RPG Design Journal #4: Heroes, Villains, and the Morally Ambiguous

I don’t actually talk about this character in this post, but I think it looks cool and I haven’t drawn any of the others, so I’m including it anyway.

Now that we have a very basic history sketched up for our setting, lets add a few inhabitants that the players can learn about and interact with. As I’ve mentioned before – the strength of a setting’s lore is in its interaction. NPCs are useful because they can both impart lore onto players passively (through gossip, providing quests, bequeathing important items, etc.) and by being part of the lore themselves. Effectively used NPCs help orient the players in the world. A no-nonsense sheriff with a secret soft spot for orphans paints a very different picture of the law in a city than an easily bribed magistrate who imprisons anybody who slights them. Is the villain a well-respected businessman who controls a criminal network behind the scenes? A mad scientist dabbling in hideous eldritch acts? What about a mother driven by a desperate attempt to save her children by killing on the orders of an anonymous kidnapper? Each one of these villains has a different tone and a different place in this world, and each one can be connected to the setting in different ways.

I’m going to describe three NPCs below, each is intended to represent something about the setting to help orient the players.

[[I’d like to remind readers that this is a setting that I’ve been working on for some time. Some of these NPCs draw upon established lore that I haven’t expanded upon yet in these posts; some of them are from scratch, some of them I already created in advance.]]

A HERO: It’s good to have other characters in the setting that aren’t the players that represent goodness and virtue. The goals and actions of these characters can help the players understand what is perceived as “good” in this world. It should be noted that the “heroic” NPC’s views don’t necessarily have to align with the conventional understanding of “good.” Perhaps a hero is corrupt and has good PR, or maybe the people they represent have a culture so far removed from the player’s that their perception of morality is fundamentally different. (A good rule of thumb: A culture will usually develop its morality based around the necessities of survival. This is, of course, an absurdly simplified formula, but it works well when developing fantastic civilizations). So, in this setting we have strong Imperial government that looks upon a colony from afar. These colonies are constantly under threat by the environment around them, and the people are superstitious. We want a hero that helps represent this world.

There are two options that really stand out to me here: a hero that represents the will of the Empire, or a folk-hero that represents the survival and independence of the colonies. I’m going to go with the second. I think the Empire might have greater opportunities for our third type of character. One idea that I’ve been playing with is changing the nature of the nature of the Ranger class in this setting. Rangers are usually represented as loners that live outside of society. I’m interested in the idea of Rangers being like marshals in the old west. In this world, Rangers are part of an organized paramilitary organization that help protect people out on the frontier from the monster migrations. We can make a hero that represents this organization and its goals. Below is a description for Sarah Carroth. A high-level Ranger of Neutral Good alignment.

Sarah Carroth will be the leader of the Rangers. She is a character of legendary exploits – at least out on the frontier near the Forest. Every village has a story about how Sarah saved them single-handed from an onslaught of undead, or rooted out a cabal of werewolves, or destroyed a cult of Elf-worshippers. Most of these stories are exaggerated, if not made-up, but Sarah uses her reputation to seed hope in the dark frontier, and has inspired more than one adventurer to sign up with the Rangers through her tales.

The real flesh-and-blood Sarah is a woman with strong ideals, but an even stronger sense of practicality. While she resents the tight hold the Empire attempts to hold on the colonies, she is more concerned with protecting its residents from the onslaught of monsters. She encourages Rangers to work independently – roaming the countryside to assist towns and travelers. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to rally Rangers to fight as a united force, and the growing numbers of monsters makes Sarah fear that her Rangers might not be enough. Some Rangers have suggested that they might need to call upon the Imperial military for assistance. Sarah is reluctant to concede, but she also knows that she is running out of options.

A VILLAIN: On the other side of the spectrum, we have villains. Villains show the forces that the players need to face. Sure, players know that they have to kill zombies, or marauding goblins, or whatever goons you throw at them, but true villains represent the greater threat of these standard enemies. This setting is supposed to be bleak and dark – there’s a sense that the forces of evil are always about to get the upper hand. We need a villain that helps represent this sense of dread and doom. This is Ilras the White, a Chaotic Evil anti-paladin (perhaps a Blackguard) to serve as a potential boss villain.

Ilras the White was  one of the greatest Paladins known to the world. His compassion, dedication, and sense of Justice made him beloved by all – from the anonymous commoner to the King himself. Ilras’s piety and honor blessed him with unnatural strength and longevity. While the Spirian Church which he served hailed his immortality as a miracle and a blessing, it soon became his curse. After the discovery of the New Lands, Ilras embarked upon a pilgrimage to the new mysterious continent, where he believed his true duty lay. Ilras entered the Eternal Forest on a mission to purge the source of evil himself, he did not return until the next Migration – fighting alongside the Elves.

