Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Expression of Tension

A few weeks back, in my capacity as D&D enthusiast, I was perusing the articles highlighted in EN World Weekly.1  I found this article by Lew Pulsipher particularly interesting: “Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs.”  The content of the article was very good, and I encourage you to read it.  It’s actually quite similar to one of my cornerstone GM philosophies: I don’t kill characters.  There are a lot of similiarites to what I wrote, but also some intriguing differences.  I like that the article is well-balanced: it asks both “How do we structure an RPG, or for that matter any adventure, so that players’ loss aversion is not activated?” and “Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?” ... which are fairly diametrically opposed questions.2

But the most interesting part of the article, to me, were the comments.  Now, I very often don’t read comments on the Internet.  In general, it’s a good way to get pissed off and lose faith that the human race can survive as a species.  One needs to constantly remind oneself that people who post, say, YouTube comments are not representative of anything other than jackasses who have nothing better to do with their lives than post YouTube comments.  But there are certain online communities where the comments can be more or less safe to peruse, and EN World is a place where the folks in charge maintain a certain level of civil discourse.  Sure, the banter can get a bit rowdy sometimes, especially for particularly contentious issues, but most of the time the comments are intelligent and thoughtful, or at the very least heartfelt and not just designed to provoke a negative response.

The comments for this article (mostly) fall into two broad categories: the grumpy old grognards grousing “back in my day we had ten characters a day killed off, every game session, and, dammit, we liked it!” and the snot-nosed kids whining “if you take my character’s toys away, that’s not fair and I’m not playing!”  As a long-time advocate of balance and paradox, it wil not surprise you that I find both of these extremes incorrect ... and, at the same time, think they both have a valid point.

First, let’s look at the amusing way I characterized the two groups.  (At least I hope you found it amusing.  You didn’t take me seriously there, did you?)  The truth of the matter is, the concept that the old fogeys of the hobby are prone to being fine with having characters killed off willy-nilly is a complete stereotype, as is the idea that the younger players are going to be the ones most prone to loss aversion.  But stereotypes nearly always have some basis in fact, and actually the article even encourages a bit of this thinking, demonstrating reasons why the older players are more likely to be comfortable with character loss—because they were raised on wargaming3and why the younger players are more likely to be holding on to loss aversion—because they were raised on videogames.  And it’s true that wargames have a tendency to teach you that everyone is expendable, while videogames have a tendency to teach you that you just need to learn to save before you try to fight the big boss, and that way you can do it over and over again until you not only win, but you do so without losing any significant resources.  But this is an oversimplification.  People are just wired differently, and I believe there are plenty of kids out there who are just fine with their characters dying, and plenty of graybeards out there who would be appalled at the concept that their 20-year 17th-level ranger might be permanently killed.  In the end, we hope that all the “expendable” folks find each other, and all the “indispensable” folks find each other, and everybody will just play the game they want to play.

But there’s a broader philosophical question here, and it’s what Pulsipher was digging around at, and it’s what the commenters were struggling towards as well.  Setting aside that this is not really a question with any one “right” answer ... what’s the right answer?

First let’s look at why both the answers offered up by the two main groups of commenters are wrong.  The concept that characters are expendable is clearly wrong, if we agree that roleplaying is storytelling.  To sum up that chain of logic, if roleplaying is storytelling, and if, in storytelling, character is king, then your character is obviously the most important part of the game, and therefore cannot be considered expendable.  Of course, perhaps I’m wrong that roleplaying is storytelling.  D&D was born out of wargaming, in fact, and Gygax—who is tellingly quoted by Pulsipher as saying that “death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game”—was inordinately fond of killing off his players’ characters.  And he invented the game, so he must be right ... right?  Short answer: no.  (I’ve already dealt with the “sanctity” of authorial intent in another post and won’t re-belabor it here.)  What D&D was when it was invented is not what it is today, and likewise the reasons people play it are not the same.  The game still aims to support those who want to play it as a sort of glorified wargame—the sort of “how long can I keep Joe Warrior alive before he’s smashed to a pulp and replaced by his cousin Moe Warrior?” style of game—but the game openly acknowledges that that’s just one style, and not even the most common one.  Other RPGs beyond D&D have made even stronger stances that that just ain’t how roleplaying works in the modern age.  If you’re interested in playing something closer to Gygax’s original intent, that’s fantastic ... but I’d argue that modern D&D is hardly the best choice for that.  Trying to play D&D today as a character-expendable wargame is just about the same as trying to roleplay a game of chess.

