So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer? Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy
The relationship between Fantasy literature and Role Playing Games is well known but is often overlooked and at times misunderstood. Many consider fantasy literature to be the inspiration behind or inspiration of RPGs and overlook the reciprocal nature of this relationship. I am hoping that this paper will show how the use of RPG conventions and processes can be used as a basic analytical tool when it comes to understanding and analysing fantasy narratives.
So let us begin with a very brief breakdown of my terminology; Genre fantasy, RPGs or roleplaying games and series fantasy.
Genre fantasy is perhaps the most ambiguous of the three, even if it is bandied about frequently, and we all tend to understand it in our own way. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute and Grant lay out a few guiding terms in order to define this ethereal concept. The first is that there is a secondary world where magic exists or can exist, for example Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Feist’s Midkemia, and Brooks’ Shannara. The world is usually populated by several different races and tribes that may or may not be magical, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Orcs for example in addition to humans. The narratives usually correspond to recognisable sub-genres of fantasy such as high fantasy, epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. But really those terms are often just as vague or misleading as genre fantasy itself. To use an analogy, genre fantasy is as wide and varied as Science Fiction, we know it when we see it, but there are so many variants and sub-sets that an overarching definition eludes us. I am using it to mean typical examples of what we generally call fantasy, for example books by Gemmell, Feist, Jordan, and Goodkind.
RPGs then. We run into similar problems of scope here too. Roleplaying games can be as different from each other as genres of fiction can be. Their game mechanics can vary enormously as do their settings, aims and objectives. However like genre fantasy some general concepts can be found which can be used to describe a lot of, if not all, RPGs. They usually involve the creation of a player character, who has defined physical and mental characteristics, who then engages with other player characters in a scenario created and managed by a Gamesmaster GM or Dungeonmaster DM. The players ‘play’ through the scenarios, solving puzzles, defeating foes and accrue experience points or XP and riches which then allow them to develop their character further and get better equipment. The scenarios are usually set in a gameworld which is different to our own and quite often resembles the secondary world setting found in genre fantasy. To keep things simple I will be referring to fantasy rpgs when I use the term rpg.
A brief look at fantasy RPGs then. They come in various forms, Pen and Paper or D20 traditional role-playing games. Things like Dungeons and Dragons and its many offspring. Well known and wide spread, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance are examples of the AD&D approach to gaming. Computer and console games, ranging from Sony’s Final Fantasy series, through Nintendo’s Zelda all the way back to D&D based games like Baldur’s Gate. They vary in form and content and can be puzzle based, hack and slash, action adventure or a combination of all these things. They usually have some sort of overarching narrative that can be as intricate or sparse as the game developer thinks will sell. Varying from a thin plot to excuse monster slaying, to an intricate narrative that is more like an interactive novel. There are also the MMORPGs or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games, of which World of Warcraft is a leading example (with over 10 million subscribers as of January this year). Again these games focus on players creating a character and joining other characters on quests and adventures in order to gain experience and wealth.
The third term, series fantasy, admittedly from Wikipedia, is useful here. Series fantasy is basically a genre fantasy narrative which utilises an RPG gameworld as its secondary world, so we could rename it Gaming Fantasy to give it an air of credibility. As such it would appear to be the closest type of genre fantasy to role-play gaming. It tends to be more simplistic in nature than other sub-genres of fantasy and relies extensively on quest narrative and adventure stories. Of all the types of genre fantasy, series fantasy seems to be the clearest example of what we call the fantasy template. That of fantasy by numbers. We can map out narrative events with a Proppian approach to narrative, we can deconstruct characters using Jungian Archetypes (like the trickster, the wise old man etc.) and because of its connection to the rpg world, we can use the rpg to breakdown many of the incidentals of the story not covered by the approaches above.
However something to bear in mind about Series fantasy is that although it is intrinsically linked to RPGs and these novels number in the hundreds and sell by the thousand. There is something of a chicken and the egg problem here. Some fantasy novels have inspired the creation of RPGs, which then in turn inspire more novels in the series, which in turn inspire more games set in and out of the series, as well as some RPGs have inspired novels which inspire the gamers which can lead to more novels and so on.
So why am I proposing to use RPG gaming conventions for genre fantasy analysis and not just series fantasy. Well the answer to that is basically that the interrelationship between RPGs and fantasy is a great deal more extensive than many of us suppose. It can influence how we think about fantasy.
So on to the conventions of RPGs and my point. I want to look at some very specific aspects of RPGs and those are generally all concerned with character creation. In particular the statistical breakdown, physical description and language of weaponry.
So let’s pretend we are the hero who has to go slay a dragon. It can be a tough job so a group of friends to help us out is likely to be useful, therefore some sort of quest group should be formed. So who do we need first? Knocking on the dragon’s front door seems to be a slightly foolhardy plan, and fantasy wisdom dictates that every dragon’s lair has a secret entrance. So we need someone to find the secret entrance to its lair, and then guide us through a booby trapped dungeon before we can reach the dragon. We therefore need a sneaky burglary expert or ‘thief’ to locate the secret entrance, disarm the traps, and pick the locks of the inevitably locked secret doors and treasure chests the dragon’s loot will be in.
