Friday, 30 September 2016

Eulogy for a White Ape: On Bathos, Shaggy Dogs, and Archaeology

My character died last week. It was an exemplification of bathos. It has made me revisit that topic - one which I wrote about, I think usefully, before.

The PC in question was a mute white ape, called "The White Ape". The game uses a variant of the Into the Odd ruleset, which basically balances out character generation by giving statistically weaker PCs better/more interesting stuff to start off with. I rolled ridiculously good stats, so I ended up with a difficult starting position: hence, a mute white ape.

I decided early on that my white ape was not going to be a raging John Carter of Mars-style brutish simian, but a contemplative, Buddhist, vegetarian Orang-Utan figure with unusually progressive attitudes. While he was immensely strong and hence useful for that purpose, he tended to rely on his strength reluctantly. He was accompanied everywhere by another PC, an old woman, who he carried around on his shoulders, and who was ostensibly his "mistress" even though they were both classical liberals opposed to slavery.

Playing a mute character is tough. You can't really contribute a great deal to any sort of planning or interaction with NPCs. But I was interested in the white ape and how things were progressing for him.

Last session, for complicated reasons, it was decided that my white ape was going to enter into gladiatorial combat with a crab-man at a festival for the sake of a bet. The crab-man was owned by a powerful slug-man merchant who it already seemed was going to turn into some sort of arch-enemy. There was a lot riding on the bet: if we won, we would receive a big payment of the food which we needed for further expeditions and prevent our hirelings deserting us. If we lost, we would lose vast riches and be in even direr straits than before. (You may legitimately ask why we took on the bet in the first place rather than just buying food - we couldn't do this because, I think, the counterparty to the bet had lots of food and wouldn't give it to us through a straight trade.)

The white ape was a little reluctant to participate in these brutish games but agreed to do so for the greater good, and played up his role by acting as ferociously and aggressively as he could. The fight was an entertaining back and forth in which the white ape showed off his judo skills and the crab-man use its speed and armour to inflict serious injuries. Eventually the white ape ripped off one of the crab-man's forearms and began opening and shutting the claws in mocking triumph while the crowd bayed for blood...

At this point, if games were like films (or if we were playing a game which excluded random elements or the DM was in favour of fudging) my white ape would have gone on to win the fight and be lauded for his bravery and strength. We would have got the food we needed, made an enemy in the form of the slug-man, and my white ape would have won greater respect from the party and also perhaps further developed a conflict in his character between societal expectations of brutality and his own sensitive nature.

But instead, the crab-man had one last attack which gave the white ape a serious injury, I spectacularly failed a save, and the ape was finished. He lay there semi-conscious and hors de combat, trying to communicate to the crab-man that there were no hard feelings and that the two of them were, in the grand scheme of things, mere pawns together at the whim of the imperialist forces which oppressed them. Rather than suffer the ignominy of having the crab-man finish me off, the leader of the party blew the white ape's brains out with a pistol. We lost the bet and most of our wealth and now we are in an even worse position than before.

This is what dice and randomization can do - they throw off what might be thought of as narrative convention. If you were telling a story or playing an RPG whose aim was to consciously create a story, you would not have allowed this to happen - bathos is not conventionally satisfying. Some DMs would have fudged the crab-man's attack roll or figured out some way to let the white ape survive because the session ended on such an anticlimax. But that is not what we're playing for.
Rather, we're playing to see what happens. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is space to make this an explicit goal or design choice in a set of rules for RPGs.

The model for a good RPG campaign is not really a film or novel, but a shaggy dog story. That's not to suggest that what goes on in the game has to always be funny or frivolous - but rather, that it is a long and ongoing process of events which are connected to each other by a thread of cause and effect (however loose), not conventional narrative drama.

