Conducted by Leighton Connor
This is the conclusion of my interview with Carter Newton about his new novel Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers (on sale now!) In Part One, Carter and I talked about using the Hobomancer setting for a novel; in Part Two, we talked in more depth about the characters, and some of the challenges Carter faced in bringing them to life. In Part Three, we talk about Good Jungle, the human response to disasters, and the fascist plot to overthrow FDR.
Leighton Connor: Let’s talk about Good Jungle. Good Jungle, for those who haven’t read the book, is the massive and surprisingly developed hobo camp that the characters visit early in the story. You mentioned to me awhile back that your depiction of Good Jungle was inspired by your research into how people react in a disaster. I’m curious what you meant by that.
Carter Newton: There’s this idea in pop culture that when a disaster happens, the worst in humanity comes out, we go all Mad Max, and every man for himself, and only the preppers shall survive. It makes good movies, good comic books, and good TV. It’s also wrong. And not a little wrong. The trope of the lone wolf human with no connections is basically a fiction invented by Hollywood so that you can get away with a character with no back-story. It’s a crutch for writers who are on deadline and just need to get it done.
In the real world, people are social creatures, and thousands of years of living as social creatures has taught us to look after those around us. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the US Gulf Coast, in those first days the response was... let’s go with “uncoordinated at the federal, state, and municipal levels.” That conveys the message without adding value judgements the way that words like “shameful” or “ridiculous” or “ham-fisted” or “would be laughable if not for the fact that people were dying because of the gross ineptitude” do.
So, anyway, in the aftermath of this disaster, people started by checking on their neighbors. And then community leaders (or emerging community leaders) started setting up communal kitchens to feed those who didn’t have power or food, and then they started putting together medical clinics, for lack of a better term, for first aid or those who were sick or needed their medications. And then there would be a place for gathering, whether that was for worship or discussion of the situation, or just to sit someplace with someone who understands you and share a cup of coffee. And being New Orleans I suspect music broke out somewhere in there.
If you look at a refugee camp, or in the historical record at a Hooverville or Bonus Army camp, or more recently at an Occupy Wall Street camp, they all have basically those same elements. Also, they describe the perfect Hipster urban landscape, minus the disaster, but you know. So, when I started thinking about Good Jungle, I had this rich vein to draw from to help think about the layout and the character of the village. There are communal wash tubs for laundry and hygiene. There’s a communal kitchen which is basically continually making a batch of stone soup - everybody puts in what they can. But as you get deeper into the village, there’s a school, and a hospital tent, and merchants and craftsmen, a lending library, and a baseball field, and a garden for food crops. And it’s a little bit fantastic, but less than you might think.
Suicide has this image in his head that the camp would be full of lazy, indolent men, and he’s surprised first that it’s families with women and children. And then he’s surprised by the fact that there’s all this enterprise - a tailor who offers to make him a suit, a blacksmith who is equally comfortable making a wrought-iron decoration as tinkering a pot. And there’s commerce, essentially shops specializing in different wares like bags for travelling. And Suicide is stunned because it isn’t simply a place where people sit doing nothing, it’s a functioning city where they take in the victims of the rolling disaster that was the Great Depression.
The baseball field may have been pushing it. Well, maybe not. Soccer games break out in refugee camps all the time. Okay, I feel all right about the baseball field.
LC: I assumed you had just made up the whole thing. As I said before, I’m impressed by your commitment to doing research and working real history into your fantasy story. What really blew my mind, though, was when you told me that the Business Plot was real. Without too many spoilers, can you explain what that means?
CN: The Business Plot was, basically, an attempted fascist coup to overthrow FDR in 1933. It might have worked except for the fact that the plotters were stupendously dumb. The plotters attempted to install as the figurehead of their coup the most decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps, General Smedley “Old Gimlet-Eye” Butler. In addition to being the bestselling author of War is a Racket, a book which calls out industrialists who use undue influence on American foreign policy to use the military might of the US to achieve their business ends, he was also a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt. So as the figurehead of a fascist coup, probably not the best guy.
Let this be a lesson to you. If you plan on a coup, Google the guy you plan on putting out there as the figurehead. The thing of it is, that’s the only boneheaded move they made. If they’d picked a different, politically ambitious man - of whom there are usually no shortage among the general staff - it probably would have worked. Butler was incredibly popular, and capable of delivering a stirring speech, and believed deeply in the Constitution.
