Telling Stories: Get wasted
Show me a game setting without drugs of some kind, and I will show you a setting that is either intended for young children or one that has not been adequately developed.
Pretty much every setting has alcohol, and The Secret World by definition has all of the usual real-world chemical cocktails. Final Fantasy XIV has somnus, milkroot, and presumably moko grass (it does turn into hemp, after all). WildStar features beer and cigars as more or less background elements. World of Warcraft has bloodthistle, and blood elves in general. City of Heroes had superadine on top of real-world drugs. That’s just scratching the surface.
Odd though it might seem, drugs are pretty important in roleplaying, even if you’re not playing a character who actively has a problem. The cultural impact and overall implications have a major impact on your character no matter what, and you can use them to add a fair bit of nuance to your portrayals. So with the understanding that you as a player should probably not be taking illegal drugs, let’s talk a bit about using drugs in RP.
Drugs have two main benefits for roleplaying. The first is that they lower inhibitions, which is the part that most people confuse with drugs making you act generally weird and off-the-rails, which is wrong; unless you’re dealing with very powerful hallucinogens (and barely even then), drugs don’t really create new behavior, they just tear down your ability to control yourself. But that alone can be an enormous part of roleplaying and have a huge impact upon character stories. If you’re roleplaying a quiet, bookish sort who rarely interacts with others, lowering your inhibitions can mean that character shows a lot more of his true self than most other players tend to see. For that matter, the big gregarious guy could turn out to be a lot more introspective and sad than he usually lets on.
The other advantage is that drugs say something about your character and the world that they live in. This is easiest to see when you’re dealing with a real-world setting, because no one needs to explain to you the difference between a meth addict and a cocaine addict. These things are seen as vices that infest particular angles of society, and even if another player knows nothing else about your character, there’s something to be said about him regularly drinking to the point of being stumble-about plastered. It means your character has history. He’s doing it to forget or numb himself. There are party drugs, there are unpleasant drugs, there are things that no one will admit to taking in mixed company.
Fictional drugs are a bit trickier to figure out, but you can get a fair picture of their place in society by looking at availability and effects. To use Final Fantasy XIV again, milkroot is easy to get in the Shroud and offers a casually, giggling high; it’s a drug of sylphs and layabouts. Meanwhile, somnus is fairly difficult to get and seems to mostly take the edge off of recreational users, which mark it as an upper-class luxury.
Things get a bit more thorny when you consider that drugs also have a downside in roleplaying. Specifically, no one really wants to be Extra #2 in a fantastical version of Drugs Are Bad, Mmkay? or Fantasy Cheech & Chong Making Stoned People Laugh At Nothing. It’s why a lot of people are reluctant to go into that, because most media that we have about drugs has them either leading directly to a spiral of self-destruction and self-harm, or has them as a completely consequence-free romp that you put down when you’re done. Both are boring.
But that implies the solution. You don’t want the drugs to be what’s ruling your character’s life in any direction, nor do you want them to just be there for fun. There are effects, but they’re not always simple and explained by sound bites.
For example, let’s assume you’re still playing City of Heroes. You have a character and she’s not super-strong. She takes a little bit of superadine here and there, though. Not enough to turn her into a powerhouse, just enough that she can punch at the weight class of people she’s fighting with normally, and it helps her get over any confidence issues she has about being a superhero. She’s not addicted, but she is a habitual user. Not enough to make her into anything she doesn’t want to be, just… enough.
The problems in her life aren’t about superadine. The problems she faces are lack of confidence, lack of strength, and some guilt over weakness. None of that has anything to do with the drug, and all of which can be addressed without turning into a series of cabinet flaws. Rather than forcing her to kick a drug habit, the drug habit underscores the core parts of her character.
You can also have an addiction in the past – still important, but not an immediate problem. A recovering alcoholic doesn’t drink any more, but they still had good reason to drink at the time, and odds are that not every problem your character had at the time has been subsequently solved. She’s always got the temptation to hit the bottle again. Former addicts who clean up their act are a consistent trope, but one rarely seen outside of their own stories of recovery. There’s nothing wrong with placing a battle with addiction in the past rather than the present or the future.
Ultimately, it comes down to a little word that I don’t think I’ve used at all on this site but used to be a running gag when I was writing Storyboard – verismilitude. Drugs are useful in your roleplaying because, well, they’re a part of real life. Including them makes the experience feel more authentic. Even if you’re dealing with a drug that has no real-word workalike, dealing with its existence and its social implications just feels more true to life than having a happy land where no one ever wants a chemical pick-me-up.
Next time around, I want to talk about how the nature of your character flaws and abilities leads into the sort of stories you can tell – and how altering those can change the tenor of your roleplaying. The week after that, it’s time to talk about character clarity and self-analysis.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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