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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Myth of the Rag Tag Group (Blood Sucking Fiend)

Saturday night I played my vampire game.

While I'm not sure I'm going to stick with the game (for a few reasons which have little or nothing to do with writing) but I was able to pick up on a little lesson about character development to lay on my fellow writers.

Today I want to talk about the rag tag group where everyone has a niche.

This is a real common trope in TV and film and even books. A group gets together, each for their own reasons, or are thrown into a situation. Maybe they crash land on an island because of a giant magnet that turns on if you don't punch lotto numbers into it. Maybe they all got stuck in an elevator. Maybe they all gathered together because they each have their own reason for joining the mandroid to stop Reeves from time traveling to ancient Rome. Whatever it is, they work well together. They all have a widely divergent set of skills and each ends up being critical to the overall goals of the group. Every character ends up with their own moment to shine.

Not too fine a point on it, but this is bullshit. Grade AAA USDA bullshit.

It might make for a feel good plot, or the didactic lesson that everyone has value, but it isn't even close to accurate. So when you portray such groups, if you want to be honest about your characterization you need to have more people who insinuate themselves into everything that happens. People who stamp out those with skills better suited to a problem just because they want to be in charge or want to be involved with everything. People who have to control everything, even if it's outside their strengths, skill sets, even basic knowledge.

Great teams are assembled, but this often takes careful work and consideration and the roles of each person are usually spelled out pretty clearly by good leadership. Good leadership is a skill as much as carpentry or plumbing. Not a lot of people understand that the mark of a great leader is to delegate, step back, and let people do what they're good at. Most of the corporate world spends years trying to get managers to learn this simple concept because most people drawn to power want their hands elbow deep in micromanaging everything.

On Saturday night, there were a couple of characters who were....everywhere I looked. Combat? They were muscling their way to the front line. Major conversation? They dominated it. Political maneuvering? They were explaining to the prince what to do. Social moment? They demanded the spotlight. No matter what was going on, they had to be front and center of the action.

It didn't matter that there were perhaps sixty players there, each with their own skill set–some designed specifically to be great at certain obstacles or problems. It didn't matter that players and characters alike were specifically (sometimes uniquely) qualified to assist with certain problems. The attention-hegemony seekers closed the doors so that they could personally sink their teeth into everything.

Sorry...couldn't resist.

Rather than saying "Neonate (neonate=very young vampire), I'm going to live FOREVER if I don't get killed by dangerous things. Why don't you curry my favor, go deal with the Very Dangerous Thing™ that just showed up, and report back. I'm in dire need of a useful pawn," these elders tend to be more like: "OUTTA THE WAY, PECK!" (And while I could probably write a book on the underlying psychological correlation between the draw of, "My character is an uber baddass who you must respect and fear" and the tendency to micromanage and hog the spotlight, I will simply say this is a very common problem in Vampire games, and that it's important for writers to keep in mind that such people are everywhere.) Whether they don't trust anyone but themselves to do things right, they simply can't stand the thought of not knowing everything going on, or they really do have an inflated sense of their abilities to deal with all situations, they will be over-controlling and shoehorn themselves into most situations.

It's not just this vampire game. It's not just every vampire game. It's not just LARPs or role playing games. It happens everywhere. It happens all the time. There are just people who are like this. They just need to be in on everything and they value their input even more sometimes than experts. They shoehorn in and tell people with more expertise what to do...or worse simply do it themselves.

So in your next story, while it might seem convenient to have everyone be good at something and the cohesiveness of teamwork just work itself out with everyone slipping easily into their niche, don't forget that the natural inclination is for some to muscle their way into every situation, and at best your rag tag band should have some power struggles for dominance and at least a dynamic between socially overpowering micromanager vs. actual good delegating leadership. At worst, things should go wrong because someone who knew what to do was vetoed by someone who just couldn't let go.

Further, for reasons that should be obvious, and have to do with certain types of people being used to having their opinions held in high regard and challenged only very carefully by others, such characters will tend to be white, tend to be male, tend to be the dominant social hierarchy. Tall, good-looking, thin, white, heterosexual, cisgendered men of affluence have a terrible tendency to be just like this.


  1. I was just reading an article earlier about the need for diversity in the tech industry and I feel like there's some connection there. Just because you establish a diverse team doesn't mean you'll actually reap the rewards of that diversity.


  2. This makes for an awful, awful tabletop -- just saying. The ragtag group really improves player cohesion and happiness. If one person dominates, everyone else is just going to quit.