#Secondthoughts: Building the party

Time flies, so they say, when you are having fun.  There are some scientific explanations for this – which I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that I can’t believe that it is two years since I suggested that you could use the principles of roleplay games to help you develop your characters’ backstories, and indeed to help you make your bit part characters less one dimensional.  (If you’ve forgotten, or are new to the blog, that post is here).  I decided to do this follow up some time ago, but life.

Lots of stories focus on a single character: the lone wolf detective, the commando behind enemy lines, the vigilante seeking a brand of justice – or perhaps just someone trying to find their best life without the benefit of a support network.  Equally, there are lots of stories about teams, pooling their skills to bring about the best result possible, and dealing with whatever shenanigans come their way.  So what I’d like to do in this post is revisit the roleplay gaming angle, and throw-in a bit of management theory.  You read that correctly: management theory and RPGs.  (You might be surprised at the synergies here; I’ll try not to make this to cringe-worthy).

Let’s take the Management bit first.  There are all sorts of different models people have come up with for talking about different personalities, how to get different people to work together, and how to get the best out of individuals.  Some have better scientific foundations than others, some are more like a psychology tarot, but I’m not here to debate that.  As an example let’s look at Belbin’s team roles.  Meredith Belbin’s model identifies nine team roles, eight of which have features of personality types, and the final one is the “specialist” – someone with unique skills who may or may not be part of the normal team.  The types are:

Action Oriented Roles Shaper Challenges the team to improve.
Implementer Puts ideas into action.
Completer Finisher Ensures thorough, timely completion.
People Oriented Roles Coordinator Acts as a chairperson.
Team Worker Encourages cooperation.
Resource Investigator Explores outside opportunities.
Thought Oriented Roles Plant Presents new ideas and approaches.
Monitor-Evaluator Analyzes the options.
Specialist Provides specialized skills.

(Table adapted from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_83.htm)

When you study these sorts of models in Management training, one of the things they teach you is how to put a team together.  Think about Jim Phelps, flipping though his Impossible Missions Force folder: a lot of what he is doing is putting the specialist skills together, but he’s also thinking about the personalities, and the team skills they bring.  When you complete the test, you get a primary role and a secondary role: one of the tasks of the chair and team leader roles is to get the best out of people by playing to their strengths.  Another is to recognise that all the roles will need to be filled sooner or later and so people might end up having to work outside of their comfort zones, and they’ll need to provide extra support for people in those circumstances.  One of the typically exercises that trainers will do with students is to put them together in extreme groups: a group of ‘plants’ for example, never tend to get beyond the ideas stage…  There’s another team where we can see some of these roles coming through very clearly…BAAdeBA badeBA beBAdeba ba de bebeBA BAdeBAA ba ba BAA.

In the A Team, Hannibal clearly demonstrates the qualities of the Shaper, Coordinator and the Plant – perhaps it’s unusual to have three such strong characteristics, but they are a small team.  If it’s possible to find anyone who is more strongly a Resource Investigator than Face, then I would be pleased to have your suggestions.  He also has to work overtime as the Team Worker, lubricating the machine to make sure that Murdoch and BA don’t kill each other.  The whole team have unique talents that they bring to the party, but Murdoch, Howling Mad though he may be, is the Specialist’s Specialist: there is not an aircraft he can’t fly, not an aircraft he can’t land even in adverse conditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the thing that he and BA have in common is that they are both Completer Finishers…  BA though is very much the Implementer.

So far so good.  But what about the RPG angle?  Isn’t that just Wizards and Warriors?

No.  For a start, there are a whole range of RPGs out there, with myriad settings.  But let’s stick to a Fantasy setting.  Different systems use different terminologies, but in general we can talk about types and jobs.  Types are usually reduced to the classical four: Academic, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger.  ‘Jobs’ provides the opportunity for some subtlety and for career growth: a straight up wizard might turn to the dark side and become a necromancer or daemonologist.  A humble guard might work their way up the ranks and perhaps even become a knight.

