Many people have lamented that videogames do not have the fictional depth that can elicit real emotion. “When will a videogames make us cry?” they ask. Movies, theater, and literature can make us feel happy or sad, but these media have hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of experience in perfecting the storytelling methods that work for each medium’s strengths and weaknesses. Gaming is young by comparison, but I think that one form of game has the ability to make the player feel something strong. It’s just not the emotion that everyone is shooting for.
Dungeons & Dragons allows player agency better than any videogame; we as players choose to do the things that our characters accomplish. Because of this, players are free to experience the emotions that are the consequence of our actions. We feel sadness when someone is lost. We feel triumph when we defeat the big bad guy. We feel anger and frustration when we are betrayed.
Usually, it is the Dungeon Master who creates the situations that elicit these emotions. Through roleplaying every other character in the campaign or session, the DM becomes both confidante and adversary. I’ve had sessions where I’ve played a male character speaking to a female priestess where I completely lost sight of the fact that the “female” was my friend Bill. When a game can do that, when the game becomes a reality simulation, then a broad spectrum of real feelings can be felt by the player.
In one game that I played in New York City, I chose to play a young kid in a big metropolis whose father was the only family that he had. Pyrano was experiencing changes (turning into a dragon, actually), and his father was the only connection to his old life. Through the course of the first few adventures in the city of Sasserine, Pyrano would check in at his father’s esoteric shop of wondrous items quite often. I would ask my father about the changes that were happening to me. At first, the DM assumed that I was talking about the draconic changes and concentrated on the mechanics, but then he began to play a more father-like character and offered advice on becoming a man. The draconic changes became a metaphor for adolescence. Though we would only roleplay it a few minutes of every session, it felt like an ongoing relationship that meant something to both me the player and the DM, a new father.
That’s why it felt so powerful when I had to leave him. The adventure storyline was moving to the Isle of Dread, and Pyrano was going to travel with his friends. Saying goodbye to Pyrano’s father felt like a son leaving to go to college. All of the advice and recommendations he gave me would be put to the test but he would no longer be there to watch it happen. I felt all of the conflicting emotions of growing up – excitement, trepidation, responsibility – even though I was in my late twenties and married at the time.
Last night, something occurred in my weekly old school D&D game that also had a profound effect on me. Our group has been trying to stave off the Dark Dawn, wherein every “undead” would rise and kill us “normal” people, almost since I joined the party. The DM has created a rich open world that is driven through player choice. There is no railroad, but we have been choosing to try to stop the Dark Dawn in incremental steps because it behooves us as player characters. The undead apocalypse isn’t good for anyone.
In the party is a cleric of the Lawgiver, who is the equivalent to the “goodiest good guy who ever goodied.” The cleric’s name is Balbus, and he has been a fun character to play because he has a very low wisdom and intelligence. Despite that, he was, in many ways, the spiritual core of the group; all of us have had to convert to his religion in order to be raised from the dead by his god. Some of the more chaotic players have clashed with Balbus’ ideas of justice and law, but we always looked to him for guidance, healing and the general “OK” to go forward with some crazy plan.
That all changed last night. The party reached a point where we were able to parley with Ner-Gahl, the undead dreadlord that has been attacking our strongholds and who is orchestrating the Dark Dawn. In some ways, I believed that the conversation with evil incarnate was a necessary preamble, where the bad guy offers the player characters a place of glory as warlords in his evil crusade. This would give us, the heroic player characters, the chance to say, “Screw you, evil dude! We’ll never join you!” and then proceed with the killing time.
Except that wasn’t what happened at all. Balbus declared that he was casting and fired off one of his most effective spells, “Finger of Death” … at his own henchmen. Ner-Gahl said, “Yes! Balbus, you will lead my church!” Balbus had joined the enemy and betrayed us all. The players around the table were all stunned. Was this some crazy plan? Did our most honorable friend really just betray us? I felt a wave of many emotions crash over me. Anger, resentment, betrayal, guilt.
The rest of the session played out as expected. One character applauded Balbus and immediately joined him. Two characters refused and were cut down in two rounds by Ner-Gahl and Balbus. Two of us, my elf Farlaghn among them, were on the fence. Farlaghn was unwilling to die and hoped to survive the encounter by agreeing to join the forces of evil, even if I as a player felt that this was horribly wrong. Maybe I could steal the bodies of those cut down and get them resurrected by a lawful cleric, I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking straight.
It must be stated that I don’t fault the player who made this tumultuous decision. It was in line with how he chose to roleplay his character and it was a gaming moment that I will remember forever. Balbus was a coward, who didn’t join the church of the Lawgiver for any noble reasons. When presented with chance to join the winning team, he took it. It was great roleplaying, because it forced everyone at the table to make a decision.
It is a testament to the player agency that Alex Macris has put forth in his columns that such an event could even happen. That it was a story that exists only in the collective imaginations of those present at the table last night makes it even more remarkable. I felt angry and upset when it happened: not at the player who made the decision to betray us, but at the character of Balbus. How could he have done this to us? These emotions are only possible to recreate in a game like Dungeons & Dragons.
Maybe videogames should stop trying to make us cry. Instead, perhaps games should aim to make us feel sad to leave loved ones, as I felt when I said goodbye to Pyrano’s father, or allow us to have so much agency that it feels like a real betrayal when a character like Balbus does something heinous.
Greg Tito admires the huevos that were needed to betray friends, but couldn’t give up the tenets of heroic roleplaying to fully embrace the dark side. Sorry, Balbus.