So the folks who say killing characters is perfectly acceptable are wrong.  What about those who say that their characters should never have to face any losses at all?  These are people who are not only saying that you shouldn’t be allowed to kill off their characters (and, remember: I agree with that part), but that you shouldn’t be allowed to kill their hirelings, their families back home, their pets, their mounts, the townspeople they met 3 sessions ago ... hell, Pulsipher even calls out “destroying the player’s favorite magic wand” as potentially going too far.  I shudder to think what the sensitive advocates of this position would say to my policy that, while I won’t kill your character, I’m perfectly happy to lop off an arm or take out an eye.  And gleefully tell you that it builds character afterwards.4

But it should be clear that this position—that of avoiding all loss whatsoever—can’t be right either.  Roleplaying is storytelling, and storytelling has to have conflict.  Reward without risk may make for a lovely videogame,5 but it’s a terrible story.  You know that famous story where everyone gets everything they ever wanted without having to do any work for it?  No, you don’t know that story, because no one’s ever told that story, because it’s boring.  In The Hobbit, Tolkien describes Bilbo and the dwarves’ stay in Rivendell thusly:

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

Like it or not, it’s the danger, and the loss, that makes the story interesting.  What we love about a good fantasy (or a good sci-fi tale, or a good horror story, or a good spy novel or adventure tale or any of a dozen more types) is the perseverance in the face of adversity.  But there must be some adversity there to face.  Otherwise you’re not persevering ... you’re just trundling along.

In fact, I believe you can make a compelling case that outright death is necessary for a good tale—although not the death of everyone.  While there are some stories in which everyone (or nearly everyone) dies, they don’t make very good roleplaying models.  I don’t think anyone would consider it very fun to play Hamlet, or Macbeth, in a D&D game.  Inevitability can make for compelling drama, but roleplaying requires a bit more free will than that.  So you can’t just off everyone (despite what Gygax would recommend).  But the occasional character death just adds depth—it ups the game, raises the stakes for the remaining party members.  Think of all your favorite fantasy epics: the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Dresden Files, the Chronicles of Amber, many many more.  Does anyone die in any of those series?  More like in all of them.  Can you think of an epic fantasy series in which someone important does not die, in fact?  Death is often an excellent motivator, which is why I refuse to take it off the table for tangential characters, especially those you’ve specifically put into your backstory.  We may have never actually seen your wise old mentor in our campaign, but I still know that if I dump his body into your campsite one day, interesting events will be set in motion.  But, while the possibility of actual player character death is far more realistic (and, yes, perhaps even makes for a richer story), there are just too many logistical issues to make it feasible.  Because you put a lot of work into creating that character, so it’s now your bailiwick, and only you can make the decision as to when and if that character will die.6

So I think it’s reasonable to say that killing player characters is bad, but that’s not the same as saying all loss is bad.  Eliminating loss from the story altogether just doesn’t work, and to be fair most of the commenters (even those on the side of avoiding character death) realize it.  They talk about “story losses”—meaning loss of status, or failure to achieve goals—but those are still losses.  Only a few people talk about just having a goal of obtaining more items and achieving greater power, and therefore not advancing is the “penalty” for failure.  But I would argue that that model doesn’t work.  It makes an okay game—although I still might be a bit bored by it, personally—but, as a story, it’s awful.  Imagine talking about the Lord of the Rings in terms of “remember that time when Aragorn didn’t get any better at killing things for like 3 months? ... man, that was tough!”  It’s completely unworkable because it removes your ability to tell stories about your character’s achievements afterwards.  Without ever having faced any obstacles, your character’s victories are hollow, and not worth bragging about.  Your audience wants to hear how you stared death in the face.  How you cockily slaughtered everyone because you knew there was no chance you’d get seriously hurt ... it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

We can’t eliminate tension and loss altogether from our roleplaying, and we shouldn’t try.  But that doesn’t mean we have to consider our characters expendable and “just get over it” if they’re permanently removed from the story.  The truth is we can have loss—real loss—without character death, and we should not only accept that, but actively seek it out.  The risk of loss is what makes our epic fantasy games epic.


1 As I do every week.  If PnP RPGs are your thing, you should be checking them out too.

2 There was one idea which I found mildly problematic in the article, but I think I’ll save that for a separate blog post.

3 There’s certainly more than a grain of truth to this: as you may recall, my wargame of choice is Heroscape, and around our house we use a motto that I stole from one of my fellow dads on the Heroscapers forum: everyone dies in Heroscape.  If you want to teach your kids wargames—even chess—you have to teach them to be okay with losing pawns.

4 No pun intended.  Okay, maybe a little pun intended.

5 I would actually argue that it makes a fairly crappy videogame, but that’s a whole separate topic.

6 And, honestly, the wise old mentor is your character too, so realistically I’m not going to just kill him off without clearing it with you first.  But it’s definitely an option, is all I’m saying.

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