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Let’s play pirates!

There’s a lot of different kinds of play wrapped up in roleplaying. Whenever I get into a discussion of the meaning of some particular rule or feature, I am reminded that I have a load of unconscious biases, based on the sorts of play I prefer to write and run, that don’t match those of other gamers. It’s hard to get to a point in discussions where I’m sure what the other discussant is talking about.

“Let’s play pirates!” can lead in a bunch of different directions, each with their own genres of action. Is this a game where you play movie pirates who go “arr” and swing on ropes? In that case, not only should you not take the action very seriously, you should also actively look for opportunities to do those things. And you should base your expectations on movie tropes. If the big gold cup is not the end-goal of the adventure, then it’s probably just a sign pointing to some other story-token – a pirate king’s daughter or corrupt/undead colonial governor ripe for a slave revolt or something of the sort. On the other hand, if it’s a strictly historical game, maybe your best bet is to keep your true identity secret and try to escape the pirate life (with some loot), to set yourselves up as merchants somewhere far from your previous crimes. Or if it’s the kind of world where 18th century Batman could work, you could try to maintain a respectable front while reaping rewards from (carefully morally calculated) maritime violence in far-off ports.

I tend to set my own games in worlds where the players can do anything they like – ignore all adventure hooks, pursue their own individual objectives etc. The worlds are self-supporting and self-running; stuff will happen whether the players engage with it or not. The players’ actions do not inherently lead to them being “good guys” or “bad guys,” they are just actors in the world. They can try to improve things or ruthlessly seize what they want for themselves or assist other ruthless accumulators. In each case, there will probably be some beneficiaries from their actions, who will be pleased, and some who lose out and who will be made angry.

This sort of game is tactical at base – if the players want to have a larger effect on the world, they should probably accumulate resources, allies, influence, and plans. They are “rewarded” for playing with common sense. Their surest path to success in any large goal generally starts with accumulating some surplus resources, so they’ll have stuff to trade with or use in schemes, so that they can acquire particular force multipliers, so that they can get the levers they need to move the bits of the world they want to move.

But I know at other tables there is (for example) explicit Good and Evil, and maybe you can tilt the Cosmic Bias by your actions. Or there are Good Guy protagonists and Bad Guy antagonists and if you behave like the latter, you will get more antagonism from the world. On the other hand, if you act Heroically (as befits your status as the Hero of this story), you will be supported in adopting that role. If you die, it will be under dramatic circumstances that complicate the story in entertaining ways.

In my experience people tend not to talk about this sort of thing explicitly in setting up a game, but as a player I find it really changes my ideas about what I might try, what I might expect to get away with, what kinds of things might be rewarded and amplified. Players’ choices only make sense within a certain field of validity – and that field is generally being contested all the time by the choices people make and the directions that drags the campaign.

I also find that different ideas about the genre of action of a game ramify through all discussions of every part of the game – what’s entirely natural to one genre of action can be offensive in another.

I think this might actually be an important factor in some discussions of, e.g., the old “orcs are racist” contention. In a game where every character class is an archetype, pretty much defined by an actor’s performance (think of e.g. Star Wars, where the Smuggler character is always some variant of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo), there might be a space for an Orc character, who can play into or against some existing fictional prototype of Orcishness (or Klingon, if you’re having a hard time imagining a prototypical Orc actor). In this case, the prototype of the Orc always shadows the player’s moves, and whatever the player does as the character will be measured against it.* But in a game where an orc character is supposed to have the same gamut of actions and moralities open to them as any other character, the way they are characterized as different from everyone else is liable to lead to (interesting, uncomfortable) comparisons with real-world racial categories. The questions of race and racism might now shadow the player’s moves. Do they suffer from prejudice – from the other non-orc PCs based on their race, and/or from other orcs, for mixing with the PCs? Are they expected to express some sort of particularly orcish behaviours? The game and its participants now have to think about what they’re choosing to include and why. Or, more often, they may be called on to ignore some obvious implications of the action, in the interest of keeping the desired kinds of action going through the game.

The fact that individual RPG campaigns seldom inhabit a really clearly defined genre-of-action position is liable to lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Even a Star Wars game has choices to make, about how much it tries to emulate movie action and how much it’s a model of a tactical wargame sort of world.

I guess I’m saying, when somebody says something that just sounds wrong, it’s most likely to be because they’re coming from some set of expectations and field of signification that is unfamiliar to you. Try to find out what the world is that they’re imagining, before judging the validity of their statements.

* note, even Star Wars is not immune from the kind of semantic drift I’m talking about here – the fight over whether Han shot first is really about changes being made to the genre of action that Star Wars inhabits. In 1977 Han wasn’t in the subset of the cast that contained the heroes, which is to say he didn’t have to comply with the weird moral universe of the US cinematic action hero, where murder is OK but only if it’s a lesser evil enacted in avoiding a greater evil, or if it’s done without cruelty. The question has practical implications for players of Star Wars smuggler characters: can they shoot first or not? Will they be betraying their prototype?

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