…and thanks for all the star-spawn!

So, when I started writing this blog, I was writing this, writing some books, and working 3/4-time in retail. I’m now working 1/2 time in retail, but also going to school for my MA in Writing and Rhetoric full-time. Something has to give, and I’m afraid it’s this.

The blog will close down for the foreseeable future – at least through the end of the year, while I work on academics and writing that pays. Thanks for coming on this weird little journey with me.

Cheers.

Get to Church

Religion takes many forms in Tabletop RPGs, but the most common form in the fantasy line that has passed down through D&D and Pathfinder is the pantheon of gods, each god with its own set of particular concerns. More famous and powerful churches might oversee large concepts, like Justice, whereas some smaller churches may be practically obscure – the Forgotten Realms had a deity who went from being the god of death, murder, and tyranny to the god of fatalism.

This degree of diversity requires us to take a second look at how PCs and society at large would interact with religion. Much of the text written on where religious and secular societies meet seems to act as though the churches would occupy much of the same role in the game world as the Catholic Church did in our own medieval period. This is problematic on several levels – churches with specific portfolios of concerns will have their influence constrained, unless they can show at least a tangential relation to those concerns. Additionally, the prevalence of churches with competing philosophies makes the stamping out of heresy a less likely proposition. Of course, a great many inquisitions and heretic-burnings were, in fact, driven by the secular government, which used money or intimidation to get a holy imprimatur on their work. That’s definitely a story.

So, what ought we to bear in mind when speaking about the church. Four general constraints come to mind.

1) Gods are (probably) real. There is a discussion thread on the Paizo forums about the difference between atheist and dystheist practices, and that’s helpful here, because atheists have a somewhat harder uphill argumentative climb to make in a world where worshippers of gods are granted magical powers, to say nothing of places like Faerun, where the gods occasionally drop in for a visit. You can make the argument (as the Golarion nation of Rahadoum does) that the Gods are unworthy of our worship, but arguing against their existence is probably unsound.

2) Gods have specific concerns, humans do not. In a polytheistic society, the average layperson will probably pray to any of half a dozen gods daily, depending on their concerns. Your profession may drive you towards one particular church at least once a week, but even the most devout laity is unlikely to pray to the god of love and beauty for a good harvest.

3) Churches are unlikely to dominate secular life without secular support. This one is more true in our own world than many church critics might want to admit (Philip II’s debts to the Templars had a lot more to do with their being declared heretics than anything the Pope thought), but it should be obvious in a fantasy game world. Since so many faiths have an opposing church, most churches would probably focus more on promoting their own ideals than on trying to purge the unbelievers, since the unbelievers have gods of their own to back them up. Speaking of which…

4) Antagonizing the faithful has consequences. I’d post a link here to a “Here’s how we tormented the paladin in our party” thread, but I can hardly decide which one to choose. Aside from the out-of-game concerns over making another player’s game experience miserable, which violates Wheaton’s Law, there’s a perfectly sound reason not to do so in-game – see constraint #1. Pathfinder’s really excellent series of articles on the gods almost always includes signs and omens of the god’s pleasure or displeasure. PCs who antagonize the faithful should start seeing signs that their spiritual patron pays attention to these sorts of things and doesn’t approve. Yes, that includes when they’re fighting evil clerics. Reminding PCs that these are servants of higher powers, and not simply different flavors of spellcaster, can help make the institutions that are a part of the world feel more real and more consequential.

It’s worth a GM’s time to consider the relationship of various faiths to the setting of their own games, as that influence will help shape the society the PCs interact with. Whether there’s a state religion, or a generally ecumenical acceptance of some or all faiths, religion is a part of the fabric of these societies, and the person who doesn’t pray to anyone is usually something of an odd bird. Adding attitudes and consequence to your game world will make your players’ experience a little bit more High-Definition.

The Story So Far

A character’s skills appear as a series of numbers or perhaps an amalgamation of dots on a character sheet. They are also, however, the markers of that character’s upbringing and education. Developing the “how” and “why” of a character’s skills can write the majority of that character’s history, as well as go a long way towards establishing the parameters of their worldview.