Think of it this way. An RPG campaign is a concatenation of events. A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, all the way to Z and back again. What is interesting is how, after the event, you can see how all of those events were connected. The satisfaction comes from being able to look back at that long chain, at each link in it, and see retrospectively how it all came to pass. An unpredictable and impossible-to-make-up sequence of happenings all following on from one another as if they were following some strange path that was not at any stage consciously created. If there is any point at which the chain of causation was fiddled with, by connivance between DM and players or by fudging, it seems to me that something is lost. You can't, at the end point of a campaign, look back at all of the things that happened and say, "Ah, yes, what a great long chain of surprising events, all connected to one another in interesting ways by the mystery of chance and the phenomenon of causation." Instead, you have to say, "Ah yes, what a great long chain of pre-planned events following the conventions of narrative." The former seems more interesting to me: like a documentary, history book or biography rather than a novel.

Indeed, maybe those terms are more useful even than "shaggy dog story" - an RPG campaign is archaeology rather than fiction: an archaeology of made-up events that you can only uncover by looking at it backwards. It all makes sense in the end, in its own way, but not because of convention or cliche - but because it couldn't be otherwise. It is what happened.

22 comments:

  1. Back when I first got into D&D (Very early 1980's) having a character die wasn't considered "Losing"... in fact, if the PC died a particularly cool, funny, or poignant death, it would be considered a kind of "Winning".

    You did more with a mute slave ape than most players do with godlike super-heroes. Rock on.

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    1. Same here. We used to each have a handful of PCs because amusing deaths were such a frequent occurrence.

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  2. I don't if you mentioned it by accident, but "play to see what happens" is a specific rule in Dungeon World's GM Agenda.

    If that is something that you are really into, I would check out DW (or any other Powered by the Apocalypse game - they are all fantastic) if a "shaggy dog" game is what you're into.

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    1. Interesting. I have played Apocalypse World and really enjoyed it. I've also heard good things about "World of Dungeons".

      I'm not sure I like the idea of using DW for dungeoneering-type games, because I think logistics is an important aspect of such games and I'm not sure "Powered by the Apocalypse" games do logistics very well. I like something crunchier and more like a traditional RPG for that.

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    2. I've thought about running a World of Dungeons one-shot, just to see how that plays out compared to the Black Hack.

      What logistical problems do you like to have in dungeoneering? DW retains the traditional need for rations, tools, and supplies while exploring, but abstracts it to a certain degree to ease up on the bookkeeping.

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    3. I haven't played it, but I think when it comes to dungeoneering and overland travel in a game, it's important to allow the players to plan and know when certain supplies will run out. It's also important to model encumbrance accurately because that affects what they can bring in and out of the dungeon. Does DW allow that to happen?

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    4. I've been running a dungeon-only DW campaign and so far it has been working out very well. The system is quite adaptable.

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    5. I've found that the system has an acceptable trade off between crunch and abstraction. While PCs have to manage rations, adventuring gear, and encumbrance, it doesn't feel like bean counting a laundry list of 10-foot poles and lantern oil.

      For example, you don't buy all the fiddly little dungeoneering tools, you buy Adventuring Gear:

      "Adventuring Gear - 5 uses, 20 coins, 1 weight
      Adventuring gear is a collection of useful mundane items such as chalk, poles, spikes, ropes, etc. When you rummage through your adventuring gear for some useful mundane item, you find what you need and mark off a use."

      So while the effect of having that gear is the same, it isn't a question of whether or not you should've brought the pole, or two lengths of rope, or an extra mirror.

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    6. Fair enough. I might give it a try and see what it's like.

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  3. Cool post. I’ve been thinking along these same lines recently. Playing an RPG generates a (historical) fiction, but not a dramatic story. The enjoyment comes from the surprise and challenge of uncertain outcomes; not from experiencing a drama which arcs from a beginning to an ending.

    It seems that many of the guidelines on storytelling don’t really work that well with RPGs, especially those that deal with structure.

    I’ve started wincing whenever I read the section in many RPG books that compares the game to a story.

