Who Watches the Roleplayers?

I almost had a good discussion about Watchmen recently when Ron Edwards made an interesting post on an aspect of the graphic novel on his Dr. Xaos comics madness blog. I say ‘almost,’ because as our points in the comments run counter to each other, nothing much came of it. Tangents are traps in any discussion of Watchmen that hopes to be intelligent and sourced in the material.

This post is a re-purposing of a far-too-long comment I left on that entry, as parts of it have been nagging at me ever since. I think it makes more sense to capture the parts of the comment that are relevant to gaming and which stuck with me afterward, than to try to recreate everything within a different context. Plus, if you have not yet seen the Dr. Xaos blog, this way I can share it with you and talk about gaming using a single action.

One thing about having discussions about Watchmen that I remember clearly is that it is hard to keep as long and as detailed a work as Watchmen fully in mind for real discussion because of its structure and means of presenting its content. In the post Edwards made, he focused on the idea of the absence of villains in the work’s backstory, and then transitioned to discuss the effect that has on the notion of heroes. As the work is often touted as being a deconstruction of the superhero, Edwards demonstrated that as a virtue of the work’s lack of foundation for heroes it simply cannot be a deconstruction, but rather an examination or presentation of something else. I feel this is the sort of focus that is required when looking at something as multi-faceted as Watchmen. By design, I believe, Watchmen has elements, images, and ambiguities which, like an ink blot, mean different things to different people. That ambiguous but relatable nature is the focus of this post.

As those who have gotten to know my interests somewhat via this blog or my YouTube channel, it may seem strange to see a post from me about comics. This would be a good place to state that while connected to Watchmen, this will not be a post about the comic. I cannot claim to be a comics follower, but there have been some stories and some works which have caught my eye and my attention – mainly due to the intervention or influence of a friend or two along the way. To give some context for my initial reading of Watchmen, and the way in which I take it, please allow me a brief divergence to the dawn of time when I was still in school.

In university, I was turned on to Watchmen by a classmate and gamer named Scott Marshall. He was one of the first people I tried out my then new love for Call of Cthulhu on, and he was the first to be willing to trade places with me to be the Keeper. At the time, he was working on his thesis which was on the concept of encouraging greater recognition of the graphic novel format. Toward that end he used Watchmen heavily for examples, going so far as to redraw each panel at 4x size to look at and demonstrate the graphical and textual details in both forward/backward linear order, and in Moore’s & Gibbons’ ways of presenting a mirror-like ripple order. Doing that definitely reinforces the idea that there are no unimportant details. As he also delved into the roots of the work, I was drawn into his conversation about the material due in part to having grown up reading pulps, (The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, The Lone Ranger, The Avenger [Justice Inc], etc), watching serials, and listening to old radio plays, thanks to my father’s collection and encouragement. I was not much of a comics reader, but I recognized the characters being re-purposed in Watchmen, and I knew the fiction which influenced the creators and inspired the characters. I knew the ambiguity, the apparent simplicity, and the persuasive nature of those sources of inspiration well enough to be a sounding board for a brief time, and to come from that opportunity wanting to look at Watchmen as a reflection of a period in fiction, or ripples from triggering events.

This blog is about roleplaying games, not comics. As we have seen from time to time, though, sometimes comic book characters get me thinking about roleplaying game characters, and the lessons we might wish to take or avoid from the medium of comics. How can I turn an overly lengthy blog comment on Watchmen into a post on RPG characters? Let’s see.

The aspect of my response which stuck with me after responding to the post on the Dr. Xaos comics madness blog was one of perspective, and how there are so very many of them in Watchmen. The writer manipulates the text to create layers of meaning, the artist creates constantly shifting points of view, they conspire together to shuffle the expected flow of time, and use spatial positioning of a whole host of things from body language to visual perspective to count their way through the spreading ripples and passing moments to the tale’s quasi-apocalyptic ending. One example of this is the way the interplay between how the creators manipulate perspective of the reader and the way the characters are likewise manipulating the perspective of the people that they meet – even the ones they only meet in the mirror.

In my experience, when talking about the content of Watchmen, what I hear most is conversation about the characters and our thoughts about and reactions to them. By comparison in gaming, when we talk about the content of a campaign, I have noticed that more often than not we talk about the events. As it cannot be said that the events of Watchmen are not worth talking about, I would suggest that there must be something more compelling about those characters than perhaps we find in the characters which appear in our games. While that cannot possibly be true about all games and gamers everywhere, nor even about all conversations about the contents of Watchmen [who hasn’t talked about the plausibility of the creature?], I think it is true enough to be worthy of a little consideration. What is different about those characters which has caught and held our attention for so long and with such interest, which does not tend to happen when one gamer tries to relate to another gamer the nature of the character they play in a campaign?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is this management of perspective, this notion that reality is just its perception, and that more manipulation of that perception is going on than we might like to admit.