The point is that the Business Plot was a coup attempt on FDR which was real, and serious, and dangerous. As a nation, we got very very close to losing our democratic republic.
LC: I don’t want to give away the details, but the Business Plot ends up being an important part of your story. How had you heard of this attempted coup in the first place? What about it made it seem right for a Hobomancer novel?
CN: I first heard about the Business Plot on the Tank Riot podcast. They did a profile of General Smedley Butler, the “Fighting Quaker.” One of the things they talked about was his involvement in this sort of apocryphal coup attempt led by a bunch of wealthy, powerful industrialists. Only, the thing of it was, the names of the wealthy, powerful industrialists weren’t recorded because there was no reason to trouble them with such allegations. So I was thinking that this conspiracy theory was a pretty good setting for telling a story of a man on the run. Suicide is the very definition of a low-level flunky who makes a good scapegoat.
Oh, by the way, author Sally Denton in her book about the coup, The Plots Against the President, used FOIA requests to get access to many of the actual investigation files. The FBI and congressional investigations determined that the threat was real and that the thing that stopped it was General Butler.
LC: Good job avoiding spoilers there. One more question, and we’ll wrap this up. I imagine that people who are familiar with Hobomancer will want to read this book, to see how you’ve brought the setting to life. But what about people who have never heard of Hobomancer, who--as hard as may be to imagine--have never even spent any time thinking about hobos? How would you describe the book to a person like that, and why should they read it?
CN: This is a book about train-hopping hobo wizards in 1930’s America. It’s a story of a man wrapped up in events beyond his reckoning. It’s an adventure to save the United States as we know them. It’s a fast paced race that will leave the smell of coal smoke in your nose and the sound of the whistle singing in your ears.
LC: Excellent. Thanks for your time, Carter, and for giving such thoughtful answers. And thanks for writing the book. I greatly enjoyed it, and I think other people will, too.
Conducted by Leighton Connor
This is the continuation of my interview with Carter Newton about his new novel Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers (on sale now!) In the first part, which you can read here, Carter and I talked about how Carter went about translating an RPG setting into a novel and turning character sheets into real characters. In Part Two we talk more about the characters, and the particular challenges Carter faced as a white male trying to write a convincing black female character.
Leighton Connor: One of the things I really enjoy about the book is the way you make the hobomancer characters so mysterious--since the book is from Suicide’s point of view, we only gradually learn about them as he gets to know them better, and we never learn all their secrets. Without getting into too much detail, which of the hobomancer characters was the most fun to write?
Carter Newton: That’s hard! You basically just asked me to pick my favorite child. All of the hobos were fun in different places and for different reasons. Nugget was fun, because there’s some real fun in writing a curmudgeon. Scoreboard has a couple of very subtle jokes that I hope somebody catches and says, “Hey, you know...” I think Montana Handle ended up being the most like how I envisioned in the beginning. His WWPHITM was Christian Kane in Leverage. With a dash of Aragorn.
Even the bad guys are fun to write. Particularly as they start posturing and jockeying for position.
Okay, fine, it’s George Porter. She’s my favorite.
LC: George Porter is an African American female, and you’re a white guy. When you were writing her, were you concerned that she would come across as . . . well, as a white guy’s flawed perspective on being a black woman in the 1930’s?
CN: Concerned? Are you kidding? I was terrified.
There’s a section in the Hobomancer rulebook that says, essentially, it was bad to be a hobo, it was worse to be a female hobo, it was even worse to be a hobo person of color, and to be a hobo woman of color was unspeakable. So in a moment of unbelievable hubris I said, “Okay, the leader of this crew of hobomancers is a woman of color.” And then I started writing, and after about ten pages or so, I realized what I’d done and that I needed to stop and read a lot to avoid some of the really bad traps in fiction.
LC: Like what?
CN: There’s a particular trope in fiction in which a person of color exists to do something magical for the main - usually white - character. Think Bagger Vance or Uncle Remus. And after I’d started re-reading what I’d done with George Porter, I realized that by definition I’d done exactly that. And then I kicked myself for about a week and a half.
