Saving the World

The party heroically defeated the monster and saved the world! Had we not succeeded I wondered previously if not saving the world meant we could no longer play in the Iron Heroes setting. After all, it would have been destroyed, there would be nowhere to adventure. It was pointed out that this is a ludicrous suggestion, if only because there were many other groups worldwide who would still be playing in the Iron Heroes setting. The source books and adventures aren't destroyed because one instance brought the end of the world to it, so there was no reason why we couldn't continue in a different instance.

It is indeed a silly idea that we can't play Iron Heroes should an adventure cause the end of the world. It was never really meant as a serious suggestion, rather a remark on how absurd it is to threaten the existence of an RPG world, when the end of the world requires the death of a character.

The character is more important to the player than the world. After all, the player controls and influences just about every aspect of the character, mostly in reaction to the world. The character is the player's extension in to the world, and without the character the world may as well not exist. Understandably, players can get quite attached to their characters, and the death of a character is a major event in most gaming groups. Characters are heroes and expected to overcome nearly all obstacles and enemies ultimately to prevail. Players can also inject some of their own personality in to the character, or create something new to explore different aspects of ourselves, so to have one die can feel like losing a hamster; it is inevitable given time, but still unpleasant to experience.

When it comes to creating characters I nearly always try to create something different from before, whether it is a different race, class, morality, fighting style, or a combination of them all, I much prefer not to try to copy any previous character I've played. (The only time I have purposely created a similar character was after an unlucky first-round death, before I even got comfortable in my chair.) For me, if I can return the next week with essentially the same character then what concern does death hold for me? I see no reason to fret about who I am battling if I can simply wipe the wounds from my character sheet and continue where I left off every time, for there would be no drawbacks to character death. And where's the danger or risk, where is the sense of adventure that comes from having something to lose?

For a character death to have some kind of meaning within the game there need to be penalties associated with it, which is essentially why there are penalities for resurrecting dead characters. You can choose to play the same character in a weakened state, holding on to all the memories and alliances built up that can be drawn on for a fuller game experience at the cost of being a little less effective, or you create a new character, one with no party-created history but with all the possibilities that come from a blank slate. If I could simply clone my character each time I needed to, I would have less reason to care about him.

And so saving one's character should be like saving the world. The fight we were in was dangerous, but it had the additional threat of the end of the world should we fail. But if we can come back next week to the same, unaltered world is it really all that different from losing a character in any other battle? Of course, had we failed in the fight it would have meant all of our characters' deaths, much like any battle except that our odds of defeat were much greater, and so we all had a personal reason to be victorious. But above and beyond our character dying, how can we feel the effect of the end-of-the-world scenario without forcing ourselves to admit that, to us, the world is destroyed and thus we can no longer use Iron Heroes as a setting? If all we did was 'clone' the world, or deny its destruction, how is that any different from losing a character? In both cases I create a new character and come back to the same world as before. Because of this, the threat of the world's destruction becomes essentially meaningless to me.

Of course, one could make a similar argument for the destruction of a city, or the villain marrying the king's daughter, should neither event have any effect on later adventures, and fundamentally you'd be right. As a dramatic device the destruction of the world seems far more significant than an unhappy marriage, and for it to carry the weight of that significance in the minds of the players there needs to be more of a threat than other dramatic devices entail. With a baron getting away with manslaughter offering the same player-consequences as the world ending it strikes me as difficult to instill a feeling of threat.

At least in the above cases of the city, king and baron there is the possibility of events having repercussions for subsequent adventures. The end of the world, unless you stop playing in the setting, essentially has none, which is why it fails as a dramatic device. An evil wizard corrupting a king's rule thus offers a far greater threat to continuing adventures than the end of the world, and because of that I know which outcome I'd be more concerned about preventing.

I may have brought up the subject with a facetious comment, but it was motivated by wanting a more meaningful experience when playing RPGs. Well, if not more meaningful, at least less meaningless.

2 Responses to “Saving the World”

  1. Will Says:

    My objection to this comment now seems more a point terminology than the point when it was made, but is nonetheless valid. Iron Heroes isn't the setting, it's a set of rules.

    If the world is destroyed should the setting come to an end, for that play group? In that incarnation - probably yes. By which I mean it might make an excellent setting for (in this example) a fantasy post apocalyptic game, for example. And of course, it does end for all players around the world too - even players playing the same adventures in another group are playing in a slightly different (albeit very similar) setting; NPCs will have reacted differently and have different personalities for example.

    But there's no argument for stopping playing with a rules set the group likes because of it.

    As to providing a more meaningful roleplaying experience, that's doable and I'd certainely be happy to run it. I don't think you'll necessarily get it from published adventures often, because I think (and I may well be wrong) what you're alluding to is a more character-centric campaign (and it needs to be a campaign rather than one-off adventures as well).

    I think a part of the problem however might be that 'a meaningful experience' means different things from one person to the next and understanding what each player is looking for in that respect is not necessarily an easy task, let alone meeting it for each player.

  2. Elf Says:

    I agree with your points, and I look to be guilty of conflating a rules system with a setting. Without a setting in Iron Heroes beyond the adventures we've played it is perhaps easy to do, particularly when the adventures create a connected world.

    My main point is essentially that if the world were simply to be reset on its destruction then there is far less motivation to prevent it than there is for a smaller threat that will persist if successful, and some potential for drama is lost.

    A post-apocalyptic scenario definitely would be a great way to revisit the world.