Tuesday, January 14, 2014

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. 

Your thoughts?


  1. My thoughts are this DC Superheroes GM is doing a half ass job IMHO. Even the illusion of choice is better handled than that.

    Let's talk about a typical day in the life of Project: UNITY, the United Nations sponsored Superhero team in my friend Will's Champions universe, which I ran a campaign in not long ago.

    Night Knight (a PC) is called into the base to help with an investigation (by NPC head honcho superhero Night Force), but says he can't come in. He is currently tracking the thief who recently stole a priceless artifact smuggled to the USA from China. Not officially a full time UNITY member, they don't press him. Night Knight nearly foiled the smuggling ring in the beginning of the campaign and wants to pursue the case. His call. I (the GM) have other things for him to do but he wants to track down this item and the crook who took it. Cool).

    Arcane (PC) and Professor N (PC) check the Mission Monitor currently manned by Overload (NPC). I give a brief description of several things going on. Arcane decides to assist The Pulse (NPC hero) in stopping Eyebolt (NPC villain), while Prof. N thinks it more productive to visit Dr. Christopher Crichton, aka The Legionnaire, who may be able to help the Professor with an experiment to increase his powers over Dimension N.

    The Power (PC) hears this and decides to go stop one of the other crimes but wants to take Overload with him. He asks another hero (NPC) to which shifts. Microcosm agrees.

    Finally, Siphon (PC) has spent the last few weeks of real time thinking about how to cure the incurable virus that is slowly killing British Superheroine Maiden Fair. He believes he's cracked the code and asks Night Force to contact the British team and see if Maiden Fair will let him take a shot at saving her.

    This dynamic is not all that unusual in my games. At least, not in Superheroes, Traveller and similar Sci-Fi and even my D&D-like world. There are things going on in the world and you can go check them out, ask about them or simply wander around and bump into them. You can also tell me you want to go do X, Y or Z and we'll go make that happen.

    What's key here is that my default play style and campaign theme is that the players are heroes. Not D&D heroes, real heroes. Not murder-hobos who kill those of a different race or species and take their stuff but character who save lives, cure diseases, fight villains and safe people caught in natural disasters. That is normal for us (or was - my current group differs a bit).

    1. Sounds like a fun game to me, but in all fairness so does the murder-hobo game you briefly mention.

      Anyway, I think that the set up to the game would be a nearly Herculean task considering how much information the Dungeon Master would have to have on hand, so to speak. That said I do think there would have to be a laziness on both the player and DM's part to just run a totally reactive campaign.

  2. In a fashion, it's actually a lot easier to run a game where the PCs are proactive. In my experience it lightens the load on the time and dedication needed to design exciting scenarios. Instead, I largely focus on designing and creating cool things to populate the world (NPCs, items, locations, some history) and let the PCs interests guide and almost create the adventures.

    The murder-hobo approach is something that just never caught on with me and the groups I grew up gaming with. We weren't familiar with the concept. As I've said before on my blog, we watch Star Trek and read Comic Books. Neither Spock nor Superman kills people and loots the bodies.

    1. I absolutely agree with you about the proactive PCs being easier to run for, especially when you consider that it means they're actually doing something instead of sitting at the end of the table staring at you like flying elephants are about to explode out your rear-end.

      "The murder-hobo approach is something that just never caught on with me and the groups I grew up gaming with. We weren't familiar with the concept. As I've said before on my blog, we watch Star Trek and read Comic Books. Neither Spock nor Superman kills people and loots the bodies."

      When I was growing up, my next door neighbor was actually a convicted murderer. He'd come walking through the field and look right through you. Nice guy though; but yeah, he'd kill you and loot your body so murder hobo was a concept we were familiar with . . .

      And that just got creepy.

    2. Interesting.

      My father was a police officer.

      My favorite Superhero? Green Lantern.

      Normal guy with nothing more than determination and willpower, a single powerful weapon and a uniform.

      The whole concept of D&D was wrong to me. I wanted to generate a character just to bring everyone else's character to justice. ;)

    3. Really?


      Growing up we didn't have a lot of money so I was always living in the bargain bins at the comic shops. Not surprisingly my favorite comic was the old 1970s Defenders and my favorite hero was Luke Cage. Still have no idea why he was my favorite since I had no clue what he was jabbering about. But he looked cool and he kicked the asses of every drug pusher, pimp, and bad mother f - I better shut my mouth.