And after that I realized that it was important to keep George Porter, but also to make sure she went beyond the trope. I spent a lot of time on explicitly feminist websites reading about modern feminist theory and intersectionality. And then I thought about it a lot. Like about five months a lot. I spent a lot of time with my mouth shut reading about the experiences of women in disenfranchised groups, and letting those stories inform how I approached George Porter. I owe writers and commenters at websites like Jezebel and Shakesville an enormous debt of gratitude.
Basically, what I had to do was to make sure that George Porter had her own story, and that it reflected both the reality and the possibilities of the time, and that it wasn’t about Suicide. There’s a professional interaction very early in the book that sort of sums up this sort of institutional underestimation of the capabilities of people of color. And it occurred to me that kind of day-in and day-out aggression by white people would lead to so much resentment, but if George Porter acts any of that resentment out...well, look at the statistics on lynching in America in the 20th century.
Let’s be clear, it was hard for me to face this history of racism and sexism and responses to them to write George Porter as well as she deserved to be written, but it’s nowhere near as hard as it is for disenfranchised people to actually live it. I hope I’ve represented the experiences of those who educated me in a way that makes them feel heard.
LC: Well, I thought you did a good job, but I’m another white dude, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. You mention that you did a lot of reading for your portrayal of George Porter. One thing that struck me, when I was reading the book, was how much you seemed to know about the 1930’s in general. I know that if I were writing a novel set in that time period I wouldn’t have been able to come up with nearly that level of detail. How much research did you do, and how much did you already know going in?
CN: Approximately one thousand years ago I got a BA in history, but the 1930s in America was neither my region or my time period! I still really enjoy history, and an uncomfortable amount of my pleasure reading seems to be about US history between, say, the end of the Civil War and World War II. You know, the really happy, uplifting parts. The first half of the 20th Century in American history I find really interesting, because it feels a lot like the country trying to figure out how to be a nation and taking these grudging half steps towards being better at fulfilling the promise that all men and women are treated equally before the law and have equal access to the tools to achieve their potentials. Something else we’ve totally got covered now.
The history of those faltering steps is largely a tale told against the backdrop of disaster and tragedy which sort of forces the hands of the powerful. John M. Barry’s book Rising Tide is one of those great books which takes the story of this natural event, the Great Flood of 1927 along the Mississippi River, and breaks down all of the economic impacts of the disaster, and what flood control means for the maturation of the Federal Government’s role in state issues, and the social implications for the people who live through it. I mean, you have this huge African-American diaspora from the Mississippi Delta to the industrial cities of the north, and from that you get things like Otis Spann, the piano blues player - without whom you’d have no Little Richard, and no Rock and Roll, and you have Detroit, which prospers partially because of this sudden influx of labor, and you also get Motown, without which you and I live in a very boring world!
Also Wikipedia. Everybody should give them five bucks, at least once a year. I can’t tell you how many bizarre questions I typed into Google only to discover that, why yes, someone has written an article on Wikipedia about urban planning in Hoovervilles in the industrial North East. Wikipedia is the modern Library of Alexandria. Go give them some money.
And, with that call to action, we draw to a close again. Be sure to check in tomorrow to see Carter and me talk about Good Jungle, the aftermath of disaster, and the real-life plot to overthrow FDR in a fascist coup.
Conducted by Leighton Connor
Carter Newton is not only a co-creator of the award-winning RPG Hobomancer but also the author of Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers. Suicide’s Run is the first novel Hex Games has published, and it is on sale now.
I was Carter’s editor on Suicide’s Run, but, more importantly, I’m a big fan of the book. When I sat down to interview Carter we had plenty to talk about. I’ve split the interview up into three parts. In Part One, we talk about the inspiration for the novel, going beyond the character sheets, malefactors of great wealth, and more.
Leighton Connor: Hex has released supplements for games before, but this is the first time we’ve published a novel based on one of our games. Carter, what was it that inspired you to write a novel about hobomancers?
Carter Newton: The setting for Hobomancer is so rich, and so big, it just seemed to call out for a deeper exploration. I picked this one particular corner, but there are so many corners! I mean, I started this novel in November of 2012, which predates the publication of Hobomancer, because at some point in writing the RPG I realized that there was just so much I wanted to do with this world that wouldn’t fit in the core book. I’ve been between regular gaming groups since about 2010. I didn’t have anyone to play with to explore this world with me. We talk about RPGs being shared storytelling; being alone I had no option but to do it myself!