Martial or violence-oriented characters usually have in their primary hand a physical manifestation of their training: their weapon of choice. Is it “an extension of themselves” as we’ve heard in so many stories, or is it a tool? Why that weapon in particular? Was it the one you could afford? Was it the one you trained with? Potentially more interesting than the death-dealing implement is the reason you resolved to learn death-dealing at all. In a harsh, medieval world, it might be a matter of survival, but those worlds come few and far between in RPGs. When Kings have armies or Mayors have police forces, why did you decided to learn how to do harm to your fellow human beings? Where did you learn and what else did they teach you about the whys and wherefores of violence? Training in violence was a noble’s prerogative throughout most of the medieval period, with the rise of professional mercenaries demanded by Renaissance men, who wished to devote themselves more to study (and/or profit) than to slaughter.

But where did one devote oneself to study, and to the study of what? Scholarly characters are probably more personably relatable to the average RPG player, because we recognize the signs of one of our own – the curiosity and the wish to understand. In the western world, we have a fairly communal idea of what constitutes a proper education, but those conceptions can be upended by questions of money or questions of time period. When there is no university, to say nothing of basic schooling, who taught your character to read and write? Rhetoric is part of a classical model of basic education called the trivium, where it was joined by logic and grammar, of all things. What were the basics of your education and how did it lead into the deeper studies of your specialty? Why does your specialty now demand that you go wandering into harm’s way (at least in most games)? Historically, educational institutes have been far more focused on religion, with more general education as the province of private tutors or specifically established schools. The concept of your character learning to write can begin to inform your PC’s mindset when you conceive of what he or she was taught to write.

Related to the scholarly character is the magician. While some magical systems make the art integral to a character’s being, most presume some sort of training and education. Were you the classic wizard of old, with a single master passing on the esoteric lore? Does the world of your game include large institutions of magic that produce new spellcasters by the score? Institutions will tend to have (and instill) different values in their students than will the itinerant master, to say nothing of the young sorcerer who pursues their art by plumbing books with little or no living supervision. A great many magic systems in RPGs bear little or no resemblance to the Western esoteric traditions of the real world, so your experience may hew closer to that found in fiction, but perhaps you’re playing (or wish to draw from) the history of strangeness of our own world, whether that’s John Dee’s Heptarchia or the spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky.

Drafting your character’s history need not be a creative writing exercise that makes you tired and your GM nervous about whether you’re interested in a collaborative story. Just looking at your character sheet and deciding where all those numbers and dots came from can set you on the road to a richer role-playing experience without a single “I was born in Eastasia…” sentence scribbled.

Know Your Rhetoricians! – Gorgias, Nothing, and Magic Words

It’s Friday, so it’s time for “Know Your Rhetoricians.” We’ll take a look at a famous rhetorician of the past and how some of his or her philosophies could be pertinent to your Tabletop RPG experience.

How do I describe blue? Since my eyes don’t work in words, how can I then compose something that will give you the impression of blue through your ears? I could make comparisons, but you may not perceive colors in exactly the same way that I do. Perceptions vary from person to person, and yet, they are what we use when trying to understand the world. On a related note, if words are all I have to work with, can I construct them in such a way as to take away your free will or ability to reason? Con men use a combination of fast talk and pressure tactics to get us to make ill-informed and badly reasoned decisions, but is that our fault for falling for it, or are well-put together words so potent as to rob us of our capacity to refute them? Both of these questions, among others, were touched on by Gorgias of Leontini, one of the first rhetoricians and a member of the Sophist movement.

Gorgias was reportedly born sometime in the early 5th century, B.C.E. He was born in Sicily and established his reputation as a speaker there. He was nearly 60 when he traveled to Athens to ask for Athenian intervention for Sicily against Syracuse. His oratory proved so popular that he stayed in Athens and taught rhetoric, becoming incredibly wealthy, as well as incredibly unpopular with philosophers whose words have survived better than Gorgias’ own. Plato, in particular, assailed the Sophists in a dialogue titled Gorgias. Plato’s version of Gorgias wasn’t much more than a straw man for Socrates (acting as Plato’s POV character) to eviscerate, as Plato condemned rhetoric as nothing more than flattery.

As you might have guessed from the above paragraph, we don’t have a lot of Gorgias’ work to refer to anymore, as much of it has been lost. Two partially surviving documents gives us two ideas to work with in our games. On the Non-Existent, or On Negation, is one we have fragments of that posits a negative concept of absolute truth. One of his speeches, the Encomium of Helen, is a defense of the lady with the thousand-ship-launching face of Trojan War fame. In it, Gorgias argues that speech can have a drug-like power to take over our minds and lead us to place we would not have otherwise chosen to go.

