This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the big differences between roleplaying sessions and the adventure stories from which they derive their inspiration is found in the degree of interaction between hero and villain before their conflict devolves into violence.

In a Bond flick, 007 typically meets the archvillain at least once before the final confrontation. Often they interact a couple of times before our hero finally starts blowing up the bad guy’s impressive hideout.

The archetypal action-based RPG is D&D, where the monsters conveniently check into hotels, which the heroes raid, one suite at a time, busting in the door and killing everything inside. Once one room is cleansed of its valuables, they head down the corridor to the next door, opening it, too, with their hobnailed passkeys. If the inhabitants of a room are ancient vampires with an awesome pedigree, or high-level characters with elaborately fleshed personalities, it doesn’t much matter. They’re going down, man, with no time-wasting conversation to separate the smashing of the door from the rolling of initiative.

If you don’t think roleplaying ought to resemble other narrative forms, this isn’t a problem, just a point of divergence.

However, if her players want to respond to the evolving story of a roleplaying session as they would to a movie or book, a GM has a tricky task to execute.

Part of the problem lies in the relentlessly first-person nature of RPG narrative. If the heroes aren’t in a scene, the players don’t see it. Contrast this with the shifting viewpoints found in most heroic fiction, or the cutting between scenes typical of a movie.

When writing a novel, if I know that the hero and villain won’t actually meet for a long stretch of the book, I can still introduce the bad guy early on in the proceedings. I just give him his own chapter, a bit of internal monologue, or a secondary character to interact with and presto, I’ve got a living, breathing antagonist with a bit of distinguishing depth to him. In a screenplay I can cut from one character to another just as easily.

However, there are a few fictional examples where we see everything through the lead character’s eyes. Most, if not all, detective novels are structured this way. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are a touchstone of this approach.

In film, we can go back to the Bond example. The classic template includes at least three meetings:

1) Non-violent conflict, in which the hero gets a sense of the villain’s character with a face-to-face meeting. Usually this occurs in public. The Bondian fascination with gambling is not only an evocation of Fleming-era high style; it’s a highly useful fictional device allowing the antagonist and protagonist to undergo a conflict that will not bring the narrative to a premature close. (Goldfinger gives us two of these scenes: a card game and, later, a round of golf.)

2) Capture. The hero is captured and placed in a trap. The villain and hero interact once more, this time with deadly stakes. The villain then departs, and the hero escapes. He lives, but once he is free, the bad guy is long gone. Again, they’ve come into contact, but the final confrontation is delayed.

3) Climactic action. Finally, the hero has learned of the villain’s nefarious plot and arrives to defuse it before mass carnage ensues. Once he’s neutralized the plot, his conflict with the villain reaches its ultimate, fatal resolution.

The introduction of a secondary villain or henchman often follows a similar pattern. Sometimes the hero meets the henchman in a nonviolent context before later coming to blows with him. In some of the Bond films, the henchman survives the main villain, showing up at the end for a coda fight scene, as in Diamonds Are Forever.

Adding these elements to your roleplaying scenarios is a matter of context and motivation. You must provide your heroes with a reason to hold off on the ultraviolence until a later scene. Solid motivations include:

Cover. Like Bond, the heroes have reason to make a least a token nod toward concealing their identities. They can’t blow their cover by blasting away the moment they run into a suspected bad guy.

Bystanders. Initial encounters can take place in public. If the heroes start a fight, innocents will be killed or taken hostage.

Public relations. If they have an authority figure as a patron, the heroes may be discouraged from staging their fights in places where massive property destruction may take place. They have a stake in the reputation of their stomping grounds – the king won’t like it if their villain-smashing activities make his nation seem like a dangerous, lawless place.

But above all, the most important reason for PCs to keep their cans of whup-ass sealed is information gathering-/-evil scheme preventing.

In the standard RPG plot, the villains are passive. They’ve done something bad already, and now are merely holed up in their well-trapped dungeon complexes waiting for the PCs to show up and slaughter them.

In fiction, the villains are almost always actively doing something. The PC’s main aim is not to kill them, but to stop the bad thing they’re trying to do. Any antagonist killing occurs merely as an adjunct to this main goal. The heroes are trying to save people, not just confiscate some loot after committing a justifiable homicide.

(The revenge movie, like Unforgiven or Gladiator, is an exception to this pattern. But even there, the protagonist and antagonist interact prior to the act that inspires the anti-hero’s quest for vengeance. In some cases, such as Kill Bill, the interaction takes place in the antecedent action, but it happens nonetheless.)

To stop the bad guys, the heroes have to find out what they’re doing. Interacting with them is a way of doing this – hence the time-honored Bondian technique of infiltrating the hideout and getting captured. (At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond dispenses even with the pretence of infiltration and just has himself dropped on Blofeld’s doorstep, essentially reporting for incarceration.)

Capture sequences are tricky in an RPG context. PCs prefer death traps they can disarm before they climb into them. Many players game for a feeling of power and freedom and react with surprising anxiety if their characters are imprisoned. Some, oddly enough, prefer character death to capture. A less extreme reaction is a loss of hope when captured – you may have to be blatantly heavy-handed in pointing to possible avenues of escape.

