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Close to the Edit

Dead Inside

by Ross Winn
Mar 24,2004


Dead Inside

In the last column we talked a bit about building a lexicon and what gamers mean when we talk. Well, to be honest I wrote about how I talked and what the words in my lexicon were about. Specifically I suggested campaign as the wrong word and series as the right one. There are a lot of words that I think are very important to the type of game you want to run and the scope of the story presented there. While the GM delineates most of those words, the players and the GM together give them meaning. This is the collaborative aspect of the game. Therefore, collaborative is the next big word in my lexicon. RPGs are a collaborative experience. Not only does the GM have a relationship with a player, the players also have a relationship with each other, and the GM.

As we talk about the collaborative nature of games, characters are always the first examples that come forth in my mind. Characters are the essence of the collaborative experience. To put it plainly, the character is a player's avatar in the game shared with the other players and the GM. This is reflected in two ways: the relationship between the player and character, and the dynamics between the players/characters as a group.

The character is always a reflection of the player. So much are the two related that I think it is all but impossible to completely separate the two. Simply put, either the character is an idealized self, reflective self, or a negative self. Idealized characters may be a little thinner, stronger, faster (or even a lot of these things) than the player. Reflective characters share characteristics with the player. Negative characters are the opposite of the player; it might be a man playing a woman, a brain playing a brawn, and so forth. I think that many players commonly mix and match the idealized, reflective, and negative aspects of a character to create a persona that, while seeming very different than the person, is actually fairly indicative.

I do not think that this will be a generally popular opinion in the gaming intelligentsia. Many players pride themselves in playing "completely alien" characters. Others feel that playing a character somewhat like themselves is too easy. I take a slightly different position. I think that the players should actively try to be themselves while roleplaying. I play with people that I like. If you weren't my friend, or at the very least mildly entertaining, I would have no interest in roleplaying with you. So to me (and that is an important distinction) the players and the characters are the same.

Collaboration between players is also an important point to the character creation process and the game. When the players create characters that openly conflict with each other, it is usually the harbinger of a short and unsuccessful series. Making characters that can work together and that can work within the framework that the GM provides is, I think, integral to the success of a game. A bit later in the column we are also going to discuss Dead Inside, a new game that I think clearly benefits from collaboration.

So as each of the players develop their character they should actively collaborate. That way, the motivations and the goals of the party can have some form and definition. Take an average Traveller "Free Trader" game. There are four characters, the captain and pilot, the engineer, the mate/navigator, and the kid. The captain is a career merchant who knows no other life than the spacelanes and he is terrified of retirement and he wants to work forever. The mate is a big burly guy who is hiding from the imperial authorities because of a mistake he made in his youth, and as long as he keeps moving things are ok. The engineer is a naval intelligence spy who needs a cover to move from place to place. The kid is a refugee from a failed colony who has found some acceptance here and has no other place to go. These are very different motivations, but because they are compatible they are elements of a successful series. There has to be collaboration between the players as to their characters' motivations.

In my own little theory of how RPGs work, the motivations of the characters are critically important to how the game succeeds. Motivations are important both to the dynamics of the play group and to the dynamics of the games themselves. I believe that there are three distinct types of motivations. When the GM and players address these motivations the games, in my experience, generally succeed.

Survival Motivation: Why does the character keep going? In the face of the cold, cruel world why don't they just say "fsck it" and pull the pin on a grenade, take a bottle of pills, or jump off a bridge. In games where the players commonly face death, a survival motivation is not a minor concern.

Team Motivation: Why not just go it alone? You don't have to share the treasure, you don't have anyone to let you down, you don't have to share the spotlight. So why do you want to work as part of a larger whole? The simplest of these are the strength of a team, and being strong where others are weak and vice versa. However some team motivations are also based onpersonal responsibilities, duty, honor, or whatever you desire.

Heroic Motivation: Why are you a hero? Are you righting a past wrong? Are you avenging something? Are you just altruistic and good? There has to be a reason you are a hero. Was your Mom a great hero? Are you the last of your kind? Did you commit a great wrong that you are trying to right?

Some games may well be very different. However in the games I have run and played over the last twenty-five years I have found that most games can benefit if the characters have delineated at least two of these basic motivations.

