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Thursday, 9 October 2014

I want to live like common people

Think of the central characters in the two great high fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Steerpike and Frodo, both working class guys. Oh, okay, Frodo is as bourgeois as they come, but compared to the likes of Aragorn and Boromir he's a mud-caked serf. The point is, it’s only in also-ran fantasy works that dispossessed lords or brave rebel princesses get to be the heroes. Which perhaps is the inspiration behind J M Perkins’ Kickstarter campaign to fund a “how to play a commoner” RPG book.

For a rewarding role-playing game you need a deep, consistent world and the possibility of conflict, among other things. Social class helps provide both. Of course, it’s not enough just to have low-class characters. That only makes sense if there are higher classes to interact with, whether other players or NPCs.

A low-class character can be more imaginative and flexible than their social betters, because they have less to gain from sticking to society’s rules. That was my thinking when I created working-class hero Jack Ember for Mirabilis: Year of Wonders. The postwar fiction of the "Angry Young Men" was full of clever commoners like Arthur Seaton and Jim Dixon - or, even earlier, look at the examples of Kipling's "Tommy" and Twain's Huck Finn.

For an aristocratic character, strait-jacketed by social rules, it can be handy to have a commoner to take care of the grubby side of problems. Maybe the cardinal’s high-born daughter can’t countenance plain murder, however ruthless she is, but a word to her guttersnipe servant – “I hope I never see that man again” – may be enough to put her enemy in the Tiber with a wide red smile. The master-and-servant relationship is such a staple of drama that Keith Johnstone devoted more than half of his book Impro to it. Think of Blackadder and Baldrick. Wooster and Jeeves. Fogg and Passepartout. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Especially mature readers might even remember Mr Stabs and Luko:



Of course, servant-and-master is only going to work in an RPG if players stick to their social roles. You can’t chummily forget about status differences when it suits you. I was lucky enough to play in a campaign where Jamie was an aristocratic army officer and Patrick Brady was his sergeant. The relationship between them was pitch perfect even when (especially when) Patrick’s character was bending the letter of his orders as far as he could.

Fun though these examples from fiction and gaming are, they're all essentially romps. Yet in real life there's a heavy burden to being at the bottom of society's heap, a burden that many are overwhelmed by. Dig a bit deeper and the challenges and conflicts of being a commoner prove a lot harsher than the entertaining high jinks of Passepartout or Panza. Take a look at Mulk Raj Anand's classic novel Untouchable, an angry, desperate, tragic and ennobling account of those who are spurned as the dregs of society. Or consider the struggle of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, who suffers the double misfortune of being poor and a woman in nineteenth century England. Those are great stories to visit, but you wouldn't want to live them for real.

If you only read YA fiction you'd think that all these put-upon peasants needed was an uprising, but that's rarely an option in reality. The truth is always more interesting. Social class is hard to pull off but, like any attempt to take roleplaying seriously rather than as a make-believe send-up, it pays dividends in terms of the places it will take you.

21 comments:

  1. Bought. What's the fun in a game when you have half a dozen spells and magic items which would break the game if the referee didn't make all the monsters immune to them?

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    1. I think that's a whole other post, but yes!

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  2. In defense of rebel princesses, I am not sure Star Wars can necessarilly be described as "also ran..."

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    1. I guess... [Grudgingly considers amending post.]

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    2. I decided Star Wars is an intentional homage to old space opera stories, so it was de rigeur to have royal whatnotery in there. Sort of. At least they avoided prophecies - I think. Didn't see eps I-III so not actually sure about that.

      But I like that J K Rowling only made Harry the "Chosen One" by dumb luck. Although I could be on shaky ground here, too.

      Anyway, AFAIK neither Spock nor Kirk is descended from royalty, so SF's stronghold is safe from the trend.

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  3. Sorry, I'm going to have a nitpick about Hobbits. Frodo was a Fallohide and has Tookish blood, which is rumoured to have fairy (i.e. elven) mixed in at some point, so he is as close to royalty as a Hobbit is going to get.

    On the other hand Sam (a Harfoot and a commoner) is the 'real' hero of LoTR - Frodo fails his quest and suffers for the rest of his life, whereas Sam succeeds and becomes the democratically elected leader of The Shire, gains a wife and a happily-ever-after, so I think your general point stands.

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    1. I have absolutely no idea about 90% of what you said there, but I like that it seems I was right after all :-)

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  4. Gormenghast never struck me as high fantasy so much as Gothic Melodrama. The closest comparison to the Lord of the Rings series would be the Narnia series.

    I will say that your point stands even with dispossessed nobles and rebel princesses since they're dispossess or rebel. They're not running estates or in positions of power. In most of the games I've been in, the "powerful" people usually have the least freedom of action. They're constantly checked and stifled by other powerful people. It's why the grubby commoners have to be heroes - they're the only ones with sufficient freedom of action to do anything.

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    1. You're right about Gormenghast, John. If only for its literary quality, it's not high fantasy.

      Part of my objection to the dispossessed noble/royalty trope is that it's such an infantile wish: "I may seem to be common as muck, but actually I am a prince!" Yet what is special about having royal blood anyway? It just means your ancestors stole other people's land, lol. Of course, it's fantasy, so royal blood can come with divine power, destiny or midichlorians - but still, it's a tired old plotline that even fantasy (never the most innovative of genres) could afford to put out to pasture now.

      Of course, as the grandson of a blacksmith, I would say that.

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    2. That actually brings up another point. Commoner heroes are really uncommon commoners. Your basic commoner was the landless serf whose main skill was coaxing the bit of dirt on which he lived to grow enough stuff to feed himself and his family and also give his percentage to the guy in the castle who could kill him at a whim.

