The Concept of Misery

Over the years, it seems to me that RPG?s have undergone a strong shift away from the ?High? versions of their genre?s, to what is perceived to be a gritty ?realistic? approach.? Perhaps it is a reflection of our fin-de-si?cle cynicism and disillusion; I?ve seen a similar shift in film and TV output, and even in literature.?

Gone are Lord of the Rings and Narnia type adventures with pure heroes and heroines vanquishing clear manifestations of evil.? Elves and dwarves are extinct, replaced by vampires and lycanthropes.? Gone are the silver starships of a mankind reaching for the stars and triumphing over all the universe can throw at him.? Instead, science fiction assumes that humanity will destroy or corrupt anything pure they encounter, and the few genuine aliens we see are either analogues of the ?noble savage? or have an unhealthy interest in probing orifices which really weren?t designed to be probed with implements THAT big and cold.

Nowadays, it seems to me that both fiction and RP are filled with shades of grey, where no-one is actually ?good?.? It all comes down to a matter of perspective, and even the heroes aren?t averse to treachery, back-stabbing and general deviousness (all dressed up as a means to a supposedly worthy end, of course).? Both past and future are generally portrayed as miserable places where everyone comes to a nasty end, and for some reason both are dark and drab places (I could have sworn the past had bright heraldry and pretty colours, and wasn?t universally shit-coloured !)

GM?s have bought into this meme quite whole-heartedly, as well, it seems to me.? I guess they?re reflecting what they see as the expectations and playing styles of their players.? However, I believe this can cause serious problems to a game in the long term.

Firstly, I think many players relish the idea of being part of a dramatic conflict between good and evil, even if they won?t often be found admitting it in public.? The majority will tend to play characters who tend towards either good or evil. ?I?ve noticed a tendency (which I?m guilty of myself) that if they play a character different to their natural tendency for a while, they?ll gradually drift back to their default alignment.? I?ve got at least two characters who started as officially ?evil? whose development has left them in a state which can only be described (in D&D alignment terms) as Lawful Good.? But if you, as GM, create a world where the only way to succeed is through treachery and ruthless self-interest rather than co-operation and altruism, you?ll lose the interest of the players whose natural alignment is at the good end of the spectrum.

The second problem, which I see as the larger one, is that there is a limit to the pain and misery most players can handle.? It is terribly easy for a GM to inflict harm on a character, both physical and mental.? I would say that it is even good to do so on occasion.? A character (or party of them) shouldn?t get the idea that they?ll always survive and win no matter how stupidly they behave.? But if it is done every session, sooner or later it will create a view among the players that no matter what they do their efforts are doomed to failure, and a sense of futility will set in.

So my experience (which I?m sure not everyone will agree with !) leads me to believe that a balance needs to be maintained with a slight tilt towards allowing the characters to succeed and encouraging co-operation.? The GM needs to maintain a distinction between peril (good) and misery (not good).? Even in a game where the characters are evil, they need to be rewarded for co-operation and allowed to succeed the majority of the time.? My own personal preference is to design adventures to be really tough, but then GM them very generously, allowing lucky escapes where I?ve inadvertently put a character-killer situation in.? To be honest, with the exception of a deliberately designed killer dungeon I once put together, I think I can safely say that the only times characters have died at my hands has been as a result of their own stupidity.? I don?t think that?s a bad thing.?

But I balance this generosity by occasionally taking away magical items which are proving a little too powerful, or inflicting other penalties on the characters to prevent them becoming too god-like.? Additionally, I tend to become very attached to my bad-guy NPC?s (one day I?ll write the story of the character behind the nickname Alonicus; he started out as someone so bad he?d make Stalin or Genghis Khan look like playground bullies, but gradually mellowed over the course of several decades of real time).? A party will have to work remarkably well to kill one of my leading mischief-makers.? It can be rather fun to let the bad guy make an escape as his kingdom crumbles around him, and then re-appear at some point in the future all Fu-Manchu like.? It can also be a useful plot device in creating a complex and immersive world, as well as giving the players something to latch onto for future adventures.

This entry was posted in advice and tagged , by Alonicus. Bookmark the permalink.

About Alonicus

Alonicus has been playing RPG's for far longer than is good for him, starting in the misty past (okay, the mid-1970's) with Tunnels and Trolls, and later moving onto D&D, AD&D and a few other tabletop RPG's. Quite often, he's ended up being lead-GM and has designed a number of worlds for both fantasy and sci-fi adventures (often with long-running links and themes). He also plays a few carefully chosen MMORG's.

2 thoughts on “The Concept of Misery

  1. Contrary comment because I can, as promised!

    “Firstly, I think many players relish the idea of being part of a dramatic conflict between good and evil, even if they won?t often be found admitting it in public.” I disagree vehemently there. Players I’ve RPed with relish dramatic conflict… between realistic characters. It doesn’t stop happening just because both sides have a point. ^_~

  2. I was actually going to disagree for a different reason – I find a lot of the “party of Good adventurers vs a clear-cut Evil enemy”. I suspect it varies by medium – in tabletop, you tend to get a lot more classic stories. When I do see more shades of grey campaigns, I rarely see GMs willing to kill off characters left and right (pinkgothic aside, lol). In many circles, killing off a character is a major decision – it ends the potential stories that can be told with that character, which means some of your pretendy-fun-times has gone away.

    But I do agree with your basic premise: there’s a time and a place for all types of stories, and no one story should crowd out others. There’s plenty of room on the interwebs and in the world for all kinds ^_^

Leave a Reply