Thursday, April 15, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool - Part 2: Refusing the Call

In role playing, it is often taken for granted that the PC's are actively looking for an adventure to undertake. After all, if a person takes the time to roll up a fantastic character who will be living in a fantastic setting, it is generally understood that they'd would like to do something outside of what is legal (theft, killing) or possible (anything to do with magic) in this reality. Thus, the idea of a hero refusing the call to adventure may strike role players - both PC's and DM's alike - as rather odd and uncharacteristic. In mythology and popular fiction, however, it is a fairly common occurrence. Thoughts or feelings that lead to a hero's reluctance to pursue the call and remain in their current circumstances are varied: A sense of inadequacy or unworthiness; fear of the unknown; guilt at the thought of leaving someone/thing behind; an obligation or responsibility holding them back, etc.

Whatever the reason, when a refusal occurs, the nature of the journey changes. As Campbell writes, "Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless . . . All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration."

Examples of Refusal

Frodo never flat out refused his call to adventure, but he did attempt to pass it off a several points - Gandalf, Guinevere, possibly at Rivendell when those gathered debated what should be done with the ring. During the course of his adventure, Frodo must be defended and rescued and has several narrow escapes from the Nazgul at Weathertop (though he is deeply wounded and scarred for life), the Goblins and Cave Troll in Moria, the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen, Shelob in Cirith Ungol, and even from himself in the bowels of Mount Doom, where he loses a finger and is finally carried to safety by Gandalf astride Gwaihir. Since none of his offers to pass the ring off were accepted, it is up for debate as to cause of all Frodo's trials and suffering being the direct result of refusing the call.

An indirect refusal occurs in Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) when Luke asks his uncle, Owen Lars, about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Owen, keen to keep Luke away from the problems and strife that led to the ruin of his father, tell Luke that Obi-Wan is dead and that he should stay away from crazy "Old Ben" who lives in the wastes. A couple of scenes later, the last we see of Owen and his wife are a pair of charred skeletons lying among the remains of their raided moisture farm. Luke, who embraced his call to adventure with Obi-Wan, avoids the immediate repercussions of a refusal, but must now carry on with the pain of their loss brought on by their attempts to dissuade him.

Nearly every Harry Potter book opens near the end of Harry's summer vacation with the Dursley's attempts to humiliate, hinder and/or discourage him from going back to Hogwarts. In every instance, some form of magical mischief overtakes them, providing a sense of karmic justice to their attempts to keep Harry from both his true nature and his destiny.

Refusal as a DM Tool

The reality of role playing is that the initial call to adventure has already been accepted when they decided to play and rolled up a character. Once that choice has been made, the rest of the experience is basically a series of choices about weather or not the PC should act. What a DM must consider is how far-reaching and personal the consequences the response to any given call is going to be.

It may be hard to conceptualize a response that must come from the PC's as being a 'tool' that can be wielded by the DM. While we as builders of an adventure or campaign may not hold the right of refusal that belongs to our players, we can learn to anticipate and prepare for those instances when they chose not to accept the call we provide them with. In fact, the abilities and responsibilities invested in the DM are such that we are more than capable of arranging and adapting events in such a way the predisposes PC's to act a certain way. A popular piece of advice for DM's is to have a recurring villain, someone who shows up and causes havoc and suffering for the PC's until, at the climax of the adventure, the heroes are able finally able to corner the villain and exact their revenge. But, really, what is really happening here? With each appearance of the villain, the PC's are being conditioned to hate, and possibly, attack him on sight.

What if the party surprises you and decides they would rather work with/for the villain, or try and help him reform (perhaps your players are into Restorative Justice)? More often then not, I'd wager that the DM does not give much thought to how the NPC's would react to this unexpected news, or what sort of encounters might occur as a result. It is important to understand that no one person could prepare for every potential nuance or variation along a theme. However, I propose that we can and should prepare ourselves - mentally, at least, if nothing else - for both positive (accepted) and negative (refused) responses to each call we present to our players.

Pondering Refusal
  • If the party refused to act at any point, what would happen to the adventure? Would it be totally derailed, or could you adjust accordingly?
  • Can you remember and/or envision a time that you expected - or even preferred - your PC's to decline a call to action?
  • What happens if there is a division in the party? How might a DM use that to build a more engaging experience?
  • Party's are generally rewarded/punished as a group. What if this was dealt with on an individual basis based on their choices? Is such a thing feasible or would it simply come across as unfair?
Earlier posts in this series

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