Tag: non-player character

RPG-ology #32: Doing Something

This is RPG-ology #32:  Doing Something, for July 2020.

Although this is actually about a gaming referee technique, I’m starting with an example from a book, my novel Verse Three, Chapter One, freely accessible on the web.  It also begins with magic items, but moves beyond that to objects in other settings and genres.

As the story unfolded I needed to have one character, effectively a support character or non-player character, give one of my main characters a specific small magic object in a magically-shielded bag, but had to do it in a way that would not make it seem obvious that this was my intention.  The easy way to do that was to put several other small magical objects in the same bag, so that the immediately important one would be just one of several.  That’s one trick you should note.  Somewhere in the Harry Potter books, probably in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry enters the Room of Requirement in its guise as the place to hide things so no one can find them, and Rowling mentions several objects as examples of the mass collection of junk.  One of them is a tiara, I think sitting incongruously on the head of a bust of a man, if memory serves.  Then in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we come to a place where he has to find the Diadem of Ravenclaw, and neither he nor we know where it is–but in fact he and we have seen it already, and just didn’t realize it was important because it was hiding amidst all the other junk.  I had already done the same thing with my important object, dropping it into a bag with four other objects.  My five objects were a paper clip, a coin, a six-sided die, a cat’s eye marble, and an acorn. Read more

RPG-ology #29: Political Correction

This is RPG-ology #29:  Political Correction, for April 2020.

The phrase has been around long enough that I cannot imagine anyone in the English-speaking world does not know what “politically correct” means.  In the short form it means never saying anything that might offend any member of any minority group, whether or not such a person is present.  I bring it up here, though, because just recently someone in a role playing group asked whether the concept had any impact on our games.

Ray Bradbury

I hope that my readers are all literate enough to have read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and intelligent enough to have grasped its message.  I have elsewhere cited it in relation to Freedom of Expression, and consider it one of the most important statements on the subject, perhaps second only to the famous dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (also excerpted at that link).  It is entirely un-American to censor speech; beyond that, it is dangerous for reasons discussed in that article.

The issue here, though, is about censoring the content of our games.  My answer is similar, but with some additional thought.

Someone (I think perhaps the Reverend Paul Cardwell of the CARPGa) once gave me the expression in relation to role playing games the great thought experiment, and I find that to be an extremely apropos description.  In many ways, games are about expressing and exploring ideas, creating characters who either share our beliefs or offer other beliefs, and pursuing where these beliefs lead through the conduct of the characters who hold them.

In my Faith in Play series I have been running an intermittent miniseries on alignment in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and I discussed what “chaos” means in the entry Faith in Play #22:  Individualism.  I mentioned having played an attorney in one game, and the fact that this lawyer was not lawful but chaotic:  he very much stood for the principles of the ACLU, the fact that everyone has the right to be and do whatever he wishes within the parameters that in so doing he does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same.  I am not a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they sometimes support cases I would oppose–but I have a lot of respect for their defense of the First Amendment.  Further, playing that attorney in that game allowed me to explore to what degree I agreed with them, believed that the rights of individuals needed to be defended as against the preferences of society at large.

In fact, it seems to me that this entire issue of “political correctness” is precisely about this:  do individuals have the right to believe and say things that are offensive to other individuals?  Do my freedoms include the right to be protected against anything I find offensive?

In my case, at least, they probably don’t.  If you want to call me a dirty WOP, or a stupid Christian, or a narrowminded WASP, I have no recourse.  I object that those are perjorative insults, but you are free to use them.  But what about the game?

In one of my games, a half-orc player character insulted one of my non-player dwarfs.  The dwarf took it in stride and responded, “Did your mother like orcs?”  That certainly would have been politically incorrect if our rules applied to that world, but it was entirely appropriate within the context–and that is the key.  Our worlds, be they fantasy, futuristic, historic, or something else, are filled with people whose views and prejudices are part of their time and place.  In literature we use science fiction and fantasy to explore real-life issues.  Enemy Mine is very much about overcoming racial prejudice, despite the fact that the tension is between humans and aliens.  Captain Kirk says in Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country, “I’ve always hated Klingons,” again exploring racial tensions.  If you’ve never seen the classic movie Tick, Tick, Tick, you’ve missed a story that is very much about southern blacks and whites overcoming their differences.  We use art, and particularly fiction, to explore these kinds of concepts.  The characters within the stories are intentionally politically incorrect, because that is the only way we can convey our message.

