Friday, October 29, 2004
Welcome to the end. I've decided, after about two years or so, to close the curtain on The Play's the Thing. I've said pretty much everything I have to say, and it's starting to be a chore, more than fun. I'd rather leave on a relatively high note than drag it out and write lousy columns that neither you nor I enjoy.
But before I go, I thought I'd leave you with one last summation of what I've been saying.
Here's what I think makes for a good gamer. Other people have different opinions. These are mine.
A good gamer shows up on time. He's prepared for the game. And he plays in a logical way. If his character was a grim soldier last session, he's not a zany clown this week just because he got bored. (But maybe his character is really insane, in which case it's ok, unless it's annoying.)
A good gamer plays well with others. He makes a character that fits in with the group, and tries to avoid invalidating other characters. He plays the game as a cooperative venture. Even when characters are in conflict, the players should be working toward a mutual goal.
Consideration is actually the cornerstone of my thoughts about being a good player. If you do everything else great, but you're a jerk to all the other players, then you're probably not someone I would want to play with.
A good gamer plays nice. Not cheating is obvious. Exhibiting good sportsmanship and style is a nice bonus. Fair play extends from the tangible things like not breaking the rules into intangible ones like not exploiting loopholes to the detriment of the game. If everybody is a point-scraping ubergamer, then that's fine, but if you're the only one and you specifically enjoy doing things no one else (including the GM) can do, then you might want to consider changing that behavior.
As a real-world example, I refused to play any Hero system game for about ten years after falling in with a group that had a couple min-maxers who got off on being able to point-screw the newer players.
I enjoy playing with lively, exciting players. One hefty part of gaming is performance art. Part of your job as a player is to play your role like an actor does. The better you do that, the more fun the game is.
Being entertaining isn't just about being funny, or intense, or anything else. It's about doing the right thing at the right time. A character played for comic relief needs to take center stage when comic relief is needed, and to fade into the background when it's time to be serious. On the other hand, a character who's always in the background, or never does anything fun to watch, then why is he there at all?
The very best gamers bring the game to a higher level just by being there. Some nights, I'm even one of them.
What's inspiring, of course, varies. Being entertaining (see above) is certainly part of it, but there's more. When I've been inspired (or more rarely inspired someone else), it's been a combination of factors. A character who really fits the game is absolutely necessary. He might be played true to genre, or a little oddball - but in a way that adds to the mood and themes of the game. His background makes the game more interesting - which might mean it's rich and detailed, or it might mean its light and sleek, with just the hook the GM needs. He has goals that bring him into conflict with the game's adversaries, and occasionally the other PCs. And he's played artfully, by a player who knows which buttons to push and how to push them, and most importantly when not to.
Now that I'm at the end of the column, I really don't know exactly how to be an inspiring player, or how to tell anyone else how to do it. I know it when I see it, though, and knowing what to look for gives me a goal.
And maybe it's like the quest for the Holy Grail. The finding isn't as important as the looking. And everybody dies at the end except Sir Bors.
(Well, maybe not the last part)
Really conclusions this time. That's all I've got. It's been fun. I hope you've enjoyed it. I hope a few of you have learned something that helps you have more fun gaming. If I've managed to accomplish that, then that's pretty cool.
See you 'round. I'll leave you with the words of a guy who probably would have been a pretty good GM.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
Welcome back. Today, we discuss what may be the most difficult problem character of all...
To begin with, let me tell you, I hate playing the Leader. I hated being group leader in group work at school, too. (And I hated group work in general, but that's another story) I don't like being responsible for anyone else's fun, and in a pretty big way, the Leader is responsible for everyone else's fun. If he screws up, the rest of the group pays for it.
That said, I've ended up playing the Leader fairly often. A few years back, I was one of the oldest, most experienced gamers in my group, so the others tended to deferr to me even when I didn't want them to. I don't consider myself a very good leader, but I was good enough to get by. And, perhaps because I'm uncomfortable in the position, but frequently thrust into it anyway, I've given a good bit of thought to what it means to be the Leader in an RPG group.
The Leader, for our purposes is both the character the other PCs follow. To confuse the issue, the Player of the Leader is probably also the Leader at the meta-level. This is not so true of other character types, but with the Leader, the line between Player and Character is blurred. A Player can play a Rat-Bastard without the other Players hating him, but he can probably only play the Leader if the others are willing to follow.
The Leader is a really hard role to play, unless it's easy. This column probably isn't going to tell you how to do it. The best I can do is show you the pitfalls and suggest ways you might work around them.
First off, how about some general thoughts on leadership. RPG.net used to have a column on the subject. I suggest checking it out in the archives. Not bad reading. I'll be much more brief.
One of the tidbits I remember from sociology is that any group has two "leaders." The primary leader is the one everyone sees as the leader. He makes the decisions, picks the goals, and generally runs things. The second leader is the one who keeps the group cohesive and looks after the needs of the individual members.
We're mostly focused on the first type, but I'll digress into the second from time to time.
A Leader is more than someone who gives orders. In fact, giving orders can make you NOT the Leader. The Leader charts a course, and other people follow it. A good leader inspires people to follow him, or persuades them. Then comes the tricky part. He has to take them somewhere. So effective leadership has two components: inspiration of loyalty, and vision of objectives. Someone who can inspire loyalty, but can't come up with objectives makes a good figurehead, but not a good Leader. Those who follow him are likely doomed, unless he's very lucky. Someone who can set objectives and figure out how to reach them is only a Leader once he can articulate his plan and get someone to follow it.
If you want your character to be the Leader, you have to be able to do both, or at least simulate doing both. This being a game, not real life, you can sometimes fake it. Otherwise, any gamer who played a lawyer or a surgeon would probably be fairly wealthy.
Let's start with the first side of the Leadership coin.
You're not the Leader until you tell someone to do something and they do it. In fact, you're not the Leader until you consistently tell people to do things and they do them.
There are lots of ways to inspire loyalty. Personal charisma is nice if you have it. Largess helps, too. So does blackmail, up to a point. But all of these have practical limitations. If you aren't charismatic, wealthy, or sneaky, you might have trouble with them.
Another good option is generally being right. If, every time the group says "what should we do now?" they end up following your suggestion, you are probably the Leader.
Once again, there are practical limitations to that, inasmuch as you have to really be right.
There are many books in the business/management section of your local bookstore or perhaps Dewey Number 6XX of the nearest public library on the subject of how to inspire loyalty. Most of them boil down to the following:
- Treat your followers with respect.
- Give them an environment in which they feel empowered and needed.
- Trust them and make sure they can trust you.
- Reward them for their accomplishments.
Most of that's pretty obvious, once someone points it out to you. Reading a book or two on the subject might not be a bad idea if you want to know more. The "Short form" is that it's about respect. Particularly in a roleplaying game, a group is probably a group of equals. Even if your character is Captain Jean-Luc Tiberius Archer of Starfleet you are still just another member of the group, and your friends aren't going to take well to you ordering them around. (If they do, hey, I'm big enough to admit when I'm wrong. More power to you)
So for now, let's assume you need a little help getting into your position of leadership. Here are some suggestions.
First off, you should clear your plan with the rest of the group. If you want to play the Leader type, mentioning that to the GM and the other players is a good idea. You can work out in advance why they'd follow you, and you can iron out potential problems. Or you might realize it's all a big headache and play a moody loner instead.
If the rest of the group goes for it, you can play a really autocratic character and get away with it. As an example, right now I'm playing a Star Wars game. My character is essentially another PC's butler. His character orders mine around and is generally a little condescending. If he'd tried to pull that without asking me, I'd be pretty annoyed. But since I actually asked him if he wanted a butler, it's all in fun.
Second, you should be prepared to metagame. I've previously discussed that there's good metagaming and bad metagaming. Altering your character portrayal to avoid nasty conflicts is usually good metagaming. In Character, your Starfleet captain might be a decisive man of action who just snaps out orders that are instantly obeyed. Out of Character, you should probably be a little more diplomatic. Taking a minute OOC to discuss what you've got in mind and ask the other players what they'd like to do is a good idea. It can help you in another way as well. We'll get to that in a minute.
Third, be prepared to compromise. If you have a really strong direction in mind (which we'll discuss in a minute), you have to either be able to sell that goal to the rest of the group, or be ready to lose your leadership position if you try to force them to follow it. So be ready to change your goals if necessary. Remember that the game isn't about your character and his sidekicks (generally). It's about a group. Everyone needs a chance to shine, and if you're always pushing your character to the front, you're going to annoy your fellow players.
So now you're reading this and saying "but David, if I do all that, I'm not really the Leader at all. I'm more like everybody else's servant." To which I reply, "Yeah, pretty much." The best Leaders don't think of their job as "order these people around." They think about it as "Help these people succeed."
Not all leaders are like that, of course. And if you have the personal magnetism to get the rest of your group to do whatever you want, you don't have to do it either. But don't say I didn't warn you.
Now, on to the second matter:
The Leader's job is to direct his followers. This is the hardest part to teach. Giving orders is easy. Giving them in a way that people will follow isn't too difficult. But knowing what orders to give? Aye, there's the rub.
In a fairly typical roleplaying party, the group engages in a mix of investigation, intelligence gathering, and small-unit military tactics. An ideal Leader would be adept at planning for all of those. He'd know the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on his team, and be able to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his enemies. He'd also be able to put different pieces of information together to create a coherent view of any situation, then figure out how to exploit that situation to his team's benefit.
Tall order, huh? And we're not quite done yet. That's all tactical level stuff. A good Leader also has to be able to work at the strategic level. He needs to provide overall direction to the team, so that they're always moving closer to a goal.
Not many people can really do all that, which is, more or less, why leadership works at all. Fortunately, you don't really have to be able to do it all.
Some of the same mechanisms I suggested earlier will help you here. You should probably really talk to the other players about the overall strategy the group wants to pursue anyway.
For the tactical side, if you don't have at least a basic grasp of problem-solving skills, you might want to reconsider your choice to be the Leader. But you don't need to be a SWAT commander or anything. The GM's probably not, either. (Besides that, all too many groups use the tactic of "just do whatever" without much coordination anyway...)
If the GM is willing to work with you, you have some options. Spend points on skills like Notice and Tactics, and ask for rolls to give your character ideas. It probably won't be very satisfying to play a tactical genius by just sitting around waiting for the GM to make up your plans, but he can give you enough help to get by.
Another option is to delegate. If your character can provide the overall direction, others can help with parts of the whole. The most important aspect of the Leader's role is to know what needs to be done and be sure someone is doing it. If another player is better at planning out combat encounters, let him make the plans. Try to ask some good questions. It's the same as the fact that the Leader would let the unit's medic do the field surgery, and the scout do the intelligence gathering.
The, of course, you're just management. (Just a joke. Don't take it personally)
Seriously, though, you should be prepared to delegate some things. Everyone wants to feel creative and useful. Most games aren't about The Leader and his Spiffy Minions. They're about a team of relative equals. Often, even when there's a logical command structure, groups tend to be more democratic than would be logical. We'll talk about that more in just a minute.
The flip side is that if you're having to delegate everything, then perhaps playing the Leader isn't for you. Chances are good that if the other players are metagaming so their characters will follow yours, and someone else is coming up with the plans, you're not really doing a good job in the Leader slot. At some point, you'll have to consider whether getting to wear the Leader hat is worth the compromises you and the rest of the group are having to make.
Ok, so that's the basics of the job. Let's talk a little about practical matters.
The Leader of a group of PCs has different challenges than, say, a SWAT Team commander or a feudal lord. Essentially, he doesn't really have any authority other than what his followers choose to give him. It doesn't matter who spent the most on the Rank advantage. You can't make the other players do what you want, and attempts to do so will be disruptive to the game. Sure, technically, a military commander could have an insubordinate soldier court-martialed, but if you try it, you'll end up bringing the game to a halt.
And that, you see, is the key. It's a game, played by people who are doing it for fun. If you do anything that makes the game not be fun, nobody is likely to cooperate with you.
Another matter is that some tactics that work pretty well in real life just don't work in some RPGs. Unless you've been trained in small-unit tactics, you just won't be as good at making up plans as someone who has, and even if you have, you might find that the rules won't support some otherwise logical courses of action. For instance, if you're playing Dungeons & Dragons, you might have problems with plans that involve quickly and quietly dispatching opposition. Escalating hit points will get in your way unless you have options like Sleep spells. (Not really a dig against the d20 crowd. It's not even absolutely true - but it's a good enough example.)
In general, your planning will need to be fairly light and flexible, simply because you don't have the resources for highly detailed plans. There are exceptions, of course. I know a few gamers who really dig the minutia of planning and plotting with maps and guard schedules and all of that.
Often, as Leader, your real job isn't so much to direct every action as simply to remind the rest of the group of their true objectives. Going into a fight saying "We're here to take out the Liche Lord. Only mess with the popcorn as much as you have to," could be enough. Your fellow players will tend to pick out their own smaller fights within the larger engagement.
One last thing that separates RPG Leaders from their real life counterparts is that they're characters in a roleplaying game. (Well, duh.) Some GMs set every detail down in advance, making the experience almost the same as real life. I hate them. I've never been that organized, and neither have most of my GMs. That means, occasionally, a plan can succeed because it sounds cool.
But occasionally not. You've really got to know your GM. To some extent, you should collaborate with him. It's not your job to lead the group into an ambush, or to slavishly follow exactly the path the GM has laid out - but on the other hand, it's not very nice to exploit your position as the Leader to shaft the GM's plot. If he's dropping hints that the group should go to San Francisco, then deciding to take them to New Orleans instead just
out of spite will probably get dice thrown at you.
That pretty much wraps it up for the Leader. The best I could do here was a general survey. The topic is complex enough to rate its own series of columns, but I don't think I'm going to do that.
Like just about everything else, my theories on playing a good Leader boil down to playing nice with the rest of the group. Of course, sometimes the Leader has to make hard decisions - but those should be dramatic, done for the good of the group and the game, not just to annoy another player.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Welcome back, for the latest installment of problem character types. Today's topic is one near and dear to my heart: the dreaded Cross-Gender Character. I may have a hard time writing this one, because I really lack experience in the bad side. About half the characters I play are female, and a few people I've played with have played cross-gender characters over the years. In all that time, I've only dealt with one really annoying guy, and his male characters pissed me off to no end, too. He was just annoying.
The classic problems are these: Some players play cross-gender characters as ridiculous stereotypes with over-the-top falsetto voices or whatever. Others seem to play cross-gender to indulge juvenile sexual fantasies. And of course, some do both.
So the simple answer for this month's problem is "don't do that."
But leaving it there would make for a very short column. So let's see if we can go a little deeper.
(Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself.)
Question 1: Why?
Let's begin with motives. Why play a cross-gender character? The "Straight" camp generally holds that men can't really understand how to play women, and vice-versa. Then they look rather uncomfortable when someone asks them how much insight they have into the minds of nigh-immortal Elves or whatever. But the question is a good one.
The simple answer is "because I want to" of course. But we can head off a lot of trouble if we can get into why someone would want to.
For me, the answer at first, way back in the ancient days of High School, was that I didn't really roleplay very well. My characters were pretty much pieces I moved on the game board. Their only goals were to go on adventures as laid out by the GM. If I found a cool female miniature, why not play a female character? There was a seed of the thought that in the stories we were trying (poorly) to emulate, there were female characters, so we ought to have some in our games, but I doubt I could have articulated it very well back then.
Since my High School gaming group was not made up of particularly mature, or even functional people, there followed some fairly depraved scenes, which should have really soured me on the subject, but didn't. I suppose it's because back then I never really identified with one of my characters. I cared if they did well only to the extent that it was a game.
But over time, my reasons changed a little bit. I got more adept at the art of portraying my character, instead of just directing his (or her) movements on the metaphorical game board. The decision of my character's gender became more than whim. I was still playing about half female characters, though. And a few years back, I finally became curious enough to think about why.
What I determined is that, as far as I can tell, there are two good ways to make a character. Most gamers who care about more than stats and bonuses will favor one of the two. Of course, without the other, you're not really gaming, so there's some pretty heavy crossover.
Group one is the Actors. These gamers primarily draw on the skills of acting in their gaming. For an actor, what's really important is the portrayal. The script is written, and all that remains is to take the words the playwright has given you and bring them to life. Gamers like this tend to focus on dialogue and mannerism.
Group two is the Writers. These gamers draw primarily on the skills of writing in their gaming. For a writer, what's really important is the narrative. It's at once a deeper and a shallower approach than that used by an actor. A writer needs to build everything from the ground up. He's going to bring his characters to life through words, using not just dialogue and description, but also internal monologue and narration.
I'm pretty much a "Writer" type gamer, and one of the places this comes out is in character creation. When the GM proposes a game, and I start thinking of what I want to play, the question going through my mind isn't "Who do I want to be?" It's "Who would be a good character for this story?" How I'll actually play the character once the game begins remains to be seen. (And every so often, the answer turns out to be "very poorly.")
As an example, let's take a theoretical Pendragon game. In this fantasy world, my friend Chris has decided to run Pendragon. (Hint, hint, Chris) And we start making up characters. Chris tells us it's going to be a somewhat mystical game, following four cycles of characters through the four stages of the Arthurian Mythos: pre Arthur, Rise of Arthur, Pax Britania, and post-Mordred. There will be a kind of Tarot theme, with the Sword (Excalibur), the Staff (the lance of Longinus), the Cup (the Holy Grail), and the Shield (which I can't remember the name of right now) each being important in turn.
I'll start my brainstorming for characters. Always immediately, the idea of a Roman Knight trying to be nobler than his decadent Empire while preserving its treasures springs to mind -- but I've done that. A Pagan Knight, powerful and mysterious, might work. And, cause I've never played one before, I might come up with an Enchantress, raised in an isolated tower and now sent out on a quest. The idea with her would be to fill the role of group "magic expert." It would give me the chance to come up with a cool mystical order, and make up a nifty story about why this contemplative, soft, fragile creature was sent out into the cold, cruel world. And I'd have a nifty development path where she has to come to terms with her new environment and find hidden strength within herself. It'd be fun. And the challenge of playing a relatively powerless character could be fun, too.
The character I'd pick amongst those three (and any others I thought up) would be based pretty much on what the group seemed to need and what the GM liked. If the GM's eyes light up while you're describing a potential character, that's probably the one you should play. If he looks uncomfortable or bored… not so much.
What inspires me for a character is generally a story, I want to play a character with a history and personality that leave him (or her) in a dramatic situation. If the character "works" better as a female, she'll be female. What makes the character work is just whatever happens to resonate in my imagination. I wonder to myself if I'd want to read a story about this character, and the ones I answer "yes" are the ones I present to the GM.
Of course, that's just my reasons. Other people have different ones. "Just to try something different" is an acceptable reason if you do a good job. Playing out your lesbian striper ninja fantasies is probably not, unless your group doesn't mind. I'm willing to accept that people play in ways I wouldn't enjoy. Just so long as I don't have to play with them, that's fine with me.
Question 2: How?
The big question, of course, is how you play a cross-gender character without annoying your fellow gamers. A lot of people seem to think this will be very hard. Oddly enough, in the writing circles in which I move, nobody seems to think it's too impossible to write about characters of the opposite sex. But the nay-sayers do have a few good points.
The biggest one is that it can be hard to imagine a slight, willowy elf-maid in robes of dark green when she is being played by a big, hairy guy in a Black Hand Gaming Society T-shirt. Of course, it would be hard to imagine the same guy as a thin, reedy wizard in sable robes, with a gnarled, wooden staff. But people's tolerances vary. Some people just don't want anything to do with cross-gender gaming (with an exemption for the GM to include tavern maids or whatever). If you're playing with some of them, then you'll have to decide what you want to do about it on your own. I haven't yet encountered a player who cared if other people played cross-gender characters, but I'd probably forgo the character if I otherwise liked the group. I've got more characters floating around in my head than I'll ever play.
I will note, here, that I think the best cross-gender characters I've ever played have been in PBP or IRC games. The screen of anonymity helps me open up a little more, and not seeing the other players leaves my imagination nothing but descriptions to work from.
The second problem is psychology. How do you portray a character of the opposite sex?
In my experience, it's not really that hard. I think one of my favorite compliments came from the Buffy game where I was playing Juri, the Japanese schoolgirl vampire hunter. (Yeah, I know. Playing around with the stereotype was part of the point of the character.) Several sessions in, the wife of another player joined up. After a few games, she told me that when she'd heard about my character, and that I was a guy, she was afraid Juri was going to be a stupid caricature. She said she was pleasantly surprised that I didn't play Juri as some kind of sex-fantasy or cliché, just as a person.
So, other than proving that I'm easily pleased, what does this example say?
It says mostly that you don't need to emphasize the femininity or masculinity of your character. Most of our behavior is "gender neutral" at least to an outside observer. There are a few tags you need to work in. I gave Juri a few "girly" hobbies, like a collection of Hello Kitty stuff. That also served to sharpen the contrast of her double life. On one hand, she was a grim vampire hunter, trained almost from birth. And on the other, she slept under a pink comforter, with a Hello Kitty Fairy doll.
Just pick a few typically male or female (as the case may be) things and try to do one or two every session or so. They don't need to be sexual, or relate to toilet habits. In fact, it's probably best to skip those since the potential for unintentional humor is so high. Mention that your tough as nails, old school cop guy goes to a sports bar. Or describe your female Occult Investigator trying to pick out the right outfit to meet a contact. (Actually, be careful with that one, too. Unless you want the parody)
Steal from TV, movies, or books. Juri was slightly based on various anime characters, since playing around with the Warrior Girl stereotype was one of my goals with the character. There's a Star Wars character lurking in the back of my mind based on Sarah, from CSI. I want to see how the driven, introverted technology expert works in a group of Rebel agents. (But if Chris decides to run Pendragon instead, all bets are off, of course)
You can probably skip any deep psychology and nobody will ever notice, unless you're playing with profoundly better roleplayers than the ones I know. (If you are, drop me a line. I might enjoy gaming with you.) John Grey's "Mars and Venus" books, and a few others, do a good enough job to give you the basics if you're really interested.
In general, women are more relationship oriented, and men are more task-oriented. But those generalities quickly break down in an average roleplaying setting. Player Characters are hardly typical psychological specimens.
Most of "How to play Cross-Gender" really boils down to "What Not to Do."
- DON'T speak in a squeaky falsetto. It's not really all that funny.
- DON'T go on about how your character does "Girl Stuff" (or Guy Stuff, I suppose). Just do stuff. There's a game going on. Play it.
- DON'T use your character to play out bizarre sexual fantasies (unless that's what your whole group is into, I guess). There's a huge world of pornographic fiction of varying levels of deviance. Lots of it is put up on internet websites, so you can even have an audience for your brilliant portrayal. Your gaming friends who are really interested in clearing the Temple of Elemental Evil can log on and read, too. After the game.
Which isn't to say that your cross-gender character has to be straight. The one I'm playing now is a lesbian, mostly because another player thought a love-affair would be fun to play, and I agreed. The one before that was bi-sexual because she had some pretty severe psychological scars. Sex scenes were far less important to the game than the aftereffects of her self-inflicted degradation. But in both cases, there were reasons that made the game as a whole better. I didn't just choose it for titillation value.
Well, more "summation."
Playing cross-gender is not as scary as some people think it is, but to do it well does require a little maturity. I guess the big factors are (a) have a good reason, and (b) do a good job.
The first part is about your motives. Everything you do as a player should be aimed toward making the game more fun, both for yourself and for the other players. What constitutes "more fun" will vary from group to group. But in general, flat, or laughable character concepts aren't going to make most games better. If your big hook is that your character is "a chick," you're probably on the wrong track if you're part of my target audience.
(There's a large swath of gamers who aren't, and who are very happy that way. If you're one of them, Game ON! But not much of what I say will be helpful to you)
The second part is about your execution. Once again, you're supposed to be making the game fun. If you can't play a given character in a way that really entertains the other players -- AND the GM in an way appropriate to the campaign, it's probably not a good idea. But if you can, then it probably is. I've played some really good characters who just wouldn't have been as good if they were male. Unless your game is set in Amazonia, you can't do a male Joan of Arc type character, you know?
So anyway, that's it for this time. Next up will either be "Comic Relief" if my buddy Chris has time to help me, or I might wrap this series up with "The Leader."
Unless I change my mind.
See you next time.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
"It is the very error of the moon,
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad." --William Shakespeare (Othello: act 5, sc. 2)
That's right, kiddies. This time out, we're talking about Lunacy. Psychosis. Madness.
In literature, film, and drama, madness is a powerful device. The insane are sometimes frightening, sometimes comical, and often believed to have insights that escape those bound by rational thought.
And where popular culture goes, gaming follows. So characters afflicted with madness in one form or another have been around for a long time. They can be exciting, interesting, compelling, frightening... or really annoying. All too often, the ones I've encountered fall into the last category. Players use "my character is insane" as an excuse to be disruptive, or just lack the comedic or dramatic skills to pull off what could otherwise be a fun character.
Seeing it done wrong many times, and right a very shining few, has led me to try my hand at playing a few characters with varying degrees of insanity, and to think quite a bit about what works and what doesn't.
My two best example characters are Cordelia Hawkwood, and Piper.
Cordie was a Hawkwood noble in a Fading Suns game, but her father engaged in illegal experimentation on her in the womb to produce psychic powers. In Fading Suns, all psychics have a Stigmata, some manifestation of their power that they have trouble hiding. Cordie's was that she constantly heard voices - not whispering secrets in her ear or telling her everyone was a demon - just talking. She was a telepath, and she believed the problem was that she could never quite shut off her telepathy, so she was bombarded by the psychobabble of everyone around her. (As it turned out, she was wrong, because Larry is a cool GM)
Piper was my attempt to play the loony toon Malkavian character in a VLARP and have it be really good. He wore a funny hat and a beat up jacket covered in buttons with clever slogans on them. He never talked, only pantomimed, and played a flute rather badly (a skill I possess in real life). What made him fun was that his lunacy was all a sham. He really was a Malkavian, but his actual derangement was that he went into catatonic withdrawal under stress. Acting like a harmless clown was the consummate defense. Everyone underestimated him.
Both of these went over pretty well. I've had a few others go... not so well, but they were either altered pretty soon or retired mercifully. And I've seen many more.
So, tell me about your mother... er... I mean, let's begin:
First, a brief disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or any other form of mental health professional. I have taken exactly one psychology course, and that was a long time ago. So this is not going to be particularly accurate in a scholarly sense. I'm not planning to discuss much real psychology, though. What we're talking about here is "Literary Madness," insanity as it is portrayed in literature, movies, etc...
Freud said wherever psychology went, literature would have gotten there first, so we've got dibs.
What's Your Damage?
The first thing to determine if you're going to play a crazy character is why your character is crazy in the first place. In the real world, insanity tends to rise from maltreatment in childhood, severe stress, and/or an imbalance of chemicals in the brain leading to "mis-processing" of sensory information. Once you've opened the door to fantasy and science fiction, there can be many more reasons, though.
This is the simplest step, but should not be taken too lightly. If you're playing a truly insane character, instead of one who just has a few quirks, then whatever drove him over the edge is a, if not the, defining thing in his life. Hamlet was driven mad (or perhaps not) by the awful truth revealed to him by the ghost of his father. Jesus and his apostles fairly regularly cast demons out of people who we would probably now diagnose as having Multiple Personality Disorder. Hanibal Lector... actually, I don't know what was up with Hanibal Lector. Those movies creep me the hell out.
If you're playing a realistic game, the cause of your character's madness will help determine its type. The ever popular Multiple Personality Disorder (unless there have been exciting new discoveries since the last time I browsed a work on psychology) arises in people who were profoundly traumatized as children, and lost all ability to trust anyone around them. Schizophrenia is the result of brain-chemical imbalance, and tends to run in families. Sociopath (or maybe they're calling it something else these days. Narcissistic personality disorder? Something like that) is usually the result of childhood abuse.
In a fantastic game, all bets are off. Demonic possession, alien experimentation, gypsy curses, almost anything goes.
Besides telling you how your character is insane, knowing the root cause will tell you how he might be returned to sanity if that's your goal. Real mental maladies can often be treated with drugs and therapy. Demonic possession is a little trickier sometimes.
Of course, you might not want your character cured at all. But even so, knowing the source of his madness will help you play him. A crazy Seer touched by the elfshot will have certain motifs you can play out.
Accounts of Madness
After the cause comes the effect. As I said before, this article is not going to be particularly scholarly. I'm going to just divide up various insanities into broad categories and discuss the play effects of each.
Neurosis - phobias, minor quirks, general weirdness. Neurotic characters are generally not dangerously violent. They instead have certain inhibitions in social situations. One of the coolest examples in modern culture is the TV detective Monk, who is the OCD poster boy. He has an incredible fear of grime and disorder. Other than that, he's fine. But "that" makes him a basket case.
Almost all people have a little bit of neurosis. Playing a character with more can be fun. It's usually more for comic effect than as a serious hindrance or a major source of drama.
A little unfairly, I'm also going to lump in stuff like manic-depression here - perfectly normal traits magnified out of proportion. The "real" effects are a lot different, of course, but in play they tend to have a similar effect on character dynamics. A manic depressive character will have trouble dealing with the world, but won't really be considered Insane (with a capital "I"), just kind of weird.
Psychosis - getting into scary territory here. The world, as interpreted by a Psychotic's senses, is different than the real world. He might hear voices that aren't there, or see things differently than they really are. Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, could be described as a psychotic. (albeit a pretty harmless one).
This delusional madness is incredibly compelling for literature. The characters are interesting to observe and interact with. It's a challenge to figure out the psychotic's frame of reference so you can understand what he's saying. Throw in just a hint of fantasy, and it gets really fun. Maybe he really does see ghosts or faeries.
You can play this one just about any way you want. The delusions can be funny, poignant, mysterious, or scary.
Sociopath - (I believe this term has fallen out of vogue these days, but I like it, so I'm using it anyway). The sociopath is, mostly, perfectly sane except for one little thing: a lack of compassion. He might act nice, warm, and caring, but in reality the only person he cares about is himself. He is probably very smart (stupid sociopaths are usually just called bullies). This makes him all the more dangerous, because there is nothing he won't do if he thinks it will get him what he wants.
Sociopaths are dangerous characters. In the right game, they'd be fine. (In a lot of games, everyone's a sociopath, of course. In which case this advice is irrelevant). But most of the games I've played in had an informal social contract that said the PCs were all on the same "side." They might not like each other much, but they'd cooperate at least a little bit - and instances of player vs. player conflict would be limited. A sociopath changes all that. Played properly, he really has no loyalty at all to the group, and no conscience or code of honor to stop him from knifing another PC in the back if he thinks he can get away with it. And worse yet, he'd do it without any foreshadowing to warn the other player. While that's perfectly realistic, it's not very nice for what is otherwise a friendly social activity.
Multiple Personality Disorder - A much more rare disorder in real life than in literature, MPD means just what it says: one brain holds multiple, distinct personalities. They might all know each other, or they might not. Generally (probably more in literature than in real life) one personality is fairly "normal." and the others are more aberrant. They might be expressions of different aspects of the core personality, or totally unrelated constructs. Some of them might not even be human.
MPD can be a lot of fun to play. If nothing else, there's variety. I haven't yet had the chance to play my MPD superheroine, Reliquary. Her power absorbs the consciousness of anyone who dies within a few yards of her, so her mind is host to several personalities - some of which are quite strong-willed. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity some day.
Autism - not really an insanity, but worth mentioning here. Autistics have difficulty relating to the outside world, using language, and accepting change. There is a broad spectrum of Autistic disorders. Characters on the low end are just somewhat eccentric. But on the far end, things get exciting. An Autistic Savant could be an interesting character, if you can keep him playable. It would be a good idea to have another player helping you out as your character's caregiver.
Developmental Delay - AKA Mental Retardation. Also not really insanity, but it could be interesting. Lenny, from Of Mice and Men is a classic literary example. His vast physical power was made tragic and monstrous by his feeblemindedness.
Alien - The last "not really insane" type, and in fact the last one I'm going to define right now. Alien characters are perfectly sane for their species, but have a different outlook than normal humans. A classic example from the ancient days of gaming (the 80's) is the Kender: a race of short, cute little people utterly without fear, and with uncontrollable curiosity.
