Alternate Alternatives

It was true pleasure to moderate a panel of delightful guests such as Julie Barret, Tim Morgan, and Sue Sinor for the FenCon “Alternative History” session.

Theme: Alternate History | Family | BoardGameGeek

It’s funny, I spent a week preparing for this panel and telling people I’d never published AH – before realizing I had. But, because of the filters of perception, it took me until the night before the session.

In 2019, I have the honor of contributing to Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith, a charity anthology of Dr. Who stories revolving around the eponymous companion, raising money for cancer research in memory of the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. My contribution, Swinging Londons, involves the space-time around London becoming dangerously unstable, shifting into alternate versions of itself every couple hours. Sarah Jane and the Doctor have to navigate their way through a panoply of Londons, some delightful, some demented, some dangerous, as they attempt to identify and halt the disturbance.

So, as it turns out, I’m going into moderating this panel significantly more qualified than I thought.

The Greatest Hits of All Time(s)

So, let’s talk about a couple of AH titles that have really influenced me both as a writer and a reader.

Lest Darkness Fall: “Rome Never Falls,” is one of the most hackneyed, cliché divergence points in AH. And yet this 1939 classic from L. Sprague de Camp doesn’t suffer for it in the least. There are several reasons for that. First, its focus is on why and how the Empire is preserved. Second, it takes as its starting point the late Roman Empire, when Gothic influence is already strong and a variety of Christian sects battle via polemic (and occasionally via pommel) in the streets, which is a very different beast from the “Salad Days of the Caesars” Rome that dominates AH. Third, while technically retro, its tone of innocence and clear-eyed optimism feels fresh and novel and against a genre that is often gritty and pessimistic. Finally, of course, with a 1939 publication date, the cliché that Rome Never Falls later become doesn’t really apply to Lest Darkness Fall (except, perhaps, for being such a brilliant book that it spawned countless imitators). (Bel NEMETON)

Lest Darkness Fall (Del Rey SF Classics): L. Sprague deCamp, Ed Emshwiller  - cover: 9780345310163: Books

The Difference Engine: Often considered the first great Steampunk novel, or at least the first to successfully marry critical acclaim with commercial success. Some purists reject the idea of Steampunk and subset of AH because it often utilizes (or at least implies) variant physical laws rather than a possible (in not plausible) divergence point. The Difference Engine offers neat refutation of that argument for at least some steampunk. Its divergence point is a simple matter of a plausible invention that did not work in our world being designed just a little bit better: specifically, what it Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” had worked, thus creating an effective mechanical computer in the 19th century. The Difference Engine’s world is understated, looking much like the Victorian Era we knew rather than the self-aware, over-the-top aesthetic that has come to characterize much of steampunk. For all that, I find the question of “what if the Victorians had the same ability to collate, process, and analyze data that we do?” much more provocative and far reaching than “What if airships were everywhere?” (And, no, I’m not hating on airships – they’re awesome).

Harry Turtledove: Okay, normally when I hear an author described as “The Master of” anything, I role my eyes and take it with a grain of salt. But the “Master of Alternate History” earns his stripes. Most of his oeuvre could justly claim a place on a list of The Best of Alternative History. His Worldwar series and Timeline-191 series are remarkable achievements in AH, rivaled only by Eric Flint’s 1632 series. Turtledove’s Crosstime Traffic AH series, while well-crafted YA, pulls no punches either intellectually or emotionally.

To cite a lesser known but fully worthy stand-alone title. Ruled Britannia is tale of intrigue, occupation, and … theatre, in an England where Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is now a Spanish possession. The tale unfolds largely through the eyes of each power’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. As characters, they are wonderful and their interactions with each other are delightful to behold.

Anatomy of an Alternative History

Every AH has two components.

The man who was nearly Oppenheimer
  • The Divergence Point, is the moment at which the world’s history begins differing from our own.
  • The Affect (not the Effect) is the world which results from changes accumulating and compounding since the divergence point which the author wishes to portray in their story.

Stories about the Divergence Point itself, merging Divergence Point and Affect into a Singularity, are certainly possible: Lest Darkness Fall and Turtledove’s How Few Remain are examples that immediately come to mind. 

The two main approaches to developing Alternate History stories are derived from the relationship of these components.

Approach #1: the author starts be selecting a Divergence Point and then extrapolates out the Affect. 

