There is a problem over there, and since we have arrived, we can say “there is a problem here.” We may resolve it nicely, we may resolve it fairly, we may resolve it cooperatively, but resolve it we will, and if none of the above work, we will do whatever it takes anyway. The latter option is very definitely something we are good at, which is bad for anyone who opposes us. For we are right and you are wrong.
Is this something anyone should really be doing, as a heroized topic in fiction? I claim no authority over how anyone chooses to role-play or what about, but that doesn’t mean I have no position about this topic. I most certainly do.
Tommi deserves the credit for raising the topic in the comments of Lone Wolf Adventure Game. The video below was first presented as a response in that discussion, so backtrack to it if you’d like.
In addition to my points in the video, these topics are included as well:
- The institutional or establishmentarian version, which we often see as “agents” or for a little face-saving, “freelancers.” I jumped a little too quickly to the wanderer/scofflaw version in the video.
- (sigh – might as well) The rabbit hole to hell which yawns between the original 1960s Star Trek and the franchise which followed.
I know that some of you are just itching and twitching to talk about Dogs in the Vineyard and Circle of Hands, which I claim are subversion and defiance of this concept, respectively, and acknowledging as well that Dogs is often not realized or played as such. I’m OK with that – but please, not until we work over the primary or baseline concept first in some discussion here, and arrive at some solid “like that” examples we can use for comparison.
15 responses to “The rescue and murder squad”
Let’s Talk About Our Dark
Is role-playing as art, as performance, as product inextricably linked with violent means for conflict resolution? In fact, not always, in practice and in perception, most certainly yes. You can get experience for making the beast go away or negotiating with the vampire to stop drinking super-attractive Aunt Myrtle, sure, but fuck, putting a stake in that vampire is very satisfying. Violence and questionable authority are front and center in role-playing, and I think for good reason. Whether those reasons have been front and center in the head of every designer or not, I cannot say. And I think it is a waste of our time to dive too deeply into motive, save for those who can give us a firsthand account of their own motives.
The Dark Side
I asked my partner, who is a role-player but also has a degree in psych and is working on her master’s degree, whether she had any good articles that might be relevant to the idea of exploring our dark sides. And of course, she brought up Jung’s Shadow Self, but she also linked to this article/blog about Light and Dark Triad’s. I thought it was an interesting read. For me, there is an acknowledgement that rpgs have allowed me to explore darker aspects of my personality. I think this is a valid statement, but I think its also an after the fact revelation, as opposed to an initial reason for playing violent rpgs. I realized along the way that rpgs were good for that, likely by accident at first, but possibly in a more mindful way as they have evolved. And I think this is healthy. I do not think we have to question or shy away from that. At the same time, finding a way to avoid the violence is also healthy and satisfying. It might even be more satisfying, though the jury is still out.
I find this exploration not only helps me deal with things that have happened in my life, but also makes dealing with the problematic nature of society easier. I can acknowledge the bad things, work to fix them. Play acts as a release valve for frustrations.
Heroism & Authority
A long time ago I wrote a rambling series of articles over on RPG.net about what a hero is. If I were to write it today, I would do a better job to be sure, but the basic premise is that a hero is a person who acts. Called to action, perhaps. It is much more akin to the classical i.e. Greek definition of being a hero. But with action comes a degree of authority. (As of this, I could not get to rpg.net, so I cannot link my articles).
Action = Authority
I can do/solve/judge THE THING because I have the courage to act. And because I will act, I have a certain amount of authority. This is relevant to rpgs in both Play, which I will get to, but also in the meta where the person who acts to organize play, has a degree of authority that we transfer to them. In typical process, this person is also the game master because they have their shit together. As metaphor, the “players” are the villagers, running around without the means to act until someone comes along and wrangles them. The hero or authority figure (GM).
You also see this a great deal at the table in play, where this tension exists between players and game masters when a player wants an NPC to do something, but the NPC is like “fuck off, dude.” Players will either get upset OR become derailed, because as the protagonists once they flex everyone else needs to step up. Many players will then resort to violence or threat of it to get what they want. If the world is ending or a greater good needs to be served, hurting this peasant is justified.
Two excellent examples of this are Seven Samurai and the original Magnificent Seven, both of which are favorites of mine and I think, excellent films. But I think, in both cases, these films do not glorify the individuals except in the moment, where their actions are not self-serving. Prior to those moments, there is very little to admire about them. Yule Brenner’s character at one point threatens to shoot anyone who talks about quitting and he is talking to the Mexican peasants. Robert Vaughn’s character is a straight up sociopath. And let us not forget Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo who is a mess of a character but finds redemption of a sort.
