New on Desk #109 — Byronic Hero, Existential Hero

All right, let’s keep the newsletters rolling. This time one of the long-standing reserve topics; stand by for some literary theory applied to roleplaying games.

This one time I tried playing a non-heroic protagonist

I was thinking of writing a little bit about non-heroic protagonism in roleplaying games. Paul has been reminding me on occasion to put down some thoughts on this ever since our challenging experiences with Land of Nod two years back. Nod is an old distributed-GMing story game design of Paul’s that we played with the rpg club Hannilus crew. In hindsight the game was an excellent example of what it looks like when players don’t understand each other’s creative sentiments at all while still being able to respond to each other’s creative ideas on a surface level. I ended up liking a lot of the story and ideas without liking the way we came up with it; there were a lot of flubbed throws and dead end plot threads, and I feel like the parts of the story that I cared about were usually ones I laid down myself, which is probably how the other players felt as well. (That they were the only sane man on board, that is, not that only Eero was doing any heavy lifting.)

One of the multiple creative issues in the game was that the vagaries of character creation ended up inspiring me to play a “superfluous man” type protagonist for my character, and this apparently threw the rest of the players for a loop quite completely; they had no idea at all of what I was trying to do. (Tommi, another player, also did a similar thing where the rest of us didn’t understand what he was trying to do at all.) While it seemed fairly straightforward to me as to how to relate to the character, it was anything but that for the other players, who apparently were actually uncertain about whether I was playing the game seriously at all.

My character in the game, Mr. Cardinal, was a jaded cop, which isn’t like the world’s most exotic type of non-heroic protagonist: it’s a stock character in American crime fiction of the noir/hardboiled type. I think what made it so difficult for the other players to relate to the character was that I defined them as a type of non-standard protagonist. Mr. Cardinal was “existentially latent” as a protagonist in that he was dissatisfied with both his personal life and the society, but did not as of yet have a ready-made idea of how to address his dissatisfaction. A character full of potential, ready and willing to jump in any direction whatsoever, socially situated in a traditional busybody job that requires them to engage with other people’s affairs.

A digression on the nature of story gaming

One of the things the “Quantum Opium” Nod campaign clarified for me is that it’s actually super-easy to completely confuse traditional story gaming expectations by what in the literary big picture is fairly minor variations in the structural nature of the protagonist. A large part of what makes story games function at all is ironically a type of lowest common denominator approach to story creation: we are, in the present day, capable of engaging in a GMless mutual story creation activity mainly as long as the story follows an implicit basic structure of “guy wants a thing, there are obstacles to getting the thing, guy struggles to overcome obstacles.” Preferably do that in a popular genre with lots of cliches, too. Anything else, and the current story game culture and gaming tech is completely and immediately stripped of any ability to cohere ideas into story.

I find this state of things deeply troublesome myself for a specific creative reason: I’m bored with basic bitch story gaming. There might not be a nicer way to say it. I’ve participated in the development history of the “Forgite story game” since the mid-’00s, putting quite a few hours into many games springing from this creative context. It has all been immensely fulfilling for me, but ultimately the limitations of the form start to wear at the experience, and this is where the unsatisfying rote nature of the practice seems to be for me: if the game is only ever limited to telling stories that have a shared intelligible structure between the players, as is the case with GMless story gaming for complex technical reasons I won’t go into right now, then we’re always going to be retreading that same damn cartoon action hour story, because that’s the only story we have in common. Every story you ever create in these games is, at best, going to be facile; novel is beyond reach because the other creators participating cannot relate to anything novel. You’re trapped within a cage defined by the shared cliches of the culture you share with the other players.

(Not all Forgite game design suffers of these issues; it’s a specific type of GMless story game that relies on common cultural grounding for the players to be able to throw story and have others catch it by strength of implicit shared understanding. It’s a fairly common category of game, but not the entirety of what this school of design concerns itself with.)

