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No Good

We Need More Stupidity

by Juhana Pettersson
Feb 04,2003

 

We Need More Stupidity

- Juhana Pettersson

Let me tell you a real-life story:

I live in a communal apartment with three other people, two guys and one woman. We're all poor students. I've made my living erecting circus tents, selling popcorn and in poorly paid freelance journalism. My flatmates were variously working a warehouse job at the Finnish National Bank, lugging money around, as a freelance make-up artist or teaching occasionally at the University of Helsinki. Finding a landlord willing to rent an apartment to people like us is hard, and we spent three months trying to find a place on the open market.

During those three months, we placed two ads in a newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, which is the Finnish equivalent to the New York Times, except it has no real competition. Anyway, the ads, small three-line affairs, were put in the name of the only woman among us, Nina, because we thought that people would let apartments more readily to girls than to guys.

She got a call the day the paper came out. It was an older guy with an apartment in Meilahti, a reasonably good area of Helsinki. He wanted to know if we were all girls. After Nina told her that she was the only one, the guy sounded a bit disappointed. He asked hold old she was. Mid- twenties. Again slightly disappointed. But he recovered, and went on to ask whether she would consider alternative arrangements on the question of her rent, meaning sex.

After we put on the second ad, he called Nina again, apparently unaware that these were the same people.

Real people are like this. In my experience, characters, whether they are PCs or NPCs are not. One of the phrases I've come to detest as a GM is: "My character has too much sense. He won't do that." This is something of a problem. In real life, people can have no sense whatsoever. Often with dramatic and interesting results which would liven up any RPG.

So here's what you do: the next time you're making a character for yourself, or an NPC, make a point of creating some real character flaws. Some real humanity. Create situations and scenarios where the character loses it. Slap-on characteristics like the Flaws of Vampire do not count.

An example from the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam. Every serious relationship the character gets into is doomed. Although he is a regular Lothario with women in general, he is unable to get over his notions of what is 'proper' with his girlfriend or wife. The woman gets frustrated with a guy who only wants to fuck lights off, beneath the covers, missionary style, especially since she knows from his repuation that this is not typical of him. Of course the character himself is also sexually unsatisfied, so he is drawn to other women.

Perhaps the character is a workaholic, and neglects his friends and family. Perhaps he's racist and tells nigger jokes at parties. Perhaps he gets hysterical in the face of danger. Perhaps he can't take having his authority questioned. None of these things need to make him an inherently bad ( or EVIL as the case may be) person. He may well have good qualities that act as a balance, and they seem more like actual personality traits if there's some basis for comparison.

The point of these character flaws is not surmounting them in during the game in a heroic manner. Simply play them. It's interesting. Of course, character growth is also possible, and often rewarding to play, but remember that not all growth is positive and not every epiphany lasts. Have a character renounce his bad, old ways after a particularly disastrous episode, and then promptly revert back the moment things get rough.

Contraception

One area of human behavior where stupidity truly comes to its own is sex. The subject of sex merits a section all its own because stupid sex makes for good roleplaying and loads of misanthropic fun.

Take contraception. For some reason, almost every PC in every game I've played in uses contraception. The only exception being fantasy games, of course, but with those one has to make allowances for the genre.

Nevertheless, in real life, many people do not use condoms, use them improperly and have the most bizarre attitudes regarding them. These are interesting, and provide for variety and dramatic situations that are completely lost if every character is too smart.

Here are a couple of attitudes for your next character:

- The rubber takes all the feeling out of sex. Better not to use them.

- Veneral disease is contagious only during menstruation because it is transmitted through the blood.

- Women get pregnant only if they fuck during menstruation. Otherwise condoms are not needed.

- AIDS applies only to gay people. You might get AIDS if you kiss or grope with a queer.

- Condoms are re-usable. You'd be surprised how many people subscribe to this, especially among the uneducated. It's not even about money, but simply because the idea that they might be disposable has not occurred. This says something about the state of sex education in our various countries.

- Veneral disease afflicts only the lower classes. Again, you'd be surprised at this, especially in countries with no sex education.

- Only whores have diseases. By extension, a woman with a veneral disease is automatically a whore, if not literally then at least metaphorically.

- She's a virgin so I don't need a rubber.

And the greatest of them all:

- Sex can't go wrong for us because we're in love.

Remember, these need not be conscious principles. Attitudes based on prejudice or ideology need no logic. Just look at the bizarre contortions of rationalization defending the morality of the invasion of Iraq.

