From MattP on facebook, shortly after Maelstrom ended

Identity in LRP.

This is something I’ve waited nine years to talk about, something that has endlessly fascinated me about Maelstrom. While I’m not one to talk about the lessions that LRP can teach us (I learned physics in university, I don’t believe I learn a lot from pretending to be a goblin for a weekend), I do find elements of this seem relevant to the real world. Basically it’s about how faith works in a LRP game, specifically it’s about how active interventionist morality-based deities work in a LRP game. First a quick condescending review of how deities usually work in LRP:

1. They are gods of “stuff” – trees, elves, teapots. There is no meaning to any of the deities and they exist as mindless game objects to hand out sweeties. Ad&d pretty much wrote the book on this approach. These kind of gods rarely appear in the game world, since there is nothing that their appearance can achieve that a random mook could not.

2. They exist as foundation material for background. These are gods created by players as part of their character creation process. They make them up and the gods exist purely to reinforce the player’s characterisation. If these gods appear in game, they do so under the broad control of the players who invented them. They remind me of the children’s toy, the wind-up jack-in-a-box where you turn the handle until the lid flips open, out pops god, does whatever you OOC want him to, then you pop the lid back down and he’s done.

You may or may not recognize these models of deities and faith in LRP from other games. Maybe I’ve missed out some other models; it’s not really important. How did it work in Maelstrom, the game we’ve just run?

We had ten deities, defined and created by us. They existed essentially as purely moral philosophies, largely without personality and utterly without compromise. Players could choose to worship them and many did so, many of whom incorporated that into their background and their character identity. The gods didn’t appear, but they intervened regularly in the world to support those who they judged were moral and oppose those who they judged were immoral. Their goal was, pure and simple, to create paradise for the mortals – but each god had a different idea of what that paradise would be.

Sounds like a good idea? The problems are deep-rooted and fascinating and I think say a lot about the human condition.

Each of us has an image of ourselves, a view of ourselves in which it is usually quite difficult for us to accept that we are anything other than a good person. Of course we know we make mistakes and do bad things, but much of what we do is rationalized in our own minds to build an image of ourselves in which we are essentially good people. I’ve no doubt at all that some of the great evils of the last century, Pohl Pot, Mao, Hitler, Stalin – all had a version of reality in their own minds in which they were good people doing good things. It’s hard to believe that as an outsider, but look how surprised dictators are when they are pulled down – and imagine for a moment that when they say “It’s just a few disaffected radicals being funded by outsiders, my people love me” that they might actually mean it.

It’s not just bad people, it’s important to note. Go on youtube and watch what Christopher Hitchins had to say about Bill Clinton or about Mother Theresa. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZiKAeJ9mAU My point is not to start a debate about the figures of the past, but simply to point out that all of these people have images of themselves which they have constructed – images which are to a greater or lesser extent accepted by other people. But I’ve yet to find any human being whose image of themselves was that they were a bad person. There are undoubtedly complex sociological and philosophical papers written on this subject which I have neither the time nor the interest to look up.

So what happens in a LRP game with interventionist deities. Well if you watch the clip in which Hitchins bad mouthes Mother Theresa and imagine for a moment that it’s not Hitchins doing that… but God. Imagine God turned up to a small book store and basically said “Mother Theresa was an evil women who brought suffering to millions”. How do you handle that if you’re a Catholic or Christian who admires Mother Theresa? Worse… how do you handle that if you are Mother Theresa? What do you do? What do you say?

In reality there is no ultimate arbiter who turns up, while we are alive, and hands out these judgements. Of course we are judged by others, but those judgements are made by other human beings and it’s always possible to rationalize those within a framework of individual bias. Hitchins might or might not be right about Mother Theresa but you can’t separate his views from his passion for atheism and contempt for organized religion. But if God physically turns up and says “You are a bad person. I’ve judged you and on balance you are simply fooling yourself, lying to yourself – you’re just a bad person” – you can’t rationalize that by claiming bias or a failing on God’s part – because that makes no sense of the whole idea of a divine being.

Hopefully I’ve given you some idea of just how badly this idea might go wrong. Lets look at how it starts. Firstly we were running a very PvP game and what PvP is all about is compromise. A lot of game organizers, plot writers and the like tend to get frustrated about this – there is a widespread view that players compromise because they are scared to lose their characters, poor roleplayers or whatever. In fact the game utterly fails to function unless their is widespread compromise because compromise is the human condition – it is the basis of a functioning society.

Imagine for a moment that you have half a dozen of the most committed Jewish right-wingers and half a dozen Hez bollah. You arm both groups to the teeth, put them in a room together and your last words to them are “whatever you do – please don’t compromise”. What happens next? Well if it’s a LRP game, I’m predicing that it’s confrontational, violent, exciting and most of all… short. I don’t see any scenario in which it doesn’t immediately erupt into violence and the total eradication of one party could be labelled as anything other than a compromise. So as a game it could be fun… but it would be short. When two people’s personal interests do not perfectly align – they either compromise – or they fight. Since we don’t fight all the time, over everything, it’s clear that compromise is the human condition.

