Super-legality for PCs

Here are some common campaign styles for RPGs:

  • The PCs live as ‘space assholes’ or ‘murderhobos’, wandering in search of fame and fortune. They are either able to skirt the law, or stay just ahead of it.
  • The PCs work as police officers, superheroes or members of the Star League Patrol, making them enforcers of the social order.
  • The PCs explore the frontiers, making their way beyond the bounds of normal civilization and mores.
  • The PCs skulk about in the shadowy realms, as thieves, agents or ghosts, delving into the dark secrets normal society doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know.

Image of prison gate, openI think this describes the vast majority of games I’ve seen. Notice anything these campaigns all have in common?

It seems to me that a lot of games — probably a majority of them — assume some sort of super-legal, extra-societal status for PCs. In many games, the PCs stand outside the social order — perhaps immune to it, or just ignorant of it. Fiasco comes to mind here, where the characters are assumed to be willing to do horrible things to get what they want, and to then suffer horribly for it. In other games, the PCs may be part of the social order, but they are then usually the ones who help mold and enforce that order. Indeed, games like Dogs in the Vineyard make this completely explicit. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The players do, and that’s all there is to it.) Whatever their position, they are not subservient to the social order.

Am I just arguing that RPGs are a power fantasy? I suppose that’s part of it. But it’s a very particular kind of power fantasy, and I find that interesting.

How many games are there where the PCs are not somehow immune to the social order? It feels like InSpectres gets close. In it, the PCs are assumed to be fairly menial workers in a ghost-busting franchise, neither movers nor shakers in the world. The PCs have some slightly exceptional abilities, but are generally schlubs like anyone else. But it’s not clear how immune the PCs are to the rules of normality, and the one time I’ve played it so far, I would say that tension — how legal/normal do we need to be? — was one of the biggest tensions in the game. Related to InSpectres, the Ghostbusters RPG plays with some of these conventions; the PCs can easily be everyday schlubs who are prone to being arrested for carrying around unlicensed proton accelerators or leaving slime all around. But both these games are comedic; characters’ ability to amuse the players gives them some form of immunity from societal consequences that we real humans don’t enjoy. So even though the games embrace mundanity, the characters still enjoy a form of extra-societal status.

Some games allow the PCs to become mired in social obligations. HârnManor seems one of these. The most common criticism I’ve heard of it is “Who wants to calculate taxes in an RPG?” And that’s a fairly accurate charge, because the supplement really does try to treat all aspects of medieval landholding in a rigorously realistic way, right down to paying taxes. I think that the system encourages characters to go do adventurous things, however, through the obligations imposed on them: if the northern fields are only producing a 44% harvest and that means the peasants are going to starve, then the PCs had better go figure out what’s causing the problem. And the system presumes the PCs will be pretty much at the peak of the local social order, so they’re still deciding the law more than they are subject to it. From what I understand, games like BirthRight do the same thing, enmeshing the PCs in social obligations but simultaneously giving them power to change the world. Heck, I think Braunsteins might fall into this category.

Are there other games where the PCs operate entirely within the social order? There are certainly lots of games where the PCs are not the most powerful entities in the world; really, most games probably fit that description. But I don’t think that’s a sufficiently rigorous definition here. Even when the PCs are relatively mundane, or relatively powerless — think, for example, of Call of Cthulhu — the PCs are still the ones with the power to avert disaster, or to go beyond the bounds of convention.

Are there games where the PCs truly live entirely within the bounds of ‘normal’ human society? The classic cartoon by Will McLean in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide alludes to this:

It’s a great new fantasy role-playing game. We pretend we’re workers and students in an industrialized and technological society.

Maybe that kind of game would appeal to wizards, clerics and fighters in a typical D&D world, but does it appeal to any of us in the real world? And does it mean that RPGs necessarily include a super-legal element?


Super-legality for PCs — 5 Comments

  1. Not to (necessarily) toot my own horn, but I can recall one RPG where the characters were fully expected to obey all applicable laws. That was my embassy crisis response scenario, where the players, taking the roles of key embassy staff, had to thwart a threat to the mission. (Diplomatic immunity to local laws wouldn’t preclude an international incident, which also = bad.)

    Night’s Black Agents also includes “heat”, a notable part of which is the long arm of the law. Conversely, though, PCs rarely want to pay the dues requested (I recall a certain PC invoking contacts to get through Geneva customs).

    A key factor to the near-ubiquity of super-legal elements is that RPGs are a branch of escapist fiction, and part of the escape is not answering to the powers-that-be for fixing a problem in a “direct” and “irreversible” fashion – Dead Men Tell No Tales.

    I do think you hit the attraction directly by noting that PCs have the power to affect the world, and dramatically so – or at least change the situation in their region. That’s why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has an RPG, and Clueless doesn’t. It also why I dislike, heck, hate – RPG sessions where I feel that my PC is powerless. It may be a good story, but it’s an awful game. It also why PC games that have no or little role-playing element still have the player’s efforts dramatically affect the world (I am thinking of the ancient PC game Red October, where your one submarine had direct and drastic effect on the land war in Europe in World War III.)

    I don’t think super-legal effects are a problem in RPGs. The world would run a little better if the Rambos out there got their fix through RPGs rather than going super-legal in real life.

    Good post that got me thinking. Thanks.

    • I have definitely thought about your embassy scenario in relation to this… It was one of the more ‘mundane’ games I’ve ever played in. (Still lots of fun, though — ‘mundane’ is not a bad thing here.) However, in it, the PCs were still all fell within the category of “enforcers of the social order”, I think, since we were all people charged with, and given the power to, avert disaster.

      And yes, I don’t mean to say that super-legality is a bad thing. I enjoy that kind of escapism plenty! I’m just pondering how it works, and whether it’s possible to have games that don’t include that kind of escapism.

  2. Tekumel is another example of a setting where players had better follow the law (and more broadly the strictures of the social order). If you don’t that is a quick way to win a complementary trip up the impalement pike.

    Your broader point is well-taken however, and very consistent with Richard Slotkin’s social histories of violence and U.S. communities. Whether we are talking about the Puritans, or about Westerns there is a well-entrenched notion (often acted out in real life) that communities are regenerated through acts of violence (often bloodbaths).

    However in the real world, the “state of exception” the use of extralegal state and parastatal measures (including both illegal surveillance and violence) seems to be on the increase… at least that is Giorgio Agamben’s argument. So maybe RPGs just resemble life.

  3. I’d echo John’s comment about Tekumel. In fact, social connections are a form of ‘treasure’ or resource players cultivate and deploy rather than simply a structure to deny certain activities.

    Pendragon may be another, although Arthurian social strictures are not exactly that restricting on knights errant or great fief holders.

    • That sort of thing is true for lots of games, though, isn’t it? It seems like probably only pure combat games would deemphasize social connections to that extent. I think I mean a deeper kind of enmeshment within the social net.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *