Put simply, this is a way of looking at history that emphasizes influential individuals. The idea is that certain important people, for good or ill, caused events to turn out the way they did. Napoleon caused the rise and fall of post-Revolutionary France, Gandhi was the man who made India independent, etc. High school history texts tend to use this method, even if it isn’t explicit. They focus heavily on who led what battle and who was elected president on what date. The problem with the Great Man Theory is that it’s incredibly narrow and simplistic. Napoleon came to power in a time of great chaos caused by the French Revolution and all the events that led to it. Gandhi became the face of an independence movement that had been building for decades, at least. The Great Man Theory ignores the contributions of countless people and social circumstances in order to examine a select few. It doesn’t help that those few are almost always male and white, Ghandi notwithstanding.
What does this have to do with roleplaying games, you may ask? The PCs are those Great Men. They are the important people whose whim shapes history. This is more obvious in large scale games, where the PCs lead armies or steer the course of nations, but it’s visible at small scale too. Even if all the PCs are doing is saving a village from goblin attacks, the focus is on them. There’s little to no examination of how the villagers feel – or how the goblins feel, for that matter.
To a certain extent, this is how it should be. The PCs are supposed to be the main characters of their story. Otherwise why spend so many hours playing them? The problem arises when the game focuses exclusively on their actions, as if nothing else matters. You see this more in roleplaying games than in other stories because nearly everything is told from the PC’s perspective. Everything is about them because they have the character sheets. Not only is this disingenuous, but it contributes to a savior complex – the idea that when there are problems, the only solution is to wait for some exceptional person to solve them. Outside of heroic fiction, those individuals are rare to nonexistent.
The first step in solving this problem is simply to have a well developed setting. If the fantasy kingdom/space empire/land of talking mice is more than just a collection of encounters, it will provide some context. If the PCs are invested in a setting, they will understand the complicated factors that give rise to their adventures. Are the villagers unable to protect themselves from goblins because they have no iron to make weapons? Were all their young people of fighting age conscripted to the King’s army? Perhaps the goblins are attacking in retaliation for their hunting grounds being turned into farmlands.
For the advanced GM, another valuable method is to flesh out minor NPCs. Not the village mayor or goblin chief, but the carpenter trying to patch up the holes in his stockade before the next raid. Be careful with this because it runs the risk of distracting the story with unimportant details, but it can be very valuable. If your players know what regular people are going through, what they think of the current situation, it will put a better context on their adventure. The game Kingdom uses certain PCs as Touchstones, someone who represents the views of common people.
The goal isn’t to make the PCs slaves to what’s going on around them. Player agency is important, and sometimes there are legitimate moments in which the course of history is determined by a single person’s choice. Instead, players should understand that their characters are part of a bigger world, that there are larger factors influencing their situation.
We’ve all joked about PCs being amnesiac orphans with no friends. It’s an oldie, but all too often it’s true. Protagonists in films and prose stories often have few familial connections as well, but PCs take it a step further. Not only do they not have parents, but they often have no human (or elven or Wookiee) relationships at all. They get quests from people, complete the quests, and receive their rewards. When PCs do have loved ones, they are usually the McGuffin for a vengeance or rescue story. There aren’t a lot of 30 Rock-style social drama roleplaying games.
Because most roleplaying games focus so heavily on combat mechanics, it’s easy to neglect a character’s social side. Even PCs with maxed out ranks in diplomacy focus more on heroic confrontations than healthy relationships. Roleplaying games are all about the adventure, and anything that could get in the way of rushing into the wilderness to plunder for treasure is ignored. PCs don’t have jobs, and they don’t have family members who depend on them to pay for student loans. They occupy a bizarre space that is parallel to society rather than part of it.
We do this to justify how the same group of people can get into a different, dangerous adventure every week. If the PCs have friends or family, why aren’t they with them? Nothing can distract from the search for more copper pieces!
Of course, anyone actually living the adventuring life would either be miserable or suffering from severe mental issues. Humans are social creatures, and few of us would last long in such a scenario. We all depend on others, even if we don’t want to admit it, and others depend on us.
