My girlfriend caught me red handed.
I’m so ashamed.
I could tell Player X didn’t like the plan. He’d been silent for awhile, and now he was asking a number of pointed questions. He had begun to ask who came up with the plan for the game in question, and knowing this player for the gruff sort of fellow he is, I could see it coming. His character would of course dismiss the whole idea, but would he also do insult the character who had come up with it? I’d seen this happen before, and I cringed.
It’s just a game, right?
That would be a common take on this sort of thing. It’s a role playing game. Whatever the player said, he would be saying in character, and he wouldn’t be saying it to a player. He’d be saying it character to character. So just let the whole thing roll!
The problem as I see it is this is just the sort of thing that’s hard to contain within the game setting. Whatever player character had come up with the plan in question within our storyline, a real person had actually come up with that plan and chosen to express it through that character. In-character, or not, any contempt shown to the plan could well have reflected back on the player. I’ve seen it happen before. One player says; “who came up with this idiotic plan?” and another player sitting there realizes he’s just been called an idiot, all in character of course, but the insult reaches right through the characters and into the room with the players sitting around the game table.
A lot depends on wording of course. If the player characters have well-established personalities, and/or if the terms of criticism clearly touch on those personalities (“hey elf, your pointy ears look stupid!” or “you dwarves are too fond of ale!”), then the insult is likely to stay in the game. It can even be quite fun to role play such conflict, but when the in-game features are thin (when the plan is a real attempt to solve a problem in game and the criticism is coming from a player who clearly doesn’t like that plan), the conflict won’t likely be contained in the game itself. The result can be an argument, or it can be an uncomfortable player. These things can blow up, or they can fester.
They can also be the reason one or more players find something else to do next week.
Luckily, the insult didn’t happen.
This kind of problem interests me for two reasons:
It’s the second of these themes that has me writing about the matter now. There are of course much more serious examples of the sort of problem I mention her, but this kind of thing happens a lot in Pen&Paper games. So, it’s not a terrible idea, I think, to meditate on this relatively light-stakes example of that problem a bit.
The activities in a pen&paper role playing game involve at least two very different contexts, one is an imagined context in which characters interact with each other in an imaginary world. The other is the game table around which actual people sit, devour snacks and narrate the actions of their own characters in response to challenges posed by the game master. Significantly, these actual players must cooperate to some degree in the construction of the imaginary world within which their character must operate. Even players choosing to role-play conflict must cooperate to understand the terms of the conflict and the potential means of playing it out. They don’t have to share exact interpretations of the imaginary world, but it does help if they share some understanding of the social rules by which their characters operate (and at the very least the mechanics by which the game will determine what happens when character A tries to punch character B in the nose). It is of course all supposed to be in good fun (at least at my games); everyone is supposed to enjoy themselves, even if their characters don’t.
In the example presented above, the imaginary interactions of a group of characters threatened to produce implications that stretched beyond the table and into the real world interactions. It’s not a hanging matter, no, but I did see real potential for one or more players to come away with a bad experience. Significantly, this problem was at least partly a question of contextualization. The metalinguistic framework which made it possible to understand the actions of one player in terms of the game world grew a bit too thin for my comfort. I’ve seen that framework break down entirely. If you’ve played pen&paper RPGs for long, you have too. It happens all the time.
Focus: scene -setting. I once had a pair of players who insisted on focusing on something other than my own narrative just about every time. If I asked them to set the characters up in a marching order, they began asking questions about the politics of the city we were headed to, how to build their characters, etc. If I introduced them to an non-player character interested in talking to them, they interrupted me to set up a marching order. If I told them no marching order was necessary, they focused on it anyway. Eventually, I realized that no matter what I was telling them, these two insisted upon talking about something else. The other players at the table were beyond frustrated, and so was I. We could not attain any kind of immersion into the story-line, because the narrative was constantly subject to pointless interruption. It was like trying to talk to someone on a static line.
It’s not that their questions were bad; it’s just that each question asked was consistently asked at the least appropriate time for doing so. In time, I came to see this as a control issue. Neither of these players were willing to let someone else take the lead. (Significantly, neither would let anyone else get the last word on anything, least of all each other), and preventing me from gaining any momentum when setting the stage served the same purpose. Simply put, neither of these players was willing to cooperate sufficiently to achieve a common narrative framework. I didn’t have a solution for this then, and I don’t now, except to game with someone else.
Which is what I do.
Killing Your Fellow PCs: Whenever a player character kills another player character, the chances that this will be taken personally grow rather high. That should be obvious, but I am amazed at the number of players who will swear that isn’t the case, or at least that it shouldn’t be. It is extraordinarily common to find players defending such actions by saying; “that’s what my character would do” or “my character is evil/selfish/greedy/etc.” …which of course begs the question; why did you role up a bastard in the first place? Simply put, this kind of thing isn’t an in-game problem; it’s an out-of-game problem. When you kill another player’s character, you are (at the very least) bringing to an end, a story-line into which that player has invested time and energy. There may be contexts in which that works out just fine, but most of the time, it just means that you as a player have placed your own fun above that of another.
