It is a truth universally acknowledged that an old wizard in possession of a rumour must be in want of adventurers. A lot of this applies to all of Austen’s work, if not all of Romantic Fiction (not to be confused with romance fiction, which is something else entirely). I chose Pride and Prejudice because it’s probably the most famous, although personally I prefer Sense and Sensibility and the Ang Lee film of it is amazingly well done. Trick your nerdy friends into watching Austen by running an Ang Lee marathon of Crouching Tiger, Hulk and Sense and Sensibility tonight! And then start learning that:
1. Evil is Petty
Ms Jane is an observational comic, and she observes humanity to mostly be a bunch of mindless, gaggling simpletons so coked out of their brains on banality, supposition, trivialities and misconceptions of their own importance they can barely keep themselves from exploding and Jane’s insert characters can barely keep from vomiting all over them. And everyone’s like this, because this is a Romantic novel; it’s less about who is and isn’t petty but who triumphs by rejecting it, and who is dragged down by their surrender to it. Which means her villains are some of the most recognizable in literature: they are all of humanity’s smallness writ large if you’ll pardon the expression. Which feels far more realistic than the villains in fantasy and much of genre fiction, where the villains are drawn from history and are evil because they will sweep out destruction like Genghis Khan or bring down Empires like the Goths. Austen’s villains are powerful and engaging not because they are dark gods who want to crush the whole world beneath their feet but because they are ignoble prigs who want to crush everyone they meet beneath their feet because those poisonous petty reminders of how much better they are than other, lesser, people are how their dead souls sustain themselves.
Now I know what you’re thinking: you run adventure fiction, genre fiction, not a drawing room comedy of manners; you need vast sweeping villains out to conquer the universe to drive up the stakes, you need Darth Vaders and Merciless Mings. Yes, but remember that both Ming and Vader aren’t scary because they can/do wipe out planets (Earth/Alderaan) – planets are too abstract. They’re scary because of their emotional beats where they behave like children, playing with people like toys, lashing out with murderous force at anyone who makes them feel small. Don’t forget to do that, to make your evil petty as hell. To have them lash out like whiny babies, to demean and undercut their allies and staff, to put their own petty vendettas above the needs of the many or the plan. Not only does this help us hate and pity the bad guy, it helps plots because it gives the bad guys Issues (see point 4 here).
2. Duality Rules
Romantic novels, gothic novels, romance novels, actually this runs in a lot of literature, but Romantic 19th century stuff loves this technique more than most: the way to talk about an issue or a philosophy or a concept or an aspect of human character is by presenting two sides. Jane is simple and beautiful, Lizzie is plain and complicated. Lizzie won’t marry for comfort but her friend Charlotte will. This is emblematic of the duality within characters, of course. Lizzie is prideful, and wishes at times she could be more accepting of the world as it was, like Jane or Charlotte. She hates Darcy for his prejudices but she also finds herself drawn to him because she’s equally disdainful of the world that fails to meet her standards.
Again, I know what you’re thinking: how does this apply to adventure fiction? Because good writing applies everywhere. And it also makes playing a dynamic, interesting, dramatic character easier if you set up a key character element that’s got two competing poles. Conan hates the complexities of civilisation but he is drawn to it over and over again. Batman believes in justice but has to break the law. Hamlet wants to do right but not what people tell him is right. As a player, this is a simple trick to make every character decision entertaining and easy to roleplay out. And as a player or a GM, you can build great dramatic interplay by looking at the duality in your party. Are you the law-abiding paladin? Then yes, your scene arguing with the thief can be boring as hell if it happens in the tavern but if you make it happen in the final approach about what laws to break as they bring down the evil cleric running the town…now you’ve got a game. Back in the tavern, your paladin who loves wine should set up duality by drinking with the straight-edge elf who needs no human stupefactions.
3. Have a Ball
The essential difference between abstract/pure combat games, and games with story is that story involves interacting with the world of the game and the people in it, and the only way to interact with those things is with culture and society. Since Austen is always about culture and society, her big moments tend to be based around big societal and cultural events events: weddings, parties, anything. Those are the times and places where the game of culture raises the stakes and society plays for blood. And it’s not just the big events (culturally or narratively): tilt points are picnics and pony rides, conflict happens when you visit for tea and love blooms when you stay for dinner, and you always, always end with a wedding – or weddings, if possible.
Again, how does this fit in with RPGs, where adventures almost always focus on characters at the edge of society, who leave it behind to go to dark places where the only culture is the stuff you smash to get the gems or how you tell which ork is the mage. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but even in that model you start in a tavern and end around a campfire, and that’s society. And there’s great flavour to be had in the gem-holders and the ork costumes. Don’t skimp on either of these. If you have a tavern take the time to figure out the details of that social ritual, and why it matters and who has status and who doesn’t. Working out what your paladin drinks and the elf doesn’t and bickering about it will make those moments when you save each others lives outside of society matter more, and show the duality of your lives – society where drinking matters and adventure where you’ve got each others backs. At the campfire, think about not just who keeps watch but how beds are prepared and who cooks dinner. That way, again, when you do throw them into a fancy ball or bring emotional plots crashing up into a wedding, you’ve laid the ground work. It doesn’t have to be fancy, either – a campfire with just your crew can build to a sleep out with the hundred miners you just rescued or the elves you are visiting…which ends up being a dance party or a troll wedding.