All of these characters take extraordinary actions and use the authority that comes from that to order the world around them. Ultimately it does not save (all of) their lives but we think highly of them anyway.
Disconnect from the Morality Tale
Where play often differs, is that we want our characters to pop up in the sequel. If every time we sat at the table, the GM authority figure said “Four of you will be dead by the end of this scenario”, we would be upset, perhaps angry, unless playing Call of Cthulhu or going through Traveller character creation (ha! Kidding). Although for a game where this is a thing, I direct you to Craig Campbell’s Die Laughing.
We do not want to die as noble samurai or gunfighters; we want to move on to the next village to save. We want to exercise our demons, as opposed to exorcise them. As players we love the role of hero protagonist and want to see it play out over a period. Traditional game design reinforces this, often in unhealthy ways. The typical mode is “No Retreat/No Mercy” and bulldozing our way through any situation. Retreat is not an option nor is failure. Play I n general is not rewarded so much as certain a narrow selection of actions. I do not condemn this so much as take is as a way to get better play and better game design.
But where does this leave us? Simple, really. If we are talking play I think that with the authority that games give protagonist characters can be used to make their world better. I do not think negotiating with mindless undead is going to work, but goblins like to keep on breathing. There is room for nuance in play, if you want that. The key is being mindful about your play, taking stock and real interest in your character. Playing in the now, in the moment, instead of plotting out 15 levels of powers, is one avenue towards a larger pool of experiences. But I do not think we need or even should abandon our darker impulses. I do think being mindful of them is a healthier way to engage with rpgs.
A thought on Cyberpunk and Coriolis.
I want to talk about games, but I frankly don’t feel arguing about the elephant in the room will do us any good. You either like or hate D&D and its variants. Good for you. I really don’t care and I cannot stress enough how I unuseful any of it is. It has problematic elements. It has provided fantastic moments of play in its day. Perhaps it is best to say we see you, D&D, and we acknowledge your issues and potential, both. Now let’s move on. Forgive me if this feels like dismissal, it is not. It is simply stating that I don’t think it has a lot of relevance for what we, or at least I, am discussing.
Why Cyberpunk, Yo?
What I do think is relevant is the cyberpunk genre and the idioms of cyberpunk play that leave little room for ethical nuance. As protagonists in cyberpunk, we are barely above the scum we blow holes in and make decisions based on pure profit. Does this make us bad human beings because we want to spend a couple hours a week in this recidivist paradise? I do not think so. It is not the violence or resorting to violence that bothers me, it is some of the Orientalist, pop-culture idioms that appear to be part and parcel of design. It is a very 80s, Japan is coming for your credits aesthetic. Seen as colonizers in a social sense, the genre colonizes the colonizers and creates this inescapable mess of appropriating identity. But it goes further in that it appropriates anti-authority and anarchy to celebrate rage that many of us, across national and cultural lines, feel. It completely neglects the people who lack the skills and availability of weapons to protect themselves.
And I love it. I love playing it even with the issues I can point to. As a GM I can mitigate some of the worse social indiscretion, but I do not use my position as a GM to preach morality to anyone.
Science Fiction is my favorite space to engage in play that has some moral, ethical, or philosophical weight to it. But I think it suffers from tropism and a vast misunderstanding of many of the classics. I’ll point specifically to DUNE, which is called out for some appropriation, to which I counter, “yes, that’s the point, right?” Herbert wrote DUNE on purpose to expose the idea that following one person, even a genetically superior one (maybe especially such a person) is not a good idea. And that society can be manipulated as easily as humans can.
Coriolis is bold, whether on purpose or not I cannot say. A game that skims the surface of Middle Eastern culture and theology seems like a great setting. It has its issues though as others who are more qualified to point out than I, have said. And the problem I think is that it tackles these cultures without a great deal of deep thought. When I run it, I try and make it better and I think that this is a place where play can really change the complexion of problematic design or setting.
I really like your points
I really like your points about Cyberpunk and Coriolis, and I know that's what your comment is really about. Still, as long as you mentioned it … for whatever it's worth, I'm not worked up about D&D regarding the issues I talk about in the video.
My experience with early D&D play led me to two experiences: one which is eerily perfectly tuned to American soldiers in Vietnam "clearing the village," especially in terms of the people I knew who played this way; and the other which, pre-Dragonlance et cetera, is solidly coming-of-age saga, chapter 1, "plucky humble youngsters protect their village from a monster." Neither of which really conforms to the topic at hand, since the first is a subset is so specific that it doesn't need any subtextual discussion, it's straightforwardly text.
