To Live and Die in Roleplay

RPGBloggers Carnival

March is all about Life & Death

When I saw the announcement on Campaign Mastery that the RPG Blog Carnival theme for March was an open one covering the breadth of Life and Death in RPGs, my first thought was to wonder how many of the posts will focus on the latter half of the theme.  Despite how much the hobby has grown, it is hard not to notice how much of each core book for each game is devoted to the taking of life, as opposed to living it. From a certain point of view, even looking at the carnival logo, it is unlikely that reactions to it would include thinking that the characters shown are getting ready for life, no matter how much life-affirmation is contained within the concept of fighting for one’s own. Although that particular image leans heavily toward fantasy, each genre has its own requirement for death, and its own uses for life.

Genre-appropriate levels of violence aside, no matter how evolved each of our games may become as we ourselves grow as tale-framers and players, no good story can or should be entirely devoid of one form of death or another – even if it is merely the death of innocence.

When I first started running games in the horror genre, one interesting thing I noticed was how refreshing it was that interaction between the characters and the bulk of the NPC cast transformed from conflict to conversation – even when that cast was often insane and rambling. Later, when I tried my hand at games in the mould of superheroism, and even later in heroic pulp, I noticed a strong aversion among most of the players to taking the violence to a fatal level. Despite the broad range of truly and sociopathically lethal pulp heroes, something in their perception of these genres, or my presentation of them, seemed to inform their play and prevent them from choosing to reign down death on all the mooks.  

My thoughts as I write this post, despite the above evidence to the contrary, are not really about the death side of this equation. They are more concerned with how little attention can be paid by gaming groups – mine included – to exploring opportunities for other genre appropriate conventions like marriage, offspring, and buying cheap, ugly carpet for the rec room in a character’s basement/super-secret sanctum. When looking over my non-Generation Game campaigns, I cannot say that the majority of characters – even the clean-cut ones – have had things like lovers, relations and relationships, or things like collections or former occupations often become a central part of play. These things, while fully fleshed out and meant to be more than just detail on a character sheet, seem to be harder to bring to the forefront than the PC group’s ability to deal with less personal stories.  It seems to be easier to focus on getting hired to do a run, than to focus on how a sick puppy can distract a character from getting that run done. This is not to say that it never happens, but perhaps it happens less often than we might think – even about our own games. Using my own games as an example, of the three campaigns which are detailed on this site so far (Trinity, Palladium, Mechwarrior) only one of them has a lot of personal, ‘mundane’ interaction as its primary focus. Unless you have been following along, it likely won’t be the one you think, either – until you have finished reading this sentence.

One blog I follow regularly, despite my total lack of interest in Pathfinder, is Geek Related. One thing, other than the quality of the posts that keeps me going there are the session summaries for one of the author’s campaigns: Reavers on the Seas of Fate. Despite being a tale about a fairly foul group of people – pirates, no less – the series itself is richly detailed with the sort of living, breathing relationships that one would expect from living, breathing people. Very refreshing.

The point 

So by now, I am sure I am not alone in wondering what my point is. Perhaps it is less of a point, and more of a question. As we lay the foundations of our games, shape how we present them to the players, and blend the results of their creativity with ours, are we doing all that we can to balance the interplay between the world of action and adventure that our characters inhabit during the brief time a scenario takes, and the ‘real life’ that gets interrupted by them? Are we bringing elements to the fore which our characters would if they were real, or are we allowing the needs of resolving the story du jour outweigh the things which will add a growing depth of feeling to the characters’ growing breadth of experience? 

How often do we take the extra step to breathe a greater sense of real life into our stories, instead of simply stopping at making them fun?

8 Responses to “To Live and Die in Roleplay”
  1. mxyzplk says:

    Hey, thanks for the mention. Sometimes I feel like the gaming world in general doesn’t value the same things I do – the realistic characters, immersive worlds, and organic stories that make roleplaying worthwhile. It’s not always easy but it’s very rewarding. Glad to get the positive feedback!

  2. Fitz says:

    Totally agree with you on this. It’s about the body count and not the roleplaying/cameraderie/relationships in fantasy settings far too often. I always try to go deeper, focusing on a whole persona rather than just an avatar swinging a sword, but not everybody goes for that.

    Your observations about behavior in other settings such as horror and supers is also interesting. I wonder why that is? In horror perhaps it’s simply because they know (based on horror movies) that if the party splits up, they’re easier prey? And we have comic books (power = responsibility) guiding our actions in superhero games. I wonder if it’s like fantasy in a post-apocalyptic setting like Mad Max or Fallout?

