Monday, 22 November 2010

A short story about RPG characters

This is a blast from the past. I originally wrote this in 1996 as I tried to decide what kind of character I wanted to play in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. It took the form of a meeting between my favourite characters and myself. It's a bit weird but I always felt that writing helped to order my thoughts.

I was tired of waiting.
Most of them had come as I had asked. Tere Swordsong was there, as was Mornard Winter, both from MERP and Warhammer. Matthew Hasken from Mechwarrior had arrived early to show off his amazing punctuality. Zeke Greyfellow of Shadowrun fame sat nervously on one side of the table, facing Goah Galletti, whose stern visage was close to annoying me. At this moment I was waiting for Tere and Mornard to stop comparing notes on how was best to kill an Orc. I decided to interrupt. After all, all these men were my creations and I was not about to let my meeting go to waste because two fantasy heroes wanted to brag about technique.
"Gentlemen, thanks for coming," I said loudly, talking over Tere who was starting a speech on blade swinging capability, something of which I always thought he lacked in. "I know this is only a daydream, but I wanted a few words. Quite frankly, I'm worried."
"About what?" Tere asked, his perfect English rolling from his lips. He adjusted his eye patch nervously and stared at me with his good eye.
"I'm a bit concerned about you gentlemen, actually. You all sprang from my mind and my feelings, and although you are all individual with different agendas and goals, I can't get the feeling out of my gut that you are all quite superficial in element and are otherwise an extension of my own ego. I mean, what makes you what you are when you are all spawned from the same subconscious?"
Silence spread over the table as my guests mulled over the answer. Surprisingly, it was Zeke who spoke first.
"I only lasted for just under a dozen adventures and yet you have invited me here. I don't talk for the others, but I think of myself as an individual. In that brief moment of time I appreciated the Cyberpunk genre because you separated me from it. I was not cyber-enhanced or anything remotely similar, which gave me an abstract feel and an almost original view of the game..."
"Original view does not mean original character," Goah cut in. His deep voice resonated across the table at Zeke. "You could have been a cross dressing parrot assassin and still been played the same way as any other character, with only the peculiar twist on your appearance as a form of individuality."
"Too true," Zeke replied, frowning at Goah's choice of words. "But even so, you can't get away from the fact that we all spring from him, and that we are all bound to share the same..."
"I don't want to go back to my original question," I said, levelling my hand to cut Zeke off. "Maybe the similarities cannot be avoided, but what I'm looking for here is for each of you to compare your actions and goals, and try to come up with your own sense on being."
"You want us to justify ourselves," Tere said evenly at the end of a deep sigh.
"Right."
"I can." We all looked at Matthew Haskenn, who had been silent since his arrival. "I was created for one purpose - combat. When I was first played, I was an investigator, and lets face it, I was crap. When I was put with a special ops unit and had to fight my way through every minute of every scenario, my true being came out. I was a fighter."
"So your saying that being a two dimensional killing machine makes you original?" Mornard asked.
"Not exactly. Although I was firing of several rounds in every scene, I still held on to one belief. What I was doing was right for the game and for me. I knew my purpose, and that was to kill the enemy. I was not so blind as to involve innocents and civilians, but my purpose was clear."
"That's a goal, not a justification of being," I said.
"Let me finish. Even though many died at my hand, it was the last game I did that defined my character. I had to kill civilians as part of a terror campaign against the enemy. When I arrived behind enemy lines, I couldn't do it. It was not right. When I was responsible for the detonation of a nuclear device, and a city was wiped out, I was so overcome by remorse I refused a commendation, a commission and personal recognition from the house lord I was serving. I retired from active service and became an instructor. To make up for it, I ended up joining a group of mercenaries who were fighting to defeat pirates who were terrorising the people. That is where I am now."
"Being filled with remorse does not make you individual. It's just a feeling which, no doubt, we have all shared." Mornard reached over and grabbed a handful of snacks.
"I understand that, but that feeling is what made my sense of individuality. All my games I had been fighting for peace, to save the people, and when I was responsible for the death of the same sort of civilians I was trying to protect, it dawned on me that what I was doing was wrong, and I rebelled against the very masters who had put that power in my hands."
I nodded. Matthew had a good argument. His sense of being was justified by his sense of morality, by his acceptance of his one true skill, which was to kill the enemy with no quarter given and no surrender. He had realised his existence and used it for what he thought to be the best. Ironically, he had discovered his personality just when his games came to an end.
"So there we have an individual born from the situation he was put in," said Tere. "Surely role-playing is more rewarding when the character is fleshed out before the game begins?"
"So says you," Matthew retorted. "You were but a few stats on a MERP character sheet when you first wandered into your first adventure."
I could see the tension rising and decided to put the spotlight on Tere to focus everyone's attention. "What about it, Tere? Are you a piece of A4 with pencilled numbers or are you 'real'?"
Tere thought long and hard about his answer. I fumbled nervously as I watched Goah start to get restless.
"My sense of being was only slightly defined when I first started, I agree. I think I went into adventuring knowing what it was I wanted to do, but not knowing what path to take to accomplish that."