Approach #2: the author already knows the Affect they want a retro-engineers a divergence point that plausibly brings it to pass. All my AH work, published or allegedly in progress, has used this approach.

Running Out of Steam?

From my perspective, steampunk has become to AH what zombies have become to horror. While there is still really good, ground-breaking work being done in the genre, it has become something of a “default setting,” leading to a field crowded with unimaginative offers retreading the same well-worn tropes. Some of the most exciting work I see being done in the genre mines the potential of settings and times away from the clichés of Victorian Britain, the American West, etc. For example, the Antics of Evangeline, by Madeleine D’Este, uses the very Steampunk-friend but underutilized setting of Melbourne, Australia at the height of the Australian gold rush as the setting for a series of fresh-feeling YA steampunk novellas.

“Missed it by that much.” Babbage’s analytical engine.

I like steampunk, but I still don’t entirely understand why it became such a phenomenon. I am curious whether any of the AH “baby punks” (atomic punk, clock punk, deco punk, diesel punk, steel punk, stonepunk, etc.) can or will become a literary and cultural phenomenon akin to steampunk. Personally, I hold out hope for clockpunk and diesel punk because I like the aesthetic (Brenden Carlson’s Night Call is an excellent recent example of diesel punk, with noir-ish nods to Blade Runner, American Gangster, and the Untouchables). Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been toying with ideas for a clockpunk series. Want a teaser? It…get ready for it…involves Da Vinci (wasn’t I complaining about over-worn tropes just a paragraph ago?)

And continuing on that theme, what of the three tired old monarch of divergence points: Confederates Win, Nazis Win, and Rome Never Falls? Given that, in addition to being cliché, two of them are potentially problematic if handled improperly, is there still a future for them in AH. For at least two of them, I think the answer is yes.

Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle shows there is still a public appetite for examining the grim consequences of Axis Victory. I am, however, more interested in the possible future for the other two.

We are seeing a reckoning and frank reexamination of the history of race and racism in America. The stories we tell ourselves about the Civil War is perhaps the fulcrum of the debate. Some intriguing work has already been done in the area. After his stand-alone novel Guns of the South (arguably as much a character study as an alternative history), Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191 takes a brutally frank look at the consequences of a Confederate victory, extrapolating it to an absolutely dystopian conclusion in the modern day. But I feel the current reexamining and awakening opens even more possibilities for AH on this theme. There will no doubt be some AH “Lost Cause” apologies offered in the mix, but I hope the vast majority of new works will reflect the more honest accounting we are seeing emerge.   

With America’s place in the world changing, and seemingly changing very fast, Rome Never Falls store have a new relevance. As a generation of US global hegemony seems to be fading into a world where America is just one superpower among several, I wonder if we are going to see a flurry of new “Eternal Empire” AH. And I wonder how many of these will be the vessel for some a kind of thinly-veiled FTFY narrative about American’s changing stature; and how many will be genuine if allegorical examinations of the choices available to us, and their consequences.

The Paradox of Alternate History

While ostensibly about the past, AH is really about the present in future. When authors chose divergence points and design effects, we are really commenting about what we believe is significant in the present, and broadcasting our hopes and fears about the future. Moving toward the close of 2021 and the birth of 2022, what trends do I see for AH in the near future?

First, yes, lots of pandemic and disease stories. Look for a plague (ha-ha) of Black Death stories, but also some potentially cannier AH outliers about the 1917 flu, the plague of Justinian, malaria, cholera, maybe even one where the 1970s Swine Flu outbreak proved as bad as few experts predicted. Oh, and if anyone wants to write a story was St. Vitus’s Dance was actual contagious disease…I will read the hell out of that.

And, of course, look for widespread use of themes of alienation, political and social division, unrest, and tyranny.

How Old is the Great Wall of China? - WorldAtlas
A lot of great AH…on either side of this wall.

I would love to see a move away from political, military, and technological divergence points toward a greater embrace of social and cultural divergence points. Some of this can already be seen at work, Apple TV’s For All Mankind, while using the space race as the inciting event, is really an AH about gender roles, inclusivity, and diversity.  But my poor little music journalist heart is always asking “Okay, but what does this alternate history sound like? Does it have a good beat? Can you dance to it?”

