CW: References to fictional violence towards women
I played in a game recently that got me thinking about character backgrounds, in particular the ways GMs use them after the players have created them. As any GM will tell you, a well-written backstory can be a real boon to the GM and the story, as it allows them to “tie in” elements of their story with the PC’s backstory, thus fostering engagement and a feeling of mutual ownership over the narrative.
However, it isn’t always sunshine and roses. Today I want to talk about where a GM’s mining of a player’s backstory can go wrong.
So, let’s talk for a minute about “fridging,” a term who’s origins tie back to a particular panel of a Green Lantern comic book, in which Hal Jordan, the titular Green Lantern, returns home to find the dismembered corpse of his girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt in the refrigerator.
In a cultural context, “fridging” or “stuffing in the fridge” has evolved past it’s original comic, from originally being a critique of the way comic book writers often treat female characters as disposable, or the way violence towards women is contextualized mostly in the way it effects the male spouse, boyfriend, whatever. Rather than, y’know, the woman. Finally, it’s a stand-in nowadays for how such casual violence towards an ancillary “friend” or “ally” character is often seen as a cheap, hack way to motivate a protagonist towards action.
At this point you might be thinking that this article is going to turn into a diatribe against tragic player backstories. It’s an oft-beaten horse that tragic backstories for RP characters are hackneyed and trite, and not a horse I care to take a stick to. (Incidentally, I don’t find a whole lot wrong with the tragic backstory, but more on that later).
No, what I want to talk about is what happens after the backstory, tragic or not, is written. I want to talk about how GM’s sometimes rather casually use NPCs (especially those derived from player-written backstories) in the same way the Green Lantern writer used Alexandra DeWitt. That is as an attempt at a cheap gut-shot of emotion.
I’ll come now to my example. Recently, I started roleplaying in a MMO guild. I created a character specifically for this guild and it’s plotline, wanting to “fit in” to the existing narrative. I also took it upon myself to create a small village within the “territory” of the guild’s narrative, a village that would be my character’s home, and his relationship to the village the source of many of his goals and impetus to action.
Before my first “official” roleplay event, the GM asked if it was okay to use the village I had created. I was thrilled, since this was part of why I had put effort into creating the village. I was hoping it might evolve into a neat bit of shared fiction, developing and being fleshed out over time. I of course agreed. In retrospect, I should have probably put some stipulations on how the GM was going to use it.
So, what happened? Well, our group of player characters arrived to find the village in flames. Uh oh. Not a good start, but not unsalvageable. Next up, we learned that the villagers had all been locked in a barn on the edge of town. Not good. Finally, as we fought the village’s attackers, the barn caught aflame. Despite valiant attempts to rescue the villagers, the barn eventually collapsed, killing all inside.
In the GM’s defense, they did some things right. While we were thrust into the situation with the village already burned and the villagers locked in the barn, the barn itself didn’t catch on fire until an unlucky roll. Furthermore, we had the opportunity to try and save the villagers, but further bad rolls (and an enemy force to contend with) doomed them. I don’t want to contend the specific mechanics by which you kill NPCs, whether you do it off-screen or as a result of failed rolls. Instead, I want to talk about the decision to put the villagers in a deadly situation to begin with.
So long, my fair village. I would say I knew ye well, but I really didn’t. While the message the GM was trying to send might be “your actions matter and have consequences”, the message that came across was “don’t bother trying to build anything, cuz it’s all gonna fuckin’ burn.” I’m not sure what emotions the GM was trying to elucidate with this course of action, but I imagine it was probably something like sorrow, anger, angst, all the usual barrel of man-pain. Instead, I was mostly just annoyed. I hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know this village through roleplay, to build it or contribute to it. It was, quite literally, born on a Tuesday and died on a Wednesday.
This, I think, is core to the problem of how GM’s use backstories, whether you kill an entire village or a single NPC. If the player does not have a relationship with that NPC, established in play, it isn’t going to have any sort of impact when you take them away. I won’t say it’s never acceptable to kill an NPC a player came up with, but I will say that if you don’t allow a relationship to develop first, the death is more likely to frustrate and annoy your player than to cause them any sort of emotional catharsis or fuel their roleplay.
Part of me thinks this is why we see so many lonely orphans or tragic backstories in roleplaying. It’s a self-defense mechanism, not giving the GM any tools they can use to hurt you. This is in my opinion a symptom of dysfunctional or traumatic roleplaying.
