RPGs as tools, quick thoughts

RPGs are magical. They’re incredibly powerful tools for personal exploration, when used intentionally. And they’re some of the best fun I’ve found.

I’ve played many different characters, seeking many different things. I spent a long time playing characters who wanted to control things or be prepared for all eventualities—something I associate with the style of game I played as a kid, and with my fear of failure or character death (heck, even character misfortune). Those traits, and the struggle to optimize or avoid failure, took a long time to unlearn. I still feel their pull.

I suspect that Monsterhearts, with its suggestion that you “drive your character like a stolen car” helped me break out of this mold the most. But it took me a long while to carry that same delight and freedom, and embracing of consequences as part of the game and story, into my games in other systems. Now, years later, the majority of the characters I’m playing these days are closer to that carefree mode. I feel considerably lighter playing those games, and I feel lighter when I am able to bring some of that same openness to the rest of my life.

I appreciate how my awareness of this has shifted, how I’m better able to recognize my preoccupation with not-failing and not-suffering in games and elsewhere. And I appreciate how RPGs give me an opportunity to explore failure and suffering without actually being stuck in those things. That exploration has been therapeutic for me. Giving in to my characters’ heedless pursuit of fulfilling their desires and achieving their (often simple) goals—and accepting the many ways they end up stubbing their toes or bloodying their noses on the way—offers a profound release from the constant clenching struggle of seeking perfection and avoiding failure. 

In many ways, this exploration has paralleled my personal struggles with perfectionism, control, and risk avoidance. My characters have served as a means of venturing outside my comfort zone, of exploring what other possibilities I have and what other modes are available for interacting with the world. My characters often take that exploration to the extreme, far beyond anything I’d want to engage with in real life, but they offer a safe place for experiencing what it’s like to live differently than I do. And they offer an avenue for both self-reflection and growth.

Of course, I play my characters for fun. Most of my characters aren’t designed with any of this in mind. And I don’t make my explorations at the expense of other players at the table, or without their engagement in the kinds of characters I play (my friends’ fun matters too). But with a bit of foresight, self-awareness, and reflection I’ve found RPGs to be right up there with meditation (perhaps like meditation’s active counterpart) as a means of uncovering and facing parts of myself, and growing myself in new directions.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.

Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms

One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.

The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.

I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.

If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.

So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.

Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts

This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.

Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.

In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading

Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.

Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.

So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading

Why Roll Dice? Two Misconceptions

Maybe some of you have seen something like this before:

Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I hit it with my axe. I get a 3 on my attack roll.”
Storyteller: “Well… that doesn’t seem very effective. The bookshelf doesn’t move.”
Player: “Okay, I swing at it again. 5.”
Storyteller: “…”
Player: “Not good enough? I try again. 1.”
Storyteller: *Sigh* “The bookshelf falls on you. You take 6 damage.”

These rolls are boring, and this scene is a clear failure in my eyes. Not on the part of the PC, who can’t get a break with that bookshelf, but on the part of the storyteller and the player. It plays into two misconceptions that crop up in RPGs, either of which can Continue reading

Killing PCs, a quick reflection

Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.

Did I actually follow my own advice? Continue reading

Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts

Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.

This week I’ll add: be boring.

“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.

Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.

Be unoriginal.

If you’re really stuck, Continue reading

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading