Protagonism in Novels & RPGs

Jim Vassilakos (
An earlier version of this article appeared in Interregnum #41. Since it falls in with the IgTheme for this issue, I figured it could stand some brushing up.
I have to admit that although I’m not particularly well-read as far as most gamers go, I do like to read novels. That is to say, I like to read certain novels. I might as well confess right now, I’m fairly choosy. I don’t often go in for the big-name authors. Classics are not my style. And the subject matter, while important, is not the chief criterion. Even the plot is a minor consideration. My interest is in the style of writing itself, which in a way is a fortunate thing, because it means that I can pick up a book, flip to some random page somewhere in the middle, and instantly gain a fairly accurate idea of whether or not I’ll like the book. But how to qualify this style? It’s a hard thing to describe. What I’m really looking for are three things. First, the use of language has to be there, obviously. If the author writes “he said / she said” dialogue, then back on the shelf it goes. I’m smart enough to figure out that somebody is talking just by seeing the quote marks, and the proper use of context is usually enough to tell me who's doing the talking. Secondly, I like to see thoughts implied via description rather than blurted out like some newspaper headline. “Mike watched her as she danced across the floor, his eyes narrowing into thin slits as he took a long drag on his cigarette,” not, “Mike was hatching a devilish plan.” You’d be surprised how many writers like to tell you exactly what their characters are thinking and feeling rather than just describing the situation and letting you figure it out for yourself. Granted, if it's done right, it can work, but if it's done wrong, it falls flat, and most of the time, in my opinion, it's done wrong. Finally, and this one’s really just a personal preference, I almost always prefer to read novels which are written in the first person rather than the third. For example: “She danced across the floor, gyrating her hips while studiously avoiding my eyes. Perhaps she figured that if she didn't acknowledge my presence, I wouldn't notice that redlipped smirk, the heady pride of someone who thinks they got away with something. Tony lurked in the background, keeping an eye on me, and with the nicotine running low, I took another drag, the smoke circulating in my lungs like some foul, misbegotten demon whispering of vengeance. I could see him watching, debating whether or not to have his boys throw me out. I stared down at the cigarette for a moment, it’s tip a dull orange in the darkness of the club, then snuffed it out, grinding it into the tabletop as I looked up, found his eyes, and smiled.” Why first person rather than third? To me, first person is really the best of all worlds. Sure, it’s a harder form to write. There end up being a lot of “background” scenes you can’t describe by the very fact that the protagonist isn’t there to witness them. But what he (or she) does witness can be described so much more fully. The writer is no longer forced to play intermediary between the story and the reader, supplying all the sundry descriptive details and narrating the story on the side. In first person, the reader is right there in the eyes, ears, nose and mouth of the main character. It makes reading the novel a much more personal and intrinsically intense experience. Almost as intense as roleplaying. One of the chief problems with roleplaying in its usual form, at least in my opinion, is that it’s typically a group activity. You and some friends are playing these characters, and you’re going around having these adventures as a team. Now, teamwork is great. Don’t get me wrong. But storytelling, by its very nature, seems to long for a single hero… a single protagonist… a main character as it were. True, there have been some great stories that involve several main characters, but most often it is the case that the story revolves around one character more than others. This, again in my opinion, causes a soft and steady current toward the vast ocean of intra-party rivalry, as each of the characters vie for the unofficial title of “main character.” In fact, I would bet that if you would think back to your favorite campaign right this minute, you would be able to pick out one member of the group in particular who was more central to the plot, more intrinsically involved with its outcome, than the others. It is in the very nature of stories to have this tendency. As gamemasters, however, it is our responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t happen. We have to be impartial and have to constantly question ourselves as to whether or not we're playing favorites, say by giving more “airtime” to a particular player, or basing a plot around a particular player to the exclusion of others. Yet, in novels, there is no such edict. Why? Because the story itself cries out for a hero, and the supporting characters are certainly in no position to complain. So, assuming you agree with me that this natural conflict exists in RPGs, what are some ways we can mediate it? Well, some of my favorite roleplaying campaigns have been single-player… that is myself as gamemaster and one player controlling the campaign’s protagonist. It involves more work, in a sense, because there’s no pause for the gamemaster to shuffle through his notes while the players argue over what to do next. In fact, such single-player campaigns tend to move at a blinding speed since the pace of a campaign’s progress is generally directly inverse to its number of players (some might even say it’s inverse to the number of players squared). However, such campaigns miss out on the wide mix of ideas and personalities that multi-player games enjoy. The social component, likewise, is reduced, at least in terms of the number of different voices. But single-player gaming really isn’t a mediation. It’s more of an avoidance tactic. In order to mediate a problem, you really have to confront it head-on. One obvious strategy which has been spoken and written of for years is to consciously give each character a turn at being the main character. That means