By allowing the PCs to meet the bad guys before they get the chance to kill them, you’ll be delaying their gratification. In other words, you’re frustrating them in order to enhance their enjoyment at the adventure’s end. You’re employing frustration as a tool, which can be rewarding – but only if you use it with a laser-like precision to do Auric Goldfinger proud.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008.

by Julia Ellingboe

[Editor] Julia Ellingboe is the author of Steal Away Jordan, an RPG about slavery in the United States.

“Steal Away Jordan is about playing heroes” has become my mantra of late. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan can be as accessible as any story game which doesn’t make race a theme. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan, despite the brutality incorporated in the mechanics, is fun and is not an exercise in futility. I declare it to illustrate that all Americans share African American history. We all own the stories of slaves who survived against all odds.

I’ve been saying this hero thing quite a bit lately and I believed that any misunderstanding of this idea was based in culture. My mother is an American History professor. I am a descendant of slaves and other African American “heroes”. This is the message my parents taught me. I come from a long line of survivors. I figured that most African Americans believed the hero myth of their ancestors. I recently had the chance to test my belief, and was pleasantly surprised that others shared part of my mantra.

The director of the Digital Moving Image Salon and the head of the computer games section of the Computer Science Department at Spelman college invited me to give a presentation on Steal Away Jordan . My audience would be one with whom I’ve never had an opportunity to play or discuss my game: mostly African American women who have never played a role playing game before. This was a whole new choir for me. I assumed they would get the desire to create a game where the characters looked like us, even if they didn’t get the whole role playing game thing. I started to squirm about the hero idea. While lurking on a forum devoted to people of color interested in comic books and comic book heroes, I discovered that quite a few black folks find the whole notion of playing a slave less than fun. I didn’t know what to expect.

I gave a short dress rehearsal presentation and demo in a Computer Science seminar class on operating systems. I opened by asking, “When you think of slave narratives, what comes to mind.” A young man, a Morehouse student, sheepishly raised his hand. “Suffering, punishment, pain.” He said. Another student offered similarly dismal words.

“No one thinks, ‘hero’?” I asked. The students replied with blank stares. I’ll show ’em! I thought. I started a quick demo. I gave the three women standard slave names from the game text: Abyssinia, Button, and Jane. I named the Morehouse student Caesar. They each created characters. When they went around the table and introduced their characters, All four players had created highly skilled, intelligent, attractive, slaves; powerful in their own right. In play, they certainly acted like them. The midwife protected a mother from an angry mistress, despite the risk to herself. Caesar, a blacksmith, waited for the right moment to exact revenge on an abusive owner even though it meant his hard work and expertise would go unrewarded and unrecognized. They all created characters who certainly rose to the occasion. I was encouraged. Maybe this slave as hero thing wasn’t just part of Bond family lore. Maybe there was something universal about it.

That evening I gave my presentation to a crowd of about twenty which included some relatives. Two were seasoned roleplaying gamers. All but two attendees were African American. I preached my hero gospel and used a short clip from a Boondocks episode (“The Story of Catcher Freeman”) to illustrate my point. And I ran a demo with three volunteers with two men and a woman. The men were the seasoned gamers. The woman was my cousin, an Atlanta native who came to see what this whole roleplaying stuff was all about. One of the players was one of the not black folks in the audience. Thankfully, Sam Chupp of the Bear’s Grove podcast, recorded the presentation

In Steal Away Jordan, the GM gives you a name and a worth, which is the number of dice you roll in a conflict. Players create tasks, motives, and goals for their character. The GM is not privy to these. After character creation, I left the room and the players, with audience assistance, created their tasks, motives, and goals. I had never heard this process until I listened to Sam’s recording. All that stuff about heroes, while I still maintain as the key to fun in Steal Away Jordan , paled in importance to another theme: community. Sure a roleplaying game of slave narratives is about heroes, but in order for any individual character to rise to heroism, she needs the support of her community. Heroes don’t act in a vacuum, and when there are no superhuman feats to achieve, pure survival against all odds requires networking, friendship, and someone with your back.

I gave the players five minutes to discuss their goals, decide if they wanted to share goals (such as rebellion or forming an underground railroad), and I asked the other audience members to help them out. It took them fifteen minutes to do this. I didn’t hear their conversation until I listened to the recording of the presentation. It was a game designer’s dream. The players started roleplaying while they discussed their goals. They, both characters and players, made friends with each other. The other people in the audience gave suggestions, and from what I heard, enjoyed the “performance”. When I came back into the room, unbeknown to me, the game had already begun. I ran through a few examples of the mechanics, and wished I’d had more time to actually play the story. Little did I know they already had.

So back to my “hero” mantra. When I want to convince potential players that Steal Away Jordan is just like any other role playing game, except, perhaps in setting I still bring up the hero thing and the survivor thing. To it I add that the game is also about building a community and surviving together. Heroism cannot happen in vacuum. The reason we play is to spend time with our friends, strengthen our own community, and in the process, have fun.