The road to Damascus ran through Keble College. It was 1980. I was running a Tekumel campaign and Paul Deacon, playing a pe choi called Keq Yossu, balked after hearing the lead-in to the evening’s adventure. ‘I’m not coming along.’
The others were aghast. ‘But… what are you going to do all evening, in that case?’
‘The whole set-up sounds off to me. You do what you like, but count me out.’ Paul dropped out of character a moment: ‘I’ll help Dave roll for the NPCs.’
It was the first time I’d thought of really getting into the head of a character that way. I admired Paul for it, and I admired him even more when he was proved right a few hours later. The whole party got wiped out. Paul imagined Keq Yossu getting the news back in Jakalla: ‘I did warn them…’
Not long after, in my Medra campaign, Mike Polling’s character Dagronel Kabo-Drasden befriended an NPC who was the sworn enemy of several of the other player-characters. When it came to the crunch, Dagronel sided with the NPC. In the game post-mortem, the other players were indignant. ‘You can’t value friendship with a nonplayer character above your comrades,’ they argued.
Mike pointed out that a roleplaying campaign is a fiction populated by characters. Nobody wears a lanyard saying PLAYER; it isn’t a Westworld style theme park with hosts vs guests. To use Professor Barker’s adage, there are no NPCs. Just characters. It’s only in bad fiction that somebody behaves out of character to ensure the plot goes in a pre-planned direction.
Both Paul and Mike are arts graduates, and it was an eye-opener for this scientist to see them insist on roleplaying as an art form. It was about then I started to eschew underworlds and puzzles. I should’ve known from Columbo that the how and the who are never as interesting as the why. Motivation is what matters. Characters who look at their world and say, ‘This is how it affects me and this is what I must do.’
Without that revelation, heaven knows what Dragon Warriors would have been.
Afterwards, one of the players in particular seemed to take it very personally – in real life, that is, not as his character. He went away seething. I asked a friend of his what was the matter. ‘He believes strongly in the players sticking together,’ he said. ‘He’s annoyed that player took the side of the police against the rest of us.’
‘But… what did he expect? The guy was playing a federal agent.’
‘He doesn’t think character should trump party loyalty.’
I honestly don’t know why you’d roleplay if you feel that way. Without commitment to character you might as well be paintballing. If you want PCs to stick up for each other, you have to give them a reason beyond the fact that they're all controlled by people sitting around the same table.
Everyone’s got their own setting on this dial. An it harm none, do as ye will. But what I want is to plunge right in to the imaginary lives we evoke through roleplaying, convinced there’s something amazing to be found there if just for a few hours we can let go of being ourselves.