If more compelling characters which allow greater depth and breadth of interpretation and analysis by the people in your group interests you, please read on. Share your own thoughts when you are done. I will be interested in reading them. Anyway, let’s begin…

Watchmen provides several ways to experience the characters. We have access to what they say and do, of course, but we also have access to what they think, and what is said about them. We often have opportunitues to make comparisons between these elements, and we are free to speculate on a good number of them. Some might say it is that thin slice of ambiguity which makes Watchmen so tasty. I know it suits my tastes.

Let’s look at two examples, Nite Owl and Rorschach. Unlike Watchmen, let’s start at the beginning with the first Nite Owl, and look at the many ways he sees himself and is himself perceived.

Consider the fictional autobiography “Under the Hood,” which implies a Hollis Mason bent on retiring and bent on making himself feel obsolete. He is questioning the good he has done. When we see him in the flow of the tale, however, we see him full of vitality and yearning. We see him reveling in the sharing of tales with his young protegé. We are shown his obvious pride at receiving a community service award, and read his longing for that sort of praise in his spoken interactions with other masked adventurers, but when we get glimpses inside the cover of his autobiography, we can’t help but note the self-consciousness and feelings of inadequacy. For all the ‘tell all’ nature of Under the Hood, that character of Mason is portrayed as choosing his words somewhat carefully. To my eyes though, a key point here is that Mason is portrayed by himself, and by the images of him, as living for adventure. He is portrayed as a man who longs to be a hero worthy of praise, and although he desires that praise, he was inspired to simple good vs evil adventurism first by a grounding in the pulps, then the thrill of comics, and finally by the news reports of Hooded Justice. The heroes he read about were too modest in many cases to accept praise. In fact, many kept their identities secret by one means or another. As a police officer he could do a lot of good, and he stood to earn some recognition for his efforts, but… it appears to have not been enough. It is really the comics which plant the seed in his mind. Through their influence he can actually see a mysterious hero being heroic. That seed is encouraged to sprout by the first report of a costumed hero. Once he starts, the thrill of doing good for its own sake grips him and he keeps it up for more than 20 years. When he retires, he looses that thrill, and the recognition dwindles… perhaps compelling him to show people a look ‘under the hood.’

As Nite Owl, was he engaged in attempting anonymous heroic acts simply because he loves adventure and cannot reconcile his need for adulation with his notions of heroism? He chose to be a costumed hero in response to costumed heroes, not due to costumed villains or super-villains. He tells us this directly, and offers little detail about what – if any – villainy made him think such acts were necessary. Looking at this, we could say that he was a hero in need of a villain or villainy, but we could also say that to him, the presence of that villainy may have been so obvious as to not need mentioning. It may not have been the sort of thing that one talks about. I see this issue of perspective as important because Mason’s perspective, as well as Dreiberg’s, Rorschach’s, Osterman’s, and Veidt’s, frames the content of the graphic novel and directs eyes at the motivations of its characters, leaving the background as vague in places or concepts as it is very explicit in others.

While each character we might choose to examine this way is separated by their own views on the world, their views on each other, and their views on themselves, there are also threads -often tenuous or metaphorical- which bind them together. For gamers, this element is important, and hard to manipulate consciously, but very rewarding when it can be brought to the table.

The adventure Mason seeks is in physically battling the fear and violence of the city – inspired by Hooded Justice, who is likewise engaged in turning the tables on violent gangs, rapists, and robbers. These characters and those of that generation which follow (the older generation of characters) rise up in response to need – internal, external, or both. Those needs bring them in opposition with what their generation regards as evil. The younger ones rise up for similar reasons, and they also have to contend with evil, but from a foundation where the lines drawn between it and ‘good’ are harder to see. Our perspectives and their perspectives give shape to the story we might take from Watchmen. Are they simply freaks, or is there a spark of the heroic in them?

For the original Nite Owl, his crime fighting was simultaneously adventure, doing good, a source of fantasy-fulfillment, and a bit embarrassing when analyzed. He focused on ‘doing good’ and ‘helping others,’ but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he had more than a little competitiveness in him. As the years passed and the world changed, how did he come to see himself? How does Dreiberg see him? To the people he saved from gang violence or freed from predatory pimps, however, how would he be seen? To the people he worked with in the Minutemen, how would he be seen? To the officers he worked with in his career on the police force, how would he be seen before Under the Hood is published, and after?

By comparison, the fan-popular Rorschach, a character despised in the fiction, is very focused on evil and the villains it makes of humanity. Like Mason, he is in the fight for personal reasons, not in reaction to a specific person. Unlike Mason, however, he doesn’t think of crime-fighting as adventure. He is too young to have seen how the type of crime being uncovered “got sordid and unglamorous” after the 40s. His was not an age of masked heroes foiling bank robberies in broad daylight. He put on a mask and walked into a night filled with abductions, drug dens, and sick pornography. Where Mason sees things as opposites, as good and evil, Kovacs comes to see it as an ongoing symptom of a problem in people, a constant through-line that must be opposed. Where Nite Owl (both of them) sees himself cast in the role of ‘first responder,’ Rorschach (both of them) is a vigilante. He sees opposition to evil as an imperative for those who have seen the problem – an absolute imperative. Alone, consumed by his inner demons, and traumatized by what he uncovers under the veneer of his city’s civilized faces, Kovacs is subsumed by Rorschach. Costumed Villains or no, we’d still have Rorschach.

