Competence Porn

John Rogers is responsible for adding one of my favorite new terms to my vocabulary: “competence porn”. See, people like to talk about conflict and drama in stories but every now and again you just want to see someone be awesome at what they do. You want to watch the master-thief overcome the million dollar security system. You want to see the ass-kicker kick some ass. You want to see the grifter run a con. Whatever form it takes, it’s not about uncertainty of outcome. The pleasure of watching doesn’t come from tension, but rather from the sheer joy of watching someone do what they’re good at. When a piece of media gives you some of this, it’s delivering a little bit of competence porn.

This idea is one that may be even more important to games than a lot of more traditional dramatic ideas like conflict and arcs, since this speaks mostly clearly to what a lot of players have in their head. When they make a character, they almost certainly have an idea of what that character is (or should be) capable of, and that idea looks a lot like competence porn (just gonna call it CP from here on). Players carry that idea around with them, and it helps inspire them to get excited, but nine times out of ten they will never get the chance to express that because most games are designed to make it impossible, and most advice for running a game steers things far away from it.

Now, this is not unreasonable. CP only works in small doses, because if you’re being all awesome, all the time, then you’re effectively writing a Mary Sue story. And sure, there’s some fun in that, but not for anyone but you, so it may not hold up so well at tabletop. Even setting aside the indulgence of it, it will get boring very quickly – adversity is what keeps play interesting, whatever form it takes, so it’s important to keep that adversity coming. CP requires that contrast to stand out – if 95% of play is hard, that 5% where they get to show off really shines.

The problem, of course, is that every rule and most advice is keyed towards that 95% because that’s most of the game. You want to introduce challenges. Make your players sweat. Never give them a free ride because they won’t thank you for it. All this is true so much of the time that it’s really hard to remember that every now and again you need to step back, stop thinking of ways to make life harder(*cough*more interesting*cough*) and let the player show off through the character.

The good news is that once you remember to do this, it’s surprisingly easy to actually do. The ways your players want to be cool are usually written quite clearly on their character sheet, so the only trick is unleashing that. There are a few ways to go about it. One trick works well if you are playing with a system that does not support much player narration; make an exception. Wait for a really good roll, look at the dice, raise your eyebrows, lean back and say “Whew. You blew it out of the water. Tell me how it goes down.” Let them show off for a few minutes, then pick up from there. Alternate approaches to this include allowing characters to make elaborate plans and then surprise them with a “And that’s exactly how it happens. You’re now in the throne room. What do you do?”

That hints at the real underlying trick, and that is to work this sort of competence into your game in a way that feels meaningful, but which doesn’t overrun the game. You don’t want a CP montage to solve all the problems at hand, but thankfully that’s rarely where it’s needed. CP is much more potent in the muddled middle, after your players have a sense of what needs to be done, but before they have much of a clue of what they need to do to make it happen. Giving a player a chance to show off in these situations can be a great way to skip over slow parts of play, and bring players back to solid ground where their options are clearer.

Put more simply, if your character is the best X in the world, then you don’t want him to automatically solve problems by doing X – instead you want X to be what gets him to the point where he can do whatever is necessary to solve the problem at hand. If your badass guy needs to fight the boss, then you can have him roll over the surrounding mooks by sheer virtue of badassness. If your thief needs what’s in that safe, she can effortlessly glide past security systems that would stop anyone else so you can pick up play at the safe.

GMs might notice that we’re getting a twofer here – we’re showcasing the character’s capabilities in a way that makes the player happy while also moving the game directly to the fun stuff.

Just remember: that’s not lazy, that’s efficient.

12 thoughts on “Competence Porn

  1. Graham

    Robin Laws has a concept, which seems connected, of “iconic” characters. Iconic characters encounter the world on their own terms.

    So, for James Bond, a casino is full of beautiful women to seduce and games to win. For Ocean’s Eleven, it’s full of chinks to exploit and security devices to fool. Each shapes the environment, handling it in the way they’re good at.

    Graham

    Reply
  2. Brad

    “Competence Porn” is a little negative. There’s a more positive spin which I’ve called “Competence Mythology” that incorporates all this as well as the mediating factors you mention that can keep it fun.

    Competence Myths are those that feature the staggeringly competent who are nonetheless put to the test (often as not by the incompetent who usually command them). You can probably already see the kinds of things this embraces — Dirty Harry, Neil McCauley, Yojimbo. Certainly it’s the basis of many Westerns, Crime Dramas, and Samurai stories.

    The thing is, while it’s often weak cinema (unless you want to make a lot of money, in which case it’s very strong) it’s powerful gaming territory. I suspect it feeds on that old study that finds the incompetent are the worst at judging their competence, which implies that we all think we’re pretty good and if we’re held back, it’s probably because everyone above us is an idiot. Can’t be me, of course. 😀

    Anyway, very cool to see this come out from another angle. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Will

    Yet another reason why I like Skill Challenges. “This challenge represents your passage through Level 4 — show me a clip of your character in action during that level, demonstrating how her mastery of X or Y kept her out of the clutches of marauding goblins…”

    Reply
  4. Rob Donoghue

    @brad That’s definitely a nicer way to put it. I’ve discovered since I posted that I’ve actually been blocked form going directly to my own post because “Competence Porn” triggers our local web filter.

    But you raise a really good point there in regard to the social element of competence. It resonates really strongly with the whole “Kept down by the man” vibe that is like nitrous oxide in the gamer fuel tank. Going to have to think about that further.

    And I think you’re absolutely right about the self-assessment element. If nothing else, we have no problem imagining ourselves being badass, if only because we may not understand the subtleties that keep us from being so.

    -Rob D.

    Reply
  5. ironregime

    It’s ok for the gamemaster to focus on the 95% of the game that is tension-ridden and non-CP, as long as the game has resource management built into it that allows players to determine the situations in which they want to perform CP. Action points, etc. are excellent tools that let each player be awesome when they feel they ought to, without making the whole game into a series of over-the-top successes.

    Reply
  6. Mike

    Really interesting. In the movie Equilibrium, it amazed me how many times our hero was surrounded by bad guys in a nice tight circle so he could shoot and / or cut them up.

    I’ll have to think more about stuff like this for my own game.

    Reply
  7. Rob Donoghue

    @iron I absolutely agree with that on paper, but it can hit a pair of stumbling blocks. The first is that it can leave the players feeling like they have to pay to be awesome, and even if that’s not the intent, that can leave a sour taste in the mouth. The second is that the actual play economies are tricky buggers and for every case where it works just right, there are usually several where it goes off tracks.

    Neither of those are reasons to avoid that approach, however. I just think they’re thinkgs to keep an eye on.

    -Rob D.

    Reply
  8. Cam_Banks

    Just for the record, I am all in favor of never using the term “porn” like this, if only for the site-blocker reasons. Thus, gut-wrenching emo fodder/fuel/etc.

    Reply
  9. barsoomcore

    The flip side to this, and something that I find really helps to mitigate the “all awesome, all the time” issue is that failures get treated the same as successes. That is, blow the massive failures way way up — you may be able to let your players run the scene or you may want to do it yourself, but an epic failure can be just as much fun as an epic success.

    The point is letting the game rules tell you when something spectacular happened, and then engaging your group’s creativity to generate that spectacular something. One of the key differentiators of game systems is how regular “spectacle” is under the rules.

    DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, for example, is high-spectacle.

    A game like Dread, though, is low-spectacle — although it does a great job of building up the tension to those moments.

    Reply

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