It seems like the natural solution would be to have PCs create relationships with each other. After all, some of the strongest bonds between people are forged in the face of extreme adversity. However, it’s all too common for the PCs to barely tolerate each other. Characters who shun human contact in favor of treasure are unlikely to bond with others who are doing the same thing. Players get used to their characters as isolated islands and are unwilling or unable to connect with their fellow party members.
The key is to build up a stable of NPCs who can relate to the PCs in some way. They can be friends, family, or even enemies – anyone to show that the PC didn’t spring forth fully formed from nothing. Some systems, like Mouse Guard or Prime Time Adventures, make this part of the character creation process. For those that don’t, the GM will have to do a bit of extra work, but it’s worth the effort. PCs who are part of a community will be more willing to interact with each other, and they will feel any threat against that community more keenly.
For obvious reasons, this is easier to do in a stationary campaign than a traveling one. It’s difficult to justify all of the PC’s friends and family following them around. However, it is still doable. If your characters are part of a ship’s crew or other mobile group, then relationships can be drawn from that community. If they are truly on their own, then play on that. Have them receive letters from home. Give out bonuses to players who roleplay feelings of isolation. Torchbearer is a great example; in that game, adventurers want nothing more than to earn enough gold so they can stop being adventurers. Most importantly, show that no person is an island unto themselves.
Western culture has a bit of a fetish for explorers. We idolize them, from Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our roleplaying games focus on exploring new lands. PCs are always forging new paths through primal forest or being the first to set foot on an alien world. The problem is that, all too often, we have a completely incorrect idea of what exploration was like.
The vast majority of people we think of today as explorers were traveling through places where people already lived. They weren’t conquering untamed wilderness; they were asking for directions and buying supplies from the locals. The successful ones relied as much on diplomacy as navigation or survival.
Why does this matter? First of all, it’s pretty self-centered to say a place was discovered only when someone from our own culture got there. Far more importantly, the explorer myth pushes an idea of these new lands being effectively uninhabited. When natives are mentioned at all, they are documented more as part of the terrain than as actual residents. This is dehumanizing, and it justifies claiming a land’s resources for ourselves. After all, no one was really living there.
In roleplaying games, we’ve established an elaborate framework to justify the explorer myth. It’s amazing how the ‘evil’ races are used as obstacles to be overcome rather than neighbors that deserve respect. Orcs have a culture and society, yet no one bats an eye at intruding into their lands in search of treasure. We have the luxury of knowing that orcs can’t be reasoned with. They are inherently bad, so we don’t have to feel guilty about whatever we do to them. They are often referred to as a ‘savage’ race, inferior to civilization.
We have to remember that these stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and this exact same ideology has been used to justify horrific atrocities against human beings throughout history. Does that mean we can’t have games about exploration? Of course not; it simply means that we must be careful of how we portray the explorers.
The idea of explorers as diplomats has a lot of potential. Interacting with a strange culture far from home has drama and conflict practically baked into it. Instead of finding gnolls in shabbily constructed huts with treasure just waiting to be stolen, PCs could find themselves in the middle of a gnoll civil war and being entreated for aid by both sides. They could find themselves in the court of a crumbling monarchy, needing to decide if they will assist the revolutionaries or throw their lot in with the king.
If an old-fashioned trek through untamed wilderness is what you’re hankering for, there are options for that too. Some of the most dangerous expeditions in history have been to Antarctica, a huge landmass with no one living on it. Or you could take your inspiration from the early Americans as they crossed the land bridge from Asia, the first sapient beings to step forth on an unknown continent. There are numerous possibilities that don’t indulge the bigoted view of savages versus civilization.
This may come as a surprise, but roleplaying games aren’t always 100% realistic. We wouldn’t want them to be because we already live in real life. However, there is one area where roleplaying games are so consistently wrong that it becomes a problem: the continuous upward curve. That is, characters will always gain more and more power as they progress through a story. This power can be in the form of higher skills, new spells, better gear, etc. Across the vast majority of systems, we see the idea that PCs will always be more capable at the end of an adventure than they were at the start.
Clearly this is not the case in real life. While it’s true that humans get better at something the longer they do it, there are any number of factors working against us. For athletes, there is often a physical peak after which they will never be as good, no matter how much practice they put in. A pilot who loses their job and doesn’t sit in the cockpit for ten years is not going to get better at flying. A soldier wounded in combat could acquire a lifelong disability.
