Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Character

"Well... lah-dee-freakin'-dah! Seriously, where does this pig-headed macho bullshit keep coming from? If you want to play in a role-playing game where the characters don't have any character, that's fine, I guess. But it sounds damned dull, if you ask me." - John Higgins, Ludandi Gratia
One of the things that separates RPGs from board games is the fact that the characters within the game are unique individuals. Granted, there are archetypes and stereotypes in every game (the miserly dwarf, the sneaky thief, the mysterious man in the black cloak, etc.). But what allows RPGs to be more than other games is the investment the players and GMs put into the characters. Fleshing them out turns the game from a series of combats in a dungeon into an interactive story where the players have a vested interest in what happens beyond "what is in the treasure chest?"

The above quote by my GM comes from a rather banal line of thought in the OSR that has surfaced recently, "We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons!" I will just add my two cents and say that I agree with John in his assessment of this line of thought is well along my own. If all you do when you play is "explore dungeons" then you might as well be playing a board game where all the characters are ciphers with nothing unique or special about them. Sure you can have the standard party of one fighter, one thief, one mage and one cleric that goes through various underground complexes with the mentality of "kill them all and take all their stuff", but that gets boring after a while. Why should I give a damn about your character outside of him helping my character stay alive? For that matter, why should I give a damn about my own character if I can just roll up a new one if he dies?

In my opinion, the problem comes from the fact that some people just can't visualize a character beyond what is written on their character sheet. I have actually seen some comments from people that they don't like D&D because "there is nothing in the rules to support role-playing". Well of course there isn't! Role-playing isn't something that can be adjudicated by rolling dice and consulting tables. Role-playing is accomplished by playing a freaking role! You need rules and mechanics for things like combat and whether a character is skilled enough to perform a certain task. You don't need rules and mechanics in how your character behaves in a given situation, you have to figure that out for yourself.

It becomes what the gaming world refers to as the difference between role-play and roll-play. The latter is incapable of defining their character outside of what is written on a piece of paper. These people, when asked, don't tell you about their character, they tell you about their character sheet. This unfortunately doesn't do a lot for the hobby as far as luring in new players. Because all they hear is a bunch of numbers and terms they aren't familiar with, instead of characters and concepts they can understand.

For example, I'm going to describe my Engines and Empires character, twice. First, I'm going to describe him how the "character sheet" player would describe him.
"Uh. I have a sixth level fighter. Uh. He has a +2 short sword and a +2 revolver. Uh. He can use focused strike twice in a battle. Uh. He has a 13 Strength. Uh. His alignment is Lawful. Uh. Oh yeah, his short sword can cast charm person once a day. Uh."
Zzzzzzzz! Wha? Oh, sorry. I bored myself to sleep writing that. Here is how I normally describe my character.
"My character is Lt. Lord Reginald Hornsby, Baron of West Gogledd, Hero of Avalon, Defender of Her Royal Highness Queen Maeve and member in good standing of the Royal Society of History and Archaeology in Avalon. Reg served as part of the Avalonian Armed Forces as support for the Corps of Engineers before becoming a professional adventurer and joining up with the current party. He pretty much sees himself as the leader of this group, holding this ragtag bunch together and turning them into an effective unit. He's not afraid to take the point and serve as the target of enemy attacks to allow the other party members to do what they have to do. But as a result, he likes to brag about how his actions have saved lives and defeated great evil whenever he can. If Reg has one flaw, it's his tendency to shameless self-promotion. But it's never completely at the expense of the rest of the party. He just sees leadership as his responsibility, and takes the perks of it along with the downsides. Recently, he has become the lord of a run-down barony, and is using his share of the treasure we find to help rebuild it. Overall, he is a fair man who believes in Queen and Country, and is loyal to those who help him accomplish his goals."
Now if you are new to a group of players, which character do you want in your party? Which one is going to be more fun to hang out with? Which one is going to have your back when he's down to three hit points and a dragon is bearing down on you? Which one are you going to look forward to seeing again at the next session? Which one of these characters has character?

That's what separates RPGs from other games. If you want to explore dungeons and not characters, play DragonStrike.

Me, I play D&D.


  1. Wow! I've been... quoted. Groovy.

    I guess I don't have very much to add; you know how I feel about the matter, since I lately posted that semi-coherent rant on the subject.

    I have to say that in the aforementioned campaign, I'm happiest with the players who had precisely the sorts of details that make characters fun: a background that provides motivation (without being too intrusive) and personal ambitions to strive for. These are the things that let a ref really hook players into adventuring, without it ever feeling too artificial.

  2. Indeed. When a player gives his character a backstory, he also gives the GM something to flesh out his world with and create story hooks for the campaign.

    The best one that comes to mind is when we found out our wizard was a traitor to the crown. At first I wasn't sure what to think because Matt wasn't there when the announcement was made. Then the party gets to Hesperia and there is his PC wearing the robes of Utopia. As a player I was thinking, "Matt, you magnificent bastard. You played us!" Then I realized that Reg was going to feel very betrayed that his, up to that point, best friend wanted to bring down his country.

    I think I did alright keeping the two concepts separate. It certainly made things a lot more interetsing.

  3. Oh, yeah. I was very happy with how Matt ran his character. Usually, I don't like a player to try and work against the party, but course that's not really what he was doing. He just had separate political aims that kept to himself and advanced in secret, otherwise adventuring in lockstep with the rest of the party the whole way through.

    Matt approached me and said that he wanted his character to have been affected by overexposure to Chaos while the party had been finishing up the Keep on the Borderlands. I said that it was okay, as long as he never actually stabbed the other players in the back. And he didn't really want to: he just wanted more freedom to do things that were consistent with his character background (a monarchy-hating, democracy-loving, rebellion-seeding Lemurian-at-large).

    To that end, I'm especially stoked that everybody was able to keep things mature, take it in stride as a role-playing event, and continue to adventure together. And, indeed, "magnificent bastard" is the way I'd describe it too. I think that's the one type of villainous character I don't mind allowing in a party of player characters!


  4. I love the name of your blog. Weekend wizadry is just badass all on it's own!!!

    Characters is such a great word to choose. In life we meet so many characters. I've never done the RPG thing but I have a friend who loves it!

    I stopped in to welcome you to the A to Z blogging challenge!! I'm a co-host, should you need anything just ask away! I hope you'll stop by my place to say hello! We're also having fun at twitter (I'm @jenunedited and we're at #atozchallenge)!

  5. Preach, brother, Preach!

    No, seriously, this guy is my brother. :P

    I have to agree with you Dave, and for good or for ill, this is why role-players end up in White Wolf related things where creating your character forces you to actualy define it's personality in the process.

    Of course, that doesn't make WW any better than any other system, but people need to come in to RP's with the ability to play a ROLE. If you just want stats and a blank slate character, there's plenty of videogames that'll make up the story FOR you.

  6. Love the blog name, and as a frequent roleplayer... well, you said it! The very difference between DnD (or other RPs) and other games is the ability to create an interactive story and explore your characters.

    I do both DnD and rule-less RPGs. It's fun to explore different types of systems.

    Have fun with the challenge!