But our gods were moral philosophies – they never compromised, they never accepted compromise and because they were divine spirits, they never needed to. Our gods would say “You must do X” and the players would say “If we do X we will all die” and assume that somehow their god would care. But the gods didn’t care… because they didn’t compromise. They understood, they were conscious of the fact that their followers were only mortals, but understanding was not approval. They never moved from their position that players should attempt to do X, simply because X was fatal, impossible or both. In short they were impossible gods for any player to follow in a PvP game and while some players did a fantastic job of trying – those that did invariably died in the process. Worshipping the gods was a route to power (they blessed you) and an early grave (as they required you to do ten impossible things before breakfast).

That was fun for those who were into it, but critically it meant that the number of playaers who were in this category of being “disapproved of” was large; even though they felt that their actions were entirely legitimate. In a non-interventionist game, this would never have mattered a damn. If we had had no feedback mechanism to display our disapproval then it wouldn’t have been important – but because we did they were forced to confront a scenario in which their own deity disapproved of them – like my apocryphal example of Mother Theresa having to listen to God (rather than Hitchins) disapprove of her.

Now of course we’re only talking about characters, these are not actual people and we’re only talking about make-believe gods, these are not actual real gods. But I think in LRP part of the point of making a character is to try, as far as possible, to act like the character, and for many people to identify with the character. The difference between believing in God and playing a character who believes in a god seems like one of intensity, ignoring the real world philosophical aspects of religion at least.

I frequently had disagreements with the deity team, the men and women controlling the deities and deciding on their responses. At times they were utterly convinced that their “problem” worshippers knew they were “evil”, that it was simply not possible for them to commit the countless acts of murder, represssion and theft that they engaged in without knowing that they were “bad people”. But from all my OOC conversations with the players it was very clear that either they were trying to bullshit me – or else they simply did not consider their character to be a bad person. Often this meant that the punishments handed down by the deities made no sense at all to their victims who did not believe they were bad people.

It’s easy to say “it’s a roleplaying game – deal with this shit IC”, but in many cases that simply isn’t possible. For many characters in a LRP game, and particularly in Maelstrom, their sense of identity, their sense of who they were, of what they were – their entire persona that they had constructed – was built around their faith. In essence it’s built around their notion of who they are, of their identity as a good person, of their adherence to their own morality. To have that adherence disputed not by other human beings but by your own god – well how do you deal with that? What do you say to God? God is doing something far far more destructive than that; he is getting inside your own head and acting as an objective judge – not controlled by you – of your actions. In doing that the god breaks down the constructed reality, it breaks down your sense of identity of who and what you are.

1. I am a good person.
2. I believe in God.
3. God says I am a bad person.

Clearly…. either I go insane. or one (or more) of those statements has to go. Of the hundreds of people who encountered this problem in Maelstrom none or almost none chose to accept an external definition of their character as a bad person. Although some players would revel in their own definition of themselves as evil – very few who had defined their character as good, accepted an external definition of their character as evil – especially when that definition came from their own god. So almost nobody got rid of statement one.

Most people would start by refusing to accept statement 3, either ignoring it or denying it. What would happen then is that the god would repeat themselves, usually more loudly. Then the messanger would be murdered. We lost a lot of PC messangers who were murdered at the hands of the “faithful”, had most of the messangers not been immortal angels, we would have lost many many more. This would happen repeatedly until the god chose to bypass the messanger and try to make the message indisputable and impossible to ignore. At one point we literally sent the biblical plagues as a warning because everything short of that was murdered, refuted or ignored. Essentially we sometimes had to drop a mountain on a player to get them to accept statement 3.

At that point what generally happened was that statement 2 was dumped. The character in question ceased to believe in god. As this was a pantheon based game, the net result could be either a shift to another god or a shift to no-god. Most commonly such players simply left the system. The whole construction was impossible to accept – we’d built an enormous trap (albeit unknowingly) into which they had led their characters and rendered them unplayable. Their characters wanted to exist in a PvP world. Existence means compromise. The gods did not accept compromise, so the greater the compromises the more unpopular they became with their own god. But to accept that unpopularity was to accept that their own vision of their own character was incorrect.

In essence, confronting the god game required people to stop playing their character and to reinvent themselves as a different character instead. It’s ironic, hugely ironic, that this took place in Maelstrom which I still believe is notable for being the largest player-led game of it’s type. But normally, even in the most story-driven game, the one thing you are allowed to control is the way you view your own character – but in Maelstrom the gods often made that difficult.

