Thursday, April 1, 2010

Doomed Hometown

So, that went fairly well. Let’s try another one.


“No! My beloved peasant village!”: The hero’s home town, city, slum or planet will usually be annihilated in a spectacular fashion before the end of the game, and often before the end of the opening scene.

Let me just say, I never saw Alderaan. I don’t know how beautiful a planet it was, I never sat down and had tea with any of the people who lived there, I really had no attachment to the place at all. When it blew up, I suppose I had a very similar thought to other people: “That was pretty cool.”

And now even the explosion was pretty lame.

Going down the list on TV Tropes, I never did have much concern for any of those poor sacrificed, burnt or butchered people in any of those movies – except that I thought Conan’s mom was pretty hot. I prefer not to see hot chicks beheaded in movies. In this case, however, it was done so artistically I am ready to make an exception.

My point is this. I am a character in your world, and you have just had my village decimated (though that doesn’t mean what people think it means), eradicated, eviscerated or expurgated ... why should I care? I didn’t grow up with any of these people as my parents, I don’t have memories of being picked up and soothed after stabbing myself in the foot with a sharp stick, none of them taught me anything about the Gods. Sure, Conan had memories like that, and I can reflect and relate to Conan ... but my character in your world isn’t the subject of a major motion picture and there are no important memory sequences between my character and his dad before his dad gets butchered by brigands. So why are you wasting your time trying to create this motivation for me?

Most of the time DMs are unsurprisingly ready to destroy towns, cities, kingdoms – whatever it takes to evoke an visceral reaction from their players. Now, this is not the sort of thing I am at all interested in. For me, it’s going to be pretty fucking hard to explain just where the hell Germany went – particularly as it is still there after tanks and bombers blew the shit out of the country from end to end for four years. Pieces of land, ethnic entities and so on are surprisingly resilient. Even cities. Want to guess how many times Rome was gutted by fire and pillaged? And yet the Coliseum is still there. Go figure.

In D&D, of course, there’s never anything left except a hole. Or a expanse of burnt field. There are never any survivors, as fire literally rained from the heavens and if the gods don’t want survivors, there are no survivors. That’s how it goes.

And still the players look at all this wanton destruction, and go “meh.” Or even better, “Well fellas, we’ll be drinkin’ Saturday nights at the next town over.”

But break a minor possession of one player, say an ‘egg-cup of mediocre healing,’ enabling an increase of 1 hp of healing per day if the player takes the time to soft boil an egg ... and the villainous cretin who “Done broke my eggcup!” will be pursued to the ends of the world. Players relate to things they, well, that they relate to. Personal, treasured things, often the cuter the better. That egg-cup will mean much more to them than a +2 sword, since +2 swords are a dime a dozen once you drop below dungeon level five, but where the hell are they going to get another egg-cup like that? “I loved that egg-cup,” the character will moan at regular intervals, until all the other players scream at them to shut up!

The destruction of the village/town/planet or what have you is a sign of dreaded overkill, and quite frankly evidence of a bad writer, who has failed to recognize that we actually don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the value of our country or hometown. Yes, we’re told we ought to do so, it is something we are propagandized to do ... and we probably would deeply regret having said entity blown all to hell. But this is something that doesn’t even translate very well into an alternative real entity, when it isn’t ours. Not living in New York, my sense of loss about the Two Towers is pretty much all second hand. I know there are people out there who miss them awfully; but for me, who has seen them on one occasion, the most it means to me comes when I see them in a movie made before 2001. I’m not connected to them in the way that a New Yorker is – and even though a New Yorker feels that I ought to be, just as I ought to love everything about New York simply because it IS New York ... I really don’t feel much of anything. I’m not even American, so I have trouble identifying with the whole “They attacked us!” mind set. Yes, they attacked Americans. They didn’t attack me.

It’s worse with fictional destruction. You want to destroy something fictional, you better spend more than a little time relating it to me, personally. I’m saying that a few establishing shots of Alderaan might have made a difference. It might have made the planet more than just a big ball.

Help me. Make the village my friend, first. Demonstrate its importance to me. Make me care. Otherwise, you might just as well leave the damn thing standing there.

And besides, it might not have occurred to you ... but the greater the permanency you establish with elements of your world, the greater the effect will be when, maybe years later, you do destroy that village. I may actually care by then.

17 comments:

JoeGKushner said...

Soemwhat disagree. It's a troupe of the fantasy element and in my own experiences, has often been used by player's to give motivations to their own players prior to the game starting.

R said...

I want to preface this response with the disclaimer that I do not wantonly destroy cities or annihilate friends and relatives of my PCs. If those things happen, it is because the engine that is the campaign made them happen. If a character's hometown is destroyed, it's not because I'm trying to evoke an emotional response, it's because it got in the way of the marauders, or because negotiations failed, or because of any other external reasoning that naturally developed into this scenario. That said, I think you suck as a player (in this example).


"My point is this. I am a character in your world, and you have just had my village decimated (though that doesn’t mean what people think it means), eradicated, eviscerated or expurgated ... why should I care?"

