Friday, February 12, 2010

Serious Play

I always enjoy the Penny Arcade comic, but I often get something useful out of the column as well. Today's in particular got me thinking. He was inspired by another post about the "daddening" of video games (the idea that in video games it is becoming more common that you play someoen who is a father than someone whose father is an important part of the story) and more generally observed that there are issues which are common and powerful but which are rarely touched upon in video games. Issues like relationships, marriage, family, kids and so on. A lot of it rings equally true for RPGs, and that got me thinking.

First off, I need to echo the sentiment that getting married and having a child were both genuine thresholds for me. before actually crossing them, their meaning were pretty nominal to me. I got their importance on paper, but it was very different for me to actually do it.

With that in mind, it's interesting to apply that general lens to my games. I can think of many game I've played that were generational in nature, literally or symbolically, but they almost always revolve around the emergence of the new generation[1]. Sure, there's always the occasional jokey one-off, of playing an Amber game where you're elders dealing with these wacky kids, but it's not quite the same.

Now, some of this is kind of understandable. Players should be the focus of play, and kids take focus. It's hard to make kids as important as they should be without that overshadowing your going out and shooting orcs or whatever, and more the introduction of kids introduces all kinds of questions like "how responsible is it, really, to go out and shoot orcs when you have a kid at home?"

At its worse, the introduction of family and kids seems like a threat to suck the fun out of a game in favor of the mundane details of life we may be playing to escape. It's only natural to flinch in the face of this, but it might be worth overcoming that reaction. No, no one wants to be playing a glorified versionof house, but the same things that make a 'family' game challenging can make it awesome. Consider:

  • Heroes with families have something to go home to. I've mentioned this before, but I'll reiterate: having a reason to *not* adventure demands that the reasons for an adventure be good ones. This makes for more work for the GM, but it's "eat your vegetables" kind of work - the reward is more than worth it.
  • On the flipside, heroes with families tend to be more engaged once you get them on board. If this is tied to the health and happiness of their wife or kid? The heroes are all in.
  • Players are used to lacking authority but having freedom. Parents have just enough authority to be frustrated by its lack, and trade that off with responsibility. This is frustrating, but also makes for some interesting play.

That said, I'm not suggesting this is something that suits every game. But look at the thresholds you and your group have crossed, and consider how that might alter your play. Before i was married, a plot centered around a wedding was just color to me, but having actually gone through one (with all the madness that entails) it would not be hard to hook me into caring a lot whether or not the wedding goes off well. Kidnapping someone's spouse? Standard trope of villainy, but allow me a second to think of that in terms of my wife? It is ON.

There's a lot more to this than just spouses and kids. As we get older and our understanding of our parents change from our own experience, it get harder to rage against surrogate father figures in a game[2]. The richness of generational play starts becoming more evident as your own place shifts away from the edge of the generational spread.

1 - The only game I can think of that bridges this gap smoothly is Changeling: The Lost. It's not truly a generational game, but it offers a premise whose meaning depends upon where you are in life. The game begins with the presumption that you have been taken away from everything important in your life by a powerful being and used as its plaything. Meanwhile, a duplicate is living your life in your stead.For one type of players, the driving motivations fury at this powerful figure who has been bossing you around. For another, the prospect of what you are losing in your life is genuinely horrifying. Players with strong ties (which usually means having gotten past the point in your life where you're striking out on your own) can get entirely gut punched by that sense of loss. It's a magnificent idea and a magnificent game.

2 - I watched "Big Fish" with my dad. it's a beautiful movie, and if it does not move you then, in the words of Pete Thurston "you might want ot call a doctor because you're probably dead inside". It's a generational story of stories, and my dad's comment at the end was that he's no longer sure if he was the dad or the son (in the film). At the time, I knew where I stood, but it's been a few years, and I now have a son of my own who is going to make me ask the same question someday.

EDIT: I read this again and I fear it might sound like "You need kids and a marriage to get this deep stuff" and that's not the point at all. What I'm saying is look at what has become important in your life. Maybe it's a family and kids, maybe its something else, but whatever it is you can use the WAYS it's important to you and your players to tell stories that resonate more with them.


  1. I know where you're coming from. I went through a stint last year where a very long running character was being tormented by a female GM. If you're not familiar with the sadism girl GM's are capable of (I know I'm generalizing, but I've yet to find a guy that's capable of delivering the same degree of horror that a girl can) I'll tell you that her standard formula was to be nice for several sessions, give your character a hint of happiness, and then she would take the thing (NPC) you became most attached to and begin deconstructing them at a cellular level; as you watched, their eyeballs burst like ripe zits as they beg for your impotent assistance, their mouths without lips or tongues.