But my biggest wish for AH would be a broader and deeper range of voices contributing to the genre. Even when the divergence point or effect are not explicitly Western (as with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt or Harry Turtledove’s Through Darkest Europe, AH authors remain overwhelmingly of European descent and predominantly male. It would hard to refute allegations that the genre skews Eurocentric. All genres benefit from increasing the range of voices among their authors, but I believe such diversity would be especially valuable (and is especially needed) for AH.

The In-Between On Liminal Spaces

The Haunted Roseman Covered Bridge In Iowa Is Truly Disturbing

It was great pleasure to moderate FenCon’s “Liminal Spaces” session for two pannels as eriudite and insightful as Mark Finn and Carolyn Kay.

“Liminal Spaces” and “liminality” are powerful words, ones we often seem to appreciate intuitively rather than consider rationally. Despite, or perhaps because, of that, it can mean many different things to different people, especially depending on one’s primarily lens into liminality. With that in mind, here are some discipline-specific definitions:

Anthropology: The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete” – Victor Turner.

Psychology: A space in our lives where the old self-narrative does not fit any longer and the new narrative has not yet emerged. – Dr. Vincent Deary

Architecture: …the transitional threshold between two fixed states in cultural rites of passage or between two dissimilar spaces in architecture … from which principles can be drawn for the design of a transformative space. The characteristics that define liminal space include layering, dissolution, blurring, and ambiguity and have the ability to transform the occupant of that space as they move through it… – Patrick Troy Zimmerman

Western Magical Tradition: Witches walk between the worlds, with one foot in the world of force and the world of form — The Gardnerian Librarian

Literature: “The state of being on a threshold in space or time” – A Handbook to Literature

Popular Culture #1: On the surface, liminal spaces can be defined by their in between-ness. Places like airports, hotels, and train stations can be described as liminal, but it can also describe existential feelings of being neither here nor there. In the context of the pandemic, liminality takes on a metaphorical meaning, as we sit in our homes contemplating what life was like before and what it will become again in the future. – Günseli Yalcinkaya

Liminality: The history of an Idea

Arnold van Gennep - Wikidata
Arnold van Gennep, looking very liminal.

The term liminality (From the Latin, limen, a threshold) was first used in 1909 by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites of Passage, focusing on liminal rituals in small-scale traditional societies. This strong focus on liminality in the context of Rites of Passage continues throughout its early anthropological use. 

The concept was reinvigorated by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who began exploring its role in other kinds of societies (for which Turner coined the term liminoid, a distinction which has not generally caught on) and examining its impact on those experiencing liminality in a way which prefigured its adoption by psychology. Anthropologist Agnes Horvath further refined the use of liminality in the discipline by pointing out problems with the concept as used by Gennep and Turning, including identifying liminal/liminoid as a false dichotomy and questioning their portrayal of liminality and liminal experience as universally positive phenomenon.      

Jungian psychologists (and to a lesser extent, other schools of psychology) were quick to pick up on liminality’s applicability to individual, internal growth and development as well as external social relations. Once seeded in two academic disciplines, to concept of liminality rapidly spread to other academic disciplines including folklore, literature, and architecture.

While the ideas of liminal space and liminal experience had already been filtering through to popular culture, the internet drastically accelerated the process, to the point that in 2021 liminality is broadly understood concept even if its release into the wilds of popular culture has expanded or muddied (your preference) its meaning – including the idea of a liminality as aesthetic and a focus on mood and atmosphere. It has found an especially potent home in the realms of urban folklore and creepypasta, most notably the “Backrooms” and their purported (liminal) ability to be reached by no-clipping through regular reality.        

Perhaps it’s only because the other panel I’m moderating at Fenon this year is on Alternate History but, I wonder in particular about a modern understanding of liminality might have impacted the world of two well known scholars.

For Jung, liminality was an individual phenomenon, the process in the psyche’s development when it could not return to what it had been…but did not yet know what it would become. Jung passed in 1961. I would be very curious what he would make of the word’s evolution over the following half-century, and why kind of conceptual leaps he might have made with the word’s greater flexibility.

The anthropologist Sir James Frazer died in 1941, and his most fertile period was around the turn of the century when “liminal space” wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I am very curious what he might have done with the concept of liminality if could have been part of his mental universe while compiling The Golden Bough.

Liminality as Storytelling

Liminality is inherent to most of the major models of storytelling.

In Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” liminal space begins when the threshold his crossed (notice that Campbell uses the term ‘threshold,’ from which its Latin equivalent WORD, liminal is derived) and arguably does not end until returning across the threshold. Though a case could certainly be made that the liminal period of the Hero’s Journey ends with the rebirth/renewal event.

In Victoria Lynn Scmidt’s “Heroine’s Journey,” liminality begins with the phase of descent/passing the gates of judgment and does not end until either rebirth or returning to the world with new eyes. 

Kenya's Maasai mark rite of passage | Lifestyle |
Maasai Rite of Passage

“Rules” of Liminality?

Unlike mundane space, in liminal space there are very few rules. Gennep posited that liminal experience or ritual had three distinct phases:

  1. Preliminal: A kind of metaphorical death, as old statuses and ways are broken and left behind.
  2. Transitional: The truly liminal moment of transition, when an individual undergoing liminal experience is neither one thing nor the other.
  3. Postliminal: When the individual is reincorporated into society reflecting their new status or experience gained through undergoing the liminal rite.

Note that the idea that liminality is simultaneously destructive and creative (like the dance of Shiva and Vishnu) is inherent to Gennap’s three phase model.

The model for liminal event or rite is easily portable to liminal space, with two boundary zones wrapped around a core area of pure liminality.

In formal Rites of Passage, rituals and order events are rigorously detailed and may occur under the supervision of an elder or master of ceremonies with almost dictatorial powers. In some ways, the role of therapist/psychologist in liminal psychology mirrors that role. In broader usage of liminality, however, the idea of a prescribed order of events or master of ceremonies may be irrelevant or even nonsensical. 

That there are few rules to liminality only makes the ones that do exist even more important (notice that the punishments for violating the few rules of ancient liminal festivals such as Saturnalia were often incredibly harsh).  

Varieties of Liminal Space and Experience

The Natural World: Caves (Think of “The Goonies,” where the characters’ quest takes them on descent into the underworld that is inexorably linked with a Rite of Passage toward adulthood.  Natural Springs, Running water, shores.

Journey to the Center of the Earth Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible
Caves are liminal spaces. So, I imagine, are shirtless Pat Boones.

“We’ve Got to Close the Beaches” If the shore is considered a liminal space, “Jaws” can be seen as quest to defend liminal space, and those who use it for their vacations (itself a modern kind of liminality), from an external threat that could otherwise create a hard border between the realm of land and sea.

Artifacts of Human Agency: Borders, Bridges, Crossroads, airports, bus terminals, hotels, theaters and performance spaces (more about that one later).

Borders do not get enough attention as liminal spaces. This includes between “civilization” and “the wild” (the frontier, etc) but also borders between political or socio-cultural groups. The treatment of these as liminal spaces in science fiction and fantasy is so ubiquitous that we often don’t even think of it as such. These borders between worlds of the mind are where new ideas and possibilities emerge, where danger and opportunity can be found, and where ADVENTURE! happens.

Seen from this perspective, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, almost the whole damn things, from the first footstep outside of the shire until the return, are liminal journeys. Which raises a curious question, if liminality persists long enough with no clear end in sight, does it cease to be liminal and, instead, become the new normal. Is that why, in Tolken, peaceful interludes like the visit to Rivendell or Beorn’s freehold feel like liminal spaces within liminal spaces?

Astronomical Phenomena: Solstices & Equinoxes, Dawn & Dusk (literal “twilight zones”). Comets and  meteor showers (interruptions of the established order of the nighttime sky). Eclipses (the intrusion of darkness into daytime is extremely liminal…and possibly terrifying).

Nikolai Astrup | Midsummer Night Bonfire (1917) | MutualArt
Midsummer Night Bonfire

Holidays: In almost every calendrical system, the equivalent of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are seen as liminal (the period between the death of the old year and the birth of the new). Other holidays have strong liminal aspects. These include the great pre-Lenten festivals (Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas, Fastelavn, etc.) where the border between the regular year and the restrictions of Lent are marked by a celebration of excess. It also includes days when the barrier between the living and the dead is thinned or removed (All Souls’ Day, Dia de Los Muertos, Midsummer Night/St. John’s Day, Twelfth Night, Walpurgisnacht). Some of those are also seen as periods of liminality between the mortal realm and the Lands of the Faerie (or equivalent).