I don't see the game as the elephant in the room but, as usual, a minefield of personal experiences, expectations, and – lately – accusations which I'm not sure any general or inclusive look at the game in action can really uphold.
Alternity – allllmost there
Alternity was a TSR sci-fi game from the late 90's with all the features, good and bad, that you'd expect.
But the published setting of the game, "Star*Drive," is one of those cases where the text's implications run counter to the presumed mode of play.
It's 2501 C.E., and humanity has colonized hundreds of star systems via FTL travel. A war breaks out, a cluster of colonies gets isolated and falls on hard times. Several generations later, a vast humanitarian effort arrives to help the "failed states." The humanitarians are pretty plainly stand-ins for the United States, and are basically dysfunctional due to feuds between cariacatured subcultures. You get the sense that this overseas adventurism is the only thing holding the great society together.
Presumably players are part of the "American" humanitarian expedition, representing any of a variety of subcultural factions. But there's also the option to play as terrorist locals intent on home rule. When we played, I think we were some kind of rogue operation trying to make a quick buck as the cultures collided, cynically ripping off the gullible newcomers and the tech-strapped locals.
While the text portrays the aid expedition as a well-intentioned good thing (there are ravenous bug-eyed monsters about to invade, and the locals would be overwhelmed), the fact is that each faction of Americans is absurd and/or grotesque in some way. They have insane military power, but they're so fractured socially and politically that all those hammers aren't gonna do them any good.
It takes 256 pages to present a setting that could be done in 7 with a good editor, though, and I'm describing it with a really intense squint & some nostalgia. There's a good idea there, but you'd really have to dig it out.
I know exactly what you mean.
I know exactly what you mean. I've gradually created a minor workshop for preparing and presenting games from this era for play so that the edge or spot that caught my eye, in just this way, became our focus for play. Sometimes I think I'm just making it up myself, but in other cases it's pretty strong if you want to work with it, as it's not presented as strong – Khaotic is a good example, so is my version of Mutant Chronicles as I mentioned in a recent to-play video, and also, perhaps surprising, who knows, Fading Suns. I'd first thought, and part of me still insists, that Kult and Mage should qualify (i.e. without making it up), yet I always stall out when I try.
Mouse Guard – why does this work?
Mouse Guard is a classic example of the town-tamer genre. You and your team of knightly mice brave the wilderness and predators, to help the scattered villagers with whatever their problems may be. (In this instance, you're duly authorized agents of an authority broadly recognized as legitimate.)
In theory that's as troubling as anything Ron's described. You certainly could run Mouse Guard to create thematic tension: is the Guard really good? Who decides what it means to really help these people? How do you handle bad cops?
I played a lot of Mouse Guard between 2009-2013, and none of that really came up. Most of the problems that needed solving involved predatory animals or the forces of nature. The mission-design structure generally didn't allow for full-on ideological fighting between mice–though I suppose it's something would naturally develop over the course of several fictional years.
But maybe simply playing as mice with swords softens things a little bit. You're still a cop, but you're a fuzzy widdle cop in a world full of giant predators and a genuinely murderous environment.
I don't know–but it doesn't trip my colonialsm / fantasy of good violence alarm, when D&D and even most super hero games do.
Dying Earth as anti-colonial narrative?
I have never played Dying Earth, but the source material is a pretty great inversion of all the colonizer tropes.
Cugel is (at best) a semi-competent, self-flattering, conniving and untrustworthy thief, rapist, and fraudster. He shows up in a village where the society is exotic but perfectly functional. By immediately trying to cheat and rip off everyone in sight, Cugel usually ends up totally humiliated, driven out of town on a rail.
To the extent the game creates similar characters, I'd think the same results would apply.
On how it happens in play.
Wow, big topic here and my immediate reaction would be the usual "In my game! In my game!" spiel… let's skip that. Ron knows I've been discussing this a lot and ironically I think I foundt the name of the game precisely thinking about this.
As part of this premise, Circle of Hands has been as strong influence (a literal wrench thrown in the system, which led me to rethink several elements) because I do agree that if not explicit subversion, it is to the very least structured in a way that won't let you get away with trying to do that thing with your characters. I think what Circle does differently from Dogs is that there's a very strong, almost prescriptive attention to the community the "murder squad" will end up visiting and how it's shaped. It becomes a character rather than a collection of problems, because it's set to get off rails very quickly, with no way to foresee what role this or that character will play.
