2008-02-20: Cruel and Unusual
Adultery, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Murder.
Roleplaying is full of evil acts. Killing in most games is inconsequential. Theft, normal. These things are normalized in the game. Killing a monster isn't murder. Stealing from a dragon's hoard is just getting your due. There is no moral question in doing these things. It is fantasy, it is play. Moral questions are over-ridden by rationalizations in the setting. We play in order to be free of normal rules and boundaries.
Vain, Acquisitive, Dominating, Sceptical.
But how do you get a player to portray a character that is unlikable? That is vicious and cruel. That is usually the gm's job, to take on the burden of being an asshole, of being the embodiment of evil that the heros can revel in destroying.
Mutiny, Rape, Robbery, Sodomy.
How would you get a player to have their character do something that is truly horrible? That does cut across the moral lines of the world they are playing in, that challenges their own sense of right and wrong. Something that challenges the player's sense of their own moral compass, just in thinking about an act.
Judging, Divisive, Arrogant, Controlling
And why would you want to?
The answer is, you give them permission.
(note: spoilers below)
The Mothers is a free-form scenario, written in the jeep style by Frederik Berg Olsen. The setting is a group of new mothers, forming a support group in which they can help each other overcome the difficulties of having a young child. When I played The Mothers in Finland, my character headed up a group of jealous and accusatorial mothers in trying to shred another's sense of self, finally calling social services on her to report her "abuse" of her child. Heading up a posse to "save" the child from her own mother.
Poison'd is narrativist table top role playing game written by Vincent Baker. Reservoir Dogs crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean. The setting is a mutiny on a Pirate ship, where the Captain's just been killed by an English spy, and the finest of the British navy is following close behind. When my friends played Poison'd in Indy, their pirate characters tried to cut off the balls of a young boy,one of their fellows, to keep him from getting as bad as they were. Among other things.
How did we get here? What allowed us to have our characters do these things? What short circuited the inhibitions we might have had against doing such a thing, our fears of what the other players might think of us?
How it doesn't work
I fell into my fears when playing Vincent's game in development, the Dragon Killer. In the first scene, I used my character's Ruthlessness to throw a young boy into a ravine, covering his escape with the murder of another. I found myself unable to say the words at first, and afterwards it haunted me. I looked to the others in the group to reassure me that it had not been too much, but though I had their words I didn't find it, didn't have that security.
How it does
When I played the Mothers, I felt free to commit to committing social atrocities. The game is simple. There are two short character description sheets. The first gives information about the child's birth and the mother's life. On each sheet, the mother is also exhorted to compete to be seen as the most perfect mother. Their child, the perfect child and so on. With the second, the ugly truth comes out. The sleepless nights, the pressure for sex from the partner, the screaming fits, the depression and self-loathing of a body changed by birth.
For all except one.
One character, Nadia, is singled out. She has no problems, no issues, no terrible burdens. Her body is healthy and beautiful, her husband the perfect helpmeet. Her child, angelic. The character sheets for her are full of strong images of health, hope and peacefulness. An idyllic view of motherhood that this character is experiencing.
In our game, we turned on her, accusing her of alternately of lying or of lording her good fortune over us. We made up issues with her child, questioned her motives, her sanity—all the while saying it was because we cared about her and her child that we would attack her so. We gave in to our mob instincts.
If I had written this game, I would make the hooks stronger. I would have made the characteristics of the characters interlace and oppose one another more clearly: write body image anxiety into Sidsel, or have Louise be losing her job due to the pregnancy. Have issues come up as the players describe their characters which would provoke negative responses. However, though this might make the game more focussed, it might remove some of the choice involved. The characters are fitted to the premise by their expectations of Nadia, but the actions of the characters are informed by the choices of the players. We chose to turn on Nadia. We chose, I chose to commit to the premise. To see what it would be like, to see how I could find a way to break her. To experience the terrible dynamic of a group singling out an outsider in a safe and contained way. Since I played, I've stepped up to defend a friend after experiencing that sinking feeling of seeing someone singled out so, again. After actually doing it myself in play, I could not stand aside and watch it happen. Just couldn't.
In Poison'd, Vincent makes clear the Expectations right out of the gate. You choose the sins the character has endured, and enacted. The game puts real brutality back into the life of a corsair, peeling back the veneer of romance that they have been veiled by in popular fiction. Then, Adultery, Sodomy, Idolatry, Murder are all things that you do in the game—to the other PCs as likely as not. You have the choice to begin the game aspiring to fuck your fellow player's character, and are a likely to to choose that as to spit in God's eye—or the Devil's. The game provides a menu of vicious little tidbits to include in the game allowing everyone to go there, knowing it was exactly what was intended, not just an aberration on their personal part. Unlike the Dragon Killer, you don't feel like you are out on a limb, going to these unspeakable places on your own. Vincent is there, holding your hand, and linking yours with the other players around you.
If you dare.
And again, why, exactly, should we do this?
Because of games like this.
2008-02-22 23:07:04 John Harper
Ah, this is good stuff, Em. It really helps me think about that Poison'd game as game instead of just the raw experience of it.
2008-02-26 17:54:09 Emily
Thanks, John. Hope that doesn't take away from it—it sounded like a real life changer to me. :)
2008-02-27 01:01:33 John Harper
Nope, doesn't take away at all. But it does help me be a better game designer. :-)