A hatred of self and the games that do it.

How many games put you in the role of playing Ordinary Joe?

Not many.

A recent thread on TheRPGSite talks about:

Originally Posted by The RPG Cliche List
Nephilim Law. In modern-day occult games, mortal humans are considered to have the same intrinsic worth as cattle. (So named for Nephilim, a game that is particularly blatant about this.)

Now, Exalted isn’t a modern-day occult game, but you can definitely view it as an anti-humanistic game: in the setting, the various Exalted are the important people in society, and mundane human beings are nigh-irrelevant.

Apart from Nephilim (which Lesley refused to play because she valued the lives of the humans in the game), there are heaps of games which treat the rank and file of the world as nothing but cattle.

The thread at TheRPGSite derails nastily into accusations of racism and a lot of debate about whether the issue is with player characters given their powers or player characters who earn their powers. Those aren’t the issue at all.

The issue is more how the game empowers the players and how thy are encouraged to treat humanity in game.

Nephilim treats humans as disposable underwear. Their incarnations destroy the lives of those they inhabit. And they’ve been doing it for centuries. This provided an issue for many people. The alternative was to inhabit a Thermos and not interact meaningfully in the game (or become a Dr Theopolis-style advisor)

Vampire dehumanises the brutality and violation of feeding in allowing a player character to have a “Herd” score where they can treat humanity like a fast-food restaurant. The designers are at fault as they lost the “tragedy” of the Embrace and the Hunt and chased the gothic-punk “everyone wears leather trenchcoats and hide Katanas up their sweaters” market.

In Exalted, the players are encouraged to become a super-elite. This is based on my interpretation of the Exalted rulebook. You exalt and the game changes into something like Godzilla versus Mothra. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of humanity.

SLA Industries creates inhuman combat monsters who fight contract killers – serial killers with advertising – both of whom take very little notice of the rank and file of humanity. They’re bullet-catchers. They’re incidental damage in the firefight. They’re categorically tragically killed by passing Fire Engines. It’s crap being Joe Ordinary.

I must say, I’m not keen on the idea of humanity hate. I think there is a lot of it owing to the idea that gamers are mostly maladjusted teenagers who want to play out power trip fantasies. It’s sadly true.

Back in my teens I was really uncomfortable playing games set in Northern Ireland. It was just a little close to home. You’re a being of power – do you take a side in the Troubles? And the one game we did play had one player work out his revenge fantasies on people who bullied him in school. Healthy therapy? I doubt it. It felt unclean and voyeuristic. Brr.

Are there many games where you play normal humans? Zombi would be one. In The 23rd Letter it probably pays to be a normal human.

About matt

Gamer. Writer. Dad. Serial Ex-husband. Creator of The 23rd Letter, SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO, ZOMBI, Testament, Creed. Slightly megalomaniac
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12 Responses to A hatred of self and the games that do it.

  1. aidan says:

    Part of the game design thing is role-playing snobbery. The people who write the games have been ostracised in some part of their lives and seek to wreak revenge through placing themselves in some fantasy where normal people are just cattle – I’ve met role-players who have that attitude in real life (while still being obese and having personal hygiene issues).

    Perhaps the lack of appeal about playing a “normal human” is that there is less escapism. Is it more fun to play someone like you, or someone like you but with cosmic powers?

    On the gaming side, Call of Cthulhu would probably be one where you play a normal human (at least initially). 23rd Letter you play a normal human, but are cursed with some psychic ability.

    Amber is another game where even the weakest of characters is still miles better than puny humans, although this is based on the books.

    It could be argued that the characters epitomise humanity in Pendragon – the knights are just as flawed as every other person, they just try to hold themselves to a higher standard.

  2. matt says:

    To address Amber: it’s an interesting aside as the Amberites are the only REAL humans and everything else is kinda a shared hallucination 🙂

    I think D&D represents a pro-human/demi-human approach. Characters earn their abilities through hard work. Even those gifted by gods have to maintain rigorous discipline – we just tend to roleplay through the prayer and dedications.

    I don’t have a problem with ultra-powerful characters. The issue comes with the attitude to normal folk. Do the knights of Pendragon treat the commoner as muck? Do superheroes keep their eye fixed on the incoming invasion of the S’teripetinor fleet and would they, focussed on the big picture, still stop a purse snatcher? Would they incinerate him or just capture him?

  3. Mark says:

    Surely it’s just the genre’s fault or am I missing some aspect of this issue?

    The Vampire genre is about Vampires who are more powerful than humans and most fantasy stories (modern and old) are about heroes with extra-ordinary powers (even if that comes in the form of magical destiny or weapon). If your going to play a magic-based game… why take the magic away from the players characters? Even in non-magic genres, the heroes can often do things well beyond the normal human, just by dint of their being the heroes.

    I mean, why do you want to play an “Ordinary Joe”? I hate soap-operas myself and I’m not big into LARPs at all.

  4. aidan says:

    Ah, I slightly missed the point, Matt. It’s not the power, it’s the attitude.

  5. matt says:

    It’s not about playing an ordinary joe – but those games where you do play a normal human, you have a taste of the reality of what it is like to be a human in that world. In Vampire, humans can be considered as a bullet point in Herd. In SLA, they’re incidental. In Nephilim, they are used underwear. Look at Ars Magica – you’re Magi, Companion, Grog or mundane. In Werewolf, the humans are merely food. Mage, in comparison, shows a side where awakening for all of mankind is a goal for some of the archetypes.