Having said that, I still got a little of that shared storytelling element. So many things have been done with Hobomancer since then that were inspiring. Best example of that is the Rail Dragon. Steve created that creature in response to a challenge on Reddit to reinvent dragons. I read the post and emailed Steve, “Yeah, I’m going to need to use that, if it’s okay by you.”
Also, I was hoping to cash in on some of that sweet Dragonlance (tm) money. I have since been informed by experts in the publishing industry that perhaps I should revel in the joy of my art.
LC: What you say about “so many corners” is a good point. When I read the book, I was impressed that it definitely felt like a Hobomancer story--the setting, tone, and types of characters are all straight out of the game--and yet it was completely different from what I expected in a Hobomancer novel. You managed to find that balance between bringing the game to life and, at the same time, telling your own story. Did you have any problems with that? Were you ever concerned that you weren’t sticking close enough to the game or, like some of those Dragonlance novels you mentioned, you were too close to the source material?
CN: Particularly early on, I had terrible problems with that, particularly with the characters. I don’t want to get boring with a bunch of process stuff, but I started by writing the first couple of thousand words, and then went back and made character sheets for the characters. I looked at them last week and laughed at how far some of the characters had diverged - or evolved, maybe - from their original concepts. But yeah, there were a couple of moments that were really frustrating where I found myself torn between what was on the character sheet and what the story needed. Then I had this breakthrough: “Just write the story. Think of the stuff that doesn’t fit the rulebook as ‘house rules.’” That was a tremendous help. Suddenly I felt free to go beyond the character sheets I’d drawn up. Which explains the gap between the 2012 character sheets and the 2015 novel.
But it caused some challenges, yeah. The editors were both like, “I don’t understand this one character’s power. He sounds like a Train Whisperer, but then he does all this crazy stuff with dreams, and I don’t get it.” And I sort of had to say, “Wow, you’re really right. It works in the confines of the story, though, and we won’t include a character sheet for him in the appendix, and if anyone asks, we can say that’s for a future supplement.”
Fortunately Hobomancer is a really good setting with rules that are built for fiction.
LC: Let’s talk about the characters. First, your main character, who goes by the name “Suicide,” is not even a hobomancer. He’s the kind of guy who enjoys a life of luxury and looks down on hobos. Why did you decide you wanted that sort of character as your lead?
CN: Some of it was Creative Writing 101 - what can I do make this character feel the most uncomfortable? Suicide going from being this very cushy, middle-class social climber to surrounded by this cast of characters that he would have considered on his good days to be beneath his notice. On a bad day, he’d probably think of these hobos as vaguely subhuman, and now he’s dropped into a world where not only does his life literally depend on them, but they’re infinitely more powerful than he is. That makes him a character whose entire worldview is broken. That’s a character who can have all kinds of revelations about what society means, and the value of his own work, and can see very immediately the consequences of his behaviors - where previously he was protected by his social status, now he’s seeing the people who lived with those consequences.
Another thing I decided very early was that I didn’t want this to be the story of Suicide learning to be a hobomancer. I was much more interested in telling a story where the main character never got comfortable with the weird stuff going on around him. Let’s be honest, Suicide would rather be at a Rotary Club meeting than off fighting monsters. Even so, we also get to follow along while this character learns to be a - well, maybe not a hero, but at least a stand up guy.
LC: Would I be correct in thinking that Suicide’s characterization also contains an element of social criticism? I mean, call me crazy, but it seemed like you may have some points to make about wealth and power.
CN: So, it wasn’t as subtle as I hoped, huh?
Well, look, here’s the thing... I’d like to be wealthy. Lots of us would like to be wealthy. But I’m from the “Uncle Ben” school of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Suicide starts as Ebenezer Scrooge; he could not care less about his fellow man, unless his fellow man is useful to him in some way. Suicide is basically abusive to anyone beneath him on the social ladder - essentially all power and no responsibility. The time period the story takes place in is the hangover of one of our most notorious gilded ages, and is literally a tale of resisting the kind of men Theodore Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth,” men willing to slag anyone and anything in their quest to build larger empires and bigger piles of hoarded wealth. Here we are a generation later, with a different Roosevelt in the White House, and we still have rich men deciding that wealth makes them moral, regardless of who may get hurt. All power, no responsibility.
