“All This and Brains Too” Part One

Did you ever see anyone actually wearing a T-shirt with this slogan on it? What did you think?

Ponder that. I’ll get to my point. I want to talk about beauty, as in, “wowza”! I want to talk about this with gaming in mind.

Gaming — as we know it, really comes from storytelling — and stories of beautiful women go back to many, many roots… from Rapunzel to Snow White to Elf-babe number 38. One story we may all know, is good ol’ Helen of Troy. The O.H. “Original Hottie.” (Not now Laura! I’ll talk about David Boreanaz later.)

Helen, so the story goes, is THE woman with THE “face that launched a thousand ships.” She was so beautiful that armies fought over her. Now, yeah, I know there were gods and politics and a giant wooden horse involved, but none of that detracts from the point… Helen was a dead-on Looker of the first order.

(Author’s aside: I’m a guy — a mostly hetero guy who really likes women. Gets me in trouble all the time… But that’s neither here nor there. I’m just pointing out that I’m going to write about women. I don’t mean to be sexist, I just don’t really feel equipped to speak on the subject of masculine beauty. Any comments from my female readers will be highly appreciated. Thank you.)

Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world.

But why?

That’s my question. That, and how can you wrap a game system around that notion.

Let me give an example. Years ago, I’m running a GURPs Horror game, and all the Players are high school boys. A story arc of this game involved two women. One is this exceptionally beautiful socialite (whatever that means) and the other woman is the socialite’s cute, bookish friend, Heather. I can’t remember the hot girl’s name just now, so we’re going to call her Rebecca — I just like the name. I had pictures straight out of a book for these two characters and I showed them to the guys before they ever interacted with either on a role-playing level, and before I described them at all in words. 4 out of 5 boys in that group thought that Heather was much better looking than her model beautiful friend. Why? I have no clue, but they found her more attractive. It could have been my role-playing, once we got to that (I play a hot girl very well, btw). It could have been the group make-up… a bunch of geeky high school teenage boys, but that will only enhance my point if it’s true. But even the picture of Heather they liked more. But, by game mechanics terms, Rebecca had a +6 appearance modifier, the highest in the game… while Heather, only a +1.

Think about the stories we all know: Arwen or Eowyn? Jean Grey or Lilandra? Laurana or Kitiara? Buffy or Willow? Flora or Fiona?

I think you get the point. I just don’t think that physical appearance ratings have any place in games, since it is such a wildly subjective sort of measurement. In a related vein: It always bugs me that dwarves in D&D used to have a charisma penalty. It’s not physical appearance, especially not in D&D, but that just makes it sillier right? If Charisma is not just quality of personality, but force of personality, how many weak-voiced, mealy-mouthed dwarves have you stood beside in battle? Even more, since that penalty for dwarves is based upon human norms; does a dwarf who assigns an 18 to Charisma, then takes their -2 penalty still count as having an 18 among their own people? Okay, that’s a little off course, so let’s get back to it.

Culturally, both for westerners and gamers, Buffy makes a pretty good case study. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Tara, Anya, Drusilla… I could go on, but I don’t need to. Buffy is the uber-skinny blonde, Willow the bookish red-head (self-described “spaz”), Cordelia is stylish and well put together, Tara, full figured and a little more natural looking. Some people think Tara is the best looking girl on the show. I won’t say she’s not, because it all comes down to preference. Personally, I really like Anya… (no, Laura, I’m still not talking about Angel!) Now, let’s go to the Buffy RPG shall we… Appearance ratings: Buffy +3, Willow +2, Tara +1, Anya +3 (yay!), Cordelia +4 (whoa)… and on and on. Does that work for you? It doesn’t for me.

Now what the hell started all this?

Well, here’s the point. I wrote the original version of this a few years ago when I was working on publishing Ryllia. Well, that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped the first time, so I’m doing it again… I’m re-writing, I’ve got a great artist… and well, I’ll leave that for another post… let’s finish this one shall we. I got to thinking (dammit Laura, I know I skipped D.B. May I please finish… Thank you.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, looks. I got to thinking about how APPEARANCE would fit, statistically, in my game, and I decided that such a stat has no place anywhere in my basic setup. It will be up to the players to describe and respond to as they will. But how then do we represent Helen of Troy or Princess Florimel (Or Angel…)? There’s just something different about them. What if a player wants their character to have that kind of “transcendental fantasy beauty”? Well, yeah, there is something special about them. And there is a way to have that beauty if you want it, but I’ll be talking about that later. For the moment, I’m just putting out my own thoughts on gaming and beauty as it stands and hoping to stir up some conversation (oh, and shamelessly plugging my work).

Even though the original of this post was written a while ago, I intend to cover the “and brains too” part of the slogan, and examine how Intelligence stats fit into my thoughts on gaming. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with “stats/attributes” and this is part of my explanation of why.

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17 responses

  1. … I am displeased. The lack of David Boreanaz in this post will, in fact, bring harm to you later.

  2. In the case of the Rebecca/Heather dynamic, it could be the old “show vs. tell” issue in storytelling. The mechanics “tell” you that one is better looking, but in terms of interpersonal dynamics, during the game session how did you “show” who was better looking?