OK. So don’t kill NPCs right off the bat. It’s an extreme example, but lets drill in a little further. How should NPCs from a player’s backstory be used?
I forget my source on this, but I read once somewhere that NPCs are best in games where they care about the players, rather than assuming that the players care about them. NPCs that ask questions, provide aid, support the PCs are good. Even better is when NPCs question the player characters, are disappointed with them, or ask them to explain their actions. I’ve seen murderhobo players stop and consider their murderhobo ways, only because they’re worried about how they’re going to explain their actions to wives, husbands, friends, parents, or children.
But how far do you push it? At this point, I think it’s acknowledged as a little hackneyed to have the villain kidnap a NPC and tie them to the train tracks. I would argue against threatening NPCs with death. Death is so final, so absolute, that it doesn’t really brook any sort of conversation. You either save the damsel in distress or you don’t. If she lives, you’re the hero. If she dies, well, swear vengeance and move on. Instead, threaten different sorts of harm.
Let me tell you about Teague and Bishop. Bishop is a player character in a game of Echoes in the Dark I’m running, and early on in the games run, she started a relationship with an NPC in a low-level position in the villain’s operation. I knew that if I threatened him or killed him off, it might cause Bishop a twinge of guilt, but she’d get over it. After all, he worked for the villain, and she was mostly just using him for info anyway.
So, instead, I had him call her in the middle of the week. Some guys were at his apartment from the villain’s crew, and were asking questions about her. What was she involved in? What should he do? She played it cool, feigning ignorance. I made it clear that she could break away from the main plot, going off to make sure Teague was okay. The player made the calculated risk to ignore the problem for now. She’d call back later, check up on him then.
Now, a hypothetical. What if I’d fridged Teague then and there? Bishop checks in on him, finds him murdered. She might feel a little more guilty, since she was partially responsible for his death. But hey, he knew what he was getting into. Swear revenge, move on.
Instead, she found Teague sitting on his bed, amongst the ruin of his apartment. The villain’s henchmen had trashed his place, beaten him up, and broken two of his fingers, but they’d left him alive. And he hadn’t sold Bishop out, as far as they knew, she was just “Teague’s Girlfriend”, no one worth worrying about or attacking. When she showed up, he asked if she was alright, worried that he’d put her in harm’s way. This was so much more meaningful to the player and the character. She’d gotten someone who cared about her hurt, someone who defended her and worried over her. Teague went from being a disposable source of information to an actual boyfriend. Bishop stayed with him, bandaging up his broken fingers, icing his bruises, and helping him clean up his apartment.
From then on, she’d check in with Teague, remember him almost every session. Hey, I want to call Teague real quick, see how he’s doing. Oh, during downtime, Teague and I are going to go on a date. Wait a minute guys, I’m not sure about this plan, what if it blows back on Teague? And he’d follow up with her right back, providing information, taking risks, giving thoughtful little gifts, and asking her questions. It got to the point where she would stop him from taking certain risks that would be beneficial for her. And when choices were made to risk his safety or position in the villain’s organization, they meant something. It wasn’t just an NPC providing an in on the location of the villian’s base, it was Teague asking around about where the bag-men moved the money to.
Cool story, right? I think so. OK, here’s the breakdown for actual advice:
- Don’t kill. Break bones, rough up living places, make the NPCs question their relationship with the PC, and give the PCs the chance to deal with the fallout. Remember, once a NPC is dead, they can’t demand the players explain their choices or hold them accountable.
- Make your NPCs warm, helpful, and care for the PCs. No one cares if the bartender that hates them gets beat up.
- Give the players the opportunity to explain themselves, and let your NPCs demand those explanations if they aren’t forthcoming. Give the players the chance to repair the damage, fix what’s broken in their relationships, and do better next time.
- Telegraph “harms way” to the players. This isn’t just letting the players know “hey, so and so is tied to the train-tracks,” it’s about letting players know that if they take certain actions, it might be the people who care about who suffer the consequences.
- Let the players put people in harm’s way. Whenever possible, avoid threatening NPCs arbitrarily or without warning. Instead, have it be a consequence of a risk or an intentional choice, telegraphed well in advance.
- Respect boundaries. Use safety tools like lines and veils and/or X-cards to make sure your risking the right things, and in the right way.
EDIT: Someone pointed out to me that it was the fantastic Gail Simone who first called attention to the phenomenon of women in fridges in comics, so credit where credit is due.