In my last post about Grimsbury I talked about how points of change in a setting’s history prompt questions for the designer. There’s sort of an extension of that exploration that I want to get into with this post. Where my focus in the last post was the constant of change, there’s a flip side for this post: any time there’s change, there are people or institutions that resist it.
(If you heard the song from Fiddler on the Roof in your head just now, I’m not sorry).
“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“That’s how things are around here.”
“You’re not from around here, but…”
You’ve probably heard phrases like that before. maybe at work, maybe from family. In every instance that I’ve heard them (or said them), it’s been because the person saying them doesn’t want things to change.
Why is that? Let’s take it for granted that the premise of the previous post is true: change is constant. There’s no escaping it. Things will change despite anyone’s best efforts. Why resist it? Why cling to tradition? There are a few reasons, and all of them expose excellent motivations for characters.
Change is Hard
Humans are creatures of habit. It’s easy to stay in the same place, to expect and receive the same things. It’s comfortable, knowing what to expect. Walking down to the diner every morning for a cup of coffee just like you’ve done every morning for the last 20 years is a lot easier than telling Howard McFarland exactly what you think of him. And you sit next to him every morning.
It takes energy and effort to force yourself out of particular patterns of behavior, thought, etc. More than that, change has repercussions. What happens if you do tell Howard what you really think of him? You’ve never stood up to him, going all the way back to high school. Those patterns of behavior are ingrained, hard. He doesn’t actively antagonize you any more, but sometimes he gives a look that says he could. Better to not rock the boat.
Tradition Builds Community
Sure, the County Fair might not be the most exciting thing in the world to go to, but there’s a certain sense of ceremony your mom’s built up around buying that first corndog. You spent a lot of time working on your 4-H project and you’ve got to see it sitting in its booth alongside the rest of the club’s work. Plus, there’s always the Demolition Derby on Friday night. You’ve got to see that, even though you have to tell your friends you’re only going because your dad’s making you.
In small groups of people, traditions give everyone a common touchstone. They help remind everyone that there are things that are worth working together for. That’s why we have things like County Fairs, harvest festivals, family reunions. The world we live in now might not depend on human interconnectedness like it used to, but there’s still something to be said for being reminded of it.
Not All Change is Positive
Some change might seem objectively bad. Some change might not be a big deal. How you feel about it likely depends on your perspective. In my experience, the people who resist change the most, or who paint it as negative are those who feel they have the most to lose from things changing. Let’s go back to the two examples I used above.
In the example of the coffee shop, sure it might feel good to tell Howard off. But he owns the factory where your son works. Your grandkids go to school together. You might be able to get yourself some measure of satisfaction, but you’ll have changed the dynamic between the two of you. The repercussions won’t stay limited to you. Doubly better to not rock the boat.
As for the County Fair, the biggest sponsor is Schiener Tractors. Kent Schiener gets a lot of publicity for his part in the proceedings. In fact, he’s gotten big contracts and lots of connections because he’s “supported the community” so much. If the Fair loses popularity or goes away entirely, he stands to lose a lot. He’ll probably do whatever he can to make sure that the Fair continues to be a centerpiece of the year’s proceedings.
The Push and the Pull
Those semi-in-setting examples highlight how change can affect people. When thinking about building a setting, keeping those things in mind helps make the characters and their motivations more real. People don’t just fold when change comes. If they’ve got energy and effort invested in things being the way they’ve always been, they’ll fight to keep things the same.
The flipside of that is that people without power, who are marginalized by the status quo, they’ll eventually push back. It’s rare that systems of power don’t end up changing over time. People agitate for change, asking for more.
The takeaway is that the tension between change and the status quo is where a lot of the goodness comes for a story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or an RPG session. If you want to really get some good story, look for the tension points and push on them. Maybe it’s external forces trying to shape a community or person. Maybe it’s all internal, a person who’s been pushed around too long fighting back.
All of this ties back to questions and bridges us from setting to story. The setting is the coffee shop where you’ve had breakfast every morning for the last 20 years. The setup is that you have to sit next to Howard McFarland and hear the same bullshit that you’ve been putting up with all those mornings. The story comes from answering the question: what happens when you’ve had enough of it?