Friday, May 27, 2011

Deconstruction in RPGs

I was reading the intro to one of the Astro City comics compilations and read something along the lines of "what's the point of taking things apart and learning how they work if you're not going to try to make something better?"

They were of course referring to the slew of 'grim & gritty' comics that came out in the 80s and 90s, along with the various deconstructionist treatments of various iconic super-heroes and super-hero teams -- some of which were watershed events in the history of the art (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Marvelman / Miracleman) while others were mediocre to bad attempts at the same fare. And some were just on the bandwagon to cash in on the trend of tearing down specific super-heroes or the entire genre itself.

Astro City, on the other hand, was successful in deconstructing and reconstructing superhero comics to achieve a different type of effect: having a surface story that appropriates many of the tropes and archetypes of the genre and layering it with more character and metaphor.

It was a revelation for me on two levels:
(1) it is possible to do satisfying riffs on superheroes and villains without being total rip-offs by drawing from earlier archetypes and / or mixing and matching;
(2) tearing apart stuff you liked while showing what parts don't work helps if you attempt to build something new after learning from the old.

So the big question is: how does this marginally interesting observation and possible epiphany relate to RPGs, thus justifying its inclusion in the blog?

1. Character creation with archetypes

When it became more possible in games to build the character that you wanted to play (character creation) rather than a character that you rolled up and made the best of (character generation), the desire to portray specific characters from inspirational material -- short stories, comics, novels, movies, TV shows, history -- was easier to satisfy.

Assuming that the game system, game setting, and game master were able to accommodate you playing a fairly well-known character ("Do you think you can stand against the power of Vecna, Conan?"), and assuming that it is capable of replicating the feats that these fictional characters are known for ("Vecna fails his saving throw, and loses the drinking contest. Conan wins!") sooner or later you'll run into the issue of canon -- because the player, or the GM or some other player will feel that the main body of work in being contradicted or even violated somehow ("No, I refuse to portray a female Conan just because of that stupid sex-change trap -- and tell Vecna to stop laughing!").

The next obvious step is to create someone reasonably close to, but not exactly like that character, often with an allusion in the name ("Call me Mississippi Smith."). Another tack is to create a character that amalgamates elements of characters into one. ("Of course we have a room for you and your female companion, Mr. James Westbondkirk.")

Some of the attempts (well, a lot of them) are juvenile, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's all for fun, and if it doesn't contradict the gameplay style being attempted, go for it.

However, Astro City has a plethora of characters that show that with some care mixing and matching the quintessential and archetypal elements of well-known super-heroes can create new characters that are familiar enough to draw upon the connotations of those archetypes, yet different enough to allow different portryals and stories to emerge.

In the above picture, there's a statue of the Silver Agent -- which appeared and was mysteriously alluded to in nearly every storyline of the series but whose history and significance was only recently detailed with a story -- a character who, despite the lack of a shield, has echoes of Marvel's Captain America and DC's Guardian.

Because of this visual short-hand, it suggests a character who upholds ideals at great cost, but is also a leader and an inspiration. I suppose that's why the mysterious story of the Silver Agent (only recently revealed) begged telling. Especially with a statue / monument to him with the following words inscribed below it: "To Our Eternal Shame".

In the future, I do plan on revisiting other characters from Astro City and other comics that have drawn on other archetypes. In the meantime, I invite you to search online for Samaritan, Winged Victory, and Jack-in-the-Box and see if you can identify their respective inspirations (visual and otherwise).

2. OSR, D&D, and various retro-clones and neo-clones

This was my first RPG experience:
reading T1 without a ruleset. It was
still awesome though I had barely
a clue about how to use it.
Of course, the other point here is relevant to what has gone on with the OSR movement -- and in theory with every RPG that was inspired by one or more RPGs that have come before.

I see the OSR movement, and the indie movement, and the whole mess of games coming out now, and the analysis of these games in terms of system and setting, and the house rules and the rules editions as part of this process and passion.

I think that at some level we're all going back to those games that first made our eyes light up in wonder, that took us to places we'd never been to before, that taught us how to see things differently, how to say things differently, how to think about things differently. I think we're trying to find out, with our older and wiser minds and hearts, what made these things work for us and for our friends.

And I'd like to think that the ultimate goal for all of this is to make games better, so that more of our circles of friends and family and strangers might experience what we did -- only better.

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