Last night I arrived late to the evening session of the Jean Wells memorial and everyone was worn out from having run games for kids all day. So instead of playing Silver Princess as planned, I ran the draft of the first level of Dwimmermount I was carrying around to measure its map dimensions against the Brooklyn Strategist’s Sultan table as part of planning the backer rewards for the mega-dungeon’s Kickstarter.
I’d visited Dwimmermount before as a player in James’ PbP but was otherwise approaching the text pretty much cold, leaving the world beyond the basic elements I knew (a dungeon entrance, a nearby fortress town) to be filled in through play in the way I first learned how to do by reading Grognardia and using it as a guide to engage with OD&D.
The players, who I’ll call Adam and Ben, rolled up their guys using 3d6 in order, with much groaning at the resultant suckitude. They chose to start at third level, I said they could then roll up two first level henchmen. Adam and Ben hit on the happy inspiration of making the henchmen all the same class as their higher-level PC, so that their roleplaying of this trio was united by each character being a different perspective on the same archetype. This was important because they chose two very provocative classes – cleric raising the issue “what is the nature of religion?”, and elf posing the question “no one has ever seen a member of your species, what can we learn from these examples?”
Because we were short for time, and because playing with ACKS mechanics like the breakdown of living expenses and expected income by level has taught me a good sense for purchasing power, I treated the roll of 3d6 for starting gold as a wealth score. And based on half-understood stuff I heard Chip Delany say about how sword and sorcery is based on the moment when currency overthrows feudalism, I decided that this starting wealth came in 10 gp, 1 lb coins that awed all who saw them.
I told the players “you’re in the Fortress of Muntsburg, there really isn’t a market but you can try to use this gold to get the soldiers here to part with any equipment you want.” We did a one move per PC stocking procedure at a level of granularity where a strong success on hiring thieves meant that we later assumed they had equipped every member of the expedition with all kinds of mountaineering equipment so of course you had ropes and grapples and spikes and hammers.
Adam asked “can I get a staff for my cleric?” I was like well, you’re a third level character, you can get any kind of mundane equipment. They do have two special kinds of staff, one that has a torch holder-mace fixture where you can hit people and still carry a light, the other being a slot where you can put in vials of holy water or oil to shatter on contact.
Adam’s priest wanted both of these, but his roll against Wealth (3d6, how much did you make it under?) was in the Apocalypse World hard-bargain range so I said “They have some of those but the guy who owned them last died in a way that was unhallowed, they won’t bury him in the graveyard and his staffs might be haunted.” Adam didn’t want them that bad.
Next Adam’s acolyte wanted holy water, so I had that roll against Wisdom because the local church cared more about piety. He failed badly, so I said “You can make one vial using your own supplies” – he still had the gold his Wealth score represented, I wasn’t going to say no altogether – “but you can’t use the temple’s fount due to a doctrinal disagreement. What issue caused the falling out between you and the church in Muntberg?”
“We’re pro-abortion,” Adam said tentatively. Building steam: “We believe in the God of Abortion.”
Wow, what am I going to do with that? I figure the church in the fortress is Lawful but we moved fast through char-gen so I haven’t asked about the PC’s alignment and where does this issue fall anyway? Dropping into gruff roleplaying voice to do a local church elder: “We believe that rape is the lawful right of conquest. It is proper for us to sire children on those we defeat, so that the seed of the righteous will spread and our forces will grow. It is a sin for subjugated women to take the lives of our progeny.”
We all reflect on this for a second and then I move on to the rest of the equipping; we’re all eager to get to the dungeon, no one seems to want to get distracted by tangling with these rape apologist priests in town. Later we hear some other epithets for the deity the PC clerics worship – he’s also the God of Peace, and of Healing the Hacked-Up Upon – but when the hireling thieves want to convert after seeing Adam’s clerics perform miracles of healing, it’s the God of Abortion they are invited to serve. And when Ben’s elves are wanting their wounds to be noticed and healed, they mention that their pantheon also includes a God of Reproductive Rights.
- As spontaneous material created in play, this was totally awesome. Adam said later “You put me on the spot, I didn’t know anything about my god! So I just decided that they believed in something I really do believe in.” It worked amazingly well that he’d chosen an issue orthagonal to law/neutrality/chaos, but equally capable of dividing people into camps of pro-choice/neutral/pro-life, and I can’t wait to play to find out more about this.
- I believe this material could only work in inverse proportion to the degree it appears in the text. If Dwimmermount had anything more than the lightest dusting of stuff we might use as improvisational seeds for exploring the God of Abortion – the whole pulp D&D heritage of half-orcs and maidens bound to altars and references to Macbeth – I will stub my toe against the question “what does James Maliszewski think about abortion?” and that moment is going to be a trainwreck for however long it lasts.
Writing stuff into the adventure is the wrong tool to use to explore controversial issues in roleplaying games, because it creates an intrusion of authorial presence when the author isn’t there to talk to.
I’ve been friends with Adam and Ben for years, we’re all New Yorkers, the shared cultural currents mean that we can hook a live wriggling fish like abortion and be pretty sure we won’t be pulled off course. Exploring this issue by watching it come up in play teaches me things about the players and the world we’re creating together. The process of play is creating strands that lead from the negotiated understanding among the players, which has lots of background to draw on, to the story we’re discovering through our characters. Controversies that pull on these threads just create useful tension for this process, which is interpersonal first and intertextual second.
Even if I’d been running this session for strangers, as long as we were at the table together I would have asked “what’s the doctrinal disagreement?” and I would have been comfortable negotiating “abortion” as the answer. I’m a reasonable adult, decades of roleplaying and years of therapy have taught me plenty about how to make sure the good time I’m looking to have in a game isn’t derailed. I’m confident that whatever comes up in play can be dealt with on a social level so that we can keep creating the lens that lets us experience the other world of the game together.
But I have absolutely no confidence that I could talk about abortion with someone who isn’t physically present. I avoid any kind of forum where controversial issues get talked about, and I curate my Facebook and G+ streams to focus on interests where I know I have common ground. I don’t know what James believes about abortion, and if he was using Grognardia to talk about that I’d filter my reading of his posts to try to keep it that way.
I believe the bandwith of Internet communication is just too narrow to make a conversation about abortion worthwhile. The exchanges that get past my filter look to me like hostility or choir-preaching at worst, talking-past at best. Given that the communication between author and audience is even more limited than the Internet, I don’t expect that putting material about abortion into the written text of an adventure would yield any better results.
Within the intellectual and aesthetic domains where Grognardia proves good Internet communication can take place, I am interested in learning James’ opinion whether or not it agrees with my own. I do think he and I agree that analyzing an author’s personal views is not a fruitful approach to finding the gold in a written text. Putting any kind of material into the text of an adventure that makes me think about the author’s stance on an issue thus seems to me to make it less artistically successful, not more.
originally posted at story-games, where it echoes a related conversation about orc babies in Keep on the Borderlands