Increasingly, I find myself saying to the players; “You can role-up any character you like, but please find a reason to cooperate with the others.” If you can find a way for your otherwise-evil character to bond or at least work with with their companions, then fantastic. If you can’t, then please come up with another concept.
Separating from the Group: Some players take great joy in sending their characters off on their own. A few minutes of side story is no big deal. It can even be fun, providing the player (and the GM) remembers that the sideline is a sideline and the character will eventually have to rejoin the others. When a player just keeps doing this, I will eventually stop coming up with reasons to get them back with the rest of the group.
The story-line goes this direction. Either bring your character back, roll-up a new character, or find another campaign.
Generic Disruptions: Along the same lines as the characters who wander off, some characters just keep generating pointless conflict. They pick fights with NPCs while the group is trying to keep a low-profile, steal things from others, knowing it will lead to retaliation, burn bridges with helpful allies, etc. There is a school of thought that says ‘let the players do what they like’ and some campaigns facilitate this nicely, but it doesn’t work well with a pointed plot. If the point of the campaign is to defeat the evil bad guy, save the princess, or find the Magic MacGuffin, then each such sub-plot grows increasingly more irritating. These sorts of disruptions really pose much the same problem as the decision to separate from the group, except the problem isn’t an imagined physical space; it’s a sub-plot that will suck up time and energy at the expense of the larger narrative.
Why not just let the player characters do as they like? Because each such diversion is in effect a competing story-line. Imagine what this would seem like in a movie or a novel! One or two side-stories adds a little extra flavor to the story and fleshes out characters. Too many such subplots breaks up the main story-line and increases the odds that you’ll replace the movie with an old episode of The Tic or leave the bookmark right there on page 32 of your book until your grand-kids find it in the attic and end up throwing it away because it bores the Hell out of them too. More to the point, players who consistently generate such side-conflicts are effectively competing with the GM (and the rest of the group) over the story-line for the campaign. Why that is happening is another question. What to do about it is another still. The important thing is to realize that it’s not really an in-game problem. It is a form of inter-player conflict, not a quirk of any given character.
Bully-Characters: I once told a player his character had spent an entire hour (measured in real time) given another crap about a failed action. He was shocked. He was even more shocked to find out I had timed him on the matter. The player said he could have sworn he had only spent a few minutes on it. My point was actually that the player had taken to causing his own character to bully that of the other player endlessly, though just about every game session. This could perhaps have been contained within the game setting, but the player doing the bullying often made some comments out of character as well, and he never let up, nor did he allow the second player ever to come out on top. Once again, the rationale was “that’s the way my character would behave,” and once again I rejected that explanation. When a player character consistently pushes another player character around, there is a point at which it will be frustrating for the second player. In my experience, a player who does this, does so for a reason, and that reason is NOT contained within the framework of the game world.
Fuzzy Rules and In-Character Conflict: If players turn their actual characters on each other, it really helps if the rules are clear at that point. Unfortunately, most of the time players do this they begin by grappling each other, and grappling rules are usually a little wonky. The result can often be counter-intuitive. So, when player A says “I grab player B by the balls and squeeze”, the specific mechanics for resolving this are often less helpful than if the player had just said; “I shoot him in the head.” When player B decides to fight back, it gets uglier still. A GM can finesse ambiguities much more easily when players are fighting non player characters. When two players go against each other, any benefit of the doubt given to one becomes a slight against the other
player character player.
…and the resulting hard feelings are rarely contained on the table.
It’s tempting to look for a solution by improving game mechanics or at least reviewing the mechanics you have at hand to be as clear as possible while adjudicating the fight. In most cases, though, I find myself asking the players to simply stop.
GNR? I think you could treat the old distinction between gamism, simulation, and narrative playing styles as an example of this sort of problem. Where one player wants to tell a good story, another really wants to see if he can build the best tank possible under the rules, and another may really want to see what a particular setting would look like in this or that particular game system. I somehow doubt that account would pass muster at The Forge, but I’m not interested in debating the ins and outs of this old theory. Suffice to say, that I think the kind of differences Rod Edwards and company talked about could be looked at as factors contributing to the breakdown of an in-game framework. Whether or not they constitute an exhaustive, or even a robust, theory of the many ways a game breaks down is another question.
