Odd couples and larger groups

First of all, go read my friend Adam’s post on Why Join the Party? over at his blog, Barking Alien. If you don’t want to bother (and that’s a mistake), he is writing about how many games have a built-in component to create PC groups (the crew of a Federation Starship, a rebel cell, or a superhero team are all examples of this) but that earlier and still popular games, namely Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller, have no built-in component and must either rely on player participation or the GM creating something themselves, with the end of the post saying “don’t be a dick” when it comes to these sorts of things.

A few stories to emphasize this point. One RPG that not only doesn’t have a built-in mechanic for party creation but actually seems to lean the other way is Vampire: the Masquerade, which I ran when it first came out around 1990 or 1991 when I was in college. Having engaged in a steady diet of Champions and Star Wars at that point, I quickly realized the real challenge this game posed as I had to not only deal with players who were wanting to be stand-out characters but also the intentionally everyone’s-out-for-themselves level of intrigue baked into that particular cake. I had one player who wanted to be a werewolf, for example (the sister RPG featuring werewolves was not out by that point) while another envisioned himself a vampire-powered superhero vigilante whose exploits were bound to attract too much attention. But in addition to just out-and-out PC concepts that bucked the genre, you had those who embraced the genre completely and spent most of the campaign hosing the other players by engaging in backroom deals with NPC’s and spawning blood feuds and vendettas with anyone they could find. The campaign evolved (or one could say, degenerated) into not having group gaming sessions but instead having individual players meeting with me separately to roleplay out their own little plots, which left me frustrated and exhausted and some of the more traditional players–those who were still playing the game as a cooperative effort–upset that they were being sidelined by the machinations of other players. When the campaign ended, it ended badly.

And that experience doesn’t appear to be isolated when it comes to V:tM. Years later I would visit as a guest a massive Vampire game that took place on the campus of the Ohio State University that had dozens of players essentially LARPing the game using a master GM and a small host of sub-gamemasters stationed around a building while players just wandered about doing their own thing, interacting with other players or NPC’s played by the GM squad. Cool concept, but not a “tabletop” RPG.

Not actually them, but a random image pulled of the internet that captures the feel.

That is a large-scale example of lack of cohesiveness that goes beyond Adam’s admonishment regarding dickishness, which I think we have all seen. I used to call them “weasel gamers”: the thief who steals from the party, the casual killer in the superhero team, the just straight up obstreperous narcissist who thinks that being an outlying jerk is a great way to be clever or funny or just feed their own emotional needs as a person. Those players pose real challenges that have to be addressed either by GM/player communication or just expunging them from the group if possible.

But all of this goes to I think a larger concept, a more positive one. I believe that there real reason I enjoy roleplaying games, and why hobbies like wargaming or solo RPG’s or writing my own fiction never quite catch on is because I personally enjoy the process, narratively and in reality, of the forging of a family. Of all of the ur-mythical qualities of roleplaying game plots out there, a group of disparate strangers coming together in some sort of bond really works for me. It is at the core of the original Star Wars movies (but not the prequel trilogy, and floundered on the sequel trilogy) and it was the core idea behind the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy films. Firefly, Leverage, Star Trek–these are all considered “gamer shows” because they all have that same core quality to the point where you can’t watch them without starting to “stat out” the characters in whatever system you favor. The first Justice League and Suicide Squad movies feel off to nerd fans because they forced the group-set in such as ham-handed way that it felt fake and artificial, while the X-Men movies actually rewarded the argumentative, outlying, “lone wolf” character so much that eventually they just gave him his own movies (other examples of franchises that are theoretically team concepts but really just feature a single tent-pole character are Mission: Impossible and the “Kelvin Timeline” Star Trek films).

And that is then mirrored in the gaming group itself. Most gaming groups are friends, with their own families, jobs, dreams, etc. coming together to spend time in good company, to create bonds that transcend the gaming table, and in the best of circumstances, forge something that feels like a family of choice. Others may game for different reasons–adolescent power fantasies spring to mind–but the groups that I have loved always seem to go in that direction.

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