Saint Sebastian #9

Characters Made Up of Numbers

When creating any RPG character the point when you move from a conception or even a description of the character to the actual nuts and bolts of your chosen system is one that tends to be a bit fraught. Often the failure to translate your conception into a meaningful playing experience where your character acts in the same way as you imagined it leads to the mechanistic approach to character creation where you build what the system allows rather than what you want to play.

The Stat-ing of Cicero

My vision of Cicero started out sketchy but by the time I came to create a character ideas were starting to take a more distinctive shape. Reading about the mysterious, hidden nature of the Nosferatu clan within the Dark Ages milieu was creating an idea of an idealistic but hidden manipulator.

The stage where the game mechanics were introduced would be crucial though as without a strong central idea for the character I would be guided somewhat by what the character was good at. But what would the character be good at? With any vague character I prefer to go for a wide spread of skills and abilities in an attempt to create a generalist. Chances are if you pre-guess your characters role or talents then you will be stuck with a character who you no longer share an empathy with. The spread thinly character on the other hand can be improved and directed via experience as the game develops and an understanding of the character grows.

As a result Cicero had eight one-dot and nine two-dot skills. Curiously the two three dot skills I chose for him: Intimidation and Science remained at that level two hundred (game) years later.

Partly this was because I do not like to breach the four dot boundary without being able to justify to myself the elite status of the character. But since the character did have four four-dot skills at that point there must be something more to it than that.

For Intimidation the answer is fairly obvious that after a few centuries people have a way of turning into legends. Cicero's reputation was far more forbidding that his threats. Similarly his grotesque appearance as a Nosferatu were often sufficient to shock mortal souls into compliance.

Intimidation, like a lot of social skills, is a difficult ability to use effectively since it requires a roleplaying component (that often makes the check unnecessary) and because GM's often feel the skill causes NPCs to act inappropriate and unsatisfying ways. Much as a player would feel cheated by having control of their character taken away as a result of the GM rolling the dice. There is an important difference though and that is that NPCs are not the sole interaction they have with the game world and sometimes losing a particular idea of how an NPC should act is a small price for the variety of power and control the GM has.

Science was flawed both within the rules system and particularly within the campaign. I had an idea of Cicero being a kind of Medieval philosopher-scientist. A Classical rationalist with deeply held Medieval views. The trouble is that in the tale of centuries a "Science" skill suffers from the changing times as do a number of other knowledge based skills. Would Cicero really count as an experienced scientist in the 1400s or would he be nothing more than an anachronistic relic unable to shake his 13th century views?

The player is not given a lot of guidance as to resolving these problems. As it stands the issue has hardly been pressed, I cannot really remember when I last made a Science roll except perhaps as a way of "figuring out what is really happening". Something that may be convenient for the GM but may also be a poor way of representing the character's thinking.

Still the initial idea did provide some flavour to the character and I can still bring to mind, quite clearly, Cicero's observatory haven strewn with star charts and with the constellations carved onto the walls around him. Perhaps it was worth three points after all.

Building Cicero

Stat-wise Cicero as a character was not complete from day one. I had always planned to build the remainder of the character with experience later and I think this is one of the best ways an XP system can benefit RPGs. The point is not to gather unto your character more power but instead flesh out your character until they match the way you always envisaged them. It is a peculiarly satisfying thing to be building your character, or rather playing out their "early years".

For each era I produced a new character sheet so I have a handy record of the evolution (in stat terms) of Cicero. Now before this becomes far too "my favourite character" for anyone to bear there is a wider point to this. It is found in the fact that I spent my experience in two ways. Firstly as I have said it was to move the character in game terms to a competency that I felt the character always possessed. The more surprising use was for "cementing" the character's tics and foibles. These mannerisms started out as roleplaying elements but through use of the experience system became embedded in the game reality.

The most outlandish and memorable of these was the slow acquisition of the Acrobatics skill. Now initially I wouldn't have said that Cicero would be a competent acrobat. Indeed tumbling and like would have been way beneath his dignity. In the game however Cicero frequently started performing melodramatic swashbuckling stunts, jumping from trees onto horseback riders, diving into moats from castle windows (or more memorably jumping and discovering the moat was elsewhere). These often resulted from his (my?) desire for the dramatic gesture but more often was a way to cock a snoot at the NPCs.

