I keep coming back to fantasy gaming tropes, because, well, fantasy gaming is a huge part of this hobby. But adventurers exist in pulp story as well, and there’s plenty of sci-fi games with deep space explorers. Regardless what you are calling the heroes of your story, the question comes back to how common are these people who explore the unknown?
The prevailing thought in the annals of gaming lore is that adventurers represent a very small part of a game world. Most people living inside a setting perform the boring day-to-day drudgery, and the PCs represent the brave few who risk their lives to adventure. It is this risk that you’ll die out there in a tunnel under a cave behind a waterfall at the edge of the frontier that ensures adventurers are rare. In fact, low-level characters die often, which represents this risk in a more ephemeral form.
I imagine the guards in Keep on the Borderlands just shaking their heads at the PCs. “These idiots ain’t coming back.”
But modern editions say otherwise.
If adventurers are rare, wouldn’t centaur adventurers be even more rare? Demon adventurers even more rare than that? The list of backgrounds that should be exceedingly rare have become commonplace. And if seeing a demon warlock walk into a town of 5000 people isn’t cause for alarm, the zeitgeist of adventure is no longer novelty. It’s downright pedestrian. At least, that’s the logical connect I make. Your views may differ.
Why would anyone choose to be a human rogue in a world of half-giant gladiators?
Each gamemaster has to decide how rare adventurers are in their game world. Are there ‘renewable’ dungeons that can be pillaged over and over again like a World of Warcraft™ quest, in order to support the 5,000 adventurers who are on the server at the moment?
I’m guessing your answer is no.
You don’t want adventuring to be commonplace and mundane. You want it to be rare. Almost unique. You want this group of adventurers doing stuff that matter, so their stories matter.
I have my own gutterpunk style in which I run games. The world might be a big place, but all that matters right now is this tiny mudhole of a village and the strange towering statues to unknown gods beyond the dale. If the PCs fight and kill and survive their encounters with the monsters who built these statues, great. And if not, they’ll be dead and will have no idea of the fate of the world.
Today, I am in FB Jail because of the use of the word “punch” in a comment responding directly to someone else’s use of the word punch. I was given a ban. They were not.
Why do I bring this up?
First and foremost, I believe in Freedom of Speech. Even people saying things I don’t like, have a right to say them. It’s an unfortunate consequence of freedom. But, there it is.
Secondly, it speak directly to where authority stems from and the subject of this post.
I am in the midst of writing a number of games at the same time. I am also writing a book of game master advice. As such, questions arise constantly over who has ‘the right to rule.’
This is a governing principle in fantasy game writing.
Game writing and writing about gaming are constant forces in my life. I cannot extricate one from the other. If I sit down to write a new game (Protocol for instance), I am forced to examine where the story ownership lies, or who can make a decision in a given situation. And questions of authority always hark back to questions of who bears responsibility for anything vs. who just wants to be in charge.
I have a long history of education in the bronze age and I see authority as a side-effect of pottery. See me at a con and ask me about it some time.
As an American, these questions always come back to roles of (diminishing) freedom in our own lives and why some people turn to gaming in the first place. Gamers, after all, are misfit rebels fighting against everything. Especially gamers with backgrounds in specific parts of the country.
Murder Hobo gaming draws deeply from these roots.
I’m not going to turn this into a political mouthpiece. People like what they like. They believe what they want to believe.
But hobbyist gaming started with war simulation, and rebellion and freedom grew out of Arneson’s game design styles with his pre-Gygax group. People sought to go on adventures and kill monsters for their treasure, rather than get paying jobs in the cities.
Humans & Paychecks™ was not a successful game line.
From this style of gaming grew a competitive spirit, despite all the disclaimers, and acts of rebellion against authority ensued. Even among groups where everyone was on the same side to take down the dragon, there was always a rogue/thief character who insisted on playing under different rules.
As culture changes, so do acts of rebellion. If the world was fair, and everything carefully monitored, rebellion looks like the movie Equilibrium. If people are savages and warlords hurting everyone weaker than them, then rebellion looks like people standing up for the weak. As the status quo changes, so does the acts of rebels.
