Sometimes, nobody gets shot in the face.

PhotobucketRecently my brother, my wife, and a friend played Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, a fantasy Western game of God’s Watchdogs protecting a struggling religious community, at gunpoint, from corruption and injustice. My brother and I had been wanting to play it with each other for quite some time. It was a joy to play together!

DitV derives a lot of tension from the “how far would you go” question in exerting your will, applying constant pressure along those lines. “Would you wrestle down your brother to stop him from shooting that whore what defiled his boy? Would you draw a gun on him? Would you shoot him?” And similarly, “to save this town from disaster, would you shoot this person who’s causing trouble? Even if his reasons are sympathetic and heartbreaking? Even if his family depends on him?” and so on.

As a result, Dogs and games like it get sort of a rep, for being horrible bloodbaths where everyone’s shooting everyone in the face, where conflict ramps up, up UP to tragedy, and everyone Comes To A Bad End.

And sure, it can be. Sometimes you want it to be. But our game wasn’t like that. For one thing, there were no rebellious cults forming, no Sorcerous subversion, no attacks by demon-possessed maniacs–yet. There were just people, mired in an intractable mess. There was the old man who’d dug up some old silver coin on his land and insisted it was his, not the town’s. There was the desperate father who needed the bounty to trade for his diseased daughter’s medicine. The poor browbeaten Town Steward whose clout didn’t equal the old man’s, and was losing the respect of the townsfolk whose needs he couldn’t fulfill. And the proprietor of the local mercantile, convinced he could use the silver to make peace with the hostile tribal folk and trade for food to recover from a devastating crop blight.

All was poised on the brink of disaster. In fact, it’d already come to grief, as the father went to the old man’s estate to take the wealth by force and ended up accidentally shooting the patriarch’s only son. And in fact without intervention things would get far, far worse. But in fact the Dogs’ involvement (which can turn quite bloody itself given their power of Judge and Executioner!) served to defuse tensions, de-escalate conflict and allow reason and justice to prevail. Everyone tried to press the Dogs to take sides in their conflicts and grudges, but they kept their heads and worked out a solution for the good of the town, not individuals, while balancing the scales of justice. The temptation always loomed to bring violence to bear, but no one did. Everything stayed on the level of talking–and it was awesome.

The tension was palpable, and the resolution satisfying. Without a single shot fired. The tension arose from the question: Will it turn violent? Consider Azariah, the desperate father, trying to hold off my brother’s character at his doorstep, afraid for himself and his sick daughter. Brother Clarence pressed him until he gave in. They both stood poised to start shooting to get their way, but Azariah was unwilling to escalate to gunplay. He blinked first, and submitted his will to the Dogs.

This goes back to what I was talking about in Paying Your Dues. Sure, it could be fun if the Dogs rode in and encountered murder at every turn, desperate folks solving their problems at gunpoint, and malefactors refusing to relent. Fire and judgment! Hooray! But how much more satisfying to start simple and build, to solve one town’s problems handily only to see the issues complicated in the next, and further escalated in the next? To see the Dogs themselves evolve under increasing pressure? To see a strong soul with sure hand and shining eyes, then watch him strain ’till he’s like to break?

That agonizing question–will he break?–is what we want to answer. But the end is meaningless without the journey.

Peace,

-Joel

Paying Your Dues

I had an dissatisfying experience in a roleplaying game session a bit ago that may be familiar to you gaming veterans: one player directed his character to kill another player’s character, a supposed ally. I directed my character to try and stop him. He succeeded. I was frustrated. But that’s not the whole story.

So the situation in a nutshell was this: The perpetrator was M, a longtime member of our roleplaying group but new to this particular game. So his character was introduced in the midst of a frantic rescue mission into this lair of vampires and cultists. He’s a monk and a cleric from some order that hunts vampires, and comes along to help. Well, we rescue our friends (one of them the character of a player, S), but they’ve been turned into Vampires! They’re still in they’re right mind though, and it’s not too late to cure them. M’s vampire-fighting guy agrees to not kill the vampires until next sunrise, to give us a chance to turn them back, right? So we’re all escaping, the group gets split up, and my character, M’s character, and S’s character, plus some supporting cast, are all fleeing together.

