Two weeks ago, I attended a Durban tweetup and there met some more Durban-based role players. This past Sunday, we got together and started a new Mage: the Awakening chronicle. This time, I got to play for a change (running a necromancer) and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I last played nWoD in 2006/7 and it felt good to be rolling a bunch of d10s again.
The storyteller has already written up a brief session report over here. As the game progresses, I’ll be adding a few of my own play reports to this blog.
It’s RPG blog carnival time again. This month’s carnival is hosted by the Book of Rev and the topic is WAR!
I was going to start this post with: War. War never changes. However, if you were to scroll through the comments of the Rev’s post, you’d see that Ron Perlman’s line was already used. Grrr. So, I’m going to approach writing about war from a slightly different direction. That means no writing about campaigns with an ongoing war as a backdrop, or PCs in a special forces unit, or even mass combat rules. Instead I’m going to talk about one of my favourite NPCs of all time – one whose only link to the topic of war is her name: Ares.
My first foray into the nWoD was through Mage: the Awakening as the story teller. Since my entire group was new to the game mechanics and game world, I went through great pains to make some of the most involved NPCs of my GM/STing career, including villains, political rivals, allies and, of course, mentors and teachers to guide the young mages.
Several of the NPC cabals were based around a particular theme. Olympus, the cabal that adopted the fledgling PC mages, was based on the (duh) old Greek gods. Hades was the geeky, IT guy of the cabal; Artemis, though not very friendly, was the resident green-thumbed, sometimes medic of the cabal; Zeuz, the reluctant leader of the cabal was portrayed as the ex-biker turned apartment block superindendant; and, finally, Ares, Zeuz’s wife, was portrayed as the kind and gentle type, with a knack for firearms.
I’m still don’t know how I got it right, but when Ares died (yes, she died), one of the players actually cried. It was quite something to see somebody shed a tear over the death of an NPC. It made me feel rather good (as a ST) to elicit such a reaction. (It also made me feel bad, because I made somebody cry.)
Well, I’m not going to write much more about this. Instead, I’m going to direct my old play group to this post and see if we can drum up the old emotions and try and figure out why it worked as it did (and why I’ve never been able to duplicate such an emotional attachment to NPCs since).
The full text version of The Case of the Bitch: Gender and Identity Construction and Formation Within Role-Playing Narratives can be found here.
The lack of distinction between player and created character is not the only narrative clash that may occur. There is also the clash of the various players’ narratives. This clash is illustrated in the conflicts that can occur between players for non-role-playing reasons yet they emerge within the game. A possible reason why such clashes occur is due to the process of one’s identity being mediated by the perceptions of others, and a desire for recognition. This could amount to recognition when playing, as some players are more vocal than others and can for that reason gain more attention from the DM/ST, or in certain cases a desire for recognition of whom you are and your place within the male dominated group as a female player. “The terms by which we are recognised as human are socially articulated and changeable. And sometimes the very terms that confer ‘humanness’ on some individuals are those that deprive certain other individuals of the possibility of achieving that status (Butler: 2004; 2). This reaffirms the thought that one’s gender and identity are linked, and that within the role-playing situation even if you are a female player playing a male you will not be recognised, as all the other players can see is your gender.
Your character will not be recognised as the very nature of “table top role-playing” means that the other players can see you, not your character. Players observe each other playing their character, thus if the character’s gender is different to that of the person playing her the character will not register as clearly as she should with the other players. You see yourself as others see you or you use others to differentiate between yourself and the other or the other is used to identify with. Just as one player goes through these processess and use them so too do the other players, yet, again demonstrating the interactive nature of table top role-playing. This interactive nature of table top role-playing introduces additional concerns to the communal narrative. These concerns include the interaction of the players amongst each other and with the DM/ST. All the players with characters are after all sharing and at times competing for the attention of the DM/ST, a situation that can, as mentioned previously, cause conflict and disruption to the communal narrative. This conflict and disruption has its roots in the desire of all involved in the process for recognition. The DM/ST wants recognition for his efforts in creating the world and running the session, while the players want recognition for taking part and doing their part to make the session enjoyable for all, because it is only through recognition that any of us become constituted as socially viable beings (Butler: 2004; 2). And without being recognised as a socially viable being there is no place for the individual within the group, and as such the group’s identity and that of the individual shifts to something new. Thus, even though character creation most clearly illustrates the manner in which gender and identity are constructed and formed through interactions with others, it is also the process of playing that constructs and forms genders and identities.