As the GM sits down with the players either individually, in a group, or both they should be looking for a collaboration of characters that share some motivations, are wildly different in others, and are complimentary in the rest. So while one player may have a dark secret that he was part of a government experiment and has to find a way to expose the conspiracy, they may partner with someone else who lost a relative in that same conspiracy and also wants vengeance, and someone else who feels that while they need to know the truth themselves it isn't necessary to share that information with the world. Having the players all involved in some way with the same conflict can really work, even if the characters are all Dead Inside.

Motivations are important to my theory of roleplaying. I have discussed what I think motivations should do in the context of a game. Equally as important is what I think they should not do. Motivations shouldn't generally be an excuse for sabotaging the other players. They shouldn't justify antisocial, antihuman behavior. The things we do in life, even in our fantasies, have a cost. In the world I live in it is as important to fight for something as it is to fight at all. Because many, if not most, games deal with destroying things, it is terribly important when a new game debuts that actually builds something. Dead Inside is such a new game.

Dead Inside is a new PDF game available from RPGNow by Atomic Sock Monkey Games. Atomic Sock Monkey has also released a free game called Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot as well as the not free Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot Deluxe. They have also recently released the Imago Deck, for use with any RPG. Atomic Sock Monkey is the nom de guerre of Chad Underkoffler, the regular author of Campaign In A Box for Pyramid Magazine among other credits (Gamma World, GURPS, Unknown Armies) and someone who seems to be a person to watch. If all of his games are as well presented as this one we may well all be reading a lot of him in the future.

Dead Inside is different. While most games seem to deal with the killing of things and taking their stuff, Dead Inside is about Healing things and giving them stuff. This is clearly delineated in the introduction of the game. However less clearly delineated in the text, and more in the context of the ideas presented, is the idea that the self can be healed as well. That RPGs can be a tool to work through issues that the player half of the player-character feels are important, disturbing, or troubling. It asks the question "why are you dead inside?"

In the game, the characters have lost their souls through some machination of the character's background. Dead Inside is about getting back your soul. Whether by grace, theft, subterfuge, or simply dogged determination, the characters can reclaim the lost parts of themselves.

Dead Inside is a complex cosmology and setting. It encompasses the 'real world', the parts you and I live in. It also encompasses the 'spirit world' the main setting of the game, and specifically 'The City' as the center. Whether Chad has intentionally modelled characteristics of 'The City' to remind me so much of Belonna from Delaney's Dhalgren is completely beside the fact. It does, without the omnipresent homoeroticism to be sure, but still quite a bit.

Some of the neatest ideas presented in Dead Inside are simple for the players and the GM to understand. Of course a lot of the great ideas are simple. Two of these are "Being Badass" and "Being Lameass". Being Badass is just that. It is a bonus given to players who spend energy and flair to make their character come alive. Why simply describe when you can dazzle? Being Badass gives a player a step up the chart and they act as if their abilities are higher. Being Lameass is the opposite of Being Badass. If a character consistently fails to add anything to the roleplaying experience, if they are bored, distracted, or even distracting then the GM can choose to make their actions harder. However Dead Inside is the only game I have yet seen that suggests immediately that the GM should discuss the behavior with the player. In other games, the GM information is usually presented later in the text, while here it is presented immediately as the concept is introduced. This is very important to me, and it is one of the things that impressed me most about the game. Not having been indoctrinated into 'how we do things in the RPG industry' (Son, I say son, listen to me boy I am talking to you) gives Chad room to move and show us what he thinks this RPG should be.

This is also a very well written game with very interesting academic roots. Chad has obviously done a lot of research and a lot of polishing on Dead Inside, and it shines like a beacon in a world of PDF games that are of generally below average quality.

The mechanics of dead inside are very simple. Chad calls it the PDQ system for Prose Descriptive Qualities. The resolution uses 2d6+bonus. I think that the damage mechanics are very original and work well within the game. The crunchy bits of this game are very much not the star. Rather the soft interpersonal underbelly is much more front and center. Souls grow when the character is virtuous, and even faster when the virtue is in the face of adversity. I could go on about Dead Inside all day, and Chad would probably like that. However I have to go and find some whack-jobs who want to play it.

Dead Inside is an awesome game. That it is a so different and so original is a pretty amazing thing. Chad has a lot to show us, and I am looking forward to more for Dead Inside, and for the other games that Chad has brewing in his head. Going again to the wells of collaboration and motivation make the game work even better. So now you just have to ask yourself: What is your motivation to game?

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What do you think?

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