Some new information came to light that M chose to interpret as meaning he had to kill the vampires right away before they became super-powerful. Despite the GM clarifying that this wasn’t necessarily the case, M declared he was attacking S’s character. I declared that my character, who had been covering M suspiciously with a crossbow, tried to shoot him down first. S’s character, already weak and severely wounded, went down quickly, and M, despite being shot several times by me, fled through the city.

There are several interplaying factors here. There’s an absolutely poisonous social dynamic present based on bitter past history, for one thing. And I also experienced a lack of the “traction” I discussed earlier in the rules, which prevented me from being able to meaningfully affect the conflict. But I’d like to set those aside and talk about why the incident bothered me from the standpoint of the story.

I was immensely dissatisfied with our story taking that turn. Why? It wasn’t the fact of a main character dying in itself. It wasn’t even the factor of player-characters (let’s say “protagonists”) having deadly conflict. Those are both things that, traditionally, some roleplayers take issue with–in the first case, dying equates with “losing,” and in the second, internal conflict is seen as a player being a dick, by definition. But I don’t feel that way, in either case. I can accept a protagonist death, and the inter-protagonist strife that might lead to such. . .if it’s a sufficiently satisfying development in the story.

But what does that mean? Let’s unpack the sample case a bit. We’ve got an established situation with established characters moving to a climax. A pair of characters has gone through hell at the hands of their captors, and their friends make a desperate effort to rescue them. They all make their escape, but all hell has broken loose outside the lair. In the chaos, one of the captives is struck down just when freedom was in his grasp.

All sounds pretty potentially cool, right? But wait–the character was slain, not by a hated enemy, or by a force unleashed by the protagonists, or betrayal by a friend-in short, not by any previously established element of the story. No, he’s killed by some guy who just wandered into the situation, offered to help, casually killed one of the people he was “helping” rescue, based on a flimsy justification, then fled the scene.

This is not a chain of events that would produce satisfaction in any narrative medium. And it did not produce satisfaction here. The real-people reactions ranged from bummed to annoyed to outraged. Why? M was within his rights to declare that his character was opposing, even attacking, another character, and even had an “in-character” reason to do so. But the fact is, he hadn’t paid his dues.

It seems to me that for any major development in a story to be satisfying, you’ve got to pay your dues, to lay a proper foundation and establish your right to introduce that development. Otherwise your narrative reads like this one:

Frodo: Hi, Gandalf!
Gandalf: Bilbo, give him your ring.
Bilbo: Okay. Bye!
Gandalf: See you at the pub, Frodo.

. . .etc.

S’s death at the hands of M was a huge letdown because M hadn’t put in the work. He didn’t do any work to ground his character’s actions in the established fiction we’d been creating, off and on, for several years. He didn’t do any work to strengthen his character’s motivation and drive, and invite us to buy into that. His contribution fell flat because he didn’t earn it.

While this seems like a simple aesthetic issue, I submit that it really boils down to trust. A movie audience trusts the writer, director and cast to “pay their dues” to create a satisfying film that holds together and is authentic to itself. And much, much more so does a roleplaying group depend on trust, because the creative contributions flow in all directions, and the material involved is not someone else’s but your own. A group that can’t trust each other to pay their dues, is a group where any member might at any time catastrophically and arbitrarily disrupt the shared fiction that we are carefully building together–which is as this incident illustrates, a recipe for dysfunction.

This is why a roleplaying group, much like any other intimate and vulnerable gathering for a dedicated purpose (marriage, church, etc.), can embody both the best and worst of human interaction. I’m continuing to seek more of the “best” side of the equation.