The Nothing Problem

In On the Non-Existent, Gorgias makes a three-part argument about existence – that is, existence apart from what our senses perceive.

1) Nothing exists.

2) Even if something existed, we could not perceive it.

3) Even if we could perceive it, we could not express anything about it or explain it.

The idea is that our senses make up our whole knowledge of the world, and our senses are imperfect and ruled by our subjective mind. As a result, there cannot be objective, transcendental truth. I have mentioned before the problems of trying to portray relativistic morality in games like Pathfinder or D&D, where good and evil are forces that manifest themselves in the powers displayed by people, as well as in creatures that are, in and of themselves, manifestations of those otherwise unseen forces. Of course, a Gorgias-like skeptic, who mistrusted senses, would have several questions – the Paladins claim to be able to detect evil, as do the clerics of the many churches. Why do we believe them? Why do they ascribe the name “evil” to the force they detect? Isn’t it curious that the “evil” always seems to be people in opposition to the church?

If you’re not feeling like breaking down D&D cosmology, the concepts of Gorgias on nothingness are probably more pertinent when you’re playing a game in a world that looks more like our own. If our conception of the world is derived through our senses and our senses can’t be objective, how do we get close enough to knowledge to function? Gorgias and the Sophists challenged their students to argue all sides of an issue until they came up with the things that would be a workable truth for them. Even if you’re not interested in that deep a dive into rhetorical clash, spending time asking yourself what your PC believes is a worthwhile exercise. In Gorgias’ view, their beliefs would come from what they had seen. Tying your beliefs to your experiences is one of the simplest ways to both fill out your character’s background and their worldview simultaneously.

The Power of Words

In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias states, “discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.” In other words, speech can stop and start a whole host of emotional reactions, taking charge of the hearer and leading them around. For role-players, sometimes words are essential, but most games also include mechanical skills for the exchanging of words, where, when dealing with NPCs, those exchanges can often reach seemingly mystical powers of persuasion.

Consider this thread over at the Paizo forums, where the poster asserts that a sufficient series of Diplomacy checks should acquire his PC magic items from a shop at cost, as though Diplomacy was enough to make the arcanist in question utterly devalue his own labor. The abstraction of rhetorical skills in game can periodically blur the line between good argument and magical enchantment. And that’s nothing when it comes to the PCs themselves. Most games draw the line at letting the PC with all their skill points invested in pretty talk use that ability to make the PCs dance to their tune, but not all of them – Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire game makes social encounters run on a similar mechanic to combat ones, with the words flying like ripostes and thrusts until one person is worn down and concedes the argument.

Personally, I am ashamed to say I am still on the fence about this point. On the one hand, I absolutely believe that people without a natural gift of gab should be able to play charismatic PCs and reap the benefits of spending their points that way. On the other hand, I understand concerns about overreach in terms of rhetorical power, as well as legitimate worries about player agency. Mark me down as “It Depends” for this one, even if Gorgias wants us to believe that Paris’ sweet-talking of Helen means that she was blameless in fleeing to Troy.

Questions of relativism or the power of speech can seem incidental when it’s time to get after the dragon, but they are a huge part, even today, of exploring the human condition. There’s no reason why we can’t get a little wiser with our dungeon crawl or Elysium intrigue. If nothing else, a Sicilian who convinced the Athenians to make a solid gold statue of him is probably worth a consideration every now and again.

Ethos Building

When identifying roles in a party of roleplayers, one that inevitably rises is the “Face,” the character who does the talking for the party. The identified leader of the party is often decided by player, rather than the character. The truth is that being a leader in any given situation is a question of the ability to have a plan, envision its execution, and then deploy the plan, using the resources at hand. As a result, every character has the potential for some spotlight time as a leader, if they can identify their own power base and leverage it to establish their ethos to the other characters, as well as any NPCs that may be part of the plan.

Aristotle lists three different kinds of rhetorical argument. The pertinent one today is called ethos. Ethos was an argument about character – specifically, the elements of a speaker’s character that made them credible on the topic at hand. For the classic rhetoricians, it had to do with the quality of your reasoning skills, but a broader interpretation could look at the different bases of power that anyone can draw off of. A full range of the bases of power can be found at Wikipedia, but there are four that PCs can look to. I have shortened, folded, and spindled these concepts for ease of use in a gaming setting.