Okay, so that’s the end of a long-winded rant about role playing games. Writing these points out as I have, I am struck by how obvious the points might seem, almost as if they are not worth saying. And yet, I am also struck by how often players seem to overlook these kinds of problems, or more to the point, how often they insist on trying to understand these problems within the context the game world. Players who consistently disrupt a campaign will often insist on in-character explanations for their own behavior, and GMs often try to come up with in-game solutions. Yet, that behavior will persist from one character to next and even from one campaign to the next. It is a game of course, but there are real people playing it, and sometimes what’s done in the game really is about the people around the game table.
What is witchcraft?
In mainstream RPGs, I think it usually takes the form of a malevolent spell caster standing somewhere behind a few minions blasting away at the PCs. To give her attacks a the flavor of witchcraft, the Game Master might choose a few spells thought fitting for a witch. Polymorph (or some other form of malevolent transformation) is a common choice. (I once put some player characters up against a mean old witch who had been transforming live gnomes into yard sculptures.) In any event, I think players usually experience witchcraft in the form of a conventional battle with a boss, one whose attacks are well known to them.
The problem of course is that this isn’t really the nature of witchcraft as we find it in the real world. I know. Witchcraft ain’t real, but the fear of it sure as Hell is. Having lived and worked in a community where fear of witches is a common concern, I’ve had the subject in the back of my mind ever since. I think about it most when gaming, because t he experience of world full of malevolent magic is nothing like the treatment commonly given the subject in role-playing games.
Setting aside for the moment, the many benign variations of paganism, the form that witchcraft takes in human history isn’t a toe-to-toe with a green-faced woman zapping away at people with her wand. No, witchcraft isn’t that lady over there about to hit you with 3d6 worth of damage. The phenomenon may be gendered, at least in its common western variants, but her attacks just aren’t that obvious.
Witchcraft is wondering why your crops failed this year. It is the deep suspicion that there is a reason your son fell down the stairs and twisted his ankle last week. Why did the cow stop producing milk anyway? And is that a sore throat you woke up with this morning? Wonder how that happened! Witchcraft is the deep dark suspicion that someone out there, perhaps someone you know and love, is responsible for these things. It’s the near certainty that someone you know, someone you probably think of as a friend, may actually wish you harm. Witchcraft is the fear that those very people might have the power to act on it. It’s the fear that the pEetty disasters of every day life could just be happening because someone you know is wielding just such powers against you.
Of course, this is only a problem if you choose to see it that way, but the challenge as I see it that witchcraft poses for conventional gaming is how to cloak witchcraft in the form of uncertaintVy? Nobody has to do that, but doing so strikes me as an interesting challenge. To carry out this off, the witch must be able to attack without being detected. More than that, the players must not be all that sure whether or not they have been attacked at all. Better still, a world full of such wiItches would present players under no such attack whatsoever with the lingering fear that seemingly minor set-backs might well have been due to malLevolent causes. In such a world, every difficulty, and every problem, no matter how innocent it may seem, is actually cause for suspicion. The question is, of course, how to inflict that level of paranoia on them?
Story-teller games aren’t my favorite flavor of geeketry, but I suspect this is something they can probably hHandle a bit better than the usual D&Desque gaming format. At least part of the problem here is balance. Combining magic with stealth generates a great deal of power. Hence, the rarity characters wielding such power, and the general tendency to nerf that power whenever it is allowed in the world at hAand. Another problem has to do with the mechanics of the games in question. Players usually know when they’ve been attacked even if their characters don’t. (“Make a save! …uh, no reason.”) A third problem is that conventional games rarely incorporate the kind of mundane evils that give witchcraft its pPeculiar power over the imagination. Player characters don’t usually have families or cows to take care of, and they almost never just slip on the staircase. Sure a GM may tell the players that this or that non-player character character had an accident, but when a player character is hurt, she is generally hurt in the course of some meaningful encounter with a clear threat unfolding in a soon-to-be-obvious story-line. You can generate exceptions to these problems, but the fact remains that the mechanics of most such games just don’t lend themselves to the level of uncertainty that makes susPpicion of witchcraft a reality in so many parts of the world.
I once tried to resolve this problem so as to enable attacks from witches and witch like villains. I figured the keEy was to introduce random disasters into the game. So, I generated rules for such things in both 3rd edition and my home brew (Worlds of Hurt). I made-up 3 different kinds of random disasters; diseases, accidents and ill-omens. Player characters then had a random chance to encounter one or more random disasters over the course of a game. They would have to make a defense roll against these disasters, which I ensured would be the same roll regardless of the source. I designed it so that this would be rare, but not so rare as to be freakishly out of place. In general, I aimed for about one such disaster to one player character in the course of any giveNn game session. None with good luck, and more than one with bad luck.