- I don't care if you care. I care if your character cares.

"I didn’t grow up with any of these people as my parents, I don’t have memories of being picked up and soothed after stabbing myself in the foot with a sharp stick, none of them taught me anything about the Gods. "

- Same deal here, your character did grow up with those people as his parents. Your character has memories of being picked up and soothed after stabbing himself in the foot with a sharp stick, and they taught your character about the Gods.

"but my character in your world isn’t the subject of a major motion picture and there are no important memory sequences between my character and his dad before his dad gets butchered by brigands."

- Why not?

"So why are you wasting your time trying to create this motivation for me?"

- Why are you wasting my time by not role-playing your character?


I want to point out that I don't expect a specific response from a player character when something happens. However, I do expect SOME sort of response, and I expect it to be congruent with the idea they've presented and sculpted over the course of the campaign. I don't care what Alexis' feelings are about some plague or heartless pillaging of the countryside in my campaign. I do care what Alexis' character's feelings are, however.

PatrickW said...

Hrm. Those are good points. I've never done the "they've destroyed your home town" start and I think you've toughed on why, even though I could never have enunciated it.

I'm a "builder" when it comes to RPGs, both as player and DM. I hate having the touchstone points of the game destroyed for no good reason. One of the Shadowrun games I was in ended abruptly for just that reason (NPC girlfriend kidnapped and murdered off-stage with no chance of rescue).

I think this speaks to the level of trust between the players and the DM and the style of campaign both sides have agreed to play. If both sides have agreed that major tragedy is cool, then destroying the home town is legit and the players should respond as though the town was important. If not, then the DM should not be surprised if they don't.

Zak S said...

Yeah. Agree with you, Alexis, don't agree with the two people up there.

To me, it's WAAAAAY more fun to do things that actually tug on the players' feelings than to do things which WOULD matter to their characters "if they were playing the game right".

Players HATE it when you take their stuff. Why not use an emotion you can authentically generate?

Alexis said...

Wasting your time by not playing my character???

Wow.

Hey, R ... here's a thought. Maybe my character isn't a collection of sappy second rate obvious tropes. Maybe my character is a hardened, thoughtless, pragmatic prick. Maybe my character isn't moved by cheap theatrics. Maybe its a character I like to play. And maybe, just maybe, my character isn't their for YOUR benefit.

Really, if this answer doesn't reveal the sort of dogmatic bastard you clearly are regarding what personal responsibility you feel towards your game, nothing will.

5stonegames said...

Good post. The way to involve a player is to connect them to the game world, which is not easy even in the most "talky" games.

If you can get the players involved in the village/town/whatever you plan to blow up by letting them get to know the NPC's, have it be their base and whatever, the big boom will actually hurt.

This can be time consuming though and in some ways it can hurt the DM (who invested as much or more time into then the players did) even more.

Because of that many people avoid blowing up their darlings.

Oh yeah and I am going to use that egg cup. Its really cool.

Alexis said...

I'm still spitting...it even has me making spelling mistakes.

I can't help thinking I've caught one of the bastards out. There, gentlemen, for your benefit - a DM who tells you what happens to your character, and then tells you how your character is supposed to act, and THEN condemns you for messing with his world when you don't act that way.

I have bitched about this species of participant, but it's nice to have one of the fuckers in a bottle.

R said...

Haha - Alexis, please keep the personal attacks to a minimum :-)

My point is pretty simple, if the character you've been playing all along is "a hardened, thoughtless, pragmatic prick" - then I expect you to react like one and not give a shit about whatever theorectical "emotional situation" we're talking about.

If the character you've been playing all along is a "collection of sappy second rate obvious tropes" then I expect you to act like that as well.

You have this next part a bit mixed up.

"a DM who tells you what happens to your character, and then tells you how your character is supposed to act, and THEN condemns you for messing with his world when you don't act that way."

The first part is right - I do tell my players what happens to their characters. Isn't that the point of a DM? To be the eyes and ears and all other sense of the PCs?

The second part though, no - that's the players job. The players tell me how their character is supposed to act.

And as to the third part - it's not my world, it's our world. It can't be messed up - it is what it is.

I thought I was just making some logical points, but I have no problem conversing with you from this bottle.

Alexis said...

(My blog, and R is setting limitations. As it happens, I intend to go on attacking any loathsome target that presents itself – “persons” are not exempt)

That was a lovely speech. It nicely backpedaled in several places, and with admirable pomposity. It did not, however, address the part where you suggested that my not playing a character according to your expectations was a waste of your time.

I don’t really give a shit if its your world, or our world, or any other nonsensical depiction of our all holding hands and singing kum-by-fucking-ya. My actions are my actions, my behavior is my behavior, and if I’m not impressed with the devastation of a village, I’m not impressed. I certainly don’t intend to act like I’m all impressed because “my character would,” just to avoid wasting your precious time.

