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Who could forget the man with no name? It’s easily the most memorable character in Clint Eastwood’s acting career. After generations of protagonists so apple-pie obvious in white hats and chaps, always doing the right thing, and always winning in the end, there was something especially compelling about this antihero. You never quite knew what he was going to do. He might save the town, or he might kill everyone. You didn’t really know until right about the same time you learned the outcome of the conflict itself. This vision of moral ambiguity was a wonderful contribution to film.

As a character in a role-playing game, he totally sucks!

To be a little more specific, he makes a terrible player character in an ongoing campaign. The Man With No Name has some potential as an Non Player Character, if the guy running the game uses him well, but in the hands of a player this sort of character can be a terrible buzzkill. That doesn’t stop players from creating characters with similar personae. Time and again players bring such characters to the game table only to they aren’t nearly as interesting as their cinematic counterparts. The difference illustrates a little about storytelling, I think. But of course the issue is larger than the man with no-name. It extends to any number of morally ambiguous characters, characters who inspire fear and hope in roughly equal amounts.

What makes such characters work is the extra tension they provide to the narrative. Instead of just wondering if the hero will beat the bad guys, a morally ambiguous protagonist leaves you wondering if he will even take up the right side of the fight. He might just as easily prove to be the biggest nightmare of the narrative. Done well, such personalities will leave you on the edge of your seat well into the third act, but of course resolution will come in the end. Sooner or later these characters do the right thing, even if reluctantly so, and perhaps with a trace of wrong mixed in with it for bad measure, but they will step up to the challenge and save the day.

The audience needn’t do anything but soak up the story.

And therein lies the difference. Role playing games (or at least the pen&paper variation thereof) are an inherently cooperative enterprise. The players must come to a series of agreements in order to make it work. At minimum this means coming to an understanding of the game rules, but it also requires some agreement on the essential features of the setting as well. Ultimately, the players will need to come to a shared understanding of the plot-line for a campaign. Failing that, an rpg can easily descend into an endless session of bickering over one tiny detail after another. Were things going right, these very details would be the icing on the cake, the features of the story that make it so much more vivid. But when the players aren’t on the same page, such details instead provide fodder for a series of arguments about imaginary things, and being imaginary, those things don’t admit easily of resolution by rational argument. This is of course what makes the old Summoner Geeks parody so brilliant. Most of us who game have been there at one time or another. ….A story that isn’t quite happening, its every detail becoming an excruciating source of pointless conflict.

The morally ambivalent character is just one more variation on this problem. It poses the dilemma of a character who may or may not accept the central plot-lines of the story. More to the point, it poses the challenge of a player who may or may not accept the central challenge of the story. Unlike a movie viewer, the other players must then actively contend with the possibility that his ambiguous loyalties will undermine their own efforts to resolve the central story line. They have to worry if the dark and mysterious character will piss off the one great side character whose help they really need; if he will start a random fight in a bar where they hoped to meet an important contact; or if he might simply wander off when the big battle is about to go down. The possibilities are as countless as they are frustrating. It’s a bit like watching a side-plot to a movie take-over the entire narrative. …except that you’re not simply watching that happen. You are actively trying to resolve the central problem for the storyline and the player running the ambiguous character has just derailed the whole project!

Of course a player running a morally ambivalent character needn’t do this. He can do as the writer of a movie or a book might and choose to let his character do the right thing, so to speak, perhaps grumbling a bit in the process or adopting an ironic reason for doing so. That can be fun. It can actually work.

For about a game or two.

What makes such characters really frustrating is the prospect of dealing with their ambivalence three, four, even ten games into an ongoing campaign. It can actually be kind of fun to figure out a mysterious character in the early stages of a campaign when the story-line is just beginning to emerge. If you are still worried about his likely course of action well into the campaign, and long after the central challenge of the plot has taken shape, the whole act is going to get damned old. Ironically, such characters eventually lose their bad-ass quality and start to seem more like pampered children or special snowflakes.

It isn’t just that such characters are frustrating (though they are). The problem is that the sense of mystery – the dramatic tension that makes them tick – fails over time and they simply become tedious, just one more detail that cannot be settled. Part of what makes ambivalent characters interesting to begin with is a sense of anticipation. What will he do? It’s an interesting question, but this question must eventually be answered to provide a satisfactory theme in a story. If a player leaves his or her character sitting on the fence umpteen plot twists into a narrative, that in itself starts to become the answer to this very question. He’ll stay on that damned fence and make you beg him to help out every damned time something needs doing.

It’s all a bit like watching unrequited love in a sit-com. It’s kinda fun for an episode or three, but it’s a bit old by the second season. By season three it’s a distraction from the cool parts of the series, and by season four it’s the reason you’ve decided to watch something else.

Ultimately, the mystery that makes such characters tick resides in a moment within a plot line, but that moment must eventually pass. A character who doesn’t know what side he’s on well into an ongoing plot becomes a source of irritation. When a player tries to make moral ambiguity a lasting feature of his character, he or she may well end up as a the buzz-kill that ended the campaign.

And the man with no name thus acquires one after all.

It just isn’t a good one.