Tuesday, September 15, 2015

CUTE!! Thought Eater Tournament

New entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

Again: these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG peeps who were both assigned to write about: Cute: the Uses of Cute, Anything You Have To Say About Cute.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CUTE1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

In a Fourth-Edition-era podcast, one of the game developers complained about his character's lame Figurine of Wondrous Power, the "Pearl Sea Horse." The devs ribbed each other about how this magic item managed to get published. At the time, I thought, wow, this dev team needs more perspectives. I know plenty of players who would love that sea horse.

The Pearl Seahorse was one of the few cute elements that slipped into a very macho edition. The 4e designers avoided anything cute or whimsical as if they were afraid of D&D backsliding into My Little Pony - as if they wanted to make the statement that D&D was a grown-up, serious, spiky fantasy game. In doing so, 4e missed a cue from the most influential grown-up serious spiky fantasist of our time, George R R Martin, who literally started Game of Thrones by giving every character a puppy.

Brain stirrers

There's something about the fantasy of acquiring money: the desire is so strong, and the payoff is so sweet, that it's as if the smell of gold reaches straight into the brain, bypassing reason and decision making, to stir the grey matter to action. That's a major reason why the old school D&D treasure hunt is such a heady brew. Even in 5e, where you don't get XP for GP and there's virtually nothing to spend your money on, many players - myself included - rapaciously hunt down every silver piece they can find. For these players, all that's necessary for a game is for the DM to say "there's money in this hole in the ground" and step back. The players will make their own game.

For a smaller subset of players - again including myself - the desire for cute things is as hardwired as the desire for money. For a brief period while playing through the 3e Red Hand of Doom module, acquiring an intelligent giant owl mount became more important to me than saving Elsir Vale. In the game I'm DMing now, the party cleric will do anything for the safety and comfort of her oracular otters.

If you're a DM lucky enough to have one of these - let's call them "cuteness sensitive" - players in your group, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to increase everyone's investment in your campaign world. All you have to do is introduce an animal, a kid, a unicorn, or a pseudodragon - in any capacity - and step back. The cuteness-sensitive players will be sucked into the narrative and pull the rest of the players along with them. They'll make their own game. They'll come up with plans to befriend this creature, protect that creature from those potential dangers, and, in general, save you a lot of work. (I spent my most recent D&D session assassinating a Fever-Dreaming Marlinko NPC because we'd heard that her orphanage charity was insufficiently charitable.)

Don't think of this as a lever to manipulate players but as a spring that generates gameplay, like the players' desire for money and mayhem. And it's an underused spring, because of the cuteness-negative DMs who think that everyone would be ashamed to ride a seahorse.

the cuteness rule

Now that I've made a case for the cute in D&D, I have to add a warning. Movies generally abide by a narrative rule about what you're allowed to do to cute things. This rule carries over to D&D. I DMed one game where some players intended to cut off a cow's legs to jam it, still living, through a sewer tunnel. A cuteness-positive player objected with real anger and nearly attacked the other characters. Beneath the anger was a sense of betrayal that I, as the DM, could countenance such a should-be-impossibility. On their side, the cow-threateners were perfectly aware of the narrative rule, and were titillated by the idea of breaking it.

The Cuteness Rule is this: don't kill or torture innocent things onscreen. Don't demonstrate a villain's evil by having him kill a baby, or introduce a little lost pseudodragon so that you can have a monster jump out and eat it before the players' eyes. You might make the players mad, but it will be an immersion-breaking anger at the DM. If the players have no hand in the death, it's not the players staking something valuable, it's the DM using an emotional trick to bludgeon them.

So does everything cute get a free pass? No sir. You can slaughter all the adorable little NPCs you want under the following exceptions to the Cuteness Rule:

You can kill combatants. A player buys a war dog. Even if he says it's a sweater-wearing war dachshund with one ear flopped over, and even if he loves his pretend dog, it's a combatant and he's offering it up as stakes every time he takes it into battle.

You can put cute things at risk. If Cruella de Vil gets her hands on some puppies, she's going to try to turn them into coats.  Cuteness-positive players will make a lot of sacrifices to stop her, including storming her house, which is good because Cruella's house is probably a great, creepy dungeon worth exploring. The important thing is not that the puppies live, it's that the players had a chance to save them. Even if the players try their best and fail, that's the game rules killing the puppies, not some jerk of a DM.

You can kill a killer bunny. Players will happily slaughter anything, no matter how cute, if it does a heel turn first. Carbuncles, for instance, look adorable but turn out to be dicks. Don't overuse this trick or players will write off everything cute as a probable villain.

You can do whatever you want if you're that good. (moldy old spoilers ahead) Atticus shoots a dog, Sophie chooses a kid. George R R Martin kills puppies. If you think you're good enough of a storyteller to turn a dead owl familiar into an emotionally transcendant moment, then do whatever you want. Otherwise, stick to the Cuteness Rule.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CUTE2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Cute things. Cuteness. What is it? How does it work? How should you use it (and not use it)?

For me, thinking about “cute” starts out with its presumed evolutionary origin: finding things cute was “adaptive”. For those not into evolutionary lingo, what that means is that those mammals that found their babies adorable, rather than insufferable, did more to take care of them. With that care, more babies grew up, were successful, and reproduced - passing on the trait of finding things cute. Basically, cuteness creates an emotional connection. And we can use that for RPGs.

