|And there we come to today's topic.|
I'm sure we all had a chuckle over this, because let's face it, who doesn't have a story or two about a group of hardened murderhobos each trying to out-grim each other? On the other hand, it makes a good point, and one that I think is worth thinking about.
In short, why are so many of us trying to be fantasy Batman?
Imitating The Classics
Real talk for a moment, here. Tragic heroes are easy. Do you know why? Because we have so many damn good examples of them in our pop culture (and especially in the nerdier parts of it). The go-to example is Batman, with the classic dead parents and revenge on crime story. But we also have characters like Wolverine (a wandering amnesiac with intense PTSD trying to fight the impulses you have when you're a living weapon), Luke Cage (a wrongly-convicted man experimented on in prison trying to clear his name), Jessica Jones (disillusioned heroine and abuse survivor just trying to make her way in the world), etc.
Even outside of comics we have characters like Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, and others whose stories are often tragedies full of rage, blood, and tragic fates they cannot escape.
|Seriously, Greek tragedies are 90's comics with more dick jokes.|
But you know what we don't see a lot of in stories that aren't expressly aimed at kids? Heroes that have their lives together. Characters who have a good support network, who have no reasons to scour the world looking for vengeance, and who are doing just fine. Maybe they could use a little more coin in their pockets, or they'd like to live in a better part of the city, but they don't have deep-seeded darkness putting the pedal to the metal. Usually they're participating in the campaign because they want to help, because it's their job, or sometimes just because it's the right thing to do.
I know, yawn-o-rama, right?
I mean, who is that bard, being all light-hearted, curious, and sending a portion of his earnings home to his parents? Where does this paladin get off in using his martial skill and divine power to try to lift up the downtrodden because it's the right thing to do? And what's with this enchanter, having a positive relationship with his tutors, and working a respectable job as a diplomat?
All right, all right, serious time now.
I'll be the first to admit that grimdark (or at least tragic) character backstories are compelling. I came up with a whole list of popular characters off the top of my head, and there are dozens more I didn't include. With that said, though, it's easy to get stuck in a rut where all you ever do is play people who've been kicked into the dirt, and forced to eat gravel until they prove they're tough enough to be adventurers. But that's not a requirement... it's just a thing we've done because it's tradition. And, a lot of the time, because we're lazy.
Who You Calling Lazy?!
It's a simple fact that a lot of players don't want to reach too far into a character's backstory before they debut in the first session. That's why, so often, we see characters with dead parents, and no extended family. Because it acts as dual motivation, and means we don't have to mess about with who their family is. We also tend to conflate surviving awful things with being strong characters, but just because you have a character who has overcome negative events, that doesn't make them any deeper or more mature as concepts.
What I can say for foregoing the traditional murdered family/orphaned/survivor of war/tortured by trolls backstory is that when you set the grimdark spark aside, you've got to work a lot harder. It's also important to remember that "not sad" doesn't require everything to be rainbows and sunflowers. It's just not blood and tears.
Need an example or two? Merrilin Briggs is the oldest daughter of Lord Cauthorn Briggs and his second wife Katherine. She showed magical talent at a young age, and her father made sure she received proper instruction in the arts magica. Her mother, ever a society woman, also insisted that Merrilin be schooled in the classic past times of a lady. Fireballs of a morning, needlepoint and dancing of an evening. When threats beset her father's lands, the Lady Briggs is there to drive them back. Her father is proud of her, but both he and his wife worry for her safety. Her mother often wishes she would marry, much to Merrilin's annoyance, but she tries not to let it ruin their relationship.
Or how about Reginald "The Lightning" Carpenter? A boy from one of the rural areas, he grew up tending orchards. He was always the regional favorite in competitions of martial skill, though, and his speed and tirelessness earned him his nickname. He even fought a bout when the local Baron was in attendance, and the nobleman gifted Reginald with a fine rapier as a prize for his display of skill. When his younger siblings were old enough to mind the orchards, Reginald enlisted in the militia, hoping to make better use of his skills. A charismatic leader, he and his men repelled several groups of bandits, and rescued kidnapped travelers who were being held for ransom. Accepting accolades and promotions, it is his intention to find a stead for his family to live on where the only trees they tend are those they want to, rather than those they have to.
Now, both of these characters may have problems (Merrilin's penchant for boots and bandoliers may be hard to leave in the field, causing friction when she's at home, for instance), but those problems aren't horrible, or tragic. They're just the sorts of things we all deal with. They also have hobbies, goals, wants, and needs.
Those are the things that get them out in the field, and tie them into the campaign.
Try Nightmare Mode... You Might Like It
To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with characters who have sad, grim backstories full of loss and murder. There are even some games, like White Wolf's World of Darkness setting, or Shadow of The Demon Lord, that are tailor-made for those kinds of characters. However, if that is the only kind of PC you're playing, I'd recommend branching out to try something different. Even if it's just for a palate cleanser.
And remember... just because you don't have anything terrible under your belt when you start, that doesn't mean you can fight monsters for 15 levels without risking becoming one.
That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some of you out there. If you want to see more of my game-related work, check out my Gamers archive. I'm adding a few new pieces every month, so there's always something new over there. If you want to keep up with all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change into my tip cup. $1 a month is all I ask, and in exchange I'll send a load of gaming swag your way as a thank you!