North by Northwest
Ok, you know the "Why" and the "How," so it's time for the "What." Once you've figured out your character's derangement, you have to put it into practice.
Broadly, there are two ways to play an insane character: seriously, or humorously. There is also a third way: disruptively, but most people who play that way will argue vociferously that they're actually playing one of the other two, and the other players are just mean ole' jerks with no appreciation for good roleplaying.
Played for laughs - Insane characters are funny. Just think about Daffy Duck, particularly in his early, kidna freaky incarnation. They're wild and unpredictable. The problem is, they're hard to bring off. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," as they say. I've seen more disruptive loony characters than I have ones I really wanted to share a game with. The most common symptom is that the kook constantly annoys the other PCs with his childish behavior, random outbursts, or whatever - then when the other players are fed up, the kook's player falls back on the "I was just playing my character" defense.
To pull this character off, you've got to walk a narrow line. Too little, and he's not really the character you want. Too much, and he's messing up everyone else's fun. My friend Chris gave me the following advice while we were discussing this: "remember, your job is to amuse the rest of the players, not yourself." Obviously, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be amused, but your goal is to be comic relief, not comic torture.
I think the trick is to work your portrayal so the character is a little "off" most of the time, and just goes spilling over the edge into complete lunacy every once in a while. Then you try to time those outbursts (maybe one in a long session) for times when they'll make the game more dramatic or more fun, rather than just when they'll be the most disruptive to everyone. And be ready for cues from the other players that you need to rope it in a little.
Unless you're really playing an adversarial game, you probably don't want to ruin the other PCs plans, just to make them more... interesting. So the classic Malkavian with a cream pie probably shouldn't really throw it at the Prince. But he should keep edging toward it, maybe pick it up and weigh it in his hands once. But one of the other PCs is ready to smoothly take it away.
Serious portrayal of insanity is probably harder, in some ways. But once you get the basics down, at least comedic timing isn't as much of an issue. An insane character played seriously is more dramatic. He has a built-in struggle he has to face above and beyond what everyone else does. Almost by definition, he's struggling to make sense of an insane world.
The challenge for the player is to figure out how the character's aberrant psychology interacts with the world around him. Someone with schizophrenic delusions constructs an elaborate fantasy world that could be completely alien, or might be only subtly different than the real world. Someone with multiple personalities has a reason for being that way. Something besides random chance might trigger the changes. Certain personalities would emerge in response to certain needs.
You don't need to base your portrayal on textbook psychology. (If you're a psychologist, go for it, though. That could be cool) Literature is a much better guide. Rather than responding to misfiring neurons or chemicals, your character's madness can respond to narrative necessity. The strange and terrible insights of the mad, while not very realistic, are very literary.
That basic advice holds for any of the concepts I've presented here. You want to keep two factors roughly in balance, your character's psychology (be it insane or alien, or just a little odd) and the needs of the game. Where they conflict, in general the needs of the game win. Fortunately, the game doesn't need a whole lot. If you're not actively dragging it down, you're probably doing fine.
Working with the GM would be a good idea. Something so terrible that it drove your character mad is probably worth working into the back story. A paranoid delusion about alien abductions that just happens to coincide with an illegal government operation could be fun.
And even though we're talking serious here, don't be afraid of a little humor once in a while, if it fits your character.
Well, that's all the time we have kiddies. This column covered material I've talked about previously. Indeed, a lot of this series seems to be.
Next on the hit parade will be one of two things: Comic Relief, or the dreaded Cross-Gender Character. See you then.
Friday, May 28, 2004
Welcome back. In this installment, we will embark at long-last on the topic I've been putting off for a while, personality types. This will be a little different than the character archetypes I discussed earlier, because it won't focus on abilities at all - just personality traits. What I have in mind is to pick out some classically annoying personalities, and discuss how they might be played effectively.
First up, the "Moody Loner."
Everybody knows the "Moody Loner." He was orphaned at an early age, quite possibly raised by a ninja clan, has no particular ties to anyone else, and tries to be completely self-sufficient. He's the Masterless Man, not shackled to any cause, any place, or any group. He's free to do whatever he wants, limited only by his personal code of honor.
He's a very classic literary character. I could point to Gilgamesh (well, he had one friend), Percival, or Perseus. I could mention Josey Wales (or almost any other Clint Eastwood character). It would be almost criminal if I didn't mention Wolverine of the X-men. Fortunately, I'm covered there because I used his catch-phrase as the title of this column.
But literature and gaming are different beasts. In a work of literature, while the Loner is off brooding or whatever, there aren't four other loners waiting their turn. The story just happens. In a game, a character who demands a significant amount of one-on-one time can be a burden to the rest of the group.
So how can you make it work? How can you play a loner in a group activity?
A few ways.
Your character is a loner. He doesn't really care about the other PCs very much, and whenever faced with the choice, generally acts alone. This frequently means that the GM is forced to run a split group.
This is the least constructive way to handle the problem, but sometimes it's the right one. In a PBEM or PBP game, loners work much better than in tabletop games. In a LARP, it can also work OK, to the extent that if you want to have any fun, you'll still have to talk to other characters, but none of them have to be your character's friends.
Even in a tabletop game, you have some options. As I've said before, you only have a right to expect roughly as much of the GM's attention as the other players do, but if you don't mind sitting and watching a lot, you can do so. You can also try to handle your side-trips and personal quests in between games if the logistics work out.
Pick the Right Game
In games that eschew the traditional "party" structure, all the players might be playing Loners to some degree. Games like Amber, or an all Elders Vampire chronicle tend to blur the "PC/Protagonist NPC/Antagonist" division, so PCs are frequently acting on their own, against each other, or in shifting alliances. A loner character isn't so disruptive, since the social contract of the game is built to handle it.
A troupe style game might also work, to some extent. This is dodging the issue a little, because your Loner PC will have something of an entourage, but they'll be his subordinates, rather than "other PCs." Psychologically, he can still be somewhat of a loner, while not really monopolizing too much of the game.
Pick the Right Situation
Most of the literary examples of Loners get involved in groups to some degree. There are ways to make that happen. Your character may be a rootless wanderer, but perhaps his code of honor won't let him just walk away from a grave injustice. If some other people are fighting the same injustice, he might join up with them, "strictly temporarily." From there, he might always be on the fringes of the group, or might come out of his shell a little.
A Loner might be forced into working with a group, rather than choosing it on his own. Loners can be hard to manipulate, since they're built with few hooks. If you've chosen to play a Moody Loner because that way the GM can't "screw with you" then I think your motives may be a bit misguided. It's not really fair to expect the GM to be able to craft a game to your personal specifications in which nothing ever happens that you don't like. The literary experiences RPGs try to re-create are full of characters forced into situations they wouldn't choose: loved ones are kidnapped, killed, or cursed; Powerful enemies rise up from the past; Protagonists are bribed, begged, or blackmailed. If you're not willing to play along a little bit, you might be better off writing for your own entertainment than playing a collaborative game.
(Ok, I'll get off my soapbox now)
Pick the Right Loner
My favorite option is to build a character who might think he's a Loner with no compassion and no care for anyone but himself, but really he's not. Wolverine, particularly the way he's portrayed in the X-men movie, is an incredible example. Here is this guy with no past, wandering alone, but when he's confronted with someone who really needs his help, he gives it. He complains the whole time, but he does what needs to be done. And when he finds a group, he joins it, still complaining.
A "Cooperative Loner" can be antisocial, moody, headstrong, and stubborn, but he has built-in reasons to work with the rest of the group at least half the time. He's built from the get-go to be part of the group, even though he doesn't want to be. Or better yet, he really does want to be, but he's got hang-ups that keep him from realizing it.
I'm playing one of those in a PBP Witchcraft game right now. I didn't really focus on the Loner aspect, but it was certainly there. When I was invited to join, the group was a little short on straight, physical muscle, so I whipped up a vampyre PC. Gabriel de la Luna was a Conquistador, turned into a vampyre by an Aztec vampyre/magician. Eventually, he escaped his master's control and became a member of the Fellowship of Judas (your basic "vampyres in search of redemption" group, for those who don't play Witchcraft).
He was full of self-loathing, adhered to a rigid code of honor, and that was about it. (Hey, I was in a hurry) As I fleshed out his background, I decided that he hadn't always been that way. Once, he'd had friends, and begun to think that he could really do some good and become "human." He didn't think he could really be mortal again, but he thought he might have something like a family.
Then they all died horribly.
That left me back at square 1, with a warrior vampyre who would honorably do whatever he promised. The NPC he considered to be his feudal lord asked him to protect the other PCs, so he did.
Over the course of the next few adventures, he started to care about them. Eventually, he fell in love with one, after a really complicated relationship with another one. (Fun game, kinda like a soap opera with periodic demon invasions).
Oh yeah, like you really think I have any conclusions by now.
The Loner is always going to be a little hard to play in traditional settings, but I think what I've outlined is a pretty good place to start. Like just about anything else you might want to do, it'll be good if you do it well, and bad if you do it poorly.
Your motives are important, of course. If you're playing the Loner to explore his effect on the group's dynamic, and the group's on him, you're probably in better shape than if you're playing a Loner because the other players are such losers. (And one wonders why you're playing with a bunch of losers).
When you're looking for examples and inspiration, it might be better to look at sources with something of an ensemble cast, rather than stories where the Loner is the only focus, to see how the authors split up the time. But even in more centralized examples, Loners almost always end up with some kind of connections. Find out how those work, and try to make them work for you as well.
Next time up, I think I'll try another concept, playing an insane character.
See you then.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Hi ya'll. We'll be postponing our discussion of different personality types, perhaps indefinintly if I get another idea I like better first. This time out, I was inspired by the end of my several months long WitchCraft game. I decided to do a sort of retrospective.
In the Beginning
The seed for this Chronicle was actually planted around three years ago. Our group was between games, and Chris was thinking about running. He'd picked up WitchCraft recently. I loved the game from way back in the Myrmidion Press edition. I suggested a character to him, a psychic test subject. The big twist would be that I would not actually start the game playing that character. I'd start playing her older brother, who had discovered that his baby sister was in a really terrible place and hired the other PCs to help him rescue her. He'd be a Mundane, and would die during the first session. None of the other players would know this was the plan all along.
That game fell through, but the idea stayed with me, and the personality of the psychic character slowly grew. "Anna" had been violated in every way possible, and somehow held on to a tiny shread of her humanity. She was very much not a typical hero. She was callous and cruel because that was the only way she could survive what had happened to her. But deep down, she wanted to believe there could be something good in the world, and once she had power of her own, she was determined to use it to destroy others who she judged to deserve it. Trying to figure out how someone like her would relate to the world was a challenge, and I thought she'd be fun (in a slightly squicky way) to play.
So years passed. We played some Fading Suns and some Tribe 8 and some D&D, some Deadlands and some smatterings of other stuff. And Chris finally decided he wanted to run something big again. And better yet, he'd been reading Anita Blake novels.
He decided on WitchCraft. Our conversation went something like this:
Chris (puts down Bloody Bones): I've been thinking about running a modern occult game. What do you think about maybe WitchCraft?
Me: I'm playing Anna.
That Chris remembered a character I'd proposed three years ago and never played, and didn't think I was strange for holding on to the idea in excruciating detail for all that time is probably one of the reasons he's my best friend.
The Game is On
So we got the group together. At the beginning, there were four PCs:
Anna Williamson: Psychic test subject with telepathic powers and... issues. Scratch that. Anna didn't so much have issues as she had entire runs of magazines on microfiche with full text archives on computer. She was a telepath with mind control abilities. She was also a musician, and if stupid demons from the outer demensions would have just stopped trying to invade our reality, she would have been really happy playing night clubs and stuff instead of going out and fighting evil.
David Lin: PI. Mr. Lin was an ex-military type who'd had a run-in with a vampyre in his past. He was Mundane (had no powers) but in WitchCraft, Mundane with a capital "M" makes you more like Rambo or Sherlock Holmes than like Willy Loman. He was an action hero, more than a little crazy, and was the center of the group since he was the one Anna's brother hired to rescue her. Lin hired the other PCs to help.
James Sinclair: Demon Killer Ninja. A mystical martial artist with a ten-year gap in his memory. He wanted to fill in the holes, and had a general desire to "do good." As it turned out, during the ten-year gap, he'd been a pretty bad person, and somehow gotten that part of his life wiped out. One of the group's major adversaries was the group of mystically powered assassins he'd founded back then. They were really surprised when he showed up to kill them.
Dr. Maggie Rynolds: Healer. Part of a family of demon hunters, but Dr. Maggie didn't really want any part of it. She wanted to be a pediatrician. Her sneaky family set her up to be hired by Mr. Lin because they knew it would eventually get her involved in the family business. In the first adventure, she went along because it was likely that Anna would need medical treatment (being in a mental institution where she was being tortured and all).
The game ran weekely for several months. There were three big threads of the plot, all braided together. At the end was a Mad God the PCs dubbed "Crocathulu" since it looked like a big, slimy lizard thing. It was trying to gain access to our world through a couple of means. There was an evil voodoo street gang, and a group of evil ninjas, and the project that had created Anna and some other psychic kids, all ultimately tied to this one big baddie.
Anna's rescue started off a kind of domino effect. The whole mess gradually fell to pieces, and the PCs were just following the carniage, usually arriving just in time to stop something from getting completely out of hand. Each encounter pointed us to a little more of the plot, and showed us a little more of how interconnected it all was.
Last night (as I'm writing this, you'll read it much later) was the final session. The heroic PCs shut down the evil psychic researchers and rescued their last few victims (but not before some of the bad guys could get away for the sequel) and tracked the big baddie to its lair where there was a terrific showdown.
Lesson for the forces of evil: If you're vulnerable to fire, don't make your base of operations in the same building as a meth lab. You might end up being beaten to death by a burning refrigerator.
Post Game Wrap-Up
So now I'm sitting in the afterglow, or aftermath, getting ready for our next game. I'm also thinking back on the last one and trying to decide what worked and what didn't and what I can do better next time.
- My goal with Anna was to play the traumatized child within the young woman trying to be "normal." I hoped to ocassionally frighten the other PCs with Anna's casual inhumanity. It worked pretty well. Some of the stuff I thought was really good barely got a raised eyebrow, and sometimes I got really shocked looks for stuff I didn't think was that big a deal, but on the whole I was happy. Anna came off as someone generally good, but with a skewed idea about what "good" meant. There were some factors in the game that softened her edges a little. Dumb ole' Dr. Maggie being all compassionate and understanding all the time made it hard for Anna to reject all humanity. So in the end, she was nicer than she might have been.
- The plot progressed nicely. Everybody shares the credit for making characters who fit in with it and not getting too side-tracked on personal developments. Two PCs were just made to be in the thick of it, of course. I'm also pretty happy with our clue-finding ability. It never felt like we were running around aimlessly until the GM had to hit us with a clue-by-four.
- Roleplaying in general was pretty good. I was happy with my portrayal, and the other characters were cool.
What didn't work:
- Group dynamics were our worst problem. One player (playing David Lin) had to drop out, and we never managed to replace him. That threw things out of whack for the rest of the game. Instead of One full-bore combat character, one combat/social, one social/combat, and one mostly non-combat character, we had one full-bore combat character, one social/combat character who couldn't really keep up, and one mostly non-combat character. We tried to redress the balance, but it never really worked.
- A big chunk of the problem was that I should have paid more attention to the other PCs. Kate (playing Dr. Maggie) was a new gamer, and made up an almost entirely non-combat character. Tom (playing David Lin) made up a combat character, but one who would either have to develop supernatural power in play, or end up in a mostly support role (both valid options). And in the end he had to drop out anyway.
- If I'd been paying attention, Anna would have been much more combat worthy. Instead of a smattering of different powers, mostly focused on investigative ones, she would have had just two, both very useful in combat. It would have shifted the focus of her personality slightly. Instead of having trouble relating to people she generally saw as puppets, she'd have been more flighty and afraid of herself because of her vast destructive potential. That would have been fun to play, too, though.
- I was too passive. I have that problem a lot. With Anna, it was a little worse because a lot of her characterization was about isolation and alienation. Logically, there were a lot of times she just wouldn't talk. I was roleplaying her sitting quietly very well, but it wasn't very exciting to watch.
What to do next time:
- I need to make more forceful characters, and make a conscious effort to play them more forcefully. I tend to be a little shy, and I think I'd enjoy my gaming more (and maybe my real life, too) if I wasn't. But part of it isn't shyness, it's that I make retiring characters. Anna's a good example. She just wasn't very talkitive or driven.
- I'd put down "work on group integration" but normally I'm pretty good at that. I just really blew it this time, and my mistake was magnified by some things beyond my control.
- The last thing I want to work on is communicating my desires to the GM. This one's a touchy point. I'm not sure how to express it.
Chris ran a pretty plot-focused game. Most of our sessions related to unraveling the big puzzle and defeating the minions of darkness, with very little beyond that. The PCs were presumed to have private lives, but they didn't really come up much. Unfortunately, a lot of what I wanted to do with Anna was wrapped up in her daily life, so it didn't come up much in the game.
I'm not sure, however, that this was a flaw in the game. Chris didn't run a game exactly like what I wanted to play, but that doesn't mean it was bad. What he did run was pretty good. The only flaw I'd point out was that combat didn't seem dangerous enough, and that was really only partially his fault. When we lost Mr. Lin, the combat dynamic of the whole group shifted. Anything that could hurt James would slaughter Anna and Maggie. So frequently, we ended up in fights where the girls hid while James beat up the bad guys.
Toward the end of the game we fixed that, too. Anna got better at support with her telekenetic powers. She couldn't really lay down the smack, but she could provide key distractions, and trip up adversaries to keep James from being overwhelmed. And when she needed to be, she was plenty dangerous. All it took was one guy with a low Willpower and a big gun.
Also, most of Anna's private life wasn't reflected on her sheet in any way. She didn't have any contacts, or any adversaries besides the big, scary conspiracy that was one of our primary foes in the game. So I didn't give Chris a lot to work with.
So the last item on my list is a reitteration of the predominant theme of my column, "work with the GM." From now on, I need to make sure the GM knows what I want, and that I know what the GM has in mind so I can adjust my expectations. I generally do that somewhat anyway, to tell the truth. This example just shows me why.
(And, Chris, I'm not dissing your game. This is a fairly minor quibble in a darn good game.)
Alright, that's enough for one month. I'll see what inspires me for next month.
Till then, have fun. Good gaming.
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Welcome back. This month we're going to finish up this less than exhaustive look at heroic archetypes. I could probably come up with a few more if I really wanted to, but I am fresh out of catchy titles for the series.
The archetypes I chose for this installment are all, to one degree or another, a little problematic. In addition to talking about who they are and what they do, I'm going to try to offer some advice on how to overcome these problems.
The Loyal Retainer
I was originally going to do the Protector, but I've decided to expand the archetype a little bit. The Protector was going to be a character dedicated to the protection of another character. The Loyal Retainer is more general. He might be a bodyguard, but he could just as easily be a butler, or just about anything else.
The Loyal Retainer is the servant of another character, generally another PC. His role in the group is to help his master in some way. Examples include Alfred Pennyworth, Tanto, and Lobot, and, of course, Samwise Gamgee. In fact, during Fellowship of the Ring, just about all of the Fellowship were there to help Frodo, but Sam in particular saw himself as Frodo's servant, rather than his ally.
Whatever his area of expertise, the Loyal Retainer is a servant. His primary motivation is often not the same as the rest of the group's. Instead, his goal is to serve his master, who is following the group's goal. This can lead to some interesting roleplay. If the Retainer feels like his master's life is in danger, he might council his master to turn from his course. When presented with a choice that endangers his master, but moves closer to the goal, what does the Loyal Retainer do?
Then there's the whole question of his loyalty. Why is he loyal? If he's repaying a debt, then what will he do when he feels like he's repaid it? If he's following a generations-long tradition of service, what if he starts to chafe under that restriction out in the wide world? If he serves out of admiration for his master, what if the master proves not to be admirable?
When you make up your Loyal Retainer, the first step is to figure out what you'd like him to do. Loyal Retainers come in many types. Almost any kind of character from the strongest warrior to the cleverest thief could be the servant or sidekick of another character. Some settings offer a little more support to the Retainer relationship than others. A game in a medieval fantasy setting has built-in feudal relationships. A Knight might have a Squire (and in Arthurian literature, the Squire might be older and wiser than his Knight). A Lord might have vassals. A Wizard might have an apprentice, but that usually indicates a difference in power levels that might be a problem. But when you get down to it, whenever people have had societies, there have been some of them ordering others around, so I can only think of a few games where a Retainer wouldn't work very well.
The second step is to figure out who he works for. If he's working for a relatively faceless NPC, then he's not really a Loyal Retainer in the sense I have in mind. A big part of the Loyal Retainer's character is his constant subservient relationship. So he needs an employer who will be a constant factor in the game. An NPC master works well enough, particularly if the GM has an NPC closely associated with the party. For example, if the game involves escorting the pampered, spoiled Imperial Princess all over the kingdom, then her personal bodyguard makes a great PC.
But the real fun is to play the sidekick to a PC. One of my unrealized dreams back in the late 80's and early 90's was to find a Star Wars game where I could play the Loyal Retainer to another PC's Young Senatorial, Arrogant Noble, or Retired Imperial Captain. (Yes, I stole the title of this Archetype from Star Wars. I'd like to say I only steal from the best, but I don't. I'll steal from anybody) The PC you choose is important. In fact, this is where the problems start. First, there are in-game criteria. The "Master" PC needs to be someone who would logically have a retainer, bodyguard, or whatever. If you want to play a stuffy British Buttler, and nobody else wants to play a wealthy aristocrat, you might be out of luck. But second, there are metagame criteria. The player you choose is important. He has to want the relationship. He also needs to be someone you can trust not to abuse his position. Playing a Retainer isn't quite as emotionally loaded as playing a love interest, but it's close.
So, like so much else, the trick here is to look at these problems ahead of time and take steps to head them off. Be sure to talk to the GM and the other player. Make arrangements for what's going to happen if the Retainer needs to leave the game for some reason. Set some limits on how the master can treat his servant.
(It bothers me that this is starting to sound like a lesson on BDSM, but only a little.)
The master/servant relationship should be established ahead of time. If you want a kind master who's more like a friend, then be sure the other player knows that and wants to go along. If you really want to play the competent, cool aide de camp of a buffoonish fop, then you'll pretty much be out of luck unless someone wants to play the fop.
If the relationship is going to be particularly bad, like an abusive master or an ultimately treacherous Retainer, you'll want to hash out some of the details ahead of time. Discord can be fun, but it can easily get out of hand. Potentially, it can really disrupt the game. If the GM has a particular storyline in mind, he might prefer you not to design a traitorous PC, or (more likely, in my experience) he'll cackle with glee and help you plan the ultimate moment to strike. And if he's smart, he'll also arrange for some kind of replacement character for you, and something to soothe the bruised feelings of your fellow PCs.
For an abusive master, you also need some options. It's possible to have a subplot you can drop in where the master learns the errors of his ways, but that depends on the character. If he's a bad master because he's immature and insensitive, it's pretty easy. If he's bad because he's a sadistic bastard, it's harder. So you might just want to have a backup character ready in case playing the Retainer isn't any fun anymore.
Comic Relief is a staple of literature for just about as far back as literature. God thought the perfect counterpoint to darkening the skies, making the rivers run red with blood, and blighting the crops of Egypt with locust was a bunch of frogs. Comedy gold. The Jester is a character intended primarily to provide comic relief. He can be intentionally funny, like a real clown or jester, or unintentionally funny, because he's stupid or insane. Examples include almost all the classic Comedia del Arte characters, but Scaramouche and Puncello in particular. Marry, Pippin, and Gimli were all played for comedy in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations. C-3PO filled the role in the Star Wars movies.
But the Jester is somewhat harder in a game than in a story, for several reasons. The first reason is this: You are not as amusing as you think you are. Yes, I mean you. Very few people really have the chops to play a humorous character correctly for a long time. There are a lot of factors. Comic timing takes practice. What you think is funny may be different than what everybody else thinks is funny. Sometimes you just have an off night. If you're playing a brooding loner, that's not a big deal. But if you're playing the zany sidekick, it can be.
The role of "Comic Relief" in a story has to be carefully managed. Generally, in a serious story, the comic relief is there to relieve tension every once in a while. But in a game, everybody tends to want to play about the same amount. It's easy to fall into the trap of having your humorous character become obnoxious without even trying. Not every scene needs comic relief. Some scenes are ruined by it. But how fun is it for you to sit around waiting for the right moment to have your character do something silly?
Another problem is that a lot of what makes some characters funny is "picking on" other characters. The inept sidekick who always gets his hero in trouble is an example. So is the Malkavian Vampire who is so nuts that he's constantly endangering the Masquerade, insulting the Coitere's allies, and throwing cream pies at the Prince. (I have coined the term "Kendermalkie" to describe him, and all similarly stupid, invalid, and basically worthless characters. But I'm not bitter.)
The key to solving all these problems lies in knowing your audience, and having good timing. If you come by these traits naturally, more power to you. If you don't, and you want to play a humorous character anyway, then be open to a lot of feedback. Ask for it. Be ready to listen. Set yourself a limit. Maybe three times a session, your character can do something monumentally obnoxious, and the rest of the time he's just low-grade obnoxious. If part of his shtick is using another character as a springboard, be sure to give that player a break sometimes. Also, make sure the target of your affections is in on the joke, and wants to play, too. A proper, stern, honorable knight is a great target for a clowning rogue's insults. But if the player of the knight is trying to play a noble and admired leader, and the rogue is constantly undermining his authority, then only one of those two players is probably having fun. And the Knight probably has Improved Critical.
Last on my far from exhaustive list is the Quisling. I'm not using the term in its strictest definition here, by the way. For our purposes, a Quisling is a character who is working with the PCs, but is also working for their enemies. There are some good literary examples. Loki, in Norse mythology is a good, solid Quisling. Sorcha in the movie Willow is another one, though she is really more of a turncoat. In Star Wars, since I just about can't write a column without referencing Star Wars, Lando is just about the perfect Quisling. In Empire Strikes Back, he's working for Darth Vader, only to switch sides later on.
A Quisling takes a particular kind of game. There need to be political factions available from the get-go. There probably needs to be an overarching plot, too. A typical D&D game about a band of adventurers wandering from place to place, looting ancient tombs probably won't do it. There wouldn't be a good enough reason to have some enemy place a spy in the party's ranks. But if you add in an ancient prophecy about a band of Mystical Heroes, you're golden.
A typical Quisling character needs to be fairly socially adept. He's going to be lying to the rest of the party for at least part of the game, and if he can't lie with a straight face, he's in trouble. In games with various forms of paranormal divination, he probably needs some way to circumvent those methods. Though, if more than just the Quisling player and the GM are in on the deception, this might be taken care of in a metagame way. And it might not be an issue at all. Most people aren't paranoid enough to cast "Detect Alignment" on everyone they meet, after all. Also, in some groups, the Quisling's non-allied status won't really be an issue. He might be openly part of one of the other factions, not trying to deceive the group as to his affiliation at all. In dark, gritty games, politics often makes for strange bedfellows.
Beyond his ability to deceive the rest of the group, the Quisling probably also needs to be useful. The group needs to keep him around, after all. Given the fact that he's usually going to be a social type character, the rogue, face-man, information gatherer kind of roles suit him well. Leadership is less of a good idea, since presumably he's an enemy of the group. A solid fighter is useful, and can either be social enough to hide his true motives, or just hide them behind a gruff, silent exterior. And everybody loves an evil wizard, of course. Or an evil decker, or whatever.
Problems for the Quisling come from a few different areas. The first one is that there's a general sense in most groups that the PCs are all on the same side. When one PC betrays the others, it can be very disruptive to group harmony. Further, as sad as it might be, the feelings of betrayal in game can spill out into real life. That's mostly a matter of maturity, of course. But it's a matter of maturity for both the Quisling player and the others. Bragging about it for weeks on end, or making a habit out of betraying your friends in game are not likely to endear you to them. Making sure the Quisling's betrayal is part of a good story will also help. Randomly whacking other PCs doesn't really make the game more dramatic. A carefully orchestrated plot with just enough clues that the other PCs eventually catch on can be a lot of fun, even if they don't stop you in time. (Of course, it's probably better if you have the Quisling decide not to kill them out of foolish sentiment, or something. Otherwise the game kind of ends early.)
Ultimately, the Quisling is supposed to try to switch sides and really become a loyal member of the PC group. Otherwise, he's not really a "heroic" archetype, and therefore falls outside the scope of this series of articles. Maybe he's inspired by their nobility, or maybe he falls in love. Maybe he was working for the bad guys against his will all the time. Then the eventual betrayal of trust becomes a more dramatic plot point as the Quisling tries to redeem himself and earn back the group's trust.
If you've played your role too well, and kept it too secret, this might prove a problem. I've played turncoat type characters a few times, and it always worked out, but I've seen it fail badly, too. Having the other players in on the secret from the beginning obviously makes the transition easy, but it takes some of the fun out of it. So possibly the best thing is to have the GM be ready to explain at the proper time. He's generally going to be seen as impartial, and once it's clear that you have been acting under his direction, most players will be willing to roll along with the new direction of the plot.
One of the biggest problems for the Quisling is that to some degree, he needs knowledge that the GM would rather keep out of the hands of the players. Presumably, he needs to know at least a little about the bad guys' plans so he can fulfill his part in them. Depending on exactly why he's doing what he's doing, he might know a little or a lot.
So that's the place to start. The GM will need to decide how much information he's comfortable giving the potential Quisling player, and that will determine where the Quisling fits into the hierarchy of the bad guys. A really trustworthy player could end up playing one of the major bad guy's lieutenants, privy to almost the entire plan. In fact (just to make everyone I GM for paranoid) I'm planning a game where one of the PCs is destined to turn on the others from the first session.
But far more common will be low-level Quislings. If the Quisling is just some expendable agent, maybe even forced to work for the bad guys against his will, he won't need to know much more than his current instructions. In that case, it's really just a matter of the GM setting up jobs for him to do, probably no more than meeting a controller from time to time to make reports.
Which brings us to the third problem. The Quisling has a built-in secret that will take some manner of separation of OOC and IC knowledge on the part of the other players. At the most difficult end of the spectrum, your Quisling might have active goals that run contrary to the group's, and that he has to act on during play sessions. In that case, you'll have to rely on the other players to keep IC and OOC knowledge separate. And you should probably resign yourself to being caught pretty quickly. There are a few things you can do to keep the game going, though. A fast-talking Quisling might be able to come up with explinations. A sneaky one might be able to buy the silence of the PC who caught him with blackmail or bribery. A ruthless one could just kill the witness, but that's not such a good idea if he's supposed to reform later on.
At the easier end, the Quisling might just be a spy, informing on the group. Then it's all a matter of logistics. If he has to make in-person reports, he might still get caught. There's still the OOC/IC issue to deal with. If the GM separates players for private scenes, everyone is suspicious. If he doesn't, everyone hears the reports.
Of course, the lack of separation could be used to increase the drama of the game. If the other players are in on the secret from the beginning, they can play along. They get the fun of seeing the Quisling's gradual change. Maybe he starts off by keeping a few secrets from his masters to try to protect the group. Then eventually he tries to set a trap, or leave completely. It's good roleplaying, but it's also good entertainment for the rest of the group.
A last option, in many games, there are covert means of communication: anything from a magical telepathy spell to just an e-mail. If it's something that can be done between sessions, the other players never have to see it. That makes the Quisling's secret a lot easier to maintain. And if you keep logs of his reports, the other players can read them after the game and bask in the illumination of your sneakiness. Or, more practically, copies of them might become available as IC knowledge through any number of events.
Thus endeth the lesson. At least for the moment. I'm enjoying doing different character types, so I think next time out I'll start exploring some different personalities, talking about how to play them and what problems they might present.
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
I almost always lead off my columns by saying "Welcome back," and I'm getting really tired of it, but I can't really think of anything better to say, so... er... welcome back.
