Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NPC Gallery: Deformity

"All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes."
-Tyrion Lannister

Game of Thrones made its rounds here in my part of the world ages ago, reshaping the way several of my friends run games (and leaving a few utterly obsessed with historical political intrigues).  I didn't take the time to read the books, my life focused on other things but, of course, when the television series came out, I had to give it a look, and I immediately fell in love with the character of Tyrion Lannister, who is a perfect candidate for the NPC Gallery.

When's the last time you saw a midget as the star of a series?  When's the last time you saw a midget treated as a human (as opposed to a member of "another race") or as something other than comic relief?  I've read discussions of Tyrion that express frustration with trying to express who and what he is, because if you discuss "dwarf" in the context of fantasy, so often people assume you mean a guy sitting under a mountain, drinking beer and hammering our magic swords, and most people wouldn't assume that such an admirable and crafty character would be a midget.

If you think about it, however, Tyrion's character makes perfect sense given his stature. In his words, he's terrible at physical activity because of his size, so he sharpens his mind to defeat his foes.  He holds everyone at arms length because, naturally, people treat him differently. He's no Casanova, so he sates his desire for company with whores.  He'll never be the tall, noble, handsome knight that one expects in fantasy literature, but by god, he's going to make his impact on the world.  He's no stereotype based on his condition.  He's a political chess-master, canny and cunning, and a more competent noble than many of the characters in the series (certainly more competent than Joffrey).  Such a character is entirely in place for a series like Game of Thrones, and such a character is reasonable as a dwarf, but most people wouldn't expect the two elements to combine into such an evocative character.

I used the word "deformity" above not derisively, but because I can't find another, simple word to express what I really want to describe: People who physically deviate from "the norm," but who are not so handicapped that they are incapable of acting as competent or interesting characters. I'm not talking about the sad paraplegic girl that the players have to protect, here, or the hunchback worthy of your pity (though perhaps competent hunchbacks are a good example of what I'm talking about...).  Those characters are rife throughout literature and RPGs.  Dwarfs, albinos, people afflicted with gigantism and other individuals whose bodies don't conform to the human physiological mainstream suffer from their condition, to be sure: a dwarf has a harder time getting proper clothes and reaching things on the highest shelves, or interacting with a world built for people with different proportions, but unlike a truly handicapped person, these are minor issues and, by and large, they can live life normally.  Their condition shapes them, but it doesn't dominate them.

Many characters in RPGs deviate from the physical norm, but most of them fall into certain stereotypes.  Consider defying those stereotypes and treating them as something other than a freak or a joke.  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with wildly deformed comic-book mutants running around in your campaigns, but I'm pointing out that few people have included, for example, a dwarf as a dangerous and powerful warlock, or as the wise sage who guides the player, or the faithful servant secretly in love with the beauty he serves.  Just imagine the players' reaction when this unusual character gets so much play time, when he's treated as a complete and full character with depth, reason and a background.  Imagine how they would feel, for example, when the enemy that threatens to topple their nation is barely over four feet tall and is no laughing matter.  They'll remember that character forever, if you treat him properly.  

There is, after all, a reason Game of Thrones is legendary in the circles its travels: George R. R. Martin is skillful enough to treat a character like Tyrion properly and turn a dwarf from a stereotypical joke into a character that one would admire.

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