Desire for recognition for who you are and your place within the male dominated group in which being a woman makes you an abnormality, is illustrated by the following:
Most women we have found liked gaming when first introduced to it, but have been turned away by bad experiences. However, when isolated and given a second chance, they enjoyed it a lot. Asking what was different, we found that it was not that these women didn’t like the people in the mixed groups (they were friends with them outside the game), but that they didn’t like how these friends behaved when the dice came out. The fact that they were playing a game or were “in character” gave these men an excuse to behave the way they always had when gaming: acting like little boys. This is nice when you want to be a “kid at heart,” but think; little boys are often competitive, violent, and vulgar. Many women see a man’s changing behaviour when the game starts as a sign that they are not wanted. As one long-time female gamer confessed to us recently, “even though everyone in my present game are really nice to me, I never feel included in their jokes. When they try to include me, it ends up feeling like they’re doing me a favour rather than accepting me as an equal participant… One female friend of ours was complaining one day, saying, “I really like role-playing, and I want to do more of it, but I had to drop out of the game I was in because of my boyfriend. He’s so concerned that I have a good time he doesn’t let me speak.” In trying to make “suggestions,” her boyfriend was in the habit of literally taking away her character sheet, looking at her skills and telling the GM what she wanted to do without so much as consulting her. While this guy thought he was being nice by making sure her character was included in the action, he had forgotten completely about the person (Brandes & Hepler).
As demonstrated by Brandes and Hepler, the problem of non-recognition can have a huge impact on both the communal narrative and the individual’s narrative. Brandes and Hepler also serve to illustrate that in the gaming world gender is intrinsically linked to identity, and that male players take advantage of their social position of power and privilege within the group as the norm and use it to, hopefully unconsciously, subjugate female players. The above extract also demonstrates the effect that seeing the player and not the character has on the narrative and the players. The extract also provides horrific examples of the male norm enabling men to take their position of power too far and not recognising that there is a person attached to the gender they are seeing; which also serves to exhibit the manner in which gender and the assumptions that come with it reinforce the societal norm of men as the dominant group.
Another friend of ours describes a game that “I was lucky to get out of when I did.” On the night after she left, the party got arrested by the city watch. After throwing the PCs into separate cells, the male game master had the guards rape every female character. The women left in tears and never returned to role-playing, while, as our friend described incredulously, “the GM never understood what he did wrong.” In yet another game, a friend of ours ended up playing the self-described “town slut.” Though this was not a role she wanted, she had felt so pressured that she “ended up giving it away before someone tried to take it.”…Role-playing games allow people to act out fantasies in a forum where, as the ads and magazines say, “the only limit is your imagination.”… Killing another person’s character primarily signifies “beating” them at the game, not a real desire to commit murder. Role-playing rape means one thing, and can be legally prosecutable harassment. Imagine how you would feel if every time a player mentioned killing your character, you knew they were wearing a gun (Brandes & Hepler).
Within the extract gender is shown as a regulatory norm as it is used as the tool to reinforce the subjugation of woman (Butler: 2004; 53).
The acquisition of a different gender when a player has role-played for years is a natural progression within his experience of role-playing. What role-playing does however, is reflect the beliefs held by society of different genders. Because it is not only the player making the choices he makes when creating a character, but also the views held by those he plays with, informing those choices. Choices which highlight that gender and identity are not only constructed by the individual, but also by the group. These choices also serve as a demonstration of society’s narrative that informs and affects the narratives of all and as such re-enforces stereotypical beliefs held of different genders by the dominant male norm.