    Those games were the emotional equivalent of a phonebook beating, but I had a lot of fun and one of the tools she used to achieve them was the bonds of family. The pride of seeing the success of an offspring, the joy of a moment of pure safety and refuge. It made the moments where my character's protection of them lapsed that much more agonizing. Kidnapping was a major theme in that game and there were times where the differences between my character's protection of his ward and the badguy's rigid lockdown were not that dissimilar.

    There was a point where I was in two of those sorts of games at once and while they were both good, after a while I wanted to be 14 again and just have a game where I got to kill orcs for gold, but I'm still glad I got to play those games because I don't think a lot of players have gotten to experience those kinds of stories.

  2. I totally agree with you. Generational games are extremely fun. But to do it properly you have to both have downtime in the game (where all the "boring bits" of real life happen), and the characters need some sort of investment in the community in which they adventure. To have roots. Which also brings in the end game again - there should be an end to adventure, as well as a beginning.

    It also helps immensely if you stretch the time scale so that the game becomes truly generational and people can see the consequences of their actions, and more importantly see what they have built in the campaign.

    Seeking immortality becomes a very strong theme in a game where aging occurs as a matter of course. Some try to manage it by becoming a lich (or other similar means), but most approach the problem more conventionally, with one's family.

    Plus it's fun when grandfather comes out of retirement to help the kids, and they learn that youth and vigour is no substitute for sheer stubborn-mindedness and dirty tricks. <grin>

  3. There's an element of ... hm, "method acting" so to speak in this line of thinking that I like. I've pushed players just a little out of their comfort zones with some of my games in the past (Kings, of course, but others too) -- and I think that ended up dovetailing with the ideas you're talking about here, because just outside the comfort zone is the stuff which Isn't Easy, and that stuff might just be that way because it clicks into what really matters for the player at this time in their life.

    Not sure where I'm going with that, but I'm chewin'.

  4. An interesting (to me) complementary effect of daddening is the increasing number of video games that are clearly meant to be played with parent and child together. I'm thinking specifically all the Rock Band stuff, but also all of the Lego titles. This is relatively new, but maybe it's that recent that dad and junior both wanted an Xbox on the same Christmas day.

    Now can RPGs go THERE?

    I suspect they can, and largely without revisions as long as they DON'T get daddened in the way you describe.

  5. Cool stuff, Rob.

    I'm making plans for a D&D 4E campaign set in a village. Part of the premise is that the Duke comes and tells the local Baron to come with him and bring 50 of his best warriors. The PCs, being young and inexperienced and unproven, get left behind. Now they're sorta in charge, or can at least step up if they want.

    Part of character creation requires players to name (make up) at least one NPC who they care about in town. They also have to name at least one terrible consequence that could come to pass if they leave town for too long. In other words, they need the town and the town needs them.

    I'll tell you how it works out in play!

  6. I'm glad to see an increase in parent roles, for certain. I think parenthood can be a great motivator for a hero. The responsibility concern is valid, but the absence of the hero-parent has always been a problem for soldiers, throughout history.

    However, I still think we have a terrible absence of protagonist-mothers in games (which reflects a larger absence in books and movies). The moment a woman gets married, has kids, or turns 30, she is consigned eternally to the "happily ever after" bin. Our Ellen Ripleys and Sarah Connors are rare as hen's teeth. Where is our Boudica, our Judith, our Yael?

    "And she smote Sisera; she crushed his head,
    She crashed through and transfixed his temples.
    At her feet he curled himself, he fell, he lay still;
    At her feet he curled himself, he fell;
    And where he curled himself, let it be, there he fell dead."

  7. This relates to another issue that is generally missing from RPGS - mentors. All too often, PCs appear on the scene with little context for how they developed their abilities and having broken off all contact with everyone that they've known before play. This is particularly odd when the PC is of a type that generally has a teacher and mentor as an important part of their concept (i.e. mage, cleric, etc.). After all, mentors play a crucial role in the Heroic Cycle.

    There are various reasons why this is so, but it is still odd that mentors rarely appear in RPGS, with a few notable exceptions (i.e. Dark Heresy, Pendragon). The more usual circumstance is that the mentors are a glaring absence (i.e. D&D, Ars Magica).

  8. One of the reasons Pendragon is my favorite RPG is that it handles generational play, families, one's home and property, love, romance, jealousy, melancholy, internecine strife, and more with such simple yet elegant implementation of the rules that I've never found another game that does it as well or better.

    Given the choice, I would run Pendragon above any other game on my shelf, so I am constantly flummoxed that I am not.


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