Corruption: the other white meat

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.


Stirred, not shaken
Temptation of Percival

Quantifying Units and Amounts of Peril

Temptation to the point of corruption is not something which I consider to be easy to do in a roleplaying game. Fear, for all of its difficulties to nurture and maintain, is far easier. That is not to say that roleplaying a moral fall is something to be avoided; quite the contrary. The ongoing popularity of World of Darkness settings shows us that the idea can be extremely attractive; however, looking at the average Chronicle, this oh-so-attractive element does not seem to get much actual focus. Posing tends to feature more prominently than Angst, and of course empowerment fantasies manifesting in the form of combat with, domination of, or orchestrating endless humiliations for one’s imaginary enemies vastly outweighs even something as ubiquitous as posing while bemoaning one’s tortured state.

While I sound somewhat caustic now, I am certain my games, at least originally and for several years, were no different. Not for lack of trying, mind you – and therein lies my point.

If there is one area where players and GMs can be at odds, it is in allowing the story to trump not one’s character, or even the interests of the player, but rather the player’s ego. What I mean by that convoluted statement is that sometimes, a disagreement or a breakdown in entertainment can be caused not because something is happening in the game by which the characters or the assumed reality of their setting are being affected, but because the player does not wish to be affected.

I have been fortunate to game with some extraordinary people in my time, but I am hard-pressed to think of times where a player, having recognized the archetypal story that was occurring as a result of their character’s actions, and having recognized the real effect such experiences would have on the character, did not at some point balk at the idea of having conceptual change (ie. Growth) occur as a direct result.

Some simple (and surprisingly short-winded) examples are:

  • In a Vampire: The Masquerade Chronicle, a moderately humane character who had begun listening to Sabbat propaganda that made sense to both the player and the character, refused to buy into this divergent philosophy not for in-game reasons, but for the meta-game reason that the Sabbat were ‘the bad guys.’
  • Another player, in the same Chronicle, later dismissed the idea of repenting and trying to further their understanding of the Path of Humanity when passively opposed and made to see themselves as an evil being by an NPC with a significant level of Faith. This was not done for legitimate in-character reasons, but because, “It would make feeding too difficult.”
  • In a game in which I was a player, I proposed an interim character I felt was incapable of long-term survival, and wanted to play out a brutal and short unlife. Although the ST had agreed to and liked the idea, actually following through on realistic responses to the self-destructive behaviour of the character proved to be difficult for him, and he complained about each stage of the character’s decline as we moved toward the inevitable end, not because he could not ‘pull the trigger,’ but because he enjoyed the character and did not want to ‘kill him off.’ On the other side of this coin we had me as the player, hoping to rush the character’s arc, not because I truly felt it was time for him to meet his well-deserved end, but because I had come up with a different character I felt better suited the Chronicle, the existing group of players and characters, and wanted to start running him as soon as possible.

I think people resist certain types of realistic responses for their characters all the time, and that this is not always bad – sometimes it is a fundamental requirement for enjoyment. We often read and hear about the inclusion of romance in RPGs and that is no doubt one of the more common areas where players and GMs draw lines of varying degrees in regard to allowing meta-considerations to influence in-character action, but I think it is temptation and its offspring, corruption, that is the harder beast to capture.

At Roles, Dice, and Fun, Morten Greis has posted an excellent series on the decline, alienation, and fall of characters in his Delta Green campaign. I think this fantastic example is the exception which sadly proves the rule, but I hope that will not always be so. (It probably will, though)

Most players accept things like losing hit points, taking wound penalties, overcoming target number modifiers, and a host of other negative or debilitating game effects without blinking, but even when in complete possession of ‘narrative authority’ for their characters may resist or reject something simple like sanity and morality mechanics which are no more abstract and arbitrary than any other system in a given game. This does not make them ‘bad players’ and this is not a rant decrying their ‘bad playing.’ What it does mean, is that there is a line which they are unwilling, or unready to cross, and being made to cross it will quite understandably impact negatively on their fun, and the fun of those around them.

Having a character lose their mind, shift from one alignment to another, or become effectively enslaved to another character by virtue of something intangible but emotionally binding, such as an oath, courtly love, or Confucian ethics can be the death of enjoyment for a lot of players. The attraction of the emotionally and mentally impervious character is understandably compelling, and has been with us for much of our history. The sunset was put into the lexicon of storytellers so that heroes would have a place to ride, and romances would have a place to linger without fading.