Phases of Life: Adolescence is a prolonged period of liminality, trapped awkwardly between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers are trapped in prolonged liminality. I believe this is why “coming of age” stories are so popular. And I think may at least in part explain the popularity of YA beyond its titular demographic: coming of age stories are liminal stories.

In art as in life, the liminality of adolescence is often paired with liminal Rites of Passage. In The Hunger Games, the Games function as a Rite of Passage of the most absolute sort, with the only outcomes Adulthood or Oblivion. In Shadow & Bone, the Unsea (in the books) or Shadow Fold (in the TV series) is a tangible and very lethal liminal space separating the world’s nations from each other. Of course, this is YA, so as the young protagonists brave the perilous journey through the Unsea/Shadow Fold, it also become a (guess what?)… Rite of Passage into adulthood.

High School, a four year long Rite of Passage, is fertile ground for storytelling, and especially long-form storytelling (everything from Freaks & Geeks to Glee to Buffy).

I think there is another island of liminality in the human lifetime, middle age: that period between adulthood and old age. It does not received as much attention as adolescence in media, but it is still there. It is why we thrill at seeing Henry Jones Sr. acting as foil to his son Indiana, why we have a love-hate relationship with Walter White – who subverts the norms and expectations of his age, and why we are so fascinated by Hobbits (to say nothing of Dwarves and Elves) whose longevity is so different from our own brief spans.

Performance Spaces: Cinema, the stage and music venues are all extremely liminal. Places with no permanent residences, they are a place apart from daily life where a transient population comes and goes to interact with a diversity of stories (many of which are themselves liminal).

Liminal Technology? Looking at liminality in the context scifi, and specifically Star Trek, is the transporter liminal? What about the Holodeck? 

Relationship Between the Liminal and the Supernatural in Folklore and Fiction

Because liminal spaces are places where the normal order is suspended, things can happen there that can’t happen anywhere else (summoning the Devil, or various trickster entities at the crossroads, for example). Conversely, liminal spaces can hinder or even bar the supernatural for exercising powers it would otherwise normally possess (vampires’ inability to cross running water).

The Cereal Monsters Will Unite for a Halloween Monster Mash - Nerdist
Supernatural Horror’s enduring archetypes: part of this liminal breakfast

Most of supernatural horror’s enduring archetypes are liminal. Vampires, ghosts, and other intelligent undead are neither truly living nor truly dead. Werewolves are neither fully human nor fully beast. Frankenstein’s Monster and its countless analogs inhabit the liminal uncanny valley occupied by the imperfect creation of an imperfect creation.

The only real exception I can think of are zombies, at least in their modern post-Night of the Living Dead incarnation. Traditional zombies are different matter. If you want a pre-NotLD zombie flick that oozes liminality, check out 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie.

Vampire fiction seems especially aware of its inherent liminality. Whether something to be sought or something to be avoided, “the embrace” is often portrayed as Rite of Passage, a moment when on is neither truly human nor truly vampire, the death of an old life and the beginning of a new. Anne Rice does a very good job of capturing this in The Vampire Chronicles. So, too, does True Blood/The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which is very good at capturing the liminality of the supernatural in general). Though, in my opinion, the TV series highlights the sense of the liminal better than the books.

In Cosmic Horror/The Mythos, it can be argued that space between the first hint that “all is not as it seems” and the final, horrible, madness-inducing revelation, represents a journey through the liminal. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow sometimes reads like one giant liminal space…and therein lies both its glory and its downfall. Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle” uses liminality in multiple, sometimes interlocking ways.

Faith and the Liminal

Just starting with the Abrahamic Faiths, liminality and liminal space are central to their foundational accounts:

  • Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and establish the covenant.
  • Jesus spending 40 days in the desert before formally beginning his mission.
  • Mohammed visiting a cave to hear the Quran dictated by the Archangel Gabriel.
Book of the Dead: A Guidebook to the Afterlife
The Egyptian Book of the Dead: Handbook for a Liminal Journey

Purgatory is a liminal space. So is the soul’s journey to the afterlife in Pharaonic mythology. In many cultures, the souls of the dead are believed to linger on earth for a period of time before transitioning to the afterlife. Persephone is more than a liminal character, she is the embodiment of liminality itself. Mystery Cults made use of physical liminal spaces like caves for Rites of Passage such as initiations.

