Saturday, April 10, 2021

Musings on Gaming #5 - Mind

Photo of a GM removing agency from a player, 2019 (colourised)

As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I had a couple of realisations that changed the way I look at GMing around 2008. One of them came from the Dragon Age RPG, which had a section on character motivations and goals.

Now I always knew that players had motivations and goals: they wanted to gain experience, gold, cool magical items, and occasionally they wanted a custom-made character class, and they would come to me with these requests, and we would work something out. They may have different reasons for joining my game, but they all wanted to play and have fun, which was good.

What we didn't really pay a lot of attention to, however, was the motivation for their characters. Once in a while in a longer campaign a player would say: since my character is a noble/knight, I think he would like to go on a quest to win a tourney/slay a dragon. This was something which evolved in playing, and not something which we consciously tried to impose. The lack of motivation wasn't a problem when we were younger - we all had a lot of free time and we weren't really expecting the games to be anything other than a platform where we would live out our power fantasy, kill monsters and take their stuff, and just hang around and crack jokes. But as I got older and they way I viewed the world changed, I began to find that less satisfying.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I like my game worlds to be real, and people in the real world have goals and motivations, so why shouldn't the PCs?

I now ask my players to think about their characters' short- and long-term goals when they create their characters. This not only makes them think about their characters and how they will interact with the central tension of the game world, but also allows me to plan the campaign in such a way that most if not all the characters will have a chance to fulfill both their short- and long-term goals.

Goals and motivations also of course apply to NPCs, from the throw-away peasant the PCs meet the road, to the main villain of the campaign, and every monster and minion in between. And here is where the difference between motivation and goals become important: motivation is what drives us, it is, ironically, the end; goals, on the other hand, are what we think will help us achieve the end, it is, again ironically, the means.

Goals are as varied as they come: the big bad wants to get his hands on the magical artifact so he can rule the world; the evil corporation wants to steal the data from their competitor so they can make big bucks; the cultists want to summon Cthulhu because... er...

And this is where I find the motivations of many classic villains as being unrealistic. What, for example, is Sauron's motivation? Or Emperor Palpatine's? It is perhaps OK for the villain of a fantasy novel or a sci-fi movie to have no other motivation other than being evil and wanting to rule the world, but in our own world, no villain works that way. No, not even real-life evil dictators who waged wars and murdered civilians. They may claim to do so based on some ideology or world view, but it is no coincidence that these villains also happened to live in luxury, protected by elite soldiers.

If watching The Godfather trilogy has taught me anything, it is that we all want the same things, but it is in how we try to achieve those things that make us good or evil.

Related to this is the idea of "evil races".

I can't remember when I stopped using the trope, but I did not stop because I believed that evil races in D&D represented real world races - I don't; rather, it was the realisation that any sentient race cannot be all good or evil. If they cannot choose between good or evil acts, then they cannot be considered truly sentient; and any creature that displays the level of intelligence demonstrated by the "demi-humans" in D&D must possess self-awareness and sentience.

Evil must be a choice, or else it has no meaning.

Certainly certain cultures may find certain practices acceptable which our own do not, but oftentimes whether we find something evil or not has more to do with how different they are from we do, and whether it hurts our interests. Some "villains" in my campaigns are not fully sentient beings, but forces of nature or manifestation/personification of the principle of destruction, like the Grens (*not-aliens*) in our sci-fi campaign, or the Darkspawn in the Dragon Age setting. Such beings may make it easier for players and GMs because they serve as a non-sentient enemy which is unambiguously a threat to our own existence, and can therefore be destroyed without qualms; but it is worth noting that in both the Alien/s franchise and the original Dragon Age computer game, while the "monsters" of the stories cause fear, it is the willingness of people to sacrifice others to these monsters for their own gains that causes revulsion in the viewers.

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