May. 10th, 2009

So earlier today I was roleplaying, as I often do (In A Wicked Age, for those following along at home.) We were telling a story about a kingdom whose once-fertile lands had been transformed into a corrupted wasteland by some sort of demonic warfare, and I was playing its unhappy old king. The basic action was spurred by a foreign tax collector/ambassador showing up to collect the annual tribute due to the "God-Emperor", the kingdom in question being subservient to some larger empire, but the actual events mostly revolved around various people trying to figure out how to restore the wasteland to its former bountiful glory (and the kingdom to its independence.) Other characters included: the foreign captain/tribute collector; the royal ape-trainer, whose favoured performer died as the story began and whose performing monkeys were to be a major part of the God-Emperor's tribute; and the king's beautiful young queen, who was touched by God, and had (in a devious twist) actually arranged her own marriage with the king, believing that she was fated to restore the lands. Needless to say that had not happened, and most of the action was driven by the queen's dissatisfaction with her (self-)arranged marriage, and her plotting to either a) leave the country in the company of the foreign captain and/or b) discover the magical relics required to restore the kingdom and/or c) convince somebody to kill the king already.

I subject you to all this gratuitous exposition only to say that I was struggling a little with my character (this is not a game where you play the same character for eons at a time, getting to know them inside and out.) The whole situation at court was borderline absurd -- the Queen and the Ape Trainer spent most of their time conspiring to restore the cursed lands, and the King spent most of his time stubbornly resisting their efforts while simultaneously trying to figure out what to do about the tribute. ("This is terrible! Everyone around me is conspiring to restore the kingdom!") And part of what I was struggling to understand about the king was why exactly he was so deliberately uninterested in all these magical plans to cleanse the wasteland. He was suspicious-going-on-paranoid in regards to magic (magic had cursed the land in the first place), and that worked up to a point, but it had also been developed through play that the king was oddly attached to the current state of the kingdom, despite the fact that most of his subjects had died or left, all the wealth of the kingdom had been given away to appease the Emperor, and things were generally about as shitty as a kingdom gets. And even as evidence and arguments piled up in favour of this or that magic ritual, the King's personality continued to alternate somewhat schizophrenically between petulance, stubborness, bitterness, and a kind of resigned wisdom and appreciation for the state of things1. He repeatedly berated his subjects, and his wife, for thinking that things could be fixed and for their inability to adjust to the reality of the situation.

Anyways, there I was amidst all this trying to figure out what exactly my character's damage was, while various assassination/sacrifice/usurpation plans came and went, until at some point the Ape Trainer, who of all the characters was probably the only one with the kingdom's best interests at heart, up and accused the king of simply being scared -- he didn't specify what exactly the king was scared of (or maybe it was supposed to be in relation to the dark magic required to restore the kingdom), but "scared" seemed to me to fit remarkably well, even though the King considered it absurd -- after all he was the only one with the courage to deal with things as they were, while everyone else went around chasing magical solutions. And certainly in terms of personality the king never seemed particularly afraid of anything (he found his wife's conspiracies against him extremely depressing, because he loved her and she hated him, but their possible success didn't seem to be a concern.)

But obviously he was scared, and eventually -- as his subjects dragged him, bitching and whining, out into the wasteland to perform the magic ritual in question -- I figured out that he had invested so much time and energy into coming to terms with the current state of his kingdom that he was scared of having to do so again, of having all his work undone. He was scared that he would be unable to adjust if things started getting better. It had been determined earlier that he was twelve when he became king, and as I described the journey out into the wasteland -- at the center of which was found the charred remains of his father, ahorse and still burning in a pillar of fire, 45 years after the fact -- I decided that his love for the current state of the kingdom was genuine, and also the source of his fear. And so, reluctant to the last, the king tried to explain to everyone (and himself, and I would say to me) why it was he kept hesitating.

He explained how kings were supposed to love their land, and their subjects, and how after he was crowned he had come out to the wasteland every day and forced himself to look at the smoking remains and permanently-rotting corpses and twisted trees -- forced himself to do it until he could see them as beautiful, until they no longer seemed like the reminder of some fatal past mistake. How he had done the same with his subjects, whose lives were misery and hardship and above all the desire to be elsewhere. And he explained how difficult it had been and how long he had worked at it and he wondered how he could ever do that again -- since if the ritual worked, everything would be different. It didn't matter that it would be better, only different -- and it couldn't be "restored" because he had violently overwritten all his memories of its previous state, and so there was nothing to "restore" it to. In fact in an earlier argument with the Queen he had said the same to her: "how can you restore what you do not understand?" Basically, he was afraid that he had broken himself to match a broken world, and that if the world was fixed he would no longer have a place in it.

And so the moral of the story is: in the end, you only ever play yourself.

1"Resigned wisdom and appreciation for the state of things" being, unsurprisingly, a specialty of mine when it comes to characterization.



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