Saturday, May 21, 2016

Austen and Role-Playing

Every thing united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world and a warm heart. He had strong feelings of family-attachment and family-honour, without pride or weakness; he lived with the liberality of a man of fortune, without display; he judged for himself in every thing essential, without defying public opinion in any point of worldly decorum. He was steady, observant, moderate, candid; never run away with by spirits or by selfishness which fancied itself strong feeling; and yet, with a sensibility to what was amiable and lovely, and a value for all the felicities of domestic life.
Thus Jane Austen describes what Persuasion’s Anne Elliott thinks is an ideal man. Of course, he turns out to be a cad by the end of the book. But still, it's a good example of the Age of Austen's rational assessment of a man's virtues, and an excellent catalog of excellencies.

I once joked to a game-playing friend about the idea for a Jane Austen role-playing game. In the granddaddy of all RPG’s, each player handles one character regulated by six attributes: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Perhaps players in the Austen RPG would define their characters by Understanding, World Knowledge, Moral Strength, Decorum, Observation, and Sensibility.

Let’s say Harriet Balmore, an NPC controlled by the Village Master, comes into the room with a secret; perhaps she has heard a rumor that Mr Creighton, Curate of Bingley Wells, has come to town with the intention of paying her court. Your character, Captain Ellis, also has an eye for the eligible Miss Balmore, so the VM asks you to roll against your Observation. You roll 3d6 and score a 15 (odds: 4.630%). Alas! Your Observation is only a 13, so you fail to notice her changed demeanor. (The Primary Rule of the Jane Austen RPG: you must roll at or under your attribute to succeed in any given attempt.) You begin a conversation with Miss B by complimenting her on a plate she has painted. Roll against Sensibility. You are, after all, a military man, so you have a lowly 7 in that attribute. But your three dice come up 1, 3, and 2, for a total of 6! You have impressed her with your remark about the melancholy aura of the clouds. Perhaps the Curate of Bingley Wells won’t have the most pleasant of visits to your town after all.

Of course, there’s more to life and role-playing than attributes. Where the typical fantasy game has orcs and half-elves, rangers and magic-users, the Austen RPG would incorporate ranks and titles: laborer, shopkeeper, gentry, baronet, curate, parson, bishop, lieutenant, captian, and so on. It probably also needs something like disposition: Cheerful, Cynical, or Serious.

I think it’s a great idea. But my friend (who is DM-ing in Oklahoma City today) says it would never work. Players, he says, would want to say Austenesque things to each other, not just roll dice and then claim, “I succeeding in saying something Austenesque to you.” But we simply don’t receive the proper training in eloquence anymore. (See as evidence the end of my favorite post.) But surely readers of Jane Austen, like the best characters in Jane Austen, transcend the normal standards of their culture. I’m ready to try it!

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