Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Murder Your Darlings: The RPG Edition

There is a trope among authors (you know, those people who stare at blank pieces of paper until drops of blood form on their foreheads) that you can't mollycoddle your characters, because that makes for boring storytelling.

As practitioners of roleplaying, there's much we can learn from that.

[The orc from the title page of Orx. Bared teeth, vaguey clawy hands, horn or spikey thing sticking up out of his head, stone knife, fur loincloth... Generally fearsome, unless you just how badly screwed he is.]

Your search turned up one result, you poor bastard.

It started with a review. I had good progress on it, too. I was writing a review of the indie RPG Orx: Nasty, Brutish, and Short. Sure, it came out way way back in 2005 back when I attempted my last gaming blog, and no you can't see that because I already fed it to Google and it ate it.

But then I got down to the Materials section of my standard review template and realized, "Can people still buy this game?" Overall, the answer appears to be "no."

Amazon has it listed as unavailable. Then again, Amazon has it listed under "Sports and Outdoors," so make of that what you will. I had gotten my copy originally through Indie Press Revolution, and they no longer appear to carry it. Drive-Thru RPG had a few items from Wild Hunt Studio, but not that one.

Truth be told, I did find a seller online that has the book. One copy of the book.

On the whole, therefore, there seemed little reason to continue writing that review. Sure, it had some points which made play interesting, and I even had some nice graphics whipped up for it, but given its unavailability, can you blame me?

The Review in Superbrief

Orx was an indie game, and what you'd call a "beer and pretzels" game at that. In it, the player characters, the title "orx," would get into mischief, rise above their station, and ideally be taken down in a hail of crossbow-fire if there's any justice left in the world. Done right, this would be effing hilarious.

Mechanically, it was dead simple, but it did two things very differently. First, you'd roll on an attribute before describing what you attempted to do. Second, the more Fate Points you had, the more likely you wouldn't survive being taken down to zero in something; this was how the "rising above their station" thing was coded into the mechanics.

The Twist

[You have earned a trophy: The Smoking Boot.

It was while I was writing that review, before I noticed that it was unavailable, that I realized it had more than a little in common with a tabletop classic, Paranoia. In Orx, you had a reprehensible, wicked little bastard of a character and the system was stacked from the get-go against him. The system in Paranoia, and I mean all editions here, were also stacked against the player character, albeit not all in the same ways. And in both, a remarkable or stylish (preferably both) death is the only way to go, so to speak.

(And yes, odds are very good your Paranoia character was a reprehensible, wicked little bastard too. Admit it. That's just how they roll.)

And then, I realized some other games did that too, and thus a different train of thought left the station.

A Precious Few Games Demand It

I mentioned Orx and Paranoia already above, so this is where I could talk about them again.

Note that "demanding it" doesn't mean it's guaranteed, but given the way things go as a default, take it as read that your character in these games will sooner or later find the marble in the oatmeal.

Poor Impulse Control can do that to you too

Another system that more or less demands you put your character on the chopping block is Fiasco—odds are very good whatever you come up with from the intersection of relations, objects, locations, and needs is going to have his own drives, and given the typical session, even if they're somehow noble they're not going to be very well thought out.

The play session that follows will be one in which the other players will do horrible things to your character, urged on by their own characters' goals and the supply of "Kick Me" signs that fate has plastered onto everyone's backsides. It's a rare character that comes out of that kind of poo-flinging battle smelling like a rose. There's a bell curve in play, and that bell curve is centered on The Worst Possible Outcome.

Low, Down, and Dirty

In Nomine has an option to play angels. They tend not to get screwed over very often unless they adopt, shall we say, "unworthy means."

But the demons, ahhh, that's where the screws really get applied. Every level of administration above you is evil, and wants to keep you right where you are. Every level of administration below you is also evil, and wants you to move aside so they can advance. In that kind of hostile workplace, it's amazing that anything gets done, but it does. And some folk, upon doing sufficiently bad things, get promoted. Bear in mind that all "promotion" really means is that you have more attention from your superiors, other superiors, etc.

If that doesn't feed performance anxiety, I don't know what will.

Let the Sucking Continue!

All of White Wolf's early games were based on a formula: that which gave the characters power ultimately also made them outcasts or otherwise incompatible with society. Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, Promethean, Aberrant, Exalted... Even if the power is considered "good and right," the character already has a strike or two against him for having that power.

In later games, it was deemphasized ...somewhat.

In the far-future setting ├ćon, a.k.a. Trinity, the player characters were the secret civil defense force against the aberrant monsters that ultimately came from Aberrant, the game that came after it.

In Aberrant, the player characters were hailed as rockstar superheroes, public figures which tended to be celebrated until they stretched their powers a little too far and start picking up icky new features indicative of a possible future change.

And in Adventure, the pulp action game which came before that, the player characters were little more than shadowy action figures and men of mystery. There was more of a freaky cool vibe to them, and no chance they'd become monsters if they exerted something.