This time out, we continue our discussion of heroic archetypes. Last time, we covered "Leading Men," the type of character that frequently becomes the focus of a group in popular fiction. This time we'll round out the group with some of the "Supporting roles." Of course, in an RPG, things are rarely quite that simple. Few of the groups I've played in ever really had a clear-cut "Leader," and generally when they did it wasn't so much because of story focus as because one player was more charismatic, smarter, or louder than the others. But the division of Leading Character/Supporting character is useful enough as a division, and sometimes useful in a more literal sense. For instance, a game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, played pretty close to the source material, will almost certainly have a leader in the Slayer (and some of the other characters I'm about to cover, too). Pendragon also has a built-in leadership role. In theory, whoever has the highest Glory is in charge. In point of fact, in every game of Pendragon I've played, the guy with the highest glory went around acting like he was in charge, while my character actually came up with all the plans and did all the hard work, but my experiences probably aren't typical.
So, on with the show.
The Wise Elder
Merlin, Obi Wan Kenobi, Teaspoon (let's see who gets that one); the Wise Elder is a classic archetype as old as heroic fiction. He (generally guys) might lack strength, but more than makes up for it in knowledge. Generally, the Elder is not the focus of the group, but an advisor. He often has some past ties to whatever threat the group is facing. Perhaps in younger days he faced it himself, or perhaps he is part of the cause, and now is trying to make amends by aiding a band of young heroes.
Wise Elders come in a variety of packages. Gandalf was an awesomely powerful being. Merlin wielded knowledge from beyond the realm of man. Teaspoon was just an old gunfighter, no better than anybody else, just more experienced. The key factor is wisdom, whether gained through secret knowledge or experience. The Elder offers his wisdom to the rest of the group, who are often too young and impulsive to appreciate it.
In general, his role in the story is not so much to advise, as to offer a measuring stick by which the primary hero's wisdom is gauged. In the classic cycle, the brash young hero begins by frequently ignoring his mentor's advice, and gradually matures until he doesn't need it anymore. Usually, the Elder dies then, symbolically showing that the Hero has matured.
The Wise Elder is often a mystic of some kind, which fits into his role as the provider of wisdom and insight. He can also be a fading master of a discipline that a younger hero seeks to master, an elder swordsman passing on his techniques to one last apprentice, for instance.
The Wise Elder can be a little tricky to bring off in an RPG. First of all, in general it's hard to start off with a character who is significantly more skillful than his companions. There are a few solutions to this hurdle. I believe there was a "grizzled veteran" option, or something along those lines, in one of the Silhouette games (Jovian Chronicles?). The Unisystem games have the Age and Past Life Qualities, both of which allow for a character with a lot of skills, but maybe not so much raw power. I'm also fond of the GM Cooperation method, wherein the GM just lets you break the rules to make a better character. Obviously that needs to be kept in check, though.
A second hurdle is that it's often hard to have one player with a lot of otherwise secret knowledge. It requires the GM to present all that knowledge to the player in question, and to make sure he knows what he can reveal and what he can't. The player then has to work at proper pacing and timing, and probably to cede a certain amount of control over his character to the GM. And there are grounds for charges of favoritism from the other players. (And, of course, if the GM is like me, he may not have a lot of secret knowledge to share anyway since he makes most of it up as he goes along).
These are all hurdles that can be overcome through a number of means. A mature group isn't going to complain about one player getting extra resources that are designed to be shared. A good player should be able to play his role well. The most difficult problem might be that the younger characters are too willing to take the Elder's advice. In literature, the brash young Hero often ignores his mentor's warnings, but in a game the players will have to be careful about separating their characters' perceptions from their own. Remember, the characters just see some old coot who talks a lot. They don't see that the old coot's player gets to read through the GM's notes before each session.
The Reluctant Hero
Bilbo Baggins, Philipe the Mouse, Roger Murtaugh; the Reluctant Heroes of literature are a relatively recent phenomenon. I could probably think up a few older examples if I really wanted to. The Reluctant Hero, in general, doesn't want to be a hero. He'd much rather be at home, where it's safe and comfortable, but something forces him into action, and as long as he's in action, he'll do the best he can. He's just likely to complain the whole way.
He's often not motivated by the same things as the rest of the group. Instead of going on the noble quest to save the world from the clutches of evil, he might be there in hopes of looting the evil overlord's treasury to pay off his gambling debts. Or instead, maybe he's got a perverse sense of loyalty to one of the other characters in the group, and is determined to follow his friend on whatever "damn fool quest" he's undertaking.
The Reluctant Hero can fill a lot of roles, but some of the more charming ones tend to be roguish types. Part of their reluctance comes from a lack of heroic traits like big muscles and magic swords and ancient destines. The Reluctant Hero usually approaches the whole business of heroics from something of a right angle. He's not here to save the world. Saving the world just happens to be the only way to save his own life (or whatever) so he'll do it. But he'll do it in the easiest, safest way he can find. Why fight the guards when you can trick them? Why fight the Guardian of the Magic Dingus when you can sneak past him? Why fight the bounty hunters when you can run from them?
But once the chips are down, if he can't figure out a way to scoop them into his pockets and hide, he'll usually come through. In fact, one common course is to take an unlikely Reluctant Hero type and have him gradually mature into a more gallant, noble hero. Some never do, of course, and even those that do often retain a sort of charming recalcitrance.
The Reluctant Hero can be a little difficult to play without some cooperation from the other players. If you're going to try it, be sure to clue the GM in. He'll need to know that when your character keeps trying to weasel out of adventure hooks that you're really planning to play along. It'll help if the other players are in on it, too. And you should probably keep an eye on their reactions. Like any character played for comic effect, it's easy to cross the line from "funny" to "bloody annoying."
The Love Interest
Gwenivere, Dale Arden, Ilsa Laszlo, the love interest can be every bit as noble and heroic as the next person, but her role in the story is usually defined by her relationship to another character. Most of them are women, but the type works for men, too, with a sufficiently active female lead. And hey, I don't want to offend the homosexuals, either. But pronoun use is going to get really confusing here if I don't limit some options, so for the most part we'll be talking about ladies here.
The classic Love Interest goes along on the hero's quest or gets involved in his continuing struggle more out of interest in the hero than out of dedication to the quest. The two aren't necessarily in conflict, of course, but the dynamic lends an interesting cast to the hero's actions. When the hero goes off to sacrifice himself, she's the one who wishes he wouldn't go. When the rest of the world's against him, she's the one who he can turn to. When he can't see any reason to go on, she provides his inspiration. While his presence motivates her, her presence also motivates him.
Beyond that, the Love Interest can take a lot of roles in the story. In classic pulp and many a comic book, she was mainly there to get captured and rescued from time to time. But incompetence isn't really a necessity. Princess Leia was a Love Interest, more or less, and she was as good at shooting stormtroopers as any of the boys, and she only ever got captured and had to be rescued that one time. A Love Interest can even have a somewhat adversarial relationship to the hero and the rest of the group. A Catwoman/Batman cycle of attraction and betrayal has been part of the Batman mythos for years.
There's nothing too hard about building stats for a Love Interest. Since the only necessity for the job is a romantic relationship with another PC, I can't think of any game system that would make that difficult. (Well, technically a too-strict interpretation of the Cyberpunk 20.xx rules could, since your character's romantic life is determined randomly) What can be difficult is establishing the social dynamic of the role. If you're going to play a romance with another PC, it's very important that the player of that PC be onboard with it. And if you're making that a major focus for your character, then it's really important. The rest of the group might have something to say about it, too. Something like "ick" or "get a room" if you get out of hand.
You're making your character very dependent on another PC, so you need to consider the other PC's background and personality. Your character needs to fall in love with the other character at some point (maybe during backstory). And her personality (once again, I'm just using pronouns for convenience here, ok) needs to mesh with his in such a way as to get the relationship dynamic you want.
That dynamic doesn't have to be a happy love. In fact, that's kind of boring. An unrequited love could be fun, either played for humor, or for eventual tragedy. (or hey, maybe you'll finally win him over) An adversarial relationship can be very interesting, but kind of hard to arrange in a typical RPG group. A mostly-friendly rivalry might be a better choice.
Playing the Love Interest isn't too hard, assuming you can do the romantic side well enough. Her development path will depend on a lot of outside factors, and there are several ways you can go. Do you want to play the faithful lover who's always there for her man, right or wrong? Or how about the initially somewhat misguided child who gets in over her head and learns that there are more important things at stake? A "Benidict and Beatrice" type relationship where two characters seem to hate each other, but fall in love, is lots of fun if you can make it work. And, of course, your character's romantic plot doesn't have to be the core of her existence. I've used them much more often as just one hook for a more well-rounded character.
Well, we're not done quite yet. I have three more "Supporting Heroes" to discuss next time: The Protector, The Jester, and The Quisling. See you then. (I hope I can come up with yet another good title with "Hero" in it by then.)
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Welcome back. Sorry for the delay. I moved last month, and found out I had a lot more stuff than I thought I did. Things were crazy, but now they're more or less back to normal.
So, last time we discussed various villainous archetypes. This time out, we'll talk about heroes. Like last time, I'm breaking my discussion of heroes into two parts. The similarities end there, though. I'm not so concerned with "realistic" heroic archetypes. They aren't so easy to pin down as the villainous ones, since most people can be heroes in the right circumstances, and there aren't really obvious psychological traits to distinguish them. I'm going to concentrate for now on more literary Heroic archetypes.
Heroes tend to be a lot different than villains. "Well, duh," you say. But the big difference might not be the one you expect. What really tends to separate the heroes from the villains in practical terms is that villains tend to be pro-active, while heroes tend to be reactive. This is one of the enduring conventions of storytelling. In general, the "good guy" is the Protagonist of a story. That leaves the role of the Antagonist to the "bad guy." And all it takes to be an Antagonist, when you get right down to it, is to cause the conflict that drives the plot.
So, like villains, heroes are defined by their motivations, but those motivations are often imposed from outside. The ultimate villain wants to destroy the world, which he can start doing any time it strikes his fancy. The ultimate hero wants to save the world, which he can only really do once someone has started to try to destroy it.
My first offering of Heroic Archetypes is going to be the "Leading Men." Leading Ladies are fine, too. And, in fact, any of these archetypes might just as easily fill a supporting role in the party. Gaming tends to be a lot more ensemble driven than some genre fiction, since each player probably wants his chance for center stage. In the literature from which gaming takes its inspiration, though, these heroes will tend to be the leaders or central figures:
The Chosen One
The Chosen One has a destiny thrust upon him, usually accompanied by some sort of special abilities to allow him to face it. Often, his destiny is also a doom, and even with his new power, he can fulfill it only in his own death.
A Chosen One is intimately tied to the plot of his story. He's generally Chosen to defeat the primary antagonist. How he was Chosen can vary. Luke Skywalker was Chosen because of his heritage. The force was strong in the Skywalker line, and he was its scion. Buffy Summers was just chosen pretty much at random. Only the "Earnest" movies present a less likely hero than Buffy at the beginning of her career as a hero. Hal Jordan (Green Lantern for those of you who aren't comics geeks) was Chosen because of his personality.
One interesting variant of the Chosen One is a character I like to call the Nexus. They're very common in Anime. The Nexus is usually a fairly weak character, surrounded by much more competent ones, but is possessed of a power that is absolutely crucial to the team's success. Unfortunately, most of the time this power isn't very useful in day-to-day activities.
The Chosen One usually begins the game fairly inexperienced. It's his destiny, not his training or skills, that make him important. But he grows in power quickly. This can be hard to simulate in an RPG where advancement is more or less the same for everybody. If your GM is up for it, it's possible to just ignore normal character advancement rules. I've done that a couple of times, and it works great if all the players are onboard. If not, you can usually do a decent job by taking high level powers with relatively low skills.
To play the Chosen One, you're going to have to have the GM on your side anyway. There has to be room for a Chosen One in his game. Some games just aren't appropriate. A Chosen One is almost mandatory in a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer game. A Chosen One in a Delta Green game might be a little odd.
The Nexus variation is easier to work around, and can be a really fun challenge to play. You need to have a somewhat forgiving system, and be ready to deal creatively with dangerous situations. It's easy to smite Stormtroopers with the Force. It's harder to figure out how you'll fight off a horde of demons when you have the power to either do nothing in particular, or open all the barriers to all the dimensions surrounding earth.
In general, Chosen Ones are warrior types. They almost always have mystical abilities of some kind, and in general what those abilities are good for is smiting Evil. Beyond their mystical powers, many Chosen Ones are fairly limited. Some aren't, though. As they grow in power, they can grow in a lot of areas as easily as in just one.
A Chosen One usually has a fairly predictable path of personality development, not unlike the classic stages of grief. There's usually some disbelief, some resistance, then an embracing of the destiny and a gradual growth in wisdom and power. A Chosen One frequently has a mentor, and that mentor's death often marks a turning point.
The Chosen One is almost certainly the central character in the group. His destiny is probably what brings the group together, and none of them can succeed without him. In a game, this can be a little of a problem, unless everyone is on board. The characters can believe or not believe as they choose, but it's important that the players are willing to take supporting roles.
Of course, one easy solution is to have a group of "Chosen Ones." If every character is visited by fickle destiny, then everyone is on equal footing again.
The one big problem with a Chosen One is that eventually he's going to get around to doing what he was Chosen to do, unless his destiny is ongoing, like "fighting the demons and the vampires and stopping the spread of their numbers." After that, he either needs to find something else to do, or he's just going to sit on his hands for the rest of the game. In a close-ended campaign, that's no problem. In a long-running game, you've got to make some preparations. The Star Wars Expanded Universe material dealt with this pretty well. Luke was Chosen to defeat the Emperor. After that, he had to find a new purpose, and found it in rebuilding the Jedi order. The skills he'd learned as a warrior didn't always serve him, and he had to learn new ones.
There are lots of Chosen Ones in literature to use as examples: Luke Skywalker, Neo, Buffy. Moving into some older material, King Arthur could claim the title, as could the judge Gideon from the Book of Judges. A pretty good example of the Nexus (even though she's not the main hero) is Melfina from Outlaw Star. She's the navigation module of the ship, which allows the other characters to fly the ship, but isn't too useful elsewhere. Dawn from Buffy: the Vampire Slayer is another good example. As the Key, she was the most powerful being on the planet, but her power didn't really help her.
The Questing Hero
Where the Chosen One was chosen passively, the Questing Hero chose his role himself. He has a driving goal that makes him walk the path of a Hero. His Quest is the focus of his life, and possibly his death.
The first question for the Questing Hero is "What?" What is his Quest? What does he have to do? That will almost certainly be up to the GM, and will quite likely be a driving force in the game. Quests come in two main flavors: close-ended and open-ended. "Avenge the death of my father at the hands of the Six-fingered Man" is close-ended. Even if the player decides to keep the Six-fingered Man alive through healing magic and torture him for decades, the quest is pretty well over after the first half-hour or so of screaming. "Fight crime in Gotham" is open-ended, particularly since the GM is likely to come up with a string of increasingly bizarre bad guys to commit crimes, and have old ones break out of prison every so often.
The nature of the Quest presents the same problems a Chosen One's destiny might. If it's close-ended, it needs to be worked into the game's timeframe. If the game will last longer than the Quest, the player needs to figure out what he'll do when it's over. Lots of Questing Heroes want to retire after they do their great deed. Retired PCs aren't much fun, though.
The second question is "Why?" The Chosen One's motivation is usually to reconcile with a destiny he never asked for. But usually a Questing Hero did ask for his, or at least had it thrust upon him as a direct consequence of his actions. He may have decided to pay a blood debt, or he may have to accomplish his quest to atone for a crime. Or he might just really want whatever he's Questing for. This last kind of Questing Hero can easily become a villain, depending on how far he'll go in pursuit of his goals.
Those two questions will lead to the "How" that is pretty much what the game is all about.
Questing Heroes are more likely to be seasoned and competent than Chosen Ones. Young, inexperienced heroes can take up Quests, but so can experienced adventurers. Since the Quest is usually a choice, even inexperienced Heroes usually have time to train and prepare for their roles.
Again, warriors are typical. That's largely because warriors are the traditional heroes of genre fiction. But a warrior makes a good lynchpin for a group anyway. Combat is something exciting that everyone can participate in, and a dedicated warrior needs help from a lot of other adventurers with varied skills, giving everyone else a good chance to shine. Besides, most Quests come down to the simple instructions of "go somewhere and kill someone."
A Questing Hero could have special powers, but he could just as easily have none. Sometimes, one aspect of his quest is to acquire a power he needs to defeat some enemy. Usually, the Questing Hero doesn't present the same advancement problems that the Chosen One does. He's less tied to the supernatural, and the ties he has aren't usually as prodigious.
Like the Chosen One, a Questing Hero can easily be the focus of a group. He's likely to deliberately hire or ally with the other PCs, rather than meeting them through chance or being found by them. He's a little easier to put into a secondary role, though.
The Questing Hero can develop in a number of ways. Unlike the Chosen One, the Questing Hero has nothing really holding him to his Quest but his own will. There might be negative consequences if he fails or quits, but he can choose to suffer those consequences. The Quest is likely to be difficult, arduous, and dangerous. In pursuit of it, the Questing Hero will have to risk other things. You're a lot freer to play with the consequences of the Quest than you are with a Chosen One.
There are plenty of examples of Questing Heroes. I've already alluded to Batman and his crusade on Gotham's criminals. Robin Hood had his Quest to restore King Richard. Aurealeus Pendragon, with his quest to unite Britain, is a very proactive Questing Hero. Perseus, of Greek myth, could be argued either way.
The Sympathetic Monster
The Sympathetic Monster is a traditionally evil character in the service of good, or one thought to be evil even though he's not. He's nobler for his isolation, and for the fact that few of those he helps will ever appreciate it.
Of the three types I list here, the Sympathetic Monster could be the most varied, and the one most easily shifted to a supporting role. There are three main types, with plenty of room for customization. The first is the truly reformed bad guy. Vampires are very popular these days. Through his own choice, or otherwise, he has done terrible things, and now he wants to atone for his sins. Perhaps he has a true chance for redemption, a curse that can be lifted. Or perhaps he just plans to live out his days in constant attempts to do good.
The second type is a character who looks like a monster, but is noble within his soul. His inner goodness is contrasted with an outwardly evil form. The world expects him to be evil, and he does good anyway.
The third is a normal character with a curse that turns him into a monster temporarily, like a werewolf. His greatest adversary is himself, and he has to either defeat it, or somehow reconcile with it. Often, he quests for a cure, or simply travels, forced to move from place to place as his curse destroys one home after another.
No matter what, the monster has a hard road ahead. He'll be met with distrust, fear, and violence by the very people he's trying to protect. The forces of evil will treat him more viciously still, or else constantly try to tempt him to embrace his dark side. And after he suffers betrayal upon betrayal, he'll start to think they have a point.
Like the other two archetypes in this column, most of the Sympathetic Monsters I can think of are fighter types. They often have supernatural abilities as a result of their monstrous natures. Frequently, these abilities come at a cost. A vampire has supernatural strength and senses, and other powers besides, but only because he's a bloodthirsty predator. And often, he courts the chance that he'll lose control over his thirst by using his powers.
If the game has a place for Sympathetic Monsters, they don't usually present any mechanical difficulties. They can be expensive characters, though. Usually what sets the monster apart is a hefty chunk of powers beyond mortal ken.
The Sympathetic Monster is one of my favorite characters to play. He has to struggle to do things the other heroes take for granted. Every relationship he has is infinitely precious because it's so fragile, and was so hard-won. His moral decisions all seem more important, too. He might have vicious animal instincts, or sadistic urges. When he fights, is he fighting too viciously? When he intimidates enemies, is he stepping over the line into cruelty? How long will he be able to keep up the good fight in a world that will never appreciate him?
Examples abound in our age of tragically hip anti-heroes. Angel, and before him Nick Knight, represent the reformed monster. Vincent, from Beauty and the Beast, and the Fantastic Four's Thing are good examples of the second type. The Hulk, or almost any werewolf, are good examples of the third. The classics don't have as many examples, as the idea of looking for the good within evil is comparatively new.
That's it for this installment. There's still plenty of room for more. Next time out, I'll discuss some "Supporting Cast" roles. If I think of some more, this series might get stretched out to three columns.
See you next time.
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Welcome back to my little wretched hive of scum and villainy. This will probably be the last installment in my Evil series, and this month's topic is a bit more serious than last month's. Last month we covered melodramatic, over-the-top evil. This month, we're going to delve into much more realistic evil. The label "evil" gets very hazy here. There's a very thin line separating a religious fanatic from a simply faithful person. If you'd asked either side fighting the Crusades, the other side was the bad guys.
So, to provide a common basis of comparison, I'm defining "evil" for the purposes of this column, to mean "profoundly antisocial, or tending to act in a harmful way toward others." It becomes more a matter of degree and focus than kind, since even the "good guys" can be pretty harmful. For our purposes, "evil" is a label that's going to be imposed from the outside, and largely by popular opinion.
If you want to argue comparative morality, you'll have to find another columnist.
The Fanatic is a man with a mission. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists are a very topical example. Indeed, religion has inspired Fanatics throughout history. But religion isn't alone. Patriotism, and even simple loyalty to a single person has also served as the focus of many fanatics' zeal.
A Fanatic is, in his own mind, a paragon of virtue. He is so dedicated to his cause that he'd lay down his life for it. This, in itself, is laudable except that he is also all too willing to lay down the lives of others. A fanatic is frequently a warrior of some kind. Those who become destructive hold an unshakable belief that their cause requires bloodshed. Perhaps the Fanatic is a crusader who sees his faith as under attack from all sides, and he's moved to acts of destruction to preserve it. Or possibly he's an inquisitor who sees corruption within, and is willing to do anything to root it out. After all, while removing a cancer is painful, leaving it is much worse. And besides, those who have fallen to corruption must be saved from themselves. So much better to save the soul, even at the cost of the body.
Political fanatics are basically the same. The ideology might be different, but the methods are similar.
What marks the Fanatic, and qualifies him for inclusion in my list of evil character types, is a blinding lack of perspective. He takes what might otherwise be admirable qualities (faith, loyalty) and warps them to the point of destructiveness. Along the way, the ideals of his belief system may be warped as well. A righteous Crusader striking down the infidel has likely forgotten that his Savior preached forgiveness, and may well forget that he stood against murder and rapine as well. A loyal, patriotic counterinsurgent charged with rooting out the Communist Threat can be blinded to the fact that his greater charge is to defend the liberties of Americans. As he hunts for Commies, he becomes a fascist, which is every bit as damaging to the spirit of America.
Playing the Fanatic is a bit of a thorny problem. If everyone in the group is a Fanatic dedicated to the same cause, then there's no contrast. The group is, as far as any member knows, the "good guys." I have seen many arguments that say this is exactly the case in a "brave humans vs. the Ork Hoards" game.
Playing a Fanatic in a group of non-fanatics holds more possibilities. I find it makes a better starting place than a permanent state of affairs, though. In an otherwise "good guy" group, a die-hard zealot who will never change is just going to be a constant disruption. But a character who gradually learns that he's been wrong and comes to terms with that could be really fun.
The closest I've come to that was when playing a D&D Ranger who had Goblins as his favored enemy. Goblins were a constant threat. The local lord paid a bounty for goblin ears. There were seasonal goblin raids that could destroy communities if not checked. In general, goblins were a scourge on the land. And Snow thought they were barely a step up from animals.
Until he got to know one, and went on a journey through goblin lands. That game came to an early end because we didn't like the way D&D was working at higher levels. We're thinking about switching it to a GURPS game one of these days, if we can get the right players back together. I kinda hope we manage it, because Snow coming to terms with his racism was a lot of fun. It was even better since he was a half-elf, and had been a victim of racism his whole life.
To portray a Fanatic, first, pick your fanaticism. That should be pretty easy. I'd be best if you picked one that didn't immediately put your character at another PC's throat. A destructive Fanatic is going to have a world-view that leads him to acts of destruction. His version of his religion, political affiliation, or whatever will be a harsh and unforgiving one. It may even be skewed from the "truth." For instance, all those Crusaders probably missed the bits about "blessed are the peacemakers," and the part about not storing up treasures on earth.
As you play him, the Fanatic interprets almost everything in light of his obsession. He sees the world in harsh black and white, them and us. And he holds everyone to the same standard. Allies can become enemies simply by not being as obsessed. Enemies have a hard time becoming allies, though. Fanatics don't tend to be very big on forgiveness.
A Fanatic's views probably don't stand up to much scrutiny. He'll tend to react to people poking holes in his arguments violently. His obsessive beliefs shield him from the guilt he'd otherwise feel, so he defends them viciously.
This isn't to say he has to be stupid, though. A fanatic warrior infiltrating the enemy stronghold to kill the "prince of darkness" isn't going to start preaching on street corners along the way. He can be clever, sneaky, and outwardly perfectly normal if it fits his goals. In the long run, though, the truth will be revealed. The Fanatic's beliefs drive almost every aspect of his behavior, and he'll have a hard time suppressing that for very long.
The term "sociopath" has moved out of vogue these days. I think "destructive narcissist" is the current replacement. (On an aside, I wonder why people keep coming up with longer words for things. Didn't they read Romeo & Juliet in high school? A sociopath by any other name is still a scary person.) I hesitate to boil down a complex psychological condition to a single sentence, but in essence a sociopath lacks a conscience. Sociopathy emerges through a combination of heredity and early childhood trauma and other factors.
The result is a person who doesn't feel guilt. That makes him a good liar, and potentially a very dangerous person. He's by no means a raving mad man. Indeed, he could be quite charming. But he lacks the empathy that stops most of us from hurting other people. The only thing he cares about is himself, and the only thing that might keep him in check is fear. Generally, a sociopathy is also marked by a sense of superiority. Sociopaths think other people are "weak" or "sheeplike."
The nature of the disorder means that most sociopaths in modern society will eventually become criminals. Without conscience, there's not much reason for the sociopath to refrain from doing whatever he wants. Without empathy, there's nothing to stop him from hurting someone, just because he wants to. With his superior attitude, he likely thinks he can get away with it.
Literary examples of sociopathy fill the landscape of the psychological thriller genre. Those examples are probably more useful to gamers than any amount of dry psychological description. Hanibal Lector, of [I]Silence of the Lambs[/I], is perhaps the most prominent. His combination of charm, charisma, devastating intellect, and vicious cunning made him far scarier than any number of horror movie revenants.
Playing a sociopath in a game is a challenge I have so far been unwilling to undertake. I think doing so would take my mind down paths best avoided. From what I understand, sociopathy is pretty much untreatable, so there's no real chance that a sociopath would ever be "redeemed." Generally, when I play darker characters, I want to play through the path to redemption.
I've given it some thought, though. A sociopath could have breaks on his behavior. In a science fiction game, he could have mental conditioning, or just a cortex bomb that someone with authority over the sociopath will set off if he steps out of line. In a fantasy game, the same sort of thing could be accomplished with spells. Even without resorting to magic, someone might find a way to turn the screws on a sociopath by getting control over something he wants or needs.
With the right breaks, a sociopath might be fun to play. He could be more or less on the "good" side, but it would be an uneasy alliance at best. The sociopath would constantly test whatever limits had been placed on him. He might share goals with the rest of the group, or at least be following those goals for reasons of his own, but how he'd pursue them would be a constant source of friction. And with his intelligence and charisma, he'd constantly challenge the "weak" party members' methods. "It only makes sense to kill every guard you come across. Which member of the team are you willing to sacrifice if one wakes up?" "Of course I'm going to torture him. He knows what we need to know. Aren't you the one who's doing this to save one million people's lives? What's one life, an enemy's life, compared to that?"
What might make him most disturbing is the sense of genuine curiosity that would come with those questions, and the utter inability to comprehend the answers.
Portraying a Sociopath could be frighteningly easy. Essentially, if you can completely divorce yourself from the social aspects of the game, you're most of the way there. Don't think about any character but your own as "real." The rest are just playing pieces. They're either resources or obstacles, to be used or destroyed as necessary. There is no good or evil, only consequences.
Pay attention to the consequences, though. Going to jail is no fun, so if you decide to kill someone, do it in a way you won't get caught. Or better yet, trick someone else into killing them for you. Then kill the patsy "for justice." That way he can't talk. Physical consequences are pretty clear. Social consequences are also important. Emotioinal consequences don't bother the Sociopath much, though. If someone is so weak that their heart is torn out when you use and discard them, they deserve the pain. If they get over it, great. If they become a liability, well, sometimes people just die.
Of my three "realistic" evil characters, I can't decide if the Relativist is the least evil, or the most. Like the fanatic, he's very dedicated to a cause and willing to do almost anything in its service. But his drive is different, less made of wild-eyed faith and more of cold calculation. He differs also in that he realizes what he's doing is bad, and doesn't expect anyone else to join him. In fact, he sees himself as the one who does the dirty jobs so someone else won't have to.
Many Relativists can be found in the pages of spy thriller novels. In fact, the tired, old Cold Warrior is my inspiration for this archetype. He may have started off as an idealist, a good guy. His goal was to make the world a better place, to serve a greater cause. But something got in the way. The cause he undertook ran counter to the ideals that led him to undertake it. And little by little, his idealism was worn away until all that was left was the job, and there was nothing to stop him from doing whatever he had to do to complete it.
The Relativist may still think he's a good guy, or he may realize that he's not really worthy of the ideals he defends. His moral compass may be twisted beyond recognition, to the point that he thinks his pragmatism is laudable, that it's good for him to take the steps others hesitate to take. Unlike either the fanatic or the sociopath, he does have a sense of right and wrong that's relatively in line with that of modern society. He's just decided to go beyond it, perhaps in pursuit of a "greater good."
That makes the Relativist really interesting to me. Somewhere, buried inside, is the good person he used to be. In a group of hardcore types like himself, he fits in, but can play through a gradual, creeping disgust with what the group is doing. In a group of good guys, he's the darker voice they sometimes need, and he can be inspired by their example of "a better way."
To portray the Relativist, you have to come up with some accomidation with the fact that what he's going to do isn't very nice, and he knows it. He could be grim and careworn, or he could wear a mask of total unconcern. If you go with the latter, find a way to play out the pain he sublimates. Maybe he drinks too much, or has a lot of torrid relationships. Somehow, he probably punishes himself subconsciously for what he pretends doesn't bother him.
When it's time to act, he acts. He does what needs to be done, no matter how much it turns his stomach. Only afterwards does he feel any pain. And he probably worries if he doesn't feel the pain. But when it's time to act again, he does what needs to be done. Again.
So anyway, that's it for this time. I think I'm done with the topic of evil for a while. I had a hard time writing this column, and I'm not totally happy with it. To do a really good job, I would have needed to do a lot more reading than I had time for. I'm looking forward to the forum discussions on this one.
There wasn't as much advice about what roles these characters would fill, because they can really fill almost any. They're not literary niches, but psychological ones. The roles they'd be drawn to are more a matter of personal history and campaign background, so you're kind of on your own there.
Since my evil archetypes were well received, maybe next time out I'll do some heroic archetypes.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
Welcome back. Last time, I gave an overview of Evil roleplaying. For the next few columns, we'll delve into the depths of the evil psyche, staring into the abyss until the abyss blinks.
Well, maybe not.
But what we will do is look at some ways of portraying evil characters in RPGs. This is a bit of a departure for me, since playing evil characters isn't something I do very often. Rather than practical examples, I'm going to have to rely on theory. Right at this moment, I'm planning on two more columns on this subject. The one you're reading now will cover some fairly exaggerated archetypes. Next time, I'll tackle some more "realistic" ones.
Before we begin, let's go over a few generalities. Most of the characters I'm about to describe wouldn't think of themselves as "evil." Some would consider the concepts of good and evil to be superfluous. Some would actually think of themselves as "good." The ultimate difference between a "good" hero of faith and an "evil" terrorist may come down to who's life he's willing to sacrifice in the name of his god.
I think most of these characters work best in a group of similarly minded PCs. The idea of one ruthless, evil person in a group of high-minded idealists is interesting, but the dynamics of a typical RPG player group make it hard to pull off. The line between friend and foe gets blurry. The need for secrecy causes logistical problems. And, ultimately, there's a lot of chance for hard feelings.
