I also persuaded Crystal to try out roleplaying. After a hiatus of a few years, I was wanting to get back into RPGs myself. The game of choice was Mage: The Ascension. This would have been in the summer 1999 or so, because the visual language of The Matrix informed a lot of our play. We also experimented with Wraith: The Oblivion, which is perhaps my favorite failed RPG. I don’t believe that it accomplished what it was trying to accomplish, but it reached so high and so far.
I should probably explain. Both Mage and Wraith were part of the World of Darkness series of roleplaying games, which was inaugurated by Vampire: The Masquerade. Think urban fantasy of the Anne Rice variety, and you’ll get a sense of the setting. Each game focused on a different monster archetype. Mage was neat, because magick was all about paradigms in conflict, which had cool ideas, but Wraith got its hooks into my brain
You see, each of these games had a sense of initiation. You were Embraced and turned into a vampire. You Awakened and became a mage.
To become a wraith, you died.
So, right there, as part of creating your character, you had to think through who you were in life and what you were doing at the moment that your life ended. That’s intense.
On top of that, Wraith had the concept of the Shadow, which it stole from Jungian psychology. The idea is that each of us has that part of ourselves which is full of dark desires. All those things that you want or do but you wish weren’t true, those things that you said when you were angry and wish you didn’t mean, that voice that always seems to whisper in your ear that you know is your own voice…that’s the Shadow. And, when you died, its voice got louder.
In Wraith, your Shadow is played by someone else at the table. He serves as that voice. And, sometimes, when you give in too much, the Shadow can come forward in your mind and take over. Not for long, but you will doubtless regret it.
It’s only recently that I realized that, from a certain perspective, A Flower for Mara is my love letter to Wraith. The role Mara plays in that game is very, very close to the Shadow from Wraith.
Over time, we moved on. The World of Darkness was replaced in my affections by two different games. The first was Nobilis, which is best described as the Sandman RPG. In it, you play a Noble, who is the personification of a part of Creation. That concept exists because you exist, and you are responsible to protect it. So, you might be the Noble of Truth, or the Noble of Justice, or the Noble of the American Way. Part of the conflict in Nobilis is that Creation is under assault by the Excrucians, invaders from Outside Creation, who seek to destroy everything. And by “destroy”, I don’t mean “set on fire” or the like. I mean totally unmaking Creation, both the good and the bad.
I came across a quote about the Excrucians that sums it up best. From “Vitriol” on RPG.net: “Think of any concept, any idea, any moral code or physical law. The Excrucians aren’t that.”
The other game was equally high concept but much grittier. Unknown Armies was described as Tim Powers meets James Ellroy. It was still urban fantasy, like the World of Darkness, but the vibe was very different. The WoD threw the responsibility for nearly every world event onto the supernatural beings who moved secretly through the world. Unknown Armies placed the responsibility for the world, even on a metaphysical level, squarely on humans. Everything focused on the cost of gaining power. Magical power was gained by (largely) self-destructive symbolic action, like getting drunk or cutting yourself. Violence was uncertain and dangerous, since the GM tracked hit points, leaving you uncertain how close you were to the edge. And then there were the Madness Meters.
There are certain game mechanics that affect how I think about the world. I’ve already mentioned the Car Wars driving system. UA’s Madness Meters are another. Here’s the basic idea. Each character has five separate meters: Violence, The Unnatural, Isolation, Helplessness, and Self. These represent different mental stresses. So, when your character is exposed to violence, he needs to made a Stress check against Violence. If he passes, he adds a “hardened” mark to that side of the meter. If he fails, he has to exhibit “fight, flight, or freeze” and mark “failed”. Each meter has ten available hardened slots and five failed marks. Five failed marks means that you’ve been deeply wounded psychologically in that area to the point that you’re largely non-functional in that area. (I don’t remember the specific rules. Sorry!)
Here’s the catch. Each stress is rated on a scale of 1-10. So, finding a dead animal might be Violence 1 or 2, while torturing a child might be Violence 9 or 10. If your hardened rating towards that stress matches or exceeds the stress rating, you don’t roll. You’ve gotten used to that kind of stress; it just doesn’t faze you anymore.
Oh yeah, if you mark 40 hardened slots or max out three meters, you’ve become a sociopath.
So, here’s the dilemma. You need to be hard enough to deal with the crap that’s going down around you. In UA, the world is full of obsessed people who are willing to do terrible things to each other to get ahead. If you’re going to survive, you have to toughen up (i.e. get “hardened” marks). But, get too tough, and you lose the ability to empathize and connect with other human beings. In a sense, getting hard makes you less human. But being too soft makes you worthless as a human.
As I’ve gotten on in life, this continues to feel like a hard dilemma to face and, maybe, the hardest part of maturing. How do you balance the need to be hardened enough to suffering to be useful in the face of difficulty, danger, or horror without becoming a callous monster?
When you figure that one out, let me know, okay?