    Anyway – great article. Very thought provoking topic in this months’ carnival!

    I actually tried focusing on the “life” part of the equation in my own carnival article here.

  3. Da' Vane says:

    The problem with the “life” part of the equation is pretty simple really – it’s often regarded that gaming is a form of escapism, and as such most gamers want to get away from the sort of things that make life, life. There’s often little interest in things like mundane jobs, hobbies, and relationships – because we don’t need to enter a game to have those. Gamers actually have lives, and it’s much more satisfying to experience these things for ourselves, as ourselves, than to imagine them for someone else. You would have to be some form of sociopath to consider the mundane aspects of life a form of escapism.

    This reasoning is often evidenced within the video games industry by the total aversion to the Sims by the mainstream video games community. It isn’t because these are bad games – quite the opposite. It’s because the theme of the Sims don’t appeal to the mainstream gamer – as many opposed to the Sims would say, they don’t see the fun in a game that involved going to the toilet, when they have a toilet in their own home. Little thought is given to the fact that the motivation for going to the toilet in the Sims is to manage the Bladder need, which makes it little different from managing ammunition supplies in a first-person shooter, for example.

    The Sims became more popular the more fantastical and escapist that it got, because it was able to deliver scenarios that were further and further from the mundane aspects of life. Children play at being grown-ups, because they are encouraged to do so, and because this is something that isn’t mundane for them – relationships, children, jobs, and responsibility are all things that are desired rather than escaped from. Yet, even grown-ups play at being better grown-ups – but this time, the aspirations are rock stars, inventors, soldiers, and secret agents – all of which are more fantastical then themselves.

    In roleplaying games of all kinds, the celebration of life is always about lives other than our own, for this very simple reason. Because, it is much better to be living a life rather than pretending to live a life, so the tendency is to explore what we can’t get in our own lives rather than repeat that which we already have. If we already have it in our lives and want to experience it again, it’s better to go for the real thing.

    Ultimately, life in roleplaying will never beat life in real life, and this is why life is often an underexplored topic. There are generally better things to explore, which are less likely to be available in real life.

    BTW, I’ve wandered over from the RPG Blog Carnival – Congrats on a very good blog post.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I don’t disagree, and were I to get caught having to manage certain mundane tasks in every session, I wouldn’t be that keen on incorporating much real life, either. It’s a question of scale.

      I see the hobby as being fueled primarily by escapism as well, but I also see significant focus on the tales themselves. There are those among us who are not trying to escape to something more fun, but trying to create something.

      The sort of thing I was really talking about was making an effort to use those character details which traditionally are left to sit totally unused on a character sheet, not unlike the entries for 2 weeks of iron rations used to (and I suspect still do, in many cases). I am not advocating rolling to chew, I am advocating having stories involve running out of food, or discovering that iron rations are soylent green, or one day while munching happily away you find a signet ring in your rations and a hint of finger.

      I am talking about upping the stakes in the lives of adventurers, explorers, heroes, and warriors by having the people that they meet make an impact, not about stopping the story to roleplay doing the laundry. I am suggesting fewer stories can start at the ubiquitous tavern, and more can start in the middle of Conan Jr’s first sword-skill demonstration, or while shopping for ugly carpet, or as a result of trying to find an honest mechanic. I think it is both possible, and more engaging to envision a world where one’s contacts are not just sitting around waiting for your call to action, they are out doing things which they will drop to help you save the universe again. A lot of great escapist play is built around the banter, and interrupting PC X’s first date with that hot waitress you all inadvertently saved when battling Dr. Whirlwind’s Flaming Robot Ninja Army to let him know that the city is in peril again, has a lot more snap to it than just having all the superheroes waiting patiently to spring into action.

      I think that where we differ is that I see these things as languishing because many do not think to include them and use them to heighten tension, create urgency, or to add depth and rich gameplay, not because people are making a conscious choice to avoid fleshing out their characters and the world around them.

      I totally agree that people want to sit down, get right at it, and roll the dice to slaughter monsters and collect loot. Where I think we can raise the quality of play is in knowing why the character is slaughtering those monsters, and where that loot is going when it is in our grasp, and actually using that knowledge to frame scenes and inspire action.

      Thanks for taking the time to read my entry and leave a thought-provoking comment!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] The follow-up post for the March Blog Carnival […]

  2. […] “Despite how much the hobby has grown, it is hard not to notice how much of each core book for each game is devoted to the taking of life, as opposed to living it.” That is the central issue discussed by Casting Shadows in their post, To Live and Die in Roleplay. […]

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