Personal Power – Referred to in the text as “personal reward power,” this is the sort of power we normally associate with the “face” PC. Personal power has to do with being able to offer people personal approval and them acting on that offer – in this case because you’re just so darned charming. High levels of personal charisma and training in social skills have taught you how to get people to crave your good opinion. Perhaps people follow you because speak convincingly of tremendous human achievement (“Ask what you can do for your country”), or maybe because they believe that you will appreciate their efforts, wherever you may be headed.

Position Power – this is normally called “legitimate position power,” but for our purposes legitimacy can be a little ambiguous. Position power is power derived from, well, your position – nobility, military rank, or a leadership posting in a guild, legitimate or otherwise. Position power gives you access to resources and personnel. Even if you don’t have a silver tongue, if you can call on horses for your party, or your battle brothers to bolster you in an hour of need, you have solutions to problems, which is the first step in being a leader.

Expert Power – There is power in being the gal who knows how things work. Oftentimes, the PCs who invested all of their skills in knowing what it is the party is looking at simply serve as exposition machines for the GM. But a quick glance at how high-intelligence characters can be portrayed – Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes – show something important: within that massive filing index of facts often lies the answer to the problem the party is facing. In gaming terms, this requires a little more cooperation between the player and the GM to enable a knowledgeable character to use their knowledge, rather than play a game of telephone from the GM to the other players.

Referent Power – It is not always necessary to be the leader of a group in order to make use of its resources. This power base is more likely to appear in games where the PCs spend most or all of their time in a single primary location – the allies you collect, by means of fellowship in a group or simply by building a circle of people you know – are, in fact, a resource, though it can seem callous to say so. We don’t generally think of our friends that way; however, we also don’t have to deal with life-threatening challenges as regularly as the average PC. If you’ve been keeping notes, as I advised, just having in your notebook the two or three NPCs that can help the party navigate the problem makes you a problem-solver, and a problem-solver is a potential leader.

Now, not everyone wants a leadership position, though most of us want to be heard from time to time. Learning to leverage your power intelligently is what builds your ethos – it makes you credible and increases the likelihood the party will listen to you the next time you have a crazy plan that just might work. A strong personal ethos means that you don’t have to be in charge all of the time, but when you open your mouth to speak, everyone’s going to listen.

The Best Offense

This weekend, I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. There were the usual assortment of jugglers, actors, turkey legs, and musical groups who swing between renaissance music and Irish folk. One of the acts, a comedy show, made a joke about Bill Cosby that elicited a few laughs and a lot of groans. Afterward, there was more than one comment about complaints coming in for management. That got me thinking about the ways in which we transgress boundaries, and how and when we can do so in a Tabletop Role-Playing Game. I mentioned previously the challenge of making sure that transgression meets with consequences, so today let’s consider how we might bring some of those consequences about.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about breaking the rules of the game – that’s a whole different set of circumstances on the why and how. Here, I’m talking about the perceived social mores of the society in which your game is set. Sometimes, the rules are quite clear – In Golarion’s Taldor, it is against the law for a non-noble to grow a beard. Sometimes, they’re more subtle – Public Blasphemy in the Forgotten Realms’ Waterdeep is punishable by a fine (an odd rule since some churches pretty explicitly blaspheme against other faiths as part of their canon). Aside from law, most countries in TRPGs, even as in the real world, have a boatload of “unwritten rules” that set the standards of decorum and appropriate behavior. In 7th Sea’s Vodacce, looking a woman that is not your wife in the eyes could get you a duel in the street from her family. Most of the time, these rules are only incidental to the story our characters are taking part in, but they are definitely a part of the world they live in, so some consideration of how our characters thinks about those rules, and which, if any, they would resist.

Transgressing can be comprised of nothing more than simple disobedience of custom, or transgressing the boundaries of what’s considered appropriate behavior. It could also rise to the level of civil disobedience, so the free speech loving blasphemer in Waterdeep would keep the 10 gp fine on him at all times. It could even rise all the way to outright lawbreaking, with no consideration for a justice system the PC considers to be supporting an unjust law.

I am, by political inclination, a transgression-loving free speech near-absolutist, but there are two considerations when moving our conceptions of personal expression against a stifling rule to a game table: First, we remember that this is a game and that our transgressions are not the story. Don’t let your need for personal expression overrun the story that everyone is trying to tell together. Second, remember that everyone together is telling this story. Collaborative storytelling must acknowledge and respect the creative vision of every collaborator. Show due consideration to the sensitivities of your fellow players – offending officious authorities in Kelesh should never be an excuse to deliberately offend your friends; a little of Wheaton’s Law goes a long way here.