The lesson Suicide learns through all of his experiences is “we’re all in this together.” Also, maybe, to live by the sweat of his own brow. I don’t want to fetishize manual labor - I’ve done my share, and it’s not awesome. But there is a certain honesty that Suicide has to learn to say, “I achieved this by skill, not by saying I was clever and letting someone else take the heat.”
LC: I’m just thankful we don’t have to deal with those “malefactors of great wealth” in our modern world.
CN: Yeah. Systemic racism, classism, and patriarchy: fully disassembled.
And on that sarcastic note, the first part of our interview draws to a close. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 2, in which we talk about research, racism and sexism, Carter’s favorite character, and Wikipedia.
Before I get into this week’s blog, I forgot to mention last week that I recently the newest installment of my series of role-playing articles on HubPages, “Seven Rules Every RPG Player Should Know." Also, just yesterday Hex released our first novel, Carter Newton’s Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers. Carter does a great job of bringing the world of Hobomancer to life, so it’s a must-have if you’re a fan of the game. We’ll be posting a 3-part interview with Carter here on the Death Cookie starting Wednesday. Next week, we’ll have an interview with Jeffrey Johnson, who illustrated the novel.
Earlier this week, a poster on the not-quite-abandoned QAGS subreddit asked for tips about using flash-bang style magic in a QAGS game. As he correctly pointed out, the system from Magic Rules! (and the variations on the theme that have appeared in Zoe the Zombie Hunter and a few other supplements) are really written for ritual magic and aren’t a great fit for the “wizard chucking fireballs” variety of spellcasting. That’s by design. As I am contractually obligated to point out, the “flash-bang” style of magic found in most games has no precedent in real-world magical tradition (at least as a force that can be harnessed by regular humans), and even the magic in early fantasy fiction was usually much more subtle than the kind of magic you see in a typical RPG. The Magic Rules! system was designed to encourage magic that mostly manifests in subtle ways that aren’t necessarily verifiable as the result of magic. Overt magical manifestations are difficult to accomplish, unpredictable, weird, and a little terrifying.
Sometime in the 20th Century, fictional magic started getting more overt and predictable, and wizards began to act more like scientific experts or master craftsmen than crazed weirdos who harnessed (and made deals with) powers beyond human comprehension. I don’t know the exact timeline, but I suspect that Jack Vance and comic books were key influencers early on, and the popularity of D&D did the rest. By the time we reached the era of fantasy video games and D&D-derivative fiction, flash-bang was the default style of magic. Today, even stories that aren’t directly descended from the 20th Century fantasy mainstream of Tolkien, pulp, comics, D&D derivatives, and video games tend to use flash-bang magic. Take the Harry Potter series, for example: Rowling’s main influences seem to be fairy tales, mythology, and earlier young adult fiction, but take away the wands and pseudo-Latin and Harry and the gang would fit in as well at Xavier School as Hogwart’s.
So, since magic-as-superpower is a thing now, how do we handle it in QAGS? That’s simple: Just like any other Job. If restrictions on magic aren’t dictated by the genre, setting, tone, or style of the story you’re telling (which we’ll discuss more later), there’s no reason to treat wizardry differently than any other profession, at least mechanically. Warriors slice people up and bash their heads in, thieves lurk about and steal things, and wizards cast spells. If a wizard wants to cast a spell, he makes a Job roll, just like a con artist would make a Job roll to sell somebody a bridge. Usually, there are mechanics for doing something similar to the spell’s effect without magic that can be used if you need rules: mind control is really insistent persuasion, invisibility is ninja-level stealth, and a magic missile is just a bullet with better special effects.
For the most part, the idea that magic needs its own specialized rules to keep wizards from becoming “too powerful” is a gamer superstition wrapped up in the myth of game balance. Once you accept that game balance isn’t real, the necessity of specialized magic rules mostly falls away. We don’t worry that giving a gunslinger too much ammo will make a character too powerful or make a hacker list which programming languages he knows, so why worry about how many Magic Missiles a wizard can cast and make him keep a spell list?
