(And for those in the bloggosphere, no I am not deleting the blog. I appreciate all the site visits I get, and though I can no longer contribute, my previous works stand on their own merit. There is some great stuff here.)
I was born a storyteller, and was drawn to DMing about the same time I was drawn to one of the first computer games, Zork. Both offered seemingly limitless potential, but only one of them has been a part of my life for thirty continuous years. I used to write stories about toyshops that came to life when the lights went out. (I must have been inspired by the many movies and books that have such themes, but they were my first stories) I also wrote very un-funny Garfeild comics, with the main character being Heathfield or Garcliff or something.
When I discovered dnd, I continued to tell stories, but now I had an audience! My first games were more like plays, or play-acting than games, where I dictated what and where the action was, and the players performed their parts – this often involved monkey-bars during sixth grade recess.
When the recess era ended, we moved our game inside, and the stories were told sitting around tables. More dice and books became involved, until at some point you could say we were actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. We were no longer looting and destroying gods, and devils with wild abandon, wishing for all the wealth in the world, fireballing entire cities. The games we played matched the books, stories, and movies we knew and loved. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Dragonlance. Elfquest. Superman.
The stories were about heroic champions who rose from nothing to challenge the inequities of their lives. There was no question about where the story was going, what the final goals were – it was the eradication of injustice and the upholding of goodness by the defeat of evil. Sure some characters were more like Han Solo than Gandalf, but they all knew they had to help or that all would be lost.
Later on, as we became even older and wiser, I realized the wonder and amazement of randomness. No longer did I cheat like thief on every die roll to conform to the way I wanted my story to go. I let go of the reins one day, and watched the true wonder of randomness take over the game. The game changed for the better, and the official term is “emergent gameplay” whereby the stories are generated at the table randomly, by a mixture of die rolling and improvisational interpretation of the results.
Shared story-telling became more important, and sometimes, when everything was working together, my story, the randomocity of dice, and the player’s active participation created truly compelling adventure and fun, fun times for us around the table. Victory was uncertain, important choices had to be made, and a single critical hit or miss could change it all in an instant.
Enter the murder-hobo
The internet has a definition for everything, and the murder-hobo seems to be the type of character or party in RPG’s that go around causing general mayhem to no purpose, other than possibly to gain loot,though even that drive is sometimes questionable. The outward appearance is an insatiable lust for wanton violence against any and all who cross their paths.
When forming my latest game group, four or five years ago after a lack of tabletop playing of considerable length, there was a change in the air. Gone was the foregone conclusion that the player-characters would fight the great evil of the campaign, at least not with out mighty good reason, or rewards. Nonetheless we had a great third edition campaign which I Called “The Undead War” which was a fight between Orcus and Demogorgon for the prime material, each having gained a foothold by the prayers of their separate drow worshippers. Good times, and the campaign ended when one of the PC’s agreed to marry the Vampire Lord Strahd to secure peace fore the city of Shalazar. She slew him on their wedding night, but not before gaining undeath, immortality, and a daughter. She became the White Queen of Shalazar and has ruled the city ever since. She is beautiful and cruel and adored by her fearful folk.
To me, the story ended well, because the concurrance of my campaign (the Undead War) the randomness of the dice (they simply could not find a way, or the will, to defeat Strahd in the traditional manner) and the player’s actions came together to tell a complete story.
During our next campaign, set 100 years in the future of the same campaign world D Erte, from the beginning the characters were more cut-throat and uncaring than ever before, but the system worked in such a manner as to practically reward greedy, tactic-less play, in that it was hard to die under normal circumstances. I compensated for their lack of honor, nobility, goodness, heroism, or scruples by keeping them on the run. This seemed to harden the characters into hard-boiled soul-less bastards that has stuck ever since.
The campaign ended with them defeating the big bad, and I wanted something different, something… better. Choosing my personal favorite adventure of all time, the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, we decided to use the Pathfinder Beginner Box (which everyone loved when we played the intro adventure) as the rules system. What a great idea, I thought. TOEE is a grand rollicking dungeon crawl where the heroes defeat all sorts of monsters as they tear down the temple one element at a time. Unfortunately, it requires that the players have some sense of heroism or goodness about them. A group of murderous greedy thugs is more likely to work for the temple than against it.
The party from day one in Homlett lied, cheated, stole, and murdered almost at random, and no, not based on the randomocity of dice-rolling, but more from a complete lack of caring on the players part for any sort of story beyond “I swing my sword, hit or miss?” I’m sure some people right now reading this are going, yeah, sounds like a great game! Well, maybe it is, and maybe I am a fool, however, i have no love of describing the murder of innocents or the best way to trick and cheat honest people. I know it’s just a game, but it is distasteful to me in the same way as seeing picture of actual dead people would begin to turn my stomach. The “just a game” aspect loses its flavor at some point. I can lovingly describe a shifter pouncing onto a zombie and clawing its way into its guts until it uncovers the spine, which it chomps through with a satisfying crunch. But I don’t want to describe the murder of children, innocents, or the rape of women or anything like that. In that way, one’s morality plays a part in the type of game one plays. Too many thieving, lying, cheating, murdering encounters, and I have thrown my hands up in disgust and said “Enough, I’m done.”
I liken this to the debate between two characters in the TV Show “The Walking Dead.” In it, Rick, the quintessential gun-toting sheriff, argues that the only way to survive the zombie apocalypse is to hold on to the values of community and brotherhood that separate us from them. By doing that we might just survive to rebuild, and should we lose it, then everything is doomed. Shane, on the other hand, admits that he shot an innocent man so that he could escape and survive another day. I find that position reprehensible, because without brotherhood, without society, without love, without trust and hope, we are no better than them, and what more right do you have to survive than me? It is all or nothing.
Imagine the show without Rick, the guiding soul that believes in justice and goodness, and you have some idea of how the players of my game played. It was just not interesting enough, or worth the effort to constantly bribe and steer them grudgingly towards some goal that they neither cared about nor probably even remembered hearing about. Dice rolling alone is not enough, killing stuff is not enough, especially if it is a group of innocent shaking guards who have done no more wrong than to be standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. Slit open and dumped in the river for the shiny gold piece in their pockets.
No thanks, not my style.