Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Play Monsters

As I write this, I have Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" on repeat. I am, for the record, not much of an Eminem fan, and as a whole I have a very tenuous relationship with rap. But this song grabs me with a combination of raw power and horror (and musicality) that I find utterly compelling.

Art that depicts terrible things is powerful and dangerous. Depending on the viewer, the terrible thing may be so terrible that the very prospect of any art about it, even art that lays the horror bare, is something they will simply refuse. This reaction allows for the kind of easy snobbery that reveals a true shallowness of understanding in the snob, but it's a necessary risk in genuinely exposing anything terrible.

There are many terrible things, from the profound to the merely shocking. To me, the most powerful are those that force us to acknowledge that there are real people behind these horrors. That is, to put it bluntly, such a profoundly uncomfortable idea that we instinctively rebel against it. Bad things are done by bad people. They're sick. Or evil. We don't like to think of them having parents or children Anything that forces us to see ourselves in these monsters is frightening.

I have played monsters in my day, and it speaks to the real power of this hobby that I can say this with no small amount of discomfort. It is a rare game that allows for that possibility - when choice and context is bounded by the logic of adventure, then choices may get dark, but they rarely end up carrying the weight that forces you to internalize them. At the same time, playing the monsters as we see them teaches us little. Mustache twirling evil and stylish sociopathy can be shocking, certainly, but they are shallow things, little worse than putting on a monster mask and growling.

What a game, a good, deep game, can do is push you to the point where the choices you make are the only choices you can, and make them terrible. You can step through every door, feeling you have no other choice, and find yourself in a place you could not (and would not) have imagined when your journey started. There's terrible power there, but also the promise of great and frightening insight.

I have played heroes. I have played villains. Both have been fun and rewarding, but few of them stay with me like the monster. I say monster, singular, since for all that I have to say about this, there is only one, and he's never going to leave my head. This was a great character, fun to play, rewarding in every possible way, but when the time came he made the terrible choices because everything demanded it.

Every hobby has literature about how many valuable lessons you can learn from it. Baseball. Knitting. Checkers. RPGs are strangely short on this, and in fact if you try to talk about the positive things people can get out of RPGs, the strongest criticism you will get will come from within the community. This is a terrible pity. I can literally think of no other hobby that can better arm you to see things through the eyes of others, to understand another viewpoint without letting it become your own.

That understanding can be scary. Really scary and unwelcome at times. It's a lot easier to live in a world of good and bad people. It's easier to be able to look on the failings of others and say with all sincerity "I would _never_ do that!" But I sincerely believe that it's an understanding worth having. Seeing the humanity in someone else's horror is terribly enlightening, but seeing the monster in yourself, in a real, practical, non-angsty, non-dramatic fashion can blow the doors off. And in seeing it, and understanding it, you can become better.

I don't write thousands of words about this hobby because I think it's going to make me rich, or because I have some bizarre dice fetish.

I think better games can make us better people.

Disagree if you like. I'll understand


  1. Far from disagree, I do quite the opposite wholeheartedly.

    I have seen people use RPGs for lots of things, but the most profound are coping and escape. Yes, everyone does something to escape, but in RPGs it is very different. You can be someone else, entirely. Live their life, wear their clothes, make their decisions. Yes, it is fantasy, but it is fantasy that engages you directly.

    Coping is altogether different, but people do it all the same. Not sure how to handle a certain type of emotion? Put it on a character and play through it. Vent through your characters if need be, but also learn from them. It is wonderfully possible in most RPGs, and some people do it.

    Some do it to detriment, but that is a different matter entirely. (Some people eat to detriment, but the general consensus is that food is still good).

    I've played a couple of monsters in my day, and they've all stuck with me in different ways. I'm not sure if they've made me a better player, but they have definitely shown what my mind is capable of coming up with for solutions at times. If nothing else, that serves as a cautionary tale.

  2. "Playing a game" and "making art" seem like very different things. People frequently discuss and critique art, but someone's RPG gameplay (as opposed to the game itself) is usually considered quite differently.

    This isn't to say I think you can/should/must play in any particular way - but equating it to finished artwork seems a bit much.

  3. I think better games can make us better people. I suppose my contempt of the posters on certain forums stems from that — that these stunted people seem to be playing games unrecognisable to anyone espousing the idea. So many "gamers" (God I hate that term) seem to use these games to reinforce their own moral and ethical shortcomings (I still remember the chap who posted on a well-known site in defence of petty theft because "thief is a class in the Player's Handbook").

    I mean, I think better games can make you better people, but how often do they? Really? And how often do they have that awful effect that I have observed so many times of stealing our wonder and deadening our moral sense so we can't see why people might think desecrating corpses is revolting or think that a sensitive critique like John Tynes' Power Kill somehow reduces their fun without making them think?

    I wrote games about playing monsters for ages. But the best one I worked on was always Promethean, which was about being a monster and wanting to be something better. I like Vampire, too, which if played right, could so easily be about understanding the consequences of violence and selfishness - except instead it's too often about political dicking around and posturing.

    I don't know. I want to play something that makes you better. Or makes you think. Or makes you wonder why you did that. Or makes you wish you were better. That's all.

  4. @Howard Man, I feel where you're coming from (and I'll add, Promethean rocked so goddamned hard) and I think there's some necessary optimism in my take on games.

    I want those things too, and I think they're possible. I don't think any game book can deliver them, but I think that writing a good game _can_ shorten the distance between picking up the book and getting there.

    I kind of have to. Otherwise, there's not much point to it all.

  5. Rob, if you aren't reading Reality is Broken, you need to be.

  6. @misuba Oooh! I'd seen the Ted talk but hadn't realized there was a book. It shall be mine!

  7. Stuart: as a card-carrying aesthete I can assure you that playing RPGs qualifies as Art under just about any use of that term beyond the mere honorific.

    What's more central to the artistic endeavour than providing an opportunity to participate, wittily and feelingly, in experience undeadened by quotidian routine?

    Rob: You seem to echo stage director Jerzy Grotowski: "The important thing is to use the role as a trampoline, an instrument with which to study what is hidden behind our everyday mask – the innermost core of our personality - in order to sacrifice it, expose it."

  8. Funny story. Well maybe not funny, but let it stand.

    I played int he Camarilla many years ago. I was playing a mortal Kinfolk in a Werewolf venue. And it was an all mortal scene. It was two characters, me and another played by a storyteller, confronting a third character about the the sexual abuse her character experienced in childhood at the hands of monsters.

    It was one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever been a part of, but I kind of love it for it's discomfort. One of the measures of whether an activity is art, can be the question, can this make me something unpleasant and real. Any old game can make you happy. Gamble enough for a win and you will feel like it was sex.

    Making a compelling game experience that makes you uncomfortable, but speaks to something real. That takes real work. Playing a monster lets you talk and confront things that often people will avoid. It places it in a context which allow you to explore notions, you might have avoided even thinking about.

  9. Hyde always makes people uncomfortable, because they know that deep down, there lurks their own Hyde.

    And Hyde is far more powerful and charismatic than Jekyll. Free from arbitrary restraints and able to do what he wants. To take what he wants. It has it's ... attractions; one of which is a fundamental honesty.

    Play the monster successfully and you can watch the players unconsciously back away from you as they recognise it.

    But there is no Hyde. There are only people, and people are capable of doing horrendous things when they are driven to it. Roleplaying the monster allows you to realise this. And more importantly, to put him away in his box after you finish playing with him.

  10. I love watching a character come upon moral turning points and watching them make bad choices and spiral downwards because of their flaws and weaknesses. It's very hard to find a group where playing a monster goes over okay though.


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