Hey, any of you nerds going to PAX East this year? If so, I think you should know that I and a select group of alpha nerds (Bobby Smithney, John Perich, John Serpico, and Samantha LeVangie) – authors, improvisors, directors, and teachers – will be heading up a panel on Roleplaying in the Now – how to use Improv skills in tabletop RPGs.
Have you ever wanted to break out of the monotony of killing things and taking their stuff? Have you ever wished there was a way to give your players more autonomy in a game without it driving you up the wall? Well, Improvisation in Roleplaying: How to Run a Game in the Now is the panel for you! A panel of experts (including me) who collectively have over 90 YEARS of tabletop gaming experience are going to tell you all about it. Oh, and here’s the kicker: PAX East (as of this posting) isn’t sold out for Thursday yet, so you can still go! There’s time!
So be there, or be a rhombus!
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.
This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:
I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:
People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.
It also makes for bad storytelling.
Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.
We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.
Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:
- Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
- Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
- Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
- Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
- Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
- Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
- Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.
Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.
What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.
This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!
So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:
- Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
- Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
- Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
- Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
- Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
- Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
- Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.
I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.
Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.
Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.
This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.
Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.
The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.
Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.
In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.
I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for a day.
The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.
So, I’ve been posting a bit less than usual these past few months. This is thanks largely to some steep writing deadlines I’m struggling to meet, limiting me to about 1 post a week or so. My apologies for whatever regular readers I have, but it’s for a good cause, trust me. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace again soon. In the meantime, I recently watched the pilot episode of the new Lethal Weapon television show, and I’ve been bitten by the bug to run another session of Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – a home-brewed hack of the Danger Patrol game. I’ve included more of the play materials here below. First, though, you might want to read the Game Introduction and you might be interested in a recap of our first session.
Let’s talk your role on this miserable squad. The roles are as follows:
You’re a fresh-faced kid straight out of the academy, all adorable and eager. It would be cute if you weren’t so goddamned talented. You spend most of your time embarrassing us older guys and we hate your guts. It’s not personal…well, maybe it is personal, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re in your prime, kid, and that counts for something. Just don’t attempt to grow a brain, okay? Stick with the older heads and you’ll go far.
Suggested d12 Trait: Athletics
I don’t know who you pissed off, but somebody upstairs doesn’t like you very much. When you were in the academy, dinosaurs walked the earth. You are literally older than dirt and pretty close to retirement, yet here you are, in a room full of heroes and lunatics. I pity you, I really, truly do.
All that said, the rest of these kids are the lucky ones. You’ve served in every division in the department, from traffic to narcotics to the gang unit. You know everybody, you got tricks they don’t teach anymore, and then there’s the fact that you draw a big enough salary to own a house or maybe even a boat. That is, of course, if you live to enjoy it…
Suggested d12 trait: Knowledge or Driving
You are the guy we call when we need something resolved without bloodshed. Sometimes it even works. Succeed or fail, though, you know how to negotiate with scumbags, you know when people are lying, and you can get a confession out of anybody (assuming they’re still alive).
Your job with this crowd is going to be keeping these animals from eating every two-bit crook from here to Cincinnati alive. You need to get prisoners, talk to them, and learn their secrets. Good luck on this one, buddy. Try not to get dead.
Suggested d12 Trait: Interaction
I guess you’re some kind a braniac. If it were up to me, we’d still be using pencil and paper and walking the beat on our own two feet, but you’re a cop for the new millennium, I guess. You know computers, gadgets, and bombs like the rest of us know the contents of our underwear drawer. Christ, you’ve forgotten more about gizmos and high-tech widgets than the rest of us will ever learn. We need you, as annoying as you are. The only thing I ask is that, when you start to explain something, use plain fucking English, okay?
Suggested d12 Trait: Tech or Driving
The Weapon Specialist
I’m gonna level with you: assholes like you are my worst fucking nightmare. For some reason, you seem to think your job isn’t filling the jails with scumbags. Instead, you fill the fucking morgue with bodybags. I got no idea what they taught you in Nam or Iraq or SWAT or whatever hell-hole vomited you into my office, but I swear if you keep putting bullet holes in my city, I will be personally shitting on your head every fucking day. Could you leave the goddamned machine guns at home for once? You know what, forget it—why do I bother? You just better hope what goes around doesn’t come around, because Karma for a violent asshole like you is bound to be a bitch.
Suggested d12 Trait: Shooting
Oh, great—we’ve got help. Look, I don’t care if you’re from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DEA, the WWF, or whatever the fuck. I don’t care if you flew in from Hong Kong or if the guy you’ve been tracking all the way from Moscow owns a B&B in my own neighborhood—we here in Danger Patrol don’t need help. You know what I hate the most about you lousy Feds? I never really know what you’re up to. You’ve got secrets and special training and all kinds of covert directives and I don’t have the fucking time to keep my eyes on you. So, you want in? Fine—your funeral. I got news for you, Miss Quantico: this town will eat you alive. Stick close to my guys and don’t fuck things up, and you may just live long enough for us to trust you.
