Monday, March 9, 2015
On the rights of denying the use of some concepts in RPGs
It is within the right of a gamemaster to deny concepts he doesn’t want to deal with. I myself have said “I’m not really comfortable running a game where one of the players is a drug dealer, could you modify the concept a little bit please?” Other players can also indicate that a particular concept is not to their liking and could you please not use that? They have less authority than the gamemaster, but they are still a part of the game and the game is best when everybody is comfortable and having fun.
This so far sounds like the individual player is at the whim of the rest of the group as far as determining what character he or she plays goes. However, the player also has the right to say that they want to play X character and don’t want to change their concept.
Now it sounds like a train wreck in the making since all these people have these apparent rights which seem to inevitably come together into a conflict. However, it is usually fairly easy for the players and gamemasters to negotiate out a compromise that is comfortable for everybody involved to deal with while also being appropriate to the setting. In cases where a satisfactory compromise can’t be reached, one or more people can simply leave the game to people who prefer it. A player might have the right not to change his or her concept, but they don’t have the right to force his character into a campaign where no one wants to deal with it.
That is all looking at things from the perspective of a particular table or group. There is also some truth to this when looking at a particular gaming world or setting. When you pick up a game of D&D, you are conceding that your character fit into one of a limited set of race and class combinations modeled on fantastical myths and legends When you pick up Call of Cthulhu, you are conceding that you’re going to be creating an investigator of some sort with limited knowledge of real occult information. Sometimes the campaign concept allows for a wide variety of character concepts, such as if you’re playing Torg. As with the game master at his table, it is within the developers rights to consider certain character types to be inappropriate to the game they are developing.
However, once the product leaves your hands and enters the wild, it will be taken up and made into something you did not originally consider and which you might believe to be against the feeling you were attempting to convey. You don’t have any say in what an individual gaming group does with their copy of your rules or campaign setting. This is pretty much inevitable for any game system or campaign setting. You can phrase things to encourage or discourage some methods of game play or some character concepts, but ultimately it is up the individual players and GMs what is done with your stuff.
For my concept, I do not like the idea of playing an evil character if I am the player. I have said so on a number of occasions. Despite this, there is not a single place in my RPG books that says you can’t play a villain. I simply don’t discuss that as an option. I certainly make no attempt to discourage such playstyles being used outside my own game. Which brings us to a statement I recently saw in a role-playing game that slightly soured the book for me.
“’I want to play the good vampire.’ If it were up to me, nobody would ever get to play the good vampire ever again in any medium. It is, sadly, not up to me.”
I know I’m blowing this all out of proportion, but the attitude annoys me. I hope that it is meant to be taken in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but lacking body language and tone of voice, I find it difficult to identify whether the author is being serious or facetious. If being serious, this is a blanket statement against a moderately popular character concept and a whole segment of the gaming audience that enjoys playing such character concepts. In addition, the concept is not limited to the developer’s game but to all forms of media, which is part of why I hope it’s a tongue in cheek comment.
Going by that statement, the author is condemning Barnabas Collins, the Alucard of the Castlevania series, Varney the Vampire (which predates Stoker’s Dracula by decades), Chinese Ghost Story (assuming the female lead in that could be considered a type of vampire), centuries worth of the Eastern European Dhampir myth (yes, that is an actual myth. It wasn’t just invented by someone wanting to play a vampire in a game), many characters from either version of Vampire and several other characters in various books, novels, games, TV shows and the like.
I can understand not liking a particular concept or feeling that it is overdone, overexposed or often an option taken by people that want to be a “special snowflake” (a concept I also have trouble with), but there are more appropriate ways to word such disapproval. The book’s next paragraph begins as follows:
“Vampires as written are, obviously much more powerful and versatile than human agents with the same fund of points.”
If the author had left out that first three-sentence paragraph and moved straight to this one, then I would not have had the negative reaction that I did. This is a valid mechanical concern. The premise of the game is in vampire hunting and playing characters that basic, although highly skilled, humans trying to keep the world safe from a conspiracy of blood sucking monsters. The basic premise is not designed with the idea of vampire heroes in mind.
The author does follow that up with some suggested rules for playing vampire characters with the loaded language “[i]f a player absolutely insists on playing a vampire agent, and you as Director have made the foolhardy decision to contravene my whim on the topic” (I am, by the way, aware that “loaded language” is, itself, loaded language). However, at this point I am suspicious that the rules are going to not be designed in a manner that would be fair. The author would not be the first developer to create crippling rules for a particular character concept that he didn’t feel was one that should exist. Reports on the gun rules for Pathfinder are rumored to have been created to be especially onerous because the designer hated the idea of guns in fantasy and only gave in because of a lot of fans asking for the option (which may or may not be related to the existence of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I’m not sure).
In any case, there are several points in the book that make this particular stance seem even more unrealistic. For one thing, there is not one set mythology for the game to deal with. When you play the game, part of what the gamemaster does is to decide just what sort of vampires exist and what their agenda is. They sort vampires into supernatural, demonic, alien (including terrestrial non-human species) and mutated vampires. The mutated vampires even includes the possibility of people that believe themselves be vampires. One of the campaign modes even allows for the possibility of working with one sect of vampires against another sect. Deciding whether or not a cure is possible is another part of the campaign creation. Within this framework there is plenty of room for playing heroic vampire types, a concept which is, again centuries old.
I’m not saying that he is obligated to provide the option. It is not the fact that he does not allow for it that I have a problem with. He does, in fact, provide some rules on the matter. My issue is on the choice of language he uses. He could have simply said that the game was not designed with the idea of player characters having supernatural powers in mind and thus they weren’t particularly balanced or tested and then gone on to give his suggestions for handling with a caveat that, again, the individual gamemaster might want to run their own variation on how to handle the situation. The choice of words provoked this rant, and I am aware that it is a rant. I hope there’s some useful stuff in there rather than just me being irritated, but felt like venting.
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