Only you can decide what's right for you and your group, of course. My friend Chris has played the "token evil guy." He loves to tell the story about how his necromancer convinced the party's paladin that he needed to kill the party's priest. That would have been something to see.
So, now that all the disclaimer stuff is out of the way, on with the show:
Let's start with a fun one. The Rat-Bastard is a nice, simple, stereotypical evil character. He's ruthless, immoral, and only out for himself. He's willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill if he can do so with no risk to himself. In fact, he considers these to be his first choices in dealing with people.
And yet, he has a strict code of honor, mandating terrible punishment for treachery and dishonorable behavior. This code, unfortunately, only applies to other people. While the Rat-Bastard won't think twice about stealing a widow's last two mites, he'll plot bloody vengeance against anyone who slights him.
The defining characteristic of the Rat-Bastard is usually some form of weakness. If he were big and strong, he wouldn't need to sneak around. If he were really smart, his plots would both work better, and be more grandiose. He's more likely to be a sneaky-type than a straight-out warrior or wraith-of-god spellslinger.
The Rat-Bastard is not a very good team player. He'll ally with stronger characters for protection, but screw them later if he sees a chance for gain. He might try to bully weaker characters, but he's not going to be a very good leader.
The classic Rat-Bastard is pretty shortsighted. He's looking for the next score, rather than planning out a long campaign. His goals tend to be simple: survive, make some money, live in comfort. It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just with booze and strippers at the top. And he tends to have very myopic hindsight, too. Nothing is ever his fault. His history is a trail of betrayals and outrageous misfortunes. When he left his partner to die, that was just logic. No sense in both of them dying, right? But when his new partner pulled the same stunt, that was totally unfair, an unforgivable perversion of trust and brotherhood. If people weren't always doing that, the Rat-Bastard would be better than he is, or so he thinks.
And yet, he probably has a certain internal charm. In fact, he'd pretty much have to. There has to be some little shred of charisma (or something) that keeps people from just killing him out of hand. Maybe he's got a knack for knowing just what buttons to push. Maybe he's lucky enough to just barely escape with his skin. Maybe he's got sad puppydog eyes, and looks so pathetic that even though you know better, you let him live.
So what drove the Rat-Bastard to a life of Rat-Bastardhood? If you asked him, he'd tell you none of it was his fault. And, indeed, there are certain backgrounds that seem to lead one down that path. He was probably always the underdog, and he probably always felt weak, and deprived. Someone who always felt like he was on the top of the world and always got what he wanted usually turns into a completely different type of rat-bastard. No one path creates Rat-Bastards, and it's far from inevitable. The Rat-Bastard reacted to a world of injustice by becoming every bet as unjust. He could have just as easily decided to rise above it instead, but he didn't. The Rat-Bastard's path is something of a downward spiral, because down is easier than up.
The Rat-Bastard works OK in a typical game, so long as the other PCs aren't particularly morally upright folks. He's not a great PC to just pull on a group with no warning, though. If the rest of the players are up for the challenge, he can be fun to have around. If they're not, then you just have to accept that if you were just playing in character when your Chaotic Evil Halfling Thief stole the Half-Ork Barbarian's magic dagger, then he was just playing in character when he gutted your character with it.
To play the Rat-Bastard in a typical game, you need to make some compromises. You should probably make him smart enough to refrain from stealing from other PCs when he has to hang out with them all the time. You should also work with the GM so that his little treacheries benefit the game, rather than just causing chaos.
In an all-evil game, the Rat-Bastard is in more trouble than in a mostly-good one. Evil characters won't feel bad about killing him the way good ones will. In that case, he should probably attach himself to a more powerful character. Then he should betray that character when a stronger one comes along. Then he should sell that one down the river when his original master comes back, saying he planned to do so all along. Then... Well, you get the idea. It's a little like spinning plates, only instead of plates, they're landmines.
The Monster is just scary. He enjoys causing pain, invoking fear, and spilling blood. After that, he probably enjoys a few beers, and maybe spilling some more blood. In fact, he's pretty much most of the characters I played in Jr. High and part of High School.
He reacts to any threat or slight with as much violence as is available. Someone backtalks him? Kill them. Someone has something he wants? Kill them and take it. Someone threatens him? Kill them, and then kill some other people just to make sure. The only reason not to resort to violence is when doing so will obviously get him killed. Then the Monster waits and resorts to violence later.
I sleep better at night thinking there aren't really people like this. People might temporarily become Monsters in the midst of a war, or a riot. Or possibly they act that way because of severe mental problems, but that's something we'll cover later in the article.
The Monster really doesn't make much of a character at all. He's completely focused on destruction, so he doesn't have a lot to do unless there's fighting. And if your game is always about fighting, you're probably not too worried about his personality.
The Monster is generally a hand-to-hand fighter. The further he gets from the violence, the less personal it is, and he really likes the personal touch. For him, the violence is the end, rather than the means, though he might be fighting under the auspices of one cause or another. In fact, he could be very zealous in pursuit of his cause, but ultimately that's because it gives him the chance to hurt people.
There are some variants on the Monster that I'll lump in here. The Stone Cold Killer (generally a mafia assassin in a black leather overcoat) is similar enough, but with better manners. The Savage Hunter type (think "Wolverine") can be played as either good or evil. The evil ones tend to for a scary cat & mouse routine instead of straight-up violence. If getting on your character's bad side is more dangerous than living in the same town as Jessica Fletcher but not getting your name in the credits, then there's a good chance your character is a Monster. Especially if he doesn't have a good side.
In a typical group made up of PCs with the most remote shred of conscience, the Monster doesn't make a very good PC. However, having an otherwise normal PC with Monster-ish tendencies can be kind of cool. A classic Werewolf is a pretty good example. The character struggles against himself. It's particularly cool if the game is set up in such a way that the Monster side of the PC's personality has access to something that the "civilized" side needs.
In an evil group, the Monster could ally himself with other PCs who offer him more chances for violence. The Dark Necromancer needs his chief enforcer, after all. And as long as the body count keeps rising, the Monster will probably remain loyal. If he starts to have goals besides "maim, kill, destroy," he's turning into another sort of villain.
Ah, the Prince, who may not be a member of the nobility at all, mind you. This is the cold, ruthless manipulator who will do anything necessary for power. Power may be a means to an end, or an end in itself. Usually, it's an end in itself. The Prince may have started out as a noble idealist, devoted to a cause and willing to sacrifice anything for it. But somewhere along the way, he gets caught up in the rush of power. Eventually, his cause is nothing more than a facade, an excuse to continue his rise in power, and a tool to manipulate fanatics.
The Prince is rather like the Rat-Bastard, but with better press. And more vision. The Prince is all about vision. He's a man with a plan. And a contingency plan. And his plan actually factors in someone messing with it, so just when you think you've foiled him; you're really helping him out.
And that's just if you've somehow actually figured out that he's the bad guy. If the Prince is really on the ball, you'll think he's on your side.
He's the master manipulator. He knows all the buttons to push to get exactly the effect he wants. He has servants who are functionally loyal. They may all hate him, and probably all hate each other, but he's so deft at playing them against each other that they get the job done anyway. His servants' main job is to bring him information. He's like a spider sitting at the center of a web. When you touch it, he knows about you, and then you're trapped.
So how does a man become a Prince? (Or a woman, for that matter? Foolish is the man who doesn't realize that women can be sneaky, too.) In a way, the Prince is like the Rat-Bastard. He sees himself in a hostile world. But unlike the Rat-Bastard, he thinks he has the power to change it, or at least to rise to the top of it.
The Prince probably comes from a privileged background, one that makes him accustomed to seeing people as tools. Or perhaps he was one of the tools, forced to live in a world that tries to make him unworthy. But whatever the case, he needs the chance to see real power at work. He also needs education. The Prince is a smart guy, both clever and, in some ways, wise. As I said before, he needs vision. He needs to see a much wider world than others see.
The Prince is one of the easiest evil characters to integrate into an otherwise mostly good party. Whether he's really even "evil" can be hard to determine. If he plays his cards right, the rest of the group may never see just how far astray he's led them. And he's going to be the leader, or better still the leader's trusted advisor, the one who really makes all the decisions.
Putting a Prince into the game is not a decision to make lightly, though. Aside from the purely practical concerns like whether you're personally smart enough to pull it off, there's the fact that if you do succeed, you're going to really change the tone of the game. Somewhere down the line, either the group is going to shift from idealistic and noble to ruthless and arrogant, or there's going to be a huge intraparty conflict. Either can be fun, but at the least it would be nice to give the GM a heads up.
The Prince works beautifully in an all-evil game. He can provide leadership for a party of less visionary characters, welding the ragtag band into a force of true and magnificent power. Or, if everybody's up for it, it can be fun to pit a bunch of scary, manipulative Prince types against each other, with the GM barely doing more than being the referee. Amber Diceless games, and lots of Vampire LARPs are essentially just that.
The Evil Genius
The Evil Genius is, perhaps, a shading of the Prince. He's smart, ruthless, and charismatic enough to have a large group of fanatically loyal followers. He probably quotes Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, unless he's so egotistical that he thinks both of them were morons. And he lives in a world of morons. That may be the reason he feels the need to take over the place: to provide some decent management.
The Evil Genius is a man with a plan. It's a very unlikely plan, involving a lot of difficult to control factors, and yet it hangs together with a sort of awful certainty. Somehow, the Evil Genius can really pull it off.
Or at least he could if he didn't always spill the whole thing to his arch-nemesis, then leave that nemesis alive.
But the plan remains. The Evil Genius is a driven man. He has a goal (to rule the world, or sometimes to destroy it and build a new one out of the ashes). With his intellectual superiority to everyone on earth, he's obviously within his rights to pursue this plan. It might even be that he believes he's doing a good thing, and that if all the lesser mortals could only understand, they'd support him. (The ones who survived the plagues, anyway) His goal can only be achieved with some sort of grandiose scheme, and he's the one to pull it off. So he gathers his secret minions, consolidates his power, establishes a huge conspiracy, and starts putting his plan into motion. But three people can only keep a secret if two of them are dead, and in some fantasy games, not even then. So sooner or later, someone finds out.
This someone is a Hero. He is, in some ways, the Evil Genius' reason to live. The Hero is clever (if not quite so clever as the Genius), capable (much more so than all the incompetent henchmen the Genius has), and cursedly lucky. It's that luck that always seems to turn the tide, snatching away the Genius's certain victory.
Obviously, the Evil Genius has a few blind spots. He's not as practical as the Prince. He's something of a romantic, really. An idealist. He often has a strict code of honor. Of course, equally often, it's similar to the Rat Bastard's code of honor, in that it only seems to apply to other people. But sometimes the Evil Genius does really seem to follow some sort of rules of engagement. He sees his struggle with the Hero as an epic duel of wits, and even provides hints and clues to help the Hero keep up.
The path leading someone to the role of Evil Genius is marked by arrogance. The Genius might have legitimate grievances with the world. Some of them are environmental crusaders, or champions of the rights of the downtrodden. Others are just megalomanicial sociopaths. In either case, the Evil Genius came to believe that he was better, smarter, and wiser than anyone else, and that what he wants is sufficiently important that the death of untold hundreds of innocents is an acceptable loss.
Most Evil Geniuses start off in the privileged class. There's a hefty education requirement, and secret underground bases don't come cheep. Some of them start off as clever, but underprivileged lads and manage to attain their wealth later on, but you never really get a poor Evil Genius. The underprivileged ones are often just a bit sympathetic. Sometimes, their diabolical plans are attempts to avenge a true injustice, or solve a real problem. It's just that the attempts are wildly out of proportion to the problems.
They study a lot. Most Evil Geniuses really are geniuses. They tend to be brilliant strategists, tacticians, and organizers. No few are masters of Science and technology, too. In the right venue, an Evil Genius might supplement or replace science with magic.
The Evil Genius is a difficult character to play in a typical game. Usually, the PCs are supposed to stop the Evil Genius. Even if they're not, the activities of a typical party of adventurers are not conducive to an Evil Genius' typical plans. PCs tend to wander around on missions, having adventures and solving mysteries. All that takes time the Evil Genius needs to design his death ray and recruit followers.
In an all-evil group, the Evil Genius is a humorous alternative to the Prince. He makes the perfect leader, except for his habits of casually killing underlings and telling his plans to the enemy he doesn't kill immediately afterwards. Of course, he doesn't have to be played for laughs. James Bond movies have a sense of humor, but are essentially serious. The villains are presented as really being able to do what they set out to do. In the right campaign world, the only difference between an Evil Genius and a Prince is that the Prince tends to be a little more low-key.
All right, I think that's enough for this time. Next time, we'll continue the series with some less cartoonish characters.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Welcome back. Today's foray into the secret arts of roleplaying concerns evil. While it's not my thing, some people really enjoy playing evil characters. I'm going to explore the topic a little to try to nail down how I think about it. I'll try to cover the various ways players can portray evil characters and offer some advice here and there.
So, without further ado, let's get to it.
When the first protogamers, arising from the primordial ooze with their copies of Dungeons & Dragons, decided that Jack Chick didn't have enough to rant about already, they chose to play evil characters. The heirs to their tradition are still doing so today, in a manner largely unchanged from those ancient beginnings. (And, as an aside, I find it vaguely disturbing to refer to things that happened when I was about ten years old as "ancient.")
I suspect that the vast majority of gamers who want to play evil characters fall into this model. I would be really surprised if many of them read my column, so I feel free to be just a touch judgmental. The stereotypical Evil group is made up of a bunch of Chaotic Evil D&D characters or Diabolical Rifts characters who run around the countryside killing, maiming, stealing, and robbing tombs. Really, there's not a lot of difference between what they do and what nominally Good groups do except that the good guys probably tone down the rapine and don't kill uppity NPCs out of hand.
This is essentially juvenile wish fulfillment. It's irresponsible, selfish, and antisocial. And I would rather have people work it out of their systems with dice and miniatures than in real life. I personally don't find it very appealing, but I can see why some people would. It's hack & slash gaming turned up to 11. Take what you want by main force and destroy all who oppose you.
In my limited experience, the gamers who like to play this way don't really dwell on the psychology, or even morality, of evil. They take the "EVIL" label as a way to just do whatever they want specifically without having to think about it. "Why did you kill the guard?" "I'm Chaotic Evil." "Why did you steal your buddy's magic sword and sell it to buy booze?" "I'm Chaotic Evil."
See, it's easy.
So, since they don't really need my advice and probably aren't reading my column anyway, let's leave those guys alone and move on to the next set. Just to save myself a little grief, though, let me be clear: I don't believe that everyone who plays evil characters in D&D or Rifts does so just so they can be irresponsible. I personally know people who play interesting, well-rendered evil D&D characters. I could probably find people who play the snootiest games in existence in exactly the way I just described, too. D&D and Rifts just happen to be easy examples.
I Am Become Death
Vampire: the Masquerade opened up entire new vistas in the realm of evil roleplaying. It was right there on the faux marble back cover, "A beast I am, lest a beast I become." People had played monsters before, but Vampire made it mainstream. Right there on your character sheet was an ablative chart of your morality. That nasty Blood Pool meter was going to make you do stuff that violated that all-to-fragile Humanity scale, and no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, your character was going to end up as a hideous monster some day. Even before that, he had to do things almost nightly that most humans would consider evil.
Of course, some people didn't try at all, and essentially played Vampire the way they had been playing D&D. Kill the Ventrue, take his treasure. Works for me.
Besides his internal Beast, a Vampire also had to live in a society that would make A Borgia nervous. There was this entire secret society waging a very subtle war. The stakes were life and death. Just to survive, you were probably going to have to do things you didn't want to do.
That's some evil I can sink my teeth into (no pun intended). Vampire ushered in a bunch of other games with similar themes, and some expansions for existing games. Of course, there had been some before. The first edition of Cyberpunk predates Vampire, unless I'm mistaken, and edgerunners could be pretty evil people.
Playing an "evil" character in the Vampire style is an exploration of morality. Is it possible to be a vampire and not be evil? How far will you go to protect your immortal existence? Can anything you do be good when it's done by someone who is a multi-murderer? Does human morality even still apply to you?
How it plays out is up to you. In a lot of ways, your character will act like any other. Presumably something more is going on in the game than your character sitting and brooding about his lot in life and drinking blood. What changes is the focus. All your character's immediate goals play off of his inner struggle. A rival gang is trespassing on his territory. What does he do? Fighting them means giving in to his rage. Bargaining with them means reaching an accord with evil. Blackmailing them means committing treachery? And he can't even really fall back on the justification that he's the good guy here, can he? That would be hypocrisy.
Vampire was the first game I encountered that was really set up to deal with these sorts of questions. Other games were certainly capable of it, though. Somewhere in the middle of my really long Shadow Run game, I started thinking about just how violent Shadowrunners were, and how it was a little odd for someone who thought of himself as a "hero of the people" to casually blow away security guards while he was breaking into someone's office.
Which is a nice segue for my next point...
Whatever You Have to Do
Taking a step back, it's likely that the vast majority of player characters are relatively cutthroat mercenaries. Their alignment boxes might be filled out "Lawful Good," but they probably seldom scruple to cut down hordes of orks or rob tombs. Most gamers don't really care. A lot of the ones who do start playing their characters differently. But there's some potential for good roleplaying in these amoral characters.
I've already mentioned Cyberpunk and Shadow Run, which are both games where the average character is an outlaw with, at best, a morally dubious occupation. It's not a big stretch to say these characters are evil. In fact, the average person living in the worlds they inhabit probably thinks they are. -- Runners are criminals who kill, cheat, and steal. They live beyond the carefully regulated, safe, arms of the corporations and sow anarchy and terror wherever they go.
So why do they do it? Almost every Runner ever would be better off in a safe, corporate job. Why risk your life night after night? Why be a criminal? There are lots of answers, and they all lead in interesting directions.
Here's a few of mine over the years:
- Johnny Amadeus ran the shadows after he got involved in the underworld while looking for the man who killed his brother, who was a shadowrunner. He started with a strong distrust of authority, and added a dose of respect for some of the people he met. He wanted to fight corruption, and thought he could do it better from the shadows. He was also nursing a death wish, and the constant danger fed into that.
- Belladonna ran the shadows because she was physically incapable of leading a normal life. Someone had turned her into a killing machine. When she ran away from her master, the shadows were the only place to hide.
- Eric Zane was a runner because he was an immoral bastard who would do anything for money. I didn't really like him very much, so I quit playing him after a while.
- Pookha (a new character in a Shadowrun game I just started) runs the shadows because he has no SIN, and needs money to pay for a friend's constant medical care. He's a former ganger who would probably end up doing some jail time if he tried to come out of the shadows, and he can't afford that.
My Runner types tend to be fairly good folks, other than all the breaking and entering and shooting people. In fact, most of them have thought of themselves as "the good guys" to one degree or another. Characters I've played with have been a lot different. There are some really cool outlooks, and it's neat to see how they interact. In Johnny's group, there were a couple of runners who were just totally amoral. They didn't think about right and wrong at all, just about strong and weak, smart and stupid. Johnny's tendency to want to leave guards alive when possible bugged them to no end. There was one guy who pretty much believed he was a total bastard, but kept it in check by following a strict code of honor.
The gritty mercenary style of gaming isn't outright evil, necessarily. Just like good ole' hack & slash, it can ignore the issue completely. Or the moral issues can be played up. In a dystopian cyberpunk future, it can be hard to find anything that's definitively good, and there are a lot of evils with no clear source.
Staring into the Abyss
The next style I'm going to touch on bears a superficial resemblance to the first. It is possible to play deep, well rendered characters who are utterly morally despicable. It's a style of play that has no real appeal for me. I play pretty immersively, and depravity isn't something I really want to immerse myself in.
Sabbat packs in Vampire: The Masquerade are the most obvious example that leaps to my mind. I believe Werewolf also had a sourcebook that made provisions for playing Formori, who tend to be pretty evil since they've been dipped in a seething pit of corruption and then flash fried.
The only time I really get into playing utterly evil characters is when I'm the GM. I find it to be one of my major challenges, so it's one I've given a little thought to. Really evil people have a world view that's radically skewed from "normal." There's something that funnels all their actions in a harmful direction. The classic sociopath has no compassion, which allows him to commit atrocities in the pursuit of his desires because he never feels any guilt. The fanatic is so dedicated to a goal that the goal distorts his perceptions of the world. The psychopath, due to mental illness, really can't perceive the world correctly.
Interestingly, none of these characters would call themselves "evil." The sociopath would laugh at the concept. The fanatic might think you were evil for asking. Of course, some fanatics aren't evil. A fanatic pacifist probably isn't going to hurt anybody. The psychopath might consult with the voices in his head or something. Pretty much by nature, "Evil" is a label that has to be applied from outside, and in some cases each side of a conflict is applying it to the other.
So that leaves you, the player, to see what it looks like from the inside. What is it about your character that makes him think it's acceptable, or even desirable, to hurt or kill people in pursuit of his goals? Or to lie, cheat, and steal, which can be plenty harmful by itself.
In a melodramatic game, or a highly symbolic one, the answers can be pretty easy. In Middle Earth, Orcs are evil because they were made to be so by Sauron. In Star Wars, nobody really worries too much about why the Stormtroopers shot up a whole crawler full of Jawas. (They were receiving stolen Imperial military secrets. It was treason. Honest.)
In a more realistic game, the question gets a lot more fuzzy. Some people would argue that there is no "evil" in the real world. That's a debate I have no intention of starting right now. While there may be no true Good and Evil in the real world, there are accepted standards and social mores. Most people follow them, and react badly to people who don't. If you're playing a character who rejects all that, there should be a reason. That reason might make for some interesting roleplaying choices.
A character could be very noble and honorable, and also believe that serfs belong to their lord, and whatever he wants to do to them is fine. He could be empathic and charismatic, and also an anarchist who doesn't bat an eye at a mailbox bomb because he thinks it's the only way to fight an oppressive government. He could be a veteran soldier or inner city policeman who's just so desensitized to violence that he doesn't realize how much of a monster he'd seem like to a normal person.
Playing really socially maladjusted characters isn't something I really recommend as a standard practice, but there are some cool ways to do it. I'd love to play the veteran who's trying to put his past behind him, or the arrogant nobleman who's starting to learn about the inherent worth of humanity.
And, as always, if you really want to play irredeemably evil characters and revel in their cruelty and depravity, fine. I'll make no effort whatsoever to stop you. Please don't LARP, though. The LARPers don't really need your help. Also, I don't particularly want to game with you. That's fine. I have a group I'm very happy with now, even though my Buffy game is on Hiatus because the GM thinks it's more important to find a house for his family than to run my game.
Evil Shall Always Triumph For Good Is Dumb
The last way I can really think of to run evil characters is for laughs. I haven't played many humorous games, so I don't have a lot of advice here.
Playing evil as funny often involves turning genre conventions on their heads. I've heard of games with teams of incompetent supervillians who end up doing more good than harm, or dungeon monsters negotiating labor contracts and scheduling so someone will be ready to meet the next party of adventurers.
In a humorous game, you're probably not going to be exploring the depths of the human psyche. "Evil" is just another humorous shtick. In a sadly defunct game I used to play with some RPG.net regulars, my character was Fiona Gentry. She was a half-faerie, and her father was an Unseelie Lord. Children inherit all kinds of traits from their parents, like eye color, shape of the nose, a tendency toward being overweight... Fiona inherited her father's evil. She was actually a pretty nice person, under all the typical teenage defensiveness, but she was evil. Palpably, tangibly evil. She had to wear Goth style clothes. If she bought un-gothy clothes, they'd turn gothy in her closet while she wasn't looking. She had a scary voice that, if the game was a comic book, would have been written in gothic script with white letters on a black background. When she was angry or distracted, she had a habit of accidentally cursing people to the depths of the abyss.
But at least she had nice hair and a flawless complexion. Congenital evil AND zits would be just too much to bear.
So, that's about enough for this installment. I might decide (particularly if there's any demand for it) to extend my ramblings to cover how to play an evil character amongst other PCs. (Hint: If you're a thief out in the wilderness with three other people, one of whom can cast spells, and the other two of whom get better combat rolls and more hit points than you DON'T STEAL FROM THEM! It's better to wait until you get to town and there are more suspects.)
Bye till then.
Monday, June 16, 2003
Almost every game on the market has some kind of advancement mechanic. In Dungeons & Dragons, it's pretty simple. Going on adventures is rewarded by Experience Points (hereafter referred to as XP no matter what any given game system might call them). XP stack up to buy levels. Levels let you get new Feats, more Skill points, and access to Keweler Ninja Powers (sometimes referred to as Class Abilities and Spells). In Pendragon, it's a little fuzzier. Characters collect Skill Checks, then, at the end of the year, test the Checked Skills to see if they improve. They also get Advancements to represent whatever they might have been studying in their spare time. Marvel Superheroes (as far as I know) started a really brutal trend wherein your Karma (XP) was useful for day-to-day bonuses to rolls, and also for character advancement. Shadow Run did the same thing, as did Deadlands. Castle Falkenstein has no XP system, instead using GM fiat. I'd kind of like to play Castle Falkenstein long enough to know how well that works out.
Most advancement systems do pretty much the same thing, allow a character to gradually become more capable, or capable of new things. Which brings us to the topic of this installment: "How should I spend my XP?"
I can't recall ever being in a situation where I couldn't think of something to buy with my shiny new XPs, but lots of times I've run into not having enough to buy everything I want (which is pretty much everything). I'm guessing here that most of my readership has had similar experiences. So, what follows is mostly some thoughts on how to pare down the shopping list to manageable levels.
Before we Begin
Most XP systems aren't terribly realistic, with "realistic" being defined as "producing results similar to the way people in the real world learn and improve. Most XP systems aren't terribly genre emulative, either. In a lot of the fiction that inspires our hobby, people don't change much at all, or change radically in a very short time.
I don't particularly care. I like going up in levels. (Well, really, I prefer gradually spending XP wherever I want, but you get the idea.)
So, now that we've got that out of our systems, let's move on.
What Have You Been Doing?
This is the most realistic guideline for XP expenditure. If your character has been getting in a lot of fights and living through them, his combat-related abilities are probably increasing. If he's been spending all his time on research and investigation, those skills are probably getting better. Sure, he may really want to become a ninja master, but if he's not spending any time studying martial arts and mystical handsigns, then he's just not going to get there.
If realism is at all your aim, this is the way you should spend most of your XP. It may mean you can't always develop your character the way you'd like, though. That's just life, as they say. If your character doesn't have the chance to learn something, then it starts to hurt the shared illusion of the game if he suddenly knows it anyway. Some genres are more tolerant of this than others, mind you. Rather than feeling totally constrained, think of it as a challenge. A warrior who wants to be the world's best swordsman will have to make a lot of sacrifices to do so. Those sacrifices are roleplaying opportunities. I ran into this a lot with Sir Magnus, my favorite Pendragon character. He was the second-best at just about everything because he never focused on anything. Except Intrigue. Magnus rocked at Intrigue. He knew everything that happened wherever he was. It was those charming Roman manners.
Even so, it was really frustrating to me that I couldn't get his Sword skill quite as high as the guy who spent all his time dueling. Doubly so because I was so close. But in the stillness of my soul, I knew that's the way it should have been.
Most GMs will have no problem what-so-ever with you spending your XP in this way. If they do, it generally comes at the upper levels of skill, where, logically, you might really not be able to improve any more because you haven't reached a situation that challenges your abilities. In those cases, you can either argue with your GM, or pick something related to improve. For example, Ghost (my Tribe 8 character) had a 4 Melee skill for the longest time. The Weaver was really reluctant to let me buy one more point. Eventually I decided it wasn't worth arguing (since she might stop baking fresh cookies for the game session if I made her mad) and that maybe Ghost could use a higher Dodge skill instead. Or hey, maybe some more Weapon-smithing since that was theoretically the way he earned his living. I still held out my dream, though, that in a far future, the legendary God of Death of some distant tribe would look like Ghost holding his funky magic sword.
So, there's realism for you. But sometimes realism isn't your goal. For those times, there are several more philosophies to choose from.
What Do You Wish You'd Been Doing?
Here's the second way, and maybe the most common. Essentially, you just spend your XP however you want and back-justify it by saying that's what your character has been doing in his off-time. This pre-supposes your character has off-time. I've had games where a day where no one was trying to kill my character were rare events to be cherished and held in loving memory for all time. Fortunately, most of those characters really wanted the higher combat skills anyway...
I still try to maintain a little bit of narrative justification, even when game events don't completely back me up. As much as I might want her to, and despite the fact that the rules technically allow it, I would never have bought Sorcery for Juri (my Potential Slayer in a Buffy game). It completely didn't fit the character, and she had never shown the slightest inclination toward magic. I wouldn't have bought Gun Fu (generic Firearms skill, for the Buffy-impaired) either. Juri doesn't like guns, and would have been very unlikely to spend any time training with them.
On the other hand, I'd have no problem buying up Knowledge, Computers, Science, or Sports even though I haven't made any issue of those skills. They're all things she could logically have picked up here and there even though it didn't come up in the game. Juri's a high school student. Presumably, they still teach things in school. That's plenty of justification for a point or two. (But I'll probably buy more Kung Fu and Get Medieval instead...)
Oh, I Always Knew That
Here, we're stretching a little bit. Sometimes, that's OK, though. The rationalization here is that you're buying up an ability retroactively. Your character always spoke French, or knew how to disarm a bomb, or whatever. It just never came up before. Feng Shui (another game I'd like to get to play some day) actively encourages this. Other games tolerate it fairly well. It's not something you want to necessarily make a habit of, though. Sooner or later, you'll hit a continuity error.
GM approval is a much bigger deal here. There's a temptation to ret-con abilities that would come in really handy now, but that you really don't have any justification for. Some GMs like their continuity to be more sacrosanct than others, too.
I most often find myself buying retroactive abilities when the starting characters aren't quite as tough or skilled as I'd like them to be. If I'm playing an esoteric character (which is frequently) I might have to fudge some abilities. In those cases, I talk to the GM first to make my case. Then I buy up the abilities that will really matter first to the appropriate levels, and buy at least a little of whatever strange thing I want to work on later. This only stretches so far, and doesn't work for everything. Before the Revised Edition, if I wanted to play someone who spoke five or six languages in Vampire, that was going to be a big chunk of my starting points. If I was making up a Linguist, I'd probably have bought a good level in the Linguistics ability and one or two languages, then donated a large chunk of my XP to buying the other ones I wanted as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, a starting character might be severely crippled in other areas that didn't make s ense. On the other hand, if I wanted to play a fighter-type, but never picked up Melee, it wouldn't make a lot of sense for me to dump a lot of points into it later on and say he'd just never bothered to pick up a sword before now.
That, by the way, is the guiding rule. In all but the loosest of realities (Toon, Feng Shui, Amber...) this is only a good philosophy as long as it makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, you've moved into the next philosophy...
Because I Really Want To
Sometimes there's no justification for what you want to do. This can really be the case with any games with supernatural powers. How do you practice flying? (Throw yourself at the ground until you miss) Sometimes it doesn't really matter much. If you're playing a hack & slash D&D game with minimal roleplaying and no particular overarching plot, you can probably take whatever new abilities you want and no one will bat an eye. Of course, you are probably not a big fan of my column, either, so the rest of this section is aimed at other people.
Generally, I try to advance my characters logically, with minimal back-justification. Sometimes, though, I want something totally new, usually because I came to regret decisions I made when I made the character in the first place. For example, Ghost started the game with no Synthesis abilities (magic, basically). I did that intentionally since I originally wanted Ghost to be the "big, dumb fighter," but as the game progressed I realized that without Synthesis, he'd never be as effective as a character who had Synthesis, even if that character had lower skills and stats. So eventually I saved up some points and bought some Synthesis. The Weaver worked an opportunity for him to learn into the story, and we went on from there. It actually took quite a while, because part of Ghost's personality was his rejection of the Fatimas, who were the source of Synthesis.