Sneaky McStab – Thief Extraordinaire
So what sort of things does the thief need to have? Or, in gaming terms, what attributes must he have.
Well strength isn’t a huge concern, he doesn’t have to be Atlas, but we don’t want a wimp either, so he needs a reasonable amount.
Dexterity must be high so that he can pick locks and disarm trip wires etc., he should also be able to scale walls and lower a rope down for the rest of us so dexterity is a priority.
We don’t want him dieing from the first wound he takes and as he lives in the rough and tumble world of the professional thief he will need to be a little hardy and so we will put at least a few points into constitution.
On to the mental characteristics. Well he doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist so he doesn’t need huge levels of intelligence, but we would like him to be able to lace his own boots and to be able to work out which items have the greatest value to a fence, so he needs some street smarts and a bit of numeracy.
Wisdom and thieves don’t necessarily go together, but some level of commonsense would be nice, such as enough to realise that picking up the golden idol on the pedestal might be a bad idea until after you have checked for the pressure pad.
So that leaves charisma. Well this can be important if he is the kind of thief that relies on cons and scams but a dislikable thief can be just as useful to a dragon slayer, we won’t be trying to convince the dragon to invest in a pyramid scheme. So it is a personal choice but hardly a necessity.
He should be fairly flexible and acrobatic so in broad terms a younger character is probably best, but there aren’t many elderly thieves out there regardless.
Now we have to get him ready for battle. Well he can’t wear plate mail as it isn’t really conducive to climbing, sneaking around and generally being stealthy. Chainmail is a possibility but it might limit his manoeuvrability and possibly make too much noise. So we will probably settle on leather armour as it is flexible, durable and doesn’t clank. Due to the fact that he will be hiding in shadows and dark crevices we should probably use dark leather, blacks and dark browns rather than something in the oxblood or bright yellow suede range.
What weapons should he have? Well as a stealthy guy he probably will be sneaking up on people so daggers would be useful, maybe a short sword in case someone fights back. Big swords and shields would probably get in the way of sneaking through airshafts so let’s avoid them. Maybe a small bow or crossbow if he needs to take out a sentry from afar, but the bigger versions would be impractical for the same reason as the shields and longswords.
Now we will probably want a wizard too, in case of magical traps that the thief can’t disarm, and in case we have to lob a fireball at the inevitable mob of hench-monsters in the dragon’s employ.
Professor Fireball – Grumpy Wizard
Well we want a good one, so they will need to older and have plenty of experience as well as years of research and practice to make them powerful, not one straight out of wizard grad school. We also want them to be versatile and know lots of different spells in order to defeat the predictably insurmountable obstacles in our way. Therefore they will have to be very intelligent and have a good memory.
However we are not expecting them to lug around a lot of equipment or loot so they don’t have to be particularly strong. Nor are we expecting them to shimmy up a craggy rock face or walk across a tightrope to reach a ledge so they don’t have to be particularly dextrous.
We don’t want them to faint at the first sign of blood but we don’t expect them to get into fist fights so they don’t have to be hugely hardy.
We would like them to be wise but as long as they know all the spells and do what we tell them who cares if they think it is a bad idea? But as they are messing with the forces of nature some wisdom is probably a good idea.
In terms of charisma, well once again it is a matter of whether or not you mind working with a boring unsociable wizard or want one to go out drinking with afterwards.
In terms of armour, magic, like lots of other forms of energy finds metal to be a great conductor, so a lot of armour is right out unless we want an extra crispy mage. Also, as he is slightly older, leather might chafe a little so we will just let him wear his robes. He won’t be doing much hand to hand fighting in any case so he may as well be comfortable. He might carry a ritual dagger for one spell or another but really we will be relying on his spells rather than his ability to hit people. He can always bring his big walking stick to bash heads with if he is feeling particularly vigorous.
Now, while we are busy being heroic and generally championy we need a bodyguard to look after the others and to take on incidental minions.
Tank the Meatshield – ‘If it moves, hit it with a rock’
We want him to be able to break heads and take names so he is going to have to be tough, hard as nails as well as strong as an ox. We need someone to do most of the heavy lifting, dragon hoarded gold isn’t light you know.
We would like him to be co-ordinated enough that he won’t accidentally kill us whilst he is dispatching nameless minions 7 and 8, so a bit of dexterity would be welcome.
In terms of wisdom and intelligence as long as he can obey simple commands like ‘kill them not us’ and doesn’t have to be told not to eat the yellow snow we are ok.
Anyway, I would prefer a bodyguard who spent all his time practicing killing things than one who slacked off in order to read Shakespeare and who likes to debate post-Cartesian philosophy.
