Friday, January 29, 2016

Fiction vs. Roleplaying


While I was driving in this morning, I suddenly thought of a bit for a fantasy short story. It would probably start something like:

I heard the noise of  someone entering and I wondered if this would be the person who finally managed to kill me.

The narrator is a guardian spirit who has been trapped guarding the tomb for a long time. Long enough to regain a sense of self, long enough to be totally bored (I mean, if you have a sense of self, there is nothing to do in a tomb), long enough to want to die, but unable because of the geas to just give up.

Now, that's kind of an interesting character to run across, but I'd develop these totally differently for roleplaying than for fiction, and I offer these ideas as a way to compare and contrast the two. While roleplaying can use a lot of the same tools as fiction, I think that anyone who is trying to tell you that they are pretty much the same is wrong.

(Oh, they're very similar in a lot of ways...but they're very different in others.)

There are lots of ways this could go (maybe it's set in historical times, because the guardian spirit is that old; dress it up the right way, and it could be nearly any setting, including superheroes) but for this discussion I'm going to assume plain-vanilla F20-style fantasy. It's a secondary world fantasy, a cod-medieval world with magic.

In fiction, it would be about the relationship between the guardian spirit and the invader. In that case, I might make the invader someone who is nominally harmless, maybe a young girl that the real thieves kidnapped and threw in here to deactivate the first trap, or a young boy (young to contrast immortal with youth) who is evading others and chanced into this tomb. (This would be a good way to bring it into the modern world, by the way.)

In fiction, the other person would also have an agenda. Maybe she wants to get revenge on her uncle who sold her into this slavery, maybe he wants his family back, maybe the invader wants to help the spirit or hurt the spirit, but both sides want something.

I'd tell the story from the guardian spirit's point of view, as above. Maybe there'd be a twist ending, maybe not; maybe I'd have a third group involved, maybe not.

And, in fact, maybe the guardian spirit shares his story...he was a temple thief himself, and got caught. He thinks; he might have made that up, after seeing so many tomb robbers. He can read and write, which makes him think that maybe he was a priest. Maybe a priest turned thief?

So he tells the invader, "I have to hurt you if you cross this boundary. I like you. Please don't do it. But if you do it, you have until I hit you three times to get to this rock on the tomb and destroy it. That's how you kill me."

And none of that mental exercise is suitable for a roleplaying game.

Maybe I could use some of it with pre-generated characters and a con session. Maybe.

As a GM, what I have is a guardian spirit who wants to die, because he or she or it is bored.

I have very little control over what the characters want. I can suggest things, I can put strong forces in place, but I can't make the characters want things. It's always a choice for somebody to decide that staying in town and huffing paint would be better. Well, we assume they want to adventure, because they're playing adventurers...but they don't have to interact with the guardian spirit beyond, "What level is he? Crap. Can we get out? Right, we were running away from the barbarian horde. Well, we camp outside its range but in hiding until the angry barbarian horde goes away."

In fiction, they have to engage because I want them to. In roleplaying, they engage because they choose to. I have made the other options so awful or this one so attractive that they choose to do it.

In both cases, the stated reason can be flimsy ("it's raining") but underlying it is choice.

Now, the spirit has an interesting (to me) backstory. How are the PCs going to hear about it? In fiction, I could just provide it as part of the narration, or I could guide the conversation, but I can't do that here. What can I do?

Well, the spirit's first speech could indicate that he's been there a long, long time. I could do that with elevated speech or with something painfully direct. That is, the guardian spirit could say:

Long have I waited here for someone puissant enough to challenge me. I can never know the release of the afterlife which I have given to so many. 
Or the spirit could approach them this way:
You're using pick-axes of dwarven manufacture and your clothes are strange. Foreigners who do not know of the dangers I present? Or has so long passed that I have been forgotten?
Any special last requests? Because no one else has been a challenge. 
Or maybe the spirit kept a diary in some way. A truly suicidal spirit might do that, leaving what hints he can in the journal and throwing it beyond his own boundary so that invaders might see it. (This suggests a scene where the actual bad guys get it, and the heroes have to save the spirit in order to get rid of the bad guys, and then get rid of the spirit.) Or worse, he's done it by erosion: there is a stream that passes through the tomb, and he has used his minor telekinetic powers to guide the water over the rock, wearing it down until it says what he needs it to say. (Hope someone in the party can read it.)

It would be nice to have the backstory contain the clue to defeating him, but then the players have to know the backstory. Maybe it's a legend told among priests, or sages, or thieves, that to create this particular kind of guardian, you need a specific kind of person, and you need to chain them to the sepulchre with chains interlaced with moly whose stems are tied in a particular way, and each guardian type leads to a different type of defeat. Then the party knows they have to talk to the guardian.

At some point, I would have to decide what the powers of the guardian are. These would be tied to the actual group. Perhaps it's a minor telekinesis tied with the ability to make paired portals. He makes a hole under the thief or thieves, and they start falling from one opening into the other. When they've reached terminal velocity, he makes the portals go away and they slam into the ground. If someone in the party has wings, he holds them together with his telekinesis, so they can't fly...and they eventually slam into the ground.

Yeah, that wouldn't kill a high-level party, but he could stop your blood flow with that portal thing (the portals are from the exit of your heart straight to the entrance, and the rest of your blood you pass out from lack of oxygen eventually). Certain spells would stop it, sure, but that's always true.

For my gang, figuring out the powers would be important, because that would be part of the key to defeating him, or re-directing him to the barbarian horde.

Same idea, difference focus.