On Being a Hero, and the Illusion of Choice.
Over the last few months I’ve been reading a lot of archives, as you can imagine with the Great Blog Roll Call, and I’ve noticed that many of the bloggers I have read have come to the conclusion that while roguish characters are able to do anything they want and to exist in a fully free-form environment; heroes, on the other hand, exist in a limited environment where their freedom of choice is essentially illusionary.
Let’s look at an example:
A GM somewhere writes out the city of Metropolis and the city of Gotham and the rest of the world of DC Comics in excruciating detail. The train lines, the shop fronts, which hot dog store owners are secretly sharkmen, every inch of it. It's all ready to go.
Now here comes a PC playing Superman, into this sandbox.
"So what do you want to do today, Supes?"
"Uh, I guess I'll go on patrol."
Off he flies.
"Do I see any crime?"
"Umm, nope, not much, Metropolis is a f ully-f unctioning independent world going about its business."
"Ok, I keep going. Now do I see any crime?"
"Ok, some jamoke is robbing a bank."
"Well then I stop him!"
Now, what I want to say here is that this isn't really a sandbox. Why? Because Superman doesn't have any strategic choices here, really. He could decide to patrol (say) the docks instead of (say) the south side of town, but that's not a meaningful choice--i.e. it's like arbitrarily deciding "left or right"?
If nothing much is obviously going on, he keeps looking. If there's a crime, no matter how small, he has to stop it, because he's an Upright Hero. If there's a bigger crime, he has to stop that one first, because he's an Upright Hero.
While he has many interesting strategic and tactical choices about how to stop a crime, he doesn't have choices about which adventure to go on. ("Adventure" in the traditional sense--on his day off he could choose to stay home and read or curl up with Lois by the fire, but you get the point.)
Now let's say we have this same sandbox but the player is playing Lex Luthor.
"What'll we do this morning Lex?"
"Hmm...I say we send out some drones and look f or weak spots in the worldwide nuclear security apparatus."
"Do you have drones?"
"I'll roll on my Drone-Making. Oh, also, I want to blackmail the president, did I already say that? And then, hmm, I notice on this geological map that a mound of Fuckeverythingupium is just lying there underneath a mountain in Madagascar, I'll want some of that, and..."
In other words, whereas a villain confronted with a sandbox world will immediately start generating ideas, Upright Heroes (typical heroes) need a plot. Without the bank robbery, Superman would just endlessly circle Metropolis, then go to work at the Daily Planet. Without the whole problem with the Ring, Frodo would just sit and hang out in the Shire forever being wholesome and loyal and sipping tea. Without fires, firemen just hang out in their firehouse, Ever Vigilant, playing cards.
Now I don't actually want to talk about playing villains, I want to talk about playing Roguish Heroes. Grey Mouser, Conan, Cugel, Han Solo, and the stereotypically larcenous Old School D&D PC.
Now a Roguish Hero is not the same as a villain, and I am not saying everybody should play Lex Luthor but, functionally, pulpy roguish protagonists and villains have an important thing in common: they want something from the world. Gold, power, the admiration of attractive members of the opposite sex--something. The Upright Hero doesn't really want anything--or at least not anything that would bring him/her into violent conflict with the world as-is. The Upright Hero is not usually proactive, s/he waits until s/he sees injustice (even if it was an injustice that was there all along). Sandboxes And The Roguish Work Ethic by Zak S.
The goal of this example was to demonstrate that while each character had choices in how they acted during their time playing, only the Roguish character had true freedom of choice - while the Upright character only had the illusion of freedom of choice. Which would work if there wasn’t a false assumption involved in the example.
The false assumption in this example is that the Upright character is reactive, while the Roguish character is proactive. In other words, the Upright character only has the illusion of choice as he will always be reacting to the stimuli of the world by moving from location to location and acting based on what he encounters. By contrast, the Roguish character has actual freedom of choice as his actions are chosen not by reacting to the stimuli in each location but by proactively interacting with the world and creating the situations he encounters.
Which is a load of bunk.
At the start of play each character is presented a fully realized world. Then they are each asked the same question, “What are you going to do today?”
It is their answers to that question that dictates everything that comes after. Superman does not have be reactive by choosing to go on patrol. Instead he could be proactive and build himself a protective suit so that he can then fly about and eliminate all the kryptonite in the world; or he could choose to take Lois to Paris and screw until the world burns; or he could fly into Lex Luthor’s mansion and lobotomize him before he can cause real harm to the world. He has that freedom to proactively create the adventure he wants instead of reacting to the adventure he finds.
Once we dismiss the false assumption we’re left with a question: why do some players choose to be proactive and create the adventure they find, while others choose to become reactive and plod along in the adventures that finds them?
The answer comes down to the player’s motivation in the game.
If you’re only looking to kill a bunch of stuff and take its loot then you’re not going to be waiting around for the plot to come find you. You’re going to actively seek out dangerous locations where treasure might be found and kill anything that’s rumored to have two coins to rub together – whether it’s the High Muckety Muck of St. Petersburg or the dragon that lives in Mt. Doom. But, if you’re looking for a world with a rich and detailed plot from the beginning of the game you’re going to be reactive to the world just like the Uptight character in the example I pulled from Zak S.
Let’s say that the problem in choice limitation isn’t based around the style of play adopted by each character, but by the moral limitations they place on themselves.
In this situation the Uptight character is compelled to react to the stimuli of the world because he cannot allow the bad acts of the villains to go unchallenged. In other words, he’s morally stupid and living in a black and white dystopia that will eventually drive him mad. The Roguish character, by contrast, is able to be proactive in relation to the world because his morals are assigned to a personal valuation. Therefore he is morally selfish and living a world where what the good is determined by how it benefits him and the bad by how it negatively affects him.
The problem is that the Uptight character doesn’t have to be morally stupid, just as he doesn’t have to be reactive. Instead he can choose to be a moral utilitarian or a moral pragmatist. As a moral utilitarian he will determine what is good as that which is best, by his own valuation, for the most people. So if killing the High Orc King of Mt. Tiny will save the people of his city, he’ll choose to do that. He’ll also choose to sacrifice a hundred lives to save the rest of the city - every time. But as a moral pragmatist the Uptight character will determine what is good as whatever is the best choice in his valuation given the present circumstances. So if charging down the stegosaurs saves his friends and family he’ll do it every time. He’ll also sack a temple of a false faith without thinking twice about it – after all, they should have chosen the right god to begin with. In each case the Uptight character will be able to exercise just as much freedom of choice as the Roguish character.