Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Where No One Has Gone Yet

Whenever or wherever in my work for Riskail (or one of the other, related settings) it says the words: "...no one has ever returned," "...no one really knows...", "...there are no records of such a thing..." and so on and so forth, that is a Direct and Overt challenge to any would-be adventurers or players.  These instances are hanging there like golden apples, waiting to be plucked.  In the background you can almost hear the Shatner-esque whisper; YOU could be the one to accomplish this heroic task, YOU could find out something that no one else knows, or YOU could be the one to make a connection that no one else has -- thus making the character(s) and their actions both relevant to the established setting and giving the player(s) a good shot at pulling off something ground-breaking, awe-inspiring, unique and potentially quite disruptive of the status quo.  It is important to empower players and that comes through challenging their characters in ways that give them opportunities that they might not have ever considered or even imagined previous to their getting involved and enmeshed with the setting, the other players, the game itself.  A good example of this in Riskail would be the whole taking an expedition upriver along the Siret-Nile to find Old Earth, which no one in their right mind would ever attempt and all the media say is stupid, pointless and absurd.  Right.  That's exactly why a group of player characters would do just such a thing.  It's too good a challenge to not do it and damn the consequences, plague-barges and all.

A setting that cannot accomodate the sorts of changes wrought by player characters is too fragile to waste time on, and is worthless as a source of fiction, as far as I am concerned...but that is a personal opinion and of course you are free to disagree or see it differently.  I'm just explaining some of the behind-the-curtains thinking that goes into my own work both in terms of fiction and gaming.  When the local inn burns down because of a bar-fight that got incredibly out of hand, then it burns down and we deal with it.  Even medieval cities had some means of handling fires, Rome had to handle urban fires, it's not rocket science.  The fire gets dealt with, put out or it rages on and the whole, place goes up like Chicago once did, Frisco once did, London once did or perhaps even someplace in your world, your setting.

Yes, there are consequences to your decisions.  Duh.  What makes things interesting in an RPG or novel or short-story is how the charcters deal with the consequences of their actions, and other people's decisions as well.  These things do not have to take away anything that they don't otherwise replace with something potentially better or more interesting.  They are opportunities.  Challenges.  Your turn to ante up.

One of the blog authors I've only recently discovered, thanks to Blair over at Planet Algol again, has stated things really, really well, so I'm quoting them here:

"...if you really consider your character very valuable and worthy of the emotional investment you placed upon him, then it is your duty to play excellently, whereby ensuring that a single die roll does not result in the death of the character; that the fate of your character does not purely rely upon the scales of fortune or the outcome of a single die roll...."
- Spielmaster/Under A Blood Red Sky
Well said sir!  There really is no substitute for playing excellently.  Role-playing enables a form of safe and fun transgressiveness that certainly beats the hell out of running around with a loaded hand gun in the midst of a crowd while doing your best impersonation of a young and naieve would-be Andre Breton clone.  You get to do stuff that you would never -- could never -- do in actual day-to-day existence.  I shouldn't even have to say such a thing, but for all its obvious-ness, it gets overlooked way too often.  And I don't mean the powers and crap, I mean the simple matter of just doing things.  Maintaining the status quo is not exactly the height of role-playing, even if you use the wonky Alignment stuff that got tacked on to OD&D.  Even Lawful types are supposed to be out smiting evil, saving those in peril, etc.

Player timidity really gripes me.  I've run games for a variety of groups and in a number of environments and the number one way to really kill the fun is to have some player who just sits there like a lump.  More often than not the new players, those just getting going for the first time ever have a blast and really get into things.  But you do get the occasional chair-slug who acts as if it is all a spectator sport for their viewing pleasure.  I absolutely detest this.  To me the whole reason we're at the bloody table in the first place is to participate and interact.  Role-playing is built upon the core premise of social interaction.  I don't have a problem with observers or even the occasional kibutzer, but someone sitting in a chair at the table with a character sheet in-hand is expected to participate.  Maybe that's not the common perception, but it is how I see things.

As I see it, players should be there to play.  If it's an off-night or whatever, then excuse yourself.  Put on the J.A.F.O. hat and sit back and watch by all means, but don't throw your character into the mix just to coast along.  That sucks and it's unfair to the other players and the DM as well.