either running short adventures, or designing adventures such that each player has the opportunity to take the lead during different segments. Under this thesis, it's generally useful to analyze what makes different players tick, and for this, player stereotypes are generally employed. Here are a few of the more well-known:

1. The Hero
This guy just wants to feel like he’s an ass-kicker. His inner dream is to put on blue tights and a flowing red cape and go racing across the sky, no doubt to rescue some damsel in distress who will be all too willing to reward him with eternal devotion not to mention an assortment of X-rated favors. To witness this guy in action is rather frightening, indeed, but witness him you will, for most male gamers have “the hero” as a prime component of their personality (yes, I’ll even include myself on this one). Handing him the opportunity to rescue that damsel (such as a pretty barmaid getting groped by some frisky if drunken barbarians) will certainly make his day. Above all, he wants to feel admired and adored. No harm in obliging the goof.

personally add that the possibility for random backfire should always be understood (see my article on making magic inherently chaotic in issue 299). Of course, saying that you're going to be stingy and actually doing it are two different things. I myself have allowed campaigns to become overrun with magic items on more occasions that I can count. One thing that may help you keep some discipline is to stipulate to yourself that any permanent magic items you allow in the campaign must have individual histories.

combat mechanics. I think it's a cool idea that should definitely be used so long as the genre supports it. Another idea you might consider is the use of a critical hit table. I wrote a little bit on this topic in issue 332, however, I've never really been totally satisfied with the crit tables that currently exist. I used to use Dave Hargrave's crit table from the Arduin Grimoire, and for some odd reason it made the players rather skittish about entering into combat.

3. The Hack’n’Slasher
This guy is real easy to please. He just wants to swing his blade and end up in a pile of gore. Go thick on the monsters and on the descriptions of battle. He’ll luv ya for it. One additional suggestion I have is that you should always seek out new ways to make combat more interesting. A long time ago, I mentioned to one my players that combat was my least favorite part of the game. I had already streamlined the initiative system to speed things up, but I still found the whole process mechanical and boring. He replied that I could stage combat in interesting places. Their very next combat involved dangling down chains above a bottomless pit, fighting magical creatures that hailed from the "Plane of the Dead". Needless to say, he stopped giving me new ideas after that. Another thing I've seen some GMs do is give players a combat bonus for particularly descriptive maneuvers. This causes the players to have their characters do backflips while chopping through spleens (always a good idea). In fact, Exalted, the new fantasy RPG from White Wolf, even has this rule incorporated into its

Kurt, who plays Jinx (see issues 316, 318-321, 335) devised a kinder & gentler critical hit table which he somehow talked me into using instead (see his article in Guildsman #7, available at guild/g07.pdf). In any case, what sort of critical hit system you use will have long-term ramifications for your campaign, so consider it carefully.

4. The Politico

2. The Powermonger
This guy creams his shorts every time he spies some powerful magic item. He’s a dangerous breed for any campaign, because if you satisfy his hunger, he’ll slaughter all your monsters without so much as breaking a sweat. Common wisdom has it that you should be stingy and let the magic trickle in as potions or single-charge rings. He'll get his fix without being able to go berserk with power. I would

