or: Tabletop roleplaying when real-world meets weird
There’s a very specific problem I am having with a very specific sort of tabletop roleplaying game. At least, I think it’s a problem; it may just be me. Let’s face it, of course it’s just me. But let us assume for the sake of argument that while it is just me, there may be at least one other just me out there who might benefit from the two of us considering the problem.
Here’s my problem: roleplaying characters that don’t believe in weird stuff in a game where weird stuff happens.
Or more specifically (I said it was a very specific sort of problem): playing ‘normal’ characters in their first encounter with weird stuff.
That is to say, playing a regular human being from the (ostensibly completely normal) real world, though not necessarily modern day (in fact, as we will see, much of the very specific problem seems to occur in the 1920s, for reasons some of you will already have anticipated) who in the course of the tabletop roleplaying session will encounter things that are out of the ordinary.
And by out of the ordinary, I am mainly thinking magic, ghosts, monsters and other weirdnesses, particularly stuff which in popular fiction is meant to unnerve or unsettle the characters. The sort of elements that you get in a horror story for example, or a wacky comedy-action film where a bunch of drop-out scientists go around busting ghosts, or where a smartass trucker encounters supernatural trouble in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Example of play – Wail of WazuzuMaybe it’s better if I describe a hypothetical gaming session, to illustrate my very specific problem.
A group of friends sits down to play a popular roleplaying game with a horror/investigation slant. Let’s call it Wail of Wazuzu, Wazuzu being an in effable entity of supreme cosmic madness. In Wail of Wazuzu, the friends play ordinary people (probably, but not exclusively, from the 1920s) who are drawn into a story of mystery, death and horror. This is the first session, so the characters that the players create, with the referee’s help, are all ‘ordinary folks’, albeit capable police officers, scientists, reporters and so forth. None of them are psychic wizards or paranormal investigators. In fact, this particular session of Wail of Wazuzu (I want to shorten it to WoW but now realise that that might introduce an element of confusion) is predicated on the fact that the player characters are ordinary folks with no inkling or prior knowledge of strangenesses like monsters, ghosts or cosmic entities, because much of the game’s allure is ‘ordinary meets the extraordinary’.
Thus in the first session of WoW (screw it, I’m going with it), the characters are almost certainly going to encounter something out of the ordinary. A body drained of salt perhaps, or footsteps made by no known animal, or someone claiming to be haunted by the ghost of a 12th century sorcerer. Whatever. The main thing is that the people from the real world are going to be presented, probably at first with hints, of weirdness afoot.
As the game progresses, they will be presented with increasing evidence of weirdness until at some point, they are going to be standing in front of a spectral hound or someone in a robe raising the dead or an invisible lamprey monster attempting to suck out their vital juices. At that point, presumably, the characters will be unable to deny the evidence of their eyes and will have to accept that, to quote an overused quote, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
And presumably, most of the time, the characters accept that weirdness is now part of their new normal and respond accordingly by sensibly running away, desperately shooting at the weird things or rapidly consulting a dusty old tome in the arcana aisle of their local library for a spell of banishment.
SIDEBAR – Sanity MechanicsOf course some games, perhaps even Wail of Wazuzu itself, have ways of describing those situations using rules that codify each character’s ability to deal with weird or horrifying encounters. Frequently they use some sort of ‘sanity’ rule in which players roll dice to see if their characters are able to function in the face of this new creature or concept. Sometimes they pass the test and can get on with running away, firing their gun or reading from their spell book. And sometimes they fail, and end up being told that their character has frozen in a catatonic state, started blubbering uncontrollably or has curled up into a ball and started humming to themselves.
Such mechanics are what they are, and serve a valid purpose within the roleplaying games. And I do not have a problem with them as such. My problem is in the roleplaying a character’s attitude to the weird right up to the point where a ‘sanity test’ is such exists in the game, is required. Outright denial, glib acceptance, or a tricky middle ground?
In LimboIt’s the period between the start of the game and the ‘undeniable weird thing’ that I am struggling with. The period when your supposedly normal character from the normal world is presented with a situation which you the player absolutely knows has a weird supernatural origin – because hey, we’re playing Wail of Wazuzu y’all – but your character is not supposed to know about. Because they’re a real person and they have never heard, dreamt or thought of whatever weirdness is waiting in the wings. Sure, we the players know that we are playing Wail of Wazuzu, ‘the game of paranormal peculiarity’, but our characters in this instance are not seasoned psychic investigators with a few spook-busting cases under their belt.
So I, being a neurotic player who worries about stupid things like this, find myself in an odd position from a purely roleplaying standpoint. Which is, “I know that we are playing a game with spooky monsters in it, in fact I might even suspect which sort of spooky monster it is in this case, but my plucky marine biologist character has no idea that they are in Wail of Wazuzu. As far as they are concerned, that corpse drained of salt is a freak medical condition which they are sure science will be able to explain eventually.