Characters are supposed to take risks.  This is why they are called adventurers.  All the super powers, Xena-level feats, or Indiana Jones' skills in the world don't mean crap unless you take a few chances and actually do someting.  Anything.  Just make the attempt.  All you have to lose are some abstract points recorded on a piece of paper or maybe you'll need to pay a fine and get your clone released from some holding facility.  Or you make a new character.  So what?  If you are so attached to a made-up character that has no existence outside of the gaming table that you cannot bear to do anything that might jeopardize that character's non-existence, it's time to set the dice down, move away from the table and go for a long, quiet walk out in the country.

It's not just players that have to take risks.  DMs/GMs and authors have to take risks as well.  My favorite example of this is the random table-pocalypse from Planet Algol where Blair used a random table and got one of his cities slagged with a "A terrible howling storm of acid and radiation lashes the land driving all into shelters where they must contend with cannibalistic madness." Ouch.  Instead of punking-out and fudging the results, he rolled with it and the city got trashed.  Hard.  You can read the post that details the event here. That took guts and it's exactly the sort of risk-taking on the part of a DM or writer that I really respect and hope to emulate when it's my turn at the table.

A living setting can accomodate change.  A museum-piece relic of days gone by can't.  Most of our settings are not museum-quality, at least not yet, and of those most likely to get that distinction any time soon. Barker's Tekumel handles the matter of changes wrought by player characters in its own ingenius ways, most often by swallowing-up the net effect under the accumulated cultural inertia of the civilization within which the players operate.  Tekumel has its own immune system in place in the form of the Concordat, the O.A.L. and other features all cleverly arranged so that no matter how off-the-wall your characters get, the world will keep on turning (machines handle that), and the inevitable tide of progress will continue to come in slowly, sedately and with a large retinue of appropriately attired attendants.  If you could really change anything on a core level with Tekumel you'd destroy everything that makes it unique.  If you change anything on a non-core level, it can handle it and respond in a hundred different ways that you might not have expected.  Telepathic secret police, immortal sorcerers, living gods...there are Vested Interests in that world whom it is unwise and often unsafe to attract the attention of or to make into an enemy.  But it does ramp-up the story-line and the tension/drama quite a bit, so it's exactly the path to take, especially if you serve a deity of Change.  The safe guards and protocols are for lesser beings, they are only suggestions and challenges, even opportunities to player characters.  Even on Tekumel.

The capability of players to shake things up from the consequences of their actions is integral to the way I prefer to handle all my settings.  Every repercussion that ripples outwards from a player's decisions or a character's actions is an opportunity for their interaction with the setting both in terms of making a memorable contribution and in playing a pivotal role in its ongoing transformation.  Players can be incredible agents of change who breathe life into a setting.  I rarely develop plot-lines for adventures, as plots tend to accumulate around good players like bodies at the feet of a raging librarian in full battle frenzy.  There is no need for arbitrary over-arching plots or creativity-killing plot-devices when the setting is already a collection of moving parts and the players start figuring out how to negotiate their way through this new environment.  Every time they interact with a personality, encounter a creature, cross paths with some faction or just walk around a neighborhood they don't belong in -- those things lead to an ever-increasing set of ripples that draw a bit more boldness into the previously sketchy lines, and it bumps up the color threshold of an otherwise potentially lackluster scene that goes from being a one-off to becoming something that has relevance and resonance for the players.  The outre and the bizarre become known quantities.  The weirdness becomes part of the background and a baseline of perceived normality sifts into a comfortable configuration based upon accumulated experience, lessons learned, and the ongoing interaction and dialogue the players have with each other, the setting and the other aspects/inhabitants of that setting.

As in life, so in RPGs; you find your way.  You come to terms with the outrageous crap of an RPG setting just like you come to terms with the outrageous crap in the Real World (tm) like the massive amounts of toxins swarming through all of us thanks to insane industrial processes that spew things like cadmium into our drinking water and imported costume-jewelry.  You figure out how to deal with the technology (no matter how advanced) like anyone else; either ask for help, beat it against the nearest rock until it submits or you ask a 6-year old.  You pull on your big boy (or girl) pants, suck it up and deal with it.  Or at least your character does.  If you can learn anything from role-playing it is that it can sometimes work out really well when you take a risk, and if you never take a risk, nothing exceptional is likely to ever happen to you one way or another.  It seems a waste of time to roll up a character to play act at mediocrity, doesn't it?  Why not try going out there past where everyone else has already been and taking a look around?  Why not be adventurous with your characters?

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