In case it’s not clear from the above, my point is not that I’m so much more well-read than my co-players that I cannot relate to them. That’s not the gist of the problem at all, the same issues would crop up with anybody moving from the creative ambition of trying to create any story towards the more ambitious goal of creating a worthwhile story. The problem emerges because there is only one way to be basic, but an infinite number of ways to be inventive, imaginative, particular, personal, experimental, thoughtful, or otherwise novel. Because human beings are finite, the implication is that any game that relies on shared literary common ground also instantly relies on everybody playing the most basic game they possibly can: if we all pick out a genre familiar to everybody, and at all points make the choice of doing the most boring basic bitch creative choice imaginable, then perhaps — perhaps — we will manage to connect and understand each other in the fleeting way necessary for there to be a creative connection instead of just people fumbling blindly past each other.

We’ve had similar issues in other games with club Hannilus, too, and I think I’m a big part of the issue, really; I don’t play really simple nowadays, and that tendency doesn’t interact well together with other very personable people with their own particular gaming backgrounds. I’ve had similar experiences with other groups over the years as well, but here it’s been particularly pronounced.

This wasn’t supposed to be the topic of today’s newsletter, but I guess it’s good to put the artistic program on paper like this: I think that the next thing for meaningful story gaming to do is to pick up the cues for how to be ambitious in an old-fashioned artistic sense. There are games out there that use various techniques to get farther than the lowest common denominator, this isn’t a demand that starts with nothing at all to fulfill it. And I think that this is a journey that can only be taken by gamers who have actually gotten the “wow, we can make a story together!” values out of their system. As long as you think it’s totes amazing that we got a complete story out of a game, and you don’t feel bored by that at all, then by all means, keep playing Zombie Cinema. (This is a game I designed myself; it is a good and complete game for what it is. I find that the only reason I play it nowadays is because a trivial exercise is good as an ice-breaker with new acquaintances. It is the very picture of a game that can only ever be facile instead of novel after you’ve played it once.)

Protagonism typology in a nutshell

But that wasn’t my intended topic here. What I was actually going to write about is the cultural preeminence of heroic protagonism, and how that affects roleplaying games as well. The above ideas about how GMless games rely on cultural shared ground are relevant for context here, but mostly I just wanted to paint the picture of what protagonism in literature is like. Paul’s been asking me to write about this, and I absolutely don’t think that it’s because he’s entirely ignorant, but perhaps it’ll be useful to see how I view this aspect of literary theory.

So, the basic literary theory concept of protagonism is that human stories are comprehensible because they follow anthropomorphic (usually human) fates: the “plot”, the basic structuring principle of what makes up a story, is the sequence of events that happens to a “protagonist”, the “primary contestant” of the story. Trying to create a story without a protagonist is, thus goeth baseline theory, doomed to failure because the inherent human faculty of understanding story is predicated on the empathetic faculties, which humans apparently use to derive meaning from stories. A “story” without an identifiable protagonist the audience can empathize with is not a story in this theoretical sense, and it is in fact true that literary material without the quality of story-ness instantly sets audiences to entirely unrelated, different evaluative modes.

As my earlier discussion about common ground assumptions suggests, there exists a popular default protagonist type that dominates storytelling both in historical perspective and in the present day. This heroic protagonist is not necessarily literally a hero in the narrow sense of being a mighty warrior; the defining thematic property of the heroic protagonist of a story is that they are admirable, relatable to the audience as an aspirational figure. This doesn’t need to mean caricature; masters of storytelling often create their heroic protagonists to be quite flawed in many ways. But the heroic protagonist always possesses relatable qualities, which you might expect to mean “quality of being similar to the audience”; but no, that’s not how human psychology goes: the relatable qualities of the hero are qualities that make us comfortable with them as an object of empathy. This is why e.g. a man (with civilized empathetic faculties) can relate to a woman protagonist; you just need the hero to have something admirable about them to make the empathy work, it’s only important for the hero to be similar to the audience if the audience consists of mental midgets.

“Heroic” might make you think that this is just about epics and fantasy literature. However, most storytelling utilizes heroic protagonists even in genres that are not particularly masculine and adventurous. Classic women’s literature protagonists are usually heroic in this technical sense, just as commonly if not more so as men’s literature. For example, a young woman determined to find love is existentially admirable and therefore relatable to the audience.