I also gave the landSscape in my worlds moral characteristics so that PCs could experience a greater or lesser chance of encountering random disasters depending on how well they fit with the local environment. A Paladin traveling through Morder, for example, had a much better chance of stepping on a thorn than an orc thief in that same setting. The Paladin would also have a better chance of getting an infection if he did step on that thorn. Now take the orc into the elven forest, and he’s the one who falls out of the tree house and breaks his leg. When characters are matter out of place, so to speak, the landscape works against them. It tries to get rid of them in subtle ways, and the end result is an increase of random disasters.
This approach was fun for awhile independent of the whole witchcraft theme, but I have to admit, what got me headed down that path was the hope of a scenario involving witchcraft, or at least the suspicion on it. I wanted the players to wonder at some point if a character was under attack. I wanted them to struggle with the uncertainty.
For balance, I ensured that witchcraft would require either direct contact with a victim, or some kind of sympathetic magic (e.g. possession of an item from the victim). I also ensured that witchcraft and any comparable form of attack would take an enormous amount of time to unfold, not rounds but game sessions. Such attacks would be progressive, letting players struggle to grasp the significance of seemingly random events while evil took its course. The potential solution to such attacks would involve divination and/or magical spells which could turn a curse back on its source. This fit with the kind of scenario I had in mind. At some point, it would become clear to the players that they were under attack, and they would have to devote time and energy to deal with it. But would they realize it in time? I wanted the sweet-spot for realization to fall on or near the point where success in fighting off a curse on depended on action within a game or two, so part of the problem posed by witchcraft would be managing this attack while dealing with whatever other problems they already had on the table.
My first real test of this approach took the form of a succubus in my home brew. Like the witch, the attack of a succubus shouldn’t be obvious, I reckon. It should be a lingering guilt about those dreams, and perhaps a suspicion they are the reason your backpack feels heavier and your sword feels just a bit more awkward. Since the dreams would be a dead giveaway, I created a process that would put them near the end of the attack. I designed my monster and put one into the campaign.
While in town, the players had a number of odd encounters, but one of them was with an old lady in some kind of need. A PC resolved this by giving her something and got a big hug in response. Having concluded their business in town, the PCS wandered – as PCs will do – off on some new adventure. The next game session, the PC that had helped her had a small accident, nothing major, and not entirely out of the ordinary. The players continued on. The next game session that PC had two or three accidents, one of which hurt him a lot more. The players began to talk about the possibilites. Three games in, the PC had several injuries, one of which proved quite serious and then he fell ill. Somewhere in here the PC remembered a erotic dream, and then he realized it was happening on a regular basis. The players hadn’t encountered a succubus in this system yet, so it took them awhile to get the connection, but they were on the whole witchcraft angle. It was time to consult a shaman.
I actually don’t remember whether a Player Character or a random NPC performed the magic in question, but the magic worked and they discovered the source of the attack. By now the party was a good hundred miles away. They tried a healing spell, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Instead they would have to find the original source of the attack. Lucky for them, she was trailing the party with henchmen in the hopes of finishing the whole lot of them while one fighter was badly weakened. (Had they delayed acting a game session or two, she would likely have succeeded!) This of course did lead to a conventional face-off with the baddy, but one that followed at least 3 games of uncertainty and a lot of effort to unravel the mystery. For an extra twist, the attack form used by the succubus would leave a permanent wound unless her victim scored the killing blow. If he succeeded, he would gain an extra benefit, but by now he really needed to be the one to do the killing.
…which of course, he did.
All in all, I’d say that scenario was quite a success. The players were a little more wary of random disasters after that, but no major witch hunts followed. They didn’t turn on each other or any of their NPC allies. To make that a genuine hazard I would need to keep them in once place, which we could do in a different campaign. In any event, I was happy with the succubus scenario. In this instance, at least, my system had worked.
The problem of course was that the system worked well because I had a plot in mind that relied on the mechanic in question. I didn’t mind the accidents, and the players humored me until the plot thickened, then they were as into it as I was (I think).
Random disasters are interesting when they really could be central to the story, not so much when they aren’t. But f course, that’s the point. Sometimes random disasters will be just that random, and then they quickly become tedious. These factors have been interesting when the game is heavy on role-playing and I’ve had time to develop the setting. Questions about who does and doesn’t thrive in a given physical setting can carry the interest in random disasters when no witches are around. In a hack and slash campaign, I don’t bother with them. The trouble is, I mostly do hack&slash campaigns these days. Nobody I now know has time for in-depth story-lines.
Ah well, one day!
In any event, I think the trouble with this approach is that it only really works if you are focusing on stories that use the mechanic, but the point of the mechanic is of course that sometimes it won’t be that important. If you want to run a couple game sessions of a conventional orc war, or maybe even the standard bar fight, then the effort to deal with random disasters quickly becomes an unhelpful distraction. Still, this is one one effort to try and reproduce the experience of a world saturated with suspicions of witchcraft. I wonder if anyone else has tried anything with a similar effect, perhaps using a different approach? What interests me about this is the uncertainty of evil magic. There must be many more ways to set that up.