Religious ritual is often a liminal space itself. And many religions treat places of worship as liminal spaces, separate from and subject to different rules than, mundane space. While he does not explicitly use the terms liminality or liminal space, Mircea Eliade’s landmark book The Sacred & The Profane is an excellent examination of this phenomenon.

Contemporary Liminality

Is the Internet a Liminal Space? I don’t know. From a retro-futuristic angle, the internet as conceived by Gibson, Sterling, ‘80s-’90s ttrpgs, etc. certainly was. But the internet we know and live with? I think that is more of a question. It is certainly interstitial. But has it become too ubiquitous and too mundane to truly qualify as liminal space.

Liminality in the Time of Covid (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The pandemic meets the definition of liminal space in a surprising number of ways, even conforming to more academic definitions of a Rite of Passage…with behaviors, prescriptions, lexicon, and even “ritual garments” that can be fully understood only in the context of the liminal event.

FIN: Thanks for stopping by on your way to someplace else.

“Role-Playing” not “Roll-Playing” (original, huh?)

“Do you like getting right up in a monster’s face and giving it what for?  Do you prefer to stand waaaay back and throw fireballs or shoot arrows?  Or maybe healing up your comrades is more your style?  Let’s discuss how to choose the right personality for your RPG character.”

It was a great honor to participate in FenCon’s “What’s my Role” panel with Chaz Kemp and Rie Sheridan Rose. Special thanks to Sarah Brigdon for successfully wrangling a panel whose passions ran to so many different yet worthy aspects of roleplaying.

Conversations along the lines of “Okay, I’m the frontline fighter. You’re the rogue. But we need a caster. And who is going to play the cleric?” are as old as gaming itself. Yet, the more analytical approach of party composition and conflation of combat role with personality is relatively recent, only making its way into the gaming community in the past 15 years or so (yes, my friends, against the long history of gaming, that qualifies as “relatively” recent).

Fourth-Edition D&D gave us the terms “Controller, Defender, Leader or Striker” and the part breakdown of “The Tank, The Damage, The Healer, The Support, The Control, The Face, The Scout” has become pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes, MMO terminology like DPS even makes its way into table top gaming.

We don’t “Murder-Hobo” anymore (much).

That this is a recent development is the more curious as, over the long line of gaming history, there is clear trend toward less time in combat and more time in other activities/challenges. There are, of course, exceptions. In seeking to emulate online gaming, 4E D&D was very much a throwback — and certain systems, including Traveler and the various Warhammer RPG products, can lend themselves to combat heavy games. But, for most gaming in 2021, it is important to look at PC roles beyond combat. Below, I take a brief look at three alternate lens for this issue.

Functionality: This lens considers a PC’s preferred approach to problem solving. Cyberpunk 2020’s use of “roles,” is a good example of this. A given “role” provides skills, experiences, and abilities reflecting an attitude and approach to the meeting the world on the PC’s terms. To cite a few examples: Yes, solos are “kill it with lead and monofilament katanas” kind of people. But there are fixers who, if they can’t do something or find something, know someone who can. Techies believe if a machine can’t solve your problem, any problem, it’s to sit down and build a better machines. Conversely, nomads feel there is no problem than can’t be solved by inviting along another sibling our cousin. This lens ensures party are well covered for a variety of challenges and settings, not only combat.

Archetypes: This lens considers the internal landscape and emotional constitution of PCs. One of the most obvious examples is the Nature/Demeanor system from White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe. Players chose both a nature (true self) and demeanor (exterior persona) from a large preset list of archetypes (Autocrat, Bon Vivant, Child, Loner, etc.) for their character. These are more than just guides for roleplaying, acting in accordance with one’s nature and demeanor is the main method for regaining Willpower, which is important in World of Darkness. Having diverse natures and demeanors in the party helps ensure that someone is always regaining Willpower. Even in systems where this is not explicitly rewarded through game mechanics, there is a qualitative advantage to party of diverse mental states and emotional constitutions to respond to a variety of situations.

A happy party…

Narrative Dynamics: Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling. So it is little surprise many of the tropes and dynamics that are effective in other forms of storytelling work in roleplaying as well. The right party dynamic, or even dynamic between two or more players within a party, can really bring an adventure to life. The dynamics between characters in other media can serve as inspiration or conversational shorthand for party composition. I’ve seen a party who, six sessions in, realized their Call of Cthulhu campaign was a cosmic horror Scoobie Doo. I’ve seen Shadowrun street samurai who might as well have been Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I’ve seen two Vampires go “Winchester Brothers in reverse,” tracking down hunters in a black van with blacked out windows. I’ve even seen a concept campaign inspired by Sartre’s “No Exit,” with characters designed to hate each other but be unable to escape each other. Nobody wanted to push it beyond three sessions, but those sessions were fascinating and entertaining.