If you can't justify something in the backstory, you should try to justify it in the future, and work with the GM to make it happen. I'm in the process of this right now with Juri, though I'm on the fence about whether or not to go through with it. This is a pretty good example, and it's fresh on my mind, so let's take a look.
Juri began as a Slayer in Training. For about the past ten years of her life, she'd been raised by the Watchers' Council, studying and training so that if she were called as the next Slayer, she'd be ready. At the end of our first Season, she was Chosen, just in time to beat up our Big Bad for the season and survive the beating she got in return. (Handy, that. It's almost like the GM planned it that way...)
Which brings us to the present. Implicit, instinctive trust in the Watchers is a huge part of Juri's character. She sees them as her parents since they pretty much raised her. She sees herself as a Vassal of the Council since she was brought up in the Samurai tradition. But, the Watchers don't really have her best interests at heart, and aren't necessarily worthy of her respect. They've already misled her and betrayed her friends a couple of times, and are likely to do so again.
Originally, I thought I'd follow the path laid out by the Buffy TV show, wherein the Slayer gradually becomes disillusioned with the Watchers and rejects them. That would be really easy to do. In Buffy, it only costs as many XP to buy off a Drawback as you originally paid in Character Points. I could buy off Juri's Obligation: Watcher's Council, and be done with it. There would be a somewhat more substantial effect on the game, though. Juri is a foreign national living in America. If she ticks off the Watchers, they could easily get her visa revoked. She also has no particular job skills or means of income. She's completely reliant on the Council. If she told them to kiss off, she'd have to find another way to get by, and would shake up the lives of some of the other characters.
All that would be fun to play, and still may be the route I take, but I recently thought of another one. The Watchers have always tried to control the Slayer even as they say they're trying to assist her. What if a Slayer found some way to turn the tables, to gain a significant amount of control over the Council? In mechanical terms, that would be buying a 5 point Contact: Watcher's Council, and maybe a few points of Resources (3 at the absolute most, probably only 1, if that).
In game terms, it's a major shift, even bigger than abandonment of the Council. It's also not something I can do on my own. For this to work at all, I have to have the GM behind me. (I love you, Stone).
It would have to start with Juri getting the chance to get influence with some members of the Council, at which point I might buy Contacts: Watchers (1). Then time would pass, and Juri would have to get more involved in Council politics somehow. This would probably culminate in a major story-arc in which she either made it to the top, or lost everything.
At that point, I'd either spend whatever XP I needed to spend to buy the Watchers Contact up to 5 points, or I might lose the points I'd already spent up to this point and have to buy off the Obligation. (Actually, the whole Obligation thing is a little hazy due to a fuzzy spot in the rules)
Now, this example would have a pretty significant effect on the game's tone. If the GM doesn't want the Watchers to be a big part of the story, he's probably not going to let me turn them into one of Juri's most significant advantages. (Did I mention that I love you, Stone?)
A better example from Buffy is the Werewolf Quality. Oz picked up the Drawback version, and eventually kind of maybe the Quality version later on. Being a Werewolf is cool. You get to be strong and fast and tough, and have claws. Claws are very useful. Just ask Juri, who has 4 points of natural armor against blunt damage, which never seems to matter since everyone who tries to kill her has claws. (But I love you anyway, Stone)
There's not really any way to foreshadow your character becoming a Werewolf. He gets bit, then about a month later, things get a little hairy. If you wanted to do it, you'd need to have the GM on your side. In fact, you'd better be prepared to suffer for it for a while. If it came up in my game, you'd start off with the Drawback version and have to go through at least one story where your character got loose accidentally and might have killed someone. I'd also try to sneak in someone you bit, but who survived without you knowing about it, so I could smite you with a nemesis later. Then, after a while, you'd get to buy off the Drawback and buy the Quality, but only after something had happened in the game to explain your control over your condition.
The key to "Because I really want to" is thinking ahead. In its way, it's no different than improving the abilities you're using in game. You're just actively trying to improve the ones you want, and going a bit beyond that by asking the GM to help you engineer situations that produce the results you want.
Is it that time already? I suppose so.
Like just about everything in gaming, spending XP is part of the story, and it's one of the parts where the players have a lot of power. (Please don't make me go all GNS here. By "story" I just mean "the collective narrative of the game's events, from inception to end.")
The GM can keep your character from being able to talk to the people he wants to find, and he can make sure his big uber-pet-NPC nemesis guy who's really his old PC from a D&D game he played back in high school never sticks around long enough for you to stick your magic sword through his spleen. Heck, he can keep you from getting a magic sword in the first place in most games. But in general, he can't keep your character from studying swordplay, or trying to make new contacts.
While your deciding where to spend your XP, you should think about how your decisions will develop the story. The decisions you make will say a lot about your character's personality. Does he say he's a pacifist, but you keep buying more Melee? Why? There could be a really neat reason. Once he's the best swordsman in the city, what's going to happen? The other Best Swordsman in the City may have something to say about it. And all those Second Best Swordsmen who want to be the new Best Swordsman will probably also take an interest.
Then there's the GM. He almost certainly has something up his sleeve. If the group is headed off to investigate the ancient ruins over the next hill, being the best swordsman in the city may not be quite as useful as being the guy who knows how to light a torch from flint and steel in the dark, or the guy who knows how to bind someone's wounds when the cleric is unconscious. It helps everyone if you develop your character along lines that don't diverge too far from the overall plot of the game. If you want to play the world's greatest detective, you're going to be pretty bored unless the GM has some mysteries in mind. Of course, if one of my players wanted to play the world's greatest detective, I'd try to come up with some mysteries for him to solve. It's a give and take thing.
Like just about all of my columns, the final advice comes down to "play nice." It's easy to get caught up in what you want (like my weeks-long attempt to talk my T8 GM into letting me have a 5 Melee score) but in the end it's almost always better to compromise if you hit serious resistance. Playing selfishly or irresponsibly makes the entire game worse, and if the game becomes not fun, what good is whatever shiny toy you got out of it?
Compromise works both ways, though. If the game is not fun because you're never allowed to have any shiny toys, then something needs to change. I've been in a couple of games where the GM and the players had radically different views of how powerful the characters should be, or of where the game should go. Sometimes it's best just to cut your losses and move on to something you'll enjoy.
I guess that's enough blathering for this time.
Next up: a complete surprise (since I haven't decided yet)
See you then.
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Last time I talked about GM generated conflict, but that's really only part of the picture. In a lot of games, it's the biggest part of the picture. In fact, it's kind of the default assumption in most games: the GM comes up with a plot, and the players interact with it.
But there are other options. In games like Amber or most social LARPs Player vs. Player conflict is assumed to play a big part. Even in more traditional games, PCs can have conflicting goals. Players can also initiate plots of their own. In fact, one of my favorite ways to GM is to give the players a setting and see what they find to do there, only stepping in with my own plot events when it seems like fun.
So let's talk about Player-generated conflict. In previous columns, I have talked about having goals for your character, and how they don't all need to be in harmony with the rest of the group. PC goals are the seeds of Player-generated conflict.
Well, they're the seeds of good Player-generated conflict. Real-life disagreements being dragged into the game in stupid, immature ways are the seeds of more than a few Player-generated conflicts.
But let's talk about the constructive ones, instead. As a Player, you have the potential to generate conflict whenever you have your character pursue his goals. That conflict can go in two basic directions. Player vs. GM, or Player vs. Player.
Player vs. GM
Player vs. GM conflict is fairly similar to the usual setup in gaming. In fact, it can be hard to tell who's generating the conflict sometimes. The PC tries to do something, and the GM puts obstacles in his way. The PC reacts, and the cycle repeats. The only real difference is in who started it, which can have one major consequence. If the Player does something the GM really didn't' expect, the GM has to improvise.
I probably don't need to mention that some GMs are better at improvising than others.
The Platonic Ideal GM would have considered every possibility and would already be prepared for that course of action. I am not, nor have I ever played with such a GM. Fortunately, there are ways to fake it.
A really good GM probably knows enough about his setting to figure out how to react on the fly. Since most of my games are only informally mapped out at best, I'm doing a lot of that anyway. I spend more time figuring out who the NPCs are and what they're likely to do than I do working out exact events, so my players can't do too much that's unexpected. I wasn't expecting anything anyway.
(They have really floored me more than once, though.)
A less flexible GM might stonewall the player temporarily, or, better yet ask the player, out of character, to hold off for a while, until he figures out what to do. I've had to do that a couple of times. I think the result was better than if I'd tried to work completely in the dark.
A really inflexible GM could just make the unexpected actions impossible or force them to end in automatic failure. This is commonly called "railroading" or "bad GMing." Bad GMs will even do it when the Players are following the "main" plot, but in an unexpected way.
As a Player, here's what you need to think about:
How open is the GM to Player-initiated plots?
I've run and played on both ends of the spectrum: games that pretty much ran on rails, and games that didn't run at all unless the players found something interesting to do. I'm happiest somewhere in between, with the GM presenting a compelling plot for the players to unravel, but with room for some pretty significant subplots that the players introduce.
In fact, I'm gearing up to play in a Witchcraft game (finally) in the next month or so, and I tacked about two pages of subplot ideas onto my character background. I told the GM what kind of things I'd like to see, and what I'd generally be doing if left to my own devices. He seemed to appreciate it. We'll have to see how it goes when the game starts (if we don't end up playing Champions instead, with a different GM)
This gets into some fundamental gaming issues. If you really, really want to be able to pursue your character's own agenda, and your GM really, really wants to run just his plot, then it might be that you should find a different game. More often, though, it's just a matter of striking a balance and smoothing out the difference between play styles. For instance, I personally love it when my players tell me what their character goals are so I can work opportunities to pursue those goals into my plans.
I guess that turns a Player-generated plot into a GM-generated one, but I'm not really sure.
How important are your character's personal goals?
Assuming the GM has a plot in mind, you might have to prioritize a little. To this day, I still don't understand what was going through the player of Jason's mind in my Now is the Winter Vampire chronicle. I'd pretty much established that one of two evil Malkavians was well on the way to completely shattering the Masquerade beyond all repair, and wanted to kill the PCs just out of spite (Jason in particular). Further, the Prince was the only guy around who could stand up to him one-on-one. Even further, Jason's own Sire wanted him to help the Prince.
But Jason thought now would be a good time to try to spark a minor Anarch revolt and seize power for Clan Brujah.
Well, in a way I guess I could see his point. Still, it was a pain to find ways to convince Jason to at least look in the direction of my plot from time to time, and he took up more of my time than was really fair to the other players.
My rule of thumb is "Saving the world" outranks "wining the heart of the fair damsel." If the GM has a strong plot, I'll usually try to follow it to as great an extent as is logical for my character, but try to get time for my personal goals whenever I can.
Back in my goal setting columns, I already discussed the idea that your character's personal goals have to be worked in as the GM has time for them. If you're one of five players, you can only really expect about a fifth of the GM's time.
Of course, if you can get several players involved, then jointly you get more time. Such was the case with a character in my Now is the Winter game by the name of Maximillian.
Max was a Setite envoy, recently come to Scarborough to see if maybe the Prince was in a forgiving mood. (See, he'd kind of kicked them out when he caught one selling heroin to a member of his Herd. And by "kicked out" I mean "staked, decapitated, or and burned to ashes.") Max was something of a ladies' man, and liked to flirt and show off his vampiric nature to those who knew the signs by giving roses to female vampires he met.
One of the male PCs came to instantly hate Max when Max gave his girlfriend, and later in the same night his new Childe, a rose. Pretty soon, he had the rest of the group convinced that Max was the living personification of evil.
So, in the interest of getting the PCs to do something, I wrote Max into the plot. It was actually really handy. I needed a way to mess with the Brujah, and having Max corrupt one of the Anarch leaders worked great.
None of that would have happened if the group had just ignored Max or casually beat him up like I thought they would.
The tricky thing about Player-generated conflict is that it's hard to know when, as a player, you're generating conflict, or when you're just rising to the GM's bait. If you declare your vendetta against the Dark Prince, is that player-generated conflict? Or did the GM just make the Dark Prince such a natural target that your vendetta was almost inevitable?
I don't know, and I don't think it matters a great deal. If the end result is fun, then the process by which you got there is probably not worth worrying about excessively. Probably, in the vast majority of games, the GM provides the seeds of most of the plot. In a smaller minority, the GM is more responsive to the Players. Some games lend themselves to this more than others. Amber leaps to mind, as does Nobilis. Games with less cosmic settings tend to be more GM controlled, but there's no reason it has to be that way, and I'm sure a lot of people play them with less GM control.
I write most of my columns under the assumption that the GM will be providing most of the direction for the game. That's the way it's been for most of the time I've been gaming, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
But, as I've said, that's not the only way to game. In a game where the GM is taking a more reactive role, PC goals and Player-generated plots become a lot more important because without them, all the PCs can do is sit around in the inn, waiting for the mysterious old man to show up.
In a game like that, you need to choose your goals carefully. Of course, there's not a lot of useful advice I can give you. The very nature of a game like that makes it hard to generalize. Almost everything I say in this column still applies, but in a slightly different way. Most of the stuff in the next session is particularly important, since a game where the players have so much freedom is likely to have more room for PCs to get in each other's ways.
Player vs. Player
Player vs. Player conflict is a lot easier to nail down. If PC #1 pulls out his sword and tries to run PC #2 through, then you've got very clear PVP conflict. Of course, not all PVP conflict is so direct, or so violent. A pacificist PC trying to convince a warlike companion to cut down on the slaughter is engaging in conflict. So is a stuffy Tremere trying to get a loopy Malkavian to SHUT UP during an audience with the Prince.
(Did you all know that "Shhh!" can be used as a Command with Dominate?)
Player vs. Player conflict can be awesome. Absolutely nothing is more personal than a fight with a friend or family member. The potential for drama is amazing.
Player vs. Player conflict can be terrible. Absolutely nothing is more personal than a fight with a friend or family member. The potential for trauma is amazing.
So, unless your ideal gaming experience is a lot different than mine, you'd rather have more of the former than the latter. The question is, how do you get it?
The answer, at least the only answer you're going to get in this column, is "I'm not sure." Player vs. Player conflict is tricky. I know that I have taken abuse from GM controlled NPCs that would have provoked a much different response if it had come from a PC. There's a strange sort of neutrality associated with the GM. Perhaps because he plays so many characters, players don't tend to associate him strongly with any one.
People have different tolerances. Someone might be fine with his PC getting into a fight with yours in one game, even if his character is seriously hurt or killed. In another game, with a different character, he might take a nearly identical situation really hard.
(Of course, if you killed his character twice in two different games, there might really be some issues you want to address)
These are the things I want to know about any conflict between PCs?
Why is this happening?
It should go without saying that PVP conflict should arise from totally In Character stimuli. A game involving five other people is not the appropriate venue for you to take out your aggressions on someone else. If you're mad at one person, deal with that one person. If you're mad at the whole group, then leave. Or suck it up and deal with your problems like an adult.
Ok, enough sermonizing for the moment.
Similarly, PVP conflicts should make sense within PC motives. In real life, and even in most fiction, most people won't pull guns and try to kill each other over trivial matters. They're more likely to argue, snub each other at parties, or insult each other a lot. When a serious mutual threat arises, all but the most casual of allies will temporarily put aside their differences.
The response should fit the circumstance. One of my little brother's friends had this habit of playing obnoxious characters who would try to attack other PCs if they offended him. He was always really surprised when the other party members killed the sociopath in their midst, and even more surprised when the GM backed them up on it.
But sometimes violence really is called for. Right now, in the IRC Buffy game I'm playing, there is a decent chance that Juri (my Slayer-in-training) will end up trying to kill Theo (a werebear - only now he seems to be a Wendigo). Theo has killed a human, and if Juri finds out about it, she will feel like it's her job to kill him, even though doing so might break her heart.
That could be way fun to play. Before it happens (if it happens at all), I'm going to have a long talk with the GM and Theo's player. As fun as the subplot could be, I don't want to screw up the whole game over it.
What will the results be?
You can never really know what the results will be, but you can make a good guess. If the conflict will make the game better, I go ahead full-steam. Back when I was LARPing, I actively sought out chances to screw with other PCs, because that's what made the game go 'round. The best one (stillborn because the game ended early) was my Tremere, Sir Cynan, playing out a long, slow con-job on the city's Giovanni that would have culminated in him convincing them to teach him Necromancy - at which point he would have killed them all because he didn't need them anymore. The mysterious Tremere/Giovanni alliance threw most of the group for a loop, and was loads of fun. After the game broke up, I told some of the Gio Players what I was up to, and they said they would have loved it - even if they died.
If it's something that I might enjoy, but that won't have a big effect on the game, I'll go ahead for as long as it's fun. For instance, in the aforementioned Buffy game, there's a love-triangle between Juri, Theo, and Travis (the token normal guy). It happened pretty much spontaneously, but it's loads of fun. The bickering between Theo and Travis is entertaining, and the whole mess produces a great group dynamic. Theo and Travis haven't tried to seriously hurt each other or anything, and whenever the Big Bad rears his ugly head, everybody focuses on the task at hand. For as long as it makes sense (not much longer, if Juri decides to kill Theo, obviously)
I want to keep that dynamic. I'm not going to force it, though.
If I can't see a way for this particular conflict to make the game better, then I have to ask myself what it's worth. I, personally, would rather metagame to avoid a conflict, rather than play my character "accurately" and spoil the game. If the conflict becomes so obvious that I have to resolve it in order to have fun, then I'll try to resolve it with as little disruption to the game as possible. The conflict between Juri and Theo might reach that level. (Since John reads my columns, you might find out, too)
"I was just playing in character" is not a defense that frees you from responsibility for your actions.
What do the other players think?
I've mentioned this already, but it bears repeating. You are not playing the game alone. Your decisions affect the other players. Play nice.
If your character is about to severely harm another PC, you should really talk to that player first. Killing another PC without any warning is particularly vile. Even if you have a really good reason, you should probably discuss it with the other player first. Sure, you know that because of your obscure Code of Honor, you're honor bound to kill him, but does he know that? If he did, he might not have done whatever he did to offend you.
Consent is kind of implied in a game like Amber, or in most LARPs that I've seen, but even in those situations it's a good idea to at least try to discuss what's going on out of character. That can get pretty hard, though. Not all players are of the same caliber. Some people have trouble keeping IC and OOC knowledge separate.
In a case like that, you have to make a judgment call. With some people, I wouldn't hesitate to discuss my secret evil plans. With others, I wouldn't reveal what I had in mind unless I absolutely had to. I'd still be trying to feel the situation out, though. My goal in most RPGs is to have fun, and to make sure the rest of the group is having fun. Winning good, but only if it's fun.
The VLARP I just used as an example ended when a bunch of new people joined the game and threw their combined weight around to wipe out the Giovanni utterly without warning (and with a healthy disregard for a few inconvenient rules). They managed to sow enough hard feelings that about half the players quit, and the ones of us who were left had to start a new campaign because they'd damaged the old one beyond repair.
Sure, they "won" but what good did it do them?
(And of course, if they'd waited one more session to do it, I would have been ready to help them, but I'm not bitter.)
Now that we've figured out when and why to have PVP conflict, the question is, what do you do with it?
I don't really have any answers to that, either. Every case will be different. The primary goal is to make the game more fun. There can be lots of secondary goals. Most often, I find myself in a PVP conflict for roleplaying reasons, rather than because I have a personal goal. For instance, Juri's potential conflict with Theo arises from the fact that she's a monster-hunter, and he might be a monster. "To see if Juri could beat up Theo" isn't really my goal.
(Besides, I know she'd toast him.)
(I'm kidding, John)
This is the part where I condense everything I just said into a couple of pithy paragraphs and provide some incredible insight that will forever alter your gaming experience.
Unfortunately, I (a) don't feel like trying to boil the article down to two paragraphs, because if I could have done that, I would have only written two paragraphs, and (b) I don't really have any profound insights to offer.
But let's see what I can come up with:
Player-generated conflict is the most dynamic way to blur the line between Player and GM. If you really embrace it, it will change the way your games play out. The GM's job will be different. Rather than just throwing events at you, he'll have to be able to react to events you throw at him.
Taking the reins that way gives you, the Player, more responsibility than you would otherwise have. You have to balance what you want with what's good for the rest of the group.
Your ability to deal with that responsibility will, in large part, determine how entertaining the conflicts you generate are.
Which is kind of the point, isn't it?
That's all I've got for now. See you next time.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Welcome back. I decided this month to do a column I've been thinking about for a while: "When GM's Attack -or- Why Bad Things Happen to Good Characters."
I'll begin with a story. After I left my much-beloved Shadow Run game, a new player started - the GM's girlfriend. She was playing an Elven Street Shaman with Snake as her totem, which nicely filled the dual voids of Healer and Hot Elf Chick that the loss of my two characters had caused.
However, because she'd come into the game very late, hardly any of the plot threads directly related to her. She told the GM she felt like she was always on the sidelines and didn't really matter to the game.
So, the GM looked over her background and came up with a plot line that was hers and hers alone. She got center stage and her own personal spotlight.
She hated it. She said the GM was being mean to her character.
He responded with a line that I have taken to my heart: "The characters in the spotlight... they don't want to be there. They'd much rather be on the sidelines where it's safe."
(Hope I quoted you correctly, Dave. It's been a while.)
That's the great conundrum of Player Characters. Most PCs want to avoid the spotlight, while most Players want to be in it. That's also the topic of this column, or at least part of it. I want to discuss the reasons GMs are mean to poor, helpless Player Characters.
Another brief story: When I still lived with my parents, I used to enlist my mom as a reader for my fiction (at least some of it). She's not really the ideal audience for horror/fantasy action adventure stories, but I had a dearth of choices. One complaint she always had was that I was too mean to my characters. Bad things always happened to them.
I used to answer that if nothing bad happened, there was no story.
Unless it's very unusual, that's probably true of your game, too. (And if your game really does run with no conflict, I'd be curious to hear how that works)
There are several reasons for conflicts, setbacks, and general bad days:
Reason 1: It's Just the Plot
The dungeon full of Orks, the Empire of Darkness that's crushing the PCs home town, the elder god beneath the sea: usually these will cause the PCs some problems. It's nothing personal. The PCs are just in the way. (Well, actually, the Orks are in the PCs' way from a certain point of view - but for now we'll assume they're evil, nasty Orks who were just hanging out in the dungeon until they figured out how to get the dragon out of the 10' halls. THEN they'd be trouble)
The faceless, impersonal hordes of evil are a staple of gaming. They're easy to manage, and the reaction to them is fairly obvious. You kill them, run from them, or banish them as appropriate, and pursue your other goals along the way if you have any.
Usually, the main plot affects all the PCs more or less equally. Individual events may hit one PC harder than the others, but over all everybody's in the same boat.
Dealing with this sort of conflict is often what a game is about. If you're playing Star Wars, you're probably trying to defeat the evil Empire (or protect the failing Old Republic these days. You kids and your prequels. In my day we had to walk ten miles to Mos Eisley through a sandstorm, and there was hardly anyone there, and we liked it.)
It is to be hoped that the big conflict figures into your character's personal goals in some way, but this could be tangential. Look at the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. None of the four really got up one morning and said "let's go destroy the One Ring to prevent the rise of Sauron." Frodo wanted to keep the Shire safe, and his friends wanted to keep him safe. That the safety of the Shire was dependant upon the destruction of the One Ring was kind of a bonus.
In earlier columns, I've already suggested that you should choose goals for your character that will then to lend themselves to the GM's plot. You should also pursue your goals in a way that doesn't directly conflict with it.
Frodo could have decided to throw the Ring down a well. The series would have been much shorter, or at the least would have gotten off to a much different start.
The central conflict of the game is a great way to define your character. How does he feel about it? What does he do about it? Why?
Since I just introduced her to you all, I'll use Juri as an example. The big conflict in our Buffy game is the continuing battle between the champions of humanity and the forces of darkness. Juri has been raised to believe it's her job to protect people from the forces of evil. Further, after a little reading on Shinto religion, I decided she's something of a supernatural racist. Humans are descended from the Kami (the gods and spirits of Shinto religion). Demons and vampires aren't. Therefore, it's always the right thing to do to kill a monster - though it might be occasionally advisable to wait and kill one later if it has something you want.
In practice, she's always eager to fight, because it's what she was raised to do, and the only time she feels like she's fulfilling her purpose. On the other hand, she's very concerned with the safety of the rest of the team. If a team mate is in trouble, Juri will probably drop whatever she's doing to help them - which isn't always the best decision. Her "kill them all" attitude is rapidly eroding, not out of compassion for the monsters, but because she's been in several situations already where letting one live for a few minutes would have vastly simplified her life.
Other members of the group have different outlooks, which lead to some interesting situations. The most fun is watching Travis and Theo (who hate each other) both try to protect Juri while she's trying to protect both of them.
Reason 2: You Asked for It
This is my favorite. One of my gaming ephinies was the realization that if I was running Champions I didn't actually need to plan adventures. All I had to do was roll everybody's Hunteds and DNPCs and figure out how the latter got in trouble with the former.
In almost any game with an Advantage/Disadvantage system players have the option of creating ties between their characters and certain NPCs. This is a practice I strongly encourage, even in systems that don't allow it formally.
Since I'm tired of using Star wars as an example, let's look at another cinematic classic: Die Hard. John McClane, trapped in an office building with a bunch of terrorists, and without his shoes. What does he do? He saves everybody. Why? He's a hero, and the movie would be really short if he did the smart thing and snuck out - but also because his wife was one of the hostages. Later on in Die Hard With a Vengeance, the brother of the terrorist he beat the first time comes after him for revenge.
It's all personal, and therefore more gripping than it might otherwise be.
When your character's personal ghosts come back to haunt him, there are essentially two forms the interference can take. Either it will be part of the main plot, or it will be a distraction from it. Either is fun.
In my Now is the Winter game, Dr. Zhou (the Tremere) had a Dependent: his mortal family. In the second adventure, Dr. Killian (the Malkavian bad guy) kidnapped his granddaughter as a reprisal for Dr. Zhou breaking someone out of Killian's asylum. While under the good doctor's care, the poor kid was subjected to lots of nasty mind control powers that warped her mind for the rest of the game. In session 2, rescuing the girl was the main point of the session. For the rest of the game, trying to unravel what Killian had done to her mind distracted Dr. Zhou and almost induced him to sell out the rest of the group once.
NPC ties aren't the only thing the GM will exploit. If your character has a fear of spiders, then expect at least once that he'll drop something he really, really needs into a hole full of daddy longlegs.
Rather than looking on this as persecution from the GM, I look on it as a way to make sure my character will always be involved in the story. When your enemy shows up, it's your chance to shine. When your loved-ones' lives are on the line, failure is not an option. Cool stuff.
Careful choice of disadvantages has allowed me to steal the spotlight (well, just borrow it for a while) of several games.
Reason 3: Just One of Those Things
Even if your character doesn't' have Enemies (for which he got, or paid in 7th Sea, points) he has enemies. He's probably a gun-toting maniac. Of course he has enemies. If he left them all dead, then their kids, girlfriends, and bill collectors are his enemies. If, somehow, he doesn't have enemies at all, he still has some ties to the game world.
Eventually, those are going to cause him problems.
(If your character doesn't have any ties to the game world, go back and read all my earlier columns and re-make him. The game is really a lot more fun if you have some vested interest in the outcome. Honest)
These can be some of the most annoying misfortunes ever to strike a character. The come out of nowhere, more or less, and can utterly screw up your plans. Sometimes they serve the greater plot, but sometimes they only seem to serve the GM's sadistic urges.
As a GM, I've hit more than one PC with a complication just because it seemed like it would be fun. I'm more than sure that some of my favorite GMs have done the same thing to me.
Sometimes it's realism. If your character wanders into the area the GM has decided is the lair to a big monster, he's probably going to end up mauled by said big monster. If he was there for a totally different reason, there's going to be irony dripping along with the blood.
Sometimes it's an attempt to steer the characters (affectionately called "railroading" in many cases). If all the avenues open to you but one are guarded by ravenous wolves, guess which one the GM thinks you should take. This is really annoying when it's blatant, less so when the GM is subtle about it. If he's really good, you'll never notice.
Sometimes it really is just one of those things. For instance, I tend to run about half my games off the cuff. I have a general plan, but at least of half of what goes on in a session is pure improvisation. If my PCs do something I totally didn't expect, I have to come up with something fast, and I'll try to make it interesting. "Interesting" in gaming parlance tends to follow the conventions of the old Chinese saying...
These random conflicts can be annoying, but they can also be a lot of fun. The potential for them is one of the things that makes gaming a lot different than fiction. In a story or a movie, everything that happens is part of the plot. In a game, there's potential for lots of plots all at once.
Assuming your character survives his unfortunate encounter with the beast from my earlier example, maybe now he thinks it would make a nifty jacket and pair of boots. There could be some fun later down the line when he goes back with the right equipment this time.
Reason 4: The GM is a Jerk
This is the one I don't like. There are times when a GM is just out to get one player, or to kill them all. Those are two different situations, so I'll take them one at a time.
First, the Party Killer. This GM wants to run his game (at best) like a chess match where he throws all his resources at the party and the players do their best to beat him, and (at worst) like an endless deathtrap where the party will fight wave after wave of threats until they're overwhelmed.
The first case is fine, if that's what everyone wants to do. It's more like a strategy game than a story game, but that's what it's meant to be. As long as everyone's on the same page and everyone's having fun, they should keep doing it.
The second case is the kind of game I'd walk out on. The realization that broke me out of my munchkin phase in High School was that the GM always had more hit points than I did. He always had more experience. There were always more monsters. There was absolutely no way my character would ever be more powerful than the GM could threaten.
Once you realize that, there's not a lot of point in collecting power anymore unless you have something you want to do with it.
The flip-side of that realization was that as GM I could always, always kill the entire party whenever I wanted to. There was no ability a PC could possess that I couldn't defeat, remove, or circumvent.
Once I saw that, I couldn't see much point in wiping out groups of stalwart adventurers any more, either. The Tarsque and the Death Star were comforting security blankets that I had largely outgrown.
So now for the hard part, the vindictive GM. There are levels of vindictiveness. Sometimes the fault lies with the player, and the GM is just trying to rein him in, or the player is just trying to push his character in a way the game is not designed to go.
In my Now is the Winter game, Jason the Brujah seemed determined to ignore the fact that the city was about to be sucked into hell as he pursued his political agenda. Eventually, I decided to smack him by having the Prince offer him an Office, then use the Dominate power of Fealty (which makes an oath literally binding) to force him to toe the line. I'm not sure that was the right decision, but it was enormously satisfying - particularly when Prince Marcel rolled so well that I had to extrapolate more slots on the effects chart to see how long the Oath would bind Jason.
But sometimes the GM just has an axe to grind. I really don't know what to do about that. GM favoritism is just about always bad. If the GM and the player can't settle their differences amicably, then maybe the player should leave the game. Some people just shouldn't game together, even if they get along in other ways.
If the game isn't fun, you definitely shouldn't play. If it's the only game in town, then you'll have to decide if which is less fun: a game where the GM is out to get you, or no game at all.
Since everyone reading this article is presumably equipped with an internet connection, I'd recommend looking into PBEM, PBP, and IRC games.
This is usually the point where I tie everything together into a nice neat bundle, but I don't really have one this time. The big point is "The GM is probably not picking on you." The lesson, to the extent that there is one, is that setbacks and conflicts are what make your character. How he reacts to them is what defines him.
Wednesday, February 19, 2003
Welcome back. This time out, things will be a little different than usual. I recently had a really interesting experience, and I thought I'd share. There's not really any advice per se, but maybe you'll enjoy it anyway. We're returning, briefly, to the exciting world of character creation, or more accurately, character development.
If you've been reading so far, you've probably reached the conclusion that I think characters are important. You'd be right. For my style of gaming, well-realized, detailed, plot-hook laden PCs are as important as a compelling setting and interesting, vibrant NPCs. All of which is more important than a really original, amazing plot.
Unfortunately, it tends to take me 2-3 sessions to get into character. The rest of the time, I have a bunch of ideas that don't really hang together. I have to muddle through for a few sessions before my character "comes to life" and sometimes the result is a lot different than what I started with. Like my guilt-ridden, honor-bound Pendragon knight who started play as an affable bastard, for instance.