As you might surmise from my tone, I am headed to a conversation about how the conceit of gaming changes with each generation. Roleplaying games are no longer about rugged individualist murder hobos fighting against unjust authority, or some libertarian ignobility.
Today, gaming is about rebelling against a soft, mediocre status quo by kind characters, with a desire to see life improve for everyone around them. Even the animal companions which seem to flock to every fantasy character type nowadays. Authority is seen as those who would subjugate everyone, while the PCs become conduits for empathy and compassion.
The guideposts have moved substantially. As such, those considered the old guard see modern adventure gaming stories as “soft,” especially when compared to their own mephitic Choatic Neutral attitudes and goals.
In a world full of rebellion, what then is the moral center? Do the PCs represent the values of the world; magnified by the camera lens upon their every actions? Are they moral outliers in a world filled with greed, applying modern morays to an environment that could never understand freedom of expression?
Imagine a 900 AD peasant Bulgar worrying about a dog's suffering. How alien would that be to the world?
Gaming is escapism, but the narrowed boundaries between our real world and the fantasy worlds we explore are now paper-thin. Identity politics have emerged in our hobby and the question of “who owns who” continues to evade the conversation of fantasy gaming — which if you ask me is the center of the conversation, but that’s another matter.
Authority is the ongoing fulcrum of roleplaying games. Who is in power (in the game world) and who has the right to interpret dice results (inside the fiction) must be known or addressed. And that authority represents the causation of the world. How inflexible is your universe? How fast and hard does the fist of cause and effect smash down on the players who rebel? Or fight against the gamemaster’s will? Or just act in foolish ways?
I get into the punishing gamemaster trope in A Good Book for Bad GMs. But this example is not unheard of, and the role of the gamemaster as all-powerful overseer is a thing of the past. Players have imaginations, too. The gamemaster’s power to smash and veto other creative inputs is a legacy of a style of rebellion that no longer exists.
Fighting to overthrow the King? You fail? Off with your head. Fighting to keep woodland creatures safe from the King’s loyalists? Sounds like a fine and a slap on the wrist.
I spend far too much time agonizing over details no one is ever going to notice. This spread for instance, from my GM Advice book, has been edited and edited and edited numerous times. I think I’ve changed tiny little edge creases over a dozen times. Changed the color and flow. Even the font below has changed.
Even now, after maybe six hours of editing, I look at the torn piece near the bottom left and wonder if I should make it simpler, or smoother like the page on the right. Sometimes I want the pages to be uniform. But other times, I enjoy a little bit of chaos.
When I did the graphic design for The Carcass: Exodus, I made 20 different page trims and scattered however I wanted them to appear on various pages. As close as I could, I tried to have no two spreads be the same.
I doubt anyone noticed.
At the end of the day, for me, I know I can make super busy graphic design like I see in so many other products, but these are still rulebooks. I want the text to be legible and later to be reference-able. And the one place I get to tinker around with the ‘artistry’ of my own books is on these sidebars.
Why am I bringing with up here? “This feels like a Facebook post, jim.”
I give advice across a number of channels on the internet. And this feels relevant to new designers needs. And here’s why. There’s a lot of very busy design out there (Mork Borg), and even more under designed work. Just stuff that hurts my eyes to look at and makes me lose interest.
Your page design is your canvas, not your palette. The concept of your page frames/trims/headers/extras is to keep the eye on the page. While I overdo it with details that don’t matter, my main approach is to put side trim (I almost never do trim on the top/bottom) so that the PDF is easier to read. Your eye flows down the page to the next one on the screen.
I also rarely do background textures. I think this is a hallmark of early 2000 roleplaying games where everything was trying to look like a fantasy scroll. This book would be an exception to my rule, of course, but text should never be befuddled or hard to read because of background imagery. Too many times game companies use an overly-harsh, or clearly-digital looking texture that distracts, or brings the overall quality of the work down.
I can’t imagine having someone else lay out my text in their book and it’s a garish representation of what I’ve written.
If you’re a young writer looking to do your own graphic design, I would first tell you to stop using Word Processing programs as layout programs. Second, get yourself the non-designer design book. It will teach you about typography and everything else.
I can’t stress enough the difference just a little effort makes in turning a game PDF from illegible to fun to read.