More thoughts on failure, Blades in the Dark, and the reasons we're dumber alone than we are together.
I first started roleplaying in my middle school years, spending long summer days in the basement of my friends’ house down the street. They were brothers—one a year older than me and one a year younger than me—and possessed a few notable virtues: first, they were sweet and imaginative guys; second, they had incredibly permissive parents that let us hold court twenty-four seven; and third, at least one was an exceptionally gifted shoplifter, adept at fitting entire Shadowrun sourcebooks in the waistband of his jeans, handily disguised by JNCO pipe legs below and oversized Korn T-shirts above. I may have lacked the courage to join in this brazen pilfering of our local game store, but it turns out I had no problem enjoying the ill-gotten loot. It was the nineties, and we were living large.
Our heroes, too, were especially nineties-shaped. Avid readers of Marvel comics in the pre-Image McFarlane and Liefield years, we patterned our player characters after the Cables and Deadpools and Venoms of the world. That is to say, we wanted to play the baddest of badasses, grim and moody and replete with buckets of swords and guns with which to dispatch our hapless foes. We gamed our roleplaying systems accordingly, figuring out rule-stretching ways to stack armor, jam together skills and upgrades, and dual-wield (sigh, always dual-wielding—I swear, you could find the dual-wielding section of the rules of any given game based solely on the place where greasy teenage thumbprints had most worn down the ink). We’d repeat this process until our characters were combat monsters, blood-soaked ciphers that rolled die after die until they flattened every obstacle in their path.
For a good while, our cadre of basically identical trench-coated, well-armed hitmen with matching mirrorshades would take down baddie after baddie, fighting beside each other but not necessarily witheach other, because togetherness and relationships were more inessential byproducts of the roleplaying process than any sort of worthwhile goal for us. It’s easy to laugh at our early teenage angst, but I think this kind of hypermasculine power fantasy is pretty common. It functions as a form of palliative care for the horrors of adolescence, serving up versions of ourselves that were feared, capable, and above all cool—qualities that no thirteen-year old believes they could possibly possess in the real world.
These characters were not us, exactly, but they functioned as stand-ins for our innermost desires, embarrassingly on-the-nose wish fulfillment made manifest. For as antisocial as our dead-eyed, hardened protagonists were, they could hardly have spoken more clearly as to who we were and what we wanted. Despite out best efforts, roleplaying was the fictional equivalent of the dream where you walk around your middle school, naked and totally exposed.
Gita Jackson, a video game writer at Kotaku, tweeted recently that fan fiction can have an allergy to the stuff that makes fiction work, such as tension and conflict. That is to say, our love and devotion to a particular character can make us blind to the unsavory bits that might actually be the most essential. What’s left when you strip away someone’s flaws, fuck-ups, and bad decisions? Hagiography, maybe—a record of unqualified triumph and inevitable canonization. Or perhaps this is a version of power fantasy, another kind of perpetual winning that is interesting only to the person doing it.
All roleplaying is a form of fan fiction, with our individual player characters simultaneously shaping and pushing against a collectively-manufactured canon. As my friends and I matured, I’d like to think we moved from “bad” fan fiction to “better” fan fiction—our characters stopped being monosyllabic killing machines and started taking on weaknesses, quirks, and other markers of nuance. We used them to explore more vulnerable parts of our internal world, or even better, to occasionally try to look outside ourselves and our limited view of cool and imagine what it might be like to be someone totally different. But what if there was a more fundamental failure at play here, more deeply rooted than the relative “believability” of any given player character?
I’ve probably spent most of the time in my roleplaying career not actually playing any given game, but tinkering with my characters—adjusting stats, sure, picking out various permutations of powers and equipment, of course, but usually daydreaming about a character’s identity. I’d be in math class, thinking up an elaborate backstory for my troll mage, knowing that in another school nearby, my friend was doing the exact same thing for his elven hacker. When we finally got together, each with reams of written backstory and an overstuffed head canon, we encountered a common roleplaying dilemma: the Tavern Problem.
The Tavern Problem, explained: your group just finished creating their characters, each lovingly rendered and ready to rumble. Some folks may just have a rough outline, while more active players might have penned entire genealogies, the history of their character writ large. Regardless of the amount of time invested in this process, these players have one thing in common—they are coming to the table with a mental vision of how their characters, as the sole protagonists of their mental theater, will act in the world.