The min-max situation that occurs within the WoD character creation system is not a problem within the DnD character creation system as the skills available to the character are those which the character should possess due to his class. The impact of the group on the individual’s skill selection choice may also be negated by the DnD system. One other respect in which the group can affect the individual’s character creation is by the choices the other players make for their characters. Within DnD this is done by the avoidance of two characters of the same class within a party and the attempt to build the optimum party. The optimum party within DnD consists of a fighter, wizard, cleric and rogue, with support classes if there are more than four players. Not all players strive for the optimum party build as it not only limits the individual player’s choice – the best class for the party does not necessarily equal the best class for you to play – but can also become monotonous. Although each player is creating an individual character there are some traits common to those characters of the same class. Bards, for example are tellers of tales and entertainers by nature. Thus for a party to have two bards who are similar disrupts the narrative, as the players of those characters could potentially clash over how to use their abilities.
With a limit of five choices for the starting character it would seem that within WoD there will always be at least two people who have chosen the same path or have the same arcanum in the case of the Mage example being used throughout this essay. Although this does occur it does not have the same narrative hampering effect within WoD as it does within DnD. A possible reason for this is due to the skill and class selection in DnD. Once a class and the corresponding skills are chosen the character is limited in the manner in which he will engage in combat, a large focus of DnD, but not WoD. Although both DnD and WoD are role-playing games, DnD is combat focused and thus players build their characters for optimum fighting; after all you are an adventurer. Whereas WoD is more role-playing intensive, although combat is a possibility, it does not have to occur in every session. Within DnD sessions can feel incomplete for players without at least one fight; whereas it is common for a session or two to occur in a WoD campaign without fights occurring. Although WoD does not have as much combat it does not mean that there are not moments fraught with tension. As WoD is more role-playing intensive greater emphasis is placed on who your character is over what it is he can do. Thus although combat is fun, if you have built a character that is optimal for combat and only combat, he will lag behind in the moments of social battle.
An interesting aspect of the processess of both systems is that both place details of the character last. This is strange, as it is often the characters history and/or personality that provide the concept or their reasons for adventuring in DnD or committing to a new life in WoD. A history for your character is especially important in the DnD, setting as it is medieval fantasy and women adventurers would not be easily accepted by society (Brandes & Hepler). Although the distribution of traits and attributes helps determine some of the details of the character, it can also be argued that certain details of the character help determine traits and attributes. Granted that hair colour does not determine the charisma or presence of a character, it is a factor that can display the value of that particular attribute or trait. Just as people’s identities and manner in which they perceive gender is shaped by their environment and the different behavioural messages received by those around them, so too is the identity of the character formed. It is important to remember that although, not a flesh and blood person, the character must seem real.
One should be able to distinguish between the player and the character in order to have a successful communal narrative. If players are unable to distinguish between themselves and the created character then an identity was not created: the character then serves as a copy of the player in the created world. It is for this reason that it is important for the character to have as complete a history as it is possible for the player to create. Without any history the character is flat and one dimensional. A character with amnesia has a past, even though she does not remember it; she does however, know that somewhere out in the world there is someone who helped shape her. The character with amnesia might not be able to remember her past, but she does have motivations, habits and desires. Without those any character will fall flat and not even an amazing concept will help.
Step two of the WoD process requires the player to select attributes. The attributes consist of three core groups each with three subcategories. The core groups are mental, physical and social, and the subcategories are power, finesse and resistance. Thus the mental attribute consists of intelligence, wits and resolve, the physical attribute consisting of strength, dexterity and stamina and the social attribute consisting of presence, manipulation and composure. All attributes are important and ideally a player would like to have four or maximum dots – dots being the representations on the character sheet of the characters abilities, skills and other measurable aspects – in each of them. However, in the need for believability and familiarity in an unfamiliar world it is not possible to do so: although it is set in modern day the world your character finds himself in is not one he was familiar with. Thus when creating your character it is important to use your concept in guiding you to determine which of the attributes is your primary, secondary and tertiary attribute, as it will determine how many dots you have available for use. All characters begin with one dot in each attribute, the basic human capabilities. Five dots are allocated to the character’s primary category, four dots to her secondary category, and three dots to her tertiary category (Blackwilder et al: 2005; 64).
