Since it is -37 degrees celsius in the world today (-35 F), this seems like a dandy time to talk about suboptimal characterizations. Would I have it warmer out there in order to make my life better, or would I rather have it colder to give me more character?
In the comments of the previous post, Tahotai attempts to distinguish players who intentionally adopt suboptimal character traits from those who think doing so is 'dumb.' It's a little unclear, but the long and the short of it seems to be, suboptimal = character while optimal = fakery (i.e., avatar). Very well: where did all this suboptimal stuff in D&D begin?
I don't care to be specific here, and I'm sure if I tried it would start a nit-picking session about who started what where, so I'll stick to generalities. Sometime in the late 70's/early 80's, eons ago when the world was new, people began to bring out games that allowed a feature in character construction whereby you chose flaws for your character in order to increase the overall combat potential. The logic was that a character who was missing half of their left leg would have somehow compensated for this by having powerfully strong arms that would dispense out damage at a higher rate than someone with two healthy legs ... in the same way, supposedly, that a blind man has highly sensitive hearing on account of losing his sight.
It's a rather ridiculous conception of being handicapped, but games are full of ridiculous conceptions. This particular manifestation came part-and-parcel with the Rolemaster-popularized skill set buying system, wherein your character was given a certain number of points with which to buy skills, rather than having 'classes.' Rolemaster wasn't the only system offering this in 1981, but I remember it as being the most popular. It proved so popular throughout the 80s that eventually aspects of D&D were rewritten to reflect the method ... a detriment to the game, I say, but beloved by those who will connect it forever with the game because it is the first system they played.
But in D&D it inspired the same pattern that it had earlier inspired in Rolemaster. Players realized fairly early on that not all skills provide the same return for the amount they cost. The most powerful players - combat-wise - in the game became those who made a certain set of choices ... choices that made every power player a duplicate of every other power player. Those who decided not to make the 'best' choices, but rather the suboptimal ones, found themselves getting pushed around at the table while constantly having to justify their choices to people who became, in effect, combat bullies. That suboptimal choice was usually made by players who recognized, and didn't want to be part of, the standard power track. It was usually made by players who were TIRED of optimization. More to the point, by players intelligent enough to be bored by optimization ... and therefore intelligent enough to see that there was something very wrong with the reward-system D&D had been saddled with ... a reward system that rewarded optimization and punished independence and creativity.
Now, just at the point when I could go on with the philosophical stance offered by this suboptimal group, I'm going to take a huge departure far, far to the right bleachers, and talk about an entirely different social group - a non-RPG group. I'm going to talk about fiction writers.
Once upon a time I did a foolish thing. I submitted my writing material to a professor at a university, as one of three hundred candidates. 19 were chosen, including yours truly. And so began an 8-year journey into the world that is grant-funded authorship.
The gentle reader may be unaware, but there are thousands upon thousands of would-be writers wandering out there in the world who will never be writers. But they want to be, very badly. It is a hunger. And this hunger hurts, as they know deep down in their hearts that they are not good enough. But because the hunger to be a writer is enormous, the hunger translates into a belief that, somehow, if only someone could tell them how to write, they would be writers.
Now, mix into this emotional soup a select group of individuals who, in high school and university, entered into writing contests as young men and women - and won. They got a scholarship here, a chance to attend a writer's camp, a part in a writer's festival ... and so on. In the process they met professors and previous contest winners who had successfully parlayed themselves a grant from the federal government ... and who were now looking for up-and-coming writers upon whom to bestow their approval. Their approval in the form of a letter to the same government, you understand, so as to confer that self-same grant that they 'earned.'
The government in fact has no earthly idea what good writing is, so they follow through with the giving of grants entirely upon the approval of people who have already received grants. What's more, if you have received a grant in the past, and you win yourself a little cherub by ensuring that they receive a grant, you can count on that worshipping little cherub to approve your grant application next year. In this way, a tiny incestuous butt-fucking elite is created. Are you with me so far? Good.