There is a caveat here.  We are gathered at the gaming table to have fun, to enjoy ourselves.  Every one of us has limits, lines we do not want to cross.  How graphic is the violence, or the sex?  Are there particular abberations which bother someone at the table?  Some won’t want to play a game that explores rape, or abortion, or–well, there are many aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable individually, and when we get together to play a game we should know what those lines are and not cross them, not make our fellow players uncomfortable.

I don’t believe in being politically correct.  I also don’t believe in being impolite to people.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t have rude characters in my games or my books or my stories.  That political incorrectness is sometimes necessary to explore ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, and so come to understand each other better.

Previous article:  Character Death.
Next article:  Story-based Mapping.

Faith in Play #29: Victims

This is Faith in Play #29:  Victims, for April 2020.

One of the early superhero role playing games gave us the concept of the “DNPC”, the “Dependent Non-Player Character”, the person who is in the story because the hero needs to save someone.  Superman has Lois Lane (pictured) and Jimmy Olsen; Spiderman has Mary Jane and Aunt May.  Within the mechanics of the game system, these people are identified as “weaknesses”, points at which an otherwise powerful hero can be attacked.  If you want to cripple Superman, either you find some kryptonite or you kidnap Lois and Jimmy.

When I asked readers to suggest archetypes, someone suggested these, calling them victims.  Indeed, within the sweep of the story there are these characters, and they are often important to the story.  They create something at stake for the hero.  You can create the threatened child or damsel in distress, but the threat is more potent if it is to a character who is more than two-dimensional, who is a friend of the hero.

Of course, no one particularly wants to play the victim, as necessary as the victim is.  As popular as they are in television and movies, we don’t usually have party members whose primary function is to get in trouble and need to be rescued.  I think if I sat down to group character creation for a campaign and one of the players said, “I want to be the guy the other characters are always having to save,” I would be stunned, and would suggest that he play something that contributed to the party in other ways, at least so that they would have a reason to want to save him.  For most players, if they find their character caught or trapped or imprisoned, their first hope is usually that they will find a way to free themselves, not that their friends would come for them.  Victim is unlikely to be a popular player character class.

Yet I think this reflects an important point for our real lives.

Paul wrote to the Philippians (Philippians 1:21ff) to the effect that he was confident that he would remain alive as long as they needed him.  He wrote this from prison, at a time when it was entirely possible that any day the government would decide to decapitate him.  Yet he was right:  he was released from that prison and continued his ministry to Philippi and so many other places.  We can take confidence from that that we, too, will remain alive as long as we are needed.

I’ll caveat first that neither we nor our loved ones are likely to be the best judges of when we are no longer needed.  It seems to us that many husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, siblings and friends, die when we thought they were still needed.  God knows whether we are needed, or whether His plan would be better served by our departure.  This is not a promise of invulnerability nor even of longevity.  It is a promise that our deaths will not leave our loved ones bereft of something necessary only we could have provided.

But it is the other side of that which matters to me here.  Our world is also filled with the dependent–the infirm aged, the terminally ill, the severely disabled.  We look at some of these and think that their caretakers would be better off were they to die.  They might have contributed much to others during their productive lives, or they might never have done so, but in their present state they contribute nothing and consume much.  Why does God keep these people alive?  If Paul is right, that we will remain alive as long as needed and then go home to God, why are these seemingly useless people still here?

The answer is difficult, but it is that we need these people.  We need people who need what we can give them and can give nothing back.  It is those people who teach us how to love, how to put our love into action, how to do things that matter.  If there were no people with needs, we could do nothing to meet those needs.

Once we understand that, there is one more step we must take:  at some point in our lives we will probably be one of those people, one of those dependent non-player characters who need to be rescued by the hero, one of those needy people who can do nothing for themselves and nothing for those who help them.  Those people are necessary to God’s plan for our lives, and we might one day be those people.  Indeed, some of us might be those people already, wondering why God has us still alive given how much of a burden we are on others and how little we can contribute.  The answer is that we contribute precisely by being a burden, by giving others the opportunity to help us.

So we learn this valuable lesson from the victim archetype:  dependent people are a necessary part of God’s plan for us, and sometimes it is necessary for us to be those dependent people.

Previous article:  Vampires.
Next article:  Conflict.

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.

A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.

Previous article:  Cures for Dropping Dice.
Next article:  Political Correction.