TRPG settings can appear more stagnant as societies than their historical equivalents, and a lot of that probably has to do with the way in which laws and mores are presented. Unless the story hinges on a burgeoning revolution, most GMCs* are presented as law-abiding and inoffensive. As you consider both your own circle of friends, as well as the people you consider to be entertaining and/or speaking truth, I imagine you’ll use a few fingers counting off those who push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Injecting a little of that into your games, like spice for the food, will make your stories richer, more immersive, and perhaps even a bit more personally meaningful.

A Clash of Words

Often seen as a sign of madness, talking to yourself is one of those things that human beings do, but rarely admit to. We crack wise about it being a sign we’re going cuckoo or it being a sign we’re too stuck up –that we’re the only people who will listen to us. But let me, with the help of some really old rhetoricians, give you a reason why it might prove beneficial to yourself and your character to occasionally get into it with the voices in your head.

The principle is called Dissoi Logoi and it belongs to a group of rhetoricians who ended up calling themselves the Sophists. The Sophists believed that absolute truth wasn’t something we mere humans were capable of achieving, but that didn’t relieve us of the burden of thinking and coming up with the best ideas we could whenever there was a problem to be solved. Dissoi Logoi, or “contrasting words,” encouraged the would-be thinker to argue the position from the point of view of his opponent. Some Sophists even insisted that their students work to make whichever argument appeared the weaker to seem the stronger. This served two purposes: first, it made you empathize with your opponent, which hopefully reduced the general tendency to be a jerk (see: Plato). Second, if you fully understand your opponent’s position, and you still think he’s wrong, picking apart the arguments you just spent so much time ruminating on should be a snap.

So what does this have to do with you and some quality time engaged in self-argument? PCs surprise us sometimes. Sometimes we make decisions in game that, were we portraying ourselves, we would not have made. Sometimes we make decisions that, in retrospect, don’t represent our best selves. Turning on those decisions and arguing them out, from all sides, does the same rhetorical favor for us that it did for the students of the Sophists. More importantly, we begin to see where our PCs may truly differ from us, or if they don’t, which can lead us to discover things about what we believe.

Building just a ghost of the ethical superstructure that most living humans have (however slapdash) makes our characters consistent, and that strengthens the characterization. If your table is up for it, don’t be shy about challenging the worldviews of your fellow characters. Any idea worth having is worth defending, and exploring the ideas of people and professions, especially as their presented to us in the average game book, may lead to revelations about ourselves, about the game writers, and about the worlds they inhabit – maybe even a few moments of insight about the world we inhabit.

Game Writing (No, not that kind – the other kind)

Whenever I start a new game as a player, I pick up a new notebook. I really adore Moleskine for a lot of reasons, but in large part because I can pick an evocative design that helps me put another pin into who my character is. When I played through Shattered Star, I used a variation on this one that I received as a gift. Going back through it, I can see my wizard’s progression from 4th level (I came in late) to 17th, and the myriad adventures we had, as well as the loot we gathered – as a devout Abadarian, I took charge of tracking treasure.

As part of the TRPG experience, writing can feel like a bit of a chore. It happens in addition to your other responsibilities at the game table, and sometimes outside of game time. The notebook becomes one more thing to keep track of. If you spend a lot of time taking notes in your work or at school, it can make the gaming experience feel more like work, which is not what we’re after. However, if the fantastic notebooks I linked to above are not enough inducement (and if they are not, I don’t know if we can be friends), let me give you a few reasons to scribe some of your experiences in game.

1) Institutional Memory – someone at the table really ought to be taking notes, because eventually this is going to happen:

Player: “We go back to that guy.”

GM: “Which guy?”

Other Player: “The guy…the guy who knew the thing.”

GM: (Searching his notes and eyeing his players like the shifty characters they are) “Not really sure what you are talking about.”

If you make notes of, at a minimum, the places you go and the people you meet there (those you have left alive, at any rate), these conversations don’t happen. It is one of the limitations of the TRPG format that we can have encounters with people whom we would clearly remember if we had actually encountered them, and lose all knowledge of that person over the course of the week or two between games.

The non-roleplaying part of institutional memory has to do with a subject that may rub a few folks, especially my fellow GMs the wrong way – extensive notes might reveal the cheat codes. TRPGs are not famous for them, but there are several adventures that have the one NPC, the key location, or the mega-important thingamajig, that can make a lot of the game much easier. If you learn that the temple of amber waves of grain has a sheaf of wheat that can scatter incorporeal undead to the wind, then spend six months fighting the knights of purple mountains before having to face the hall of the ghosts of TV-seasons past, you will likely forget about that sheaf of wheat…unless you wrote it down. Sometimes games do this deliberately, sometimes not so much, but what the designers and their nefarious GM agents put out there is for your use, so long as you remember where you left it.

2) Pattern recognition – This one is like the cheat code, only a little deeper. Game writers, be they professional or poor unpaid souls, have their go-to challenges. Additionally, sometimes game writers play with themes that are never made explicit to the players (often due to some piece of lore about the dungeon/nation/evil theme park that the PCs simply don’t have access to). Making notes about what you encounter and under what circumstances can then have a two-fold benefit. For the story hunter, it reveals a bit of the plot that was never directly spoken of. For the game player, it can give a hint as to what to expect and how to prepare. Anything that can prove of benefit to both the role-player and the game-player is double plus good.

3) Help your GM out – I expounded last week on the virtues of supporting your GM in your mutual quest for fun. Making notes on where you went, whom you met, and what you did is a huge boon to a GM who’s trying to track monster hit points, XP, and other shenanigans. Obviously, the GM should also be tracking where you are in the story, but having a second set of notes on what has transpired makes that job immeasurably easier.

Bear in mind that no one ever needs to read these notes but you, so feel free to write what you want in a way that you can understand. It doesn’t need to be a constant activity – writing will probably come to a stop during combat – and you should always pace yourself to keep it from feeling like a chore. Scribing your character’s adventures, even in shorthand little notes, adds one more artifact to your game experience, and will hopefully enhance your fun.

The Hazards of Positive Thinking

If Superman did not exist today, could we even invent him or would he be anything other than the half dozen or so postmodern critiques of Superman that have appeared from the pens of cynical authors? Role-playing games often end up trailing a lot of modern conceptions, in large part out of an overblown sense of nostalgia, but one postmodern concept keeps coming back to bite us, and that bite seems to get a little sharper every time: moral relativism.

The grand old dame in the room, D&D, is the very essence of positivist morality. The alignment system doesn’t simply exist as a roleplaying guide, but as something that exerts itself within the game. Ironically, the concept of evil as a force unto itself has even been heretical in the Catholic Church for 1500 years, but it’s been part of the D&D canon since they laid down the concept of detect evil. Evil and Good are forces that can be measured, weighed, invoked, or even abjured. As 20th century writers became more and more relativist in their outlook, this has become an increasingly significant challenge to game writers. I mentioned the problems that some gamers have with the misogynist agrarian god, Erastil, in Paizo’s home setting of Golarion, but the problem of positivist morality has raised its head in other places as well. Every time a writer takes on depicting the culture of an “evil” race – Drow, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc. – the question inevitably rises again about how, where, and why it is justifiable to wander into the subterranean or fortress homes of these creatures, kill them all, and take their stuff. R.A. Salvatore has started digging into this a little in the ongoing adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden, whose dwarven allies have begun working out the terms of living alongside orcs, rather than hunting them all down. Such themes are interesting and show a broader panoply of moral consideration, but also diverge from that fundamental truth of the game – evil exists. If evil exists, is it ok to simply let it exist? We have, fortunately for the sociologist-gamer, come out of the time period where bestiary entries included such eugenic gems as “always chaotic evil,” as though the forces of anarchy and diabolism were encoded in the DNA, but we seem to keep whistling past the graveyard in the hopes that our XP-winning exercises in genocide don’t earn us reputations as psychopaths.

So alignment is a problem, at least if you’re not a believer in absolute terms of right and wrong, but D&D is hardly the only offender in this class, and the ever-growing field of what should be considered rhetorical has raised certain questions on the nature of the dramatic story itself. Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to postulate that a lack of empathy and kindness eventually led to degeneration into cannibalistic psychosis, but that only seemed to apply to Vampires – Werewolves and Mages were free to be unfeeling twerps – so maybe it’s a proto-Twilight thing. Mage: The Ascension was perhaps the closest to modern academic conceptions of truth and fact, arguing that reality itself was consensual. The problem with absolute relativity, at least in an RPG, is the implication for agency: It is, in theory, legitimate for me to defend my own agency and resist forces that attempt to impose their will on me, but is it ever legitimate for me to impose my will on another, even through something as seemingly innocuous as argument? If not, is any dramatic interaction involving competing drives morally justifiable?