Now, we have this marvelous elite, and we have this crowd of would-be writers looking desperately for an elite. This creates a community. But mind you, its not a 'rich' community. Government grants are enough money to keep you from having to work a real job for a year, but they won't buy you a house. The big grants provide approximately the same amount of income as a lesser clerk would make in a company farm. The little grants give you as much as you'd get from MacDonald's in about four months.
Still, there's notariety that comes with getting a grant. You'll develop a name for yourself, certain little government-sponsored bookshops will stock your books and a few people ... ahem, wanna-be writers ... will have heard of you.
These funded writers and their unfunded associates looking for answers will meet together in groups of sixty or eighty in community hall basements, libraries, university lecture halls and such - anywhere that costs little money, or no money at all, to obtain. It always helps that there's a few students or professors among the grant-gifted in order to get free campus space ... and this is the most likely place to encounter this particular human herd.
I'm sorry that I've had to provide all this background on a D&D blog, but please bear with me. We come now to the crux of what is talked about all of the time at these meetings between approved writers and writers desperately wanting approval: what is good writing?
The definition, in case you haven't guessed it yet, circles around one basic principal. If the writing earns money, it is shit. If it is struggling to earn money, and it has been published by the right people, the writing is good. If the writing isn't earning any money at all, and is of the sort that might someday be popular, the writer is a sell-out, and should be shunned. All writing that is not approved by the elite - money-earning or not - is bad writing.
Now, what is it the elite write about? Well, in a word: inadequacy. Ugliness is more interesting, more real, more believable and more accessible than beauty. Failure is something that everyone has experience with. Success is a false god, an unfulfilling illusion. Success is something that ignorant people strive for, as they are unaware that success doesn't solve the real problems of life - those problems being, of course, the difficulties of dealing with inadequacy. We all have inadequacies, so being the common denominator, that is what writing should address. Not the optimal circumstances we wish we possessed, but the suboptimal circumstances which we overcome day-by-day. That is TRUE heroism. Any imaginary and impossibly-conceived character can be a hero in the comic-book sense of the world ... but that's infantile and make-believe. A honest-to-god real HERO is someone who is dealt the worst possible circumstances and yet shows the tiniest glimmer of success in spite of those circumstances.
The Oscars are coming up, so there are plenty of examples. Many of which are, yes, government funded.
There is a strange fetishistic quality to suboptimal lives and lifestyles which appeals to a particular kind of person. For them, it isn't success unless they have to overcome something ... or more to the point, they ARE overcoming something and they want special points for achieving success in spite of it. The more flaws they have, the more special points they're owed. Your fighter or mage may have an 18 strength or intelligence, but my cleric with his 12 wisdom survived the battle right alongside you and isn't that amazing!
There's no recognition at all that the weak cleric survived because the fighter was right there ... just as there's no recognition in the writer's clique that the money for their fetish comes from the same people who'd rather see Transformers 68: Sam Gets A Pension rather than read half a page of any of their crappy books. The fetish is all about that individual with the fetish, who wants it to be about "Me, Me, Me" and his or her particular suboptimal choices.
There is a general agreement among my players that if Pippin were a player character, Gandalf would have pushed him down the well rather than merely threatening him. Even as a DM I find it a remarkably annoying thing to have a player wallowing around in their own character jizz in order to produce a "real, honest to god character." It's a tremendously self-involved mastubatory instinct to feel that the most important thing about the game isn't that people battle together to overcome the odds, but that "The Me" personally battles against the odds of his or her own made-up nature in order to have trials and tribulations that are much more debilitating than anyone else can imagine.
It isn't much different from the real world ... in that the world is full of self-involved people who feel their suboptimal problems are greater than anyone else's. For them, D&D - or any other pastime - is an opportunity to air out those grievances in a quest to prove to themselves that they're better for it. The whole thing reminds me of a quote from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:
"People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn't own doodley-squat, so they couldn't improve their surroundings. so they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead."
You know what? It's a fantasy world. Let's have a little fantasy, shall we? Let's leave the angst on the doorstep.