Series Info...The Medium #7:

On Playing White Hats

by Karrin Dailey
December 9, 2002

Regardless of genre, white hats have a place in the story. Heroes are the driving force of a good fantastic epic, and in a dark an dismal setting, they are the key to common interest — that part of the relentless human spirit that survives in the worst circumstances. Heroes have a certain appeal to them. They get top billing in the story, and traditionally, in the end they get the girl, the promotion, and sometimes a kingdom or two for their troubles.

It's a nice gig if you can get it, but in an interactive environment such as MU*, the rule of give and take means playing a white hat requires some minor adjustments. In a novel, the hero can sweep in, wipe out a den of nasties, and go on to rescue the damsel in distress, but when the den of nasties are being played by people with their own vested interest in the story who might, heaven forbid, actually be smarter than you, it gets tricky. Learning to balance a pivotal heroic role with the enjoyment factor of everyone else in the game is the key to playing an effective white hat.

Setting and Theme

Two important things to consider before playing any character, white hat or not, are the game's setting and theme. The environment and overall tone of the game world in which a character exists is a strong influence on how he or she will behave, and how the world at large will see him or her. In a classic storybook fantasy setting where good will always win over evil, and evildoers are clearly marked by black costumes and stylish goatees, the hero's role is pretty well defined, and when he comes riding in on his white horse, the peasantry cheers. It's not necessarily a complicated role, and the goals are easy to identify. Your job is to smite the evildoer, rescue the princess, and bask in the adoration of the masses. In the classic sense, you are The Hero.

In a darker setting, white hats don't have it so easy. The evildoers are plentiful, and the playing field belongs to them. Morality is iffy, greed is rampant, and the masses might just resent you more than thank you for your efforts. Roles aren't so cut and dried, either, and finding out just who is the villain and who is the hero can be half the battle. Don't expect a big pay-off if you manage to succeed in saving the day, either. Chances are you'll end up making one mess to clean up another, and the story goes on. There is no princess at the end of the story, no kingdom bestowed by a grateful people. If your character manages to survive, what little he or she has gained might be lost in a heartbeat, and even if you manage to smite the villain, there is always another to take his or her place. The goals and motivations of a hero in this setting tend to be completely different than those of the brave knight in his mythical Camelot.

The thing to remember, regardless of the setting and theme, is that your character is an element within the overall game, and character and game are going to have a profound effect on one another. Be aware of that, and plan for it. If you play someone with a fantastical white knight's purity and unquestionable strength in the role of an out of luck good guy trying to survive in the mean streets, you're going to run into conflict. That conflict can make for good RP, if the player is aware of the nuances, or it can fall flat and be either ridiculous or simply unable to work.

That isn't to say that there is only one heroic archetype for each genre, and ne'er the lines may cross. A noble soul can work well in a dark world, and a well-meaning scoundrel can breathe life into a fantasy story. The lines may cross, and they may cross beautifully, but the player must be aware of his or her character's place in the world. This is where understanding a game's theme is critical.

For example, the overall theme of the Dragonlance series (which has been turned into games both online and off) is that good will prevail because ultimately evil turns upon itself. There are plenty of ways to interpret that theme, but the way the authors seem to elaborate upon it brings some interesting definitions to the idea of what is really good and evil. In the books, the forces of good are usually too busy bickering about who the gods of light favor to do anything useful, while the forces of evil are all well organized and working together for a common prize — right up until they realize there isn't enough of that prize to go around, and then they go at each other like rabid dogs to see who comes out on top. Meanwhile, the real heroes are the unlikely schleps whom fate casts into the right place at the right time, and they're faced with difficult choices whose consequences are far too huge for them to have ever anticipated. They're the individuals whose commitment to a greater cause leads them to make sacrifices, and though they aren't anyone special, in the end, they're the noblest heroes of all.