All right, so that’s wacky and all, but this is where things get interesting: it is apparently the case that a protagonist does not need to be heroic for a story to be possible. You just need to have a protagonist, and man can you get some interesting effects out of playing with the heroic part. Lots of opportunities in this, and some very important stories throughout history have used non-heroic protagonists. Here’s some of the important variations:

The antihero protagonist is a protagonist whose admirable qualities are obscured or trivial next to their flaws, the negative qualities that cause audience antipathy. So the author is playing chicken with their audience buy-in, essentially. Note that (as is often the case with these encyclopedia links) while I’m linking to an article about antiheroes in literature, the “antihero protagonist” is technically much narrower than just happening to have an antihero in a story. In fact, many commonly cited supposed antihero protagonists are just counterculture heroic protagonists. It’s not a real antihero protagonist if it doesn’t actually challenge the audience’s ability to empathize; Wolverine is not an antihero protagonist unless you’re a total, laughable pollyanna audience who thinks that it’s kinda bold to have a hero who smokes, drinks and swears. I guess that might describe some of us back when we were 12 and reading Claremont X-Men? Probably also thought that Cyclops is totally cool, too.

(A short aside: the litcrit scene grants a lot of currency to the idea of villain protagonist, so better deal with that as well. That’s actually just an antihero protagonist, they’re not two different things. I think the confusion stems from a tendency to connect antiheroic protagonism to local cultural tropes, so you get ideas like if the leading man doesn’t shave his beard he’s “antihero” and if he’s a criminal he’s “villain”. But protagonism in structuralist literary theory doesn’t give a flying fuck of any of that. If it’s a protagonist character that’s difficult for the audience to identify with, it’s an antihero protagonist.)

The witness protagonist is a fairly important type that amazingly doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia article — so I guess I just invented this concept out of thin air, then? Props to me then, I guess, although I could have sworn that this is still basic literary theory territory here. Anyway, the defining quality of a witness protagonist is that their agency is not important to the story; they’re still the empathetic unifying factor of the plot, but they do not make choices and act in ways that matter to the plot. The interaction of protagonist passivity with the plot usually makes for a fairly loose and meandering story. Witness protagonists are common in traditional allegories, crime fiction (the detective figure is often a protagonist who doesn’t actually do anything important), and of course Alice in Wonderland is a school example of this type of protagonist. Except apparently it’s not because I just invented “witness protagonist” for this newsletter piece, apparently. Also, do note that a witness protagonist is different from a support cast narrator; Dr. Watson is not a witness protagonist of Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes himself is the heroic/antiheroic protagonist in those.

I’ll mention the tragic hero and Byronic hero here despite them not being particularly drastic structural deviations, just because they’re so commonly discussed in protagonist typology. The tragic hero is Aristotle’s classification for the heroic protagonist of a tragic story, so they’re specifically a heroic protagonist who elicits pity in the audience. Interesting, but not particularly structurally radical. The “Byronic hero” is basically the same thing, except the titular poet was super-popular in 19th century England, so the term has since then had currency as a slightly more specific description of tragic hero protagonists. Particularly ones written in a self-conscious and whiney way. Same concept as Young Werther in German literary history.

Then, back to actually radical experiments in protagonism: the superfluous man is a specific stock character identified by traditional Russian literary criticism. Like the hero and antihero, the superfluous man is a character trope, but when combined with being the protagonist, what you get is another long-standing and frequently rediscovered protagonist type, the existential protagonist. (Again, no specific article Wikipedia? I’m like 99% certain that I didn’t invent the existential protagonist.) The defining structural feature of the existential protagonist is their aimlessness. This might sound similar to the witness protagonist, but is actually extremely different due to the inherently central position the protagonist holds in a story. When Hamlet in Hamlet does not act, this choice and associated hesitation forms the core of the story. And when he does act, resolving the existential crisis, that impacts the story in a major way.

So that’s the quick summary of the important protagonist types. to recap:
Heroic protagonist — A protagonist with some admirable qualities that make audience empathy easy. Default protagonist, should be used for any story where it’s foremost important to pass the story through.
Antihero protagonist — A protagonist difficult for the audience to empathize with for weakness or covertness of admirable qualities. Endangers the story’s cohesion by risking “losing the audience”, but offers opportunity for the audience to get over their preconceptions and generally wrestle with their empathy.
Witness protagonist — A passive protagonist, the plot occurs around and to them. Weakens plot as cohering structural principle because the audience cannot predict plot arc from the protagonist’s choices and desires. The weaker plot makes for a perfect exposition structure for framing stories, various types of propaganda, just generally philosophizing about whatever, etc.
Existential protagonist — A protagonist who doesn’t know what they want. Because the plot follows the protagonist by definition, the latent potential, the lacuna of uncertainty generated by the lack of identity becomes a major part of the story.