But we were talking about Belbin and management – what’s that got to do with RPGs and characters?   Well, essentially, the RPG angle gives us the opportunity to bring in special skills, but if we want a team, rather than a rag-tag group of friends, then we need to think about our characters, and their roles in this roleplay.  Which brings us to the team of characters in a story – or are they a team? Perhaps the conflict in the story arises from the lack of a Team Worker, holding the group together.

Another aspect of management theory that could be helpful when pulling your team together in your story world has a name which I’ve forgotten, but essentially points to the stages that you go through when pulling the team together.  The Magnificent Seven gives us some pointers in this regard: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.  We pull the team together and get to know each other, people argue whilst they settle into their roles and establish demarcation, the team practices and gets slick, the mission is accomplished (or not…).

If you think that RPGs are just about bashing orcs and ogres, rescuing princesses, raiding dungeons and so on, then I invite you to read Jeremiah Tolbert’s take on this – you might be surprised.  Also, in my previous essay in this area, I referenced Kristen Lamb’s blog post, which was on of the articles that got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Last time I was pointing to the different personality types (Lawful/Chaotic, Good/Evil etc), but in the same article she makes an excellent point about adding conflict to your team.

In summary, I’m not suggesting that writers should always go and and play a game of AD&D or something, but there is a surprising level of depth to the games, depth that can help a writer when it comes to thinking about their characters, and the way these characters behave when they’re forced to work in a team with people who don’t necessarily have the same values…

© David Jesson, 2019

Last night I dreamt I went to Barsoom again

I lay down in my hotel room, far from home and low in spirit.  In place of the usual Gideon’s, to my surprise, was a copy of “A Princess of Mars” – a first edition, no less.  I flipped through the pages in a desultory fashion, at once recalling the the adventures of John Carter and Dejah Thoris and puzzling over the mystery of this volume’s presence in my room.

My eyes started to drift shut, and I placed the book back where I had found it in the bedside drawer.  I found my accustomed sleeping position – and immediately fell asleep.

I woke, almost at once it seemed, but with a groggy-start, as if from a deep sleep. I sat up, shook my head and looked around, trying to find the light switch.  As I continued the rise from the depths of sleep, I realised that it was already light, about as light as on Spring day.

I looked around.  This was most certainly not my bed, not my hotel room.  The ground I was sitting on was cold, and covered with greenish-lichen.  I got to my feet: the lichen crunched underfoot as a turned around, looking at the terrain.  The depression of ground spread out for tens of kilometres in every direction; off in the distance, I could see hills, low and red.

I jumped.  It was not as graceful as I had hoped, but John Carter’s first attempts had warned me of what to expect. Leapt and bounded to the top of rise, covering tens of metres with every stride.  From my vantage, I looked around and saw two clouds of dust closing on each other.  I wished I had binoculars, but had little doubt that two tribes of the fearsome, fearless green warriors of Mars were closing on each other ready for battle and conquest.

Dare I go closer?  No.  I was sure to be seen and captured, if I did not stop a radium bullet fired with malice or by mistake.  I continued to look around, warily returning to view the distant fight from time to time.  I saw a flotilla of airships, perhaps from the fair double city of Helium itself, crest the hills.  Gracefully they floated across the arid desert-bowl.  I stood between the ships and the Green Martians and did not know where to look.

I gazed too long at the airships and, when I turned again, I saw that a part of Green Martians had broken free of the battle and were racing towards me.  I turned and ran, taking long jumping strides.  I was just able to keep my lead, but I was no Fighting Virginian and quickly became winded.  I landed a little too heavily on a rock that shifted underneath me.  It threw me off my stride and I tumbled headlong, striking my head on a rock.

Blackness.

I woke in the middle of falling out of bed, and landed on the floor of my hotel room with a bump, that would have been embarrassing if there had been anyone there to see it.  I landed on my shoulder, but not too heavily.  I sat up and saw the glowing red figures of my travel alarm o’clock.  Surely I could only have been asleep for minute, two at the most.

I got back into bed, and wondered why my ankle hurt, why the bed felt gritty.

© David Jesson, 2018