Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist

NOTE: I'm actually not listening to my Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist, for two reasons. Firstly, I'm in a Starbucks and my headphones are crap, meaning I'm at the mercy of whatever Starbucks chooses to inflict upon us. Secondly, I haven't actually assembled the Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist - which will consist of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and everything on the Buffy: the Musical album that was released a while ago - because while I aquired the latter years ago, I have yet to get my paws on the former.

The significance of the Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist will be explained presently.

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In anticipation of the upcoming holiday, what could be more appropriate than a discussion of family? I've already covered smell, death, and wolves, and I'm not sure I can think of sufficient connections between fantasy writing, roleplaying, and food... wait, scratch that, of course I can. There's tomorrow's post!

Anyway, family is important. In the real world, everyone has a family, even though we might sometimes wish we didn't. In fantasy, we have more options. Tragic Orphans and last survivors of ancient races are a dime a dozen, and you can even choose to have your characters spring forth ex nihilo. But a character's family is where she comes from. On some level, it's very important to who she is.

I consider myself lucky that I have never had a hard time keeping my characters' families in mind when I write or roleplay. In Rat and Starling, Rat is defined by her mother's extreme neuroses and borderline abusive behavior, while Starling is a Tragic Orphan who was raised by people he calls - affectionately, I'm sure - the evil monks. In A Knight of the Land, Kurzon Mors's family doesn't come into the story much - they're pretty normal, pretty functional bunch of middle-class types - but Iveren Mors's obsessive efforts to ensure the safety of his people eventually bring the brothers into conflict. In Ghostly Tam Lin (the working title for my NaNoWriMo novel), Janet comes from a broken home, and piecing together her mother after her parents' divorce left her with a powerful mothering instinct, while Erik still carries his father's rage and bitterness at being crippled in World War II. Perhaps this is because I, as you already know if you know me in real life, have a somewhat rocky relationship with my family, but it has always come naturally to me to think of a character's family.

In roleplaying games, it becomes much more complicated. When you write a character's family you are handing these central characters over to someone else - the game master, Storyteller, or whatever (*snicker* Hollyhock God *snicker*) - to portray. That can be tough, because if the game master gets it wrong, your character is suddenly cut loose, disconnected from a past that no longer refers to him. My best experience with this was with Glyph (the Changeling version), who you'll recall, if you've been paying attention, had an adoptive father who he wanted to be just like when he grew up. The Storyteller, Jon, did a brilliant job. Sir Corrigan was delicately portrayed as a tragic figure, a man of honor whose very nature as a fae being was killing his beloved wife; the toughest Changeling warrior in Georgia, but unable to protect his own son. His wife - Glyph's mother's - growing madness and unflagging love for her adopted son made the eventual quest to save her life one of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I've had. Glyph was connected to the world and deeply enmeshed in the plot, in part through his parents.

Another concept I'd like to touch on is chosen family, known between the Abigail and I as the Whedonesque Surrogate Family (see, I told you I'd get to it), a reference to Joss Whedon's fondness for, well, surrogate families. He does it in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, he does it in Firefly, and if he doesn't do it in House of Dolls, I'll eat my hat.

Well, I'll eat your hat. I don't really wear hats.

What is a chosen family? A chosen family is what you get when a group of characters makes the leap from frends into something else. When they love each other like siblings, care for each other like parents, and can't stand each other in the way only family can't. Have you ever looked at a friend and thought to yourself "Well, God, I guess I'm stuck with this dude, because getting him out of my life would be like cutting off my arm"? That's chosen family. You roleplayers out there should be familiar with the idea of chosen family: a lot of Obligatory Player Character Groups end up becoming a chosen family.

I find chosen family particularly fascinating for several reasons.

Firstly, you can write (or roleplay) the formation of a chosen family. Blood families gather together much more slowly, and you can't really write them growing unless you're willing to write smut (not that anything's wrong with that). Chosen famlies gather the way friends do, however. Over a matter of a few years, friendships deepen, new friends are introduced through mutual friends, and complex interrelationships grow, combine, and mutate.

Secondly, chosen families provide me as an author and game-runner with a particularly fascinating opportunity to create families that are narratively interesting. Blood famlies are potluck. Sometimes you get something fascinating and sometimes you get the Brady Bunch. But because chosen families are chosen, it's a lot easier to write characters ending up with people who challenge them in interesting ways. Many people look for friends who challenge them, and those friendships can often become chosen family.

Finally, blood families are forged in the exciting heat of... time and breeding. Not exactly dramatic. Dramatic things can always happen to blood families, but nothing about the concept demands it or makes it easy. But chosen families, on the other hand... chosen families are intense friendships, forged in the hot fires of whatever plot comes to mind.

The one thing chosen families don't do is anchor a character's past. They can provide context for the present and the future, but only blood families tell you where your character came from. So, when you're looking at the pack of rabid monkeys you call your kin this Thanksgiving and wishing you had sprung into being ex nihilo, try to remember that.

And pass the gravy.

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For the record, I think Nobilis is actually a fun game. I just think the title they use for game master is absolutely ridiculous.

  • When have you read or written a particularly interesting family?
  • When has the appearance of character's family positively or negatively effected a roleplaying game you were involved with?
  • Do you or any of your characters (roleplaying or written) have a chosen family as well as or instead of a blood family?


Scattercat said...

For what it's worth, the title was chosen explicitly to be ridiculous. They even go on to describe how hollyhock is the symbol for overweening arrogance and flashy pride and so on.

Basically, it's an elaborate joke on, I think, White Wolf and their insistence on "Storyteller" over "Game Master."

Anonymous said...

I guess so. The only difference is that Storyteller means something, while Hollyhock God is, itself, an utterly meaningless term.

As I noted, I do like Nobilis, but their term for GM is just asking for mockery. Gentle mockery, sure, but mockery nonetheless.