If per chance you noticed a typo or two in this post, I ask only that you consider the possibility that it might not have been me.
Malevolent forces are out there!
Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…
I think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.
One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.
If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.
Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.
I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.
Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.
Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?
Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?
In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.
How to go about it?
I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.
One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…
Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.
Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)
What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.
What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.
Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.
This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.
Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.
On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.
I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Five: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.
I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.
Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.
For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.
Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.
The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.
No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.
SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.
…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!
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.
Do you Recall that glorious moment in The Return of the King when Gandalf rides out to save Feramir and the last defenders of Osgiliath! Do you remember when he raised his staff and great light issued forth, driving the ring-wraiths away (along with all the cool kids who happen to be reading these here lines)? Yes, well, I do too. And now that it’s just us nerds here in the blog, let us talk of wondrous things!
What I’m particularly interested in on this dark morning here on the tail end of polar midnight, (aside from hope of a Gandalf-like ray of sun-light soon to come) is the way that some folks (ahem gamers!) often speak of wondrous things in particularly unwondrous ways.
‘Unwondrous’, Yeah, it’s a word now dammit!
One of the amusing meta-games that gamers have been playing ever since those heady-days of the early 80s is the game of “how do you stat that?” You know, the one where you decide that the Arnold version of Conan is a 10th level Ranger with an eighteen double-ought strength, and then your friend says; “hell no, he’s a 12th level fighter and he must have supernatural strength, 20 at least, …probably Chaotic Good alignment.” Then someone says; “You must be nuts! He’s easily true neutral.” …yeah, we geeks do that. Well anyway, the game of “how do you stat that” really comes into its own with magical effects, because stating magic helps to define the fantasy worlds in which the games take place.
In Tolkien’s work, mythic narratives began to flourish in fantasy fiction. Hell, for a time they almost seemed cool, cool enough for the mighty Zep at any rate, and this was a significant part of the cultural background informing the early days of pen&paper RPGs. But here is one moment where the game of stating the worlds around you (real or imagined) always seemed to fall short for me, at least in mainstream games. They fall short really the minute the game of stat this is played.
You see, to stat that magic moment in which Gandalf drives off the wraiths in AD&D one would need to assign his light effect to a designated spell with a designated range, area of effect, and duration, all defined in precise mathematical terms. The effects of light on undead would be clearly defined in this spell, and the sort of power it takes to generate the spell would also be clearly explained. In Dungeons and Dragons and many of the games emulating it, this wondrous moment in the story becomes a function of well-defined principle of mechanics. One might even suggest that it becomes part of the natural laws of the universe in which the games take place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed countless hours of manipulating precisely those very mechanics over the game table. Good times! I wouldn’t part with them for brand new vorpral sword. But one thing is definitely lost in this approach to gaming, the wondrous part of it all. The rules of mainstream fantasy games normalize the features of mythic narratives to such a degree that they become a kind of demi-science. One can often see gamers haggling over the details of some magic effect or trying to plot the precise mathematical formula needed to ensure that all the orcs on the game table fry-up in a fireball without singing the elven maiden. in most cases there is nothing mysterious about it; the game rules tell us exactly how this sort of thing works. It’s how many of these games are played.
What is lost in this approach to gaming is the very fluid nature of the narratives which inspire and inform the genre. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t really present us with a theory of Gandalf’s light, not a complete one at any rate. We might imagine that Gandalf is able to generate that effect because of some arcane set of rules we know nothing about, but what we have in a mythic narrative is simply the fact that he did that, odd as the whole thing may be. Wondering just how such seemingly impossible feats actually happen is an important part of the story. Wondering about it at the game table? Not so much. Not usually anyhow.
In the scientization of mythic narratives, the spell-books of classic fantasy gaming effectively set that wonder aside. Of course there are alternative approaches to the subject, such as those used in story-teller games, but my purpose here isn’t to argue for upping the nerditude of the game table. It’s to comment on something I consider an interesting twist in the culture of fantasy gaming, namely its tendency to frame wondrous things in terms of a well defined rational principles.
If fantasy games presents us with a kind of alternative physics, I don’t think this is entirely unique to modern perspectives on the subject. One sees it in references to The Force of Star Wars, and still more so in the theme-killing notion of Midi-chlorians (microorganisms responsible for the force. …blech)! You can see it in old Theosophical notions of an astral plane through which emotional and psychic powers turn out to follow a kind of physics in their own right, and of course you can see it in sundry New Age efforts to turn Quantum Mechanics into a science of wishful thinking. Folks use these notions and others like them to embed the uncanny moments of a narrative in a theory which makes sense of it. In some cases, that is the total point of the theory; in others it is one of many uses.