This is a flaw I've been trying to overcome. I've done it by writing long character backgrounds (which tended to be fairly lifeless, and to nail down details I'd rather leave vague) and by writing fiction (which is a lot of work to do well, and not worth doing poorly). This time out, I decided to try something new.
I just started a Buffy game. My character is Tomika Juri, a Potential Slayer from Japan. I started with a basic idea for a very serious, studious girl who had already dedicated her entire life to being the Slayer, and would realize fairly early in the game that she'd missed out on some good stuff to do so. If you're a fan of the show, you might be reminded of Kendra, who was a major inspiration. I also wanted a slightly different take on the idea of the Slayer, which is why I chose a Japanese Potential. Juri sees the Slayer as something like a Samurai, and that colors the way she does her job. For example, in our first run, the group was patrolling, and ran into a small pack of vampires. One of them got knocked down, and before Juri killed him, she let him get up and compose himself. (The barbaric bloodsucker ran instead of facing honorable combat)
I really didn't have a lot else to go on. So, after the first session, I decided to try something new. I conducted an interview with my new character. It was kind of an exercise in role-playing, and kind of a story. When I started, I didn't really know where I was going with it. I stopped when I got to six pages. I'm thinking about doing some more later.
The text of the interview follows. The interview is completely out of game continuity, and doesn't even stick to a single moment in time, since I put in some questions that Juri wouldn't know the answers for yet. I initially thought about doing a completely In Character interview, either by a fictional student reporter for the school paper, or a member of the Watchers' Council checking up on her, but I decided fairly early on that either of those options would be limiting. The Watcher wouldn't ask all the right questions, and the student wouldn't know some of the ones he needed to ask.
I also want it noted that I know about as much about Japan as a slightly more than casual Anime fan. Any inaccuracies are the result of ignorance, rather than malice or design. I hit close enough that I don't think I'm wrecking other players' SOD, though.
I've appended the interview with comments in italics to clear some things up, and to expand on a few others.
Interview with Tomika Juri
First, let's set the scene: a coffee shop in downtown Littleton, Co, on a cold, February morning. Music by someone who thinks the Celts were nicer, cooler, and above all cleaner than they really were is playing from speakers in the ceiling. The place was decorated with eclectic furnishings, mismatched chairs and tables, and some overstuffed leather sofas. There was a pool table over on one side, and a big TV on the other. Most of the clientele on this blustery Saturday were high school and college students. (This paragraph was done when I still thought about doing the interview IC. I like it, so it's staying)
Tomika Juri was already waiting for me, sitting at a table with a cup of coffee in front of her. She was wearing a white blouse, a long, gray skirt, and a blue wool blazer. Even on Saturday, she looked like she was on her way to school.
Since I'm told we might not get an accompanying photo (more's the pity), I'll provide a brief description. I might have anyway, because Miss Tomika is a pleasure to describe. Her hair is as black as India ink, very silky, and today parted to one side and held in place with a heart-shaped hair clip. Her eyes are blue, the color of sapphires in bright light, almond-shaped, and very expressive. She has an elfin face with a cute little upturned nose, and a figure to match. If I didn't know better, I would have found it hard to credit that she could take a vampire in hand-to-hand combat. (I'm told that she killed two, and finished off a third, mostly single-handedly in a recent hunt. Impressive.) Of course, the blazer hides her musculature. All you see is the adorable face and the fact she's not much more than five feet tall. (Speaking of the accompanying photo, anybody got any suggestions for a young, teenage Japanese girl, preferably with blue eyes - but I know some people with Photoshop skills, and for that matter, I can easily change that detail.)
She was watching the door, and I saw her size me up. It took only a moment for her to figure out who I was, at which point she smiled bright enough to melt butter and stood up.
I ambled over. We made our introductions. Tomika's accent is a strange, but very appealing mixture of proper British and Japanese. A waitress stopped and took my order. I pulled out my recorder, and we began:
RDG: Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
TJ: I'm glad to do it. What would you like to know?
(Direct, isn't she?)
RDG: Well, everything. Let's start with where you were born.
RDG: What was it like?
TJ: It was very nice there, but I only lived there for a few years. My father had an apartment over his store. He sold groceries to the people in our neighborhood.
RDG: What about your mother?
TJ: (pauses) She died when I was born. My grandmother helped take care of me. So did my aunt, Aoi.
RDG: I'm sorry.
TJ: It is all right. I never knew her. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a mother, but I don't really miss her. Papa did, though. He was always very sad.
RDG: So, did you have a lot of friends? What did you do for fun?
TJ: There were some other kids in the neighborhood, and Aunt Aoi had two sons. They were stupid-heads, though. We did normal stuff, I guess. Played in the park, flew kites, went swimming in the summer, played video games and watched TV. Uncle Genjo worked in an electronics store, so they had a big TV and lots of games. Even if their kids were stupid-heads. (The cousins kind of came out of nowhere. So did the step-siblings who show up in a little while. That was kind of neat)
RDG: But you left later, right?
TJ: I was seven. Some men visited Papa. Later, they talked to me. They said it was my destiny to be trained as a warrior, to protect people from creatures of the night.
RDG: And you believed them?
TJ: Why wouldn't I? They were adults, in suits. One of them was a monk. They wouldn't lie. Besides, I was a little kid. I still believed in faeries, and that a monster lived in my closet, but he could only come out at night if the door was open and the nightlight was off.
Anyway, they were right. There are creatures of the night, and people need to be ready to kill them.
I don't know what they said to Papa. Maybe the same thing they told me, I guess. I didn't really understand it at the time, but he was seeing a new woman, and I think he thought it would be easier if he didn't have a little girl underfoot. Later on, he married her, and they had two kids. (In my original background write-up, all I knew was that Juri's father had given her up to the Watchers. A new wife was a good reason he might do so)
RDG: Have you ever met them?
TJ: Once, when they were little. My stepmother is kind of uncomfortable around me, and besides, I was usually too busy with training.
RDG: So you went to...?
TJ: The temple. I don't think I'm supposed to say where it is. They may have moved everyone anyway. It wouldn't be hard to find, though. It's kind of out in the boondocks. I thought it was really isolated until I got to America and saw how spread out everything is here.
The temple was a monastery, very old. The plumbing was always dodgy, and there was no TV. Most of the people there were men. There was one girl, a lot older than I was. She left after a while. I kind of wonder where she went.
RDG: So what did you do there?
TJ: I learned to be the Slayer, if I am the one Chosen when the current Slayer falls. At first, I was too little to spar. I learned normal school things, and how to speak English and old Latin. I practiced Tai Chi and Aikido. When I got older, I started learning more martial arts. Kenjitsu was my favorite, and Kyudo. Being a Slayer is like being a Samurai. You have to give your life to a greater cause. I studied art: calligraphy and flower arranging, and tea ceremony. And I learned about the occult, of course. Lots of old, musty books that had pages so fragile you had to use tweezers.
RDG: What did you do for fun?
TJ: Sparring was my favorite. Training exercises, like Capture the Flag. For my thirteenth birthday, the monks gave me a special party. I got my own swords, and they brought in a vampire for me to kill.
He was faster than I thought he'd be. He broke a couple of ribs, and the monks had to hit him with a tranquilizer before I could cut off his head. It was very embarrassing, but they said I did a good job. (The whole "vampire birthday party" thing came out of nowhere. I was completely surprised that the idea was lurking in my subconscious, but it was really so perfectly logical. That bit was one of my two favorite in the entire interview)
Oh, and Sensei Brody bought me a Hello Kitty Fairy doll.
RDG: Just processing. You killed a vampire when you were thirteen?
TJ: Yes, with my new katana. And some help from my teachers.
RDG: And that's what you think is fun?
TJ: Well, I also like reading manga, and since I moved to America I watch TV and play video games again. There's three different DDR machines at the arcade. That's fun. (This bit is not strictly in synch with the rest, having theoretically only been in town for a couple of days, Juri probably hasn't been to the video arcade yet, but she will be eventually)
RDG: About that, why did you leave Japan?
TJ: My teachers didn't say, exactly. The location of the monastery, or the fact that a Slayer might be there, must have leaked out. They said it wasn't safe for me to stay at the monastery anymore. They needed to get me out of Japan, and Lane-Sensei said I could stay with her in Littleton. I had my visa and school records and things in just a few days, and I was on a plane the next day.
I thought it would be a big plane, but it was just a little one, a Lear Jet. We stopped in California for one day, but I was too sleepy to really enjoy it. Hayden-Sensei bought me a Hello Kitty address book from a shop near our hotel. The next day we landed at a little airstrip, and Lane-Sensei met me and took me to her house. (Just as a point of interest, the GM gave me a Drama Point when I had Juri pull out her Hello Kitty address book to call her Watcher.)
RDG: So, how are you liking America?
TJ: It's very different from home. I've only been here a couple of days now. I'm not really used to such a big school. I had private tutors from the time I was seven. Trying to remember where to go and when is difficult.
I love Lane-Sensei's house. The Watchers sent over some of the things from my old room. I'm still getting used to sleeping on such a big bed, and having so much space. The dojo isn't as big, and there's no firing range. I hope there's Archery at the high school so I can keep in practice.
Lane-Sensei cooks huge meals. I like American food, especially fried chicken.
The town is much bigger than I'm used to, and there's an even larger city not far away. It looks like a nice place.
RDG: Any friends yet?
TJ: Lane-Sensei is very nice. She lets us patrol, with weapons. So is Marian, even though she forgot to drive me home from school. She has her own car. That's so cool. Theodore is very brave, but he breaks lots of rules, and he always seems so angry. Simon is nice. I met a cute boy named Travis Evans at school. He said he'd drive me home from now on. (Giggles) I was surprised to find out he knew what vampires were. The Watchers said mostly people don't know, that they don't want to know. (These are other characters in the game. Nailing down Juri's reactions to them was one of the things I intended to do from the start. It's also one of the things I want to expand on, maybe through a diary or something)
RDG: Let's talk about your work. Do you think you'll be Chosen?
TJ: I don't know. I hope so. Whether I am or not, it doesn't change what I have to do. Good people have a responsibility to fight evil. I don't have the strength to fight a demon on even ground, but I have the teaching to find its weaknesses, the knowledge to exploit them, and the skill to take its advantages and make them mine.
I would never go against my teachers, but sometimes I think the Watchers are too concerned with watching when they should use their power to do something instead. I will hunt the monsters for as long as I can.
If another is Chosen instead of me, I might seek out another source of power. Most of them are dangerous, too dangerous, but there has to be a way. I read about Gwendolyn Post and what she did. She was a bad person, but I do not completely disagree with her. (Most of this is stuff I knew when I made up the character. It helped me to find Juri's voice to have her state it, though)
RDG: So for now you patrol? What do you like about it? What do you dislike?
TJ: It's fun. I know that's a scary thing to say. You don't have to look at me like that. In sparring, you have to exercise control so you don't hurt anyone. And in the back of your mind, you know it's not real no matter how well you pretend. When you're really fighting, it's real.
I understand that it's dangerous. The first vampire I fought could have killed me. Even with the monks watching, he might have got lucky. The one last night cut me, and it still hurts. He would have killed me, or one of his friends would have. I know the danger, and I don't want to die, but...
... When you're on the edge of death, you're alive like you can't be any other time. Everything is clear, simple. All day everything is hard. It's hard to remember where to go and what to do, what language to speak in, who knows what, who likes you, who doesn't. When you're fighting, there's only you and them, and all that matters is your strength and skill.
And you're helping people. Last night, we saved a woman's life. Who knows how many others after that? Those vampires would not have stopped killing until someone made them stop, and we did it. I did it. (First fight, about 1/4 of Juri's life points on a good hit. Fortunately, I had an extra Drama Point.)
Besides that, I've been training to do this since I was a little girl. I lost my father. He barely knows me now. He used to send me a birthday card. I don't know if he will now, since the Watchers moved me. It's what I do. Why teach me to do it, if they weren't going to let me do it?
RDG: Do you ever wish you had something else? That your life had been different?
TJ: No. Yes. Maybe. I don't know.
That's a hard question. I like being who I am, but I wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a mother, and with a father who wasn't so distant. I miss Japan. I miss the temple and the village, and I miss Hiroshima, even though I don't remember it very well.
There are things in life that I've had to give up, and sometimes I wish I had them, but that's selfish. Some people have to make sacrifices so that other people can be free and happy, like soldiers and policemen.
I got other things in return. Knowing what I know, I would rather be the one keeping secrets instead of the one living in a world made of them. Most people go through their lives being afraid. They ignore the truth because otherwise they couldn't live with it. I don't have to do that. I know there aren't very many people who could beat me in an even fight. I know how to even the odds, or tip them in my favor. I don't have to be afraid.
That doesn't mean I can be stupid, though. An old vampire, or just a man with a gun, could kill me easily if I'm not careful, or maybe even if I am. But at least I know who I am and what I can do.
For that, I guess it's worth not having a mother. (This is my favorite piece. I realized just after I wrote it that [a] it's exactly what Juri would say in character, and [b] it's a lie. She doesn't completely realize it, but she really craves a "real" family. She's going to try to build one as the game goes on, and the way she feels about different characters will really influence her actions. For someone she sees as "family" she'd probably throw away everything else she cares about, and would definitely throw away her life...)
RDG: (sniff) Sorry, something in my eye. Let's talk about the future. What do you want to happen next? (...Which struck me as being both sad and sweet)
TJ: Well, I want to be the Slayer. (Grins) If not me, it would be neat if it were Marian. I want to patrol more. I want to get used to high school. I'm thinking about joining the Kick boxing team. Wrestling might be interesting, but I've seen it and I find Aikido generally superior for practical applications. I hope there's archery. I want to try miniature golf. We passed a place on the way into town, and that looked like fun. Go-karts, too.
My future is at once nebulous and very clear. The Watchers Council will take care of me. If I am not Chosen, I will find some other role with them. I would like to finish high school, either here or back home. I do not know about college. If the Watchers can fund my activities as a hunter, that might be time better spent elsewhere. Something inside me wants to go, though. I would like to study art, perhaps.
RDG: Do you have any goals that aren't practical?
TJ: Doesn't miniature golf count?
RDG: You've got me there.
TJ: I... I think I would like to go on a date with Travis. He's very handsome. Maybe we could play miniature golf. (Grin)
I want to learn to drive. Everyone drives here. That might count as practical, since it would make patrolling easier. I think I need to buy some new clothes, too. People dress a lot differently here. I need more pants than the ones I patrol in, especially blue jeans.
Do you have any other questions?
RDG: Not right now. Thank you, Tomika. It was a pleasure speaking with you. (The last part revealed a little bit of her sense of humor, which is very subtle. Juri is a lot more likely to feed straight lines than crack jokes.)
So anyway, that's it for this month. Not much in the way of advice, but I hope you enjoyed it. If there's anything you'd like to see in future columns, please let me know. I'm thinking about following up character goals with character advancement, a column or two on the subject of experience and Experience and what to do with either.
See ya' next time.
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Hi everybody. Welcome back. We're still discussing character goals. We've already talked about what they are, why you should have them, and what they should be, but all that still leaves a question.
When do you pursue them?
In a MET style LARP, it's pretty easy. Almost all your goals tend to be personal, and you pursue them whenever you get the chance. In a PBP or PBeM, there may be more direction, but it's still not hard to go off by yourself and do whatever you want as long as the GM has time to deal with you. Splitting the party may not be advisable, but it's not a serious logistical problem like it might be in a tabletop game.
But my column is primarily aimed at tabletop gaming, and at the tabletop (or sprawled around the living room, in my games) having one or more characters wander off by themselves can cause some problems. Some day, if you ask nicely, I'll tell the story of the Shadow Run session that ended up having three groups and two GMs... The basic problem is that there is only one GM, who plays all the NPCs and describes the entire environment. While the PCs are all in one place, this isn't much of a problem. If the party splits up, the GM's attention is split, too. Sometimes that's unavoidable. Sometimes the GM arranges it on purpose. But other times, it can be a real pain - particularly if it's just one PC who is trying to use some downtime in the main plot to go pursue one of his sub-plots. That leaves the other characters to either just sit, or to go find things of their own to do.
Thus, either several people are bored, or the GM suddenly has multiple games to run.
So what can you do about it?
Here are several strategies that I have employed. All of them require the GM's cooperation, and that's an important issue. Everything I'm going to suggest creates some degree of extra work for the GM. As a player, you need to decide how much your character's goals are worth to you and to the rest of the group. If you start disrupting the game or burning out the GM, then it doesn't really matter if your character won the hand of the Princess, defeated the Dark Overlord, and recovered the McGuffin of Ultimate Power. You are failing.
Yes, I said you are failing. If you wreck the game, then you lose everything. I once nearly wrecked a game by focusing too much on just what I wanted. It's an easy trap to fall into - at least for a spotlight hog like me. Now you've been warned.
Ok, now that that bit of unpleasantness is out of the way, let's move on. There are several ways to carve out time for your character's goals.
In Game, With the Party
Unless your GM blows chunks, there will be situations in the main plot that relate to your character's goals from time to time. Keep an eye out for them. When you find yourself in one, play in character. Don't make the decision you think is "best." Make the decision that your character really would if he was in that situation. If you're playing Inigo Montoya, and you spot the Six-Fingered man, you're not likely to consider the fact that you're carrying an urgent message that absolutely, positively has to get there overnight. There's the guy who slaughtered your father over a sword. Go kill him. Now. And that group of twenty guards he's got with him.
Well, actually, Inigo might be smarter than that, but he'd at least consider it.
In Game, Alone
Sometimes, the group splits up. I've run sessions that never had more than two PCs in the same place at the same time. I've played in them, too. If everybody's OK with it, that's fine.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be considerate: Well duh. If your character goes off by himself, the GM "owes" you as much time as he's spending with any one other player. In a group of six players, that's 1/6th of the GM's time. The group gets an hour, you get ten minutes. More is nice, but all you really "deserve" is 1/6th.
- Keep track of your POV: Don't react to OOC information in your IC dealings. If the group gets in trouble because you wandered off on your own, then the survivors will be really angry with you when you get back. If you get in trouble when you wander off on your own, don't expect them to come save you if you can't call them.
- While you're out anyway...: While you run off to visit your old, ailing aunt, maybe you could also check in with one of your contacts who might have some useful information for the group. Huh?
- Be considerate: I know I already said "be considerate," but it bears repeating. Keep this behavior in check. If you only go off on you own every once in a while, it's no problem. If you're doing it for a long time, frequently, you should probably look into one of the other methods I'll discuss in a minute.
Journals and Bluebooks
"Bluebooking" emerged some time in the 90s. I'm not exactly sure where. Mentions of it cropped up in some of my game books about that time. If anybody who knows more cares to post comments, I'd love to read them. I've never Bluebooked formally, but I think I've more or less adopted the "guts" of the practice. The basic idea is that you keep a binder or something in which you write character actions. The GM reads what you wrote and writes in responses. You can presumably also do this with other PCs, too. It's a pretty good way to handle "sideline" events, though I think it would work best between sessions, since the GM probably can't stop and read your latest entry and write another one while he's doing anything else.
A somewhat related method could be carried out in a character journal. I am a huge fan of character journals (and I really, really need to update the one in my D&D game). Mostly, journals just record actions that have already happened, but in my Now is the Winter game one player particularly used his to flesh out relationships and add a lot of content to the game that I never put there.
To be honest, I was a little shocked at first. I read one of his journal entries, which had a long conversation between him and an NPC - only that conversation had never occurred in game.
Once I figured out what he was doing, though, I was all for it. In fact, I do it a little myself.
Here's what he'd do:
- In Game, he'd tell me he wanted to go to such-and-such a place to talk to some NPC contact.
- I'd say "fine. You go there. What do you want to know?"
- He'd tell me.
- I'd make up an answer. For instance, if he was looking for where to find a Brujah safe house, I might say one of his Anarch contacts gave him an address warfside.
- In his journal, there would be a lengthy description of his trip to the Anarch's hangout, and a detailed conversation that covered other topics as well. For example, if the PC was shaking down an Anarch, he might mention some (made up on the spot) dirt he had on said Anarch.
- Rarely, he'd write something that, while he was unaware of it, was "wrong" for some reason, and I'd tell him what he needed to change.
None of the player's new details involved OOC information unless he'd also gained that information IC later in the game. None of the details he added were consequential to the plot. But they turned a 30 second exchange between him and me into a real, fleshed out scene.
There are some things to keep in mind with this. Obviously, you're still asking the GM for more of his time. You're also asking him to hand over the reigns of the game, at least a little bit. I like it. Some GMs won't. You pretty much have to respect your GM's wishes. You should also be sure your performance In Game is as good as your performance in your journals, or at least as good as it can be. The other players deserve to be wowed by your awesome character portrayal. The group's goals probably deserve as much attention as your private ones.
E-Mail, Chat, and IM
A step up from physical journals, which have to be passed around, is electronic messaging. To be truthful, the journal in the example above was a Word file we passed back and forth as an e-mail attachment. I don't usually keep hand-written journals. Typing is so much faster, and I'm part of the Sesame Street generation, with the attendant low attention span and desire for instant gratification.
In my last handful of games, quite a bit was done as e-mails between the players and the GM or each other. This works very similarly to journals and bluebooks, but there's some difference. Scenes are "real-time." In other words, it's less likely that a scene you do through Instant Messaging with the GM will be edited after the fact. You will also be generating new material, instead of just fleshing out old stuff. Since the GM is involved, you can cover new ground.
There are also some new things to worry about.
- Be considerate: Yeah, you knew I was going to say that. Even more than with journals, you're taking the GM's time up, because if you're using IM or chat, you're taking up specific blocks of time.
- Keep track of continuity: Scenes played this way will occasionally be set between scenes that already happened In Game. If your character didn't know the location of the McGuffin of Power during the game, he has to wait until after the game time that the last session covered before he can find out. If he only spent an hour by himself, he probably doesn't have time to drive all over town and talk to half a dozen different NPCs.
- Don't get too far ahead: If you're doing things between sessions, keep in mind that the rest of the group isn't going to want to skip two days of game time because you ran off to Reno with your mistress - even if you came back with an important clue. If you don't want to spend two days of game time playing PS2 and reading comic books, then you'd better not spend them IM-ing the GM. In a similar vein, if one player does this kind of thing, all the players should have equal opportunity. This is particularly true if two PCs have conflicting goals. That brings us back to the GM Attention ratio I mentioned earlier. If the GM has to shuffle e-mails and Instant Messages from six players, you only get 1/6th of the total volume.
As always, the key thing to keep in mind is that you're trying to make the game better. I started with a discussion of all the competing goals, and that's where I'm going to end. I've provided tools to help you pursue your character's goals, and presumably your goals. You should do that with an eye toward the goals of the rest of the group.
So that's about it. I think I'm through with goals for now. In fact, I'm not sure what next month's column will hold. I'm up for suggestions.
Till then, good gaming.
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Welcome back. In this season of giving, I can think of no better topic than "getting stuff." So that's our topic for this month's column. Last time we talked about all the interconnected goals that make up a roleplaying game. This month, we'll focus on the ones that really matter: Character Goals.
Goal Setting for Fun and Profit
Let's get started with the premise that people have goals. PCs are people, ergo they have goals. First, a group of PCs usually has a goal. In a really simple game, it's probably "finish the dungeon," or something similarly short-term and liner. If that's the way you play, you probably don't need to set a whole lot of goals for your character. The rewards of the game are immediate (treasure), or intrinsic to the character (levels).
In a more complex game, it could be both more complicated, and longer-term. For instance, in a very strange futuristic occult game I played, our group goal was "defend our clan from another clan." We had lots of short-term goals like "repel the invasion," "figure out where the ninjas hid the bomb before they blow up our house," and "blow up the other guy's house." All of those fed into the larger goal in one way or another. A few others didn't, early on.
Within the group, individuals have goals. One PC in the aforementioned game was a kind of adopted member of the clan who wanted full membership status. Another one wasn't really family at all, and only hung out with us because our enemy was his enemy. My character, just to contemplate matters, was in love with a member of the enemy clan.
A single individual can also have contradictory goals. Megan, my character in that game, wanted to find her missing brother - the only member of her original family left alive. When it turned out that he'd been involved in killing all the others and had been working for the main bad guy all along, there was a bit of conflict there. Megan could never bring herself to kill him. Eventually he killed himself to spare her the choice (or else there was just some kind of kill spell on him. I was never completely clear on what happened). Love makes people do strange things.
Choose Your Battles
The trick with setting goals is to set goals you will actually be able to pursue during the game. I'll stick with Megan as an example, so first I'll have to give you some quick background. Megan was a member of a race of dragon shapeshifters. Before the game began, her family was killed. She was the only survivor besides her brother, Michael, who had run away from home years before. She lived with her aunt and her aunt's new family (also dragon-people). Megan was a little weird because she'd learned to take her dragon shape about five years early. In her culture, that made her a full adult even though she was only a sophomore in high school (home-schooled once the faculty found out she could turn into a 10' long, fire-breathing lizard). She was also a magical prodigy, with a mastery of spells that would usually take decades.
She lived in a sort of over-the top, anime cyberpunk world. Take Shadowrun and make it weirder, and you're most of the way there.
I could have set a lot of goals for Megan. In fact, I did, and discarded several as the game shaped up. The ones I considered were:
- "Find out who killed my family"
- "Become a master of the mystic arts"
- "Lead as normal a life as possible"
- "Rebuild my father's mercenary unit"
Of those four, the first was the only one that was really practical. The person who killed Megan's family turned out to be the main bad guy, acting through Michael. Out of character, I pretty much knew that going in. If you hand a GM a plot hook that big, of course he's going to use it. In character, Megan figured it out fairly quickly, which made her even more determined to beat the bad guy. She promised him she'd eat his heart while he was still alive - and at the end of the game she did.
Mastering the arts of magic was going to take longer, even for Megan, than the game was going to run. Besides, she was usually to busy running for her life to study much. She regretted it, but had to mostly put aside gaining much more magical proficency.
Similarly, there was not much chance of her leading a normal life. She tried whenever she got the chance, though. She had a boyfriend (who happened to be the son of a major enemy), went shopping, and liked motorcycles.
She never got the chance to rebuild her father's merc unit. I eventually discarded that goal because it wasn't adding anything to the game. That came down to the fact that the GM didn't think our group really needed a merc unit mucking up his Romeo & Juliet style feud story. I decided, on reflection, that it wouldn't have really been in character for Megan anyway. Leading a merc unit wasn't what she wanted to do. She might have tried, but wouldn't have stuck with it for long - which is pretty much what happened in the game anyway.
The lesson in all this is that you need to pick goals that are within the scope of the GM's game, or at least not too far out of it. The GM should, of course, also be ready to work with you, but you need to keep in mind that he has other characters to consider. He has less room for compromise than you do because there are more demands on his attention. If the GM wants to run a modern crime game where you take down a ring of Triad heroin dealers, then your FBI guy should probably not decide he wants Fox Mulder's job. At the least, he could keep his UFO hunting a little in the background.
Don't Bite Off More than You can Chew
A big, overarching goal like "become Emperor" might not be a great choice for some games. If the game has nothing to do with being Emperor, and your character is never going to so much as go to the Imperial Palace, it's going to be good more for flavor than actual play.
One of Megan's goals, becoming a major sorceress, was just going to take too long. The fact she wanted to do it meant I spent every experience point I could spare on magical stuff, and by the end of the game she was pretty good, but she still had a long way to go. Fortunately, it wasn't a huge goal for me (the player).
Goals you can achieve are fun. In one of the first Pendragon games I played, my character, the not terribly creatively named Sir Daffyd, wanted to win enough land for his huge family. That was, I thought, going to be pretty tough. In fact, since the GM ran the invasion of Rome, he ended up with more than enough land, but most of his male relatives died off in the fighting. The irony just added to the savor.
Follow the Bouncing Ball
This one is the bane of players everywhere, and I feel like a GM shill for bringing it up. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to choose goals that fit within the GM's plot. The GM has a lot to do. He has (if he's good) invested a lot of time in the game, and made a lot of plans for where it's going and what's going to happen. He's made up locations, events and NPCs with whom your character will interact.
Unless you decide to have your character go in the opposite direction at every opportunity. I used to play with a guy who did that, and the one time I GMed for him, it drove me nuts. (kind of sad, really) However, if you pick a course of action that at least makes you hang out in the general neighborhood the GM picked out, the game will run much better for everyone.
If you find that your goal isn't practical, maybe your character will change his priorities. Finding the Seven Cities of Gold is all well and good, but if you just got information that evil Templar agents are going to summon an elder-god in London, maybe now's not the best time to leave for the New World. (Later, after the hellfire, damnation, and waking nightmare begins... that would be a good time to leave.)
A classic example comes from my accursed Fantasy campaign. I call it accursed because every time I try to run it, something bad happens. Neverhtheless, I really like the world, so I keep trying. In this particular attempt, which was cut short by two players having to quit partway in, I had one player who was playing an exiled nobleman. His family had lost a civil war a few years back and fled to the campaign city. His big goal was to go back home and retake his lands. That was actually cool, but unfortunately the player didn't seem to care about anything else. I dropped plot hooks all over the place, but if they didn't involve an invasion of this other country, he didn't care.
Of course, the game got cut short after only a few sessions. Maybe he would have perked up after a while. If so, that would have been fine. I really had plans for his big goal, just not right at the beginning of the game.
Keep Your Friends Close...
Unless you're in a fairly unusual situation, there are some other players. If they've been reading this article, they might have some goals, too. (If not, feel free to show it to them) The game will be better if you decide how your character reacts to those goals. Helping is good, but sometimes so is hindering. Think about what another PC's goal means to your PC. A noble, honest Paladin might not want his Wizard friend to obtain the Staff of Bones if his religious training tells him that the Staff is evil and anyone who wields it is invariably corrupted. That could lead to some interesting intra-party conflict. As long as everyone is mature about it, that's really fun.
The other PCs can also help you with your goals, or might want to get in your way. Look for opportunities to involve other PCs in your plots. Presumably, the group hangs out together. They should take some interest in each other's lives.
In my Now is the Winter game (which I'm sure you're bored of hearing about now), Catlin the Ravanos stripper had a blood disease that she wanted cured so she could feed freely. Dr. Zhou the Tremere offered to help her. While he was doing it, he conned her out of a couple of traits of her blood more than what he needed for his research. He almost used that blood when the bad guys offered him something he really wanted in return for it. If he hadn't bothered to help Catlin, that subplot could never have happened.
I don't really have a lot of concluding thoughts for this one. Setting and pursuing goals for your character is a great way, possibly the best way, to flesh him out and make him more than the sum of his stats and equipment. On the other hand, it's also a good way to disrupt the game, so you should keep a handle on it.
So, that's it for this month. Next time, we'll talk about how to pursue these lofty goals of yours.
See you then.
Monday, November 18, 2002
Hello again. We've spent a long time talking about all the work you do leading up to a group, so now I figured it was about time to start talking about some playing. Let's talk about goals. Put simply, we've talked about who you are. Now what do you want? (oohhh. B5 Reference. I'm a geek)
What are the goals of an RPG?
The over-simple answer is "To have fun." Everybody leads off with that one. I don't really know why, but who am I to defy tradition. Actually, it's kind of good to mention it. I've played in games that weren't fun. A sort of social inertia builds up, an unpleasant cycle that's not easy to break out of. Discussing the goals further down the pyramid is a good way to make sure that the big goal at the top is met.
So what are the other goals? Basically, I see three.
- The GM's Goals
- The Players' Goals
- The Characters' Goals
The GM's Goals
The GM bought the book. He makes up the campaign. He probably has to clean up his living room (or needs to) so everyone will have a place to sit. Obviously, he has something invested in the game. The GM could have lots of goals, like "kill all the PCs" or "get laid by the cute gamer chick." For our purposes, I'm going to ignore most of those and state the GM's basic goal as "guide the PCs through the story." Even that isn't perfect, but it's a lot more elegant than the three paragraphs it would take me to cover all the nit-picky variables.