4. Not All Evil Can Be Killed
Once you have society and culture you have rules. Rules that keep the people in power where they are and stop anyone else from doing much about it. Austen likes to run her withering gaze over these rules and their external manifestations in parallel with her examination of how those rules run internally in her characters. And these kind of codes, internal and external, are just as much a part of adventure fiction as well – a lot of them have the simple Batman formula of something that desperately needs killing and a reason it can’t be killed. The difference in adventure and escapist fiction, though, is usually this has a solution, where the (typically male) hero transcends either the problem or the morality to stand triumphant. Jane’s world is one where this doesn’t often happen and sometimes can’t happen. It’s a feminine reflection on endurance and toleration in a world that keeps your hands tied. But again, our genre fiction doesn’t have to skimp on this lack of resolution. Batman’s constantly finding himself stuck with the rules that bind him; crippled by his devotion to life, wondering each day how can he go on trapped between two worlds, a crime-breaker hunting criminals like a woman against marriage in a world that demands she marry.
Players are even more menschian than genre heroes, because this is a game, it is participatory and we like to win. So if something gets in our way or makes us feel bad or does us wrong or wants to blow up the universe, we get mad then we roll initiative, and by the end of it, the bad guy is dead. If he gets away we call the GM a cheat, punking us when we totally made that roll to kill him as he rode away. Players: don’t do that. You’ll get your chance, promise. But stories are more interesting when this doesn’t always happen, because you get stuck in those Batman/Lizzie Bennett dilemmas. GMs, your job is to make things which are evil which can’t be killed, and that’s why the society and culture matters, because those things keep those people around. Worse, they make you have to associate with them and suck up to them. Drink at a tavern to find jobs? Maybe the bartender is a racist against elves. Maybe the wizard who gives quests forces you to call him His Eldrtich Majesty. Maybe Cyber-doug in the corner keeps broadcasting porn into your cyberdeck but isn’t worth killing because he’s not “part of the adventure” (or you’ll get jumped by the watch and outlaws don’t get jobs). Until that one time you find out the bartender has a half-elf daughter, the wizard flunked out of the academy and that Cyber-doug works for your Big Bad. Nothing annoys like the mosquito, the background buzzing that you cannot stop. And this builds into a larger issue which is…
5. Impotence and Ignorance Are Fire and Oxygen
A great deal of Romantic fiction – and its modern descendant, the soap opera – depends on these twin dramatic pillars: the sense that something horrible has happened or will happen or might be happening now, but no way to find out if it has and no way to do anything about it. When Mr Bingley goes to London, Jane has no word from him and has to wander around trying to find him. When Whickham runs off with Lydia, they’re just gone. They’re out there somewhere, being married, and nobody knows anything or can find them. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor aches inside for news of Mr Ferrars, and finds he is betrothed to a woman she swore to support, and she can’t even tell anyone or do anything. Like all writing tricks it’s a cheap trick but it works. We ache to know, as audience, which connects us intimately to the characters who ache.
Players HATE this. If there’s something they don’t know, they want to find out. If there’s something working against them, they want to destroy it now, and if there’s something preventing them from doing that, they’ll knock it out straight away. As such, a great deal of roleplaying narrative is just running the group in circles “investigating” until they can find the straight line to the XP pinata/Big Bad. The solution is for players and GMs alike to look for what they call Superman solutions. Superman is so powerful a hero that a lot of the plots he’s in can be finished in seconds if he wasn’t suddenly depowered, constrained or occupied elsewhere or far away (or confused, the “investigation” angle we use too often). You’ll see this in Matrix: Reloaded, too – Neo is very far away and trying to do two things at once, to stop him going all Superman. This is a concept I call “narrative distance”, and if you do it well it doesn’t appear forced, and it gets what you need: ignorance and impotence.
And the fact is that most fantasy worlds (and post-apocalyptic ones and far-flung space ones) have communication systems that are in far more disarray than the postal services of the 19th century. If PCs leave town for any reason they should have no idea what’s going on, which allows for fait accomplis to be presented when they return. Or, set up conflicts the moment before the wizard gives them the quest (which has to be done before the moon rises or whatever) so the whole time they’re trying to get the spiritstone they’re wondering if there sister is marrying Cyber-doug. That makes doing it on time far more pressing than this vague threat of the world ending, because as we pointed out in point one, we humans think small. But you can reverse it too: give them the choice: retrieve the soulstones before the Dark Lord’s agents do, or go three towns over to find out why sis is marrying Cyber-doug before the wedding. But not both.
Now sure, they may split the party. But as I talk about in point five here, that’s even better because then you move half the party off stage and what does the other half get? They get no idea of what’s going on with their friends, and no way to help. Impotence and ignorance. And the only way they’re going to see them again is they arranged to meet up at that social location or cultural event, full of people they hate. And the bad guy knows they’re stuck, and he’ll turn the knife and tell them his men are already putting bombs around the wedding altar because he’s just the kind of guy to ruin a wedding and destroy the world. Heroes will be torn in two, right down their dualities.
And all while in a dungeon fighting dragons. It can happen.