This guy is big on campaign politics. He wants to meet all the important NPCs, and he wants to be their friend. By setting himself up as the guy who knows everyone, he’s suddenly a very useful intermediary, and he can become embroiled in all sorts of large-scale politics, perhaps even marking out a territory for himself. In my opinion, this will typically be

your best player of the lot, but he’s also the most demanding in terms of the GM being well-prepared with an ample supply of NPCs, personalities, voices, and side-plots. While your internal tendency may be to make him the “main character” of the campaign, my advice is that you consciously make sure you don’t do this. Instead, keep the action as lowlevel as possible. Instead of dealing directly with the lord of the land, have him deal with the lord’s personal advisor, relative, or some other NPC internal to court intrigue. That way he can have his foot in the door without completely taking over the course of the campaign. If this isn't enough, schedule a side session with him going solo so he can make contacts and serve as the party's intermediary to the powers that be. Most players won't begrudge him this role so long as he doesn't try to lord it over them or detract from their own fun in the campaign. However, if you're going to give him this sort of special attention, make sure you get something in return. If the king hires the party to do something, he'll probably want regular written reports detailing their activities. This correspondence can take the form of a campaign diary. Likewise, the rest of the party may wish to take a hand in the editing in order to make sure that their own exploits are correctly recounted. That way, the king (and, more importantly, the princess) will know of their valor. Running a highly political campaign can be a great deal of fun, but make sure the players are up to it before you send them down this road. If they feel like this was something they had to earn, they'll appreciate it all the better.

pixies steal his clothes while he’s bathing in the river (this can, in fact, lead to a whole side-adventure), or… if he’s a real whacko… just let him find a wand of cream-filled pies and watch him go to work. Very often, the politico and the comedian will experience a clash of gaming styles. The former will think the latter isn't taking the campaign seriously, and the latter will think the former is a real stick in the mud. Both are right. As GM, you will have to decide what sort of campaign you are running, and if you want to satisfy both players, you'll have to walk a tightrope between the two styles. It can be done, but doing it over the course of a longterm campaign can be increasingly difficult. You'll need to come up with some way to persistently and "realistically" inject humor into the game. A few suggestions: Create rules to make magic inherently chaotic (again, see A&E 299). Comedians love this stuff, and the politicos will accept it as an established feature of the game setting. Just as an example, in one game I ran, the comedian wanted to sneak into the duke's castle (a duke who already had good reason to despise him), so he had the party's wizard cast some sort of disguise spell upon him in order to change his likeness into that of the duke's. Unfortunately, the spell backfired in a rather dramatic way. Rather than the comedian being changed into the likeness of the duke, the wizard was changed into the likeness of the comedian. The first random NPC who saw them took on the same likeness, and so on

and so forth, his likeness spreading throughout the city like a rather virulent case of the clap, until virtually everyone became infected. In the resulting confusion he managed to bluff his way into the castle acting like one very pissed-off duke. Of course, the guards were rather mortified when a second rather pissed-off duke showed up, and therein followed the great hide-in-thecloset scene, followed by the great running-and-jumping-off-the-balcony scene. Not only can magic be a source of amusement, but it can also be a source of amusing NPCs. Back when I was building a variant magic system for AD&D (see http://www.elektrasystems. net/~jimv/camp.htm), I inserted the notion, although half-hearted, that at some point mages tend to go bonkers. The mana in their system has a strange effect on their brains, and they become rather demented after too much exposure. This idea was attached to the rules on mana addiction: Mana tolerance is usually accompanied by some physical manifestation, whether it be a change in eye color, a doubling in the size of the ears, a sudden loss of hair, or the like. Casters who refuse to break tolerance (and hence are addicted), eventually become ill or crazed or both if there is too little mana in their system at any given point in time. Likewise, strange magical effects are said to follow them, and it has not been unknown for them to entirely disappear for some time, wandering as ethereal beings or even delving (without effort) into astral space. Politicos will generally accept this rule as adding background color to the campaign, but a comedian will like it too, because the GM can then have crazed wizards sending the party off on ridiculous expeditions and even popping in from time to time when things get dull. Also, it's a great excuse for the existence of bizarre magic items…stuff like that helm of genderreversal which we all know and love. Some of our fondest recollections of roleplaying involve a comedian as the centerpiece, so my advice is that if you have a good one in your group, treat him as a treasure and let him run loose every now and then.