Poorly planned sex often creates interesting situations. An example from my campaign Kulak. The characters were released from prison at the start of the campaign. One of them, Josef, met an old girlfriend from pre-prison days who jumped his bones for reasons of her own practically the moment they met. Josef, who's sex life had consisted of his right hand and Vladimir the Fork in the next cell for seven years wasn't at his most analytical. Sure, the girl was a bit wasted, and had suspicious scars, but who cares. She's a woman. She says Josef doesn't have to fuck around with a rubber.

Now the big question is whether Josef got a disease from the girl, or the girl from Josef. It so happens that Josef had syphilis, courtesy of the Russian prison system.

Use the rubber, folks. Always vote for sex education.

Flawed Characters Are Fun and Practical

Here's a practical scenario illustrating the merits of bad qualities:

A simple gambit in establishing a villain is to introduce an NPC who's likeable and then have the bad guy kill her. The obvious approach would be to make the sacrificial NPC kind, good-looking in a personal, real way, smart, moral and right. There is one problem, though. I've found that players, including me, detest perfect NPCs. An NPC who's all of the things mentioned above is often treated with deep suspicion.

This is not just because at the hands of an inept GM, this smacks of a bad guy masquerading as a good guy. There's a lot more wrong with perfect NPCs. They're boring as Hell. They rarely seem multidimensional. It's annoying when someone is right all the time, especially since right in this case often means the GM's personal opinion.

So don't do perfect NPCs. If you want to establish a villain by having him kill someone human, start with the victim's bad qualities. Make her lazy, smoke in the workplace and good-looking except for a broken nose. These are all human traits, and humanity is often a lot more likeable in an RPG than actual good qualities.

After the NPC has been established, you can focus on her motivations and problems, giving her depth. Now you can give her some good qualities, because nobody is all bad. Have her suddenly pull herself together in a crisis or show great empathy in the face of someone else's problems.

And then she dies. The death is more real, has more impact, because the person who dies does not seem like a plot device. For a great example of how this works, see Kinji Fukasaku's excellent film Battle Royale, where 30 students are killed one at atime. Each death is a real death because Fukasaku manages to establish and humanize the students quickly with a deft use of small details and telling situations.

I like playing flawed characters. In games focusing on human interaction, there is not much point in playing supermen. Flawed PCs are also practical for the GM because they tend to generate their own drama with less interference required. By "flawed" I actually mean just subject to human emotion, emphasis on human. Not sensible, often unreasonable, often unheroic.

You can get a lot of mileage out of your character by simply having him fall in love with the wrong woman. (Or the right one, for that matter.) Let's say we have a regular group of adventurers consisting of a Paladin, a Mage, a Priest and a Thief fighting their way into the Temple of Evil. During the adventure it so happens that the Paladin is separated from the rest and encounters a Priestess of Evil.

One of them falls prisoner to the other and they get a chance to talk. It turns out that the Priestess may be Evil, but is also witty, good-looking and sweet. Our Paladin falls in love. He conspires to save her while his buddies ransack the Temple. Sadly, at some point the Priest casts a routine Detect Evil spell and finds out the horrible truth, proceeding to murder the Priestess.

This goes against the fantasy genre, of course, but perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Fantasy is not the most vibrant of genres.

You can build this thing into the background as well. Let's say the game begins with the characters released from prison. One of the questions with each of them is why were they in prison in the first place. The standard solutions would be wrongfully accused and convicted, a dramatic criminal past for which the character atones, or perhaps white-collar crime or a drug-related conviction.

These are all very dramatic situations. The drugs solution even has some social implications. They're also rather hackeyed. Lets have the character in prison because he really deserved it. I mean really, and not just because he did a couple of confidence tricks or tax evasion. Say he was driving too fast and crashed into a car easing out of a garage, killing two children and maiming the mother for life. That would be double manslaughter.

For a less arbitary and more dramatic solution, perhaps she was a doctor and took excessive liberties in treating her patients, resulting in three cases of permanent brain damage.

White-collar crime can be interesting as well. I have a domestic example in the person of Kaj-Erik Relander, the ex-CEO of Sonera, the biggest Finnish telecommunications company. He was just taken into custody because of charges of spying on his own employees. He had ordered the phone records of a dozen of his employees monitored, easy enough to do when you're the phone company. It's also very illegal, since we still have communications secrecy laws.

Might not make it into the same league as brain damage, but the social implications of taking these sorts of liberties with peoples' privacy are enormous. One should bear in mind that when Orwell was writing his novels, he was talking about the Soviet Union but also the Britain of his time.

Let's make the character a rapist. One office party gone sour, an offer refused, leading into a drunken act of sexual violence behind the copy machine. There's something to atone for. The woman presses charges, and off to the prison we go.

You don't have to make your character into a psycho. Just make him so that he has good qualities and bad qualities, that he's made both good choices and bad choices in life. And makes both during the game.

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What do you think?

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