It has been a rough couple of weeks, no two ways about it. Those who follow me on social media may have seen a blog post from my personal blog memorializing the passing of the first pet my wife and I had together: our beloved cat Storm. His death and the loneliness and emptiness that left behind in our apartment was heartbreaking. I remember at one point looking at my wife and saying “I am tired of being sad, and I am tired from being sad.” But as hard as it was on me, for my wife it was worse, and her grief was as difficult for me as my own was. At times, more so.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. -Romans 12:15
Grief and sadness are exhausting, and I’ve had a lot more rough, half-asleep mornings in the last couple of weeks that I’ve had in the last couple of year. And yet even when the loss is crushing, such as in the case of the loss of a parent or, worse, a child, society doesn’t long excuse the grief-stricken from their daily duties. Work must be done, obligations must be attended to.
And that goes triple for those who, paradoxically, are going to experience grief-triggering events the most often – soldiers, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, firefighters, and so on.
You know: player characters.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. -Matthew 5:4
Your average PC probably sees a lot of death, destruction, chaos, and carnage just in their first adventure, to say nothing of their entire career. And they generally press on through it with nary a complaint. This is a genre trope in a lot of cases; superheroes, pulp adventurers, crack special forces troops and so on are often portrayed as “psychologically indestructible” or at least sufficiently hardened, trained, and/or outfitted with coping mechanisms to handle the stress and tragedy of what they deal with. That can be great for lighter, more cinematic, and/or high-adventure campaigns and is certainly a valid way of playing. It’s not the only valid way, though. Some games choose to tackle the stressful, painful, exhausting side of adventuring and the emergent content from those systems is fascinating. (Two properties that explore these themes that probably don’t need any more plugging from me, but are going to get it anyway are This War of Mine and Unknown Armies.)
I’ll admit to a certain level of bias; as a gamer, I’ve begun to feel a bit of what I could term “violence fatigue” in relation to my entertainment. So much of the gaming experience seems to revolve around killing things, and after a while (perhaps as a function of getting older) one starts to tire of all the cleaving and smashing and shooting. In fact, I’d say that exposure to so much violent entertainment over the course of my adolescence and adult life has actually sensitized be to it rather than de-sensitizing like concerned folks often worry will. I’ve allowed some of this to consciously bleed into Lambert in the D&D game. He’s still perfectly capable of fighting and killing if need be (ask the phase spider that scared the living daylights out of us a few sessions back) but he’d really rather not; Lambert knows that violence and death (especially with sapient beings) often leads to grief and suffering. He also recognizes that sometimes, it’s necessary. Lambert lives in a fantasy world with evil things that exist pretty much solely to cause the misery he wants to prevent. That dichotomy (and the high quality of the rest of the gaming group) has allowed for some very interesting character interactions.
A reluctance to wade into battle isn’t the only application for more emotionally vulnerable (or even just emotionally complex) PCs, though. Allowing PCs to feel things and react appropriately is an underutilized trick in a lot of mainstream gaming. One needn’t be all melodramatic and angsty about it. Lambert certainly isn’t an “emo” character, but he’s very much a “Protestant work ethic” kind of guy who pushes himself very hard. In his particular case, he tends to cope with that stress by bantering with the other two PCs, whom he trusts even if not everyone else in the colony does. It takes the edge off and lets him keep going without getting overwhelmed. It’s not a front-and-center part of his character on every adventure, but it does add a bit of texture. And that texture helps keep the game fun, at least for me.
Which can be good when the game is one of the ways I, as a player, manage some small measure of the stress in the real world. Sometimes, knowing how my PC keeps putting one foot in front of the other can help me do the same.