Now, what’s interesting is that the propensity to find certain traits cute doesn’t stop with your own babies, or even with your own species. Anything that shows similar traits reads as “cute”. Kittens. Puppies. Even cuttlefish with their big eyes and big “heads” compared to their bodies. Even though most cute features are visual, some are tactile - like being soft or fluffy.

So, cuteness is: A primarily visual way to make otherwise annoying or demanding things likeable.

What does that tell us for RPGs? First, if you want to make something cute, rely on visual description. It’s even better if you provide pictures. Either way, go for stereotypically babyish features: big head, large eyes, small nose, stubby limbs, being “soft”, being obviously playful, being confused/amazed by everyday things, and getting overly upset/scared by everyday things.

Basically, if you want to make something cute, think about a baby or a puppy, and make your thing more like one of those.

Okay, so what do you do with it? First, the obvious: you can use the emotional reaction to something cute to motivate the players to take care of something. Even something that would pragmatically be an eminently droppable burden. Want to give some teeth to the “protect the royal prince” mission? Make that kid freaking adorable.

Related is another pretty basic choice: make pets or companions a more enjoyable thing to have around. Players will emotionally connect more with cute imaginary creatures/children/ companions and like them better because of it.

Now, you can also twist it around on players. Trap or “gotcha” monsters can be more enticing if they are cute. I’d use this sparingly, though, especially if you intend to make cuteness matter elsewhere. Use it too much, and it’ll be just another thing for your callous players to ignore.

It gets more interesting when you consider the ways you can pervert cuteness without cheapening it. One classic example is using cuteness to force awkward or uncomfortable decisions. Zak S. recently used this technique with his horrible Jackelmen: they throw babies in spiked armor as a weapon. Players have to choose between saving the baby and taking damage, or dodging the babies and letting them die. Ouch. Arnold K. has “Feral Babies” - horrible little beasts that will attack you for real damage, but are otherwise normal human babies with parents and families and everything. How do you deal with that? Or what about the old chestnut of using dogs or pigs as totally expendable fodder? I bet if you were able to foster even a fraction of the protective feeling owners have for their real pets, you’d see much different decisions about risking them.

Cuteness can also help to create a feeling of weirdness and horror. The most obvious way is putting cute things at risk or doing them harm. This might genuinely upset people or come across as cheap, so use some care - but the whole point of cuteness is that it creates an instant emotional investment in something. You can use that emotional investment to make a real impact that’s hard to do otherwise.

If you want to get really nasty, make the creepy/weird thing cute in and of itself. Like a baby who makes neighbors’ heads explode with psychic outbursts. Or an adorable puppy that tears people apart on the full moon. This edges into the “awkward decisions” mentioned above, but the emotional conflict will also make any horror or weirdness genuinely more unsettling. Unless it devolves into over the top gross/shocking humor, but hey, that’s a fun game too. It might even be useful or interesting to provide situations where your players will clearly want or need to act against something cute. In the same way that occasionally playing an explicitly “evil” character can be fun and rewarding exactly because it lets you ignore usual constraints on actions, you and your players might enjoy making unfettered decisions about cute things - even if it’s a “wow that was so fucked up!” kind of enjoyment.

Contrariwise, you can present something that is actually bad, but is still just so darn cute. Such an approach will probably lead to more laughs than difficult decisions, but it will certainly make things memorable. The key difference from creating weirdness is that here the cute thing isn’t accidentally doing bad stuff. It’s more weird/horrible when you have something cute accidentally doing bad stuff, while it’s more funny when you have something bad that happens to be cute. Think Yzma in Emperor’s New Groove when she gets turned into a kitten.

So, what about how not to use cuteness? Well, no surprise here, but the worst thing you can do is use cuteness as an excuse to override player agency. Trying to force the players to act “cute” to enforce a certain aesthetic? Lame. Insisting that something in-game is cute when the players don’t seem to be treating it that way? Weak sauce.

Cuteness’s whole deal in real life is that it motivates behavior without any coercive power. That kitten can’t really make you do anything - it is literally entirely in your power - but gosh darn it if you don’t really want to take care of it.

This might actually be the most interesting implication of using cute in your games. RPGs tend to rely on pragmatic, concrete “levers” to motive action. Stuff like threats to safety or promises of reward - things that are easy to care about even when they’re imaginary. A lot of the things that motivate us very powerfully in real life - like sexual attraction, desire for glory and prestige, feelings of guilt or obligation - are really hard to use well in RPGs unless your players are really into it or. Cuteness, though,already “hijacks” behaviors, so it provides a lever that can be as compelling as the more concrete, pragmatic stuff.

As great as it is, you have to be judicious. If you make everything cute, or if cute stuff is always dangerous, then it starts losing its power. I recommend dangling potentially cute things sporadically, and once any of the players engage, play that cuteness to the hilt.

Cuteness is a shortcut to emotional engagement. We can take advantage of that shortcut by describing deeply ingrained visual cues and behaviors. That engagement produces richer decision making, which makes for more weirdness, horror, humor, and enjoyment. It’s a softer tool for our toolbox than the usual kinds of threat or reward. To keep its value, though, we want to stop short from forcing the resonance, or from diluting it by over-application.

Go forth and make your games adorable!

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