No PC is an island

This is a very, very long but excellently written thesis on Robinson Crusoe as the Master Narrative of the white Protestant ethic of exploration and enslavement and how, through the book’s popularity that meme infects all modern culture to keep perpetuating that story throughout history.

The racist and environmenallty exploitative elements of Crusoe are fairly obvious (and the article takes a long time to tell us them again). What caught my eye is the emphasis on Crusoe as the Man Alone. Crusoe is, like Defoe, too Protestant for his time and he finds in the island a blank slate where he can recreate not the world he left behind but his perfect idealised version of it, where all of nature submits to his will. He plunders all the treasure of his lost ship, becoming instantly wealthy, and he uses that to master his domain. What beasts he cannot train he kills with his fire-stick. Eventually, he gathers a follower and builds a great tower. And when he does return to civilisation, he does so as a legend, a great lost hero.

Sound like any PCs you know?

In fact, it sounds like the archetypal D&D campaign.

The idea of the wandering orphans is a cliche in our hobby and one we’ve wisely grown to be aversive towards. But while we dismiss it with one hand we tend to keep hold of it with the other, yes I wrote a backstory but mostly the game is about us wandering through modules, making the natural world dead and taking its stuff. I’m not going to dance about how orc-killing is a stand in for how racist we all are because it’s not that simple and that saw is tired because it’s not that simple and its been overdramatised. The orc-killing is really just another part of subduing the landscape, of the Great White Man turning the wild island of Crusoe into something he controls. That became Taming the Old West, and American fantasy has always drawn directly from that well (as indeed is much of the superhero mythos).

The man alone bringing his order to the wild (in D&D and Warhammer, Chaos, in Gotham, the mad of Arkham, in Exalted, the Wyld etc etc etc) but also outside society (not Dragonblooded, not an NPC class, not a cop) is great for telling stories, especially action/adventure stories.  Have Gun, Will Travel, as Paladin’s card read, is all you need for a story to happen. It allows you to move your characters any and have anything happen to them.  And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It doesn’t have to have racist or imperial overtones just because it came from those origins, and it doesn’t stop those stories from being awesome.

But the article compares this to the hero of ancient, oral stories. Said stories were almost always told in the third person, by the sidekick survivor, and they were told to the community, and thus very often were deeply about the community or a community. Yes, Gilgamesh went on his journey far across the land but Enkidu is there pretty much as an equal. Crusoe is regarded by many as the first real novel, and it is striking for doing what almost no other writers had done before, which was being told in the first person. A story about an individual, told to an individual, and that allows Crusoe to present the world as he sees it. Which is kind of like handing a setting to the players and letting them mould it into what they want.

Yes, as you level in D&D you get a fortress and followers but you don’t build a community, you create one in your image. And yes, Vampires live in societies of other vampires, but their goal is to kick the old guys out and run it their way. Teenage rebellion writ large.

(As an aside, the really clever thing about Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vinyard is it satirised this idea of total world control. Dogs stressed over and over again that whatever the Dogs believed was true was the absolute truth in the setting. So if they decided jaywalking was a killing defence, then your character would sleep easy. The quesiton was would you. )

The point is, we often lose community in our rpgs, and our PCs. Although we must, by virtue of the PC group tell ensemble stories, games almost always begin by you shaping who you are – a lone character written by a lone player whose interior monologue is, really, for a lone player.And in that, we run the risk of locking ourselves away from aspects of reality which have powerful themes and great storytelling possibilities.

Yes, you can build communities in games but we almost always build it around ourselves, which rarely is a true society. Consider Ars Magica’s Covenant system which while developing an internal society also creates a society that is in many key ways at odds with the world outside it. It is a haven of PC definition upon the world. Perhaps one of the few games that really understands that who we are depends on who we are among is Best Friends, where your stats, IIRC, depend on how the other players view you. On another angle, I once pitched a game based on 19th century Australian convicts re-integrating with society, so instead of starting out a family man and then picking up a gun, you would slowly put down your gun, get a job, build a house and start a family. In a sense, slowly subsuming your original character’s identity into the GM’s world, rather than making it your own, the absolute opposite of teenage fantasy.

Boring? Too close to real life? Hardly relevant complaints in a world where we have RPGs about first dates and falling over. Too railroady? Yes, but that’s life for you. I’m sure Tony Robbins believes we can write our own adventure script for a great many of us – and a great many great heroes  in many great stories – events are more about sinking into the world as it is, not making it anew. Turning your character into just another NPC, because really, in the end, we’re all NPCs in somebody else’s game, right?

Something to think about, anyway.


2 thoughts on “No PC is an island

  1. I suppose it behooves me to point out that one of the awesome things about the Warhammer career system is it violently forces you into the community of the setting. Yes, the default is you then stop being a The Boy What Eats the Dung and go off seeking your fortune, but the career table is more than just background for you as an individual, it actually functions as a way to teach you about what kind of world your character inhabits by revealing what he might have been as well as what he is (and thus who are the people around him). This is the virtue of random tables; they are setting summaries in the most convenient and efficient form, and WFRP has always had a welcome focus on the society of its setting as much as its geography and history, something too many settings lack.

  2. Nice! I’ve always enjoyed community-building and interaction in the RPGs I’ve run and my original gamegroup shared this faiblesse. We were never particularily interested in the Roving Looters playstyle. But then all of us were Sweden-style Social Democrats raised on a Runequest-derived RPG. OD&Ds libertarian frontier utopia never really appealed.
    We always enjoyed imaginary drama more than collecting imaginary money.

    HeroQuest/HeroWars was awesome in the way it tied the idea of community to the mechanics. Too bad the games were too abstract for my taste in other areas.

    I’d love to see a FRPG or campaign that builds around a village or town or farthing or whathaveyou a la Asterix or Deadwood. I’d really love to see rules for communal creation of such a play area, like Burning Empire’s world burning. Village burning, as it were.

    Anyway, ‘nough blather. I enjoyed the post.

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