Time and again, folks seem to want to find a theory in stories made wonderful precisely because they defy our theories, or more importantly, because they defy our normal strategies for making sense of the world. What makes the moment Gandalf creates his light effect compelling is precisely our inability to fully make sense of it. It is likewise with more traditional epic narratives such as the role of missletoe in the killing of Baldur in Norse mythology, the origin of sea mammals in the in Sedna’s severed fingers, or the forceful eviction of the Gambler in Navajo legends (he was fired up into the skies from a great bow). What all of these and so many more narratives share is not conformity to an arcane set of natural laws so much as a momentary in-your-face violation of expectations which people are most familiar.
What I am suggesting here is that the notion of magic isn’t really a part of these narratives, or at least that it is not the key to understanding the momentary occurrence of irrational events. Such stories may relate information about a natural order (such as a world in which the availabile game-animals are in some sense part of an active relationship to Sedna), but that order does not itself explain the moment in which something odd springs forth from her severed fingers. One doesn’t really need a theory to appreciate the story, nor need one assume that the story could be explained by a valid theory. One needs only to understand that the outcome of the narrative will be meaningful. In the interim, the shear absurdity of certain moments in that story is a thing to be savored, not to be explained away.
The notion of magic along with its specific variations come into such stories in efforts to square them with more familiar realities. Where the uncanny can be a feature of such stories, it becomes a bug when one imposes an expectation of literal truth upon it. So, people sometimes concoct a theory to explain the matter. Those theories then provide an ad hoc defense of the uncanny, but they provide us with no real insight into the stories.
Magic, resides in the secondary and even tertiary rationalization of mythic narratives, but there is no reason to believe it resides in the narratives themselves. We needn’t imagine Tolkien plotting an area of effect for Gandalf’s wraith-baffling light ray, nor do we need to ascribe a theory of mythic-evolution to Inuit story-tellers relating the story of Sedna. Hell, we don’t even need to imagine that the Book of Genesis constitutes an attempt to explain the cosmos, though a world touched by the hand of Thomas Aquinas can hardly seem to imagine otherwise.
There is something in the effort to find a theory behind wondrous narratives that does violence to those narratives themselves. Such theories always end up falling short of their source material. It is the same whether we are talking about the hackneyed apologetics of fundamentalist Christians looking to read a consistent theory into all the traditions crammed into the Bible; an anthropologist trying to find such a theory in the oral traditions of some exotic people, or yes; something as simple as a game designer trying to fit a wondrous theme into a rule system. The explanation never quite lives up to the promise of its inspiration.
Sometimes that failure matters more than others, but for me at any rate, the disappointment is a fairly common reaction. What concerns me most nowadays is the ease with which people seem to accept that mythic narratives ought to have a theory behind them, a set of principles that will explain them, even if only in terms of an error. That just isn’t the case. Sometimes this expectation gives us bad story-telling, sometimes it steers a whole generation of fantasy-gamers right past the fantastic part of fantasy, and sometimes it leads people to genuinely misunderstand great texts and brilliant oral traditions. Either way the variety of magics are never quite as brilliant as the stories which inspire them.
Magic itself just isn’t all that compelling, but a man playing chess with a fish or a cat that sings itself into a dragon? No explanations required.
The forerunner to monopoly was intended to demonstrate the evils of …well, monopoly. It was particularly intended to show the long-term consequences of private land ownership in America, and one of the games more interesting features included an option to pay rent into a community pot instead of private landowners. Needless to say, that is not the game we play today.
If Elizabeth Magie intended the Landlord’s Game to illustrate the evils of a real estate market, the end result of her efforts has been a century of people celebrating that very thing. When all the dice of rolled and all the mice have been moved, the end result of this game is one player joyously happy with his acquisition of everything in sight. Far from mourning their own financial tragedy, the losers are often eager to start again, each hoping be the bad-ass rich-guy the next time around.
Christopher Ketcham detailed the evolution of Magie’s creation into the modern game of Monopoly last year. As Ketcham makes very clear, the modern version of Monopoly celebrates precisely what The Landlord’s game decries, but that is not merely something as simple as the ‘free market’ or ‘capitalism’; it is rather the defeat of the market by the development of propertied interests:
A few weeks before the tournament, I’d had a conversation with Richard Marinaccio, the 2009 U.S. national Monopoly champion. “Monopoly players around the kitchen table”—which is to say, most people—“think the game is all about accumulation,” he said. “You know, making a lot of money. But the real object is to bankrupt your opponents as quickly as possible. To have just enough so that everybody else has nothing.” In this view, Monopoly is not about unleashing creativity and innovation among many competing parties, nor is it about opening markets and expanding trade or creating wealth through hard work and enlightened self-interest, the virtues Adam Smith thought of as the invisible hands that would produce a dynamic and prosperous society. It’s about shutting down the marketplace. All the players have to do is sit on their land and wait for the suckers to roll the dice.