    Compare this with Cthulhu where there’s an equality. Compare to The 23rd Letter, where psychics can often be jealous of their non-psychic brethren. Or Zombi where other humans are to be feared because chances are they’re much more powerful than you anyway…

  6. Mark says:

    Sorry, I see what you mean. I missed the point.

    On Vampire though, do they still have “herd” in WOD2.0? I’ve played full-on Vampire where the GM made us play through hunting and how terrible it is, etc. etc. I think the “herd” background is just a simple practicality. After a few sessions of the same “gruelling” roleplaying, it starts to loose it’s impact and takes from exploring the other aspects of roleplaying a Vampire. As for Mage… well oddly you become afraid of mortals. They have paradox backing them up. Perform magic in from of them and you could get seriously fucked. In Werewolf, humans aren’t merely food. That’s unfair to the setting. Werewolves are monsters who fight the darkness. Like with all WOD games, the setting has a tendency to force characters to avoid mortals in general. If a Werewolf is caught on camera it can be disastrous, kill a mortal and you bring the police and also sorts of mortal agencies down on you etc.

    In SLA, your right. Humans are incidental, but then that game is more about action and, well, killing things.

    In Nephilim it makes sense, IMHO. You play a being that is beyond humanity and reality, a cosmic entity. Humans should be playthings, in a sense, otherwise you loose that element of godness. Most of the old Angel mythology painted Angels, not necessarily as benign beings, but beings simple beyond humans. They would have no problem turning an mortal army to ash, for example. Contrast with Nobilis where you also play god-like beings, but, like in WOD, you have a tendency to shy away from humans. There are rules in the setting, not system, that mean you can’t hurt humans and you can’t perform extreme miracles in front of humans (kind of similar to Mage) bad things happen. As in Nephilim, you’re playing cosmic beings bounded by rules different to humans, that’s the point.

    I think a lot of it, is simple escapism. While I know what your saying, do the superheros still stop the purse-snatcher… I don’t think that’s a realistic interpretation of “heroes”. Is a purse really that important to risk your life over?

    Ars Magica, I’d have to agree. We played a long running game there and I decided to generate some mortal companions so I didn’t have to play a mage all the time. That sucked though, as one of our disruptive players use his status to, well, walk all over my character… because the setting treated companions and grogs as properties of the Mage. Completely sucked.

  7. matt says:

    After a few sessions of the same “gruelling” roleplaying, it [killing humans and drinking their blood] starts to loose it’s impact and takes from exploring the other aspects of roleplaying a Vampire.

    I’m glad we got that sorted.

    I just wonder at the difference between games where you are encouraged towards action at the small scale (impacting the lives of humans on an individual level) and the difference between that and disregarding the plight of humans because you [are above them|consider them to be food|are too wrapped up in saving the multiverse]

    I like superhero games a lot mainly because you can have game sessions where a player can make a difference to the life of an individual…and then the next week remove all pollution from Earth’s oceans….

  8. Mark says:

    I just wonder at the difference between games where you are encouraged towards action at the small scale (impacting the lives of humans on an individual level) and the difference between that and disregarding the plight of humans because you [are above them|consider them to be food|are too wrapped up in saving the multiverse]

    Do you play a vampire or a human that’s turned into a vampire? Do you play an angel or a human with wings? Do you play a god or a human with god-like powers? I know what your saying, but I don’t see any moral quandry here. Your roleplaying a character. It goes back to the sexism issue in SOTC, sexism is part of the setting and therefore part of the roleplaying.

    IMHO, it really depends on the players and GMs. I’ve seen some players run over human NPCs as if they were cattle (regardless of games) but then get severly penalised by the GM in-game in lots of ways (being chased by mobs, inquistors and even their own fellow PCs). I’ve seen players trying to save nameless NPCs at the cost of the entire adventure. In our most recent adventures, Exalted (I game I don’t particularly like at all), mortals don’t register. It’s not that the PCs don’t care about them, it’s just that the GM plays them as unimportant to the plot and the PCs. Only powerful characters matter… so you never go around saving ordinary mortals… because the GM never offers you the chance.

    Are most occult games simpl “dark”-superhero games, anyway?

  9. matt says:

    Are most occult games simply “dark”-superhero games, anyway?

    No, most White Wolf “mature games which may have a horrific element” may be dark superhero games…

    Occult games are completely different.

  10. aidan says:

    Of course, I will call Matt on that one and ask him to put his money where his mouth is 😉 Or rather, remind him (again) he needs to write Qabal.

  11. Mark says:

    No, most White Wolf “mature games which may have a horrific element” may be dark superhero games…

    Arg! Don’t ask me to defend WW! 🙂

    Occult games are completely different.

    Yes your right. Occult is incorrect. Supernatural? Extra-ordinary/Cosmic? “Modern-day occult” is described in the original thread though. I did read the first half of the RPGSite thread… I’m sorry but I couldn’t read all of it. Mostly it came across as an excuse to bash White-Wolf games.

    I think the issue is an interesting one though, but I certainly don’t think its black-and-white. It’s too easy to muddy the waters.

    So em, Qabal? “Modern-day occult” with “Ordinary Joes” are important? 🙂

  12. matt says:

    So em, Qabal? “Modern-day occult” with “Ordinary Joes” are important?

    Of course. There’s two levels of magic.

    1. Magic doesn’t work.
    2. Magic probaby doesn’t work.

    The Ordinary Joe is very important.

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