There Are Two Bruces Inside of You - A Player's Creed

Like a lot of GMs who enjoy a playstyle divergent from that prescribed by the RPG industrial complex, I often find myself in games with people whose prior game experiences don't exactly mesh with what I'm putting in front of them. They need a little onboarding. They need permission to free themselves of the constraints those past experiences have ingrained in their brains.

Specifically, they often need to be reminded that they can do (well, try) anything. This is an aspect of tabletop play that people often reference as unique to the form, but it's not something the reality of play always bears out. This is part of my aversion to meatier systems with special abilities and skill lists and grappling rules and so on: they promote a video-game mindset. Encounters have been placed in the world for you to overcome in the specific way the designer intended, in the manner in which your character is built to overcome them. Pay no attention to the walls of the hallway/railroad - they are there to direct you in the intended direction. They are aesthetic, and nothing that is not on the path they designate will be useful to you.

This is the dreaded "buttons on my character sheet" syndrome. If you're wrapped up too much in the character-specific things you can and can't do, you forget to interact with the world surrounding your character as if it's a real place. You forget that you can do (well, try) anything.

Off the bat, let me say that this isn't meant as a dunk on 5e or Pathfinder or any other "rules heavy" game that focuses more on combat simulation than anything else. That's a totally legitimate way to play. Nor is this specifically a paean to a monolithic OSR ethos. I've had to do similar onboarding in more story-oriented games I've run (bringing newbies into Blades in the Dark, for instance, is consistently one of my greatest RPG joys). But the proceeding anecdote, specifically, regards a comment made to me by my brother after we'd wrapped up a Black Hack dungeon crawl.

The group had come up with a very clever method of defeating the headline monster of the delve, and the session was a blast. But in the moment he said he'd felt guilty about "fucking up" the dungeon. As if the dungeon isn't specifically there TO be "fucked up" by the players, at least in the "changed irrevocably by their decisions" sense. When I told him as much, he responded:

"I'm so conditioned to go into [dungeons and game worlds] with a Bruce Willis Die Hard mindset, when there is so much more than just hack and slash to be done."

For the record I am aware this is not Bruce Willis, but it's the gif that accompanied his comment. And the likeness is striking.

But the thing is, that's exactly what I want from my players in a game. I want a party full of Bruces. Because there are two Bruces in the film Die Hard. A Bruce Id and a Bruce Ego, if you will. My brother forgot that, prior to painting Nakatomi Plaza in blood, John McClane did all kinds of clever, tricky, interactive things that had nothing to do with pulling a trigger. So let's examine the Duality of Bruce.

(Sorry to anyone who is not familiar with Die Hard, this is going to be a little inscrutable. In my defense, I'm not the one who chose the metaphor. I'll provide my brother's twitter handle on request so you can yell at him instead)

MurderKillBruce, though he's the one that most readily jumps to mind when we recall the film, doesn't really have that much screen time. He breaks someone's neck. He shoots some dudes mid-movie, more or less in self-defense. At the climax, he does some gunfighting and throws the BBEG out the window. That's essentially it, in terms of naked violence (frankly, even less than I remembered when I set out to write this).

SneakyCleverBruce, on the other hand, is a constant presence. He climbs stealthily through ventilation ducts, because Nakatomi Plaza is thoroughly Jaquaysed. He loots bodies for weaponry, information, useful gear. He seeks outside help from cops (a faction of dungeon goons if there ever was one) by setting off fire alarms, utilizing looted gear in the form of a radio, physically signaling them with a corpse thrown from above. He socially engineers his foes by leaving taunting messages, playing off of their emotions, misleading them. He lays traps, and abuses his environment. He uses absolutely everything at his disposal, and isn't limited by his inherent abilities. He knows when to run. He fights dirty when he must fight. Does all this sound familiar yet?

My internal monologue, apparently

I think all of this points to The Thing that people misunderstand about lethal Adventure/OSR/NSR/Whatever games. Conditioned by mainline D&D to see the violence itself as The Game, they think of the bloody deaths and dastardly traps and morally muddied results of the players' scheming and grasping and surviving, and they call that The Game. Just like we think back on Die Hard and remember the explosion-lit murderfest climax and call that The Film. But 80% of The Film, and The Game, is not that. It's problem-solving. It's lateral thinking. It's survival. It's doing (well, trying) anything.

If I'm going to win people over to the sort of game I want to play, whether it's a B/X dungeon delve or an anti-canon sandbox with boundless horizons and possibility or a storygame full of intrigue and character friction, I need them to understand that the climax is not the game. It's the schemes and plots and cockamamie hijinks that lead down paths none of us would ever have thought up on our own, least of all the GM. It's using everything at your disposal, and extending your reach beyond your grasp. The game is the moment-to-moment interaction with the world as if it's a real place.

That is the magic of our form. It's trying anything, and sometimes, miraculously, doing it. That's what transports us beyond the table where we sit with a bunch of weird, companionable nerds and into another world, a place that has never been and will never be. And yet, somehow, transcendently is in that moment.

So in the future, when a player asks me if they can try something wild and unplanned for and perhaps a little foolhardy, I will tell them to remember that they have two Bruces inside of them.

Or maybe not, because that's a weird thing to say to someone.


  1. Great article! Certainly given me something to keep in mind while working on my own rules-lite system. Also, "RPG industrial complex" is a really great phrase, lol.

    And now I need to watch Die Hard while thinking about this.

  2. Great article! Something to really think about.


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