Smith described such monopolist rent-seekers, who in his day were typified by the landed gentry of England, as the great parasites in the capitalist order. They avoided productive labor, innovated nothing, created nothing—the land was already there—and made a great deal of money while bleeding those who had to pay rent. The initial phase of competition in Monopoly, the free-trade phase that happens to be the most exciting part of the game to watch, is really about ending free trade and nixing competition in order to replace it with rent-seeking.
What strikes me most about the passage above is just how much more subtle it is than common notions of equity guiding popular (and particularly conservative) media. Today’s defenders of the free market are tone deaf to any real difference between the creative bargaining characterizing the early phase of a Monopoly game from the rent-vacuuming process that comes to define its actual victory. I cannot help but wonder if this isn’t to some degree because much of Libertarian thought is actually a defense Aristocracy, a calculated holding action against anyone who might have noticed the game in America (and the world) has long entered the phase at which a final outcome is clear so to speak. The creative possibilities which may have defined the early growth of market economies have long since given way to a process wherein we all simply watch the wealthy take their profits.
When I hear people defending the free market, I see little sense for such distinctions. Too often, such folks advance a vision of equity summed up in the phrase “equal at the starting gate.’ It is a mantra used most often to hold off affirmative action, progression taxation, and any number of attempts to help those on the losing end of the market, and it is a mantra that reassures us of the basic fairness of equal treatment under the law. It is a mantra that calls to mind that early moments in a monopoly game; the ones in which ever player can still imagine the possibilities, still see themselves as a potential winner.
The phrase “equal at the starting gate” could only apply to the outset of something, but in economics, there simply is no starting gate. The production of inequality is always an ongoing process into which each of us is dropped and out of which each of us will be taken without any real resolution of the game, so to speak.
This is one respect in which the game of Monopoly absolutely fails to illustrate the nature of capitalism; it doesn’t show people living with the consequences of inequality. It doesn’t emulate a life lived in the red so much as the struggle to achieve a life lived in the black (preferably including Park Place). Perhaps that is one reason for the success of monopoly; whatever its original intent, it has proven to be time-honored promotional piece for the social orders embodied in modern capitalism. For a little while, anyone with a few good die rolls and a smart purchase can be captain of commerce, and to most people that sounds pretty cool.
In real life, we don’t get to start over. We just keep right on playing long after some folks have bought up the world around us, and the frustration of paying fees with every step you take and falling further behind with every turn becomes for many a forgone conclusion. That sense that comes toward the end of a losing game, the moment you realize that your money will be going to another player until it’s over thus becomes an absolute reality from the cradle to the grave, …just add the urgency of food, medical bills, and any hope of accomplishing anything before death itself tells you it’s time to leave the table.
But of course the game goes on.
And the child of yesterday’s winner does not start with the same bank as those who lost to him. Indeed generations upon generations simply keep building up their leverage over the total market and those who start with nothing can count on little comfort from rules that supposedly treat them just the same as the guy with all the cash. In the real world, we do not begin with equal cash and equal opportunities. In the real world player A begins with millions and player B begins with a few thousand Player C starts in debt, and Player D has a few hundred.
There now start rolling the dice!
But the prospect of using Monopoly to comment on economic realities remains interesting, if only as a thought experiment. To model the actual market, we have to add a few other quirks to our Monopoly Game.
Let us take out Millionaire (Player A), name him Joe (Donald would be just too obvious!). Our several thousand-air, we shall call Anne (Player B). The poor chap who started in debt (player C) we shall call Ralph, and the almost-lucky gal with a few hundred we will call Marcy (Player D).
The first thing we have to do is connect the differences in wealth to differences in the health and education of the participants. For this purpose, we’ll will show Ralph and Marcy only about half the rules. The rest they will half to figure out the hard way. It is tempting to model inadequate health care by making Ralph sit on a thumb-tack and forcing Marcy to slam a couple of Long Island Ice Teas just before the start of the game, but that would be just cruel. So let’s just go with the incomplete rule thing. Now when our less privileged players make mistakes on account of their lack of knowledge, Joe will no doubt make fun of them, or at least laugh when his smart-assed buddy Rush makes fun of them from a spot across the room. Anne may not be so mean, but both she and Joe will no doubt count their mistakes against them when Marcy and Ralph end up doing poorly. To complete the analogy here, let us just imagine that Joe’s friend Billy will sit through the whole game provide a full-time commentary on just how bad Marcy and Ralph are at the game. Billy is of course quite the wit.
…is friends usually just call him ‘Fox’.