So there is no earthly reason for my character to go off and start reading up on local folklore just in case they might turn up some useful tales of the legendary Salt-Sucker to be found. Furthermore, if any non-player character shows up and claims that this is the work of the Salt-Sucker, there is no good reason for my character to accept their word about such a preposterous notion. Therefore I am going to play this all just like a normal person would up to the point when a dirty great Salt-Sucker actually rears up in front of my character and proceeds to suck of the salt.”
In other words, I think there’s a risk of a strange limbo-like period in games where normal folks encounter the weird for the first time. The period of indeterminate paranormal belief between ‘this is the real normal world with no weird things’ and ‘there are weird things in the world that I accept exist’. Let’s call this period Schrodinger’s Salt-Sucker. Your character has no good reason to go haring off down avenues of investigation that point to weird things, and if you are a fan of Occam’s Razor, then your character would surely cleave to the most rational explanation for as long as is possible, even if this means balking at the referee’s secret wish that you just pick up some holy water and a wooden stake.
From real world to real world + weirdI have played in more than a few games like this, both tabletop and live action (again, frequently set in the 1920s). It is only a problem for your character ‘the first time’. But given the frequently lethal nature of some of these games mortality rates are high, and that turnover of characters means that there are many games of ‘first time investigators meeting the weird’, and many periods of the limbo between ‘real world’ and ‘real world+weird’.
Now, many people will not have encountered this problem in their games, because it is a phenomenon peculiar to the genre of ‘normal meets the weird’. You don’t get this problem in fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, because the characters knowingly exist in a world of strangeness and magic. You don’t get a party of D&D players struggling to convey their characters’ belief in a werewolves. “A man, who is also a wolf? The very idea!”.
Nor do you get it in sci-fi space games or superhero games or in fact any game where it is generally accepted that the population of that world or setting knows of the weird and accepts that it is a part of their reality.
And even if you do play some sort of ‘investigation into the weird’ game like Wail of Wazuzu, you as players may simply choose to gloss over the limbo-like period of Schrodinger’s Salt-Sucker and get on with the plot. Perhaps it was established, prior to starting the game through discussion with the referee, that your characters already know that the world is bigger and stranger than most people believe. Or perhaps you are simply not neurotic players like me and can’t be arsed to fret over your characters’ internal belief systems and just want to get to the bit where you open up your tommy guns on a bunch of cultists. But for those of us, and again this may simply be me, who do fret over such things, the struggle is real.
SIDEBAR – roleplaying extremesOf course, like I said this is a very specific problem that not every roleplayer will encounter, because it’s not how they play that sort of game. I’ve been in a few games where players use one or other of the following approaches, which skirt the problem but have their own potential drawbacks:
Total acceptance from the get-goThis player’s character is by default completely down with whatever weirdness the game throws at them and takes it in their stride. There are no moments of shock, disbelief or revelation with this one. They simply take whatever out of the ordinariness the game sends their way and plunge on regardless.
This has the effect of nerfing any potential roleplaying fun the players and referee might get out of playing with the moment, or moments, of ‘ordinary meets the extraordinary’, which might be one of the major attractions of putting the game on in the first place. “Yeah, it’s probably vampires. I’ll get my flamethrower. How do I know it’s vampires? Well, it’s gotta be, hasn’t it?”
Dogged disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidenceThis player’s character is the arch-sceptic or rationalist. The Scully to the believer’s Mulder. They continue to find a mundane, grounded explanation for the weird goings-on, whether it’s freak weather phenomena, gas leaks or that old chestnut ‘mass hysteria’.
They can be fun to play at first, and make for fun moments when believer and disbeliever characters clash, but there comes a point when this style of play starts to derail the plot by refusing the call to adventure that the referee has laid before them. “Vampires? Bullshit. You are all clearly delusional so I’m calling the authorities to section the lot of you. And put that flamethrower down.”
Column A, Column BA little bit of either approach in a game is fine, and can add some interesting roleplaying friction to the character group. But total acceptance denies the game’s sweet moments of disbelief followed by shocking revelation and finally acceptance, whereas dogged disbelief eventually becomes a lead weight around the plot’s neck, slowing it all down unless and until everyone gets on board.
The challenge that I am struggling to illustrate here is one of roleplaying a character that sits between these two extremes, and knowing how to satisfyingly pace their journey from disbelief to acceptance.
Getting Round The ProblemNow, I love a good investigation game, and I love ‘real people encounter the weird’, so how can we make it so that I do not have this problem in the future? Here’s a few thoughts, some for players, some for referees and some for both.