What then, can be done about this?

If so many people resist it, why should we even bother to try this sort of gaming? The answer for me is quite simple (despite the enormous length of this post). I feel that tackling a game wherein the premise is to create characters who experience and fall prey to their flaws, or in which they do so and subsequently rise again to grace, can teach us a lot about how to invest ourselves more appropriately in a character, and bring more out of a session. While the ‘5-minute chargen’ with ‘insta-bond relationships with strangers’ crowd will no doubt shrug this statement off as being of no value, I do not mean that all games need to be psychological in nature, nor used as some kind of wish-fulfillment theatre combined with free therapy for the terminally nerdy. What I do mean, is that I feel that it is possible to elevate the level of play in a group to the point where you can consistently ‘do it right’ for the satisfaction of each member of that group. That means, a group can evolve over time to improve and enhance mastery of the game elements of the story, and also the story elements of the game. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive. While the balance will naturally shift one way or the other between groups, and most likely within any given group over time, I do not think fear, or lack of familiarity should hold us back from getting the most out of each aspect of the game. Our characters do not tend to stop progressing at level one – particularly if they keep adventuring, why do so many groups expect to game forever with the same basic grasp of the games they run together?

Defining Character by all challenges

I think the two-dimensional, emotionally immutable, mentally unassailable character, particularly those who are that way simply because the player wills it to be so regardless of traits on the sheet and events in the game, is one of the things which can stifle a group over time, and that regular, or at least occasional forays into realms of character development can do nothing but good. These explorations do not have to be life-altering. Sometimes, it is the smallest thing which has the biggest effect.

In the same way that it is nice to slip the filter of fantasy over the lens of ours mind’s eye and delve into dungeons without moral qualms, or rational explanation for things like an economy if one has been mired in the moral quagmire of games like Vampire, or the cosmic questions of Mage, or the sanity-shredding burdens of Call of Cthulhu, it is altogether a good thing to reverse the trend and expose the character-less character to an ethical quandary or two from time to time.

Can the character hang on to their original outlook through all the things they have overcome? Will their experiences reaffirm, enhance, weaken, or destroy their beliefs and assumptions about their world? Will the Paladin never know a moment’s hesitation? Never wonder about what might have been, if they had the freedom to follow their heart, not their quest? Will the thief never know a flash of guilt for the lives their depredations have ruined? What titanic reserves of strength will it take for a small band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic ruin to just keep on living?

I believe we should define characters by all the challenges they have faced, not just the ones ending in blood shed, and treasure gained. Challenges of the more ephemeral sort do not need to be lost to have value, they just need to exist, and be met with the character’s resources, not the player’s whims or reservations.

2 Responses to “Corruption: the other white meat”
  1. Murderbunny says:

    One of the things that I like about NWoD is the Virtue/Vice system in which player-characters are mechanically rewarded in the form of Willpower points for succumbing to their defining character flaws (as well as for following through on their moral strengths). Clan Daeva from Vampire the Requiem takes it one step furhter; their Clan weakness causes them to lose Willpower for refusing to indulge in their Vice when an opportunity presents itself (as well as missing out on the reward for indulgence), which provides a game mechanic that supports the flavor text/reputation of the Daeva as being decadent and capricious.

    The fact is, though, players know more than their characters do, and always see the bigger picture even if their character is stated to be small-minded and petty. Players will also tend to want to play their characters the way they wish they would react, rather than how they would actually react in a given situation, which is also related to players of heroic characters trying to play as if their characters are immune to stress and fear.

    Players will tend to be far more rational and conscious of risk-reward than a character would be, and what’s more, virtual sex, money, fame and power are nowhere near as compelling as their real-world counterparts, which makes them far easier for a player to resist. The risks are too high, and the temptations are just not tempting enough.

    • Runeslinger says:

      That can be the kernel of the problem, yes….although there are players who know significantly less about what is going on in any given scene than their characters. 😉

      Mechanical reinforcement/reward of a desired play style is fine, as far as it goes, but the point at which I was getting, was that at a certain point in a group’s time together as players, it might be good to simply choose to expand their options, and suspend their resistance to this layer of their characters’ reality. Not all games need to be immersive and dramatic, but adjusting the balance between roleplay elements and game elements, and having the freedom to interact as ‘realistically’ or as ‘beer ‘n pretzelly’ as you want is a great strength of the format.

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