Once the character’s attributes have been established it is time to move onto the third step, selecting skills. Skills are divided into the same three core groups as attributes: mental, physical and social. Unlike attributes, though, the character does not start with one dot in each skill as skills represent the knowledge, training and interactions that your character has had and it is unlikely for one person to have a basic understanding of everything (Blackwilder et al: 2005; 64). Similarly to attributes, skill sets are also divided into primary, secondary and tertiary, with the primary sets having eleven dots available for distribution, the secondary seven and the tertiary four. This does mean that a player could make use of “min-max” – using the positive to balance out the negative, in this case placing the most skills in the low corresponding attribute – to create a character that is capable in all situations. If the player does not make use of min-max and truly creates someone in line with the concept you will have a situation in play that mimics reality: those more competent at what is being done will take centre stage and do what needs to be done. This does also mean that at this stage of character creation the player is influenced to a certain extent by the other players he will be playing with and choices could be made in terms of “party make up” and not what would best suit either the player or the character. This influence held by the other players illustrates the manner in which identity is not only constructed by the player, but also formed by the other players. Identity is formed in conjunction with the views and actions of others, because they shape the views and actions of the self.
By contrast within DnD skill selection is the seventh consideration; this one consideration deals with what takes two steps in the WoD system. This is because within WoD skill selection is followed by selecting skill specialities. DnD character creation system deals with skill specialities by not leaving it open to the player to choose them for his character according to what could work in terms of concept and story as in WoD, but by having certain skills only available to certain classes. Thus the choice is made for the character by virtue of the class chosen. In both systems the player is able to purchase further skills, be they gaining more experience in those he already possess or learning a new skill. The WoD system allows the player to spend the experience points gained in any manner that would best suit his character; and certain things cost more than others. The cost of the various skills, abilities and attributes are explained at the bottom of Appendix A, the Mage character sheet. The DnD system however; has a certain number of skill points available per level the character gains, which the player can spend as would best suit the character and his particular narrative. The skills available to the character’s particular class are cheaper than those he gains outside his class – “cross class skills”. The character can however, make use of money earned through adventuring to purchase equipment or magical items which could have a positive impact on his skills – as indicated by the miscellaneous modifier column in the skill’s section on the DnD character sheet, Appendix B. Another aspect to note in the skill section on the character sheet is that certain skills can be used by an untrained character, including skills such as jumping and hiding, which the average person is able to do.
The impact of gender on a concept a player might have for a character within a DnD campaign is only important insofar as the assumptions that the players might hold about the time period of the setting. Given that the DnD world in the core rulebooks is placed within a fantasy setting and as such the classes are those you would find in such a setting, it stands to reason that as there is no way to validate or invalidate the assumptions held by the players, some might use it to enforce the thought of males as the norm. This means that certain classes could then be considered only fitting for certain genders i.e. females being sorcerers instead of wizards, but the only true distinction between these two classes lies in the fact that sorcerer’s arcane abilities are innate whereas wizard’s arcane abilities are learnt. Yet within the gaming world more often than not you will find a scantly clad female sorcerer and a cloaked male wizard. It has become the accepted and expected norm for a player wanting to create a female mage in the DnD world to have their character assume the gender and class assumptions of the particular class.
It is not only for the mage classes of the DnD world that these gender assumptions come to light: some of the very names of the classes and their assumptions make it difficult to imagine a female character perform that particular class. One such example is the class of cleric; the term in itself denotes a male priest and as such the associations carried with it are those of a religious father figure. In contrast to the religious father figure we have the religious nurturing mother figure in the class of healer; we also have the innate favored soul’s abilities that imply feminine aspects. Healers are implied to be female and the class itself implies that it is a class exclusively for the female character wanting to portray aspects of the religious figure. This is as one of the later abilities of the class is a “special companion”, a unicorn. The unicorn is an animal that is only able to be ridden by chaste females and here gender does have a definite impact on character creation.