Nobody knows transpired in the Forest that corrupted the Empire’s greatest Knight. Some say that the Elves captured and tortured him – his immortality preventing his death, he was driven to madness. Others say that in the Forest he saw the darkness that lays in all beings, and descended into despair with the realization that, even in his deathless state, he would never be able to end the tide of evil. No matter what the cause, every Migration the forces of the Coalition fear to see Ilras the White – impaled with numerous spears and arrows,  his once pristine armor smeared with the blood of many generations – emerge from the Forest on his never-ending crusade against the people he once sought to protect. 

A THIRD OPTION: Alongside our champions of good and evil are the third parties. These are the antiheroes, the neutrals, and those who just see things differently. These characters can help provide information on more specific or esoteric parts of your world, they can help shake-up player perceptions by offering a “third path” in an otherwise black-and-white world, or sometimes they just add a refreshing taste of something different. This world is definitely one that attracts eccentrics as well as fanatics – it takes a special kind of person to want to risk life and limb in a continent that wants to kill you. With this character I’d like to expand on the moral ambiguity of the Imperial Government. This is Zacharia Quinn, a Lawful-Neutral Inquisitor that can serve as a random encounter, a potential ally, or an enemy.

Zacharia Quinn doesn’t much care for the New Lands. As far as their concerned, the whole place is awash with sinners attempting to escape the Empire and, even worse, unholy monstrosities that must be destroyed. Quinn is an Inquisitor of the Church. Their job is to root out “sleeper agents” of the Elves – the Changelings, lycanthropes, and Undead that hide among the unknowing townsfolk. However, not even the will and dedication of a holy agent can be untainted in the New Lands, and Quinn has been experiencing disturbing dreams.

Inspired by these nightmarish visions, Zacharia seeks to discover an object called the Gospel of Turos  – a document written heretical prophet who once worshiped the Elves. This quest weighs heavily on Zacharia, who has begun to doubt his own faithfulness. Though they tells themselves that they seek the Gospel of Turos in order to better destroy the forces they hunt, they fear that they may be falling into the arms of some unholy force. In their desperation Zacharia has become increasingly neurotic – they flagellate themselves, mutter holy scripture of dubious origin, and perform “unorthodox” protective rituals. They are suspicious of all strangers, but will gladly assist themselves to anybody who can aid them in their quest.

I haven’t included specific stats for these characters for a few reasons. One reason is that I’m lazy, the second reason (and the one that I like better) is that I don’t think the stats are really the important thing here. I can quickly determine if there are some specific spells, abilities, or items that these characters can use to make them interesting for an encounter or that fit their purpose, but it’s a bit early to be thinking about that anyway. This is a big world, and I’ve got dozens of  characters to add to it. These are merely three potential characters for players to learn about, but since this is a setting and not a campaign or adventure, we need to keep in mind that there’s always potential for one more character that can provide motivation for the players. Good settings don’t have one good guy and one major villain. If you create a setting where the only major villain is a brutish warlord, then it might be a bit difficult to make a good game with a party of players who want to try their hand in political scheming, or just want to loot some dungeons.

Variety is the spice of life, even made-up enacted lives.

Next time we’ll hone in on one specific city in the setting to sprinkle in some plot hooks.






Subtle Characterization in Games


I’ve been playing Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon for a little over three months now, and while its far from a perfect game, I have come to love playing it. From its gothic visuals, to its growling narrator, to its brutal mechanics, the game masterfully weaves a tone of despair and darkness, while still giving the player enough hope (or enticing them through greed) to continue playing.

There’s a lot to talk about with darkest dungeon, but I think a lot of it has been already said (this isn’t a particularly new game). What I want to focus on here is the way that the game gets the player to emphasize with characters that have little dialogue or traditional personality. The characters in Darkest Dungeon (the adventurers you control, that is)  don’t speak very much, and they only do so in speech bubbles. Most of the time they only speak when they are very stressed, or suffering from sort of affliction. Occasionally, one of them will add a snappy one-liner after killing an enemy or making a critical hit. While I enjoy Darkest Dungeon for its tone, I did have a hard time getting into it because I usually want strong characterization or narrative – that’s just my preference. It wasn’t until I was looking through the game’s TV Tropes page, looking for Easter eggs and such, that I realized that many of these characters do have wonderful characterization – its just very subtle.

The comment that really tipped me off was a comment about the Hound Master. This was one of the adventurer classes that I didn’t use very much, its supposed to be a versatile jack-of-all trades class, but I just couldn’t figure out how to use it effectively. Reading the post, someone remarked that, moreso than any other character, the Hound Master is the most heartwarming character. Everything that the Hound Master does is in service of his companion. Need to reduce stress? The Hound Master hugs his hound. The Hound Master takes damage? His animation is him protecting his dog from the attack. He also has one of the most heart-wrenching death lines in the game (I wont spoil it though, because it can only come from fighting the final boss). Part of why the Hound Master is so well characterized is because, well, he’s technically two characters, and you constantly get to see them interact. But seeing this has made me realize how other characters have personality as well – its buried in the mechanics of abilities, in the names of powers and abilities, in animations. When a character becomes an alcoholic because the player makes them drink stress away – that adds a level of characterization to an otherwise stock character. When a Jester heckles one party member to the bemusement of the others – that’s characterization. When an Abomination comments on the torturous nature of his existence – that’s characterization. When a Hellion overcomes stress to become virtuous, inspiring the other heroes around her (“You’re making it out of here – ALL of you!”) I almost tear up.

