Fantasy with Consequences

I have a problem. It’s a problem with fantasy, storytelling, and by extension, RPGs. I like consequences.

This problem takes on a lot of forms. Character continuity, status quo issues, debates about agency and authority… and I’m sure more that I can’t even think of just now. But I’ve been playing some games, watching some shows, etc. during this weird time in the U.S.A. and these thoughts have been moving to the forefront again.

Let’s start with the status quo problem because it’s the one I noticed the earliest in my life. It made an impression because I remember exactly when it occurred to me. I was watching a cartoon and the characters won the lottery. Like, insane amounts of money. They were making plans and thinking about all the awesome shit they’d do. But in the end, it turned out they hadn’t actually gotten the money at all. Because if they had, the whole tenor and shape of the show would have had to change. And that got me thinking about all the other plotlines that had happened in other episodes and I realized that no matter what happened in any given episode, by the end, the status quo would be preserved.

The status quo problem is particularly prevalent in the comic book industry – to the point where every few years they have a “crisis” to reset the baseline – and seems to be driven by the desire to keep their core characters intact. This doesn’t actually work out well most of the time but hey, they keep trying.

But the problem exists in RPGs too. There is a desire to protect the baseline assumptions of a campaign, world, setting, etc. that trends all stories back to protecting and maintaining the status quo. After all, if you completely break the world, then you have nowhere left to adventure, right? That’s an extreme example, but ultimately, the idea that the heroes’ hometown is always still there on the map, the inn they bought doesn’t get burned down, or the kingdom ultimately wins the war and gets back to doing what it’s doing are pretty common in RPGs.

Not all stories (or all RPG campaigns) have this issue. When they don’t, they tend to create another issue – which is why I think there is a desire to hold on to the status quo – and that issue is that usually a fundamental state change in the setting/campaign creates what feels like an ending point. Dragonlance, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, all have this issue. When the most important story that you’ll ever tell in that setting is already told, and the world is literally changed by the result, then your characters are through. And that’s what makes them so compelling as stories but not necessarily as game worlds (though I’d argue that SW found interesting ways around this but that’s for another post).

While the status quo problem most often shows itself in large scale ways, the exact opposite tends to be true of the character continuity problem. By that, I mean, no matter what happens in the world, the character remains safe, sane, intact, and ready for their next adventure.

I think the character continuity problem became real to me when I started messing around with the Amber DRPG. There are a couple pages in the game book that talk about “How to Play a Character in Amber.” These pages are great, I highly recommend them to any player of any RPG but one section really sticks out. It’s in the part about loving your character.

Corwin, the main character in the Chronicles of Amber, goes through a lot of pain. Imagine you were the player, and Corwin was your character. How would you feel about being a helpless captive of your worst enemies? Would you still keep playing after Corwin’s eyes (your eyes!) were burned out of his head? Would you come back, session after session, to endure Corwin’s stay of years in a cramped dungeon cell, blind and with no hope?

This is a hell of a thing.

Because many times, “loving your character” means not wanting to lose your character. You want to have full agency over your character and you don’t want permanent consequences (including death) which might impede your ability to enjoy playing that character. I have had many conversations that border on arguments over the years revolving around the issue of character death and its affect on the enjoyment of the player and the campaign. I won’t rehash those here but just know that I’m on the side of character death is good.

Now, admittedly, Corwin (SPOILERS!) doesn’t die in Amber, and he even gets his eyes back, so, you know, status quo. But he had no way of knowing that at the time of his capture, imprisonment, and maiming. In Amber, the greatest warrior in the entire universe (Benedict) loses an arm in battle. The main hero gets blinded and imprisoned for years – and that’s after decades of living out a lie because he’d been given the plague and lost his memory – heck, even the antagonist gets his agency severely hampered.

Now don’t get me wrong. If you and your group want to have a romping, stomping good time with heroes who go into epic adventures and come out unscathed – super. Enjoy the shit out of it. There is no badwrongfun here. It just isn’t a play style that excites me.

I want characters to pay a price for adventuring. I want the danger to be real and immediate. And I want them to stand up and be heroes anyway.

For all that it was a failure, there is one line in Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice that always makes me happy. When Batman says to Superman, “You aren’t brave. Men are brave.” That’s a powerful moment. (There is a whole digression here where I talk about why it’s powerful on many levels and not just the obvious and what it meant to me but again… that’s for another time).

But this problem also manifests itself in ways that are false consequences or break the status quo issue to create consequences. There’s even a Batman corollary here… (he’s everywhere man).

Often, when consequences need to be shown but the hero can’t suffer… everyone around them has to suffer. This showed up in a video game I’m playing right now. There character I’m playing as needs to remain intact but the world has to show how dark and dangerous it is; so another character loses an arm. Other characters are killed off to motivate the main character to do more drastic things, etc. This is akin to the debate about whether Batman protects Gotham from crazies or makes it a target for crazies.

James Kirk once taunted Khan about how Khan had managed to kill everyone else but couldn’t seem to actually finish off Kirk. It’s quite a thing when you think about it.

Now, again, I’m not saying this is always bad. Losing loved ones, cherished companions, or important pieces of your past can be compelling and heartfelt consequences. But it’s less so (for me) when these come at the expense of knowing that the player character (main character) is going to remain intact no matter what else goes on around them. That even if they go off on a three-month drinking binge to dull the pain, they’ll still be an 8th level fighter when it’s time to go adventuring again.

It might be different if they were the one to lose the arm.

Ultimately, consequences in RPGs tend to be short-lived and protect the status quo. I get that I’m probably in a minority here but I wish that was different. And you can point to grimdark games where everything is morally grey and characters suffer constantly and the world is horrible. They exist. But that’s not what I’m getting at.

I want characters to be brave. I want them to face danger knowing that they’ll possibly lose – and that even if they win it comes with a significant cost. And I want them to choose to pay it anyway.

And still love their character.

As always – thanks for reading.

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