Paragons or Rebels?

One of the most enduring pieces of advice that I picked up from reading Brian Jamison’s “Gamemastering” (2011) was the section entitled, “Ideological Camps: Chaos and Balance” (pp15-16).

The ideological camp is divided by servants of Chaos on the one hand and those dedicated to Balance on the other. The Chaos-oriented player will tend towards a rebel, outcast, pirate, lawbreaker, or similar character while the Balance player will choose a cop, bounty hunter, secret agent, or soldier character.
There’s no significance to the good or evil of either choice; it’s just the way people want to play. Either side can be characterized as good or evil and naturally the character each player chooses to play will be good in his eyes.

Jamison, “Gamemastering” (2011), page 15

As I begin to talk to potential players who want to join me in creating a new game focused on my twin goals of attaining deeper Otherworld-immersion and Character-focus alongside the intention to play with the purpose of continuing the play, I have chosen to ask them to consider which side of this divide they are on. The difference is that I think there is some more useful language: Are you a Paragon or a Rebel?

Paragons are the agents not, as Jamison supposes, Balance but rather of Order. They stand for the protection of the community and speak to the innately conservative nature of many people. Archetypes might include the doughty classical Paladin, for sure, but also cops and bounty hunters, secret agents and soldiers.

Rebels are the agents not of Chaos, but rather of Reform. They stand for challenging the status quo and overturning the oppressive social powers which crush creativity and change. Archetypes include the Star Wars-esque Rebel Trooper, but also Robin Hood, religious reformers, anti-slavers, and free speakers of all ilk.

But why is this an important consideration?

If the GM wants a story to go somewhere, he should have all Chaos or all Balance players. Otherwise the rebels are going to continually gum up the good works of the law, which will lead to retribution, which will lead to … well, nowhere.

Jamison, “Gamemastering” (2011), page 15

Terminology aside, I think that Jamison is on to something here. It’s easy to build a campaign around either factional ideology, but mixing them leads to tension and strife. How many times have you seen the Paladin and the Thief have to negotiate a carefully rationalised compromise and effectively seen both sides watered down to blandness?

I think it’s deeper than this, however. In line with the insights gleaned from Sarah Lynne Bowman’s “The Functions of Roleplaying Games” (2010), I have come to a further conclusion: it’s healthier, from a psychological standpoint, for players to focus characterisation upon the more positive approaches Bowman mentions in Chapter 7, entitled “Character Evolution and Types of Identity Alteration”:

When describing their various personas, many of my informants detail the similarities and differences between their primary personality traits and those of their character. They explain what function they believe their characters serve and how closely their personas reflect their sense of ego-identity in the “real world”.

Bowman, “The Functions of Roleplaying Games” (2010), p164

Bowman classifies nine tools that players use to develop a persona for play as a character:

  1. The Doppelganger Self: playing oneself inside the fantasy we are sharing
  2. The Devoid Self: playing oneself minus an essential quality that one possesses
  3. The Augmented Self: playing oneself with some additional ability or quality one does not possess
  4. The Fragmented Self: enacting a persona based around a small fragment of one’s personality
  5. The Repressed Self: subduing an element of one’s personality, such as channelling the Inner Child and repressing the adult self
  6. The Idealized Self: playing a persona which enacts qualities one wishes one has
  7. The Oppositional Self: enacting a character who is the direct opposite of one’s own primary personality
  8. The Experimental Self: generating a character with a thematic, bizarre, or more challenging roleplaying concept
  9. The Taboo Self: enacting a persona to explore topics and behaviours considered unacceptable to the group

For the purposes of roleplaying, I am coming to the conclusion that focusing on the following may be most productive for an exciting game:

  • The Augmented Self allows us to enact the fantasies of “what-if I could do X?” and is highly enjoyable for some
  • The Repressed Self offers a chance to diminish personality qualities we feel might be a barrier to our more creative and positive selves.
  • The Idealized Self invites us to imagine and create a character with some strongly positive qualities we’d like to explore.

Not for one second would I say that the other approaches are “bad” or “wrong” but my own experience points to moments when challenging less positive personality traits has led to confusion and conflict with the real personalities in the room. It’s simply my belief that you probably want everyone in the group’s permission before you highlight anti-social traits such as anger and selfishness, bullying behaviours, or taboos.

The Doppelganger Self is the safest choice and, I think, the default for the new player, despite 21st century values being potentially a problem for those seeking deeper Otherworld-immersion (as I do). I think it’s fairly easy, however, to invite a player to think of an Augment or Ideal that they would like to enact in play. Repression of negative traits is probably best left to individuals to play with at their own volition – I can’t see asking Bob or Mary to “try a character who is less of an angry selfish git” to go down well.

Bringing these two together – the Paragon or Rebel alongside an Augmented or Idealised Self sounds like a great recipe for some heroic game play which also draws on the strengths of roleplaying games as a tool for self-reflection and personal growth. Of course, all of these options can draw on any moral or ethical framework one chooses.

Game on!

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