On World Views and Roleplaying

Posted: March 12, 2013 by jddennis in GM's Corner
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Monticello

A lovely photo one of my sisters took.

In 2011, I went with my sisters to Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. While we were taking a tour of the grounds, one of the fellow members of the group asked if Jefferson felt any guilt about owning slaves. The tour guide gave a rather long answer, easily summed up as “no, he did not.” From the prospective of us visitors, it wasn’t pretty, but it showed that one of our Founding Fathers was just as human as we are. That’s a thought that can be both comforting and also a bit scary.

The exchange brought an another interesting thought to my mind. Often, we bring modern sensibilities and mores to the table when we are evaluating something from history. Not only that, we also use our own personal experiences to interpret the past. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

This may be overly simplistic, but this lens could be referred to simply as their world view. Our interpretation of prior experiences and events shape our impressions of the world around us. We make decisions based on what we’ve been taught and what we see as true. For better or worse, in this regard, we shape the world which we experience. It could be argued that we all are moving through our own individual worlds. Every interaction we have with someone else is a place in time and space where two worlds collide.

From a gaming perspective, holding on to our world view tightly is not necessarily a positive thing. It can greatly hamper the development of our character, as well as the culture in which those characters live. It can ruin the collaborative nature of the game. Instead of the view: “this event is happening to the party,” players can approach it as “this is my story.”

Let’s unpack this a little bit more.

How can our own world view impede character development? I think this can be pretty simple. Many characters are really idealized extensions of ourselves, using pronouns like “I” and “me” to describe these fictional beings. I’ve taken it a step further. In an ongoing Star Wars campaign, I had the hubris to name my Gotal PC “Goat Jordan” in another language. I’m not playing a separate character, I’m playing a bad-ass idealization of myself (and also showing how bad I really am at naming PCs). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing at the time of character creation. I was new to the system, and I wanted at least a bit of familiarity to work with so I wouldn’t be over my head.

As time went on, though, I began learning things about the character which led to interesting role-playing. It turned out that, although it was against his species’ natural inclinations, he was a pretty adept hacker. I originally had envisioned him as a tactical character, but he was much more useful to the group as a skills specialist. Finding the role in the group gave me a better idea of how to make him different. He also developed a bit of a ruthless edge, driven by a very hard (and sobering) moral code which is pretty different from my own worldview.

Rueben the vampire as rendered by my friend Ariana Ramos.

Reuben the vampire as rendered by my friend Ariana Ramos.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve played several characters who have agendas and world views very different from my own. My vampire, Reuben, is a very selfish individual who is constantly manipulating people around him. My Knight Templar, Raymond St. Denis, was having a hard time with his monastic vows and questioned what he believed. Calathes, my gunslinger in Pathfinder, doesn’t really care what people think — he’ll do whatever he damn well pleases. These characters let me explore other frames of mind and, by extension, have shown me a lot about myself.

I understand not everyone plays roleplaying games for the same reasons that I do; I’m probably in the minority. Not everyone is interested in putting aside their own worldview. As a GM, I have to be respectful of that while offering the same option to the other players. I don’t think I’ll always be successful when it comes to creating that balance, but I hope that all my players will walk away with at least a start to a wider perspective.

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