You can, of course, combine those types in various mixtures and ways. I guess you could define the protagonist of a given story as a pie chart of different types of protagonism. Like say in the first book of The Lord of the Rings we could say that Frodo Baggins balances all four of those protagonism types in fairly even quarters:
Frodo is heroic because he chooses to shoulder the burden and struggle through difficulties.
Frodo is antiheroic because he’s a bourgeoisie wussy hobbit who causes the audience to question their understanding of what even is heroic.
Frodo is witness because he’s clueless and passive, only acting to enact the designs of others.
Frodo is existential because his comfortable country squire lifestyle leaves him unsatisfied and yearning for “his adventure”.

Pretty interesting how that worked out. I don’t intend to say that it’s somehow superior to incorporate all flavours or whatever, just happens to be the case in this example.

Tyranny of blood opera in rpg storytelling

All right, so that’s basic protagonism theory. Getting back to the original topic, I wanted to try to suggest something useful to Paul about how to deal with non-standard protagonists in story games: when we’ve talked with him about our experiencing with that “Quantum Opium” Nod scenario, the idea of Mr. Cardinal (my difficult character in the game) being an existential protagonist has come up. And maybe it’s not the only reason for why the other players found him difficult to GM for, but it might be one of the reasons. So that brings up the question: how would you even GM for an existential protagonist?

The cultural background that roleplaying offers to us in this regard is important, and that cultural background is 100% blood opera: stories about people who want stuff, and then fight to get that stuff, often in a fairly straightforward telling. It’s the story structure of Ilias and numberless other stories over the span of history, and it’s basically the only coin that story gaming culture trades in. We’re apparently instantly disarmed by a story that happens to begin by defining a protagonist character who is not a traditional heroic protagonist.

I imagine that simply thinking about and understanding the above ideas about different kinds of protagonists would help with practical game skills when confronted with these various types of non-heroic protagonist types. Like the existential protagonist, say: now that I’ve explained what it is, is it really so difficult to work with it? They’re just a heroic protagonist who hasn’t yet committed to a cause! In many games, if you recognize a player setting up an existential protagonist, you can just throw stuff at them (like Shakespeare does for Hamlet!) until they decide that enough’s enough, let’s start busting some heads. Or they waffle, and are ruined by their indecisiveness in a tragic way. (That might not be acceptable for a given game’s ground structures, notably; Nod for example sort of assumes that the protagonist struggles.)

But literary theory awareness and ability to apply it in practical play to understand weird characters that players might come up with only get you so far. Ultimately the mechanical structure of the GMless story game must commit to the particular structural assumptions that are apt for the game in question. Every game is fairly different in this regard, really, like say Zombie Cinema for all it’s totally a basic bitch game well-suited for blood operas still has 100% support for all of the above protagonist types as long as you dare to play them. Try it, might be interesting if you’ve never played a real antihero or witness protagonist or whatever.

But of course all of this is only significant if you’re a jaded douche who can’t be happy just telling a rousing story about when a robot and a monkey hijacked an airplane together to find the mcguffin. I would like to suggest that “playing together” is not the highest virtue that a roleplaying game can work towards, and it is in fact OK for a game, a group or a campaign to commit clearly and consciously to being kinda basic. (“Kinda basic” he says, as if it doesn’t take literal years of practice to perform the facile improvised story creation that crowns this type of roleplaying. Talk about twisted perspective.) If you’re aware about it, you can even tell me about it in advance, and then I maybe won’t come to the table with a character with a heart-shaped hole where their heroic motivation is supposed to go.

AP Report Pile: Coup de Main #71

Considering that the last session involved the Knights Temp getting embroiled by this cult situation in Illmire, I guess that makes this the second session of our Illmire cult adventure. Last time we had discovered that one of the party hirelings had been kidnapped from the inn in the dark of night; the party was full of confidence, and we pretty much decided to move fast and direct to dismantling the cult operation that probably would have wished to be less than blindingly obvious now that the town was full of angry adventurers. The approach was less “let’s snoop around to find where young Will was taken” and more “let’s identify the most suspicious place here, break in and kill everybody who resists; rinse and repeat, we’ll find Will sooner or later”.