    Attractiveness also has other features other than just physical appearance. One person can better physical features and not know how to be attractive or alluring. Another person can have average looks but can draw the eye of the entire crowd.

    I’ve had a player who stacked tons of points into appearance but cannot for the life of them ever play “sexy”, “attractive”, or “charming.” There is no warmth. So you get the impression that his character is not approachable and therefore as attractive as a perfectly sculpted mannequin. And because he couldn’t roleplay an attractive character, seduction/manipulation checks always felt stilted and artificial.

    But as a gamemaster, if you have an NPC who is attractive, you could put cues to the encounter. Like saying things like, “She gives a slight smile and suddenly you feel your heart beat just a bit faster.” Or, “she does a slight twirl and the fragrance of her hair makes your face flush.”

    So even if the player doesn’t know how to react, by telling him or her how the character’s body is involuntarily reacting to her pheromones, her voice, her scent and her sight, it can help cue the player’s roleplaying because features of sexual attraction are generally involuntary.

    It isn’t the action that shows force. It is the *reaction* that does.

  3. Welcome to the Rhetorical Gamer, Paolo. Good to see you here. Your comment is definitely on the mark, I’ve seen that issue of a player who couldn’t do sexy, no matter what, but they want their character to be sexy… I still think I have a better way to handle this than just a, ‘you are Comeliness 18…’

    On the other hand, I always hesitate to do what your other suggestion mentions, because it’s putting words into another PCs mouth, as it were… What if the “fragrance of her hair” does not, in fact, impress me at all? I, as a player, wouldn’t want a GM to assume on the part of my PC, even when it would seem somewhat warranted. I agree that the reaction is what’s important, but I think the reaction (or lack thereof) must be left in the hands of the player, not the GM…

    Which, this line of thinking brings up another issue I wanted to write about: Making the PCs “care.” Thanks Paolo, I’ll have to get to that… I can even do it by talking about my favorite: Amber.

  4. It depends on the level of “power” such attractiveness has and the language you may want to put into it.

    If in fact the power of attraction is “divinely inspired” almost as if his or her looks possesses others, then I would *tell* the players of how their body is reacting to that other person. In fact, such beauty may affect both sexes unexpectedly.

    Or if it is just a hint of attractiveness, saying something like, “You smell a hint of spice, like jasmine, as her hair catches a slight breeze.” That is a bit less “assertive” and more of a “hint” to the other character. Along the lines of saying, “Her face betrays a small smile, and you notice that her lips seem moist.” That gives something for the player to image in their head.

    And it depends on the player’s personality. There are really few people I know of that I can trust to really open the storyline up on their own and take initiative. Most of the time, I have to do a bit of a lead in for the player.

  5. I have to agree with Morrison about putting words in people’s mouths. As a GM, I never tell the players how they feel or react, unless there is a mechanical reason to do so (“You failed the fear check. Alright, you start quaking.”). I play enough NPCs that I don’t really want to start trying to play the PCs as well. 🙂

    As for beauty, I think it’s up to the PCs to react to the description of the NPC. If their characters are attracted to whatever flavor of beauty I describe, they should behave as such.

    I’ve only ever used one NPC with the kind of supernatural beauty that appeals to everyone, and it was literally supernatural (a semi-divine succubus). It came down to mechanics, with the PCs making saves to not be attracted to her.

  6. You never know exactly how a character will take to another, no matter how plain or pretty. Perhaps the character Angnor does not feel anything for Helen but no one has figured out why Agnor will follow Agamemnon anywhere and always wants to sit at his tavern table.

    Besides maybe it’s the pretty eyes and cute smile and the flirting that get the plain girl anywhere she needs.

    As far as the t-shirt, I have never seen it worn on anyone who encompassed, “all this and brains too.” It is always one or the other.

  7. The trick of the gamemaster is to “set the tone” and to give the players “free will” in an interaction. It’s sort of like going on a romantic date. You can’t control how the other person will react to certain music, to lighted candles, and certain smells – but you set the tone.

    It’s the difference between someone waking up in the morning, throwing on clothes and demanding to be treated as the most attractive person in the world and someone who takes the time to shower, dry their hair, put on clothes to accentuate curves, jewelry to draw attention to their soft ears and the nape of their neck, and to just look at you without demanding anything and yet getting everything.

    But even then, there are some idiots who don’t even notice all that effort and then later complain that she only throws on clothes in the morning and no longer looks sexy. 😉

    The gamemaster sets the tone. And I can understand the disappointment when players don’t get the hints.

    1. And suddenly, just like that, comments! Yay. Paolo, I agree with you about setting the tone. You have to really work to convey the subtle stuff, just like setting up a romantic date. That’s a great comparison.

      You set the mood, with music, with lighting, with smells and sights and you dress a certain way, but, I draw the line at the point where you say… “Okay, I set all this up, now you have to be impressed.” The other person in the equation still gets to react. Maybe they had a shitty day, maybe the romantic mood you’re setting is inappropriate (all they wanted was to come home and play Bioshock 2 and now you’ve put this expectation on them, or maybe, they just hate the scent of candles you used.)

