This was going to be a post about how storytelling is a game mechanic that I really love, and how it appears in various board and tabletop games. I was going to wax philosophical about storytelling techniques and give my perspective on various techniques I have learned (and stolen) over the course of my decade plus of being a GM of various roleplaying systems. And maybe I will post that issue sometime soon.
But right now, I have to talk about something else. Something that is related to being a good storyteller and a good GM. Actually, maybe the most important thing.
I want to talk about this.
Ok, some quick background on me, as it relates.
I’m not a comics guy. I’ve never been one to buy issue after issue of a comics line. Of course I know all the big names, but I only own a handful of trades, as opposed to the hundreds of board games that line the walls of my living room (honestly, I should probably figure out how to organize this place).
But I’m no noob, either. Over the years, I’ve absorbed more than a surface understanding of classic Marvel and DC characters. I’ve made it through most of the superhero-themed questions at True Nerd Trivia (it may have helped that my team was otherwise composed of Marvel employees). I’m not a huge fan, but I’m more than a casual. To paraphrase one lovely friend of mine, I’m ‘comics-adjacent’.
So, as a casual (I know I just said I wasn’t, but it’s less letters than ‘comics-adjacent’), what we have here seems to be Captain America, Captain ever-lovin’ these-colors-don’t-run America, proclaiming his status as a Hydra agent. If that means nothing to you, go watch the first two Captain America movies Marvel released (they are excellent, bee-tee-dubbs). Go now, I’ll wait.
All caught up? Good. So, again, Hydra=bad, Cap=good, but now, apparently, Cap=Hydra, so…
Now, I am not going to dissect what is actually happening in this comic. I’m not going to talk about whether Hydra are Nazis or not; apparently, if you dive into the lore, you will find that the organization predates the Nazi party, but, honestly, I couldn’t care less which hate group they decided to make Captain fracking America a part of. I don’t even want to talk about where I see this going, or how they might undo it, or any of that speculation.
I want to talk about the anger-and-profanity-laced Facebook post I put up about it, and how it reminded me of a *very* important premise in good storytelling.
So, they make Captain America a Hydra agent, and I am shocked – not just at the audacity of doing that to a classic, canonical character, but rather at my own emotional response. I got really upset. Again, and not to undermine myself too much, I’m not heavily invested in these characters. But with all the gritty nonsense going on in the DC universe (with Superman being a jerk and Batman also being a jerk and Wonder Woman apparently not being all that bad but still), I felt…ugh. Can we just have one thing that isn’t awful and broken? Don’t we deal with enough daily tragedy? You had to take HIM away, too? Aren’t you better than this, Marvel?
And that’s basically what I went on Facebook (and Twitter) and said. I may have cursed a whole lot more. I was just so gutted, so hurt by the betrayal – Marvel’s I mean, not Captain Hydra’s. Come on, guys and girls, you were the good comic company. You told stories that had room for heroes. We need heroes. Not…this. This, this…clickbait.
Now, I’m just a geek, bitching about geeky things, right? And my audience, especially on Facebook, is pretty restricted to just friends and family. So they were basically the only people who got to hear my nerd-rage about this. Nothing I could say in my little bubble would matter, really, and certainly no harm could come of me venting my very real (and completely unexpected) aggravation about this.
Except for one detail.
Jordan D. White.
Jordan is an editor at Marvel. Since his start a few years ago, he has risen through the ranks there, taking on bigger and bigger projects. If you read Deadpool, or any of the new Star Wars comics, you’re reading his work, and he does good work. He’s not attached to Steve Rogers (the comic that stars the newly-revealed Captain Squidlover), but he’s involved in Marvel’s properties in, at the very least, a superficial level. He would have every reason to know about this plotline, and likely has known about it for some time.
And I went to college with him.
Jordan and I have known each other for, like, 15 years now. His brilliant wife was the matron of honor when Jess and I got married. The two of them are among the longest and closest-held friends I have. He is, at the very least, on my Facebook page.
And I went and took a dump on Marvel, more or less in front of him.
Now, Jordan was the first to say ‘hey, it’s a free country’ regarding my opinion on this comic (a free country no thanks to Captain America, but I digress). But my reaction genuinely upset him, and he felt like he needed to tell me so. And his reaction upset me; he and I had been on the same page about DC’s decision to gritty up Superman. How could he back Marvel’s play here? We went back and forth a bit, and it got less and less civil (I mean, with a certain definition – no one offered to punch anyone). Then, thankfully, my phone died, forcing me to withdraw from the exchange, which was undoubtedly for the best, because Jordan and I are both ‘stand your ground’ kinda debaters. No one was going to budge, especially in light of our genuinely heated feelings.
Except, in the enforced silence of my phoneless evening, I got to reflecting on this most important aspect of good storytelling.
You have to trust your GM.
GM, or Game Master (or Storyteller, or the slightly more archaic Dungeon Master), for those who don’t know, is the person in the group of roleplayers who is responsible for managing (‘running’) the game. While individual players act the parts of their own characters, the GM is responsible for populating and describing the game world at large, and creating the tableau on which the shared fiction of the roleplaying game is built. And if you don’t know what a roleplaying game is…ok, that’s another blog post.
But anyway, over the years, I have run a lot of games. Dozens, maybe over a hundred? From one-shots to multi-year campaigns, running tabletop roleplaying games, be it Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, GURPS, Whitewolf, or wahtever, has been a cherished hobby of mine and a way I have loved spending time with my friends.
And in all that time, I have run some well-received games, and I have definitely run some stinkers. But the games that worked best, the stories that were the most rewarding to tell, were the ones during which my players, that mass of brilliant geeks who let me shepherd their characters through dungeons full of dragons and evenings full of intrigue, trusted me to have their good time in mind.
See, running a good game isn’t just about having a clever plot or a really neat villain or great little MacGuffin to motivate your story (though those things are absolutely good to have). You need player buy-in. If the people you are running for believe you are running with their good time in mind, then a lot of little bumps along the road will be smoothed out before you even hit them.
Which brings me back to Steve Rogers and Hail Hydra and Jordan (not, like, ‘hail Hydra and also hail Jordan, though I’m sure he wouldn’t turn down the worship). It would be really easy to assume that anyone who owns a business makes decisions based on what is best for their business, and that is almost always dollar signs. It is even easier to disregard the artistic integrity of people who are anonymous or otherwise unknown to you. That’s definitely where my head went when I saw all this – the only reason to make such an outrageous change to a beloved character was precisely to generate outrage, which translates into sales. Right?
Well, sure. Maybe. But maybe not.
Of course, that’s undoubtedly part of it. But Jordan put a human, recognizable face on it, for me. And while he absolutely didn’t spoil anything or give me insight into where the story is going (remember, he’s not directly working on this project), he said he thought this was a story worth telling, not just a headline with which to shock folks. And because I trust him and I think the world of his professional integrity, that gives me a solid reason to put the breaks on my own reaction.
Which, admittedly, wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
Sure, I am still pretty outraged at what they are apparently doing with this cherished character…but Jordan’s presence in my life reminds me that the people who tell these stories are as committed to the integrity of their work as the fans are faithful to their favorite characters.
Thankfully, Jordan is a gentleman and I know how to partially adult at least, so when my phone was good and charged, I got back in touch and we made nice again, no harm done. And while I am still a little queasy at the Hydra thing, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt and hold on to the reins of my own feelings until this plays out a bit more.
How does that translate back into the shared storytelling of roleplaying games?
Well, simply put, if you, as the GM, don’t have the trust of your fellow players, you’re going to have a bad time. Sure, they might take an adversarial attitude on occasion, and they may not like it when your monsters kill their characters or destroy their stuff, but at the end of the day, you need the trust of your gaming group to reap the most enjoyment out of the storytelling experience. And since I am actually in the process of starting a brand new campaign (a gothic horror western with a post-apocalyptic flair) and bringing in some brand new players to boot, it was a very well-timed reminder of something that I have certainly taken for granted at times, at my own peril.
As a GM, how do you generate that trust? Well, by earning it – by actually taking the essential experience of your players to heart when you plan your games. Does that mean let them roflstomp all over every enemy and get nothing but buttercups and XP until they burst? Heck no. Drama is inherent to storytelling, and without it, you basically have no story…drama like, maybe, a beloved ally turning into an enemy, or something like that. But you’ll never pull off the best twists if your players don’t buy into your intentions.
But just as important as it is for GMs to generate trust in their players, it is on players to do their part, too. As players (and as fans), well, there is a lot riding on you. It’s easy to sit in your chair and be infinitely critical, especially of someone who you hardly know or have never met. But the likelihood is that your GM (and your comics’ writers and editors, for that matter) have probably agonized over just as many details as you, and their decisions are, hopefully, coming from a place of love for the material and the shared experience of the story being told.
If you think they aren’t, well, you should probably go find someone else to GM, rather than just be an ass about it. Or better yet, do it yourself! Or even better than that, take a sec, breathe, and open your brain up – maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Thanks for reading Blogosity! If you have any thoughts on what I covered (aside from tossing hate around about the Captain HydrAmerica thing), please comment below! And if you have a suggestion for a topic I might tackle next, let me know!