Part of the "humanitarian murder squad" vicious circle is its clarity: there's a threat, we're the good guys, there's definitely some bad guys, and people to save. This scheme (we're saving people) is where the uglyness is born, because not only it becomes the justification for any action (and the sterilization of whatever interesting interaction we could have) but also because it's prehemptive and often explored in a meta level – and not in a good way. I think historically the most common occurrence of players stepping out of character and discussing moral justifications in the real world has been tied to this – it's fine if we do X, because we're saving/protecting Y.
So, how does it happen in play?
My "usuals" group is interesting. One first observation I'll make is that we're fairly terrible at setting up and upholding agendas, expecially when we play the type of game that leans into this premise (the "humanitarian murder squad"). It may be the fact that we've been knowing each other for 20+ years and we've been playing together for as much time, but we never discuss safety or themes before starting, not in productive way. So I never really set the mood for the game – we start, and it becomes something along the way.
What's interesting is that at the beginning of play the entire group, at different levels, focuses strongly on personal goals and in direct rejection of the idea that they're out to save anyone. Which, when inevitably the game imposes its structure and they start visiting places with problems, leads DIRECTLY in those issue and the ugliness. I could say that at this stage we're witnessing what Ron describes as despicable: those who are visited and "saved" are not seen as people but play-elements (NPCs), often on a meta level, and players can indulge in excess, manipulation or straight dismissal of those they meet (don't lose sight of the fact that we're looking at a few experienced people playing together for a lot of time, which is the best and the worst in many ways).
Then play happens, and this is where things change. As soon as a player starts interacting with a particular NPC or gets a wider scope on the community they're "colonizing", or gets hung up on a certain cultural element, or actually does something horrible, a mechanism kicks in and everything gets contextualized, and you get the type of play where people still commit to those ideas of "not being heroes" but look at it fully in the face. The activity as a whole won't let you escape from that.
I've foundt some of the features of CoH to accellerate this process, of having to immediately consider your actions and your character's feelings in a way that has to be accepted and interiorized in the "now" without structures to fall back on in case things get ugly. Violence is there, and it's often unexpected and unjustified, often more than in your usual "holy murder squad" setup, but it's not part of the program, and that's – to me – extremely relevant.
A different angle
This subject came to mind as I am currently reading a book about communication intended for healthcare students (Kommunikasjon i relasjoner by Eide and Eide)., which has a focus on empowering people; solving their problems or taking a position of authority is often counterproductive, where active listening and helping the person discover their goals and means works a lot better.
This also has parallels to various teaching methods in mathematics and presumably elsewhere; problem-based learning, for example, and generally constructive theories of learning. Another parallel is in roleplaying traditions and agency given, or not, to participants.
So that's where I am coming from, rather than media analysis of any kind, but I do see how these are more or less the same subject. I do see the value in your perspective, but I am not sure where to go from here. I did learn something new from your video, in any case.
My partner is working towards
My partner is working towards a degree in social work and she deals with some of this. Some authority systems (police) are sending out social workers with or instead of police to certain calls and it has been effective in small doses. I do think there is a clear space for this in our gaming too. It just has not been the traditional method. But authority does not have to equal violence or intimidation or coercian.
Mage Awakening 2016 – the Quiet American
Lately I got interested in Mage: the Awakening Second Edition (Onyx Path 2016). It looks like it engages this topic full-on. (Thanks to JD Corley for helping me understand some things about the game.)
In this version of Mage, you and your wizard buddies are clued into the true Neo-Platonic nature of reality, and everything the poor, benighted muggles believe about the way the world works is a lie promulgated by Gnostic archons. Under the rules of the game, you literally know better than everyone else.
This goes to some interesting places.
First, muggles may not want your "help," and certainly won't understand it as such. Their laughably ignorant worldview simply cannot comprehend your colonizer-wisdom, and they'll forget or misinterpret your contributions to their personal histories. The only person who thinks you're actually helping is you.
Second, you're probably not as good at helping as you think you are. In a crisis, you're going to be pushing your magical power beyond what's safe. The more you do this, the greater the chance that your magic will go crazy, either having an unintended effect or ripping holes in reality. Your fancy tools will inevitably damage others and maybe yourself.
Third, your "morality hit points" take a hit whenever you end up profoundly harming someone through magic. You're bound to do this eventually–either on purpose or by accident. So sometimes the safest way to help people is to meet them on their own terms.
