Just when I thought I was done thinking about the moral universe of this setting, I ran into the music video for Light Me Up by Kobra and the Lotus and watching that, I realized I had a few last details I wanted to cover before moving on. (There’s a link to the video at the end of this post. Please go watch it. I think it’s the most beautiful, hopeful thing I’ve ever seen that qualifies as heavy metal.) In this post, I’d like to talk about the central fantasy that this setting is based on.
The central fantasy of this game is being able to bring hope – the ability to look at suffering and pain and not just have to stand by helplessly as it continues. Player characters are intended to be the sorts of people who are not going to leave people to suffer, not because there’s some reward for it, and not because there’s some advantage in it, but because they can’t do otherwise.
Hey man. Metal isn’t subtle. If you’re going for heroism, might as well go the whole way.
A big portion of what makes the Grim Cities so unpleasant is crushing despair – these are places where evil reigns and not to put too fine a point on it, but evil sucks. In a literal fashion, really. It draws life, happiness, and empathy out of people and gives nothing back. People in the grim cities aren’t denied pleasure in any sort of a categorical fashion, but they are definitely denied meaning – even the wealthy ruling class wallows in hollow extravagance and no amount of gold or food or power or anything else is going to impart any sense of purpose or true worth. The best they can do is try to numb the pain. And it never works for very long. Like a drug addict, they keep needing a higher and higher dose, and it needs to be stronger and stronger stuff. And it feels emptier and emptier and emptier. At some point, they stop trying to numb the pain and start trying to vent it somehow; if they can’t stop hurting, others will hurt too. This is where “monster” ratings on virtue/vice pairs come from – after all, misery loves company. Of course, the company is usually the held-down lower strata of society, deliberately kept on the razor’s edge of desperation. That desperation focuses attention inward, and it gives way to hopelessness and despair.
In play that means that a lot of the time people who are victims are in too rough of shape emotionally to really help themselves.
For an example of how this can look, let me point you to another game. One of many non-musical pieces of media that’s influenced me a lot is the game This War of Mine, and it gives you an excellent and sobering picture of how bad this can get. For those who aren’t familiar with it, This War of Mine is a video game where you play a bunch of civilians trying to live through a war. One of the creators lived through the siege of Sarajevo back in the 90s. Note also that I said “survive,” not “fight.” In addition to keeping everyone warm, rested, and fed, you also have to deal with illness and the mental toll living in a war zone exacts on a person. I once lost a run because my people gave into despair. They literally starved to death mere feet from a fridge full of food. One of the surest ways to succumb to despair in the game is to do bad things to survive. Another is to witness awful things and be powerless to stop them. There will be plenty of both in the Grim Cities.
Here’s where the Christian ethos comes back into play – because despair is an intolerable state to leave anyone in. The role of PCs (and heroic NPCs, for that matter) is to “knock holes in the darkness” and bring hope. A big part of that is meaning – and meaning comes from service, from the sense that your life is worth more than just marking time until you die. There’s a great line in the song Gone by Red that says “Is the air I breathe my only legacy?” to which the answer should be an emphatic “no!” Characters in this setting should be busy; there us a lot of darkness to knock holes in but – and this is the important part – they should always be able to. The whole point of this particular setting is relieving the despair and helping the helpless. It is not intended to be a place where you wallow in the darkness. That’s why from the outset I was thinking of Stardew Valley as a touchstone for places outside the cities; in order for this type of storytelling to work, there has to be a place of mercy and safety to bring people to.
The trick for PCs is going to be spreading that light and hope into the dark places of the world, or taking people out of them into the light.
Also, one of the most important parts of hope, or at least one of the most important things to hope for is redemption; for thoughts on that, see the last post in this series, but there are few more hopeful or uplifting concepts than someone who is able to truly change.
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
One of the most important things about bringing hope is the willingness and ability to be merciful. A lot of RPGs tend to punish mercy – showing mercy either leaves you with an enemy behind you or a prisoner who is going to be constantly trying to escape. That’s not what I want to do with this game.
there needs to be some risk, but I’m going to be steering away from a “no good deed goes unpunished” feel because I don’t want the whole campaign to be grinding misery. While I’m hoping to deal with some heavy stuff, I don’t want to run a bleak game, I want the experience to be uplifting and fun along with being moral practice.
I’m not sure how I’m going to handle that in a logistical sense, but then again, I’m nowhere near done building this setting either.
Gone by Red – a well-made “warning song” about making your life count for something.
Light me Up by Kobra and the Lotus – as I alluded to earlier, this is one of the most beautiful, hopeful things I’ve ever seen that qualifies as heavy metal. You can see where it’s going pretty early on, but that really doesn’t make it any less powerful. You want to see a song about bringing hope? This is a song about bringing hope. The use of children as the characters adds some extra dramatic weight and emotional heft, too. Interestingly, a lot of the material from Kobra and the Lotus (at least from Prevail I) seems to be very uplifting and/or contemplative. I didn’t even know they existed at this time last week, so enjoy the discovery with me if you’re in the same boat? I have no idea what Kobra Paige’s worldview looks like in a formal or named sense, but there is a significant amount of empathy and virtue for its own sake in her song lyrics, or at least the limited sample I’m working with. (Take a look at “You Don’t Know,” “Soldier,” and “Forever One” for starters.)
The Light by Disturbed – easily my favorite song off of Immortalized, I still feel like they aimed a little low with the video (even though the video is solid). Relationships are great, but there’s more than that in the lyrics.