There is still one pitfall of treating magic just like any other ability: its versatility. For most Jobs, there’s a certain baseline understanding of what a character can do based on fictional and real-life examples, usually across a wide variety of genres and settings. A warrior’s job is to kill things regardless of the genre, so the only restrictions necessary are genre and style conventions that we trust the player to follow and, if necessary, the GM to enforce. The Bride can decapitate a whole circle of ninjas with one sword swing, but John McClane needs a grenade or machine gun to kill a bunch of people with a single attack. Since magic differs considerably from story to story, there’s a lot less consensus about what it means to be a wizard, so the “wizard” Job can come dangerously close to “Jack of All Trades.” We know a cop fights crime and thief separates people from their valuables, but there’s no common theme for a vanilla wizard’s abilities. He might talk to a ghost one minute, shapeshift into a giant eagle the next, and set a bunch of people on fire a little later.
While characters don’t have to be “balanced” in terms of power, a story about group of characters does require each character to play a role that differentiates him from the other characters and justifies his inclusion as a protagonist. Audiences tend to notice redundant characters (*cough* Merry & Pippin *cough*) and it can take them out of the story. In RPGs, making sure each character has a clear role also helps keep players from stepping on one another’s toes. A character without a niche makes the other characters seem redundant or comes across as either a universal understudy or a portable deus ex machina. While abilities aren’t the only things that define a character’s role, they’re often the starting point, so sometimes it is necessary to limit an extremely versatile character type to make that character fit the story and the group.
If the players all have similar sensibilities about what constitutes good fantasy, or if you’re playing a game where magic is closely modeled on an existing ficton, you can rely on the same kind of mutual agreement that keeps John McClane from going all Wushu. For example, if you’re playing a Buffy game, it will usually be obvious to everyone involved whether a particular spell is par for the course or veiny yellow crayon territory, as well as whether a spell can be cast with common household items or requires searching for ancient urns on ebay. If the players can’t trust one another to act in good faith (and talk through any disagreements like adults), your group has problems that all the rules in all the games won’t solve.
So what if you’re playing a game where the parameters of magic are too nebulous and the players’ preferences are too varied to rely entirely on mutual understanding and good faith? Fortunately, fantasy authors realized early on that having a character with the power to alter reality made it difficult to build conflicts that couldn’t be solved with some Latin and bat guano. To keep their stories from falling apart, these authors built limitations on magic into their fictons. Some of these limitations were based on fundamental laws of the universe, some were based on the way humans interacted with or learned magic, and some were based on societal, cultural, religious, or professional rules, taboos, and traditions. While these limitations varied considerably from story to story, there were some common themes, and most of them can be easily adapted to a game setting. Since the discussion of how to do that gets pretty involved, I’m going to save that for next week.
It’s not unusual for RPG players to find themselves in situations where, if they’re being honest, the character they’ve established would make a choice that the player knows is a bad one. In these cases, a good role-player acts according to his character’s established background, goals, and personality even when it isn’t the most advantageous course of action. In such cases, “I was just playing my character” is a perfectly valid reason for doing something that complicates things, and generally the other players aren’t going to be too upset about the problematic turn of events. In fact, some will applaud the bad decision because it fits the character and makes for a more interesting story. The GM may even give you Yum Yums.
Those aren’t the kinds of “just playing my character” moments I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the player who constantly disrupts the game and annoys the other players and, when confronted about it, says, “Hey, I was just role-playing my character!” In these cases, “just playing my character” isn’t a reason for making a particular choice, it’s an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for bad behavior. While there are as many types of bad behavior as there are annoying players, there are five general categories of fuckery where “I was just role-playing” is a common excuse.
Sabotaging the Game Premise
This is when a player interferes with the group’s ability to play the game they’ve all agreed upon, usually by creating a character that is woefully unsuited for the kinds of stories the group has decided to tell. It’s the guy who decides to play the Druid in the city-based campaign, or, more often, the evil character in a game whose premise assumes the characters are good guys. Or Samuel L. Jackson the Barbarian in a game that’s supposed to be straightforward heroic fantasy. Or a character who talks like Scooby Doo for absolutely no reason in an atmospheric horror game. Characters don’t always have to be a perfect fit for the party and game concept. In fact, well-crafted outliers can often make the story more interesting, and even stupid one-joke characters don’t always ruin a game. However, if your character concept forces major changes to the nature and focus of the story or ruins the tone of the game by merely existing, you’re sabotaging the premise.