Initially in game terms the stunts were disastrous, while they looked good Cicero almost inevitably ended up with broken legs and the like. Only his Fortitude rating allowed him to get away with his most foolhardy stunts. The GM found them immensely amusing, the idea that after leaping through a window to escape hordes of guards the prince of darkness would then hobble to the cover of the nearby woods muttering "Bugger! Me leg!" does have a certain charm. However after a few sessions we decided that the character couldn't actually be doing this year in, year out without getting a little bit better. Points were duly spent, the GM also started being lenient on the dice rolls required to perform the stunts and bingo! We have a character who finally leaps hither and thither with the greatest of ease. And as a consequence the whole thing was no longer interesting. Without Cicero haplessly plummeting through peasant shacks or managing to find the cesspool instead of the village green the magic was gone, since Cicero was now adept at even the most difficult stunts nothing he did seemed memorable.

Building a Legend

Later when most of the old players had left the game the Athletics skill returned again. I cannot remember the exact incident but I seem to remember that it was leaping from a falling tree, landing unscathed in the foliage. Despite the fact that the game system was now biased towards handing Cicero this kind of thing on a plate the other players were very impressed (as were their PCs). Now the idea started to be established that in fact Cicero could achieve anything in the physical arena, scaling sheer walls, etc. etc. This was of course over-stating the case but the idea was pernicious and when I truely thought about it, utterly appropriate.

With the kind of epic feel that the Transylvania Chronicles are trying to establish it is important that the characters have a legendary, larger-than-life presence within their own sphere. Like Janjero and the Bible story I mentioned in Saint-Sebastian #4 they should be restrained, powerful and mysterious presences. Something that is hard to achieve when they are played by fairly ordinary people.

Here the experience system helped by making the character appear far more competent than the player might have been. The other key part to the equation was having new characters who were unaware of the Elder character's past. As with the real world, old friends tend to ignore recent achievements in favour of nostalgic remembrances ("never mind about your Nobel Prize, remember what you did at the school dance!"). A group of Elders are unlikely to succumb to a feeling of awe regarding people who they consider to be their peers.

This seems a major flaw in the Transylvanian Chronicles series. Since is assumes that the character group will remain the same it essentially denies the characters a chance to explore their mythic status. The other, related, flaw is equally annoying - it assumes that these powerful ancient beings will continue to run around and do the legwork century after century. It seems important to me that in such a long (literally as it spans centuries) running campaign that some fresh blood be injected into the group at the half or one-third point. These fresh players will allow the existing players to reassess their older characters from a fresh perspective.

PM Comment Time

Lisa Padol, This Isn't The Zine You're Looking For #126

Could you give me an example of Post Modernism in action?

Well it's not easy. Post-modernism is something that as tenet refuses to accept codification or the imposition of an artificial agenda. It is not a school of thought, such as Marxism, but rather a mode of thought. A toolkit for examining the world. Since it can only exist within the confines of a true "ism" and with the necessary Modernist agenda in place it cannot really be plucked away and examined separately.

The easiest example of Post-Modernism is, I feel, the film "Usual Suspects". Most people have seen it and most people like it. Why is it Post-Modernist? There are three frames of reference within the film, there is firstly the film that stars Kevin Spacey, secondly there is the interrogation of Verbal Klint the petty thief who survives a massacre, thirdly there are the flashback sequences where Verbal recounts the past. Which one of these frames contains the Truth (a very Post-Modern obsession). In the Modernist situation the film is all entirely true, just because Verbal is not a cripple does not prove he was the shadowy figure on the boat. The Post-Modern situation is incredibly complicated, Verbal's flashback sequences are false for two reasons: firstly he is obviously incorporating elements from the office he is being interrogated in, secondly in many of the flashbacks Verbal is not present. This second element is truly postmodern if you can grasp it, the flashbacks contain elements that the Verbal character could not have witnessed because it makes for a better film. The whole film is utterly false, even the second frame of reference (Verbal's interrogation) because it is all a movie. If try and construct a rational narrative for the Usual Suspects then you are a Modernist, if you value the film for its insight into the nature of reality and suspension of belief you are probably a Postmodernist. Regardless the film should be valued for crafted values of its direction, photography and script.

In a roleplaying sense I think that Mage - The Ascension RPG is the one game that really expresses Postmodernism. If you are unaware of this game this is going to be a bad example. The Modernist says of Mage that the dominant paradigm defines reality, the Postmodernist realises that all the views that compose reality are true but moreover that reality is not the sum of their interaction but is actually the container or rather the bound described by their inner power.