Beyond physical limits, there is the psychological impact to consider. Many PCs experience things that turn real people into gibbering wrecks. They endure levels of violence and trauma that should cause permanent damage, but they always seem to bounce back.
This is a problem not because it’s unrealistic but because it reinforces the idea that experiencing adversity is a positive thing. There’s a concept that ‘tough love’ can strengthen a person, make them ready for the challenges of life. You see this in people who think fat-shaming is a way to help others lose weight. In reality, bad things rarely cause anything good. When good things do happen, it’s despite the bad – not because of it.
This myth is difficult to address because (in some ways at least) we don’t want our fantasies to mirror real life. It would be a real bummer for our warrior to lose all fighting prowess because the ogre got in a spine crushing hit. At the same time, stories can have a lot more relevance when they reflect our actual experiences. There’s also empathetic value in stories that give us a taste of what it’s really like to experience serious trauma.
For groups who want to push back, there are a number of options. Games like Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness have systems for tracking a PC’s psychological wellness, and games like Burning Wheel have extremely realistic damage rules. Just be sure that everyone at the table is on board.
In real life, violence isn’t desirable and should be a last resort. People often disagree on when that last resort is necessary, but they usually agree on the general principle. In popular fiction it’s the opposite. Heroes are expected to use violence to solve most of their problems. In contrast, characters like Captain Picard stand out specifically because they try not to use violence.
In roleplaying games, this issue is even more pronounced, largely because of mechanics. In most systems, combat is still the default method for resolving conflict. There may be other options, but PCs gravitate towards fighting because that’s where most of the rules are. It’s not difficult to see why games work like this. Violence is exciting. It’s something that most well-off citizens of first world countries will rarely, if ever, experience. Dress up that violence with fireballs or hovercraft, and you’ve got an instant hook.
The problem is that real violence usually creates more problems than it solves. Even if a person or group of people seems evil, using violence against them is rarely a good option. There’s a little thing called the cycle of violence, showing that when two groups are in conflict, violence from one side always leads to violence from the other.
Roleplaying games often portray violent scenarios we would immediately recognize as terrible if they happened in any other context. Adventurers break into a goblin inhabited dungeon, kill any goblins that get in their way, then take their stuff. Even if the goblins were doing something bad, it’s hard to imagine a response like that being justified. Here we have another example of our conscience being assuaged because the deplorable act is being done against an “evil race” rather than innocent humans.
Of course, roleplaying games contain a lot of human on human violence as well. Shadowrun has a cyberpunk setting built around the idea of PCs as heavily armed robbers, and this is okay because they are stealing from evil corporations. Very rarely is any thought given to the collateral damage that would ensue if a group of gun-toting mercenaries actually got into a firefight in the lobby of a downtown corporate office. Even assuming there are no unintended casualties, PCs aren’t encouraged to think much of all the corporate security goons they mowed down on their way to grab the McGuffin.
The final contributing factor to roleplaying stories being such violent places is that PCs rarely suffer any mechanical consequences from their fights. When you remove the fear of getting hurt, there’s a lot less reason not to use violence. This is self perpetuating because it’s difficult to impose serious consequences for violence on a game where everyone is used to consequence-free violence. GMs who do run the serious risk of ruining their players’ fun.
Instead, the best course of action for GMs who want to scale back the violence in their games is to provide context. Show conflicts as the multisided, complicated messes that they are instead of simple good versus evil. Show what actually happens when opposing sides resort to killing each other. Flesh out the orc horde as a functioning society. Explore the reasons two groups have for fighting. Make violence something that happens when diplomacy fails. This doesn’t mean you can’t have sword fights or space battles in your game, but your players should see them as more than mechanical challenges to be overcome.
The most important thing to remember when examining these roleplaying myths is that none of them are insurmountable. They don’t mean that roleplaying is a bad medium for storytelling. Quite the opposite. Addressing these issues in your game is a great way to get players thinking, because they can actively participate. That said, not every game has to be about raising awareness or combating a flaw in our pop culture. Sometimes you just want to have a fun night without worrying about this stuff, and that’s fine. But if you plan your game to avoid these problematic myths, you’ll be taking a step towards improving both the medium and our society as a whole.
If you want more tips on how to solve problems like these in your games, I have another list right here.