But it’s worse than that, because of course all of this assumes that the rules are set in stone. Not a chance! No the rules of play are constantly evolving. We have to model that somehow, and we want to be totally fair about it, so each of the players gets to vote on a single rule change every so often (say after each player has taken a turn). Of course a democratic rule process would make each of their votes count equally, but we have to find some way to model the impact of the media and campaign finances, personal connections, etc. So, we’ll just say that you can get an extra vote for every $250.00 you put back in the bank. Marcy and Ralph will soon have a host of rules working against them, and they will no doubt complain about the unfairness of each such rule, at which point Billy will call them ‘special interests’, and another commentator named Antonin will be happy to explain that the rule-making process must be allowed to continue unfettered by anyone pretentious enough to think she might know fair from figs.
I suppose we should add another spectator named John who will be happy to tell Anne that she shouldn’t help Marcy out; that would be enabling bad play.
If we want to get really serious about this, then we have to find a way to replicate the laws of supply and demand, making the property values shift up and down depending on the interests of the players, but our game of 4 makes that a little hard to do. Plus, we have to questions of elasticity, and, well… nevermind. This is over-extending the metaphor.
But of course I am loading the comparison up in favor of a morality tale in which Ralph and Marcy get screwed by the system. To be fair, they should enjoy a range of public utilities police, fire departments, education (however inadequate). All of these provisions may be skewed to favor Joe and Anne yes, but they do exist, and we may add to them a certain range of welfare provisions designed explicitly for the purpose of keeping Marcy and Ralph in the game. But maybe that is the real point of this meditation, because such measures are precisely the features of our real economy most commonly attacked in the name of the game rule vision of fairness. Why should Joe have to pay for Ralph’s laziness? And why shouldn’t Anne and Joe get a better education (a more complete set of rules) if they can pay for it? And so on…
Any attempt to help the unfortunate would seem to run up against a vision of fairness as a procedural matter, as a set of rules which must treat everyone equally, and I can’t help but think an awful lot of people are using games such as monopoly as a source-model for their thinking of such issues. A significant portion of the general public seems to begrudge the provisions for public welfare, the few things that might give Ralph and Anne a chance. Let’s be honest I do not mean a chance to become wealthy, to win at the game so to speak. If there ever was a time when the free market afforded the poor (or even the middle class) a meaningful chance to move up in status, that time is well past. Barring the lotteries of celebrity fame what we are talking about is a chance to live one’s own lives with a measure of dignity, perhaps to own one’s own home and to control one’s own life.
…or simply to receive adequate healthcare.
We can talk about the pros and cons of any number of policies, but those debates are always skewed by the voice of those who would have us believe in the essential fairness of the game, so to speak. Such voices are quick to point out the unfair edge that any attempt to help Marcy and Ralph will give them, but they are damned slow to acknowledge the unfair edge that the game itself gives to Joe and Anne.
And of course the worst thing about all of this is the notion that it is all just a game, that our economy is here to help us sort the winners from the losers.
…as if the sorting were not itself an act of violence.
Just a quick note to say that I am running a summer youth camp right now, which is why the blog has been silent lately. What I’ve posted has been stuff written in advance (like this one for example). The kids will soon dismiss me, though, and I’ll commence bloggenating proper once I taste freedom.
Okay, most of you probably aren’t going to get the point of this story, and some of you may flee in terror shouting ‘nerd alert! nerd alert!’ That’s okay, because, well, …guilty as charged.
The game was D&D, and it may have been the mid-90s, but we were playing first edition. I was the Game Master, and two separate gaming groups (one from Las Vegas and one from Flagstaff) had come together for a single game session. Each of the players had several characters on the table and we were engaged in a massive battle with an army led by evil forces. At some point in the evening, the players had achieved a clear victory over that army, so I thought it was time to wrap up the long game session and give the players their just rewards for a battle well-fought.
I told the players that an evil God (Li Kung, I believe) had descended upon the battlefield and congratulated the party on their victory, asking them to consider sparing what remained of the evil army and allowing it to quit the field. In exchange for this, Li Kung would grant a number of favors. At this point I meta-gamed the issue and simply told each player that they could ask for 1 favor for 1 of their characters. The players readily agreed.
It didn’t take long for the players to begin making their requests. Most of the specifics were perfectly forgettable, but one of them stands out. This player prefaced his request with the words; ‘it can’t hurt,” which I actually thought was probably a safe assumption under the circumstances. He then asked for a Holy Avenger for his Paladin.
I thought about explaining to the player that his great and Holy Warrior ought not to ask an evil deity to provide him with a weapon that was supposed to be a symbol of his faithful service to his own (good) god. Then inspiration struck me. I told the players that Li Kung nodded his head and then disappeared. The players chatted a moment in character, wondering where he went and whether or not this meant the deal was off. Then the evil one reappeared with a great sword, which he offered to the Paladin, the bloody stump of a human hand still gripping its handle.
“Oh goody!” the player was positively beaming.
He wasn’t entirely sure why the sword functioned as a simple +2 weapon.