5. The Comedian
This guy may just have a slightly overactive sense of humor, or he may be a certifiable, slapstick, pie-inthe-face loony. What you do with him depends on whether he skirts the edge of silliness or prefers to dive straight in with wild abandon. You can either concentrate on putting him in awkward situations, such as having some

6. The Instigator
Of course, no discussion of gamers would be complete without mentioning this guy. In issue 305 I wrote about one instigator who I'd nicknamed the problem child, and in issues 307 & 308, I mulled through ideas regarding how to handle these sorts of players. The first thing to learn about the instigators is how to identify him. One of the things that interests him most is to see what he can get away with. This is usually exhibited in either of two forms. Either he will test the gamemaster to see how much he can “work the system” (often by taking advantages of weakness in the rules), or he will test the other players by seeing how much he can “work the group” (often getting himself embroiled in some rivalry with one or more players). Obviously, the first of these forms is easy the manage. Where there are weaknesses in the rules, you simply have to correct them. Most GMs who know their game rules well will have already done this before ever starting a campaign. The second form is most difficult to deal with. Basically, the instigator will try to "get one over" on the rest of the players. This may begin in a rather harmless way, by concealing loot from the rest of the party and so forth. It then progress to less harmless activities, such as endangering the party though stupid actions or backstabbing other party members when they become bent-outof-shape (usually under the guise of staying in-character). It is important to note that there are two key differences between instigators and other types of players. Instigators are not interested in the campaign plot. They are interested mainly in intra-party conflict. Also, there is almost always a certain degree of maliciousness to their actions, almost as if they are acting-out some protest against a scar of early childhood. As the GM, you’ve basically got one of two choices. You can drop the instigator like a bad habit, or you can try to steer him toward his secondary mode, whatever that may be. Very commonly, rules-bent instigators can be turned toward powermongering, and the other sort often have a fair degree of comedian in them. They may have a degree of hero in them as well. I recommend trying this approach at the

first detection of instigation. You might just get lucky and be able to steer the instigator away from his primary mode. However, as is often the case, his primary self may take over. In that case, you've got a real problem on your hands.

behavioral trait rather than being deeprooted. If your instigator is constantly getting some sort of psychological payoff (such as an adrenaline rush) every time he gets everyone upset, then the corrective mechanism would be to have the GM (as well as the group) deny him this payoff, perhaps by the GM pulling him from the scene every time he starts to exhibit. While you're getting ready to backstab John, suddenly the scene shifts, and you see the Wizard Gawdolf. Clearly he's teleported you back to his tower. "Now now," he says, "can't have you misbehaving. Not good for party morale. Now sit down and tell me what's going on in that flea-infested head of yours. Oh, would you like a cookie?" If the instigator is deprived of the ability to piss off the other players and his problem is treated by some powerful NPC like some form of adolescent misbehavior, then I think either he'll quit the game or he'll seek to get his jollies some other way, perhaps by resorting to his secondary mode of play, whatever that happens to be. Of course, if this strategy doesn't work, there's always a third option: direct confrontation. For a long time, I believed that confronting the instigator and talking about things openly would be a mistake. Since I wrote the article of issue 308, however, I've been waiting for an opportunity to test an approach that's based on open confrontation. Word of this article must have gotten around, because a few people have written me, asking for a copy. One of them is a guy named Doug who wrote of an instigator he dubbed Argument Man: His concept of consequences for behavior is almost non-existent (at least when RPing), and he ended up doing multiple foolhardy moves that ended up with his character dying. Thus, he pushed the group to let him GM the next segment. They reluctantly agreed. When I arrived back from vacation, the aftereffect of this session was monumental, and our entire group nearly unraveled from it.

The thing you've got to remember about the instigator is that his behavior doesn't necessarily make him a "bad person". I think there is a certain psychopathic quality to it, almost like he knows that it's stupid and self-destructive, but he just can't help himself. Psychologically speaking, I would guess that there are three common causes for what we term "bad behavior" in gaming. The first is simply transference, the acting out of temporary stress. This is something we're all guilty of doing from time to time. If your wife screams at you, you might yell at your kid, who will kick the dog, who will bite the cat, who will get stressed out and ralph all over the floor which you wife just cleaned, and so the cycle continues. In short, maybe your instigator it just under a lot of stress. The second cause is a deep-rooted need for attention, or in some cases, control. This may stem from some childhood trauma, and if so, it won't get solved without some serious soulsearching. This is the sort of problem that people pay psychoanalysts obscene amounts of money to help them figure out. It's beyond your ability to fix, and it's very likely beyond your instigator's ability to fix by himself even if he should acknowledge that he has a problem. The third potential cause is simply a desire for conflict, and this is usually a