This was a month ago, but luckily Tuomas has been writing session summaries that’ll be helpful as I work my way towards the present day. Fresh reportage from back when it happened:

Rob had scouted around the temple of Pelor in Illmire and found passage underground from one mausoleum in graveyard next to the temple. Knights Temp thought that their kidnapped henchman young Will was held in the temple, so they decided to enter and find their man.

Problem was that their full party was 14 men strong, not the kind of number you could move across to the mausoleum with active guards patrolling the temple. Rob and his assassin buddy arranged a distraction that brought the guards behind the church and Sven & co. where there waiting for them with their blades drawn. Things got messy.

With the guards away Knights Temp entered the mausoleum and immediately encountered few zombies in the catacombs they entered. Few zombies where no match for the experienced adventurers and the after the dust had settled Rob continued to scout ahead while the rest regrouped in the catacombs.

I enjoyed the tactical confusion of this zombie fight. It wasn’t difficult for the party taken as a whole, but our tactical doctrine was very messy, so the fight started with the 1st level social specs in the front line and continued with the party furiously holding the doorway the zombies were contesting, while also trying to shuffle better fighters forward. There was anger, tears, puzzlement and comedy as our kungfu monk fell and was in danger of being trampled, and the party Weredeer suffered a panic attack in the narrow and dark tunnel.

It’s amusing how the tactical issue was basically that we had 30 or 40 feet of 10 feet wide dungeon tunnel in the mausoleum in total, and 14 people who were trying to move quickly to enter the mausoleum so as to not be seen from the outside. While this would be a tight fit, it’s not exactly critical; you can surely fit say 5 armed adventurers in a single 10 feet square. One of the players pulled the trigger on opening the next door so as to make more room for the party, though, and triggered the zombie attack a bit prematurely.

A good example of an important playstyle question here: some people feel very strongly and intuitively that you shouldn’t be able to make mistakes in D&D by making moves with the wrong timing under mistaken impression of the facts on the ground. Others think that it’s part of the game, and is part of the friction of war. I belong in that latter group myself, but we have some players who instinctively lean relatively strongly in the opposite direction, so the two tactical problems we had in the zombie fight (the door being opened too early, and our combatant line being at the back of the formation when the fight started) garnered a strong immediate response as the players tried to argue the party out of the fact that we’d messed up. I’m glad that we managed to figure out what happened (it’s sometimes pretty convoluted with different players responsible for different parts of the operation, making different moves, some of them unspoken) and could enjoy the fight from the disadvantageous position we’d earned.

Knights Temp performed solid stealth raid, killing everyone who offered any resistance in the temple. Aelfstan had to throw himself on top of one fellow he knocked unconscious to get even one prisoner for interrogations, Sven and Stone were particularly bloodthirsty today.

Eventually the violence died down and the Knights looked around a bit. Pelor’s temple was desolated, all religious statues and images had been defaced. One room was particularly interesting, like the desecrators were afraid of it. A tarp with demonic sigils was hanged at the door and inside a semicircle of skulls faced a pristine warmace on pedestal. Aelfstain sensed true power from the mace and one touched it in the end.

The prisoner proved useful, much was learned from him, including the location of few prisoners in the temple and that the cult had another hideout somewhere west in the swamps. The prisoners were in bad shape but young Will was not one of them. Knights Temp left the bloodied temple behind with their rescued prisoners, planning to raid the inn they had stayed next in the search for young Will.

We were entirely overwhelming for the poor devil worshippers who’d desecrated Pelor’s halls here, the situation wasn’t in question at all. Sven the Reaver is a mid-tier Barbarian, so legit the kind of professional killer that dungeon fantasy fantasizes about. I think he cleaved three men down in one blow in one of the skirmishes.

I like how we were so aggressively tuned here that the Sven also ended up murdering the one real Pelorian priestess the cult was keeping captive in the temple. He’s a Chaotic Ruthless killer in murder mode, so Sven sees a priest, Sven kills a priest. Considering how common perfidy is in D&D, and the enemies was explicitly disguising themselves as Pelorian monks, this wasn’t even close to the worst thing that the party has ever done. Still unfortunate, as now we didn’t have anybody to explain us how much of a quest item that mace was.