Suggested d12: Knowledge and Stealth (you get two)
The Beat Cop
You are from the school of hard knocks, so you have that going for you. Police work is a personal thing—you understand community policing (drinking at the local bars) and local outreach (gambling at the local bars). You understand that you can’t be a good cop behind a desk or a microscope. You’re also a stubborn, filthy, stupid moron who thinks your shit don’t stink. I’m here to tell you, flatfoot, that it stinks to high fucking heaven. This ain’t 1932, got it? Today’s criminals will run circles around you unless you learn how to use a fucking smartphone. Knowing the name of all the local bouncers only gets you so far. Still, street smarts and the basic skills you’ve got in spades are still essential to our business. There ain’t no app that makes perps cuff themselves.
Suggested d12 Trait: Fighting
You’re smart, I’ll give you that. You’re the guy who puts the clues together, figures out who did what to who and with what. You probably fancy yourself a pretty good judge of the human soul, too, huh? Well, fine, but don’t let it go to your head. Fact is I’ve buried more of you idiots than I care to mention, and you wanna know why? You tend to stick your nose where it don’t belong and never call for fucking backup. I had a dog like you once—used to chase every goddamned rabbit he saw. I put up a fence, tied him with a chain, bought one of them fancy electric gizmos, and the poor stupid mutt still wound up flattened by a car. You wanna know why? Because he didn’t know when to quit! Maybe that’s admirable—I dunno. Anyway, just keep your partner close and maybe, just once in a while, come up with a theory that will stick in court.
Suggested d12 Trait: Knowledge
Character Creation in a Danger Patrol-type game is super, super simple. You pick a role (above) and then select a style (below) – bingo, you’ve got a character.
So, there you have it – my own home-brew action-cop game. Can’t wait to run it again; can’t wait to let you folks know how it goes.
That’s it for me at the moment – back to writing!
This is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.
I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.
The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.
And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.
In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.
In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.
However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.
Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.
We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.
Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.
Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.
Talk to you next week!
This is going to start with a gaming story and then will wrap up somewhere in the neighborhood of me talking about Star Wars, so set your Geek Shields to maximum, folks.
I ran an RPG once that was set in Medieval Japan. As the setting was ostensibly historical, I used the most realistic ruleset I could find, which was (and is) namely The Riddle of Steel. TRoS has a brutally realistic combat system, which I loved. I loved the idea of extremely high-stakes samurai fights. It was going to be so cool.
And then the samurai player took a samurai sword to the groin in his first fight (he engaged an armored opponent while wearing only a loin cloth, which was seriously cool and also really stupid), nearly died, and was laid up healing for the next few months of in-game time. He was also literally emasculated. Unsurprisingly, for the rest of the campaign all the heroes tried very hard to avoid combat with anybody. There were precious few samurai duels and way, way more “stab him from behind in the dark” kinds of things. Which was fine, but not exactly what I had imagined in my mind.
Because of its realism, TRoS basically robbed all main characters of their plot armor – that mystical force that makes main characters invulnerable to everyone but the really scary bad guys. This is fine if what you’re going for is gritty realism, but very much not fine if you’re trying to tell tales of high adventure. The more realistic you get, the fewer superheroes prove to exist. Batman gets taken down by a Saturday Night Special in the waistband of a punk he thought he put down. Inigo Montoya is out of action after that first knife in the guts. Han and Luke never make it off the Death Star.
I see a lot of people constantly ragging on Imperial/First Order stormtroopers for “not being able to hit anything.” It’s a constant meme at this point, and it kinda annoys me. For one thing, with the singular exception of the Battle of Endor (which, yes, was totally stupid), stormtroopers are pretty damned good at shooting things. They kill pretty much every other unnamed force they are faced with, from Geonosis all the way to Maz Kanata’s Tavern. It’s just they can’t seem to get many hits in on anybody who’s got a name. Why? Plot armor, obviously – you know it, I know it, everybody knows it. So why complain? Do you actually want Stormtroopers to be able to gun down main characters regularly? Do you want them to constitute a real existential threat to our protagonists?
If the answer is “yes,” then you’re asking for Star Wars to tell a different type of story – one less about pulp novel heroics and more about grim, gritty “cost of war” kinds of stuff. Less John Wayne and more Oliver Stone, right?
If the answer is “no,” then consider what stormtroopers, for all their inability to hit anybody with a name, add to the story. They make it bright and loud and exciting. Even though we know the stormtroopers won’t kill our heroes, they might get injured (Leia!), might have their ride destroyed (Poe!), might have to be rescued at the last moment by a friend (Finn!), and so on and so forth. They are an important plot device, one that forces the heroes to run, to fight, to undertake heroics, and so on – it’s what we want out of the movie. Stop being so dismissive of their point and pretending they’re inept when they aren’t actually portrayed that way at all.
Now, I guess you could just use them more sparingly and set things up so the heroes are harder to hit or something. Or maybe we can watch our heroes be more stealthy. But, in the immortal words of the late Han Solo: “Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around!”
Which pretty much sums up exactly what the audience thinks, too.