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.

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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.

Support Your Local GM

There’s a ton of advice out there for gamemasters. The two books I most immediately recommend are Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering  and John Wick’s Play Dirty . Beyond that, however, you can find blog posts, Google Docs, and stone tablets replete with suggestions on how GMs can make a game fun and engaging for their players.

Today, I am going to turn that around.

Perhaps it’s because of the term, “Non-Player Character,” or maybe it’s due to the simple linguistic dichotomy between “player” and “GM,” but I think we often forget that the GM is also a player in this game. Even as we might expect a GM to be the one to make rules decisions and lay out the world in which the story will be told, we, as players, are not doing our part if we’re not taking a moment periodically to consider what we’re doing to make the game fun for the GM. “Make sure everyone has fun” is not the sole responsibility of the gamemaster (although they do carry a larger share of that burden), but a responsibility of everyone at the table.

I generally try to avoid broad pronouncements of how to run or play a game, but I feel pretty confident in this one: if your play at the table is ruining any other person at the table’s fun, you’re doing it wrong. That includes the GM. The notion of an adversarial relationship between the GM and the players has been with us since the early days of D&D and it’s toxic. Both sides are absolutely dependent on one another to make the story happen. RPG groups, like any team, are sensitive to shocks caused by changes in personnel, so understanding that each person in the group adds their own ingredient to the stew you like so much every session is critical to getting us to work together.

I know, I know. “So what?” I hear you ask. So, I want to toss out a few canards that get tossed at GMs as a matter of course and spin them around to present them as concepts for the player.

1) Listen to your GM. It is true that, as the group’s collective senses within the game world, the GM may occasionally be deceitful in order to reflect the deceitful nature of an environment. Outside of this, however, the GM is not usually trying to trick you. Pay attention to the way scenes are described and questions are asked – there’s probably a lot of information that can point you towards the most interesting answer. It might not even be the answer the GM is thinking of, but knowing where the GM has started from gives the group the power to go to a place everyone is interested in going.

2) Know your rules. It is specifically the GM’s job to have a good grasp of any and all rules that may come up during a play session, or have a good idea of where to find the answer when corner cases arise. Players, then, should focus on knowing the rules pertinent to their own characters. Having responsibility for one character actually allows the player to dig a little deeper and know that character’s rules backward and forward. If five players each know four feats and what they do, that alleviates the GM’s need to know 20 feats off the top of his or her head, leaving more mental space for cool story things. Internet forums and adversarial GMs can get into a lot of what the rules say you can’t do, but it’s the player’s job to know what they can do inside and out. Making yourself an expert on your own PC dramatically broadens your possibilities.

3) Don’t fear improvisation. One of the critical advantages that Tabletop RPGs have over their Computer cousins is the ability of the players to improvise. If the coding in The Witcher says that there’s nothing more over that fence, the character stops. If a ledge is too high to reach by jumping, you must generally find the way the computer has laid out for you, or you can’t go there. At a game table, the rules provide constraints, but are rarely so straight-jacketing that things within the realm of physics are absolutely impossible. This is part of why knowing the rules for your own character is so vital. That knowledge forms the basis for a thousand ideas: If my PC can do this, and the environment is that, then I should reasonably be able to do this. That single line of thought has launched a thousand shocked GM faces. GMs who are following any of the plethora of GM-advice columns will, if you have made a reasoned argument, let you take your shot.

4) Don’t fear the obvious answer. This one seems so simple, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it for the legion of players who never want to go through the front door. Sometimes, it’s OK to go through the front door! There are benefits, both dramatic and mechanical, to inventiveness, but don’t be afraid to use the rules as they’re written and to follow the plot where it wants you to go. Even as your own expertise on your character can help the GM free up mental space to dream up cool stuff, thinking deeply about obvious answers can lead to new revelations about both your character and the rules that are going to pay dividends down the road.

Bearing in mind that the GM is a player too means that a lot of the advice we usually aim at GMs is equally applicable to the players. I feel like I need to come up with a new taxonomy to replace the GM/Player divide in order to capture this notion, but that may be some time coming. In the meantime, help your GMs out! It’s the sort of thing that pays off huge in the long run.