Monday, December 28, 2015

I Think That We Can Think It Out Again



Is it all right to force an addiction on a player character?  Is it all right if this addiction has been rolled randomly and has been supposedly taken up by the character prior to the campaign?

The player character's childhood is usually overlooked as something inconvenient.  We know the character must be old enough to perform combat and act as an adult - naturally we want the character to be taken seriously by denizens of the world.  Even if the character is only 15 to 17 years old, we suppose that people grew responsible earlier (speaking of fantasy campaigns here) and that it's okay for a 16-year-old to take on a quest directed by a duke or king.  The youth part is dismissed.

But those are a lot of years before play and where some characters are concerned, not a lot of those years were spent with a very high intelligence (I don't want to get into an intelligence vs. wisdom argument here, so let's just assume I'm talking about whichever one makes you, the reader, happy).  However old Bekkard the Bold is right now, at some point he was a 12-year-old training to be a fighter and in those years, he was offered ale, spirits, tobacco or harder things like opium.  Being 12, he hasn't become a 1st level yet and this is way before the player took over the character - we must assume some decision was made at the time and we shouldn't always assume it's the one that works best for the player now.

Or should we?  More than a few argue that all the characters must be heroes, as this is the point of the game.  Addiction is a nefarious thing and the players shouldn't be saddled with such detriments - at least, not unless we're playing some sort of points system and we get to choose what we want to be sub-optimal.

My background generator ignores that - because it doesn't care what the player wants.  It is presumed that the player has organized the various stats into their pigeon holes and that choosing to put a '9' under intelligence is a game-act and therefore has consequences.  One of those may be (but not necessarily) that the character is addicted to opium.

Some will bristle at this - yet they will be quite accepting of a character having lost an eye, a character unable to ride a warhorse or one that is unable to swim.  And naturally no player will complain about random results that increase saving throws, allow for the use of two weapons without penalties or provide a chance for going berserk in special circumstances.  There are just some things that players would rather not have dirtying their hands and addiction is one of those.

Yet addiction makes for strong drama.  Virtually every program series going right now turns again and again to addiction as a means of propelling forward characters and justifying bad behavior that conveniently undermines the story arc and keep the tale going for at least another season.  Characters are addicted to killing (Dexter), power (House of Cards), selling (Mad Men), drinking (Mad Men), helplessly cheating on their wives (Mad Men again), a desperate need to quit their chosen destiny (Buffy), solve crimes (Sherlock) and sometimes just plain drugs (most shows).  And because addiction is the writing gift that just keeps giving, even after the addicted person has kicked their habit, there's all the adjustment plots that are written about cravings and backsliding, followed by self-recrimination and the condemnation of others, all of it making wonderful opportunities for conflict, regret, remorse, self-flagellation and the ever-popular fuck it, let's just go all in.

Assuming that your characters can somehow accept the principle and see it as more than just time spent and cost paid, embracing an addiction as part of your character's behaviour can be every bit as fun as walking with a peg leg or finding ways to overcome your vow of poverty - or chastity, if that is your thing.  It's really just a matter of getting beyond the hero straight-jacket and recognizing that depth and purpose can often evolve from misery, repetition and repentance.

Allow me to show my age (and enjoyment of musicals), so that I can present a profligate's thief's troubled efforts to choose a straight life by reviewing the situation:




11 comments:

Preston Selby said...

I can dig it.
I've had loads of fun playing anxious, self-destructive alcoholic characters, without even having to be told to by a random generator.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, I think I should be clear about that, Preston - I did mention getting cleaned up and moving on in the post and that might have been missed.

The character's addiction rolled up by the generator only describes what the character has BEEN - it doesn't describe what the character has to do with that behaviour. If the character is willing to give up the habit, go through the period of adjustment (which could be a while, as there is no spell invented for 'end drug habit'), then the character doesn't have to be anxious, self-destructive or addicted, not even because the random generator "told them" they were.

Characters are still able to act as they will, according to a sandbox motif; it is only that in this case, it is one more problem they have to overcome (or embrace).

