Monday, June 06, 2011

Blinded By Cruelty

There's a thing I've noticed where sometimes people are more interested in "displaying" their character than they are in "experiencing" their character.
- Simon C, from this thread on

There's an argument that says when one is surrounded by cruelty, one becomes inured to it, and it ceases to have any cathartic or empathic effect. I believe this argument, at least with respect to role-playing games, especially when it comes to introducing new characters to an existing party.

The group I've gamed with for over 20 years even has a trope name for the process: bear grease. The name comes from the natural escalation of the 'you rescue this new party member from the clutches of the bad guys' from locked-in-a-cell, to locked-in-a-cell-tied-up, to locked-in-a-cell-naked-and-tied-up, to locked-in-a-call-naked-and-tied-up-with-an-open-jar-of-bear-grease-nearby. Cruel, right?

The crazy thing is, that despite these horrific introductions, the experience never seems to have much impact on the player's portrayal of the character -- thus the quote that leads this essay.

I decided to turn this trope on its head with a newer group that pulled a similar trick.

I was joining an established group playing the AD&D 4th Edition adventure patch 'Scales of War', with a slight twist by the DM; instead of simply being an adventure featuring the War of Dragons between Bahamut and Tiamat, our DM introduced a concept called 'the All', the physical and psychological manifestation of reality itself, and posited that the ultimate threat of the adventure path is nothing less than nihilism -- the annihilation of all that is.

However, to introduce my character, the DM had the All effectively kidnap the character from his home dimension, deposit him in the hands of monstrous humanoids that then imprisoned him for an indeterminate time (best guess = months) in a dungeon. The state of my character when the party finally found him suggested that the time spent was no picnic: he was chained to the wall in such a way that he couldn't even move his fingers much less his limbs, and a metal helmet over his head contained a long depressor that went into the character's mouth, preventing him from speaking. (He's a wizard, so the precautions seemed needed to prevent magical escape.)

I think I can honestly say that if anyone you knew were subjected to such horrifying treatment, it would scar them for life. I didn't even go quite that far -- I simply made the obvious leap of logic on behalf of my character (who, again, as a wizard is far smarter than me): if the All is capable of delivering people into prolonged torture to satisfy its own ends, then it is not to be trusted.

Oddly, the rest of the party and even the DM at times seem mystified as to why my character seems so untrusting of the 'obvious' goodness of the All and need to defend/protect it from destruction. They seem to presume that I already had an idea of the character I wanted to play, and that the intro trope would be treated, as it usually is, as just a way of justifying the introduction of the new character without forcing me to wait for a break in the adventure or warping the narrative too much. (For an example of the latter, see "The Gamers", where the party is re-introduced to their new wizard.)

They seem unprepared for the idea that I'd take what is basically a long-standing character introduction trope and use it as my character's fundamental motivation, though if I myself went through a similar experience, not a one of them would be shocked if it changed me.

It's weird, and a bit distressing, to consider the implications of this.

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