Thursday, May 9, 2013

What RPGs have to say about the biggest plague of pop culture

"Now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb."
                                                   - Lord Helmet, Spaceballs


Every gaming group I have ever been in, every gaming group I have ever interacted with, and every gaming group I have even heard of has worked with evil characters at least once.  Thanks to those experiences, I don't role-play evil characters anymore, lobby against allowing them as a player and disallow them from campaigns whenever I am the GM.  The sole exception is when death is conjoined with the purpose of the game, such as Paranoia.

Oh, Dragonchild, you party pooper, a gamer might say.  What's your problem?  Are you a prude?  Evil is fun, and good players are boring.

Sit down, kid, and let me explain why evil characters suck.  And when we're finished here, hopefully you'll understand as well.

As far as conventional fantasy games go (D&D, Pathfinder, etc.), the way most people visualize "evil" campaigns is not all that different from "good" campaigns.  A group of characters gather together, raid dungeons to kill monsters and collect loot.  NPCs exist to be exploited.  Only now, we can actually flaunt our power in public by ignoring pesky things like laws or morality.  We'll rob the townspeople and kill anyone who looks at us funny.  It's liberating!  It's fun!  What's the problem?

First, there is a GM failing at work here.  GMs will often set up a world where the characters are heroes and non-player characters are just moving set pieces, so PC actions don't significantly alter their behavior one way or the other.  This is a problem because it doesn't reward good behavior or punish mischief.  I don't mean the GM should impose poetic justice by causing a misbehaving character to get struck by lightning.  Rather, the non-player characters' behavior should be dynamic.  If the party exhibits altruism and generosity, they should be hailed as heroes.  Oh, some will perceive them as a threat and try to ruin their reputations with slander, but people generally recognize true heroism when they see it.  Eventually they should be showered with gifts to the point that they don't need to haggle or even shop for basic equipment -- they could expense it to the local Lord's treasury.  Consider the case of Vlad the Impaler, who fought and died for the people of Wallachia.  An enemy of the Ottoman Empire and its allies for almost thirty years, the propaganda effort to destroy his image was so obsessive and persistent that it lives on as vampire legends in popular culture.  In Bulgaria, he is idolized as a hero to this day.  This also works in reverse, or should.  Regardless of whatever monsters they kill in the name of rescuing towns from danger, if the PCs act like jerks then the commonfolk will simply see them as replacing one problem with another -- themselves.  The shops may raise their prices or even refuse to do business, especially if they insist on haggling every storekeeper into financial ruin.  Having a high Diplomacy skill doesn't matter if you're greeted with a locked door -- or a shuttered business.  If the party consistently causes more harm than good, eventually appeals to have them dealt with will reach the ears of regional authorities.  The GM could even provide an ironic moment of clarity in the form of a paladin-led group sent to rescue the world from the player characters.

The above is bad enough for me, but many players enjoy a consequence-free experience and GMs aren't babysitters.  However, even if I'm the lone voice for some social realism in RPGs, it's only a matter of time before the evil party implodes.  It starts when one player eventually realizes that the most accessible source of wealth and power they can exploit is the party itself.  This sometimes starts out with the rogue picking others' pockets, but the end game is heavy investment in blatant manipulation and countermeasures thereof.  Instead of diversifying talents to handle all kinds of external threats, the players wind up investing resources to protect themselves from each other.  In one D&D variant campaign where the GM had imposed heavy restrictions on magic but relaxed the skills, every single character had invested the vast majority of skill points into Bluff and Sense Motive.

This is the lesson to be learned about evil.  The typical "evil" campaign where players trust each other and treat everyone else like chattel doesn't reflect good or evil so much as insanity.  Evil people are very, very bad at teamwork.  In fact, evil doesn't see teamwork or altruism as concepts of humanistic beauty so much as tools to exploit.  The mere existence of evil takes a heavy toll on society as people are forced to allocate resources for everything from legal protection to fraud prevention to personal security.  Not only are evil people untrustworthy (most people get that part), they are incapable of trust.  Evil people scheme and betray, and as a result they believe everyone else is just as capable of treachery.  I had to work with a pathological liar once, in real life.  Everyone knew he was incapable of telling the truth, so we made a habit of fact-checking his claims.  That was manageable, but as a result of his pathological dishonesty he was also thoroughly convinced that anything anyone told him was also a lie.  This made working with him nightmarishly difficult.  Conversations were so ridiculously unproductive that we might as well have not communicated at all.  This was not fun.  There's a reason I was paid to do that job.   Why would I want to deal with all that dysfunction in a game?