Player – play a character with experience of the weirdGames like Monster of the Week have this concept baked into their system, so that even if you are playing a one-shot session sending your team of ‘new’ characters to investigate disappearances from a charming Scottish town, the mounting evidence that a family of medusae are behind it all (actual example, copyright G. MacLachlan) should not be beyond the characters’ credibility, even within the confines of the game’s real-world setting.
You are playing experienced monster hunters. Monsters are real. You may not know exactly which monster this is, but you are able to conceive of the possibility that it is something out of the ordinary. Although see the sidebar on roleplaying extremes for possible drawbacks with this approach.
Player – play a character with an innate acceptance of the weirdThey may not ever have encountered monsters before, but they are going to be just fine when they realise that strange things are afoot. Perhaps they are ‘a bit psychic’ or have a belief system that already encompasses people returning from the dead, having encounters with aliens or simply believe the Bigfoot footage.
For whatever reason, they are not going to blink much at the concept of strangeness, and thus they will be able to instantly circumvent the belief/disbelief limbo and get on with the adventure. Again though, see the sidebar on Roleplaying Extremes for possible drawbacks with this approach.
Referee – get through the limbo period of disbelief/belief as quickly as possibleOne way is for the referee to confront the players with undeniable evidence early on, but this runs the risk of undermining any mounting mystery that you might want in an investigation game. In a sense, this is what the film Ghostbusters does with a great deal of success. They have an early encounter in a library with a ghost, which is followed by the three ‘player characters’ effectively saying to each other “OK then, as some of us suspected, ghosts are real. Now let’s get on with the adventure of busting them.”
There is still plenty to investigate (and terrifying challenges for their characters to encounter), but the basic premise of ‘ghosts are real’ is a hurdle that has been neatly negotiated very early on.
Referee and Players – give the characters drives to fast-track their ‘road to belief’The characters all start off as real-world people with real world beliefs, but it is agreed by the referee and players that all the characters will have good personal reasons for moving steadily through the limbo of disbelief to belief, and in turn towards the plot, not away from it. It helps if your characters are built with core motivations which propel them toward both the adventure as a whole and the acceptance of weirdness specifically.
Games like Trail of Cthulhu have this concept baked in with their Drive characterisation, although some drives, like Bad Luck and Arrogance are a little weak in this regard. Drives like Curiosity, Thirst For Knowledge and In The Blood – essentially ‘weirdness investigation runs in the family’ – are all excellent for reminding players to drive their characters toward the weirdness, not to ignore it.
Referee – have a The World Is Stranger Than You Think sceneMovies have these all the time, as do the pilot episodes of supernatural TV shows. Effectively the main (player) characters are gathered round and given a little talk by an authority on the subject of the weird, who – and this is crucial – is someone the players have agreed that their characters respect and thus cannot dismiss out of hand. It might be Egg Shen telling Jack Burton about an immortal ghost sorcerer, or Nick Fury presenting a slide show of documented gods and monsters, or Rupert Giles flipping through a history book of slayers and vampires.
The players have agreed to respect the authority figure in this instance, which allows them (through the referee) to ease their characters collectively from belief to disbelief in a single, managed scene. This still allows for some great roleplaying of the “Wait, so you’re saying this shit is real?” variety, but then positions all the characters on more or less the same page and allows everyone to get on with the adventure in hand.
Referee and Players – play a ‘genreless’ game systemOne of the very particular features of this very specific problem is that you the player know that you are playing Wail of Wazuzu, while your character does not. By using a genre-free game system, perhaps one cooked up by the referee, you avoid any expectations of weirdness, because the players do not know that they are going to be playing in a horror game, until the actual horror hops up and starts sucking out their salt.
I myself have run and played several one-off tabletop games like this, using a home-brewed variant of the old Marvel Super Heroes system. Each session had a bland title, if any at all, like ‘The Hawaiian Storm Game’ which did not give any indication if the players should expect to encounter horror, magic, time travel or robots (though in that particular instance there turned out to be all of them. Plus the Highlander). Thus their characters were free to react however their players wanted them to react, with no expectations that they should jolly well get on with accepting the weird and break out the flamethrowers, because in this sort of game, the meta-game of discovering the genre is as much fun as the in-game plot and their characters’ individual roads to belief in whatever brand of weirdness that particular game presented them with.
It is also total legit to use this genreless approach to run a perfectly mundane game with no weirdness elements, which can be fun for wrong-footing players who have fallen into the habit of ‘it’s always vampires’. Playing a Scooby Doo-like game where the monster really does turn out to be old man Higgins in a rubber Dracula mask can be just as fun, especially when the characters have taken refuge in a church and the supposed ‘vampire’ just waltzes right in.