  3. some players look to be spoon fed plot. the dm is continually leading them about with clues, and events that direct them down a path. in the hands of an inventive dm, this can be fun, unless... you are the other kind of player that really wants to inhabit a world and BE a character. then, you have a situation where the player dictates the content and the dm is reactive to a certain extent. I agree with Charles Akins, that a truly reactive world like that is terribly hard to maintain and beyond the abilities and, lets be honest, time of your average dm. what i think we are looking for is a compromise. a sandbox world, with multiple options, but not infinite ones. this lets the dm control the content a bit, while giving the players open ended options. The dm doesnt have to script an entire story line. he/she creates a room with multiple doors and an idea was is on the other side of the doors. you dont have to go 10 rooms deep, but once the player has chosen door #4, now you have a direction. door #1 no longer needs a backstory and horde of NPCs. as this kind of story telling progresses the options available to the players will become more and more tailored the story they want to play in. it is late and i am rambling. all i really want to say is i am grateful for every DM willing to put up with us whiny PCs.

    1. Reading this makes me think that I've largely been spoiled as a Dungeon Master because I've rarely had to worry about establishing a plot before hand. My players have always been incredibly proactive in how they interact with my worlds.

  4. I think that the scenarios presented seam a little, odd. when it come to Moral, Just, and even Uptight people everyone has a line they will cross and rules they will bend. the example presents superman, a hero that is unrealistically wholesome. A better example, and one that would work to disprove the "Not really Free Will" argument would be someone like Spider man. He is a hero, and upright guy who wants to fix the world and hold all its responsibilities on himself. Then he drops the ball because he wants to have a life as well.
    I have seen and played characters of an uptight nature, and find that there is always something to cause their morals to fly out the window. A well built character should have an emotional and moral weakness. something for the GM to use to create a situation just for that person. Otherwise they feel unrealistic, plastic even. The flaws in a character help make them a player character as i see it, something to work on and work with. Something the GM can harass and cajole into their story. Who can create by their very existence a conflict can lead them into and through a story.

  5. You've made 3 mistakes:
    1. You saw something you thought was wrong in my post and didn't tell me. So I can't answer unless I stumble over this blog, so the conversation is limited.
    2. You either did not read or did not understand the _comments on the blog entry you're quoting_ . I go into a lot of detail about the problems created is Superman is proactive in some other way, which are...
    3. ...While Luthor's plans _must by definition initiate an adventure (violent conflict with existing foes with stats)_
    you listed the pro-active Superman character as being able to do will automatically result in a complete adventure unless the GM fabricates a problem _after the fact_ with the thing he decided to do.

    As for Barking Alien, it's INSANELY weird that he would repeat the same thing he said years ago the first time this came up because we ALREADY had this conversation.

    Did he just forget?

    A _menu of GM-created obstacles thrown in the path of a player choice_ is _different_ from the sandbox.

    A sandbox _has the conflict pre-loaded into it as soon as the player chooses it_ . In the situation you describe, the player may come into conflict (by being proactive) but unlike Luthor is not CHOOSING WHICH CONFLICT to get into.

    They are simply choosing what activity to say their character is doing _while the GM quickly fabricates something to turn (say) investigating the phantom zone into a conflict_

    Do you and Barking Alien see the vital difference there?

    1. Allow me to rectify those mistakes:

      1.) Sorry, it was a bit of blog necromancy on my part as I had been directed there through another blog and I figured you were long since bored with the conversation so I didn't bother you with it.

      My apologies.

      2.) No, I didn't read the comments, but I will do so.

      3.) You're right.

      "As for Barking Alien, it's INSANELY weird that he would repeat the same thing he said years ago the first time this came up because we ALREADY had this conversation.

      "Did he just forget?"

      I imagine that he forgot as most people have a hard time remembering things they've said years ago on the internet even if it was a fundamental argument that changed their perspectives on the world.

      "Do you and Barking Alien see the vital difference there?"

      Not currently, but allow me a few hours of sleep and I'll reconsider it.

  6. Also I go into detail in the post about how you could make the world order itself less morally clean and thus create a place where a fairly heroic hero would have more morally complex choices to make.
    I also think Adam Barking Alien saying his players are "Not murder-hobos who kill those of a different race or species and take their stuff " is a creepy passive-aggressive way to describe D&D invented by people who have an ideological bone to pick that I sincerely hope Adam is too smart to want to pick.

    1. "I also think Adam Barking Alien saying his players are "Not murder-hobos who kill those of a different race or species and take their stuff " is a creepy passive-aggressive way to describe D&D invented by people who have an ideological bone to pick that I sincerely hope Adam is too smart to want to pick."


      I have no problems killing imaginary people no matter their race, sex, or any other qualifiers. But then I don't mind the whole "murder hobo" connotation that some people get bent out of shape over either.

    2. The particular formulation "killing _those of a different race or species_ and take their stuff " has a very bad intellectual lineage, associated with insane people who complain that D&D is some kind of practice run for race warfare:
      . As well as being inaccurate: murderhobo D&D guys also kill those of the same race and species all the time.

    3. And now I'm intrigued in the whole concept. Time to go look into this . . . thing. Thanks for telling me more about it Zak!


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