In which I talk more about RPGs I’m playing

I am involved in two RPG campaigns at the moment.

One is a Primetime Adventures campaign, Fimbulwinter. Premise: an international expedition to Antarctica in 1910 is the occasion for pre-WWI intriguing, and comes across Cthulhu-mythos weirdness. The characters are assorted scientists, explorers and spies from various nations; they don’t have any established connections with each other.

The other is a 7th Sea campaign, Helvetica. Premise: in the alternate-Renaissance-Europe of the 7th Sea setting, a new and tiny state struggles to maintain its independence. The characters are mostly faculty at the local boarding-school, Geneva College; the primary goal of the characters is to protect the students. The PCs are quite closely connected; there’s an engaged couple and a pair of childhood friends.

Now, our GM also writes prose and IF, and the way he writes characters is to give them the personalities of well-known fictional or historical characters. So when he was doing NaNoWriMo, he’d occasionally ask something along the lines of ‘If Batman, a young Winston Churchill and Macbeth were standing by a river and Virginia Woolf threw herself in, what would happen?’ And he takes a pretty similar line with NPCs in this campaign, except that it’s pretty blatant – say, there’s a Lucille Pervenche who is turned into a vampire-thing by being trapped inside an evil wardrobe, and then we remember that she has siblings called Pierre and Suzanne. Partly this works because Theah is already an over-the-top pastiche of Renaissance Europe, but it goes well beyond that – and the result is this glorious blend of every Ruritanian romance and Victorian horror trope you can reasonably imagine, plus assorted extras (we are presently planning to resurrect one Elisabeth Sommer at the bidding of a chess-playing automaton named Morgana). It is very, very much the Cool Bits school of design, and it works gloriously. And – here’s the thing – it’s a romp, it lets us all be silly and have fun, but there is still Serious Stuff going on, non-trivial stuff.

Whereas the Primetime game doesn’t really have room for clowning about and goofing off in-character, because, I suppose, it’s an attempt to do Lovecraft as serious dark drama, Tarkovsky for TV. Which makes it a lot more difficult to play. We have produced some pretty awesome moments, when a few ideas just slide together perfectly and a really good moment gets created, that make me see why for some people Primetime is the best RPG system in the universe. But on the whole… it’s a lot of work.

The thing about roleplaying, and particularly freeform, is that producing and consuming are the same process. Producing a film or a play or a book or a TV episode that’s unrelentingly serious is hard, but you don’t have to do it at a single bound. You can come up with all those awesome moments over days or weeks or years. Doing it freeform puts a lot more pressure on; it’s a lot easier to lose the momentum that’s so important to keeping a session alive. If the premise doesn’t allow you to fool around, that pressure doesn’t really have anywhere to go. I mean, this isn’t rocket science – emotionally difficult pieces are difficult, gosh – but I’m not sure that I’ve thought of this directly in an RPG context before.

Okay. Maybe I’m wrong. Has anybody here ever played in a very serious, no-tomfoolery RPG which was not a basically difficult experience?

The other thing about Helvetica that I’ve been thinking about: male GM, four male players. Two female PCs and a high proportion of important female NPCs.

We are all sensible grown-ups with a basic grasp of Feminism 101, so we haven’t committed any of the more egregious adolescent errors. Nor are Lucian and I playing Gert and Cat as men with modified plumbing. Which is all necessary, but not sufficient, I think.

Caveats: any representation will be imperfect if the subject is not you (and even then I wouldn’t bet on it); all fiction is to some extent autobiography; it is not much fun to roleplay characters unless they are to some extent different from oneself; representing certain subjects carries some ethical responsibilities. Anybody not in basic agreement with the above can step out now.

So, my immediate thought about playing Cat is that gender is not the hardest element. Two other obvious ways that Cat is alien to me: she is the product of overinvolved/neglectful parenting, and she is upper-class British. Presently, the experience of being female is relatively accessible; women talk frankly about the experience of being female a lot. Children of awful parents are a lot less forthcoming; I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I’ve known who even bring it up, much less dissect their experiences. And this is not exactly something that has a minor impact on one’s personality. And… it’s definitely something that shapes Cat’s character a lot (hell, she has her parents listed as her Nemesis), but I don’t know if it does so in a convincing way.
Upper-class British is a bit easier, because upper-class Brits produced a lot of literature about what it is to be an upper-class Brit, but it’s a somewhat emotionally opaque literature, so… well, playing emotionally opaque characters is easy enough, but there is obviously a good deal more to it than that, and it’s an easy stereotype. So this is another thing that I am probably getting wrong fairly often.

So, I am not sure. I have been re-reading old transcripts and thinking at length about what these issues actually mean to Cat. I haven’t actually gone into this here because, y’know, blathering on about one’s RPG character. But it has been productive, and I have figured out things that I was doing but wasn’t really aware of.

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