    I’ve become suspicious of mechanics that attempt to force “story” into RPGs.

    I’m very interested in this fiction-that-is-not-a-story thing that RPGs create.

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  5. Awesome character, the White Ape. That's some story! I think that Fiction not as story is an illusion. Our minds are wired to create stories, to make meaning, out of nothing. An RPG is a story via different media. If you create a fantastic world unique and unknown to players, such as what I do, to force the player to think out of stereotype and out of the box, You need exposition, and yes, story-telling, story-gaming to get the players conversant with your universe so that they can make adequate decisions and amaze you, the DM with their masterfulness.

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    1. I think we are probably talking about the same thing - it just depends how you define "story" I guess?

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  6. Months ago I fudged the death of a character in a campaign that's now ramping to up its finish, and it still bothers me, has been for months. I still feel as DM that I cheated the player of the experience of character death (even though at the time I thought I was shielding their feelings - they were a very new player and I messed up, basically, and applied overwhelming force to the party unnecessarily) - such that for the final showdown I have discussed with that player, and nobody else, a way for them to voluntarily die. It'll help the rest of the party if they choose to go with it (and they don't need to unless they're on the brink of death anyway) but above all I just feel like they're meant to be dead. But creating that option is also deterministic and unrandom. One fudge leads to another and suddenly you're waist-deep in it...

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    1. Exactly. It's one of those things where it's just best not to even start. This is why I always roll dice in the open.

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  7. Three wildly unrelated comments:

    1: Some games make it a lot harder for PCs to die than others (look at 5e with the death saves etc). This reduces bathos... but on the other hand, it also reduces temptation to fudge dice. If despite all these the PC dies well... I guess it was meant to be?

    2: I find your comments interesting on the "mute PC" - it's an old trope, and I'm not sure it's a very viable one. I have to say that it made me feel the crabmen was very limited because of that in Yoon-suin... would you design the race the same way today?

    3: How does it feel to *play* in yoon-suin, as opposed to GMing it? I've always GMed my own world, not played in them...

    Ancalagon

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    1. 1. Yeah - I quite like 5e overall, but I think the death rules are designed to make every death feel very dramatic/heroic. There's a huge element of tension in the death saves but it is a little bit artificial.

      2. It is tough but I think there are ways of doing it. I would have made much more use of sign language with the white ape except this is an online game and it's quite hard to do that on screen - even though I was visible it was mostly just my head, so you can't do gesture in the way you could at a table. I wouldn't design the race differently I don't think - the option is there, but nobody has to be a crab-man.

      3. The game isn't in Yoon-Suin actually - it's Patrick's Imprisoned Moon game (http://falsemachine.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Imprisoned%20Moon). I think he has imported Yoon-Suin into his campaign world as its own distant continent. In the last session we ran into a slug-man trader from there.

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    2. Thanks for the replies!

      Regarding #1, it shouldn't be hard to just change the death rules and leave the rest of the rules as is in 5e no? Or am I missing something?

      Ancalagon

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    3. Yeah, I think that should be fine. I just meant if you're playing 5th edition as written.

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  8. Interesting. But I don't agree that the 'plot' in a movie or novel would have to have let your mute White Ape survive. The heroic death of a character attempting (as your Ape was) to save his/her comrades is a well-established trope - possibly nearly as much as a death from an enemy taht everyone thought was beaten. Usually, it leads to regret/eulogies/renewed determination/revenge plots from the survivors. If the rest of the party doesn't spend at least some time going 'it should have been me... now how do we get revenge on the slug-man?' then I think you have been short-changed by your other players!

    OK the Ape probably wasn't the main hero in the projected movie narrative but at least a Boromir or Vasquez from Aliens. Something like that anyway.

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    1. I see what you mean, but he wasn't really attempting to save his comrades so much as win an ill-advised bet - and he wasn't killed by the enemy, but by his own supposed "friend"!

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