A simpler example is the idea of "script immunity", a term I am not reconciled to in terms of roleplaying since it implies that there exists a "script" of some form. Anyone who says that heroes are exempt from certain rules because of their heroic identity is essentially declaring a Postmodernist view. This is because they accept that the "heroic" individual essentially exists in another reality to that occupied by the non-heroic individual or NPCs. Modernist reactionaries try to re-incorporate this heroic nature into a single reality by introducing the idea of "Fate Points" or the like that codify this heroic relationship back into a single view of the game reality. The effort though is no more than a patch to a sundered relationship.

Cultural relativism is probably a good measure of how Postmodern our times are. I think we are probably entering a time of relatively Modernist domination after a period of extremely important Postmodern reaction. During the Seventies people could still talk of "savages" and "civilised peoples" during the Eighties and Nineties the idea of comparative worth and equivalence really took hold (although often vilified as "political correctness"). Cultural relativism was vital for establishing new relationships between former Colonial Powers and their dependencies.

Now however I notice that the current US administration are not slow to use the language of the "civilised nations" against Islamic "barbarians". One vital attribute that Postmodernism has granted Western culture is the ability to move between Modernist and Postmodernist modes of thought with relative ease. This ability is probably one reason why the Third World regards many of the First World nations as sophist tricksters.

Brian Misiaszek, Age of Menace, AE #317

Witness the infamous physicist, Dr. Alan Sokol and his "Social Text" hoax, where he showed that the emperors of Postmodern Cultural Studies have no clothes when they published his meaningless "parody" article in 1996.

Or as the editors of the journal pointed perhaps it proved nothing more than that they could not afford to hire a suitable referee for Dr. Sokol's paper and that they were perhaps foolish to accept it, as a consequence, purely on his background and reputation.

I have read Sokol's article, or at least attempted to, it of course was impossible reading but even after having read his follow-up piece on the fallacies and falsehoods the original piece contained I did not really feel qualified to feel superior to the editors who had to review the article. A fairer challenge might have been if Sokol had submitted a nonsensical article on the subject of Cultural Studies rather than high-energy physics.

I also think it is a bit odd to categorise a few academic non-entities in a frankly marginal field as "emperors".

Science does have a Postmodern element in the recent questioning of the validity of scientific claims and methodology. This branch of Postmodernism is not the same as architectural postmodernism. Remember that Postmodernism is essentially a reaction to a Modernist agenda in a field of endeavour or an existing "ism". It is not a consistent philosophy across the different fields it appears in. This is one of the defining features of Postmodernism. Chances are if you can pin it down and codify it, it is a Modernism rather than a Postmodernism.

A Touch of Genius

I was surprised how many people swiftly turned to the mechanistic brutality of IQ tests for a measure of genius. I feel that IQ tests measure nothing more than the ability to perform IQ tests. If intelligence, such an intuitive but nebulous concept, was so easily measured why do we have such philosophical difficulty in the field of Artificial Intelligence? If we had this convenient measure of intelligence surely our concept of intelligence should be one that is easily understood rather than always maddeningly beyond our fingertips. We understand it yet it defies formulation except by artificially created and imposed scales and measures.

Genius is complex beyond even this, except perhaps as an extremely successful marketing ploy for Mensa. IQ has nothing to do with genius. Is Mozart's music related to his ability to uncover numerical sequences? Is Picasso's sense of colour and form limited by his mundane mental arithmetic? Why is Babe Ruth declared a genius of the baseball diamond?

I wanted to write something expressing all the ideas and misgivings I have about "genius". By chance I found someone else's words that express the ideas far better than I. The following comes from an essay entitled "Whether Genius is Conscious of its Powers?" written by 19th Century essayist William Hazlitt.

The writer of an ephemeral production may be as much dazzled with it as the public: it may sparkle in his own eyes for a moment, and be soon forgotten by everyone else. But no one can anticipate the suffrages of posterity. Every man, in judging of himself, is his own contemporary. He may feel the gale of popularity, but he cannot tell how long it will last. His opinion of himself wants distance, wants time, wants numbers, to set it off and confirm it. He must be indifferent to his own merits before he can feel a confidence in them. Besides, everyone must be sensible of a thousand weaknesses and deficiencies in himself; whereas Genius only leaves behind it the monuments of its strength.