Peace,

-Joel

Two fights and an observation

Recently I was running a game of the RPG Over the Edge, and an interesting thing happened. Well, two things. I was struck by the contrast.

A couple of Player Characters were working for the Neutralizers, an organization that locates and, well, neutralizes Supernatural threats (it’s a game of modern-day surreal conspiracies).They were tracking down a double agent who’d been exposed and fled.

So James (played by Ben), with a couple of backup agents lay in wait for the traitor Isis in her apartment hideout, while Phillip (played by Sheldon), watched the outside from across the street with another flunky. As cover, his player had Phillip stock up on pamphlets for a wacky religion that reveres a rock singer, and stood on the corner air-guitaring and proselytizing.

So, Fight Number One: A couple of Satanist gang-bangers whose turf it is approach Phil and hassle him. Phil, unruffled, waves flyers in their face and asks if they’ve “heard the good tunes.” The Satanists’ rebuttal is something along the lines of “hail Satan!” and is delivered with brass knuckles. The fight is on!

And on it went, round after round. Sheldon’s designed Phillip with special traits for defensive reflexes and the ability to take a punch. Which means the big bad Satanists can hardly lay a finger on ‘im, but neither can he lay a solid hit on them. His Neutralizer henchman, played by me, backs him up, the weaker gangbanger flees, and the henchman after many rounds of deadlocked sparring, finally gets in a good shot with his knife that drops the Satanist.

The incident started out enjoyable enough. But it drug on and on and on as I rolled die after die, everyone hoping each roll would give a conclusive and satisfying result so we could all go home and get some sleep.

Now, Fight Number Two: next week, we reconvene and begin the action with James and his agents, waiting indoors. Sure enough, Isis shows up, but pegs Phil and his pal as Neutralizers and sneaks past them. Knowing she’s been expected, she feints–pulling open the apartment door but then doubling around and crashing through the window! Fight on!

Everyone leaps into action! James shoots a deadly wrist crossbow at her, but! she twists catlike out of the way and fells him with a heat-beam. Phil and his pal hear the clash from outside and come running. One agent goes to toe with her while the other rushes to get James on his feet with an adrenalin shot. James and his agents frantically grab or shoot at Isis, but! she ducks and weaves as she makes a desperate lunge for her secret escape hatch. She’s almost out and in the clear-the hatch is wired with explosives for any who follow–but! she turns to try to cow her attackers with her freaky power: an inhumanly compelling voice. But! the Neutralizers are ready for that: James has arranged to pump white noise through their earpieces to cancel it out. Isis is shocked at the power’s failure, and James drops her with a poison crossbow bolt. Isis is near-dead and captured just as Phil and his cohort burst frantically in the door.

So what was the difference between these two scenes? They both used the same rules, the same group of players, and similar sorts of action. The difference was relentless forward motion.

In the first case, the action was static. No characters had any particular purpose beyond “stand here and trade blows until the other guy falls down.” There was nothing particularly at stake for the participants (though I could have created a personal stake by say, having the fight jeopardize the mission. But stupid me, I didn’t.) It was just, y’know, a fight, and we all just waited for it to end so we continue with the action that really mattered.

In the second battle, everything was moving all the time! With every action in that cramped apartment, the situation changed dramatically. The characters had purpose: Escape vs. Capture, Kill vs. Survival, and on each turn someone was acting toward that purpose in response to the ever-changing needs of the moment. It was exciting!

Now, there were some specific contributing factors, such as Phillip’s defensive abilities which were great for avoiding injury but lousy for resolving the situation. Or the devastating nature of close-quarters weapons fire under the rules, which made the second fight much more decisive. But the bottom line was that forward motion. Failure at any given point didn’t mean “ho-hum, try again,” it meant “Oh shit! Now she’s getting away/turning her nasty powers on us/shooting me in the chest!”

Forward motion, it strikes me, is the first and foundational ingredient of Story By the Throat. All else follows and is made possible by this.

Peace,

-Joel