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.
Fighting just to fight? Find another game.