Waiting to hear the Call

I was writing, a while back, about wanting to run a game where everyone played pre-generated characters created by the GM. It wasn’t quite that simple, and had more to do with wanting to create a set tone for the game, a tone and links to the setting that drive the characters forward. While I am in favor of proactive players – in game – I find that too often players are very proactive during character creation, very excited about putting together the numbers, but then when game starts they want to react, they want to know “what to do.”

I wanted a Call.

It’s like this. Think about some of the truly amazing adventures – the hero quests – like Star Wars (4-6 please) and the King Arthur stories, or Zorro. The fact is, you’ve got a hero (or heroes) who have clearly defined goals and enemies and destinies. Think about the Luke Skywalker issue. Luke is an orphan – but he has a family. He has his “aunt” and “uncle.” Luke has a few issues, but mostly, he’s a teenager growing up on a harsh planet where survival trumps adolescent antics. Despite this, we get the impression that he’s a nice guy, fairly average, maybe a little gifted as a pilot, but honestly – going nowhere fast…

Then he meets a droid. This droid knows a princess. This princess needs the help of an old warrior. And this old warrior just happens to be living on Luke’s homeworld. And he lives there because he’s watching over Luke – because Luke is important. And when this comes out, things start happening fast. Luke’s family is killed, Ben asks him to go with him once and Luke says no, says that he’s got responsibilities, but then those responsibilities go up in flames and Luke is left with a need to Do Something. He answers the Call.

Arthur – might as well be the same story. Zorro, pretty similar. Batman, Buffy, whatever, they’re called.

Think about video games. Dragon Age: Origins is a story like this. You’re a member of society and then, something happens, and the next thing you know, you’re off drinking the blood of Darkspawn, joining a secret order and pledging yourself to a higher cause. And that’s all in what, in an RPG would probably be the first (or at most, first two) sessions. You get called.

One of the reasons I think licensed properties are so successful as games is that the call is built in. Look at Amber DRPG – you are called to the eternal city of Amber. Look at Star Wars – You always know who the bad guys are and that you have to fight them. I also think this is why the 90s saw such a surge of “metaplot” games. The success of the World of Darkness made people realize that some players (not all, I know) really craved a game with a strong storyline, something they could be a part of, something they could Join. People wanted to answer the Call.

I went to a presentation recently by a scholar named Doran Larson. He is a writing professor who works with inmates at Attica teaching them to write and working to get them published. His work is pretty amazing — and one of the things he brought up is that there could be so many more of these programs. How there is all this talent out there with pools of graduate students waiting to be tapped, waiting to be asked to participate in something important. An article I was reading recently covered that same territory in regards to the law. And there’s this:

The need for the Call is part of our real-life world too.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Conan the Barbarian almost as much as Luke Skywalker, and Conan represents, by far, the other side of the coin. A loner, a wanderer, and the ultimate Sandbox-er, Conan wanders the landscape – barbarian, pirate, thief, soldier – he’s a man with personal goals and personal motivations. But as satisfying as his stories are, they are still episodes, unconnected and remote. Conan is a series of One-Shots run with the same character. They’re candy, not a meal.

Some would say this is the difference between High Fantasy and Low Fantasy – that I am articulating the same old argument. While this is true, to an extent, I think it’s more than that. More defines the difference between the highs and lows of fantasy than just the Call, but I feel the Call is more vital, more important than simply as a distinction between two ends of a somewhat blurry spectrum. I think of Aberrant, with its ability to go so many different ways, but still, no matter if you were a selfish monster, a noble guardian, or a completely misguided soul just trying to adjust, Aberrant thrust an unmistakable Call upon your character.

This line of thinking impacts character generation as well. I think back to an something John Wick wrote, way back when he was making Orkworld,

“Almost every character I’ve met in my experience is around nineteen to twenty-five, was orphaned when he was young, is “ruggedly handsome” (or some other fake modest equivalent) and is capable of taking care of himself. He usually follows his own code of ethics — not one for walking in someone else’s footsteps.”

I want to say right now, I’ve pretty much had the exact same experience, it’s why this quote continues to resonate with me. I’m not going to go so far as to strictly say that anything is wrong with this view – but I’m going to say that, my problem with it is, why is this guy adventuring? He’s his own man, with no ties, so what does he care about? What is his Call? Part of the problem is the Luke thing again. Luke had a family, he had responsibilities, he had connections to his world. He lost those when the Call came for him. That other guy, the one Wick is describing, he’s already out on his own, he doesn’t have anyone to avenge, to mourn, to stand up for, and why would he? Making connections would just tie him down.

And that little bit is something I’ve seen kill more games than nearly anything else. Once you get through the first “episode” no one wants to be together anymore. “It’s time to tell another story, and these other characters are just weighing me down.” The character doesn’t have a larger, world-oriented goal. The group probably doesn’t either.

