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.
Today we have a Guest Post from a friend of mine, Nancy Sypniewski. I met Nancy when when she began doing volunteer work at an animal shelter where I served as PR, but calling her a volunteer doesn’t even come close to suggesting her full value to the shelter. She was amazing. And she was also amazing to talk to. I recently asked Nancy to share one of her stories for the Blog, and she has graciously agreed.
I don’t know if Nancy will have time to come back and answer any questions, but I wanted to include this story, because it deals with a subject I think about a great deal, teaching something in a cross-cultural setting. The story dates back to a training exercise from her days in the tech industry.
We were working in South Africa. Our job was to implement a computer system that would automate the inventory of the power utility. This was back in the day of mainframe computers and big unfriendly user terminals. We first had to understand their business, determine the best method to automate their inventory, modify the “best fit” computer system, convert their existing data, thoroughly test both the modified system and converted data, develop and test customized training materials, and then finally train the people who would be using the system. These steps took thousands of man hours and multiple years.
We were finally ready to start developing our training materials. We were reminded that our audience would be tribesmen, mostly Zulu and Sutu. These men would arrive in the morning wearing a loin cloth and sandals, they would change into company provided blue jumpsuits and steel toe shoes, and then back into their tribal clothing before heading home at the end of the day. It was imperative that our training materials be full of simple language, pictures and diagrams, not because these men were of low intelligence, quite the contrary, the issue was language – English was often the 3rd, 4th or even 5th language they had learned.
Training day arrived. Our instructor had the students lay their arms across the keyboard and watch the letters appear on their terminal screen for every key they had touched. The room was filled with awe. The instructor then told the students to “Hit the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Each and every student did just that, they hit the key with the solid blast of their closed fist, causing many of the keys to pop off and fly all over the classroom. Needless to say, the students jumped up and frantically gathered the keys, now totally afraid of the new “machines” they had just destroyed. We assured them that all could be easily fixed and sent them into the break room for early tea and cookies.
Within about 20 minutes we had popped the keys back onto the keyboards and were ready to resume class. Since I had been with most of the students multiple times over the years and was a familiar face, it was decided that I would restart the class and give reassurances.
I asked that they restart the exercise by laying their arms across their keyboards while watching the letters appear as before. I then carefully said “Now, I want you to depress the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Everyone hesitated. Just then, a man in the front row raised his hand. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “Madame, I do not know what to say to make the key sad.” Luckily, everyone laughed and we had learned the lesson of careful word selection. After that, we always reminded one another to never use a $10 word when a $1 word would would do a better job.
First I must confess that I was reading Glenn Beck’s website. …I’ve done dumber things in my life. I just can’t think what they would be.
So, somewhere amid all the rancid piles of smegma that accumulate about his website, I stumbled across something called the Stu Blog, and in this Blog I found this wonderful little headline:
“The majority of people who believe Obama is a Muslim are not Republicans”
“Really?” I thought to myself. “I have to check this out!”
And thus I opened the article
The piece begins by talking about recent polls conducted in Alabama and Mississippi, polls showing (as Stu puts it) that; “a lot of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi think President Barack Obama is a Muslim.” He faults Democrats and MSNBC for publicizing these polls. Stu dismisses these as biased polls and says we need a more neutral source on the issue. Next, he turns to a national poll conducted by Pew in 2010. Hence, we get the following paragraph:
Pew asked 2,811 people about Barack Obama’s religion. Approximately 536 of them incorrectly said he was a Muslim. Of those 536 people, 261 of them were Republicans, 275 were not. In other words, about 51% of those who believe Obama is Muslim are outside the Republican party.
So, you see, the title (piss-poor wording and all) is technically right. The Pew study does show that Republicans fail to constitute a majority of those believing President Obama is a Muslim.
But, I wonder, just what are the odds that any other political party has a higher representation?
The poll results are right here.
Note that the highest percentage of people believing Obama is a Muslim are, according to that poll, conservative Republicans. Do they constitute a majority of the total population believing Obama is a Muslim? No.
So, if you add BOTH the Democrats who believe this to the independents who believe it, then those two together beat the Republicans by 14 people out of over 500. So one could not in fact say that Republicans constitute a majority of those believing Obama is a Muslim. One would have to be content to say that they are the largest group in that total population. But one could not say that they constituted a “majority.”
Which I suppose is the second most underwhelming fact of the day. The first being that Glenn Beck is a festering blood-fart. (Stu Burguiere is merely an emergent anal fistula.)
…and I really need to surf smarter corners of the net.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.