Sunday, September 25, 2016

Where Fantasies Are Real & Reality Is FANTASTIC

My first exposure to Message from Space was when it played on a double bill with Superman so many years ago.  To some (many? most?), Message from Space is a gaudy Star Wars rip-off.  It's certainly gaudy and it would not have been made except to capitalize on the Star Wars phenomenon but, as Lex Luthor said that very same day:
Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple
adventure story.  Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper
and unlock the secrets of the universe.
While my appreciation of Message from Space falls somewhat short of unlocking secrets of the universe, the film offers more than a simple adventure story.  If we divest ourselves of the 'spaceships = science fiction' fallacy and accept the film as fantasy (as the tagline indicates), the film becomes more palatable.  Message from Space was inspired – in part – by Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, an epic of Japanese literature and one of the longest novels ever.  The influence is especially noticeable with regard to what Joseph Campbell referred to as “the call to adventure.”

Message from Space takes place twenty years after the last Space War, during “the times when earthling adventurers roamed the planets of the galaxy seeking riches in the form of resources and colonies.”  The warlike, steel-skinned Gavanas oppress the enlightened Jillucians nearly to point of extinction.  The Jillucian patriarch dispatches eight holy Liabe seeds to locate the assorted heroes who will save the Jillucians – and the universe – from the tyranny of the Gavanas.

The Liabe seeds, with the appearance of walnuts that sometimes glow, make their way to the film's protagonists who, in another context, might be player characters.  However, the meaning of the Liabe seeds (from the protagonists' viewpoint) must wait for exposition from Princess Esmeralida.

If the Liabe heroes (i.e., player characters) are destined to save the universe, then wouldn't that compromise player agency?  Well, yes it would.  As a matter of fact, in Message from Space, three of the chosen characters toss their walnuts* and a fourth declines the honor of being a hero.  This is representative of what Campbell aptly termed “refusal of the call.”  Of course, a story about characters deciding against doing something interesting isn't a worthwhile story.  Eventually, the characters that initially refused the Liabe seeds change their minds and accept their roles as heroes.  So, player agency is still thwarted.  Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.

Absolute agency is untenable in a role-playing game.  A player adopts a “role” for his or her character.  After all, we are talking about role-playing games, not agency-playing games.  Agency is limited in that player character knowledge should be restricted to in-game information available to the “role.”  Also, the player imbues his or her character (or role) with a personality and a psychology.  The way a character responds to stimuli – while not scripted – should be consistent with that personality and psychology.  Gygax addressed this issue by penalizing “aberrant behavior” with additional required training time/cost for level advancement (DMG, p. 86).  Of course, for Gygax, a character's “behavior” should be defined by class and alignment.

The notion of consistency should not preclude the organic development of personality and psychology (or “behavior” to employ a convenient term).  Yet, ultimately, it is a player's responsibility to play the role of his or her character with an established behavior and to interact appropriately within the setting.  Likewise, some of the GM's responsibilities include providing an intuitive (if not immersive) setting and accommodating (rather than curtailing) player agency.

Your character should refuse the Liabe seed if the character's established behavior suggests that course of action.  However, there should be circumstances wherein your character would accept the Liabe seed.  Is it an intolerable suppression of player agency if the GM arranges for those circumstances to occur?  I don't think so; I think there is a difference between 'railroading' and 'advancing the plot'.

* not a euphemism

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. It is the GMs job to advance the plot and keep the game moving. If the players go too far off course it will bog down the story and thats not going to be fun for anyone.