      A blacksmith was a valuable, skilled laborer. What you call commoners were really more "lower middle class." A lord could slaughter a peasant, steal his wife, etc, with no real repercussions because peasant were common as dirt. He cant just kill his blacksmith because if he does, he stops getting swords, shields, armor, plows, horse and other stuff made from metal that his fiefdom needs.

      With dispossessed rebel princess is a bit infantile, but it's a little realistic. A "common" hero needs to have uncommon skills and abilities to do heroic things. A dispossessed noble will have martial and courtly training that a simple serf won't have. The best common hero is a synthesis of the skills and capabilities found more in the upper or skilled classes and the relative social freedom found in the lower, unskilled classes.

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    3. That's true, a blacksmith would be a freeman. That's the main reason why the lord can't just kill him on a whim. He can still be pretty poor, and maybe in a more precarious financial position than somebody further down the social scale. Better to be Cicero's slave than a starving freeman, etc.

      I don't think you need any special skills to be a hero, just moral courage.

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    4. I agree wiht your last statement. There's plenty of situations where regular people act heroically. However, there's a difference between an act of heroism and the kind of sustained heroism required from a fantasy hero. Courage aside, the fantasy hero needs to survive his various acts of heroism to reach the climax of his stories. To do that he generally needs something extra besides guts and enthusiasm.

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    5. Well, Steerpike has mad skilz and he's as common as muck. But generally it doesn't make for a satisfying story if any character falls back on skills - at fighting, tracking, whatever - that the author can just assign him. We need to see bravery or cunning or honesty - attributes that are expressed in what the character does, not how skilfully she or he can do something. Jesse Pinkman, for instance; it's not his ability to cook great meth that makes us root for him!

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    6. Bravery and honesty are moral choices or qualities. Cunning is a skill. I know that it's a skill because you made it a skill in all four of your Critical IF books. :)

      Again, to me, it's not about "falling back" on any one element. Figure a character who overcomes obstacles by being brave, honest and kind (or cowardly, deceitful and mean) by turns that's going to turn into an unsatisfying story as well.

      Say we have a character called "Frodpike" who is a peasant lad whose father does a bit of blacksmithing. Frodpike is a skilled hunter and woodsman who occasionally helps his family avoid starving by poaching from the local noble's woods. Ultimately the noble (who has of course been entralled by his evil court wizard) sends men to punish the village. While Frodpike is hunting, his family is killed and his sister due to become a sacrifice for the court wizard. Frodpike takes to the woods to be a lone-wolf Robin Hood. Using traps, trickery and woodcraft, he ambushes a coach and captures the noble's daughter who was one her way to a forced marriage. They forge a partnership fraught with bickering and unwilling attraction to each other to defeat/save her father, meet some odd companions who help them and blah-blah-blah.

      All these trait, whether of morality, personality or ability, help to define and limit the protagonist. Frodpike doesn't get the princess by suddenly shouting pseudo-Latin and frying the noble's men with lightning and he doesn't do it by swinging down, stealing a sword and whipping a bunch of trained people with a weapon he doesn't know how to use. He captures the princess by leveraging talents we know that he has in a way that conforms to his personality and morality.

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    7. The example works just as well if the character doesn't have "skills", though. The outcome derives from the characterization, not what they are able to do. Consider Walter Hartright in The Woman in White - he can draw, that's his skill, and I don't think it has any bearing on the outcome of the story. My favourite hero, Lizzie Bennet, does she have any "skills" as such? Winston Smith in 1984 (heroes don't have to win) may have Bureaucracy at 55% and that's it. The heroes of thrillers like The Mask of Dimitrios, The Ministry of Fear, North By Northwest - they're unskilled everymen, not super-spies. So I think it may just be fantasy fiction that bothers itself about what the protagonist's character sheet might look like.

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    8. In the context of a fully scripted medium like a novel or movie, you're right, we don't need to see or write a character sheet (although the writer should probably still have some basic boundaries around the character in terms of capabilities). In the context of a role-playing game, we kind of do. If we're doing the (lazy, derivative) Frodpike story all I really need to mark Frodpike is "Robin Hoodish" and we're set to go. If we're doing Frodpike the gamebook, there's a lot more to it because we've given up a lot of control to the reader to determine how the story plays out. Frodpike might defeat the wizard, rescue his sister and marry the princess or he might get eaten by a bear after he blows a Scouting roll.

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    9. I was using the term character sheet figuratively there in reference to the type of fiction (Jack Reacher novels, for example) where the author insists on telling us all about the hero's skill set. In roleplaying, though - yep, there you tend to need a character sheet.

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    10. I admit to being a pretty big fan with the Reacher series. I never really put it in terms of "character sheets" though. The Reacher novels are usually first-person narratives with a pretty reliable narrator. It's a little bit like we're on a "ride-along" with Reacher on his adventures. He's explaining to us ignorant civilian pukes what he's doing, how he's doing it and why. One of the things I like most is that frequently Reacher's theories are wrong or incomplete despite his confidence in them at any given time. Also, Reacher has the best nickname now via his latest book: Sherlock Homeless.

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  5. Ah Steerpike. I love him. Sure, he was a mass murderer, but he was a talented and intelligent man who was living in an ultra oppressive society with no social mobility and so would insist that he remained a lowly servant despite what he had to offer. In his situation, I don't think he could have done anything differently.

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    1. I'm conflicted myself, Stuart. Yes, he was intelligent, far-sighted, resourceful, revolutionary, and stylish with it. On the other hand he was a cold and heartless psychopath. Well, that's the sort of thing that makes for really interesting characters in a story - though if we were talking about an evening down the pub I'd prefer to spend it with Dr Prunesquallor and Fuschia.

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    2. Of course, he's Hitler. Ulp.

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