“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21:4
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” -Wesley, The Princess Bride
It’s often said that the two certainties in life are death and taxes, but I’d humbly suggest that we’ll all become acquainted with pain long before we’re aware of the tax man. Pain is varied, it is all too common, and it is all too often ignored in our gaming experiences.
So much of the pain that colors our lives is relatively undramatic. A stubbed toe, a small disappointment, even the crushing blow of the sudden loss of a loved one or the nagging ache as you realize that your life will never be quite what you’d hoped – very few of these moments turn up in heroic fiction, and when they do, they are often tangential to the plot. This is not, however, true in our lives. A staggering number of us come from broken families,we all have regrets, disappointments, and illnesses. It is a part of the human condition that we will suffer in a multitude of ways, great and small, between the time when we enter this world and the time when we leave it, and often that pain changes us and shapes us in a variety of ways, and as with so many things, what defines us (and our characters) is not so much that we have pain, but what we do with it.
Some folks are crushed by their pain, retreating into bitterness or madness to escape it – in fact, this is a semi-canonical explanation for where The Joker came from. Crushed beneath the weight of “one bad day” he becomes a sadistic, insane madman, anxious and eager to share his pain with others. Others retreat from the world entirely, becoming hermits or even catatonic.
Others deny it or brush it off with exaggerated indifference. “It’s nothing to me.” Oftentimes this is a trap the immature fall into – seeing the very experience of pain as a weakness to be excised, or if that is impossible, at least denied or ignored. The problem with this approach is that pain is very persistent. It will eventually make itself known, and will reach a point where it can no longer be ignored.
Still others wallow in their pain, allowing it to define their experience. A lot of really good art gets made this way (everything from paintings to poetry to music) but being defined by misery and suffering this way robs people of happiness they could otherwise experience and strains relationships.
Finally, there are some who acknowledge their pain, but push through it. This is one of the better responses, and covers everything from working out to the artist pushing through rejection, to forging new relationships after the loss of a loved one. People treating their pain this way will often seek help with it, which is also healthy and can lead to a lot of growth. (For an interesting treatment of this concept, check out this TED Talk by Jane Mcgonigal.) It should probably go without saying that this last approach (and helping others with their pain) is the way we’re ideally expected to behave as Christians. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” in Romans (Romans 12:15) and scripture is thick with admonitions to help the poor, the sick, the needy, and those suffering (and there’s that word again: suffering) from all sorts of trouble.
Narratively, I think we leave a lot on the table when we boil our adventures down to a series of tactical puzzles (and this from somebody who would be unamimously voted “most tactically-minded” by at least his current gaming group and probably several previous ones). One of the things that made Grant’s successful Shadowrun game so great was that the PC group was very empathetic (at least by the standards of shadowrunners) – they were careful about the amount of pain they caused to innocent people, and seeing those same people in bad situations moved them to do something about it. Now in fairness – they also caused a fair amount of pain to those they felt deserved it, which was often the in-game manifestation of one of my real-world character flaws: a streak of viciousness that can pop out when I’ve conned myself into thinking it’s justified.
Pain, and our response to it, defines our character and our stories, and it should define our characters and their stories as well. The next time you sit down to make a character or play one, give some thought to how they respond to the hurt in their life and the lives around them, why they feel and act that way, and how that affects the story. And, if you’re anything like me, it may also be a good idea to repeat that exercise with yourself in the real world from time to time.