These two characters seem very different. Neither likes nor respects the other. Yet…both share the same friend. Both have the same basic response to the ills they see in the world. The first Nite Owl put on a mask and went out at night to ‘do good’ in the face of fear and evil. The first iteration of Rorschach did likewise. In some small way, each tried to make themselves more in their own mind’s eye. In some small way, they tried to fix a problem. Nite Owl became a hero, and ultimately retired. It’s not really clear to everyone what Rorschach became, reader or character alike. Is there a perspective where he is a hero? What stays the hands of his former allies who think he has gone off the deep end? Is the point between ‘Kovacs playing at being Rorschach,’ and Rorschach replacing Kovacs obvious to any of those ‘close’ to him? What makes it acceptable to them once he has become a killer that none of them try to stop him? What makes it acceptable to Rorschach? Is the difference between Rorschach and Ozymandias merely one of scale? So many questions arise like heat shimmers off of each character, changing perspective with every flicker and ripple of perception, that we are drawn into their viewpoints and interactions even if we do not find likable or compelling characters at first glance.

Mason is reflected throughout the chapters. He gives the ripples of the tale shape and greater context. Focus and perspective are tools that I feel Moore and Gibbons took great pains to control as they lead us through time, through narrators, through space, and all around the intricately detailed, and sadly ill-fated intersection of the newsstand and the Gunga Diner, like the hands on a clock. It is this control, this awareness of the multiplicity of perspective, which I feel can be of great benefit as we take on our own fictional masks of character and in their guise, swing into action in the shared imagination around our gaming tables. Unlike Moore and Gibbons, however, we are not working with a medium which can only simulate multiple perspectives. Our medium of roleplaying games, provides us with as many basic and simultaneous perspectives as we have players, and as many nuances to those points of view as we have characters. Where perhaps we seek a hardline clarity of character, we could be seasoning our play with ambiguities. With practice, we can expand perspectives, don other viewpoints, twist our sight lines and filter our reactions through lenses of personality and experience which are not our own. Internal consistency of character does not have to translate into predictable and role-limited action each and every time.

The trick is to bring these varied perspectives into view inside the game and inside the intention to play the game.

The trick is to give the characters enough breathing room to be more than one thing to all people, to rise up off the two-dimensional and static sheet and demonstrate the mutability and ephemeral nature of perceived personality versus the possibly stable bedrock of identity. Working together around the table we can raise questions about motive. We can bring imagined memories of the past into the imagined present. We can speculate about the future, about our companions, about our opposition. We can be honest. We can obfuscate painful truths. We can lie. We can lie badly and deflect. We can model and explore the sorts of things which cause doubt, which create sympathy, which lead to empathy, which build friendships and enmities.

The trick is to allow our characters to be more than just the label they hope to place on themselves, more than a collection of skills or a role in a group. To be vague at times and specific in others. To be affected by things. To appear to be strong. To be complicated – even in their underlying simplicity. To allow the other players that hint of ambiguity which sparks interest. To allow a character to be interpreted.

Is that one trick, or three?

As gamers we have the opportunity to explore our characters in many ways. We could plan out their arcs in detail and work through them together. We could plant seeds of identity and see how play makes them grow. We could talk about their thoughts, we could try to model their reactions to suggest their thoughts, we could reserve the sharing of these layers for OoC discussion later, or we could just keep them to ourselves. Whichever route or mixture of routes we choose, I feel our games can be richer when our characters are.

To be clear, I am not talking about creating a detailed backstory and regaling the table with it. I am talking about allowing the persona of your character to be more than a caricature of a person. I am talking about giving more to the table; giving more to the participatory audience who are both outside and inside the tales we create at the same time. It is a given, I feel that we are already expected to have characters that are more than two-dimensional, more than an occupation with a name and an equipment list. It is a given among long-term gamers that characters will have an identity distinct from the other characters. How distinct? How nuanced? How layered? How affected by events, by people, by worries? How free are these things to be evaluated by the other players. (Related topic: Character Poisoning)

Watchmen stands as an example of the sort of vaguely mismatched, yet compatible team that a gaming group may assemble for a game. Our eyes are drawn to specific characters as they rove through the comic, but each of those intersects with the others in some way. Each affects and is affected by the others in some way. Each adds perspectives, both accurate and inaccurate, both directed at them and outward from them. I like to think that each makes us think about the story in different ways. Imagine if a campaign, any campaign, were so full of implication and points of view that when the players talk about it later, it’s not just “Remember when we took out that warlord in one shot?” If your campaigns are or have been like this, you know what I mean, and you know the difference it makes. If you are not, aren’t you curious now? For me, it is the difference between reading Watchmen, and reading a synopsis in TV Guide. The difference between a handwritten, leather-bound journal, and just some letter from a stack…

Watchmen-final-panel

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