Within the WoD setting however, one is not confronted with issues of class choices being possibly hampered by gender choice for your character. This is because WoD is set in the modern day society where all paths are open to those of all genders, something which we find reflected within the World of Darkness. Within Mage, Vampire and Werewolf there are no classes, but there are paths, bloodlines and clans respectively. Unlike the limitless choices a starting character has available in terms of class in the DnD system, within the WoD system the starting character is limited to five different paths, clans or tribes. The simple rule system for WoD is what holds great appeal for players coming from the DnD setting. There is more flexibility within the WoD Mage setting, as it allows for open interpretations of the paths and the arcanum. The uses of the arcanum given within the Mage core rulebook are examples and guidelines to what your character could do with the arcanum. Both systems allow for fluidity of character; your character is after all growing and gaining experience. Thus changes to the character’s personality, goals and desires are all allowed within play, as long as the narrative supports it. One can not have your character make the change from pacifist to someone not averse to getting into a good fistfight within one session, as there will have been no time for growth and change in the characters life. If this change occurs after several months – in game time – with the character having gone through events which lead to a justifiable change of mindset then it would be allowed by the DM/ST. The importance given to having a concept in WoD is confirmed in the thought that “you the player always have a guiding concept to fall back upon”, just as the player always has the concept to fall back on so does he have the associations with that concept to fall back (Blackwilder: 2005; 64).
The reason for character concept being implicitly mention second in the list of considerations is due to the fact that in DnD, unlike WoD you “roll” your characters abilities; instead of working with a set number of points. This means that although your character concept is that of a Halfling two weapon fighter ranger the “abilities rolled” might not suit that particular concept. “Rolling ability” scores refers to the player rolling six d6 [six sided dice] six times and for each roll taking the highest values of three for a total. Thus a level one character in a DnD campaign could have eighteen for all his attributes while a counterpart could have ten for most of his attributes creating an unbalanced group and potential conflict due to interpersonal resentment. It is for this reason that alternatives exist in the second core rulebook, Dungeons Master’s Guide. The alternatives for rolling the attributes are: standard point buy; nonstandard point buy; elite array; the floating reroll; organic characters; customized average characters; random average characters and high-powered characters (Cook, Tweet & Williams: 2003; 170). The standard point buy system has each characters attributes start on eight and the player is given twenty eight points to buy higher numbers. The buying of higher attribute numbers works as follows:
(Moore: 2000; 192)
The other alternatives are not as easy to use as the standard and customized point buy systems thus, when it comes to playing, DM’s either have the players roll their abilities or make use of the afore – mentioned systems.
Although having a concept is crucial to the character creation process, you might find difficulty in translating the concept into a playable character. The difficulties arise from the fact that you roll your character’s abilities. In rolling the abilities you might have numbers that do not suit your concept at all or they would make playing the type of character that you want to extremely difficult. It is easier to see the difficulties that could arise by the means of an example. There are six abilities: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. Constitution, dexterity and wisdom provide the bases for the “resistance” saves of fortitude, reflex and will respectively. Thus these three abilities at the very least need to have a positive modifier [as demonstrated in the table above] in order for your character to be able to survive situations where resistance is necessary. Aside from striving for a positive modifier for those abilities, certain classes require certain abilities to be high as well, or that character would not be able to reap the benefits of his class. If Joan wanted to play a paladin – a knight-like class – she needs to have high scores in strength, wisdom, charisma and constitution. This is because
Charisma enhances a paladin’s healing power, self-protective capabilities, and undead turning ability. Strength is important for her because of its role in combat. A wisdom score of 14 or higher is required to get access to the most powerful paladin spells, and a score of 11 or higher is required to cast any paladin spells at all (Cook, Tweet & Williams: 2003; 43)
While constitution has proved to be important, to Joan, during other campaigns as it enables your character to be able to take more combat damage. Thus if Joan has rolled ten for all six of the abilities her character would not be able to be an effective paladin as she will have no positive modifiers for anything and thus be unable to make effective use of the chosen class. In fact Joan would be unable to make an effective character following any of the classes available, as having no positive modifiers at all will cause the chosen class to be under-utilised and have the player unable to positively contribute to the groups experience due to the character’s short comings. Here the concept hampers Joan’s experience, illustrating why the importance of concept is not as explicitly mentioned as important in the DnD system as in the WoD system.