Of course, part of the problem is that anytime the GM starts to build limits into character creation, someone inevitably starts screaming “Power-crazed GM” and “Railroading.” It’s enough to put you off gaming. But I think, for some of us, I don’t presume to speak for every gamer out there, but for some of us – we want to be Called. We want destiny to walk up and smack us on the nose and kick us in the teeth and drag us along behind it until we finally kick free and stand up and fight back. I want to be Called.

One last example, then I’m out. Dragonlance. Dragonlance, as a series of adventures, gets a pretty bad rap for sucking and being the king of all railroads. It does, I’ve seen a few people around the blogosphere even refer to “The Dragonlance Problem” or some such moniker. But I’m talking about the stories. Because, for as great as my point might be, most of the time when a Call comes, it happens to one PC not a whole group. The other counter-argument to my point here, if PCs are being built to be part of a pre-established story, they can’t be proactive, they just end up always being reactive.

Not so in the case of Dragonlance. These guys were hard-traveled hero-types before the stories ever started. They’d lived – done stuff. For the five years prior to the story starting, they’d even split up to travel the land and see if they could find out any information about their world’s lost gods. They didn’t. During that time of traveling though, they had even more adventures, even more experiences. And the night they met up again, the very night they all came back together – the thing they’d been looking for walked right up to them on the road. And they heard the Call.

But they didn’t just sit around and wait for the GM to toss them more plot. No, they planned and executed their ideas, they made choices that led to consequences, they learned an old friend, a sister, a lover, was one of their deadliest enemies. They made hard choices and people they cared about, people they were responsible for, suffered. Some of them died. But they kept making decisions. They were Called, but the story was their own.

So, that’s what I want. That’s the kind of game I want to play, and the kind of game I want to run. I haven’t had the opportunity for either in a long time. I miss it.

Do you want to hear the Call? Tell me. And, as always, thanks for reading.

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6 responses

  1. Damn straight~

    And when my character has grown too old to answer the call, I want to be the one to summon the new hope(s) to the cause, annoy the crap out of them in training and then set them loose on a world full of mystery, hard choices, and adventure!

  2. Speaking of that quote about every PC being an orphan and such, funny story. I ran a 3.5 game one time, wherein my brother was so sick of that stereotype that he made yet another orphan. However, he was an orphan because he had murdered his family for not loving Hextor enough. He was also an ugly, surly, fanatic. He roamed around with the party, spouting on about Hextor’s laws and hacking at things that disagreed.

    As to your actual point, I think I half agree. I’d like things to happen to the PCs because of their actions, not in spite of them.

    By that I mean, if the overarching metaplot keeps showing up and beating the PCs about the head until they do what it wants them to, I’d rather not be in that game. Conversely, if the Army of Doom comes to bludgeon the PCs because they robbed the McDonalds of Doom last session, that’s cool.

  3. I always feel that way. I feel like I have to always eat fast food, sleep in my suit, have all my clothes packed, all my batteries charged, my running shoes on.

    It’s crappy waiting for your life to start. Most of the time, you just want to grab it by the balls and drag it into life yourself…

    So in a game, I’d love for the “call” to go out, and for my character’s waiting and being ready to be justified. Having a “bigger” purpose so it’s not really all about you, even if it is really… all..about you.

    I sometimes get frustrated with writers like Stephen King, whose characters always seem to be led around by their noses, getting gut feelings and seeing signs they wouldn’t because of some ineffable force. I’d like to think that their choices are their own, and that our characters are real characters. But if you’re just doing a thing because “it beats doin nothin'” … well.. that’s kinda lame.

    lol just saying “I’m in” I guess.

    also… is this a Ghost Busters Game? 😄

  4. I think Howard’s stories of Conan are far more than “candy,” personally: the length of a story shouldn’t necessarily mean that long ones are innately more satisfying or superior than short ones. I find the opposite, sometimes, where a story is drawn out far longer than the actual narrative and characters merit.

    In any case, they’re more than just one-shots: there are plenty of references to past stories in the chronologically later tales, for instance. One-shots starring the same character, sure, but not entirely unconnected.

  5. @taranaich

    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read everything Howard’s ever written — I love the stories, and I don’t mean to imply that they’re like “bubblegum pop” or anything. My point is, Conan (Solomon Kane, others) is an expression of the “one-shot” mentality. Even the stories that are connected have only a tenuous connection at best…

    But that’s only in terms of illustrating the point… and long stories are not “innately” more satisfying than short ones. It all depends on what the reader wants at the time — and the worth of the individual story. A long story can be awful and a short one great.

    In terms of my point though, the length of the story is not at issue, only the content. I am — as the audience — far fonder of games that last, but more importantly, I am fonder of games that include a distinct Calling, a destiny, a larger goal than my individual desires.

    That’s all I was sayin…

  6. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Well, if you don’t want to have one-shots I don’t really see the problem with requiring the players to have a little more background behind them than “Murder-Hobo”.

    Superhero games are great that way because there is ‘automatically’ a ‘calling’.

    But in any other game as GM you can reject any character that doesn’t ‘fit’ the world. You don’t even have to tell the players WHY they don’t fit the world.

    As GM, it’s kind of more your responsibility to ‘send out’ the call than for the players to be geared towards it.

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