Very stirring, but what does that mean in the context of a game based on the series? Well, if you're going to play a white hat, you might not want to bother with the upper echelons of the Knighthood, because they are traditionally useless. If you really want to make a difference and turn the tide of evil toward good, play someone with nothing to lose and a lot of high ideals. Throw in some moral dilemmas and a healthy dose of romantic angst, and you're good to go. Another overall theme in Dragonlance is that nothing done out of love can come to evil. That can present some interesting situations if the game stays true to theme. In any case, if you come in chomping at the bit to play a high ranking Knight because they're the good guys and they have lots of power, you might be in for some disappointment once push comes to shove.

Ultimately, know the role of the hero in the game before you set out to play one. Think about the world and its theme, and how growing up in it has shaped the character's life. If you're playing a happy go-lucky do-gooder in a dark setting, ask yourself how your character has managed to hold onto his or her positive outlook in a world where crime goes unpunished and the innocent suffer, while the rich and powerful survive on the misery of the weak and unfortunate? No offense, but if there's no good answer to this question, your character might come off as a bit of a moron. That can work in RP, as long as the player understands the whys and wherefores.

A Good Guy in a Bad World

One of the situations I run into on MU* when it comes to white hats and the frustrations that come with them are people trying to play good guys in a World of Darkness setting. Just given the title of the setting, one should be able to clue in to the fact that playing a hero isn't going to be easy. It's a gothic horror setting, where monsters are real, and they control the mortal world from the shadows while Joe Average is none the wiser. It's a darker version of our modern world, with more violence and an apathetic decline in human goodness, so that the bad guys get away with a lot more, and the good guys aren't only fighting the villains, but also the general malaise and indifference of a population that simply doesn't care about much outside day to day personal problems. It also carries a strong theme of internal struggle and battling the enemy within. There is a reflection of inner darkness to go with the dismal world around you.

For some reason, a good number of people attempt to play characters who are the one single ray of light in a dark and dying world when it comes to this setting. When you get about fifteen of them together, you end up with a world that is about as frightening as a passel of teenagers rampaging across a suburban mall. While I find the idea of being swarmed by a mob of giggling N'Sync fans to be one of personal horror, it isn't exactly what I'm looking for in the World of Darkness.

I tend to play white hats in the WoD for two reasons: first, I'm a total sap and second, because playing an effective villain produces a whole other article's worth of complications. Speaking as someone who plays one of a billion rays of lights in a dark and dying world, let me tell you, it's no picnic pulling it off. My good guys aren't so much dashing heroes as down-and-out losers whose lives are described by the metaphor of a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood while the sharks are circling, and once he manages to climb up onto it, he has no idea what he's going to do when exposure and dehydration set in. If any of my white hats ever manage to accomplish anything useful, I'll be as surprised as the next person. I like playing this because when they do manage to do good, it's a big thing. It's beating the impossible, and I enjoy that.

I was going to include a detailed literary example of what I think an interesting hero in a dark world is like, but since this is already running long, I'd like to simply point out The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. If you like modern fantasy in a grim setting and well-written characters, you might just enjoy this series. Harry Dresden is my idea of a good guy in a bad world — he takes an awful lot of punishment, but he still manages to survive.

In Conclusion

Playing an effective white hat comes down to, for me, what just about everything in life comes down to: think about what you're doing. Consider the setting and theme of the game, think about what the world's effect on the character's upbringing might be, and take into account that in an interactive environment, other players and their characters are going to have a say. Think about what good and evil mean in the context of the story before deciding to take a side and ride it out. Don't be afraid to give your hero some flaws, or maybe a few demons of his or her own. The shining white knight works fine in Camelot, but on the nitty-gritty streets of urban decay, expect his armor to get a little tarnished.

In the end, what makes a character interesting is his or her quirks, and I've found that a hero's strength is defined not in how he or she manages victory, but how he or she manages failure. Remember, few good heroes in most stories save the day right away. There are tests, trials, and setbacks. In a World of Darkness setting, multiply those by ten and take away the guarantee that good always wins. Also, throw in a bunch of personal horror and inner conflict that threatens to weaken your character's resolve to the consistency of damp toilet tissue. If you're still up for the job, then join the ranks of us hopeless good guys. If not, it might be better to stick to games less depressing in tone.

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