In order to better understand the impact that gender has on character creation the process of character creation will now be examined. The differences between the d20 and d10 system of character creation, as used in DnD and WoD respectively, will also be examined, as well as the impact of the stereotypes established by the gaming world; and the importance or unimportance of the relationship between stereotype and creation of identity. Within the d10 system used in WoD campaigns there is a basic human template with the particular setting or type of WoD game you want to play adding another template to the first. Thus for the Vampire the Requiem, Mage: The Awakening and Werewolf the Forsaken campaigns one of the first steps to consider for character creation is the type of human your character was before certain events occurred that introduced them to an unknown world. The focus is on creating a character – a person – and not the optimal vampire, mage or werewolf; this is demonstrated in the opening paragraphs for character creation in the Mage: The Awakening core rulebook.
“You are building a character to act as your persona in a Storytelling game, where the emphasis is on story, drama and, well, character. It is more important to craft the character around your vision of his personality, background and quirks — from his strange habits to his all-too-human flaws — rather than putting together the perfect wizard based on some tactical scheme on how to build the best flame throwing witch or demon-conjuring sorcerer. Your character’s allocation of traits should illustrate who she is and where she’s been in life — not just after the Awakening, but from before she knew she could make her imagination real. What were her hopes and dreams when she was a mere mortal, subject to the slings and arrows of misfortune? How has she changed since the Awakening? Does she use magic to fulfill her lifelong dream, or has she given up those goals to pursue new ones? The Storyteller can help you form your character by acting as a sounding board for ideas and questions” (Blackwilder et al: 2005; 64).
Once the personality aspect of the character has been established as core to the process of creation you can then move onto the other aspects of character creation. The creation occurs in eight steps: step one: character concept; step two: select attributes; step three: select skills; step four: select skill specialties; step five: add template [in the example being used it would be add mage template]; step six: select merits; step seven: determining advantages and step eight: awakening to life (Blackwilder et al: 2005; 64). Although how you create your character is up to you following the given steps in their correct order does make the process easier: it would after all be near impossible to flesh out your character as required in step eight if you had not selected your attributes; as would determining advantages become highly difficult if you had not added the relevant template. The first step of character concept as I had mentioned before is important to the process of gender and identity formation and construction of your character as some concepts do work best with certain genders. And if the gender is determined in terms of the concept then, so too would certain factors that contribute to the identity given to the character.
DnD however, does not have an eight – step creation system, instead it has a character creation summary that is made up of twelve considerations. The summary is followed by five chapters relevant to the process, as opposed to one for Mage: The Awakening. The twelve considerations are: check with your DM; roll ability scores; choose class and race; assign and adjust ability scores; review the starting package; record racial and class features; select skills; select feats; review description chapter; select equipment; record combat numbers and the last consideration details, details, details (Cook, Tweet & Williams: 2003; 6). Although it is not explicitly stated within the DnD core rulebook as it is stated within the Mage core rulebook, having a character concept is the most crucial part of the process. Although both DnD and WoD have set process to follow when creating characters, only players new to the game follow the process step by step, while more experienced players tend to combine the steps, as they recognise the impact that the various steps have on each other. The lapsing back into expected/accepted behavior does occur with newer players although I have found that the more experienced players tend to have this bad habit.
Several things around the local blogosphere have inspired this post. Firstly, my recent post about CRPGs of the 90s; then the announcement of the 5th monthly RPG blog carnival: Transitions and Transformations; and finally, the fact that Jonathan beat me to the Transformers post.
All of the above reminded me of my favourite vapourware:
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is one of my favourite CRPGs of all time. If you haven’t played it, I recommend that you try and get your hands on this 2004 gem. Anyway, within V:TM Bloodlines, a sense of a living world is portrayed through changing newspaper headlines, TV news reports and radio broadcasts. The best part about the radio broadcasts, however, were the advertisments. One of the radio adverts was about the Deformers (including Optical Mouse Prime – I would so buy an Optical Mouse Prime). My favourite radio ad, though, was about the upcoming horror RPG: Frankenstein: Breadlust. The link takes you to a youtube tribute video to the greatest game never made.