The thing is, all of these character archetypes have the opportunity to do the same thing. One Bounty Hunter has all the potential of another, but it is the experiences you go through with a character that allows you to impart a personality onto them. Every character has a bit of personality to start with – snarky quips, a grim outlook, unfaltering faith – but when you play with them, these puzzle-piece personalities come together and change the player’s perception of the characters. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this works so well in Darkest Dungeon – it may just be a side-effect of the way the tone and mechanics merge so well – but I would like to find more games that manage to pull off this subtle form of character development.

A Look at a Book: The Golem Triptych

4134KPHWFCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Earlier this year I read The Golem Triptych by Eric Basso. The book (or plays, rather, as it a dramatic trilogy) had intrigued me long before I read it; I myself was working on drafting a play about the Golem of Prague, and I was very surprised that someone had already written, not one, but three plays on the subject.

I had never heard of Eric Basso before, but the more I looked into him the more I knew that I had to read some of his work. I decided to get the Golem Triptych because, as a theatermaker and a fan of weird/surrealist fiction, I wanted to see a dramatic work that delved into a genre that so rarely goes onto the stage.

This work is astounding, frustrating, obscure, grandiose, grotesque, and with a level of complexity that I have never seen in a dramatic work before. It combines the modernism of Joyce, the absurdism of Becket, and the fierceness of Müller, in a trip through history, the holocaust, underground nightclubs, and the politics and legends of 17th century Prague. The characters – with a handful of actors playing numerous different roles – meld and morph, sometimes shifting to another person in the middle of a scene. The landscape of the play is nightmarish, but the horror is given to us through the dialogue: soldiers discuss a pit of writhing bodies melting together; Joseph speaks of memory as peeling skin. Wrought with twists and turns the play never reveals its message, or its intent, but it strews tantalizing trails of crumbs for the audience to follow to their own conclusions.

I wish this play could be performed, but I’m honestly not sure how it could be done. There’s nothing in the stage directions that is so ridiculous to suggest the play could not physically be staged, but the length and intricacy of the work is so imposing. It would be a crime to perform one of the plays alone without the other two – the triptych really needs to be done as a whole – but the sheer effort of staging a three-hundred page play is staggering.

Altogether, this work is a gem of underground theater. If you have a proclivity for the strange and bizarre as well as the patience for experimental, postmodern writing (and maybe a passing knowledge of European history under your belt as well) then I would highly recommend giving this under-read trilogy a chance. For those who want something more conventional, or something that just doesn’t try to frustrate and confuse, then you might want to look elsewhere.

The Necessity of Failure

In my recent life I have experienced an increasing sense of dissatisfaction regarding irony. Irony as a worldview. Irony as an attitude. Irony as a shield.

I have a great respect for the work of the absurdists, the postmodernists, and the deconstructionists. The destruction of meaning in the face of hypocrisy, in the face of false hopes, was absolutely essential (I think) to our understanding of the world – even if that understanding is that we understand nothing. However, those movements thrived because they had something to oppose; because they could shock; because not caring revealed the superficiality of what people cared about. Now we live in a world where irony is commonplace. Most people have seen, or looked through, the ironic lens, but that hasn’t stopped people from caring about bad things – quite the opposite. Irony isn’t has lost much of its bite because culture has grown accustomed to it. Sarcasm and cynicism have become a brand: its sold in advertisements, encapsulated by social media detachment, stamped onto art, and we keep falling into the trap of thinking it’s original.

One of the great appeals of modern cynicism is that it is fail-proof. An ironic statement or creation is adverse to common criticism because it is critical of itself and its audience: if you approve you are counted as a peer in the pseudo-intellectual elite, if you disapprove then it’s “doing its job” or “you don’t get it” or “its not supposed to be good.” We have trapped ourselves; we treat shock value and  nonsensical-ness as genius, not noticing that fewer and fewer people are shocked, and that our world already lacks any sense.

We have razed the city, but we are not rebuilding. Instead we are digging in the rubble, while warlords and cultural leeches seek to recreate what we sought to destroy. We need to care again, otherwise the efforts of irony have been wasted.

There are a few new movements emerging from the ashes of postmodern cynicism wearing the badges of new sincerity and post-irony. While I applaud the enthusiasm of these movements, I’m not sure I entirely agree with them. Caring about something, being sincere, is not enough if our beliefs are bad. The individual who originally supports Donald Trump ironically, and then begins supporting his policies sincerely, is still making a bad decision. We are not moving beyond irony because the battle is won, but because irony is an outdated weapon; and we are not discarding irony completely. We must continue to question our beliefs so that we may be sincere in believing them. We must embrace the idea that we can be wrong, that what we do can matter enough to fail.