As for charisma, we need him to be an unstoppable killing machine not spokesperson for the wayward orc home.
As he is going to be slaughtering hundreds of the evil fantasy equivalent of red shirts he is going to need as much armour as he can wear, preferably inch thick metal. He is also going to need big heavy weapons that are not going to break after a dozen fights.
Ok so that is the core of our support group; Sneaky McStab, Professor Fireball and Tank the Meat Shield. Basically the point of this was to show that by defining the role that the character needed to fill to make our quest successful we basically ended up with the stereotypical fantasy group. And this of course is pretty much the way some rpgs work.
This is the list of steps you take to create a character in the RPG Baldur’s Gate, and apart from the very superficial starting points the first major decision is class, and everything then follows that decision, from what armour they can wear, what weapons they can use and what skills they have. Of course a hard core gamer might decide to play a stupid wizard, a weak warrior or a clumsy thief, but it can be a bit hard to progress through the game if your character is bad at his job.
So now we have seen how you build these characters from the ground up let’s apply this type of analysis to David Gemmel’s Waylander, which is a well known and popular genre fantasy novel, to see if it can work in the opposite direction.
The initial descriptions of Waylander highlight some important characteristics.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered and a black leather cloak was drawn about him. (P.11)
From twin sheaths he produced two black-bladed knives. (P.12)
So perhaps the first thing to pick out here is the fact that he is “Tall and Broad Shouldered”, this is perhaps the stereotypical way to describe a warrior hero type. It carries connotations of health, athleticism and strength.
But more important in this sentence is the black cloak. Now standard fantasy semiotics would suggest that because the cloak is black this is going to be an evil character, but in terms of RPGs we can draw something more interesting out. The fact that the cloak is made of leather suggests that the cloak is a practical garment, it serves a function. Now this is because it is not made of velvet, or silk or some other decorative fabric, this is a hard wearing, protective and water-proof garment making it useful.
The fact that it is black suggests that the character is some sort of shady character, now it could be an aesthetic choice to have a black cloak, however as it is a functional garment the dark colour would suggest a practical purpose. And one of these purposes would be to help the character hide in shadows and darkness. This then would make the reader think that this character is some sort of warrior thief type.
Now the second description also reaffirms this. He draws two black bladed knives. Again the black would suggest ‘bad guy’ but it is more than that. The blades of the daggers have been blackened to reduce their reflective properties. Again apart from a strange aesthetic choice, the obvious reason for this is that they are to be stealth weapons, used to sneak up on someone in the dark and stab them. Added to that is the fantasy idea that daggers or knives are dishonourable weapons, that is you don’t tend to challenge someone to a knife fight, you would duel with swords. So daggers are quick, dirty wounding weapons used to incapacitate and then kill without mercy or honour. Lastly in this is the fact that he draws two knives, so fighting with two weapons at the same time, suggesting he is ambidextrous and very competent. So in RPG terms, a high dexterity score and signifier of a rogue class.
Swiftly the newcomer swept his cloak over one shoulder and lifted his right arm. A black bolt tore into the chest of the nearest man, a second entered the belly of a burly warrior with upraised sword. The stranger dropped the small double crossbow and lightly leapt back. (p.12)
This passage illustrates Waylander’s favourite weapon, a small double crossbow. This is light and easily concealed, a perfect weapon for a rogue class. Also unlike the noble longbow, which is usually romanticised, the crossbow is the fantasy equivalent of a hand gun, a point and shoot weapon that anyone can use without a lot of training. It has a dirty reputation historically as it allowed untrained peasants to take down heavily armoured knights, although this example is far less powerful, has a reduced range but is no less deadly. Oh and once again the crossbow and its bolts are black, so the dual evil and concealability issues rising.
Waylander is also wearing leathers and a partial chainmail shirt. This again would suggest that he is a rogue character armoured for speed and agility rather than an out and out fight.
The man’s eyes were narrowed in concentration, but the priest noted that they were extraordinarily dark, deep sable-brown with flashing gold flecks. The warrior was unshaven, and the beard around his chin was speckled with grey. (P.13)
The first was a dark-haired warrior of a type she was coming to know too well; his face was hard, his eyes harder. (P.23)
In terms of his physical description, Waylander is dark haired, with dark brown almost black eyes. With eyes being windows to the soul we can see how this easily reflects his dark status. However they are also flecked with gold which would suggest that there is still something good, pure and precious in that darkness, leading to the possibility of redemption. Also his dark beard shot with grey confirms this idea of darkness with a chance of light, and also lets you know he is not a young man.
Interestingly, as Waylander embarks on his redemptive quest he picks up some short swords (black handled and with black scabbards to be fair) and these add some air of nobility to his character whilst staying true to his roguish background.
So a combination of fantasy semiotics and rpg based analysis yields a great deal of information long before the author divulges secret dark past of his character.