If postmodern ethics make most of world history appear to be the acts of sociopathic hegemons, it makes most RPGs appear to be the power fantasies of would-be petty tyrants. To that end, I say – to the rubbish heap with most of postmodern ethics. We are perfectly capable of establishing ethics that respect the agency of most, while restraining those who would do us or others harm. Right and wrong, good and evil – these need not be punchlines for the “evolved” thinker (who is facing his or her own existential crisis as the notion of “progress” is challenged by the same critiques that launched the term “progressive”). We can, and we should, evaluate and re-evaluate what we believe in light of new evidence, but that doesn’t mean that the newest thought or critique invalidates all that has come before. The positivist outlook does carry some baggage, and introducing concepts of our own presumptions of intolerance in the form of orcs, kobolds, and the like can make for really good stories. We need not, however, dispense with the entire notion of right and wrong – that’s a baby that need not go out with the eugenic bathwater.

Book Corner: The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop RPGs

Jennifer Grouling Cover’s The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games is an outstanding effort to open the doors to authentic rhetorical and sociological study of the genre system. She effectively challenges writers and scholars who have labeled TRPGs as non-narrative or simply an antecedent genre to Computer RPGs, deftly critiquing the value-based progressive mindset, which dismisses that which came before as inferior. It still only serves as an opening effort, however, and several of the areas she tries to explore are limited by her own RPG experience, as well as her choice to focus exclusive on a single Role-Playing Game – Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition.
She begins by addressing a tendency in the literature that has gone before to dismiss Tabletop RPGs as, well, something that has gone before and is no longer really a thing. It’s a natural result of all the Computer RPG developers who talk about the influence that Dungeons and Dragons had on their conceptions of gameplay. The problem is that not only have Tabletop RPGs not gone the way of the dodo, the forms that sprung out of D&D’s influence leave certain capabilities of the Tabletop RPG behind, such as the potential for true narrative agency on the part of the players. Lest anyone think that the book is solely for academic analysis of TRPGs, there are plenty of things players and GMs can benefit from in the text. The discussion of varying levels of authorship in an RPG narrative could make us all a lot more self-reflective in how we’re building stories when we play.
The book does suffer from a limited worldview. Cover played in a campaign of 3rd Edition D&D, and in a homebrew world with a plot devised specifically for the players involved. Most of us have had this sort of experience, with varying levels of success, at one time or another; however, I’m not at all certain that it is representative of the typical TRPG experience, to say nothing of the typical D&D or Pathfinder experience. Narrative agency is in short supply in the typical Pathfinder Society module – she references RPGA, which she found unsatisfying, but PFS even removes the aggregate effect the RPGA allowed the players to have on the storyline. I’ve previously talked about how D20 is an enemy-focused game, which can make the PCs somewhat plug-and-play. It’s interesting that she brings up the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories, of which video games end up being just a highly elaborate and quite pretty version. I think pre-written modules, and even Paizo’s Adventure Paths, probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between a pick-and-play gamebook and a truly autonomous narrative, but that’s hard to evaluate without study of some non-d20 games.
In our author’s defense, it would have been a much larger book to take on the entire genre system of Tabletop RPGs, but I think her work definitely points the way for deeper exploration. First might be acknowledging that TRPGs are a genre system – while TRPGs have several similarities between them, even the reason for playing can vary by game, and the way in which design questions are answered leads me to believe that we won’t see the whole picture if we call TRPGs a single genre. Call of Cthulhu is only 7 years younger than hoary old D&D, and posits a completely different narrative experience from its slightly older fantasy cousin. How we’ve developed conceptions of narrative control, and how the pendulum has swung in the industry between role-playing and game-playing are both threads that could be pulled on for future study. The study of TRPGs also presents a tremendous opportunity for anyone interested in how negotiated outcomes work within rules structures, or how narratives develop in collaborative environments. For gamers, it’s a chance to peer a little deeper into the meaning of what you’re doing those evenings with your friends and your dice.