The GM has a story to tell. If he's a good GM it's either very flexible or so compelling and well constructed that it never occurs to the players to deviate from it. Still, there are characters the GM wants to use, events he wants to unfold, and possibly themes he wants to explore. For example, in my Now is the Winter Chronicle, I had a bunch of NPCs, primarily the St. Croix family, the brood of Dr. Killian, and some Faeries who were playing out their own conflict. I knew that what would happen eventually was that someone would open a Fairy Mound on the edge of the city and unleash the old god who was bound up there, along with the dark entities who had been trapped with him.
The GM's goals are the most pervasive in the game, since he does more work than anyone else to shape the world. (Though that's not always true. There are some modern games that spread the GM's role out to other players, and even in "old school" games there are variations.)
The Players' Goals
The Players are the prime movers in the game. If the GM doesn't have players, then his story is not going to happen. In my opinion, if any game was produced as a TV series, the PCs should be the people in the opening credits sequence. If someone else would be in the opening credits, then those characters should be the PCs.
The Players' basic goal could be fairly well stated as "to use their characters to overcome obstacles and defeat adversaries." Once again, you could argue the details, but that's the basic. Players may have individual goals for their characters, like "to get to 20th level," or "to become Primogen of Clan Brujah." Those goals may or may not be what the Characters want for themselves.
The Characters' Goals
There are, of course, two broad sets of characters. There are PCs and NPCs. Many and complex are the possible relationships between them. The characters have goals. The "Bad Guys" probably want to destroy the world or do something similarly antisocial. The "Good Guys" probably want to stop them. ("That's where I keep all my stuff!") Further, there are individual goals: rivalries, aspirations, romances.
Baring some fairly deep bits of psychology, the Characters don't really have any goals that the various players don't give them, but in a way they can. Good roleplayers will often realize that the "right" thing for a character to do isn't necessaraly the smartest thing. In fact, a well-fleshed out character can be downright stubborn.
But what does it all mean?
So, we have three, or two and a half, perhaps, sets of goals. Fortunately, they're not mutually exclusive. They do take some care, though. The GM has the largest responsibility. He's likely to do the most work, and what he does has more potential than just about anybody to make the game fail. The GM should really try to make sure the story he wants to tell is one the Players want to participate in. He needs to tailor it to the characters they want to play (though there's quite a bit of give-and-take in that).
The Players also have some responsibilities. I've already talked about picking characters who will fit into the group and into the story. My Now is the Winter game was a mix of political maneuverings and supernatural action. No matter how interesting he was, a character who was only interested questing for Golconda and avoiding political entanglements would have been hard to work with. However, it could have worked if the Player wanted his misbegotten vampire to be continually frustrated in his goals and drawn into Vampire politics and violence.
Beyond just fitting in, it's good if the Players will pursue goals that advance the game. In an old-school D&D dungeon crawl, the PCs don't really need any goals beyond "kill monsters and take their stuff." "Save innocent peasants from evil humanoids" is a nice addition, but not strictly necessary. In more character-driven games, it's nice if the characters have some goals of their own, though. For example (since I love these), let's look at Now is the Winter again.
- O'Neil wanted to serve the Prince. He believed that Prince Marcel held his un-life in his hands, and he'd do just about anything the big guy said. This made him really easy to manage from my perspective. In fact, I occasionally felt like I was railroading his Player. He also had some secondary goals, though, and we got a lot of drama out of the way those goals conflicted with his loyalty.
- Zhou wanted to increase his own power. He was on the way to developing his own Path of Thumaturgy. This was a goal that was much interrupted, but fortunately it wasn't a major goal of the Player.
- Catlin wanted to be safe. She was always trying to find someone to protect her. Unfortunately, "Player Character" is rarely a safe occupation. Catlin's player told me she enjoyed the game, so I suppose she didn't mind.
- Jason wanted to be more powerful. I gotta say that his goal was incredibly disruptive to the rest of the game. His Player didn't really seem to care about my plot or about intraparty relations at all. Everybody was at his throat after a while. Eventually, I found a way to
- Miles wanted to win the love of Moira Pendragon, the Tremere Regent. I was kind of disappointed with Miles' romantic subplots. I tried hard to paint Moira as not being worthy of Miles, but his Player never got the picture. Not even when I threw in a cute Toreador chick to woo him. Still, it was fun. Miles kept involving himself with the Tremere even though he tended to get in trouble for it.
From the above example, you can kind of see where GM, Player, and Character goals overlap and conflict. Jason's Player was so focused on his goals that he drove me nuts sometimes. I finally managed to work his pursuit of political power into my apocalyptic plot, but it took some work. Then the guy had to move to San Antonio for a new job. I hate it when Real Life gets in the way of my gaming. By playing Sire Miles' infatuation for Moira, Cathy ran some pretty heavy risks. Just about everybody at one time or another did something that annoyed the other Players. They were a really dysfunctional little group.
So, what does it all mean?
It means that a good game is going to involve some compromises. Unless he's incredibly talented, the GM is not going to get to tell exactly the story he envisioned when he was planning the game. Important NPCs will get killed before they get around to delivering key clues. PCs will become obsessed with "vital clues" that the GM only threw in to add a little flavor. Players will have their own preferences, which the GM needs to take into account.
The Players also need to be ready to compromise, both with the GM and with each other. While the PCs may all hate each other, the real people involved need to be cooperating on the shared goal of "having fun."
It's easy to forget that the other people in the game aren't there for your entertainment. You should be trying to have fun, but when your fun stomps on someone else's, you should consider pulling back. If you really want to do a lot of investigation and interaction, and the rest of the group just wants to kill monsters, maybe you can work on a timeshare system. Maybe you can PBeM with the GM between sessions where your character goes off and investigates things, then comes back and tells the group where the monsters they want to kill are hiding. After a while, the other Players might get interested in what you're doing.
If all you care about is fighting and the rest of the group wants to play a soap opera, then you should probably just take the Narcolepsy disadvantage and play Diablo between combats. Your utter lack of knowledge of what happened while your character was unconscious will seem like good roleplaying.
(More seriously, there are limits to how far compromise will go. Some people shouldn't play with some other people. That's just life.)
So, I've talked about what Players should do a little bit. The GM is beyond the scope of this column. I haven't really hit on the Characters too much. The complex relationship between Character and Player deserves its own column, which, not coincidentally, is what we're going to discuss next.
Till then, have fun.
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Welcome back. Thanks for stopping by. Last time we discussed how your group got together. This time we'll discuss who should be in the group. A group of PCs is generally a task force of some kind. They're adventurers who will be presented with a variety of challenges and obstacles. They need skills relevant to the tasks at hand, and some means of coordinating their actions.
I've had to revise my thoughts on this topic quite a bit since I realized that not everybody has me or one of my friends as a GM. The optimum spread of character abilities that work in my games may not be very useful for yours.
So lets start with the basics.
The type of game you're playing will heavily influence the makeup of your group. If you're playing in a good, old fashioned dungeon crawl then you can focus on combat abilities, worrying only a little about non-combat skills. If you're more interested in playing average people in extraordinary circumstances, your characters will have a wide range of skills, many of which won't be particularly relevant to the tasks at hand. If you're playing a "Feeble Mortals Against the Mighty Old Ones" game like Call of Cthulhu then you'll need a range of social and investigative skills. Combat prowess will be of limited use.
Personal preference is important, too. The group I'm in now likes tight, well-rendered stories -- similar to what you might see in an hour-long TV drama. There are subplots and side trips, but mostly everything relates to the main plot. That may change as the game grows, of course. I've played in a couple of groups where we spent as much time on the characters' personal lives as we did pursuing "adventure goals." I've also seen groups where combat is the main focus. Social interaction was limited, and frequently abbreviated so we could get on to the next fight scene. In a game like that, a bookish, social character is probably not going to have much to do.
Most of my experience has been in games with a mix of challenges where a wide range of skills was required. Even if combat was the primary focus, other activities took up a good share of time, and characters that were only useful in combat could sometimes be left out. Since I only have my experience to draw upon, and since I figure that kind of group is the best example for the purposes of this article, I'm going to talk about building groups with a range of skills, rather than just fighters or just occult dabbling antiques dealers. This is probably the most common situation, and it's easy to adapt to styles of play with different expectations.
So, let's move on.
I have never encountered a group of players who sat down with the GM, having no personal expectations, and asked, "So, what kind of game is it?" then negotiated with each other to make sure they had all the needed roles filled. I'd like to try it some time, but I doubt I ever will. When a potential GM pitches a game for me, the first thing that usually pops into my head is a character concept.
Most group construction takes place after some or all of the players have chosen concepts. Usually the more flexible players, or the ones who just showed up late, modify their concepts to fill needed roles. That generally works out just fine, since there really aren't that many roles to fill. Unless your GM is just an obstructionist, he's probably not going to make your ex-Marine, former cop, school Librarian, and town dog catcher go on a geological survey mission to Madagascar. (Well, he might, but he's probably going to take into account the fact that none of the characters know anything about geology -- work with me here.)
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd ed. divided up the roles very neatly: Warrior, Rogue, Magic User, and Cleric. Warriors were primarily combatants. Rogues primarily snuck around. Magic Users primarily threw spells. Clerics also primarily threw spells, but they were different spells. Honest.
Seriously, that wasn't a bad spread. Warriors were useful for defeating adversaries. Rouges were able to circumvent physical barriers. Magic Users wielded a lot of different abilities, potentially able to substitute for just about any other party member. Clerics were good for support roles, mostly healing injured companions. Some of the secondary classes provided redundancy, which I'll talk about presently.
You don't have to have a class system to have specialists. Most game systems reward specialization to one degree or another, since a character who's specialized in one area has better skills than one who spreads his points evenly. Even games where all the characters are similar, for instance Ars Magica, Amber, or just about any superhero game offer opportunities for specialization.
So, why bother to specialize? Some games make you specialize (Dungeons and Dragons, Cyberpunk 2020). Some games just reward specialization (in Fading Suns a starting character can pretty much be good at one thing). Other games leave the field open, but it's a good idea to specialize anyway. A group of specialists is more capable than a group of generalists at a similar level of experience. Look at The Princess Bride. Wesley is superhuman. If he was a PC, then his player was probably the GM's Significant Other or drug supplier. The other main characters, though, were not unusual in and of themselves. Visini was small and stunted, so he developed his intellect. Fezik was incredibly strong, but not really smart enough to manage on his own. Inigo was totally dedicated to swordplay, and pretty helpless in any other arena. If he'd been a better investigator, he might have found Count Rougan. All three of them together are roughly as "powerful" as Wesley, who would have had a vastly higher experience level or character point total.
So we've established that specialists are useful. Now, what kind of specialists do we need? Ultimately, that depends on your game. CoC Investigators need significantly different abilities than D&D treasure hunters. These are some general roles, along with some explanation of what each role is good for.
Warriors: Role-playing games are mostly about combat. Even games where combat isn't the focus frequently include episodes of violence. Warriors are focused on various means of harming others. For my purposes, a swordsman, a Shao Lin monk, and a pyrokenetic teenager are all Warriors. The Warrior's job is to eliminate threats and protect his companions. In a combat heavy game, you probably want most of your characters to be primarily Warriors, but several might have secondary specialties. In a game focusing on social interaction or investigation, you might turn it around so that most of your characters have other primary specialties, but some or all also have some skills in combat.
Scouts: Scouts are adept at moving around without attracting notice. Where the Warriors blow thorough obstacles, the Scouts generally work around them. Used carefully, a Scout is more effective than a Warrior in some situations. Stealth and guile can get you past difficulties that brute force can't defeat. Scouts almost always have a secondary specialty, since it doesn't do much good to get past all the obstacles if you can't do anything useful when you get there. A Scout who is also a Warrior can be particularly nasty. Most people call them Ninjas...
Investigator: Knowing where to go is as important as being able to get there, and knowing who to hit is sometimes more important than knowing how to hit them. Investigators can be magicians with scrying spells, astrally projecting psychics, or good old-fashioned gumshoes. Investigators almost always have secondary specialties, frequently social skills. Lots of gamers overlook the value of investigation. Careful gathering of information can help you avoid a lot of trouble later on, though.
Talkers: I couldn't really think of a better name for Talkers. The AD&D Bard is the classic Talker. A Cyberpunk Fixer is a good example, too. Talkers are good at dealing with people. Their role overlaps with the role of Investigator quiet a bit since one of the most common uses for their skills is to convince people to tell them things. Talkers usually split their skills between social and investigative skills since they overlap so much to begin with. Talkers who are better at giving orders are frequently also Warriors. The ones who specialize in convincing people of things that might not strictly be true find the skills of a Scout to be handy for those times that they can't fool all the people.
Healer: Healers are adept at patching up their comrades, most often the Warriors. In games with Healing Magic, Healing is likely to be a primary specialty. Let's face it; the Fighters could really kill all the zombies. They keep the Clerics around for "Cure Light Wounds." In other games, Healing is more likely to be a backup specialty.
Expert: This is kind of a catchall category. An Expert has a particular skill that's useful in the right circumstances. A Healer is a certain type of expert. Others are Pilots, Weaponsmiths, and Scientists. Esoteric Experts are probably the most dispensable specialty most of the time, but when you need one you really, really need one. In my games, Expert tends to be a backup specialty, or something NPCs do. Ghost (way back from the Character Creation examples) was a Warrior first, and a Weaponsmith a very distant second. Curiously, the way the game turned out his skills in the smithy turned out to be more crucial to the overall plot.
Jack-of-All-Trades: After all this talk about specialists, I'm going to extol the virtues of a generalist. If you have the room in your group to work one in, a Jack-of-All-Trades can really come in handy. He won't be as effective at anything as his companions, but he'll be useful just about everywhere. Since most characters can't be in two places at once, it can be really useful to have two people with similar skills. That said, it's probably best if a Jack of All Trades is at least a little better than average at one. A Warrior with a wide range of low-level skills is a good choice. In a D&D game, the Magic User is sort of a Jack-of-All-Trades. The right choice of spells can do just about anything any other character can do. If you're coming up on a big fight, load up on Fireballs. If you're trying to sneak across the country, Invisibility and some illusions will come in handy. If you need to make some friends, Charm Person is a good choice.
The above descriptions hinted at this. You want to be sure your party isn't over-specialized. If you only have one Scout, you'll blunder into a lot of trouble he gets taken out. If you only have one Medic, everybody had better be very, very careful if anything happens to him. Besides, an over-specialized character is likely to be boring to play whenever the game doesn't revolve around his specialty.
Ideally, every character in your group can pitch in to help with one other character's job, and be at least a little competent at a third. Perhaps sadly, one of those three jobs should probably be Warrior. I've played characters that were totally helpless in combat. It can be fun once in a while, but it's not tactically the best choice. It can also irritate the GM, since he'll probably have to modify scenarios somewhat to take care of you. If you're going to play a character that can't fight at all, you should take care to make sure he's pretty good at something else.
Your exact choice of specialties will be dependant on the type of game you're playing, and the backgrounds of the characters. Here's the spread on my current Shadowrun game. I'm running Shadowrun to fill in for a while. Our Tribe 8 GM had to quit, and the next GM is too busy to start his game, so I decided to run a somewhat episodic game with a few subplots to keep things connected. I'm a big fan of Cowboy Bebop (an Anime about interstellar bounty hunters, for those who might not know) so I decided to capture a little of that flavor in my game. The Runners aren't bounty hunters, but they're more or less "good guys" operating on the edges of the underworld. Everybody's got at least a little combat skill, since I don't consider an episode complete without a massive fight that lowers property values in a six-block radius. (Well, maybe not every episode...)
The players didn't set out to coordinate their characters, but they checked in with each other to make sure they had the major bases covered. Here's what they came up with:
- Alex Black (Bodyguard): Alex has enough cyberware that he's as tough as a Troll. He's also a crack shot with a pistol. His primary specialty is Warrior. He can also handle the role of a Talker in the right situations. He's charismatic and good looking, and used to work amongst the rich and famous.
- Father Angus (Bull Shaman): Father Angus is moderately better at Conjuring than Sorcery, and has ready access to Spirits. In my terms he's an Expert in magic and kind of a Jack-of-All-Trades. He's most useful as a Healer, and pretty handy as support in a lot of applications. He's not a great Scout on his own, but his spirits can help the group's other Scout. He's OK in a fight, but mostly good at summoning a spirit to harass the enemy so his friends have an advantage, etc...
- Cammy (Con Artist/Burglar): Chameleon, Cammy for short, is adept at stealth, breaking and entering, and confidence games. She's a good Scout, and a decent Investigator or Talker when the situation calls for it.
- Ena (Elf Mage): Ena is the group's other Magical Expert. Like Angus, she's kind of a Jack-of-All-Trades. She's most useful as a Scout, with Clairvoyance and a Mask spell to let her see things the group's enemies don't really intend. She's got a pretty good Power Bolt for when things get hairy. She's not as adept a Conjurer as Angus is, and Elementals aren't as readily available, but they're more useful when she summons one.
- Ziff (Ork Combat Decker): Ziff is big and strong, with some cyberware to help him survive a fight. He's also a pretty good computer hacker. I'm going to tag him as an Expert in running the Matrix. Within the Matrix, he's mostly useful as an Investigator. He's also not a bad Warrior.
This group is a nice spread. I don't think they would have done a lot better if they'd tried to coordinate from the beginning. So far, the only real weakness they have is a lack of Investigative talent, which they don't need a lot of. Most of their runs don't require more than basic fact-finding. If the game runs long enough for much development, they'll probably decide they need some more investigative skills in the meat world. Ziff will probably decide to leave his Combat abilities alone and get more adept at Matrix running. Another solution is for every character to develop a wider range of contacts the group can tap for information.
And that's about it for this time. Next up: Combat Roles. See you then.
Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Welcome back. Thanks for stopping by. This marks the beginning of my second year of columns. The fact that you're still here either means I'm not as bad at this as I think, or you're all literary masochists.
Last year we talked about character creation. Of course, there's more to a game than a single character. Besides all those guys the GM plays, you probably have to deal with two or more other players and their characters. I touched on this way back in the first column, and for the next few columns I'm going to expand on that idea.
All the Player Characters will form some kind of group. Whether it's an effective group or not depends on how the characters interact. A good group needs a range of skills and abilities appropriate to the group's goals. For instance, a team made up of a portrait artist, a street mime, and a hurdy-gurdy man with a monkey would probably not make the most effective hostile insertion team. On the other hand a ninja, a navy SEAL, and a MI6 agent might not do all that well collecting change on the boardwalk, at least not without bloodshed.
A team also needs some measure of cohesion. They need to have some means of making group decisions, either through a command structure or some type of democracy. If they can't act in concert they're not really a team, just some people (probably highly armed) hanging out in the same place.
The players as a group need to build characters who will fit into a team (Unless they're playing a highly competitive game like Amber, perhaps). The beginning of team building is figuring out what the team does and how it formed. The GM may have something to say about this. He might tell you "You will be a team of Rebel Agents with the mission of delivering the Death Star plans to Princess Leia." That's pretty specific, while still allowing for a range of character types. The GM's concept could be even more restrictive, like "You're the only surviving members of a Ninja clan that was just wiped out by the evil Shogun." Often, though the GM just tells you to make up whatever characters you want. That has been my general experience, both as a player and as a GM.
The "open call" sort of games, if done well, provide the players with the most freedom and produce some of the most fun groups. If done poorly, however, they lead to the variations of the old cliche of "you're all at the tavern when an old wizard comes in and says he's looking for adventurers..." With a little more thought, you can do a lot better. Just because the GM didn't say your characters had to start the game already knowing each other is no reason why they shouldn't.
So then, who are your characters and how do they know each other?
Let's start at the beginning. Usually the GM will have some concept of a game. It's a good idea to find out as much as possible about what's going on before you make up characters. Find out if there's anything the GM really likes or hates. It's a good idea to avoid things you know the GM's not going to like. Find out where the story will begin. With that as your starting point, figure out who you want to play and how they got there. Start with generalities and hammer out the specifics later.
Once everybody has a character and a general idea of how that character wound up at the game's starting locale, you can start looking for connections. Every character does not need to know every other character, and nobody necessarily has to be best friends. What you want, if you can get it, is a lose web. Character A knows B and C; C knows D, and D knows E (who is secretly A's half-brother). When the game starts off, those characters would tend to gravitate toward one-another just because everybody else is a totally unknown variable. You can start building a real team as you go along.
I never tried to build a really cohesive group until my Vampire Chronicle titled "Now is the Winter." I gave the players some direction by giving them several concepts from which to choose. The one they liked best was "Servants of the Prince," but nobody wanted to be an actual "servant of the Prince."
I love being the GM.
So anyway, what I finally wound up with was:
Bradley O'Neil - Losombra Antitribu and former Arcanum member. Bradley was pretty easy. When the player initially gave me the concept I told him the only way such a poor fool would have survived was with the protection of the Prince.
He was an occultist embraced by a Sabbat Losombra. She was so cruel that he eventually attacked her and, by a stroke of luck, managed to diablorize her. Having been a member of the Arcanum, he knew enough about vampire politics to know that was bad. He fled to the one city where he knew any other vampires, and begged for the protection of the Prince (who kind of owed him a favor).
Jason Sinclair - Brujah political manipulator. Jason was the Childe of the Brujah Primogen. The Primogen was fairly weak owing to the fact that the Prince recently killed half his clan in a fit of anger.
Jason didn't present too much of a problem, either. He Bradely O'Neil was one of the Prince's flunkies, so they would have run into each other from time to time.
Dr. Zhou - Tremere Feng Shui expert. An old, Chinese doctor embraced by the Tremere for his occult knowledge.
Once again, it was no great stretch to say he would have known Bradley. The players even went above and beyond the call of duty and made up some personal connections. The Tremere Chantry was in the local university, and Bradley taught a night class. Better yet, my city's Chinatown was within Brujah controlled territory, so Dr. Zhou and Jason had crossed paths on ocassion.
Catlin (who's last name I can't remember) - Ravanos Stripper. (Why Amanda wanted to play a Ravanos Stripper I truly don't know). She was a former blood doll/prostitute. The Ravanos who eventually Sired her used to rent her out to other vampires as food. One of her customers was careless and gave her AIDS. Rather than see her die, her Sire embraced her. Later he regretted wasting perfectly good favors on a "chew toy" and abandoned her.
Catlin's story gave her some great hooks which I'll get into a little later. In the short run, we just needed a reason she'd hang out with all these other vampires. Since Bradley was an agent of the Prince, the players involved decided he got the job of teaching her the ropes after her Sire kicked her out. That put her next to one of my two prime movers, which was good enough for me.
Sir Miles - Gargoyle.
Sir Miles' player wanted him to be an ancient warrior who had been serving the Tremere for centuries. Since I didn't want a 1000 year old warrior of death in my game, I insisted that a huge portion of that time be spent in Torpor. Since I already had a Tremere, a Gargoyle was easy enough to fit in. If nobody had been playing a Tremere, I would have insisted that Miles' player come up with a connection to somebody else.
All in all, they were pretty cohesive, even though there was still a lot of room for conflict. In fact, it wasn't long before a couple of them were plotting to kill each other, but that's a story for another day.
Once you have a loose structure, it's time to start putting the pieces together. If the GM has guidelines follow them. For instance, in the Dungeons and Dragons game I'm playing now, the DM wanted to throw us together in the first adventure. Our pre-game planning was limited to figuring out how we might interact once we actually met. Since one PC was a Northman (and really big and strong) it wouldn't have been a good idea to have another PC who hated the Northmen with unquenchable passion. An initial prejudice would have been fine. In fact, we got a little bit of that kind of thing. But, the players needed to know what to expect going in to avoid hard feelings and player to player misunderstandings.
If the GM doesn't have any preferences, then you can do whatever you want. Try to figure out what's logical based on everybody's characters. In games like Pendragon, your characters might have well all grown up together. It's a good idea to work out these social dynamics early on. I've come up with really cool ideas for my character after hearing another PC introduce an element from his. I personally like to create the closest relationships possible (within reason), but some people like to start off as relative strangers.
Whatever you do, however you do it, you'll eventually end up with a bunch of characters who you know will soon be thrown together. Your next step is to figure out, at least in general, how they're going to interact. This is when you start really comparing histories and doing a bit of character editing.
Going back to the PCs in Now is the Winter, we had five vaguely connected characters. As the PCs played around with their backgrounds, some interesting hooks emerged.
Jason wanted the Brujah to run the city. It had been held by the Ventrue since it was more than a crossroads with two buildings, but everybody needs a dream. In the short term, he just wanted the Brujah to be less weak than they were. Still, his political ambitions were quickly going to bring him into conflict with two other PCs. Anything he did to or around the Prince was going to involve Bradley, since the Prince used Bradley as an agent in any matter he didn't want to risk one of his own clan over. Also, since Chinatown was in the middle of Brujah territory, Jason and Zhou were eventually going to be fighting over a piece of territory.
Dr. Zhou didn't intentionally cross any of the PCs, but the easiest way to work Miles into the rest of the group was to have the Regent put Miles under Dr. Zhou's direction. Zhou was also the Regent's Childe, so she tended to send him on her errands, particularly since she didn't like her Second. That made it easy to tie Zhou to the Prince.
Miles didn't have too many connections. His only real link was to Dr. Zhou. That was OK, since as GM I was able to quickly insert some others. I made sure Miles owed Jason a small Presitation debt in the first session.
Catlin was already connected to Bradely. She looked at him kind of like her Sire early on, and later fell in love with him (more or less, these are vampires we're talking about). She also came up with another cool connection due to one of her Flaws. Catlin was a Plague Carrier. Since she's had AIDS when she was Embraced, there was no easy way to get rid of it, but the Tremere with their blood magic, might know a way. If any Tremere would know, it would be a freaky blood alchemist with all kinds of esoteric medical knowledge. Luckily enough, there was one of those in the city, Dr. Zhou.
Bradely didn't really need any more connections. Almost every PC had some link to him already.
These hooks didn't turn them into a perfect team by any means, but they did establish some initial relationships. Bradely was the natural leader, with Jason always trying to wrest control away from him. Zhou could be counted on to be loyal, but only for as long as the Regent wanted him to. Right there I had a cool dynamic with all three subtly playing against each other. Miles wasn't interested in being in charge, but his ties to Zhou and Jason, along with his natural tendency to want to follow someone, put him in an interesting position during all the power struggles.
And there you have it. A group built this way has some possibilities that a group just thrown together at random doesn't really have. Before I started doing things like this, most of my PCs would interact with NPCs but had relatively little to do with each other. There weren't many in-character conversations between players, particularly in the early stages of the game. That left a lot of burden on the GM if players wanted to play through anything beyond the basics of the "adventure."
In Now is the Winter my players spent almost as much time interacting with each other (arguing, back-stabbing, sharing blood...) as they did talking to NPCs. That turned out to be a good thing, since it gave me time to figure out what was supposed to happen next while they were arguing about it.
The next column in this series will cover roles within the group. It doesn't matter how well integrated your characters are. If they don't have the skills they need to get the job done, they're going to be in trouble. So be sure to tune in for The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker.
See ya' then.
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Hi folks. Welcome back. This is the first totally original column I've written for RPG.net. I'm extending my series on character creation one, and just possibly for two more columns.
Today's topic is adapted characters. Almost everybody gets the idea at some point "wouldn't it be cool to play Wolverine?" or Connor McLeod, or Luke Skywalker, or James Bond, or some other literary character. In superhero gaming it's almost expected some times. In other genres, the possibility hovers like the vision of the Holy Grail, beautiful but unattainable (unless you're Galahad, and then you'll die when you get it).
So, for purposes of discussion, let's assume you want to play some literary figure in an upcoming game. My first piece of advice would be "don't." Outside of some fairly specific circumstances, it hardly ever works.
There are some pretty formidable obstacles. First of all, in most RPGs, characters start at a fairly low level of ability. The heroes of novel, comic, and screen, on the other and, start off at or near the apex of their development. One only has to look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then watch some Young Indiana Jones to see what I mean. (A fact that will become useful later) Most of the time, starting characters simply don't have the capabilities necessary to totally match their literary counterparts. They often can't be as good, or skilled in as many areas. If all your hopes are set on your grizzled bounty hunter being as cool as Boba Fett, you're doomed to disappointment.
Second, in many cases the worlds are different. Characters are partially a product of their environments. The Highlander needs the game. Otherwise he's just a psychotic antiques dealer. Taken out of context, a lot of characters just don't completely work. I could make a short, Canadian assassin with metal laced bones and hand blades in almost any cyberpunk game, but without all that backstory, he wouldn't really be Wolverine. This is less of an obstacle than the first, but you've still got to consider it. A related problem is that, while the background might support someone very much like the character you have in mind, the game doesn't really translate him very well. Going back to my pseudo-Wolverine, I can come very close to simulating all his abilities, but I can't get it exactly without a "Mutant" healing factor. My simulation can have all the concrete abilities (to some degree), but so can anybody else.
Third, most of us aren't really very good actors. (Not you, you're great, I'm sure. But I have to write this for all those other people) A great deal of what makes a character "cool" is the way he's portrayed, even more than anything he does. Look at Boba Fett. In the original movies he gets about four scenes, and in his one fight he gets knocked off the skiff and swallowed by the Sarlacc. He never does anything really amazing, yet he has tremendous mystique. Unless you can pull off that same quiet menace, your armor-clad, weapon-festooned bounty hunter just isn't going to be as cool as Boba Fett no matter how good a shot he is. Even if you can portray a character you created very well, it can be hard to imitate someone else's character. So much of the performance is personal that your portrayal is likely to be different, and possibly disappointing.
So, if you shouldn't simulate characters then what's the point of this column?
I use quite a bit of literary inspiration when I make characters. There are several things you can do that lead to some really interesting characters.
The Early Adventures of...
Remember young Indy? While you probably can't make the fully mature version of a literary character fit into the stats available to a starting PC, you probably can make a younger, less experienced version.
I still don't really recommend this, since it doesn't address the fact that your character doesn't fit into the game world - he belongs in some other world. It would probably work, though. If there's some background element you want to have, just work your way back along the character's life until you get there and see if the less experienced version fits. In some ways, this might be interesting since it lets you play "what if?" Maybe your version will handle a problem better than the original did and go on to an entirely different fate.
I've never done this, but I did once kind of do it the other way around. There was a Vampire Chronicle I played some years ago, troupe style, with vampires who were borderline Elders. I had reason to believe that my current PC was not long for this world, and that it would be a good idea to have one who was a little better at fighting than my Toreador musician.
I had recently seen Lonesome Dove, and read the book. It occurred to me that Agustus McCrea would make a really cool Gangrel. Of course, with an elder's worth of points, I didn't have to make too many adaptations.
I do this a lot. So do a lot of other people. If you can figure out what it is you like about a literary character, sometimes you can distill out those elements and work them into a new character. I do this in supers games sometimes just for the challenge of figuring out how to make an interesting character's powers work in Champions (or Silver Age Sentinels, these days).
More often, I'll just take one or two elements that I thought were cool and try to work them into a fairly original character. I loved Mick Jagger's bounty hunter character in Freejack, and somehow he turned into a Lone Star Combat Mage in the Shadow Run game I was playing. All I really kept was the cool coat and the attitude. Eventually, I ditched the coat, too.
Another Place, Another Time...
This option is really cool, and actually feigns creativity if you don't tell anybody what you've done.
Take a character that really inspires you, then translate him to a totally different environment. Change the details so that they fit the new setting. Depending on how much the backgrounds differ, you might have to change things quite a bit. Find the key points of the character's background, personality, and cababilities, and figure out what those elements do.
Wolverine is a good example. His background is somewhat mysterious (unless you've read Origin, which I haven't). He's a mutant who was forcibly recruited into a secret super-soldier program. We don't know why, how, or by whom. Later on, he was heavily involved in the Yakuza, and is sort of a Ronin. He's got powers that make him a devastating tracker and fighter, almost impossible to kill in human scale combat. He's cynical, violent, and loyal.
So, since I've always liked Wolverine, I want to translate him to some new environment. Cyberpunk is too easy, as I already said. Fantasy is tempting, but I can't think of a system to which he would adapt well for purposes of this example. I love Eden Studios' Witchcraft game, so let's do that one.
