(This is the twenty-fifth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
No, not the heist/caper/etc TV show. 🙂
One of the things I like about gaming is that it makes me think about story in ways that are both similar to and different from writing. As a result, I find myself carrying lessons in both directions — and one example of RPGs teaching me something useful in writing is the concept I think of as leverage.
What do I mean by this? Years ago, when I was writing A Star Shall Fall, I made a comment about Galen, one of the book’s two protagonists, showing up in my head with (metaphorical) handles sticking out of him, onto which he was helpfully tying identifying labels. That was my way of trying to articulate the fact that Galen, from his very first conception, offered me a lot of leverage. His family, though of good name, was having financial problems, requiring him to marry for money: there’s one lever. He was in love with the Queen he served: that’s another lever. He was desperately trying to find a way to save the faerie court he helped rule, but feared he couldn’t live up to the example of his predecessors: lever number three. Basically, leverage is any aspect of a character I can use to propel them through the story. If I needed Galen to do something, to get into trouble, to have some kind of conflict or crisis, all I had to do was look at those handles sticking out of him and decide which one was the best to push on for that to happen.
As a player, I try to design PCs with lots of leverage, because that helps the GM design plot that will engage me. My D&D character was the daughter of a half-dragon; her father had conflicted feelings about his heritage, but she was eager to channel the glorious might of Bahamut, the god of good dragons. She had a bunch of older sisters whose legacy she had to live up to, and a single brother nobody ever really talked about because he’d become estranged from the family. My Buffy character had albinism, which always made her feel like an outsider; she’d gravitated toward the goth community, where her appearance was treated as positively exotic instead of negatively so, but that created a lot of problems when she became a Slayer and was suddenly expected to destroy the vampires she admired. My L5R character was secretly the daughter of somebody very important in Rokugan and had a childhood sweetheart she wanted to marry but couldn’t because he was engaged to somebody else. Etc.
In a good campaign, the story won’t just be about whatever the GM has decided the PCs are going to do; it’s also about the PCs’ own lives, the things they care about. And ideally, these two things are going to interlock, with effects going in both directions. Why do the PCs engage with the game’s metaplot? Because it touches on things they care about. Why does personal plot matter? Because it has effects for the metaplot. As a GM, I find happy, well-adjusted PCs who have everything they want in life to be the most difficult to work with, because there’s nowhere for me to get a grip on them. I want characters who are a little bit broken, so I can press on the fracture lines and see what happens.
But not too broken. In my last post I mentioned the type of player who takes a bunch of Disadvantages they think won’t actually matter in game; the other failure mode there is the player who saddles their PC with a bunch of Disads that do matter. So many, in fact, that you start to wonder how the PC functions . . . and sometimes the answer is, they don’t. Whether this is represented in the mechanics or not, a character with too much angst and trauma is difficult to play with, because too much of their time and attention is taken up with their own problems. If my Buffy character was also suicidal and addicted to drugs and had a broken family life and got involved with an abusive boyfriend, then pretty soon the game would no longer be about the other characters or the larger story; it would be all about her and her problems. Which isn’t very fun for the rest of the players, and remember: gaming is a group activity. If you want to tell stories about somebody who’s completely dysfunctional, writing is a better venue for that.
Especially because it’s damned hard to get a character like that engaged with the story. The single worst type of PC, in my opinion, is the one who is filled with trauma, but won’t talk about it. If you want to give your character a terrible dark secret, go right ahead! I love terrible dark secrets! But it should come out in play. In fact, you should plan for it to come out. Look for ideal opportunities to hint at the secret, and then blow it out of the water at the right moment. If you need to play the long game with your secret, then come up with lots of other hooks to make your PC interesting, so you have stuff to do in the meanwhile. The dark, brooding loner who doesn’t want to get involved with the team and spends all his time angsting privately over his trauma is hard enough to make work in fiction, where the author controls all the pieces; in a game, it falls as flat as a badly-made souffle. Get engaged, give people a reason to care; then drop the bomb on them. Otherwise your fellow players will be bored and annoyed.
It also helps to have at least a general idea of where the game is going, of course. With that information in hand, you can make sure your character is someone who will have a reason to engage with the central plot. But designing your PC with the rest of the game in mind is a large enough topic that it will have to wait for the next post!