Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Baron Munchausen on Character Generation

As part of last week's introductory workshop on game design, all of us at the VBC engaged in a session of tabletop roleplaying. We played Michael Sullivan's Everyone is John, a short-form RPG recommended by one of my other students. The point of the exercise was primarily to expose students to what I call "proper role-playing games," in which the point of the game is the creative exercise of playing a role. That is, the playing of the game is its own reward. This is to be understood in contrast to those tabletop role-playing experiences that more closely resemble an analog session of a hack-and-slash computer game than any improvised collaborative narrative. (It may be worth noting that the amount of "role-playing" in a "role-playing game" is a matter of execution, but the mechanics can facilitate or burden such execution.)

This evening, I came across a brilliant statement that crystallizes the distinction between role-playing and minmaxed orc-slaying extravaganzas. This comes from James Wallis' brilliantly-written The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (2008 edition), which is entirely from the perspective of the Baron himself. In the section on character generation, it is clear that all one needs for a character sheet is a name on a sheet of paper. The Baron's justification:
For character, as the most oafish baronet's son can tell you, is not generated but forged on the anvil of life. It is only when the blows of experience ring in our ears that we move another step on life's path, becoming by stages more rounded or sharpened, our corners knocked off or our features more pointedly defined; and not by some artificial process of tossing teetotums or juggling figures like some ink-stained clerk in a windowless cellar hard by Threadneedle Street. Our souls are formed by first doing and then recollecting the experience of those deeds so that we and others might learn from them, and that is the very process which my game—nay, my life—describes. Character generation? I'll have none of it!

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