Fate, Fortune, and Freewill: The Challenges of Table-Top Role-Playing

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So during my last game session with my friends, one of my characters seems to have died. This would actually be the first time I had a character that died in a table-top role-playing game. Sir Vaeric Aedrin of the Order of the Imperial Knights was last seen drowning in a sandstorm in a desert on Mandalore. Why did this happen? Well, very simply enough: he failed his Survival and Endurance rolls on the D20 system and the last I saw of him was him being buried in sand.

I’ll admit. I wasn’t very happy. But for the most part I really liked how I role-played him. Sometimes you have to understand that, in at least a D20 role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons or one that uses the former’s rules, a lot of your actions and their consequences are determined by the role of the dice.

It can be frustrating. You come up with these ideas and you plan out what you want to do–though some cases you have enough additional modifiers to add to the dice number to exceed the difficulty number–and then you have to basically trust in the die or dice not to fuck you over. And sometimes that D20, that twenty-sided die, is not always your friend.

That’s not the only challenge in role-playing this kind of game however. There is also the challenge in creating a personality for your character and to keep role-playing that personality consistently. I like to create back stories for my characters and then attempt to have the character act according the nature I made for them. The thing is, even barring the fact that you could make a roll that changes the outcome of a situation, you have to also take into account that your character will change. It’s impossible for them not to. You have to figure that stress and particular situations will greatly influence them. Your Dungeon Master or perhaps more accurately your Game Master–if they are any Game Master at all–will present challenging situations for you to role-play through. I don’t just mean creating physical obstacles or enemies to kill, but moral quandaries and interactive role-play situations as well.

For instance, Sir Vaeric as well as his commander Sir Kentari and the recent addition Sir Hett go into a Mandalorian base to investigate it: as one of their other team-mates had a calling from the Force that there was something important about this place. They end up getting caught in a fire-fight between two Mandalorian factions. Choosing a side becomes easy in that their new companion Sir Hett is on one side. But it’s what happened afterwards that I’m thinking about. Sir Vaeric is a bladesmaster and a man of honour, yet his allegiance is ultimately to the Empress, or as was his battle cry, “For Empress and Empire.” There are these refugees and the surviving Mandalorians that are protecting them. They are all headed to the same place to, presumably, the Resistance of a Death Watch ruled Mandalore.

Sir Vaeric tactically believes that having more Mandos on their side could bolster their chances of survival. He also thinks it’s the right time to do to allow the refugees–victims of Death Watch’s allies–to have some protection and be able to fight in the Resistance: maybe even as a gesture of good will so that the Resistance will be more inclined to give he and his fellow Knights their Prince back. Sir Kentari, on the other hand, along with Sir Hett remember their oaths as Imperial Knights and see their mission to get their Prince back as paramount. They also greatly esteem their abilities over everyone else’s and have a certain degree of arrogance that is something of a trademark among Imperial Knights. They rebuke Sir Vaeric–thinking he is delirious from a neck wound–and in the end even he sees that refugees would slow them down and attract more notice to them.

In the end, the refugees and their Mando Clan are free to leave and both parties go their separate ways: which is just as well because we also encountered a sandstorm that would have killed all of them had they come with us. But you see with this example of how Sir Vaeric’s personality and his oaths conflict. What complicates this even further is that I was also playing Dravas C’Tor: my humanitarian Force-sensitive archaeologist and he would have definitely wanted those refugees saved. In retrospect, separating the two personalities–as well as what I want to as a player–was definitely a challenge and it can be easy to confuse the two.

Another notable example was when we were all in the desert, Sir Kentari had to make a choice between rescuing his Knight Brethren that fell in the winds and C’Tor. Dravas C’Tor in another game accidentally killed his Master and failed to save the life of his Knight Brother in a previous quest. Sir Kentari would have loved to save Sir Vaeric and Sir Hett and left C’Tor to rot. But his mission was to save the Prince and C’Tor was selected by the Empress to be the negotiator between the Empire and the Resistance: since he had ties with the latter. In the end, Sir Kentari had to save a man he despises, “For Empress and Empire.”

I think another confusing matter that does tend to come up is remembering that there is what you as a player wants or knows, and what you as a character would do. You might think that after a long time of role-playing, it would get easier to differentiate the two, but doesn’t. You will always be challenged: especially when you play characters with different experiences and knowledge. I can’t tell you of the times I wanted to access computers just to remember that I’m not my NX droid, or examine the lore of a civilization and I’m not my scholar character, or even sometimes get aggressive and realize that is how my Sith character would be. Now it is wanting to go into direct combat and remembering that I’m not my Imperial Knight anymore.

The thing is that when I make a character, there are commonalities from my own personality. They tend to be knowledge-based or artistic in some way: even if it is being artistic with a lightsaber blade. But what I know as a player or, as someone who has lived a thousand lives as a player to adapt George R.R. Martin’s phrase, is not necessarily something I know or can do in-character.

So really, I can sum it up like this: I have an idea of where my character has been and where they want to go. There are rules in place to see if what they do actually works or how their actions actually happen. At the same time, I have to make decisions that are separate from the dice rolls. Sometimes, I really don’t like dice rolls and numbers: partially because I have difficulty with numbers, but also I tend to role-play or act out my characters more than rely or depend on my statistics. However, I also try to remember my statistics because there do need to be rules in place–to create a structure–and it is a pretty cool thing when you roll your die and you get a 20 or, in my die’s case, an “EQ.”

I would have been very angry if, say, Sir Vaeric died in the desert automatically and there was nothing I could about it. A lot of players would have been pissed that they hadn’t died in battle. But the way our GM did it made a lot of sense. We had to roll to pass Endurance and Survival checks. We had the chance to succeed or fail. We didn’t just immediately die in an arbitrary way. Also, it’s realistic. When you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain and you’re not prepared to be there or deal with harsh environmental conditions, you are at risk. Weather brings armies down. You can be the greatest swordsman in the galaxy, but when a sandstorm and static electric currents assault you, you’re probably going to be screwed.

I’ll admit that numbers and statistics and feats do play a role in something like a D20 game and I am not always the best at figuring our the rules. But I also know it is a lot more than just numbers or the equipment you get or the back-story you make. In my other article, Role-Playing as Interactive World-Building, I talk about how a role-playing is a creative collaboration and it’s no less true here. Your character will evolve. You will roll twos on your D20 and fail a medical procedure that could have saved a companion’s life. Out of character, you know that’s not your fault, but in character there is the reactions of everyone to consider. You incorporate the results of rolls and actual decisions you make into how you and your characters interact with and change the world you make.

In the end, I’d say that when you table-top role-play, your first collaborators along with the GM are fate, fortune, and freewill. There is a plan and the dice can randomize that plan, and your game might have a particular spirit of its own, but your decisions are still very much important.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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