not. Having your character killed, severed, and forever unplayable is hardly a fair or reasonable consequence for using the wrong salad fork at Feast. However, if you've already role-played out that your foe burned down your home, killed your wife, and molested your cat, then common sense should dictate that severing or some equally awful consequence is a possible outcome for him.

Creativity is important for several reasons. First, you need to think up consequences between "nothing" and "dead forever." It's often handy for your character to have something to lose, as this provides you with consequences ready made. "Surrender half of farm" or "Foe kills Favorite Cat" are two examples of middle-ground consequences. Second, sometimes creativity is required to stay true to a character concept. How can you be a ruthless, cold-hearted scion of evil if you rarely kill anyone? Creativity! Dead people don't suffer. Give Bobo a permanent limp (which you can then taunt him about in-character), give Aitri a screaming fear of forests, make Ash cry endlessly over her poor lost pet rat, and so forth. Negotiation can often help discover these non-permanently-fatal consequences, as both the victim and the victor can brainstorm for consequences they can accept.

Open-Mindedness is important because you must be careful not to get locked into a set script. Everyone has their own story to tell, and sometimes you will be surprised. Perhaps that wimpy "Baron Viridian" guy you heard of and confidently challenged to mortal combat because you're by far the best fighter in your shire turns out to be Sir Brennon Viridian, Warlord, Five-time Weaponmaster, and Knight of the Sword. Maybe you were confident you could defeat Mortius Nuntius in any battle, but a tremendous number of people appear to like the evil fellow and show up on their own to stomp your force into a mud hole. Open-mindedness also means accepting the consequences of your actions. If you get involved in role-play, bad things may happen to your character, no matter how powerful you are, how nice you are, or how many friends you have. You may run afoul of a cruel and unkind character, you may get involved with one group of people, only to discover that you have gained their in-game enemies with their in-game company, or you may simply have bad luck. In Amtgard, anyone can defeat anyone else, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

Consent is required for successful role-play in Amtgard. Negotiation is the key to gaining people's consent and getting them involved. Before you set out to utterly destroy your foe, or decide to quit Amtgard because some guy called you a "cow-hearted cur", try talking to them Out-of-Character to discuss the situation and negotiate parameters for the conflict. Don't decide who wins; simply establish limits and guidelines to guide your role-play. Be creative, be open-minded, and have fun.

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