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Looting the Bodies

Things I Never Learned in Gamer's School

by Eric Swanson
Dec 09,2003


Looting The Bodies

Things I Never Learned in Gamer's School

Social interaction is one of those things that comes easily and naturally to some but not to others. Like most nerds (yes, some of you will take offense to that; if you are someone that does then you either take yourself way too seriously or you have found the Nirvana of balancing your gaming life with other "normal" activities and so I'm probably not talking about you), I felt immediately comfortable in this hobby because it eased my shyness and helped me learn to interact with other people, particularly other people like me in temperament and interests.

That didn't mean it was easy. The feelings of inadequacy for not having the latest supplement, the embarrassment at not knowing a playing group's social cues and inside jokes, the verbal stumbling when all around the table looked to me for my character's monologue. No, not easy, but worth doing and doing well.

The thing about being an intellectual, according to Bill Cosby, is that you have to read books on things other people do naturally. So, read I did and learn I did. All the gaming literature I could find. Every convention I went to in the first few years I made sure to attend some seminar on the "Complications of Adding Time Travel to Your Game" or "Building an Effective Adventuring Party"-- you know what I mean, those events listed near the back of the convention catalog and held in some small room on the other side of the hotel/convention center in the basement.

I came away from all this study with more confidence in myself as a gamer and thus as a social being. But one thing I never came across in all this study was how to make good choices in a gaming context. I'm sure as the gaming community has grown and matured, things like that are now occasionally presented, but through the 80s and into the 90s stuff like that was too esoteric. Strange, an hour lecture on how Time Dilation and Time Loops affect the casting of teleportation spells was ready for an audience but how to determine whether your Cleric's oath requires you to spare prisoners was too esoteric.

So, after years of part-time "Gamer's school," I was still woefully lacking in the ability to think deeply about what I was doing as a world-builder, what I was proposing to the party in-character, and what I wanted to accomplish with the people around the table.

Anyone who is serious about RPGs and experienced in playing them does not take the short blurb under race, class, sect, clan, occupation, etc. as gospel for determining the worldview of their character. Nor does the GM play all NPCs as archetypes. This one- or two-dimensionality quickly leads to predictability and boredom. Thus we try to create a living, breathing (ok, maybe not breathing for those of you that fancy the Undead) being to enjoy playing. This, though, leads to the crux of my problem.

If there is no written gospel on right and wrong for a given PC or NPC, where do you start? No question some research into relevant established material is an important starting point. If you're playing a Noble Officer in a pseudo-Imperial Rome setting, at least some reading on Roman military culture and, if you have the desire, some reading of the predominant Roman philosophers will give you a good indication of whether he would ever order a retreat in the face of a hopeless cause or consider looting a village. But a player, consciously or not, is also going to start from somewhere inside herself.

If you've followed other columns and commentary here on RPGNet over the last year or so, you've seen that styles of gaming vary greatly between us here in the US and our brothers and sisters in Europe. These different evolutionary paths are due to a host of factors, but the one relevant here is that the cultures of Europe produce a different value set and thus, often, a different set of conclusions in moral decision-making. We in the US often take the riskier (bloodier, more competitive, etc.) route and thus we get a less stable, bloodied, more divisive result. Now, that was a loaded sentence wasn't it? One would expect that I'd want to refrain from making any qualitative judgments between European and US value sets but this is precisely my point. We determine our values and make judgments based on them. In this admittedly over-simplified statement, I made clear what my values tell me is preferable. The utility for gaming is when we recognize this and make conscious choices on the ethical system we wish to utilize in the game.

If we want to create something, whether as GM or player, that really carries some realism when faced with ethical dilemmas, we ought to recognize all the value sets we bring to the table. These include our personal ethics, the ethics we have taken from material we have studied in preparation for the character (i.e., the Roman philosophy mentioned above), the ethics system(s) we have gleaned from the campaign setting, and, if there is a long-standing gaming group involved, the ethics we have learned from the other players. All these give us a rich tapestry of values to utilize when it comes time for your party to determine whether to deliver a beat-down or offer a fig leaf.

For example, I, as a Game Master, want to build a superhero campaign set in a world where Supers are very rare, technology is pre-Internet and the world is fairly realistic. I would be doing the game a disservice if I didn't put some time into the prevailing ethical structure of the setting. In the case of this setting, the ethical structure affects such basic Superheroic tropes as whether killing a villian is allowable, what kind of gadgets a PC can openly carry, even how the the "differences" of a Super are treated by NPCs. I should consider my own values (if I am opposed to capital punishment and I don't conciously think about capital punishment in the setting, when a relevent situation comes up in the game I will probably make a knee-jerk decision against it, leading to a patchwork set of outcomes for the crime-fighting PCs). I should consider the precedental ethics for this genre (the originating oeuvre of superheroism was generally reactionary and upheld a very conservative black and white view of morality). I should consider the specific setting (superhero games have a lot of flexibility in setting but the specific rules used often give guidelines -- Godlike and Champions, for example, have different takes on what a Superhero "is"). And I definitely need to consider the prevailing ethics of the playing group. No matter what kind of characters they develop, anything that seems illogical to them ("Yes my Mastermind is generally peaceable, but when I gave the evidence to the prosecutor, it was clearly enough to put this guy to death no questions; I can't believe the DA is letting this one go for a bigger fish. This sucks.") will not enhance the game.

When we role-play, we look at playing something different from ourselves and that implies different values. But we are human and we can't escape our own deeply ingrained values. And this is what I never learned in Gamer's School -- there is no assumed path to follow when it comes to making critical decisions and, thus, it is important in a gaming context to consciously think about all the value sets involved before we sit down to create a campaign, character, or NPC because, try as we might, what we learned in school, in the schoolyard, and elsewhere IS going to show up in your scholar-monk, your raging barbarian, your flash agent.

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