Belief in a god as a higher power, basically rendered the character powerless to control their own sense of identity – because judgement of their moral worth, of them as a person was passed from the character to the god that the character worshipped. And since that god was interventionist then it was impossible to ignore the conflict between your own sense of who you were and your gods sense of who you were. The whole concept of identity, as something the player creates, was under attack from the faith system in Maelstrom.

In theory it might all have made for the most amazing roleplay, and in a tiny handful of cases it did. But in fact the whole system had a much greater Achilles Heel. In a PvP game the core responsibility of the organizer is to be an impartial referee. The majority of players are notoriously poor at distinguishing the attitudes of the NPCs in a game from the attitudes of the organizers, a problem made worse by the widespread habit of NPCs acting as IC agents for the game orgainzer in many games. Judgement of the character by their god was seen as judgement of the character by PD. And rejection of the deity by the character usually went in tandem with rejection of PD as a game organization by the player, either partially or entirely.

It sounds like I’m throwing the problem on the player here, but this was a hole we all dug together. PD had taken it upon themselves to go around making high moral ground judgements of characters that existed in the game (albeit IC using the NPC deities). Players whose characters were complimented by their gods loved the game and loved PD, the majority of characters that were criticized by the gods tended to dislike the game and criticized PD for running it in this way, either just the god part of it, or by extension the whole system.

I’m still inordinately proud of the faith system in Maelstrom. I think it was radical, revolutionary, original, innovative and honestly one of the best concepts I’ve ever been involved with implementing in a LRP game. The whole notion of designing a faith system around morality instead of bits of stuff like “nature” or “war” or other such rubbish was awesome. It took an insane amount of work to operate (reading thousands of prayers an event!), and it had masses of problems of the regular kind, trying to be fair and impartial and even to all players. But when it worked it produced amazing game, and around half the players who enjoyed our game tend to cite the faith system as the best part of it. But by making PD the ultimate authority in deciding the moral worth of characters in play, in a way that they had no IC way to refute, we gave ourselves a power that was simply too hot to handle, a power incompatible with our other role as neutral impartial game administrator and a power that caused literally hundreds of players to leave the game.

What do I take away from it all? That human beings are emotionally attached to the images they build of themselves, that we’re utterly unequipped to deal with an authority that can unequivocally alter our sense of identity that is defined by our sense of ourselves, of who we are and of our moral worth. All obvious stuff to most moral philosophers I assume, although I doubt many psychologists or philosophers ever had access to our database of thousands of prayers! But crucially – and relevant to LRP – that for a game organizer to take that authority on themselves… by putting themself in the position of portraying the player’s gods… is to play with some very dangerous fire. It makes an amazing tool for making game… but the price is too high, the costs too great and in the end it’s the organizer that ends up burned.

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I think comparing deities in Maelstrom to deities in Odyssey is like comparing oranges to… computers. Odyssey gods have no morality and nothing of any kind to say about you as a person. They just want stuff. I’m not really very well up on the Odyssey deities, they have problems of their own certainly, but I think that it’s a real mistake to compare them to Maelstrom deities simply because they use the same noun “deity”. They are alike in the same way that an apple macintosh is like an apple fruit.

I’m not sure you can change the way deities are handled – that’s kind of my point really. Once you have the idea of them as actual deities… then it’s all downhill from there. It’s a double-edged sword, you cant’ have the benefits without the drawbacks. The awesome comes from having morality based deities who judge people – the awful comes from having morality based deities who judge people… It’s difficult to see a way to finesse that.

If you look at Empire you can see the direction we’ve gone in. Keep the morality, keep the emphasis on roleplaying… lose the deities themselves. I think that being judged by your fellow PCs will be enormously different to being judged by your own god. And while being told you are a sinner by a dozen PCs will still be very difficult, I don’t think it will reverberate back on the game organizers in the way that Maelstrom faith did.

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I really don’t believe it’s correct at all to say that the gods didn’t care for human life. The new world gods didn’t – they were darwinists looking to create better people. But the Known World gods loved humanity deeply and really genuinely cared for people. They were just uncompromising. If a thousand people had to die to preserve the principle of their morality… that was the way it had to be. They would weep tears over it… but do it anyway. In part because they had the advantage that most “good” people would end up in paradise with them (not a perspective that was ever relevant or meaningful to the players).

I think you’re more on the mark when you say “they never had to clean the blood or vomit off a battle or sacrifice”. Although ironically of course, because of the way LRP works, neither did the PCs… But the point is that the gods never had to exist in the real world, they didn’t have to make the compromises that real people have to make to function in the real world – they never had to carry out the deeds they demanded or face the threat of death.

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(There’s more in the comments on the post, but without context those are less useful)

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Revised by Aquarion @ Thu, 20 Sep 2012 09:14:59 +0000

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  1. Thu, 20 Sep 2012 09:14:59 +0000 – Aquarion : Start of a brand new world [ Current ]
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