Here’s another thought. Run your world for your benefit, and I’ll run my character for mine. Let’s draw that very distinct line, and let’s understand that when my viewpoint on playing doesn’t jump at your insistence, poor you.

I said yesterday that I’m not a cruise director ... well, today I’m saying, I don’t fucking participate when the cruise director says so, either.

You want to win my approval? Earn it. You don’t want my approval? Boo hoo. But don’t sit there on your horse and preach about how characters give a crap about invented families. I am not my character, I’m me. I am only me. I am roleplaying what I would do in a given situation, not what some ‘character’ would do.

That’s the way it breaks for me.

The Basic Fantasist said...

Woot! I usually don't get much from your page man...but today, today you IS ON FIRE SON!

But I think 'R' misses the point here when he says:
"I do care what Alexis' character's feelings are, however"

REALLY? You give a flying fig about an imaginary non-existent person's feelings? The same 'person' that is represented by some illegible scratchings on paper? Or do you mean the player's expression of HIS characters feelings?

There is a reason for the nomenclature of 'Player-Character', you know. It ain't just semantics. The two are inextricably linked at the table and Alexis has demonstrably proven the superiority of his position to my mind beyond the shadow of a doubt.

In other words; if the DM does not motivate the PLAYER he cannot expect any CHARACTER motivation. Alexis is correct when he asserts it begins and ends with the player.

Oddbit said...

Funny isn't it how the DM having the player's emotions in mind sounds so much more important than a DM having a character's emotions in mind.

Personally I think it would make it easier to roleplay to feel the emotion myself than to think that someone else should be feeling it.

The Basic Fantasist said...

Alexis, I suggest you CAN trot out the cliche of 'buring the hometown'..if you make it the PC'S OWN stronghold...AFTER he has mapped it down to the last square foot and AFTER he has detailed every defence/contingency/counter-attack for it, and AFTER he has cleared the 30 miles around it, and AFTER he has built it up into a regional power...then, the the trial by by fire may commence! Then drink deep of the sweet ambrosia of the player(character's) tears and sing lustily to the tune of the gnashing of his teeth. Yes, then the player's and his characters' motivation shalt surely be aligned!!

MWAHAHHAHAHAHA

Alexis said...

Calm it down a notch, Fantasist.

R said...

It saddens me that you saw my request for respect as a limitation. I'd hoped you'd treat me with the same respect you would if we were having this conversation in person and not less simply because this is a blog. If you already are, then that's all I can ask for. I've seen you argue with people before, so I know the drill. I guess I just hoped it'd be different this time for some reason.

"I am not my character, I’m me. I am only me. I am roleplaying what I would do in a given situation, not what some ‘character’ would do."

These sentences here make me feel as if you've removed the "character" from "player-character." I understand that your own motivations will play into things, but I also thought that your character's would as well. It seems that what you're saying is your character's motivations/feelings/desires/etc. don't affect your decisions. That seems strange to me, and I'm not trying to put words in your mouth if you don't actually mean this.

It took me awhile to figure out how to express my response without writing pages and pages (or even starting my own blog), but I think the following question will provide a reasonable shortcut:

Is there anything your PCs can do that is out-of-character for their character, but not out-of-character for their players? I'm not talking about OOC where they ask if anybody wants more Mountain Dew and Cheetos, obviously.

@The Basic Fantasist
"In other words; if the DM does not motivate the PLAYER he cannot expect any CHARACTER motivation. Alexis is correct when he asserts it begins and ends with the player."

I'm really talking about consistency here, which I believe to be the heart of simulationist play. If Fred the player makes Derf the Elf, and Fred says that Derf is a vegetarian and pacifist, and Derf the Elf has been a vegetarian and a pacifist for some while, it's going to raise some eyebrows when Derf cannibalizes some people because they looked at him funny.

As a P.S. or side note, Alexis, I think this issue may be why you had trouble with your PC clerics not actually acting like clerics, but that's only based on what you've written, I'm sure there are more details.

The Basic Fantasist said...

Then exactly why have backstory? To me, it's a needless limitiation on the player's expression of his character, which I feel will evolve from play. It's an illusion, a straightjackets for the player and DM's that adds a roadblock for personality change/evolution.

Besides, I'm unabashedly a gamist when I play games. Pre-written story? I'll leave that to the wannabe novelist-hacks.

sirlarkins said...

To my reading, the basic crux of this post is that, ultimately, one can sit around and say, "Oh dear, my character is so upset his village was destroyed," but in the end, if the village means nothing to the player (and, as Alexis points out, it can mean something if built up through actual gameplay), ultimately you're only pretending to care, when the desirable outcome of destroying a village is true visceral indignation and outrage. In other words, the great moments in a campaign can only come about when the player is emotionally invested in events, not just the character.

(For me personally, my analogy would be to Call of Cthulhu--there are game mechanics to simulate the terror of the character, but a truly great session of CoC doesn't result unless the players [and often the Keeper too!] are collectively wetting themselves [metaphorically, of course] in terror.)

sirlarkins said...
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