I see this same mistake in pop culture, as well, and it's frustrating.  Villains often go as far as they do by running what seems to be a well-oiled organization while the hero breaks away from conventional establishments (the local police, etc.) to tackle the problem alone.  This sets up a climax where the good guy has a lot of bad guys to defeat.  That sounds exciting, but for any story selling itself as "gritty", the journey to the climax will lose me along the way if people behave too unrealistically for me to accept.  I'll pick on the Batman movies by Chistopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises as a particularly odious example.  Actually I could list a LOT of examples in just these movies, but let's stick to cops vs. robbers in the third one for now.  Watching Nolan's films, I never expected anything from the Gotham Police; it's apparent they were corrupt and dysfunctional.  That's fine; that corruption would lead to incompetence is realistic.  However, the evil organizations were far too coordinated when they're revealed to be even more self-serving than the cops.  Bane supposedly commanded an army of downtrodden orphans, but he callously sacrificed them when it suited his purposes -- or even whims.  These soldiers weren't crazy cultists; they're portrayed as kids who had nowhere else to go.  Evil or not, why would they be unquestioningly loyal to a man who recruited them only to kill them whenever he liked?  Maybe he gave them a warm place to sleep, but a possible bullet to the chest for a simple mistake struck me as a pretty steep price.  I see this everywhere and it frustrates me.  Maybe my generation "learned" everything it "knows" about organized crime watching the ridiculously hypocritical "it's-family-no-just-kidding-it's-business" interactions of mafia flicks starring Robert De Niro, but from what I've read, actual crime bosses don't even trust their bodyguards.  They rule by might and restlessly calculate to stay one step ahead of those within the organization scheming to replace them.  Assassination attempts are frequent, and many are driven to insanity.  A mob boss' "right-hand man" isn't selected for trustworthiness; he's chosen for his competence and isn't even allowed to know where the boss sleeps at night.  Again, evil sucks at teamwork.  The one work that readily comes to mind at getting this right is A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, but while he gets that any cohesion among evildoers is inherently unstable, he doesn't seem to understand the merits of honor at all.

So, why be a good person, in real life or a game?  For all the benefits evil (undeservedly) enjoys in the above examples, of course.  Cohesion.  Consistency.  Stability.  Not spending countless hours tracking what every person you're working with is doing at any time.  Being able to act on information because you can trust the source.  Being able to settle a deal with a handshake so you can move on to the next one.  Last but not least, attracting the intense loyalty of people who give you their utmost effort just for the joy of it.  Unfortunately, this is often expressed in fiction as pathetically fragile.  Good is portrayed as too trusting, to vulnerable to treachery.  The thing is, getting people to turn on good is not as easy as it sounds.  Reputations are easily ruined, but loyalty not so much.  When evil tries to infiltrate a group based on trust, if they are not cast out for their inability to function in a group that takes care of each other or baffled by the intimacy and find themselves unable to reciprocate the openness, they will often actually turn on their masters.  To infiltrate good is to live among it, giving any spy capable of empathy (or even selfishness) a good idea of how fucked up the evil side is.  Even if they try to sabotage the organization, others will openly question why they should act against the interests of a benevolent leader.**  Persistence will lead to the spy becoming deeply unpopular and eventually cast out whether or not his/her identity is revealed.  Evil can try coercion and threats, but it's entirely possible the target will tell the good leader everything because s/he trusts that person to do something about it (that won't result in disaster).  This option is often casually dismissed in fiction with a token threat ("I'll kill you/your lover/your kid if you tell anyone"), but that should only work on the already downtrodden.  It's easily thwarted by the presence of someone competent and trustworthy in the victim's mind.  In other words, the main defense good has against evil is that life is easy if you don't have to worry about getting knifed in the back by your "friends".  Furthermore, this effect is both contagious and the driver of a positive feedback loop.  When sparked and sustained by a hero such in fantasy gaming, the effects should be dramatic.  Entire armies would cast off the oppression of their cruel rulers to surrender to the paladin, because they know being a prisoner of a good person is better than being a servant of a bad one.  It wins the hero steady allies instead of shaky deals that cost favors to buy and effort to watch.  It gives people courage, threatening the stability imposed by might and terrifying tyrants.  When good triumphs over evil, it is typically because the people were given a chance to see the difference and, in making an obvious choice, collectively reject treachery and oppression in favor of cooperation. 

Tragically, these are benefits that evil enjoys in fiction & gaming, when they should be monopolized by the good.  The movies have it all wrong.  It's not a lonely hero that takes on a well-oiled syndicate.  By the time the hero comes for the villain's head, the evil empire should be collapsing from the unrelenting pressure of a social force it can neither understand nor imitate.  I don't expect movies to change, but I'd be a much happier gamer if GMs understood this.  I may be alone in this, but to me, having the world at your back is more fun to imagine than hiding my money from my own fellow travelers.

*I wouldn't really call this a spoiler because it's really not that big of a twist and sets up the beginning of the next movie.
**My favorite example of this is the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror", a.k.a. the "Infamous Evil Goatee" episode.  Kirk & Co. scheme and plot like hell to get back to their own world, only to find that their evil opposites were apprehended in short order because they were incapable of faking trustworthiness.

No comments:

Post a Comment