Traditional roleplaying games are about adventure. And adventure is a key ingredient for understanding why so many gamers balk at the idea of playing something ‘different.’ I could talk/write for hours about gamers who say, “that game is weird” when they mean, “That game is not about an adventure. What do I do in it?” In fact, many people keep calling their products roleplaying games, even when they aren’t because the phrase roleplaying game is so indelibly linked to adventure gaming.
What do you do in D&D? Go on quests to find treasure.
What do you do in Traveler? Go to outer space and hunt down bad guys and treasure.
What do you do in Deadlands? KIll outlaws and zombies and zombie outlaws and take their ghost rock (treasure).
What do you do in Shadowrun? I have no idea. Pretend it’s not D&D with guns?
All snark aside, our expectations of what we’re going to do in a game suggests that if a game is outside the comfort zone of adventure, killing werewolves with AKs, or exploring unknown worlds, it becomes hard to understand “what will I be doing in this game?”
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For whatever reason — and I don’t have a good answer here, perhaps maladroit teens with social anxiety — adventure games are about people with no past, no human relationships, and no connection to anything other than the present. Save the prince? We better do it now. Sneak passed the guards? We don’t have time to do anything but kill him and get inside.
Just once I’d like to see the PCs investigate who the guard is, follow him home, and then have a private conversation with him there about how much it’ll cost to sneak into the tower at night. Or even better, dig up some dirt on him or leverage a favor.
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If I wrote the back text of a game book that reads:
“Welcome to the Lands of Arnas. The World has been broken. A cataclysm has befallen the land and the people suffer. Wild beasts roam the earth. The sun has turned black. An ancient evil has awoken. The end times are now.”
There would be no question in your mind what you’d be doing in the game, despite the fact that the game doesn’t say, you’re adventurers trying to heal the land. But what if you bought it, got it home, and realized it was the setting for a love story? Or a human drama piece about barons and warlords vying for power? What if I told you the game was about five children with the power to unmake creation, who haven’t been born yet? Or the gods would grant the world a reprieve if the PCs could only decide which of them should die?
All of a sudden, you’re confused about what you’ve just bought into. It’s not about overland travel, riddles, treasure, and goblin tactics? What is this game?
None of these questions are wrong, by the way. But there’s a convenient perspective that roleplaying games are adventure games, because a 40-year pedigree of game design has found one element of dungeons and dragons to riff on… killing people and taking their stuff — you know this meme as murder hobos.
There are a dozen ways to interprets what is going on in this picture (as it relates to games).
Now. There’s nothing wrong with playing games about killing stuff. In fact, I like those kinds of games, too. But I like lots of games. And I want the things I do to matter. Why can’t I save the village and then fall for someone in the village I just saved? Or maybe fall for someone in the village, which is my impetus for saving the village in the first place. What if I’m from that village and I know everyone there. Of course I’m vested in saving it now.
Which brings us to games about human relationships. Adventure games rarely get passed the “how do you know each other?” question to express ideas beyond, “we all like gold.” But modern games are growing more complex than that. How people are related to one another is a fundamental question to nearly every non-traditional game. Fiasco spends 90 minutes before the game starts answering this question.
[Protocol does it in 10 minutes. Plug.]
Characters can love one another in games. We can develop stronger bonds and assume a past between characters with a simple 5-10 minute chat before the game starts, as we build the foundation of the story. I’ve run entire sessions of Vampire and Blue Planet that were just about the back story. I once ran a Vampire campaign and the first six sessions, the characters were still human and hadn’t turned yet.
And unlike traditional games where we worry about “Where are we camping tonight?” and a 1000 other moments of minutia, characters can have romantic relationships without ever exploring the awkwardness of describing their sexual congress. We just assume it’s something that happens.
Which bring us to another strange part of gaming: Love. Now. I won’t get into a debate about love just being chemicals in the brain trying to tie us into secure relationships that are beneficial biologically and that romantic love is just a made up thing. The fact is, 99% of humans understand that love is something they can’t control and it’s a vital part of the human condition.
We dedicate almost all of our energy to attracting people to us. We want them to smell our hair, or notice our bodies, or our eyes, or our talents. Or whatever. Even when love isn’t sexual, it’s still a base human desire to be wanted and needed. And yet, we never explore it in games. We build this realistic worlds, argue about halfling movement rates, debate whether or not dwarven women have beards, list every f**king item in our backpacks, and build feat trees for our characters so we’ll know what we can do at level 9.
But talk about love during the game?
And it makes no sense. Now. I know most of my gamer friends are hairy men with bad breath and the last thing I want to do is roleplay a scene with them about lizardfolk copulation, but it’s kind of stupid that we can’t.
Or can we?
I’ll do and say a lot of things at the game table with people I trust that I would never publish. Look over my games. They are all about human drama, but not a single one is about sex. Unless you make it about that. For all my posturing in this post, I don’t think roleplaying games should be about sex. Call it my puritanical upbringing, but there’s a division between everything else we do in our lives… and sex.
Which is so hypocritical, I know.
We can encourage players to take on the roles of other genders (including TG characters in the latest editions of some games), and yet we can’t get to this place where gender even matters, because the games we play about everything but relationships. And I’m not saying you game like this, but find a page in any mainstream RPG that addresses human relationships on a deeper level than, “Why are you together?” and I’ll send you a free PDF about robots who hate each other.
It’s easy to say, “Well roleplaying games aren’t supposed to be that realistic.” And to you I say, “What are you doing reading a post about love and sex in roleplaying games if that’s your point of view?” Some gamers can’t play a female character because it’s “too weird,” but playing a dwarf from an alien culture and physiology is just fine?!? It’s no wonder we discount the value of human emotion and relationships in roleplaying games, we don’t know what being human is.
Check out Walking Dead Season 1 and 2 by TellTale games for more examples of real human relationships in games.
As always, my endings are awkward.