Wednesday, March 10, 2010

[In The Game] Fear and Dependents

"All men are islands. And what's more, this is the time to be one. This is an island age."
- Will, About a Boy

There is an ongoing trope in gaming about the loner PC. No family, no friends, no past entanglements that the GM can hold against him.

I think most of this is the result of fear that the GM will screw the player over and lack of a social contract. No man is an island, despite what the movies say. All of us, even the least of us, have some connections, somewhere.

I've played in games and played PCs that have no past relationships defined explicitly or implicitly. And it hasn't hurt the game. But there are a lot of systems out there, like GURPS, that have Dependents (with the capital D) as a Disadvantage, worth points to improve your character on creation. That means the GM has the right and obligation to mess with them.

Why choose dependents, when it's easier (and less stressful) to choose a disadvantage like overconfident or greedy or honest? Those really don't take any work and the points are effectively free, while dependents force players to behave in certain ways not in their control.

But relationships, past and present, are real things to us as human beings. None of us could survive without having them, either professionally, personally or romantically. We all have someone.

"Every man is an island. But clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface of the ocean they're actually connected." - Will, About a Boy

Have you heard of Dunbar's Number? It's pretty fascinating. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the maximum theoretical cognitive limit for stable social relationships is 150. That's counting all the relationships in your life if I understand it. And 150 is a pretty big number for small brains like ours.

We're social animals. Gaming is a social activity. Not to draw any Venn Diagrams here, but if you counted up all your family, friends, gamer friends, work friends, aquaintences and old High School friends, could you reach 150? I think I could (simply because my large ethnic family).

If each of us has 150 social relationships of some level or another, have we ever met anyone with no such relationships? No, because we all know that even "loners" have a few friends. Even the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, had family who cared about him, including his brother David who turned him in. And, face it, any self-proclaimed loner is either a poser or a nut. We all think it even if we don't say it. Why would we play that?

"I was in some strange territory. Was I frightened? I was petrified." - Will, About a Boy

As I mentioned earlier, players fear that the GM will use the PCs friends and family against them so they don't mention them or use the system to get points to define them. Given the choice between choosing dependents or overconfidence, the majority of players would choose the later. We players have been burned too many times by the GM and we GMs have done the burning. Admit it.

So let's negotiate. Let's verbalize a social contract that the players and GM can use to include friends and families of the PCs into the game.

First, the player has to be upfront and tell the GM what he's comfortable with and give him some leeway (i.e. you can't kill or hurt my PCs brother outright without my permission but you can use him to blackmail/threaten me into doing something, or get him involved as a dupe, or witness something that brings my PC into the scene).

Second, the GM has to hold to that agreement and periodically check in with the player to see if the verbal contract can be changed (hey, I got an idea about your brother ...). Building trust is important but the GM also should also include the dependent just as a matter of course, without it being part of the adventure (you got a call from your brother and he needs you to call him back ...) which (hopefully) will lead into further adventure (his company's looking for an investigator and he put your name forward, expect a call).

Finally, the player needs to involve his dependent himself by bringing him into the session, either as a source of information (my PCs brother got beat up by some thugs after wandering into a possible drug deal at the local library and my PC wants to investigate) or a bit of background color (my PC spends the weekend in Vegas with his brother).

"Oh, please, just shut up. You're wounding my soul." - Will, About a Boy

Even past relationships and dead relatives can bring in the adventure. A few years ago, I ran a Colonial Gothic game where one of the PCs had a dead wife and the player had left the backstory was sketchy. I used that info and filled in the blanks, saying that the frontiersman PC was in business with a man who later betrayed the PC, his wife and his wife's tribe to the British, and that man was in Boston, now a Lieutenant in the British Army. The player agreed to the additions to his backstory and had an instant reason to get involved in the adventure.

Past relations can be everything from old lovers, friends of the family, childhood friends or old rivals. And dead relatives can still bring problems down on the PCs - a common fiction trope has the enemy of a father returning to exact revenge on the son. Even if the PC is a loner, the GM can spring that one on him, which is especially good if the PC is an orphan who never knew his parents.

We live in a world filled with relationships, not to things or organizations, but to people, past and present. Developing these relationships will lead to a better gaming experience. And build trust between players and GMs.


  1. Thanks! I decided to examine some of the reasons why a lone wolf character is compelling and I think many times, sadly, it goes down to what can I do to avoid getting screwed by the GM.


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