Several things about the game's design run counter to my own preferences, but the core is absolutely addressing this topic.
The tension between “we are
The tension between "we are rebels awakening you all to a more authentic life" vs. "we will ruin everything you care about because we are stronger than you" is real.
Possibly opening an undesirable door: a big part of fiction about this stuff (intentionally or otherwise) is the content which validates or invalidates one of these views using background or contextual material that the viewer/reader must accept in order to participate at all. It's on my mind a lot for all the games I'm working on, Dreams of Fire and Vigil especially.
@James – my impression of
@James – my impression of Mage, even more than the eco-warriors in Werewolf, has always been that Mages are supposed to be heroes in the modern sense, not just protagonists. And that the only real repurcussions to the literal ability change reality, was that your hair might go 80s if you changed reality too much. It sounds like the later edition has taken a more proactive stance in that regard.
I think this mirrors issues some groups experience in real life, where a shared ideal or reality creates a 'better than thou' attitude among those who participate.
I have been thinking about the hoops we make people go through to engage in play, while working on my own designs. Is the solution a case of simply providing enough information to play, letting people draw their own conclusions and how to use it?
Ron, you wrote:
Ron, you wrote:
I don't necessarily want to open the door, as you put it, but I'm not sure what you mean absent a concrete example.
One thing about this type of fiction: it cedes a HUGE amount of philosophical ground by taking the declaration that "we're here to help" at face value. Although there may be fatal flaws institutionally or in leadership, the Guys Doing the Helping (players, in gaming terms) are usually depicted as more-or-less sincere in their commitment to actually helping folks.
In terms of dialectic, that's not necessarily a bad thing–if you show the colonizers in the best possible light, no one can say you're being unfair when you criticize the hell out of them. But to get to that point, you've got to flatter the colonial project in the abstract, and maybe that's not worth it.
As a fictional device, it tends to center the experience of the colonizers and aligns the reader with them. Whether intruders can be "good people" is a question that mostly matters to a potential intruder.
But of course the real problem is that these sorts of things are never altruistic. The institutions involved have their own motivations, and the people on the ground are (at best) doing a job or (potentially) complete psychopaths. To bring it back to games: one of the things I will say for the "murder hobo" style of D&D play is that no one has any illusions that they're here to help anyone.
Hi James, fortunately there’s
Hi James, fortunately there's an easy example as far as you and I are concerned. The 1986-and-after Punisher is unreadable unless the reader buys into the view that "criminals run free, crime is out of control, decent people are helpless, and no one is safe." The word criminal has to mean a certain thing about a certain kind of person in a certain kind of extra-societal culture. This or that particular writer or particular story may provide nuances and drama … but only in that exact context. If a person bounces off that context, then it's all blither; if they dive in harder just in order to enjoy the stories, then the context must be provisionally accepted and then becomes internalized all too easily.
You and I have talked about this a lot, so I don't know if anyone else will see the depth of what I mean that I know you're picking up, so to everyone who is not James, please, I really don't need you bombing in with your this-and-that take on the Punisher, and especially not about the Netflix version.
I hope it will make some sense to others that I'm not talking about any pathology or confusion that the Punisher may have as a part of the fiction. Before 1986, I think this was the front-and-center textual case no matter who the writer was – he was a damaged and dangerous person, and with the better writers, his views were often positively provocative for other characters to contemplate. However, after 1986, he (and Wolverine) were presented as the Only Sane Man who did What Must Be Done. That's the phase I'm talking about in this comment.
One feature I'm really turning over in my mind regarding role-playing, in the context of this point about this character, is that a given creator can write a subversion, like taking it so far over the top that it's intended to be self-parody and thus self-critical. However, the internalization I mentioned above is really solid, personally and culturally, so that many comics creators and observers of the scene are shocked when their attempts along these lines are cheerfully accepted and further accreted into the wide and informal fandom for the character.
Which I hope now brings us back to your take on this version of Mage. I get what you're saying, or I think I do, so my next inquiry – not to you, but to any play-experience I may have with this game in the fullness of time – is whether anyone else does, or at least, the people I'm playing with. If they have arrived with direct or indirect cultural training based on the original version (as Sean describes it), or if their inclinations lead them to accept that kind of context for this game rather than as an opportunity for critique … then I may find myself in the situation I've encountered occasionally with Dogs in the Vineyard. Me, in response to a particularly dogmatic or naive act: "Wait, isn't that what we're critiquing? It's not like our characters have to believe or do that." Them: "… What? It says we do so, right here."