Over the past few weeks I have been observing a side-effect of having a strong character-concept which I have not seen since the early days of White Wolf games. This side-effect, the result of what on the surface seem to be player traits beneficial to good play, works in the background to erode fun, and twist expectations, until an intervention of some sort is necessary. Last year, I wrote an entry called Premature Imagination which explores the same error, but only as it applies to action resolution. This entry will look at character realization and actualization through the filter of “My Character Concept.”
As gamers, when we choose to shift from running simple avatars to generating more complex characters, the games we play generally encourage us to delve deeply into all the little details of personality and personal history which frame the person we intend to portray. I emphasize the idea of ‘person’ here, as I feel that a lot of players get caught up in not who a character is, or how they think, but in what a character can do, and by extension – ‘must have done.’ It is that latter point which can really spark issues in play, but both set a pattern of conception in motion that once play starts, can work against the group rather than for the characterization. Once this poisoned dose of discontent has wormed its way down the gullet of play, much agony – and even death – may ensue.
Meshing Concept with Mechanics
Easily one of the most frustrating elements of RPG characters is discovering in play that something doesn’t work like you thought it worked. The more important this element is to the character’s concept, the more unsatisfying and off-putting the experience of playing that character can be. Most GMs I have ever played with tend to allow a revision of the character in the first session or so, particularly if the game is new to the group or the player, or if that character brings rules or game elements into play which have not yet been touched upon. Trouble comes when it is not immediately obvious that a particular competency or trait is not capable of performance conducive to supporting the character concept. When a character has been in play for a while, it gets harder and harder to accept altering it for ‘better performance.’ Mistakes are one thing; growing dissatisfaction with a lack of cool, or whatever, is quite another.
To that end, running some tests of the mechanics with the player and the sorts of encounters you envision them experiencing are a good first step prior to full-on play. Most groups just want to play, though so without this period of exploration and experimentation, alternate means of addressing the issue tend to be necessary.
With that in mind, it strikes me that the best route to take is to allow yourself the pleasure of discovering the competencies of the character in play – particularly in a new system – and focus your energies in character generation to the less tangible aspects of character, such as their outlook on life, interests, strength of reactions, and connections to other characters. Avoid things which exist entirely as die rolls and are intrinsically tied to resolution mechanics. By stepping away from the train of expectations, you negate any chance for it to pulverize a character stalled on the tracks linking concept and performance.
Knowing your Place
It can be very hard to assess at first if a game’s PC generation system produces green characters, experienced characters, or Big Damn Heroes. Even when the game comes out and tells you the relative strengths of character types, the first few runs will still be a process of learning to understand what these levels really mean in reality once the dice hit the table.
Obviously, if you are running a vanilla version of a system which produces beginner characters and the player tries to create a living legend there will be negative feedback in play. People hate it when living legends suck. Paying attention as a GM to the nascent character ideas (and remembering to explore them with players rather than taking them at face value) can save a lot of frustration later. As a player, paying attention to the game pitch, and the tone and sample characters provided for comparison (if any) are two good ways, in addition to keeping lines of communication open with the GM, of preventing the concept from expanding beyond the production capacity of the generation system. If you are set on creating an experienced PC when the GM and the game itself have geared up for beginners, you are headed for dissatisfaction. That, of course, negates the whole point of playing.
If in play, you find yourself actively and vocally trying to reinforce or actually create a conception of your character in the other players’ minds, this can be a hint that your concept has outstripped the ability of the system to reflect it given the points or abilities allotted. You shouldn’t have to tell the other players who ‘your guy’ is, they should just be able to see it.
Timmy: My guy remember, is a super-deadly assassin, and has a history of silent kills at close range which have baffled and mystified his enemies and employers alike.
Jim: I’m sure the 7-11 owner who hired us appreciates that.
Manuel: Silent…? Like the time he alerted all the guards in the warehouse and we had to abort before we even entered the place?
GM: Focus guys. Ok, Timmy – you have a stealth of 1 and a brawl of 1, and lost initiative. Declare your action for the turn.
Timmy: I totally kill them all!
Manuel: Lord Thunderin’
Carts and Horses
Backstory is important and helps bring a lot of character elements into cohesive focus, but a parade of accomplishments in the character’s out-of-game past can often conspire to heavily fictionalize the character, causing concept inflation, and again leading to a frustrating disconnect between how the player sees the character and how the game is actually presents that character in conjunction with the GM’s vision of the campaign.
In my experience, players who derive the most pleasure from accomplishments their characters have achieved in-game and source their character concept in those accomplishments and resulting consequences and reputation tend to be the players most satisfied by play. Players who try to force their vision of a character onto the events of the story and onto the system supporting the game tend to feel the most frustrated. Who needs that?
In fiction and performance, the author and artist are able to craft fully-realized characters and fully control the arc through which they travel, carefully shaping and presenting the perception of that character to the audience. RPGs, while certainly an art-form, have a wider base of participatory players and two external filters – the GM and the system – through which everything must pass before it manifests in ‘reality.’ As players, we have two choices, only one of which produces positive effects. We can choose to work with the engines that drive the game, or we can try pushing and pulling against them – gritting our teeth against the rising bile of frustration until it eventually chokes us.
- Individual versus Group Character Creation from Reality Refracted (realityrefracted.com)
- [STUFFER SHACK] Keeping Good Players (stuffershack.com)
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