Although the group's tactic didn't work, I can't help but reflect that it was a brave strategy on their part. By allowing Argument Man to run a session, they were placing their trust in him as a person, regardless of all the stupid things his characters had done in the past. By so doing, they were presenting him with a golden opportunity to take some measure of ownership in the campaign. I personally think this is an outstanding show of faith on their part. They had absolutely no reason to trust him, but trust him they did. Doug went on to add that one of his regular players was so traumatized by the experience that he took a few months off from gaming in order to recuperate. I guess that when dealing with a certifiable instigator, no good deed goes unpunished. There's been a great deal of talk in the gaming literature over what to do about instigators and with respect to party cohesion in general. I just did a search on my nifty, little rpg magazine database and came up with a long output of GMing-related articles. I manually pruned away about 90% of the articles to focus just on titles most obviously related to this topic, and here they are on the off-chance that any of your want to inflict yourself with some additional reading: Adventurers Club: AC-003: teamwork (advice for champions) AC-020: games within games (team building & group dynamics) AC-025: gaming styles Adventurer: Adv-004: close encounters w/ character & alignment/personality Arcane: Arc-014: a marriage of inconvenience (keeping the pcs together) Arc-019: cheats never prosper (soapbox, player types) Arc-020: heroes on the edge (character types) Dragon: Dr-177: keeping the party going: party cohesion Dr-187: troubleshooting your game: dealing w/ bad players Dr-188: tips to enhance roleplaying

Familiar: Fam-v2n3: person-focused gming: approach to gm planning Gateways: Gat-012: how to see & stop intra-party conflict Gameplay: GP-007: losing & losing big (rpgs & ruined friendships) Griffin: Gri-001: campaign development: 10 tips to keep it running smoothly Heroes: He-v1n6: instant cures for campaign crashes Imazine: Imz-029: zen in the art of refereeing (player empowerment) Polyhedron: Po-017: styles of plays Po-027: problem players Po-123: handling/manipulating players Po-146: teamwork: how to get it and use it Re:Quests!: ReQ-029: converting hack & slashers into roleplayers (discussion) Serendipity's Circle: SC-002: gming advice on playercharacter motivation SC-017: fitting your campaign to your players Scroll: Scr-007: poof! you're a party (party conflict/cohesion) Scr-011: the next step: from playing to roleplaying If anyone would like the full output, just drop me some email. This is, of course, a difficult topic, and though much has been said on it, I have a feeling that much more will be said, and many more lessons will be learned and relearned before we make any serious headway. One thing to remember is that player conflict is natural, and to a certain extent, it can even be a good thing. For one, it adds a dimension of conflict and characterization often missing in traditional beer & pretzel games, and if it's handled maturely, it can serve as a

useful way to spark a whole new level of roleplaying. However, if it's mishandled, a lot of bad feelings can result. Friendships can be ruined. People can lose interest in gaming altogether. But, all things being equal, I would prefer to play in a game that has some intra-party conflict over one which has none at all. I was playing in a one-shot adventure recently, and the whole thing was canned. That shouldn't come as a big surprise. One-shots are generally canned. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there's no room for player deviation much less intra-party rivalry. And, to me at least, that's a sad thing, because it doesn't really feel like gaming. I would guess that nearly everyone reading this is experienced enough in gaming to know that the plot of groupbased RPGs is often best served when the GM has no idea which way things are going to go, and when plot becomes subservient to characterization (rather than the other way around, which is usually the case in novels). When done right, the group has cohesion, but they also have separateness and a healthy appreciation for each member's differences. I don't just mean differences in abilities, but also differences in terms of what they want and how they interact. In a well-run campaign, each character gets to be the hero of their own story, and their stories as a whole, no matter how seemingly disjointed, interact naturally without regard to any pre-determined end. In a well-run campaign, not only is the external conflict resolved, but so too are internal conflicts. There is character growth, reconciliation, even redemption. When it works, it's magical, and for many of us, I think it's the reason we still do this. We're looking for that experience which is a story without any peer in literature or cinema. It's a story that we create, though not so much with our minds as with the interaction of our hearts. It is our separate ideas and themes and conflicts all merging together, a tapestry woven seemingly by an intellect more benign and cunning than any we could ever hope to meet, and yet there it is: tauntingly ephemeral, infinitely mysterious. So conflict happens. Deal with it.

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