So, we’re left with a problem. How in the world do we take these different characters, each representing a personal mental stake in this fictional world, and bring them together in a cohesive way? “You are all at a tavern.” Or a space bar, or a post-apocalyptic watering hole, or whatever neutral space can accommodate this thrown-together menagerie of diverse desires, imaginations, and needs. This old dungeon master trick is a way of enforcing cohesion where none exists naturally.
The results of this exercise are, as you might imagine, mixed. Sometimes players can take their reasons for roleplaying (and the accompanying behaviors and conversation that spring from these reasons) and find a way to harmonize them, so that everyone ends up having a good time. Just as often I’ve seen role-playing groups splinter and clash, with each player tugging the group toward their own personal vision (forged from hours of solitary planning and daydreaming). Game masters are often the worst about this, as players take their carefully prepared toys and start to play with them in the wrong way. I’ve certainly been guilty of this, resenting what felt at the time like hours of care and planning thrown out the window by folks who couldn’t recognize my genius.
So perhaps the difference between immature and mature roleplaying has less to do with the binary of flat characters vs. rounded characters than with the tricky space where solitary play meets collective play. Successful roleplaying is a game of intentional sacrifice, the choice to step out of the spotlight or momentarily abandon your grand vision to let other people’s ideas shine. When we fail to do this, we rob ourselves of the primary joy of playing roleplaying games: the surprises that come from other people. In this frame of thinking, my friends’ and my failure wasn’t playing meatheaded shallow psychopaths; it was in not truly playing these meatheaded shallow psychopaths together.
Okay, to recap: it’s more fun and rewarding to play roleplaying games with each other than against each other. The sky is blue, water is wet. Obvious man is obvious. When can I plan on receiving my Nobel prize?
But what is notable is how few of the game systems I grew up playing spent any sort of time addressing the social situation at the heart of roleplaying. The sourcebooks I pored over for hour after hour were more than happy to delve into the minutest mechanical differences of single shot vs. semi-automatic fire modes on recoil modifiers; similarly, I could still tell you how to calculate drain if your wounded street shaman is trying to cast a manaball at a group of mercenaries. But what these games failed to tell you was how to create a story greater than the sum of your individual imaginations, or how to position yourself to learn from your fellow players rather than dominate them.
These are, of course, challenging tasks even for well-adjusted adults, much less hyper-hormonal teens. But I’ve noticed that many contemporary roleplaying games have started taking on this work, using mechanical choices to reinforce positive social situations. This is why I want to briefly bring up a few notable things that Blades in the Dark does to help players create a productive cooperative space (hey, it only took me 1400 words to get here!). This isn’t to say that Blades is the first or only game to embrace these values, but playing Blades is what led me to this kind of thinking.
First, and most simply, is the crew sheet. This functions like a character sheet, but instead of tracking individual details and statistics, it is a record of your gang’s collective powers, achievements, and complications. It’s amazing what this single piece of paper does to orient play away from lone exploits and toward shared ambitions. It represents a collective that is bigger than one individual person, encouraging players to find their characters’ identities within the group rather than try to stitch a group together out of a half-dozen disparate stories. It doesn’t restrict players in their character creation, but it acts as a psychological nudge pushing them toward cooperation.
The other important thing Blades does to prioritize the group over the individual is that it strictly forbids planning out your adventures in advance. This may seem like heresy to the career dungeon master with a folder full of graph paper, and it certainly seemed strange to me when I first started playing the game. But it’s amazing how quickly it levels the play space, upending the usual top-down hierarchy that places players, for good or bad, in the hands of their game master.
When you have nothing planned, you cannot rely on your own genius to move the story forward. Instead, you are forced to trust your players, to turn them into co-conspirators rather than subjects. And by diffusing this responsibility, players feel investment and agency, knowing that their actions really matter. This sense of consequence tends to bring out our best selves, encouraging individual sacrifice and allowing the group to make something together that they couldn’t possibly have made alone. And isn’t this the point of playing these games at all?
In the next and final installment of A Minor Complication, I’ll take a look at the way our personal failures can shape the stories we tell, and why these stories matter.