"What was your goal?" Goah asked.
"To be good." That remark raised a few sniggers from around the table, including from myself. That sense of heroic idiocy seemed rather childish to me, now, but Tere was one of my original characters. Only Mornard looked at the others wondering what the joke was.
"No, it's true," Tere continued. "I knew that most Middle-Earth heroes made sacrifices and did things for the greater good, and I wanted to be that way. It was only when an evil warlord rose to crush the innocent did I find my true purpose."
"What did you do?" Mornard inquired, pushing to know more when Tere hesitated a moment.
"I proved to all around me that I was a capable fighter and leader, and I raised an army and defeated him in battle. That to me was my purpose. I never backed away from a fight that I thought was just, I always did what I could to save the innocent and I never lost sight at the end of my tunnel. That light led to peaceful days and a sense of accomplishment."
Another good story, I thought. Tere's character had been fleshed out by his sense of honour. He would willingly do anything in the cause of Good, and in doing so got himself into more predicaments and danger than was healthy. He was justified by his actions.
"Bantha crap," Goah said. All eyes turned on him with amazement, and Tere's jaw clenched in anger. "You sit there preaching goodness and justice, but how many people died for that perfect world? How many cities were destroyed for your Utopia? Was it worth the blood spilled? If you wanted to stop this warlord, you should have just walked up to him and capped him off - or paid someone to do it for you."
I interceded before Tere could reply. "What's your justification, Goah?"
"I don't need to justify myself to any of you." He fell silent.
Typical. Goah was a Star Wars character that had changed from your usual happy-go-lucky space smuggler into a hardened cynical assassin. I thought it would take a bit of coaxing to get anything from him, but suprisingly he opened up.
"I learned two things from my experience - you don't get anything unless you rely on you own merits and fight for it. I don't raise armies to fight my battles for me, I load up and send the enemy to merry hell my own way."
"Sure," Matthew said, "You shoot the poor sods from a mile away and then skulk off into the night."
"If thats what it takes to get the job done, so be it. I don't fight for one side in a war, and I don't fight for my sense of honour to the people. I fight because I know that every son of a womp rat I'm shooting deserves what he gets, and that I'm going to get a fat payout from their demise."
I knew that wasn't strictly true. If Goah could help out someone he would, but he would do it in secret and could not bear any thanks.
"I am the way I am because every time I tried I failed. Every time I played by the rules, and the bad guys broke them, I lost every time. So I started breaking rules of my own. And I won."
A strange tale, but true. Goah defined himself by his own particular sense of justice, and as twisted and as back to front as that justice seemed he was right. He got the job done.
"Well, Mornard," I said, leaning back in my chair and crossing my arms. "You are the newest of my characters. What have you learned from what you've heard?"
Mornard frowned. "I thought I was supposed to justify myself, not sit in judgement of the others."
A few of the others nodded and mumbled their agreement, and pointedly stared at me. I just smiled.
"Then justify yourself. But remember this. You are the latest creation, and through playing the others the way I have, do you think you share any of their traits?"
"My entire character and history was created before play began. I had a past, an agenda... yes, in a way I suppose there's a little of them all in me. Goah's anger, Tere's honour, Matthew's heart and Zeke's wonder. I was a kind of amalgamation of them all."
"So what's your justification?" Tere was obviously eager to know.
"That I am an interesting character to play. I am not defined by goals or a twisted sense of melodrama. I am defined by my character, and the fact that when a role-playing situation arises, the player knows how to have me react. I am the product of testing the water with several types of character, and then taking the best trait of each and combining them."
"But isn't that cheating a little? After all, the name of the game is diversity, and if you play a character that is similar to the last then isn't that a little boring?" Zeke looked directly at me as he finished the sentence.
"No. After all, if a character was played to the numbers, then most games would be filled with untrodden paths and avenues untaken because it was in the nature of that character to do so! How boring would the game be if the player said 'I'm not sneaking into that castle because it is not in my character's nature to do so'. I think that personality should be on the surface as a role-playing aid, and the rest for the game itself. After all, it is much more effective, and rewarding, to play a simple character well. Messing around during a game with a complicated character can slow, and even stunt, a game. Sure, have your singular emotions to help portray yourself, but at the end of the day it's going to be the player who has the final say on the feelings and actions, and not the sheet of paper and dice set before him."
The others fell silent. I looked at each one of them in turn and realised that I could hear a beeping in the background. It was my alarm clock.
"Well, that's my daydream over," I said. "And I would like to thank you all for helping me with this. I'll try to remember what I can and get it written down."
"When can we meet again?" Matthew asked.
"Never," I said with a laugh. "People are going to think I'm nutty enough for writing this the way I have without leaving room open for a sequel. I guess it's my own fault for trying to be clever. No, you can all go back to your little corners and maybe I'll play one of you again soon."
Each of them faded in turn, and my last view was of Mornard nodding at me with a smile.
Then I got up, and went to get a cup of tea.