One of the issues that’s puzzled me longest in roleplaying is how to provide socially functional opposition in a game. When is fictional murder, thievery, trickery, or hostility all good fun, and when is it “griefing” or bullying in real life? In other kinds of games this line is a lot clearer; players may argue over a foul in basketball but everyone has a clear expectation that yes, it’s your job to put the ball in the hoop and it’s my job to block your shot.
But in roleplaying games we’re telling stories. Some RPGs may have very clear opposing roles, like “It’s my job to try and kill you, and it’s your job to try and survive.” But where the storytelling goals are more subtle, things can get hazy.
Ron Edwards, co-founder of the Forge and author of cool games including Sorcerer and Trollbabe, was recently interviewed by Kevin Weiser for the Walking Eye podcast. At about the 30-minute mark of Part 2 (the interview is QUITE extensive, but worth it if you’ve got the stamina), he remarked, “There’s nothing wrong with playing the guy that I like to call the ‘dickweed character’, who’s causing trouble for the other characters all the way through. The best dickweed character in all of fantasy literature is Gollum. But the point is, is that that character is providing RELEVANT adversity.”
When I read that a puzzle piece slid into place regarding my relationship to other players in my gaming history, times when playing together was satisfying and times when it wasn’t. I recall, especially in my early days, many play experiences where someone’s character was a source of fictional grief, annoyance or pain, and it was also correspondingly exasperating to me as a player. Whether pranks and pestering or misery and murder, the fictional input just felt like a drain on my energy and attention, a distraction from what I actually wanted to do with my own character. Sometimes this seemed to stem from intentional dickery on the real-people level, but even where no malice was present it was a real drag.
So here is a huge key to why: was their antagonism relevant to my own input? Were they riffing off my character’s themes and giving me material to riff off theirs? Or were they just providing antagonism more or less at random, for their private pleasure irrespective of whatever I may be interested in myself?
Contrast with Eilidh, a character from the Celtic Viking Burning Wheel game I played. Taken as a concubine by Norsemen and shorn of the son birthed from that union, she was a cold-blooded and vengeful seductress, like Firefly’s Saffron but with murder in her heart. She left a swath of pain and misery through the village of Tiráth, killing, manipulating, using people up and throwing them away, but for the actual players she prompted not consternation but wicked grins and appreciation. This was because her grim antics were utterly relevant to the other protagonists’ struggles–to hot-blooded young Gabhrán her protector, sacrificing all peace and happiness in his folk to defend an honor that didn’t exist, and to the peacemaking prince Nuallán, also a Viking captive but treated well and with honor, consequently taking the Norse part in the quarrel, and losing his life thereby. Her actions actually invigorated play, drove it forward. Eilidh made Tiráth a hellish place…and we couldn’t have had the fulfilling and cherished game that we did without her and David her player.
Gollum’s opposite in literary antagonism would be something like the fellow on the right. He spends the first portion of the tale generally annoying the other characters and drawing their attention from what really matters to them, and later on makes a key decision, unwittingly, that helps plunge the Galaxy into tyranny and bloodshed. But when he does, it doesn’t feel like a fittingly grim turn of events, but rather an intrusion, a violation, of the story proper and its true protagonists. So the next time you’re tempted toward a little roleplaying dickweedery…perhaps ask yourself, is it invigorating, or just a drain?