Thursday, 22 April 2021
Maybe you’re still in the halcyon days of roleplaying. I mean the Goldilocks time when you’re safely past the juggernaut of finals and have yet to be distracted by career or kids. The days of dossing around, some might call it. You get to see your friends all the time and together you can slip into the parallel life of your roleplaying world whenever it suits you. Nothing beats it for immersion. Arguably it’s the only true way to roleplay.
For me it was back in the ‘80s. We’d have at least one evening’s gaming a week with the whole group, and usually two or three side sessions featuring one or two players who could then flesh out their characters’ extracurricular activities. And after the big Thursday night game, often we’d sit into the small hours (or even dawn) talking about the world of Tekumel, or chatting in or out of character. It was at one such post-mortem gathering, after our characters had disrupted the summoning of the tempest demon Kirikyagga, that the wind started to pick up and somebody mentioned that Kirikyagga was annoyed. That was October 1987.
But I digress. The reason I mention all this is that there was an interesting difference of approach in those post-game chats. Some players (eg Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith) liked to talk about their characters’ goals and personality and what we’d nowadays call story arc. “As Jadhak I used to be very cruel,” Jamie might say. “But since that Llyani curse caused me to lose my sense of fear I'm much mellower. I was cruel out of fear, you see, as a defence mechanism, and now my need for that has gone.”
This was a foreign language to players like me and Paul Mason. We threw ourselves into the role while playing, but I didn’t ever think about my character in an authorial way. On reflection, that might just be because I don’t think about myself in an authorial way. I would never map out how my character was going to develop, or even have any interest in analysing his behaviour. “You must have planned it that Drichansa is always kind to children,” Jamie might protest.
Drichansa was my character. All I'd started with was a mannerism: tugging at my earlobe when really trying to get to grips with a problem. Everything else about Drichansa I discovered as I played him. Jamie found the kindness to children surprising because Drichansa was otherwise notably lacking in tenderness.
“Kind to kids? I suppose I am,” I said. “I never thought about it.”
“You told Jadhak you were adopted. Could that be why?”
“Maybe. Want another whisky?”
You might think it’s odd that an author wouldn’t go in for that kind of character analysis, but I don’t tend to do it with the characters I write about either. Sitting at a keyboard making stuff up can get boring if the characters don’t surprise you from time to time.
This could explain why I’m not much interested in narrative mechanics for roleplaying. I don’t want to control my character like an author; I want to be them. I recently saw the latter method derided as the Actor Approach, and the person went on to say, “That’s not even how real actors do it.” Quite right. An actor has a script (most of the time) and even if they’re in a Mike Leigh or Christopher Guest movie they’ll have sat through extensive character workshops and discussions of the storyline first. But the attraction of roleplaying for me is to be neither author nor actor. It’s more like life: fielding stuff as it comes at you, and finding the story (or rather, stories) that emerge from all that noise only when you look back at it – and even then only if looking for story patterns is your thing.
But that style of playing is not so easy once you’re out of the sweet spot between college and adult life. We get fewer opportunities for gaming (my sessions are down to once a fortnight) and less time (no more playing till after midnight). No wonder that today’s games look for ways to jump-start inter-PC relationships and squeeze your fantasy life into the familiar shapes and tropes that stories take in creative writing courses.
And it occurs to me that’s what dungeons were, back in the dim mists of roleplaying history: a story shape, admittedly crude and built out of rooms and ten-foot corridors, that led you to a Big Bad at the end and allowed for campfire moments back at the town in between expeditions. A three-act structure in architectural form.
Modern games do a lot better – although arguably a physical environment is just as effective a way to shape a story as using plot points and scene breaks. Still, I gave up dungeons pretty early in my roleplaying career and I enjoy the emergent unpredictability of just-dive-in roleplaying stories too much to want to wrangle them with plot paradigms. Also, one of my day jobs is sitting with other writers planning characters’ story arcs. I enjoy that exercise of craft very much, the problem-solving and the personality construction, but I can’t see an evening spent doing pretty much the same thing as relaxation.
An example: not long ago I came very close to running a campaign from a published book complete with pre-planned adventure. The book begins by saying that each player should pick one of the other PCs as their closest friend, and another who they most trust, and so on. For me that should all happen in-game. I don’t want written backstories, I want players to forge those relationships out of their experiences as they play. Then they’ll really feel it. If somebody at my table says, “Out of game for a moment, I think my character would…” then I feel like I’ve failed. They should be leaving their everyday life behind. If they’re stopping to view the characters from outside then they’re distanced from the fantasy, and that means the game isn’t working.
By the way, this applies to writing too. If you start a novel or script with two characters already in love, that won’t have anything like the impact of having them fall in love in the course of the story. Games likewise. A year or two back I consulted on the design of a computer game that began with a long cutscene explaining how the player had a pet dog called Jack who was your best pal, and together you got stranded on a desert island. I threw out the cutscene. “Have the player get shipwrecked and then find Jack trapped under an overturned lifeboat," was my advice. "You get to free him -- that's the first time you've met him, and so the bonding between you happens in-game rather than before the game starts." That way the player will actually care, because they experienced it rather than just being told about it. (Game storytelling 101, that, but you'd be surprised how many developers don't know it.)
Some people enjoy being the author of their character’s life, and/or bringing a five-page backstory to the first session, or calling time out to explain (often in third person) how their character arc dovetails with something that's happening in the game. They are more comfortable with the distance that brings. Well, fine -- you should play the game whatever way lets you get most out of it. But given all the RPGs these days that are designed to conform characters to types and tailor events to an archetypal narrative, maybe you should try it at least one time without preconception, script, or safety net. Just put on the persona and be that character. The worst that can happen is you'll lose yourself in the game.