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Hey, your random character generator gave me a character who was "extremely ticklish" and couldn't stand jewelry or having a weapon longer than 2' strapped to his hip. From a game perspective, that would seem more detrimental than requiring him to spend spare coin at the local wine-seller.

[then again (as I review my old character sheet), I see 'ol Franz also had "prone to addiction" as a tendency]

The more random background that's built-in to the game, the more it feels like you're being given a pre-gen character, rather than something you create yourself...the empty vessel to be filled with your imagination. On the other hand, random backgrounds are about the only "fair" way to award such (generally minor) bonuses and penalties. Personally, I enjoyed it as an idiosyncrasy and additional challenge of playing in your world.

Which is to say, yes, I think it's okay to force addiction on characters. Not sure how that even really takes away from a character being a "hero," since there is something inherently heroic about a person able to succeed and be effective despite their shortcomings.

Preston Selby said...

I get the feeling that a lot of old school settings pretty much expect the PCs to be alcoholic- between lack of clean drinking water and the general stress and isolation of the adventurer lifestyle and the tendency of DnD characters to hang out in places that serve alcohol.

Do you have any mechanics for developing addiction in play?
Or anything for figuring the occurrence of permanent wounds and physical disabilities since we are talking about chronic character handicaps in general?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Preston,

I think this is the sort of thing I'd like to work out with a specific player who WANTED to play this out. Those who have gotten the result in the past have been happy to pay the cost, keep track of their use and leave it at that. I haven't wanted to infringe beyond this; if they stop using, I drop their stats, but so long as they keep up with their habit, their stats and character abilities remain standard.

BaronOpal said...

I had a very visceral Hell, no. when I read this. I would not play a character that I was informed had an addiction at the start of the game. I would be perfectly willing to forego any advantages that might have come with that disability. If I couldn't do that, or roll up a different character, I wouldn't play. Any such impairment would have to be from consequences of play.

Now, I suspect that such a reaction on my part comes from taking care of the human wreckage that washes into my hospital, fixing them up, and sending them out after they have gone through withdrawal.

BaronOpal said...

After re-reading the comments:

"The character's addiction rolled up by the generator only describes what the character has BEEN - it doesn't describe what the character has to do with that behaviour. If the character is willing to give up the habit ... then the character doesn't have to be anxious, self-destructive or addicted, not even because the random generator "told them" they were."

I could deal with that, I think. But, then it would be "my character rents a room and goes through withdrawal. When should I come back?"

Alexis Smolensk said...

This is a very understandable reaction, Baron - it is why I wrote the post.

The rent a room and withdraw idea is perfectly reasonable. It would require, unquestionably, some investment; think of it as a small quest, a probable period of adjustment . . . perhaps only a period of time that the rest of the party could simply concede. This would be easier if you weren't walking into an ongoing campaign, where time was relevant. But let's presume it's done and you're "normal."

There's still the occasional matter of temptation, however. You're speaking with a sheik in his tent and he offers a bit of opium if you'd like, just a little bit - since you won't be leaving his encampment for a few days anyway.

Is this any different from a saving throw you'd have to throw if it were an evil mage than a well meaning host?

BaronOpal said...

"Is this any different from a saving throw you'd have to throw if it were an evil mage than a well meaning host?"

That's a good point, and thinking about it I would have to say probably not. You are simply describing a different sort of challenge to overcome.

However, this is something that I would have a very difficult time approaching dispassionately due to what I do on a daily basis. I usually have my fill of such pathos during the week. I wouldn't want my playtime to be filled with the same.

Zrog (ESR) said...

BaronOpal,

I appreciated reading your perspective on this - it made me think about how, as much as the DM would like to allow a player ANY experience, there are some game experiences that would hit a little too close to home, and the player would want to avoid.

I wonder if some actors avoid certain roles for that reason?

Eric

Alexis Smolensk said...

I can speak from experience that some actors do, Eric. Some won't play villains, some will only play villains. Some won't play homosexual roles. Many actors won't work with children or animals. And of course nudity, vice, religion and political themes are all issues, both for and against.