My Misery Hates Your Being Out of Print

Underground, the superhero game briefly put out by Mayfair, featured player characters as superheroes in a world that sought only to consume anything and everything, especially their superheroes if they got in the way. Their powers were genetic constructs, sometimes with debilitating side-effects, and if they couldn't be chained up, metaphorically if not physically by several layers of corporate contracts or endorsement deals, they were considered a threat.

In this environment, they were expected to make a difference and change the world for something better. Can you say "thankless job," boys and girls? Aww, nice try!

The Tragedy: More Games Should Encourage It

Which brings me to my wish. Or maybe it's a lament. Whatever. Most people, when they create characters, create maximally capable or idealized characters. They create characters who can handle most situations, and if they can't handle a situation, they know to back away from it.

The wish is that more players would back away from the pinnacle and play with the less-than-optimal fate for a while. Don't create perfect characters, create characters with interesting flaws.

Few systems actually force players to create foibled characters, but most would allow it—it doesn't have to be done, but it can be.

Chummers (*splooh*)

FASA's Shadowrun and R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk ideally started as games about gritty street-level freelance operatives picking their way across a landscape of competetive runners, bizarre threats, and corporate double-crosses in order to make a buck—er, nu¥en, euro, oh whatever. But something happened to the "cyberpunk" genre that weakened it considerably, and it had to be pointed out by one of the follow-up games...

But then a snake arose in Eden. A big one. The average Edgerunner character began to profile something like this: a mid-twenties to thirties professional (killer, nomad, netrunner, techie, whatever), armed to the teeth with high-tech cyberware, milspec weapons, aerodynes, and body armor. He had a pocket full of euro to finance his bad habits, and a web of connections wide enough to awe the amazing Spiderman. His main enemies were omnipresent, faceless Corporations with private armies, evil plots, and the bankrolls of medium-scale superpowers. As Cyberpunk spread out to players around the world, the emphasis began to center on guns, big vehicles, and large scale power-plays that encompassed whole nations.

Cybergeneration, p. 10, R. Talsorian Games, ©1993

1993, for suck's fake. Cyberpunk, at least as an RPG genre, was dealt a death-blow by players who were in an arms race with fate and the rest of the world and dead-set on coming out on top. They got their wish, albeit in an ultimately scorched-earth kind of way.

Generics Allow Anything

The two that come to mind are, naturally, GURPS and HERO. There are Disadvantages and Complications that most players wouldn't dare to put on their characters for fear of making something that would be untenable or not play nicely with a group.

I'd noted this tendency elsewhere. That, however, was a screed against players giving their characters any weakness, making it harder to take them down. This one is a screed against players creating characters with no negative traits, thereby creating someone who might deserve to be taken down. See the difference?

In HERO, individuals with sufficient negative traits often have a specific name: "Villains." There is another name that pops up for them once in a while, though: "Anti-Heroes." They're people who try to do the right thing, but are loaded with foibles and decidedly non-heroic traits and motivations that they may ultimately suffer for despite their attempts at good works.

For purposes of this exercise, Susceptibility and Vulnerability are the kinds of things you'd give to give a character interesting weaknesses. However, it's in things like Psychological Limitations, in the vices and prejudices that you give the character, that you create a circumstance where a violent comeuppance is fitting. There's that difference again.

And it should be noted, there's nothing stopping you from making a vile reprobate in either system. People just ...don't.

By now, you get the idea. Right?

It's about creating not necessarily a weak character, not necessarily an evil character, but a bad character, one who might perhaps do good things for selfish reasons or who doesn't do that many good things but manages to get by. It's about creating a character who you wouldn't mind getting cracked ribs or a few bullet wounds because he ultimately deserved them.

You might want to make sure your GM is on board with you creating a character that might be removed violently from play later. But you should try it. I hear it can be liberating. And in the right circumstances, it could even be funny.


  1. Greetings! Thanks for the mention of ORX! I decided to have Wild Hunt Studios let it go out-of-print in 2010. I felt as though there were still bits and pieces that frustrated me and could be improved, or didn't feel explained quite right (or even well).

    Most of the third section, in fact, felt "off": a bit too scattershot and unclear when it could have been a much more solid tool for explaining how to play.

    There were also some personal issues I won't get into that led me to a long break from gaming and writing, and influenced my decision to pull it rather than fix it.

    If you still have the review, and you're willing, I'd love to see it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! No, I didn't keep that review, sorry.

      Rather than continue on that review, which primarily discussed the concept of player characters as well-deserving cannon fodder and what a fun concept that can be to play, I extracted the main parts of it and wrote this piece, which discusses the concept of player characters as well-deserving cannon fodder yadda yadda yadda. This article is an extraction of that review's DNA, repurposed.

      As for that third section feeling scattershot, I just took another look over it. It does tend to jump quickly from topic to topic, but that's because you had a lot of little topics to cover, and a lot of good (valid) things to say. Hey, even Fiasco needed a Companion.

      I'm sorry to hear you felt you had to let it go, and hope you had (and will have) better fortune in later endeavors.