I love you, Dragonlance. And like I've said before, I don't care who knows. Every year at this time, when I wax nostalgic about my relationship with heroic fantasy literature and roleplaying, I return to my love for Dragonlance.
Yes, were the old modules the epitome of railroading? Sure, I'll capitulate on that point. Were the original novels somewhat corny, and many of the subsequent novels of dubious quality? Perhaps.
Is my opinion colored by the fact that I encountered Dragonlance novels in a grade school bookshelf before I ever read a word written by Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, or any of the other Appendix N luminaries? Yes, I'm sure that accident of my personal history features prominently in my stance as a Dragonlance fanatic.
I still don't care what you say. I love Dragonlance. And I want to convince you to love it a little bit too.
When it comes to the novels and stories, I believe they were more subtle than they seem on the surface. If you look deeper, you'll find some grey among all that black and white. Sure, there's lots of archetypal good and evil material in the Dragonlance canon. But what about the "grey areas" like the love Tanis had for the evil Kitiara? Or the inner turmoil of the flawed and broken Raistlin as he struggled with the shadows and light in his soul?
From a roleplaying perspective, when have gamers ever been truly restricted by published modules? Sure, beginning players might be duped into railroading when using ANY module. But once you have some sessions under your belt, you realize that you can, and should, stray away from the published material. It should not be taken as ironclad plot.
Gaming in any published world doesn't mean you have to follow the storylines. Call it alternate history or whatever, but in the end you are free to take that world in any direction, as you and your fellow gamers go on your own adventures with your own characters. This concept, however, for some strange reason, seems to elude far too many gamers. The mind boggles...
In thinking back over my gaming career, I came to think about the types of players that annoyed me over the years. Of course there's the Rules Lawyer. We've all encountered that particular beast, haven't we? Then there's the player type I call the "Anywhere but Where the GM Believes" player. Have you ever had a player who, when you checked in with them, they would tell you they weren't actually in that location? This is more than splitting the party. It's the situation where a player keeps correcting you as to their character's location. The player never seems to be specific enough about their character's movements, no matter how many times you ask them to be more specific. Example #1:
GM: "Okay, the party enters the cavern-"
Bruno the Dwarf's Player: "No, I'm not in the cavern."
GM: "But I asked the whole party if you were all going into the cavern and you didn't say you weren't going in with everyone else, so..."
Bruno the Dwarf's Player: "No, I'm not in there. I stayed in the tunnel."
GM: "Ooookay..." [followed by annoying situation where you have to jump between the rest of the party and whatever Bruno's player wants to do]
GM: "Your group has been in the tavern for about a half hour, when-"
Bruno's Player: "I never entered the tavern."
GM: "You never told me you didn't enter the tavern with the rest of the party..."
Bruno's Player: "Well, I'm outside..." You get the idea. Have you ever had a player like this? If so, do you think they were purposely trying to mess with you, or just not paying attention, or some other reason they did this sort of thing?
While perusing my old unpublished posts, I came across some musings that arose from reading a post over at the venerable Beyond the Black Gate. This particular post was entitled "What is a Character?"
One key line in that post reads: "Their backgrounds aren't something I wrote down on a piece of looseleaf paper before rolling up the character - their backgrounds are what happened from 1st level to 10th level, or even higher."
I couldn't agree more.
I think this is part of what old OSR grognards are getting at when they rail against the "storyteller" type of RPGs. Yes, we don't like being railroaded in slavery to a GMs story for their campaign. And yes, we as players don't want to play the part of "frustrated novelist" by writing up a huge backstory for our characters.
There was a time back in my youth that my friends and I did slave away on deep, complicated backstories before/while rolling up characters. But after a time, this became onerous indeed. And restrictive. In RPGs, characters really don't become three-dimensional beings until they're LIVED, so to speak. Or should I say, PLAYED? Really, it's both. For a character to come to life, it MUST be played.
A cursory character background outline can, and often will, inform what a GM throws at a character, and a good GM will weave some of that cursory player-created background into a campaign. But also, as one play's a character, ideas will occur to the player that can be incorporated into the background, i.e. the character's past.
Simultaneously, as suggested in the Beyond the Black Gate post, the player is creating the story, the LEGEND as it were, of their character as they progress through levels.
Backstory doesn't have to be dreamed up whole-cloth before playing a character. Yes, you can come up with an outline for what your character was up to before a campaign starts. But the real meat of a character comes from the exploits that evolve through play. Those experiences are always going to be more tangible, more meaningful, than the story you make up for a character's background. Because you LIVED it!
What do you think? Agree, disagree? How do you use background/backstory in your roleplaying?
Ah, here we are, folks. Wrapped in the holidays, basking in the afterglow of all the gift giving and receiving. If you're like me, at this time of year, it seems one can briefly revisit the wonder and magic of being a kid. This is made easier if you have kids of your own.
My kids are getting older but they're still of an age where I can see the spark in their eyes of genuine youthful wonder. They help me tap into the deep part of me that is still a kid in some respects. This is especially true when it comes to roleplaying. I've introduced my kids to roleplaying of course. No self-respecting grognard would do otherwise, no? My daughter has a touch of my interest in fantasy and sci fi but roleplaying might not be her cup of team. My son however has expressed interest in playing and even running his own campaigns. Ah, my breast swelleth with pride!
I'm spending some time going through my collection of games with my son, and generally reminiscing about campaigns past. I'm also, as usual, ruminating on the possibility of resurrecting a regular game sometime in the new year. One can hope and dream, eh?
Over the next few days leading up to the new year, I'm going to be posting some nostalgia-inducing Elmore images along with some musings about the hobby and my personal experience with it, and hoping that you wonderful people will also share some tales of your own adventures.
May the blessings of the holidays be with you all! Happy gaming!