Being very fiction-respecting fellows, we left the mace there (kinda obviously a quest item or reward magic item for the adventurers looting the temple, but we just didn’t have a real justification for stealing it when it was obviously part of the temple’s original decor. Wouldn’t make sense to risk Pelor’s wrath for some bling when we were just trying to find our hireling. And apparently kill twenty people in a massacre, but mainly just find our friend.

Session #75 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 21.2., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

State of the Productive Facilities

Eh… I guess I’ve continued doing a lot of campaign development stuff instead of writing Muster in the latter half of the week. For example, I wrote up a new divine magic variant for Coup, Astral Summoning. Sort of a mechanically more straightforward system for players who dislike the convoluted mechanical chassis involved in the mythopoetic meditation method of spell preparation.

Perils of inspiration. I’m sure I’ll get reoriented on this soon enough. I even got this lengthy newsletter done well in time for a change, so clearly I’m moving towards being more on top of things than not.

6 thoughts on “New on Desk #109 — Byronic Hero, Existential Hero”

  1. “You’re trapped within a cage defined by the shared cliches of the culture you share with the other players.”

    It took me a little while to recognize this fundamental limitation of the whole wave of story games / story-game-lite RPGs. Fate, Apocalypse World, anything that includes collaborative setting-building during play. Not limited to GMless games. No surprises; no discoveries. In order for the shared mental model of the setting and story to function, it has to revert regularly to cliche. Otherwise the players will experience regular rug-pulls that feel like a betrayal of the social contract due to inconsistencies between the local copies of the mental model used by different participants.

    I learned this lesson while trying to put together a Fate-style adaptation of White Wolf’s Wraith (I hadn’t discovered Polaris yet, which does the job ably). I think there’s some potential for story game elements to work for this kind of a game if they’re combined with aggressive use of oracles (eg, the OSR approach of leaning heavily on random tables). Story games with oracles strike me as having a funny tension to them that seems creatively productive: the players will always pull toward cliche to reconcile their individual mental models, but the oracles introduce enough chaos to force unexpected developments that show up as little spikes of novelty in the otherwise formulaic story/setting.

    1. Great to hear that others know what I meant by that stuff.

      And yeah, oracles are great for how they imply a creative mindset that’s more about making sense than about creating story. A game where the centerpiece is “and now let’s explore this thing to make sense of it” has fairly different dynamics from the “and now it’s your turn to add a scene to the unfolding story”. The former doesn’t outright call for cliche the way the latter does.

    2. I would say that Apocalypse world use the player input as an oracle; the game master has quite a strong position from which to bring the apocalyptic in play regardless and the role of players is very traditional. It is not collaborative in the sense that everyone has to agree on stuff or understand the things. Or at least the potential for this is in the game.

  2. “The defining structural feature of the existential protagonist is their aimlessness. This might sound similar to the witness protagonist, but is actually extremely different due to the inherently central position the protagonist holds in a story. When Hamlet in Hamlet does not act, this choice and associated hesitation forms the core of the story. And when he does act, resolving the existential crisis, that impacts the story in a major way.”

    I think GMless story games struggle with this, because these games rely heavily on character action. The identity of the character is revealed in their action and in the choices they make. If no choices are made, there’s no other way to present the protagonism. The character ends up being a support character. This is fostered by the fact that these games are often one-shots: you have only a few scenes to show who your character is.

    Existential protagonist is problematic also because other player characters need others to show their true colors. The cast of characters consists often only of the player characters, and it’s against that backdrop that one can show what their character is about. A meandering and non-committing character makes it difficult for others to be protagonists, because there’s nothing to lean against or show difference from. This comes down to having & solving a conflict at the heart of these games and “story” being about someone changing somehow.

    The existential protagonist works better in GM-lead games, where GM’s support characters can wait for the existentialist to make up their mind or just let them wallow in their indecisiveness. Support characters are ready: Hamlet’s servants don’t need Hamlet to show who they are. Protagonists-in-the-making, which player characters in these GMless story games often are, cannot exist on their own.

    1. Well written, Sami. That echoes a lot of the difficulties I’ve seen with such characters.

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