      Ultimately, I’m drawing the line at dictating ANYTHING to my players that I can’t justify with system, to do otherwise really does feel, to me, like taking away their freedom (no matter how annoying that may sometimes be to us as gamemasters).

      Besides… Paul and I are in agreement… I can leave this thread happy now…

  8. But I thought Bioshock 2 WAS romantic 😉

    I think it’s key that for all of the work the GM puts into describing Helen of Troy, showing pictures of the transcendent beauty, and trying to set the mood, it is just as important for the players to consider how their characters would react to Helen of Troy.

    Personally, I am utterly astounded by what men and women do because a pretty face tells them to (can I tell you how much I HATE the story of Helen of Troy?). However, if I am playing a game where my character is an impressionable young women who is susceptible to the charms of others, I need to play that accordingly. If a handsome man flirts with my character and coyly asks for her assistance, my character should fall for it, even if I personally think that the ‘handsome man’ is a nitwit.

    I think I am just agreeing with what most of you said above, but from the player’s perspective. However, I will say that my character’s romantic inclinations is not something I usually think about when creating her/him. Although not the best solution, the GM should probably give his players some kind of heads up (out of game) if he wants that to be an important part of the overall experience.

  9. I think I would disagree with Jenny about “showing pictures.” What people find attractive is very subjective and pictures are too concrete. Like if a GM said you see an incredibly beautiful woman and then pulls out a picture of “Megan Fox”, I would have a very different reaction than just leaving it up to my imagination.

  10. Yeah, taking a page from dear old Lovecraft, nothing is ever as good as the PCs’ imaginations. Extraordinary things (whether extraordinarily beautiful or hideous) are much less special once they start being too defined.

    For ordinary things, pictures are nice. I’ve introduced quite a few critters by flipping the monster manual around and pointing.

  11. I agree and disagree. The right picture really can be worth a thousand words, but the wrong picture, or one that takes the place of the GM working hard at a description, can ruin an otherwise great moment.

    The other point is a really good one though… as much as the GM puts into making the scene live, it is up to the players to do their part and be “involved” in their characters and try to react appropriately.

  12. The ‘showing pictures’ was an example; a GM should be as concrete or not as he feels comfortable with (and as much as his group wants him to be).

    My main point was that the players need to meet the GM halfway; for romantic situations, they need to act in character, which could be different than what the player is actually attracted to (e.x. a heterosexual female playing a heterosexual man should respond to female NPC’s flirting with them, not the male NPC’s flirting with them).

    BTW, has any of the GM’s been able to successfully insert romantic situations between PC’s and NPC’s? Has it been well received by players?

  13. I have! I’ve also killed their lovers too. But my players trust me that it is all for the sake of the story and that it will all make sense in the end! 🙂

    One of my favorite “love stories” was between a martial artist monk and a drow bard. The PCs had captured a beautiful Drow Bard, but there was a lot of in-party fighting because she was dangerous, but none of the truly good characters would allow her to be slain. Among them was the monk who vowed to keep her alive (and away from the fanatical cleric of the party who wanted her dead.)

    Using the party divisiveness about this issue, the Drow would verbally assault the characters trying to demotivate them, antagonize them, and generally slow them down with in-fighting. What she delighted most in was destroying the player’s belief systems.

    Her protector, the monk, was sitting cross legged and meditating. She sat next to him and asked what he was doing. He said, “Contemplating the illusion of reality.” So she asked, “So… You don’t think I’m really here?” And he answered, “All of reality is an illusion in my mind.”

    She smiled, gazed at him right in the eyes, and planted a sensuous kiss on his lips. She drew back, stood up and turned. As she walked away swaying her hips she said, “Tell me I’m only your imagination.”

    That was one of the best moments I’ve had the honor of Gamemastering. And out of that relationship, and many changes of heart in the party, the Drow eventually found redemption, and the monk left his order to marry the Drow.

    But that’s a story for another day.

  14. @jennybeth

    I’ve run some pretty serious romances and relationships in games as well. Unfortunately, it sorta comes down to your relationship with your players. If you, and your players are really comfortable as a group, you can do great things… if you are sorta, ‘strangers in a game’ this is less likely to evolve at the table… It takes trust, commitment and a willingness to sometimes look stupid in front of your friends to carry off this level of emotion in a game… (heh, that description sounds like a real relationship, doesn’t it?)

  15. I’ve run two relationships in games, both of which were online (which is probably the reason they could happen: people are more comfortable online). They both ended in betrayal and madness, but that’s what I enjoy, and what we were going for in the first place.

    Interestingly, of the couples involved, one was a completely-and-utterly average male and an above-average female, and the other was a average female and a decidedly ugly male. The descriptions of their respective “beauties” didn’t have any effect on the formation of their relationships. They were attracted to eachother on a totally mental/emotional level.

  16. […] And in terms of things like Appearance and Charisma? Subjective enough that modelling it in a game sense is a different animal altogether in my book (I’ve written about this topic before.) […]

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