Sabotaging the Party
This brand of dickishness is often the logical extension of creating a character that sabotages the game premise. It happens when “being true to the character” requires the player to constantly do things that interfere with the goals of the rest of party. As I mentioned in the introduction, good role-players often have to make decisions that result in negative repercussions, sometimes for the whole party. The main difference between them and the party saboteur is often a matter of who suffers the repercussions of the character’s bad decisions. In the former case, most of the fallout usually hits the character who makes the decision, or at least affects him and other party members equally. The negative backlash of a saboteur’s actions, on the other hand, nearly always fall primarily on the rest of the party. In many cases, the saboteur himself benefits in some way from the decision. Having a mole or double agent in the party can be fun in some kinds of games, but only if that traitor’s player understands that things are destined to end badly for his character. When the party saboteur gets caught, “I was just role-playing my character” isn’t going to save him, usually because retribution is the only way for the other players to stay in character.
Taking An Idea Too Far
If the DragonLance novels didn’t make you hate Kender, the first game you played with a Kender PC almost certainly did. The player annoyed everyone else and constantly sidetracked the game so he could steal shit from the other party members. One-note characters like Kender (at least as they’re played in a typical D&D game) are a common example of taking an idea to far. Another surprisingly common one-note character is the mad bomber--the guy with a demolitions skill who blows things up constantly and gratuitously, usually to the detriment of the party. In these cases, the problem is mainly one of bad character design. In other cases, taking an idea too far is a matter of not understanding context (most often as it applies to humor): the player gets rewarded (through game mechanics, story outcomes, or just positive feedback from the other players) for a particular action, so he repeats the action over and over again in a bid for additional positive reinforcement, blissfully unaware that not all actions are appropriate for all situations and that a lot of things are only cool or funny the first time.
Monopolizing GM Time
Players should always try to introduce subplots and supporting characters, so there are always going to be scenes that focus on individual characters, often with no involvement from the other PCs. This character takes it too far by constantly creating situations, either through character design or character actions, that force single-character scenes where the other players are demoted to audience members. To add insult to injury, the player regularly drags out such scenes far beyond the point at which they’re still interesting to anyone else. Some players don’t even give the other players potentially interesting character development to watch; they just split the party at every opportunity because “that’s what my character would do.” The worst example of the latter is the “loner” character. The loner is also to some extent also guilty of sabotaging the game premise and taking an idea too far. RPGs are by definition group activities, so if you create a character that’s going to constantly split with the group, you’re intentionally creating a problem. If you want to play a character who “isn’t a group player,” follow Batman’s example of getting the point across by constantly reminding the group you’re working with (or in Batmans’ case, the half-dozen or so different groups you regularly work with) about it. Don’t expect the GM spend half the game running a solo adventure for you.
Just Being A Jackass
Some of the most beloved characters in fiction (especially action heroes) are complete jerks, so it’s only natural for RPG players to create characters who are jackasses from time to time. In most cases, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the character, like most fictional assholes, has some redeeming qualities to make the audience (in this case, the other players) appreciate him despite his douchebaggery. Without the redeeming qualities, nobody’s going to want to be around him, so the other players are legitimately just role-playing when they move to another town without leaving a forwarding address or volunteer the jerk character to find out whether the dragon’s breath is hot. Particularly dickish jackasses, either for shock value or because they’re terrible people, use the jerk characters as an excuse to say and do things that they know the other players will find offensive, disturbing, or hurtful. Those people should usually be asked not to come back.
There are a lot of situations in which role-playing requires a player to make choices that are detrimental to the character and the party or distasteful to the players, but nine times out of ten those situations are going to make everyone involved enjoy the game more. If your “in character” actions are constantly interfering with the other players’ enjoyment of the game, however, “I was just playing my character” is a bullshit excuse. It’s not the character; It’s you. The character, after all, is a fictional construct with no agency of its own. You’re the one who created a character who annoys the other players or doesn’t fit with the group’s goals for the game. Don’t blame your own bad decisions on imaginary people unless you’re trying to beat a criminal charge with an insanity plea.