Season's Greetings from Campaign Mastery

‘Tis the season for Perennials

Every year, around this time, the TV networks seem to trot out the same old stories, year after year. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least one if not two or more variations on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for example. There are good reasons for this – they are eternally popular, are relatively safe family viewing, and show that the network is getting into the spirit of the season. The same thing happens at Easter, for the same reasons.

Other entertainment & literary genres do it too

Nor are they alone. Christmas stories both original and derivative usually also manage to make their way into cinemas and comic books and, well, you name it. I haven’t seen that many big-budget Christmas computer games, though it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of some – and I know there are some relatively low-budget flash games out there that celebrate this time of year.

So Why not RPGs?

So that got me to thinking – why isn’t the same true of RPGs? Why are there so few Christmas Adventures out there? Why not more one-off games with simple rules systems intended to bring the spirit of the season to roleplaying gamers? I came up with several answers. And beyond this particular season, why aren’t classic fables used as the foundation for adventures more often?

The protagonist

Firstly, there’s the problem of the protagonist. Many of these stories are tales of victimization (Hansel & Gretel) or redemption (A Christmas carol) – and neither case would be welcome for an established character. That makes Christmas and Fable-based adventures far more difficult. Still, other media seem to be able to get around this, so this can’t be the whole answer.

The radical transformation

Second, many of these stories depict their protagonists going through a radical transformation of personality or circumstances – Jack and The Beanstalk, for example – and of course this is fundamentally true of any redemption plotline.

Stop and think about that for a moment in a roleplaying context: a PC is to go through a radical transformation instigated and controlled by the GM, quite possibly against its’ player’s wishes. These plots require the GM to quite literally usurp the prerogatives that should be exclusively in the player’s domain.

That is never a good idea, and it undermines the entire concept of RPGs based on fables and seasonal plots.

Incongruity in setting

Many of these stories feature elements that simply don’t make sense in most games. The classic example would have to be the gingerbread house or the three talking bears, but there are others. Take “A Christmas Carol” – it’s quite one thing to have a character like Ebenezer Scrooge in an industrial setting and quite another to create a fantasy/medieval analogue. Scrooge works because in an industrial era, behavior such as his is considered antisocial and undesirable; in a medieval world, Nobles are expected and entitled to behave that way. Consequently, such transplants are never quite satisfying.

The Lecture Failure

Another failing of these types of stories is that they often seem to lecture or preach to the reader/viewer. It’s very hard to do a Christmas- or fable- themed adventure without this becoming a factor – and while it can be tolerated for the sake of a good story, it’s far more acceptable to watch this happen to someone else than to have it directed at you. While not a death-blow for such RPG adventures, it’s yet another hurdle that they have to clear.

Unlike behavior

Further problems quickly arise from unlikely behavior on the part of the protagonist that is central to the plot. Take the story of Androcles and the Lion – If a PC encountered a dangerous beast that was handicapped by a thorn in it’s paw (or equivalent), I sincerely doubt that many of them would have the first reaction of removing that claw. A Druid might – but such a character would violate the central tenet of the story because he would never be in any danger from such a beast (unless it was unnatural, I suppose). A naturalist would, and would place himself in considerable danger as a consequence – but because that is the sort of behavior one would expect of such a character, another of the central points of the plot falls flat.

Sure, the GM could force the character to behave in an unlikely way because its central to the plot – but I don’t think his game would get very far or be very popular. Once again, we’re back at the GM usurping the player’s prerogatives with respect to his character, which is railroading of the worst – and most unpopular – sort.

The Lame Factor

Finally, we come to perhaps the most decisive problem of them all. I’ve read a number of the comic ‘adaptions’ of these classic tales and other seasonal issues – they used to appear in Superman with great regularity, for example, and I can remember one or two Justice Leagues, a Green Lantern, and so on – and almost universally, the stories were incredibly and undeniably LAME. No matter what age you were, they seemed to be talking to someone five years younger than you were (or more). (For some reason, all the examples that are coming to mind were published by DC Comics. I’m sure Marvel did some, too, but I don’t remember them.)

Only those stories that take the time of year as just another circumstance – like the classic “Merry Xmas X-men” in which the Sentinels returned, ultimately leading Marvel Girl to become Phoenix, or the even better plotline in which Kitty Pride is at the mansion alone on Christmas (the others are at the airport picking someone up, I think) when a demon comes stirring – avoid this problem. But they are beside the point – we’re talking about the use of fables and seasonals as the basis of adventures, and these succeed by not deriving from these sources.

The Solution is at hand

For all these reasons, crafting a satisfying plotline from these classic stories is very hard to do. But it’s not impossible, and I’m about to show you how it’s done…

Supporting Roles

If the protagonist role is not going to work for a PC, make the protagonist an NPC and put the PCs into the supporting cast. Imagine a version of “A Christmas Carol” in which the PCs get recruited to play the part of the Spirits Of Christmas – with additional roles as needed. If you simply give some firm direction at the start and then the PCs decide on the details of “the plot” it can work spectacularly well.

The Kiddy Version

The second secret is to treat these classic sources as children’s versions of the story or of part of it – and reimagine them for a more adult contemporary audience. Instead of three bears, use three trolls – and rearrange the setting to a troll’s den. Instead of a gingerbread house, contemplate a leviathan which is inhabited by a sentient parasitic race who tear living flesh from the ‘walls’ for food.

The Fable as Metaphor

Use the source material as a metaphor for the real plotline, in other words. Take Androcles and the Lion – instead of Lion, let’s have a Goblin King, and instead of a thorn, let’s have a metaphoric “thorn in his side” – it could be an ambitious Shaman or a treaty that is compelling him to send his tribe on a suicide mission. Suddenly, the PCs can come up with the notion of “removing the thorn” as a realistic solution to their immediate problem (whatever it might be) and winning the King’s gratitude and aid.

The Meaning Of Christmas

Above all, Christmas – regardless of one’s philosophy or faith – is a celebration of family unity and of the continual rebirth of hope. Those are themes that can be worked into the plotline of any campaign – can be seasonal without being lame or derivative. So, next December, why not run an adventure that commemorates the season?

I wish all of Campaign Mastery’s readers and contributors a happy, safe, and enjoyable holiday season. Season’s Greetings to everyone!

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