No one of the lenses discussed above is inherently superior. And, yes, even in combat light games, the combat lens still has its place. Most parties will get the best results from using a mix of all of them, and the doing what sounds fun. These lenses are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is to create compelling characters with rich stories that allow them to engage with the world on multiple levels. Whether they gel in combat is not trivial, but is a secondary consideration. As a GM, I would happily taken on trying to design fights for a party that is sub-optimized for combat if it means I have a party full of compelling, three-dimensional personalities that let me create opportunities for rich and meaningful collaborative storytelling.    

With so many types of characters to choose from in RPGs, does playing a character that is different from your real self give you empathy for that type of person in Real Life? 

In 2015, a study administered the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standard psychological instrument for measuring empathy, to 127 frequent roleplayers. These gamers significantly outperformed a control group.

I suppose it should be little surprise that gaming can correlate to high levels of empathy. That, I think, is part of roleplaying’s appeal for many of us – the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. And, while people have different baselines for empathy, it is a learnable skill that strengthens with use.

Psychology and counseling make extensive use of free form roleplaying. Frequent uses include confronting phobias and managing stress, anxiety, or trauma – with the goal of patients gaining insights or experiencing emotional catharsis. In Relationship Counseling, role reversal is often used to promote exactly those kinds of insights and sympathy – the building of empathy.

Of course, just because roleplaying can build empathy, doesn’t mean it always does. Most gamers have stories about “That one player” or “The GM who delights in torturing their players.” If you’re lucky enough not to, or just want to indulge in some top quality schadenfreude, Google “Worst D&D player ever” (or equivalent), makes some popcorn, and settle in. Or, if you want more curated account of gaming with terrible human beings, check out Al Bruno III’s roman a clefThe Binder of Shame.” (TWs for just about everything).

Don’t tell the 1E Elves multiclassing is a bad idea (you’l get stabbed and zapped)

Multi-classing: Yay or Nay? And Why?

Somewhere between a “provisional yes” and “it depends.”

Personally, I enjoy multi-classing because my character concepts often do not fit neatly into the boxes of class-based which system (which is why I often gravitate to classless systems like FATE, Savage Worlds, or GURPS which are on a point-build or concept-build rather than a class-build. 

But there are things to consider before creating a multi-class character. I think the biggest one is to be sure that it’s actually your character concept…rather than that you have two concepts you’re having difficulty choosing between. In my experience, splitting the difference between two competing concepts through multi-classing is an emotionally unsatisfying compromising, giving too little of what attracted me to each class in the first place.

And while this, in itself, is not a reason to say “no,” it is worth remembering that, in many systems, including D&D and Pathfinder, a character who is Level 5 in two things is less capable that a character who is Level 10 in one thing.

But, for all my high-minded “only do it if it feels right,” rhetoric, sometimes multi-classing is a choice that is forced on you. When you’ve got two or three people around the table for a D&D game, it may make sense for someone to be the cleric/rogue.

How important is it to “stay in your lane”? Do you play your character as just a healer? Or do you try to pick the lock with the metal wire you happened to find on the ground?  

Any one of them could surprise you.

Honestly? Those are the moments roleplayers live for.

  • When the fighters are unconscious on the ground and the wizard is out of spells but manages to land that last blow, knocking the giant unconscious with a staff.
  • When the Dex 8 cleric evades an entire castle of guards to find the treasure room.
  • When the Barbarian is the only one who remembers the words to the secret chant.

Those are the kind of gaming stories that keep getting told…

In the best case scenario, such moments can serve as catalysts foe new directions of growth and development – enriching the charter, the party, and they player’s experience.

It only becomes a problem when it turns into what my gaming group always called “stepping on someone’s shtick.” Players want time in the limelight for their characters, that’s one of great appeals of roleplaying. Each PC having things they are uniquely good at helps ensure everyone gets the spotlight. So, when the party’s rouge suddenly starts dumping points in diplomacy, which, until then, has been the bard’s shtick, it can create tension and reduce enjoyment unless handled very carefully.