Witchcraft has the Combine and various other nasty groups, any of whom would be likely to try to build a cadre of sociopathic, superpowered ninja death warriors. One of them will easily stand in for Weapon: X.
Capabilities are a little harder. Right off the bat, I think Wolverine would do well as a Feral, or with the Disciplines of the Flesh (psychological trauma based shapeshifting, for those not in the know). Either one will give him the raw combat ability. Neither are quite the same as low-end cybernetics and a mutant healing factor, but they have similar effects. Divine Inspiration and Tao Chi won't really work because they require too much willing participation. I'm more familiar with the Disciplines (since my copy of the Abomination Codex never materialized after I ordered it). They also lend themselves more to the kind of torturous process that Weapon: X seemed to be. I can see Combine agents kidnapping likely kids from the streets and subjecting them to horrors just to see if they develop superpowers quite easily.
My Witchcraft-Wolverine isn't likely to be as skilled as the real thing unless we're playing characters built on a lot more points than usual. Wolverine has 50 years or so of experience that I just can't simulate, particularly after I blow all my points on cool magic powers. I could do the longevity thing, (and might buy the increased lifespan just for the heck of it) but I would probably start my Wolvie off fairly soon after his transformation. As a nod to the Samurai part of the original's background, I'd probably make my character have an interest in the martial arts. Maybe he doesn't like the terrible rage inside him, and wants some way to control it. I might say he'd had some kind of ties with the Storm Dragons in the past.
That covers the basics. We've got a rough background, a pretty good idea of where to put the numbers, and, what the personality would be like.
Let's give him a name. Billy Logan. Normally, I wouldn't use a name remotely related to the character I was stealing for one of these things. Doing that kind of rubs everybody's nose in my lack of creativity and runs the risk of turning an otherwise serious character into a joke. But hey, this is just an article, not a real character. (That might be next month, if I'm lucky)
Billy Logan was a kid in trouble. Home was no shelter, so he ended up on the streets, in gangs, and eventually in a Combine laboratory. Somehow, he escaped, or maybe they let him go. His memories of the past are hazy. He knew he had power, and a very strong urge to hurt people who seemed to deserve being hurt.
Since then, he's wandered the country, mostly in the area around wherever the game takes place. Mostly he's been a fighter, and sometimes the line between fighter and assassin has been very thin. Deep down, he wants something better. He wants to find peace. He also wants to find a home.
I'd give him high physical stats, and in deference to his background, I'd make sure he could have claws. He wouldn't have a lot of high skills, other than hand to hand fighting ability - which would be as high as I could possibly make it. I'd also want to be sure to assign a Flaw of an personal nemesis, another survivor of the Combine project who's bigger and stronger, but maybe not quite as skilled. I absolutely wouldn't call Billy's nemesis "Victor Creed." (But I wouldn't resist the urge to use the first and last names of two different members of Creed for his name)
In one way, Billy sort of breaks the rules. Normal Disciples of the Flesh have to dredge up memories of past trauma to activate their shapeshifting powers. Since Billy doesn't really have any clear memories, I'd want to get permission from the GM to say that Billy's memories are disconnected flashbacks that he doesn't really understand. If I was the GM, I'd let me do it.
The end result doesn't look a whole lot like Wolverine, but you can see the resemblances if you know where to look.
Next month is in a bit of a flux. I hope to do the last piece of this series "The Sordid Truth," which will be a more or less step-by-step rendition of me really making a character, along with observations from the other people in the group. That's totally dependent on me getting into a game before the next deadline.
Failing that, we'll be starting a short series on group dynamics.
See ya' then.
Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Personality Based Character Creation
This column finishes up my original four part series on Character Creation. It also finishes up the first four "reprint" articles from Sabledrake. For the next couple of months, at least, we'll be in entirely new territory.
We've done characters based on a set of abilities, on a type of personality, and now we're going to talk about building a character starting with his history. I've only really done this once, so this is the most artificial of my examples.
Step 1: Choose your Background
Obviously, if you want to build a character from the background up, you start with the background. This is more involved than the character story you might write for an average character. You're going to use this background as the framework for everything else you do. It needs to define your character's life in some pretty serious detail, and to connect him to the rest of the campaign.
If you're building a character by beginning with his background, there's probably some compelling reason to do so. Maybe you're making up a character related to another PC, or one who has to fit into a specific slot in the story. That's your starting place. If your new character is supposed to be the long-lost brother of an existing PC, then you should start by examining the existing PC's background. Figure out where the two characters' backgrounds met, and where they diverged. Maybe you're turning an existing NPC into a PC. This really happened to me once, but it's a long story. In this case you probably have some idea of capabilities and personality, but you need to build a history to fit all the bits together. Anyway, find your starting point and work your way into a full background.
Example: Once in my gaming career (not counting all the characters I made up with Central Casting) I built a character by extrapolating everything from a background story. It was in a multigenerational Pendragon game. Sir Cynnon had been a paragon of virtue (really, it was on his sheet). He died on the Night of the Long Knives, along with most of the other PCs, and the game advanced one generation.
In Pendragon, you usually play your dead character's oldest male offspring. Cynnon had two children who I'd never bothered to name, since the eldest was just 3 years old when Cynnon died, and they'd never come up in the game. I hastily decided the eldest was named Morial, and the youngest was named Gwaid.
My starting point was pretty easy. Morial was born to Sir Cynnon, a wealthy Knight in the court of Salisbury. Cynnon owned twelve manors, and split them between both his sons when he died. I knew a few things right off the bat. Morial was going to be a Knight. It's just not much fun to play anything else in a Pendragon game. Morial's father died when he was very young. He had no other adult relatives either. (That last year had been a tough one) so he was probably raised by Sir Cynnon's friend, Sir Anarin, who happened to be the Steward of Salisbury.
Step 2: Building the Frame
Once you have your starting place, work out the major points. Ideas for personality and capabilities will occur to you as you work, since what you're doing is deciding on the experiences that shaped your character's life. Try to make logical decisions, but don't hold yourself back if you get a couple of wild ideas. It's the GM's job to stifle your creativity.
Figure out where your character was born, and under what circumstances. What was his early life like? Were there any really significant events in his childhood? Children are remarkably resilient, but a child who lived through a really traumatic experience was probably marked by it in some way. Even in childhood look for the chance to connect your character to other characters or major game events. Then try to figure out what your character would have taken away from those experiences. You don't need all the answers now, but you should be asking the questions.
Go through your character's entire life up to date. You don't need to chronicle every moment, or even every year, but you should have a decent biographical outline when you're done. You want a pretty good idea of what happened at each stage of your character's life, and what effect those events would have had. That will help you work out the personality and skills and so forth.
Example: Morial's background looks something like this-
- Almost every member of his family died by the time he was 3 years old.
- He was raised by his father's best friend, Sir Anarin, who was also the de facto lord of the land, since the Earl was a child.
- He grew up knowing he'd be a Lord some day.
- He was trained as a Knight and a landowner. Growing up at Court mostly, he also learned a lot about what makes the Earldom tick.
- Nothing really terrible happened after he lost his family. He had a pretty typical lower nobility childhood, except that due to the Roman influence on his lineage he was better educated than most Knights. (He could read Latin)
- Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with Anarin's daughter Anist.
For spice I threw in one big thing. Back in the last generation the last major battle was a Saxon siege on Salisbury, which was only broken when Areuleus and Uther came to the rescue. In the one major battle where the PCs tried unsuccessfully to break the siege, Sir Anarin failed a crucial Passion roll and spent the whole battle hiding in a ditch pretending to be dead. Sir Cynnon was charismatic enough and strong enough to lead our forces on a controlled retreat, and generally kept things together. Everybody would have died, but we were rescued that same day.
Eventually, Sir Anarin returned with a story about how he got hit on the head and knocked unconscious. Everybody welcomed him back, just glad to see he was alive. He took over running Salisbury all through the siege. Shortly later, all the other PCs died on the Night of the Long Knives. Anarin was spared by pure luck. He left the feast early, and wasn't poisoned when everyone else was.
I decided Morial, who was a very perceptive lad, had eventually found an old, drunken knight to tell him the story. He knew the truth, that Anarin had been a coward, and all the glory he got as the "hero of the realm" rightfully belonged to Cynnon. That's actually fairly illogical - but try telling that to an eight-year old who never got to know his father.
That set up a really interesting dynamic once we started the game, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Step 3: Fill in the Blanks
Now you have a fairly complete story, and probably a decent idea of what the character is like. It's time to fill in all the slots on the character sheet. By now you've made most of the big decisions just as a consequence of writing out the character's past. If you decided he was adopted by a ninja clan, then he'd probably better have the skills of a ninja (even though there's no such thing as ninja). If he's part of a family of wizards, then his life is going to be really miserable if he doesn't know any magic - which might be very fun to play. If he's the adopted son of a Kansas farmer then it's up to you to convince the GM about the dying alien planet and the yellow sun thing. Otherwise, he'd probably better join the Marines when he grows up if you want him to be a big, tough adventurer type.
Make the personality fit the background and abilities. A trained warrior is probably not a total pacifist. A lifelong librarian probably doesn't know Hidden Ultimate Ninja Mantis style Kung Fu, and wouldn't want to hit anybody with Dim Mak if she did. (except for those annoying patrons who download AOL Instant Messenger on the public internet terminals - but maybe that's just me) There aren't really a lot of limitations. The world is full of people who had very similar experiences, but totally different personalities.
Example: Pendragon does a lot of the work for you. A child has the same statistics as his father, and almost the entire starting skill selection is based on your background. The GM let us shuffle Passions around quite a bit, since it can be really hard to play a character who's personality was decided by 3d6 rolls.
Where I had room to maneuver, I tried to keep in mind Morial's basic concept, the "sneaky knight." He could fight, but had learned that you got a lot more done by listening and thinking. I gave him a high Intrigue skill, which is used for finding out secrets, and a high Courtesy, to represent his life at court. His combat skills were good enough to get by, but he was a long way from being an epic hero. I gave him a fairly high Battle skill, though since I decided he'd be good at strategy.
The dice gave me a high Love: Family passion, so I decided Morial had always been protective of his little brother. I had a fairly low Loyalty: Lord passion, which fit my ideas perfectly. Morial had never had much luck trusting people in authority. His Loyalty: Group, which represented his loyalty to the other PCs, came out incredibly high. That made things really interesting, since Sir Anarin's son was one of the PCs. He had an obnoxiously high Love: Anist passion. (In fact, that was retro-fitted into the character story after I rolled the Passion, but it works much better for my story if I tell it the other way around) He had a very high Honor Passion, too - which was a good thing, since it kept him from getting too vicious and pragmatic. One of my earlier Pendragon characters was such a bastard that when he got captured once, the other PCs wouldn't go rescue him.
I had to roll his Personality Traits randomly, but I got to assign the results any way I wanted. I put the highest in Valor. Morial wanted to live up to the idealized vision of his father. I gave him a high Just passion, too. I turned around and gave him a fairly low Honest and Merciful. Morial did not lightly suffer fools. It's kind of a tradition with me that all my Pendragon characters have ridiculously high Energetic scores, and it came in really handy for Morial so he could stay up all night spying and scheming.
The final result was a truly good man, but one willing to compromise his morals when he felt the need. He tended to lurk in the shadows, since he thought taking the spotlight was a good way to get killed. Still, he really wanted to be a hero, and would do whatever he had to do in pursuit of a noble goal - even if what he had to do wasn't very noble. He had a vengeful streak, but his anger ran cold rather than hot.
Step 4: Finish Up
File off all the rough edges, and work out the final connections to the rest of the game, and you're pretty much done. Working from the background doesn't leave you much to do at the end, since it forces you to work so logically at the beginning.
Obviously, the GM will want some input. If he doesn't like your story, you can't really move forward at all. It's a good idea to consult with him every step of the way so as to avoid continuity errors. ("Your ninja can't have trained at the Red Dragon Pagoda when he was sixteen. It was destroyed twenty years ago, and he's only twenty-five now. Do you want to make him over forty? I'd be glad to drag out the aging tables...")
Compare your character's story to the other PCs. If you haven't already found a good connection, try to come up with one now. Since most Background characters come up as a response to past game events, this is usually not too much of a problem.
Once you know where he's been, and have a good idea how he got to wherever he starts the game you're ready to go.
Next month we enter some uncharted waters. I have two articles, and I'm not sure which one I'll give you first. Either we'll do "Even Better than the Real Thing" which is about how to adapt a character from another source or we'll do "How it Really Happens," in which I reveal the sordid truth about how I really make up characters, instead of this sanitized, organized facade that I've been showing you.
Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Personality Based Character Creation
Last time I showed you how to create a character starting with his capabilities. This time around we're going to start with his personality. I use a lot of these techniques in all my characters, since with a few exceptions I have a pretty firm idea of the personality I want to play right at the beginning. There's also a lot of crossover to capabilities, since what you can do is a big factor in how you act.
Before I go much further, I'd better explain that I've never made a character based on a deep psychological profile, and that's not what I'm proposing now. A Personality based character starts with more of a character sketch. Many of the specific details won't be available until you get the character's background and capabilities nailed down. The first step of building a Personality based character is less work than either of the other two types. At the beginning you're just going to build a thin framework, which you will be filling in as you go along.
Step 1: The Personality
OK, this part is pretty obvious. Figure out what kind of character you want to play. Some people will say that no matter what you decide, your character is going to be pretty much like yourself. I don't think that's completely true, but I know from experience that it's hard to play someone a lot different. You don't need to make a lot of decisions right now, but there are a few things you need to know.
What's your character's general outlook? Is the glass half empty or half full, or are you just going to drink whatever's left to forestall the argument? Are you going to play a trusting character, or a suspicious cynic? Very little of this aspect will make it onto your character sheet in most games, but in some ways it's the most important aspect. Your character's general outlook should be played out in almost everything he does.
Since I love to throw in personal stories, I'll elaborate. In a VLARP I played some time ago, my character was Tybalt St. Croix, a Ventrue who should have really been a Brujah. His Nature was Martyr, and his Demeanor was Bravo. He acted tough and violent, but it was really an expression of his desire to protect his friends.
A perfect bit of roleplaying came up about near the end of a really climactic arc. Some powerful force was messing with all the Kindred of the city by opening magical portals, kidnapping Vampires and torturing them for information. In the session in question, Tybalt saw an open portal. Before this session, the gates were always too far away for him to reach.
This time, I grabbed a Storyteller and said "I jump through the portal." I had to tell him three times before he believed me.
I only figured out later how much of that came from Tybalt's personality. On the surface he was murderously angry at whoever had been kidnapping other Kindred. They'd killed the Prince recently, and Tybalt was very loyal to the Prince. On a deeper level, he knew eventually one of the PC's would have to go through one of the gates, and he wanted to be the one - so that nobody else would have to face the danger.
How honorable is your character? Does he live by a strict code, or the law of the jungle? Does he strive for justice, or just for himself? Maybe he tries to be honorable, but doesn't have a lot of willpower. Maybe he pretends to be cynical and cruel, but really has a heart of gold. Like his general outlook, your character's moral outlook will come out more in play than in statistics, but a lot of games do have rules to cover things like codes of honor. Besides, you can use this information to help point you to your character's chosen career. A deeply honorable, honest man is more likely to be a cop than a con artist.
What's his thought process like? Is he deep and philosophical? Brooding? Shallow and irresponsible? Is he very patient, or rash and impulsive? These decisions will help you decide how to flesh out his capabilities. If he's an intellectual, he probably doesn't spend a lot of time at the gym. If he doesn't have much focus, he probably hasn't spent much time at anything, but might have a lot of skills at a fairly low level, gained as he studied until he got bored.
Example: My Personality Based character is Max. Max is short for "Maximum." He was a teenaged superhero for a Champions game. His real name was Patrick Stevens, but he'll be eternally known as Max. Most of my characters are brooding, melancholic types who are deeply concerned with honor and responsibility, so just for a change I wanted to try somebody who didn't care about any of that. Max was the perfect choice. He's was typical "popular" kid, convinced that he's the center of the universe, and totally invulnerable. He was egotistical, irresponsible, and overconfident. He tended to go through girlfriends like tissues, since he was attractive and popular, but so shallow that most of them wouldn't want to hang around long.
Step 2: Definition
There are two ways you can go here. If, by now, you have a pretty good idea of the attributes you'd like, you can just skip to the capabilities, then write a background that fits them. On the other hand, you might want to work on the character's past for a while. As you figure out what experiences shaped your character, you'll know what he's had a chance to learn.
A dark, brooding avenger has probably been deeply wronged in the past. Figure out when that happened. Were his parents killed in a mugging on the way home from the movies? Maybe his whole family got caught in a mob shoot-out in the park. What if his father was a great sword maker, and an evil duelist killed him in a dispute over the price of an exquisite sword?
Your character's personality won't tell you what all the details of his background should be. Try to make logical decisions, but don't worry too much yet. People from all walks of life have all sorts of personalities. Two different people may have a very similar experience and come away with very different results.
With some ideas about the character's past, you can start filling in concrete details. You'll know where he came from, where he went, what he did, what he learned. Always try to remain true to your initial concept, but if you find it changing don't worry too much. My last Amber PbeM character, Miranda, is a great case in point. I started with a sketch of her background and a general personality. By the time I was done, her background bore almost no resemblance to my original ideas. If the Miranda I ended up playing had ever met the Miranda I thought up in the first place, she would have thought the "original" Miranda was a terrible wimp. She would have probably stole the original version's stuff, too, just to keep in practice.
Choose abilities in keeping with your concept. A brooding warrior had probably better be able to fight. A happy-go-lucky thief had better be good at running, and probably hasn't studied the art of poisoning. A quiet intellectual probably has a lot of knowledge, but maybe not a lot of charisma.
Example: My typical characters have fairly exotic backgrounds. Ghost, from the previous column, was a member of his tribe's most important clan. Often my characters have fairly convoluted backstories. In keeping with my attempt to go against type with Max, I gave him the most whitebread background I could think of. He grew up in the suburbs of the campaign city to a pair of yuppie parents. He had a little sister, but no other close family. He went to public school, and wasn't part of the Honors program - much to his parents' disappointment.
I knew he was going to be in good shape. In fact, I was starting to get an idea of his powers, and he was going to be in REALLY good shape. I decided he played football. He was also in a garage band. Given his age and training (or lack there of) it didn't make sense for him to have a lot of specialized knowledge or special skills. On a whim I decided he'd know American Sign Language. (Retroactively, his little sister became deaf) Other than that, he knew what just about any other teenager would know.
Since Max was going to be a superhero, I gave some thought to his powers. He was no great thinker, so I rejected Mentalist and Gadgeteer. Martial Artist was also not a good choice, because that would have involved a very different background, and a somewhat different personality than I had in mind. Belief in his own invulnerability was a big part of Max's personality, so I decided I wanted to make that as true as possible. I figured Max was going to be a Brick or an Energy Projector. Super Speedster might have been a good choice, but I personally don't think Super Speedsters work very well as RPG characters. It's hard to adapt a speedster into turn based combat.
Step 3: Putting it all together
The last big step is to weld all your ideas into a coherent character. Right now you have a bunch of loosely connected facts and concepts that you need to transform into a finished character. How you do that will all depend on your game's character creation process. You can probably have just about any attributes you want, within the limits of the game. Obviously if you wanted your character to be really clever, it wouldn't make sense to give him a lower than game average intelligence. Similarly, if you were planning to make a grim warrior, you'd be ill served by giving your character low physical attributes.
Skills also have a lot of leeway. Unless there's something just screaming against it in your background, you can probably do just about whatever you want. The background you built to go with your personality will give you a lot more guidance than the personality will. Choose abilities based on what makes sense for your character. As much as you might want the Occult skill, your hard nosed, atheist cop who doesn't believe in anything he can't see and touch probably doesn't have it. Of course, if he's a Scully like skeptic, he might have studied the Occult so he could debunk it, but that's a little different.
Example: With Champions, you can do just about anything. I always start my Champions characters from the Disadvantages. It's a habit, more than anything. The ones that really stand out were:
- Overconfident - well duh.
- Enraged: when losing - Max was very competitive. He tended to fly off the handle when he felt like he was being beaten.
- Dependent NPC: Girlfriend of the Week - I made it clear to the GM that it would hardly ever be the same girl twice. He loved it.
- Hunted: Personal Nemesis - I left this undefined initially. The GM chose one of our first enemies, who managed to steal Max's Air Jordans. It was hate at first sight.
He was also Watched by the government, and had a bunch of other campaign specific disadvantages.
For Attributes, I gave Max high physical attributes, a good Presence, and a really high Comeliness. I wanted him to be the ultimate high-school hero type. If Dawson's Creek had superheroes, he could have been on the cast. His Intelligence and Ego were merely average. I didn't make him stupid, just not particularly clever. I also bought up his figured stats a little, giving him more Physical Defense, Stun, and Endurance.
After Attributes, I usually do Powers, which eats the bulk of my points. (Hey, it's a game about super heroes) I wanted Max to be strong, flashy, and nigh invulnerable. The Reign of the Supermen story had just finished in DC comics, which introduced me to the new Superboy. One of my hobbies is trying to figure out how to simulate weird powers in Champions, and Superboy's "Tactile Telekinesis" seemed like the perfect choice.
Max ended up with an Elemental Control with Flight, Force field, and Telekinesis (Touch Only). I decided not to follow Superboy's powers to the extent of making the Force field only vs. Physical attacks, partly because I didn't want to go to the trouble, and partly because I didn't want Max to get roasted alive the first time he ran into an Energy Projector. I also decided a glowing force field would be cool, and that seemed to be more energy based to me.
I also wanted Max to be a little unsure of the limits of his powers. He was just starting to figure this stuff out, so I added a Multipower with a hefty Activation roll to it. (Translation, the powers in the Multipower didn't always work.) The Multipower slots were a little additional Telekinesis, some extra Non-combat Velocity on his flight ("Time for Maximum Speed.") and a big No Range Energy Blast he could add to his telekinetic punch ("Maximum Force.")
I moved away from the Superboy model to turn Max into a more traditional Energy Projector. His powers had been initially awakened by his athletic exertions, so they molded themselves around his body, but what he really had was access to one of those implausible comic book energy sources that does all kinds of neat stuff. Had the game gone on long enough, he might have eventually learned to project his power beyond his body (by buying off the Touch Only limits to his traditionally ranged powers). I was also thinking about something like Life Support or Regeneration.
With whatever paltry points are left I buy skills and advantages. Champions characters don't tend to have a lot of skills, and Max was no exception. I gave him Athletics, and gave him the Professional Skill: Musician at a pathetically low level. Later on, Max decided he wanted to be on TV. I was going to buy the Professional Skill: Acting, but the GM suggested Familiarity: Acting, which has a lower chance of success so he could be an Action star instead. None of the Advantages really fit, except for Luck, which was too expensive to be worth it. He came from a middle-class background, so additional wealth wasn't appropriate. He also wasn't likely to know anybody important enough to take as a contact or to take Favors from. He also didn't have any special equipment except for a new Ford Mustang convertible.
That was pretty much it. Unlike most of my characters, he didn't have a dark past where evil forces had killed everyone he loved. He grew up in a California suburb where his dad was a real-estate agent and his mom was a paralegal or something. Nothing all that exciting had ever happened to him until he figured out that he could bench-press a Volvo and fly. Unlike most people, his first thought wasn't to put on a spandex suit and fight crime. His first thought was that now it would be really easy to get onto the Varsity football team. He was the only sophomore who got to start. He only decided to be a superhero to impress one of his girlfriends when he found out she was a member of some established superhero's fan-club.
I liked Max. I kind of miss him.
So anyway, that's our show for this evening. Tune in next time and I'll show you the most challenging process of all, building your character from the Background out.
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
Hi. Thanks for coming back. Last time I broke down the keys to making sure your character would fit well into your game. That's all well and good, but now you need to actually make the character. Every character has three aspects, like the legs of a three- legged stool. (You all remember that stupid analogy from US Government class, right?)
First, you have your character's capabilities: attributes, skills, advantages and disadvantages, or whatever else the game calls them. These represent what your character can and can't do. The rules of the game probably have quite a bit to say about your character's capabilities. In fact, you could argue that the main point of character creation is to define them.
Second, you have your character's personality: what he thinks, and how he acts. Most games are pretty thin on rules for personality. If you're not free to make most of your character's personal decisions you're not really role-playing. Your character's personality is at least as important as his capabilities. Even if you're just playing another version of yourself, you need to consider how your character would interact with is world.
Finally, there's background: where your character comes from and what he did before you started playing him. In some games, background isn't all that important. Your character's backstory may not be very related to the greater story of the game you're playing. In the best games I've played, though, character background was woven into the story, which made the Player Characters' involvement much more personal.
Capabilities, personality, and background all blend together in the finished character, and there's not really any way to separate them. If your character knows how to kill people fourteen different ways with a spoon, he probably picked up that interesting talent, and the experience would have had some effect on his psychological makeup. That said, for the purposes of these articles, I'm splitting them up.
I'm going to take one aspect of the character and show you how to extrapolate the other two from the chosen aspect. I doubt that you'll ever make up a character exactly the way I'm going to describe. In fact, the examples I'm going to give you are slightly modified. The idea here is to isolate each element so you can see what effect they have on each other.
And we're going to start with what my friend Chris calls "Twinking for fun and profit," or, in other words . . .
Capability Based Character Creation
About half of the characters I create are based first on their capabilities. I figure out what kind of character I'd like to play: a fighter, a sneak, a healer or whatever. Then I come up with a story to fit what I have in mind. A lot of the time, I only have a vague idea of the kind of character I want to play and the background and personality help me fill in the details.
The process is pretty simple, even if I hardly ever do it in exactly this order:
Step 1: Define Capabilities.
The first step is to figure out what you want your character to do. Depending on what kind of game you're playing, this could be highly detailed, or you might be better off with a rough description. Your primary goal is to come up with exactly the sort character you want to play, but as I discussed in the last article, you should probably leave a little room for maneuvering later on.
Don't just focus on one thing. Very few real people, or literary characters for that matter, only have a single skill. Even the most focused warrior has to know how to get along with a few people, and the most academic and sedentary wizard probably has at least one hobby besides occult lore.
Example: One of my friends decided she wanted to run a Tribe 8 game. (For those of you not familiar with Tribe 8, click here to go to the Dream Pod 9 website on the subject) I'd never played Tribe 8 before, so I poured through the player section of the book to get a feel for the game. I saw lots of stuff that interested me. Too much, really. My character in the last game I played was a physically weak psychic.
I finally decided just to play someone as different from that character as possible. A random doodle during church one morning provided me with a picture of a lean, broad-shouldered warrior with tiger stripe tattoos and a long topknot. I decided he was the character I was going to play. I gave him the name "Ghost" because I thought it sounded cool.
Looking at the picture, I had a big guy with a bigger sword. Obviously he was a swordsman. I gave him a fairly high strength, and a high agility in keeping with his tiger-like physique and appearance. His Melee skill was going to be his highest. My earlier character had been a Psychic, so I decided not to give Ghost any supernatural abilities.
Actually assigning the stats occurred a little later on, but I already knew what I was going for. Ghost was going to be a Fallen, since the game was about a group of Fallen. I decided he'd need a way to make a living, so I gave him metalsmithing and weaponsmithing skills. Then, just for fun, I gave him a little skill in music. It was a nice non-violent touch for a very combat focused character.
Step 2: Extrapolation.
The second step is to extrapolate the background and personality from the ability set. You have to come up with a background that fits your character's stats, and a personality that would logically come from that background.
The background is probably easiest, particularly if your character is based around an unusual ability like psychic powers or magic. Even if you're just playing a normal fighter, he had to learn his skills from somewhere, and that can give you the core of your background.
During this phase, you might find yourself changing your character's abilities a little bit. You might find out that warriors from the culture you choose always have a particular weapon proficiency that you didn't take, or maybe they're forbidden to do something else you wanted your character to be able to do. You can either alter your character's background, or change his abilities. Usually by this stage you have a pretty good idea what you want, so the choice shouldn't be too hard.
With the background and the capabilities designed, the personality is fairly easy. Unless your background is really constraining, you can probably do just about whatever you want. You have some guidelines, though. Your character comes from a homeland, he has some kind of occupation, and he's learned some things.
Ask yourself what someone from his background might be like. Stereotypes aren't a final goal, but they're a great starting place. Maybe you'll be inspired to play a humorous, light-hearted Dwarf, just because nobody will expect it. Maybe you'll decide to play a French-American Vampire from New Orleans who was embraced by an ancient French nobleman, but who doesn't really mind being an unholy creature of the night. Then again, maybe you'll just go for a fairly typical personality.
Often, I only have a vague idea of my character's personality. As I play, I build a more detailed picture. I also usually leave the exact details of the backstory to the very end to avoid painting myself into a corner, and to give myself the chance to take advantage of any new information that comes my way. It's almost always a good idea to find ways to link your character's backstory to the stories of some of the other players if you can.
Example: I decided Ghost would be a Joanite Jacker, a warrior from a tribe of warriors. One of the themes of Tribe 8 is that the Fatimas (demigods) who all the Tribes worship aren't behaving the way they're supposed to. Since Joan was the Fatima most concerned with honor, I decided Ghost would have fallen over a matter of honor. I ruthlessly plagerized a story from the core rulebook and changed it to fit my purposes.
In the original story, an innocent young Joanite was killed during a ritual combat when Joan caused her sword to break. In my version, Ghost (then named Justin Guy'on) was her opponent. When her blade shattered, he refused to kill her and was exiled for disobedience.
Ghost's personality seemed to be heavily based on Honor. He was trapped in a conundrum. Joan was supposed to be the very definition of honor, yet she ordered him to do something dishonorable. His world was shattered, and he was trying to figure out what he should do, or if he could even exist, without Joan. This gave me a very interesting game goal.
Ghost really wants to find a way to make Joan be honorable again, because that way his world will make sense. The goal is probably beyond him, but even failing at it will make him interesting to play. I'd always intended for him to be a Jacker, so I decided he didn't feel great anger toward Joan. That would have made him more like a Herite.
Step 3: Finishing.
The last step is to make all three parts fit together. You might end up changing a few things, adding some and taking away others. You'll probably want to change your background rather than your capabilities, but don't get too attached to any one aspect. The better made your character is, the more fun he will be to play.
Example: Ghost was almost finished. I decided to give him a Dependant NPC for a few extra points so I could get my skills exactly the way I wanted them. The GM and I worked out Dara, a Fallen Magdelite who took Ghost in when he first Fell. He felt very protective of her (actually, he was in love with her, but he was a big, gruff warrior with little emotional awareness so it took him three months to figure that out).
To make his Fall all the more dramatic, I made him a member of a noble family. I wanted him to use a Bastard Sword, but the basic rules didn't have stats for one. They did have stats for a Katana, so the GM let me have one of those. That wasn't a common weapon for a Tribal warrior to have, so we came up with a neat little story where he found the sword on the body of a dead man while riding a patrol. The fact that he learned how to use it set him apart from his relatives a little, foreshadowing his eventual exile from the Joanites.
The GM and I worked out the final details. Justin Guy'on spared Simone Jacobi'on on the Killing Floor and just walked out of Tribal lands in a state of shock. Everybody was too surprised to stop him. Still in shock, he met Dara and was attacked by a pack of wild dogs. While protecting the girl from the dogs, Justin was wounded. Dara took him back to her home and nursed him back to health, then helped him recover from his Fall (which was a psychic trauma).
Originally, Justin had been wandering with the intent to go into Z'bri lands and fight whatever he found until something killed him. Dara convinced him that there was still something worth living for. He decided he would live for killing the Z'bri, not just one or two, but the entire race. He took the name "Ghost" to symbolize his death to his prior life.
Dara lived in a squalid little hut, and winter was coming on, so when Ghost found work as a blacksmith's assistant, he invited Dara to live with him. That was pretty much it. Ghost worked in the shop and was waiting for an opportunity to strike a true blow against the Z'bri.
All right. There's Ghost. Next time I'll start with character personality and show you how to come up with a story and a set of capabilities that fit whatever sort of personality you want to play. I'd really like to hear from some of you. I post my E-mail address for feedback purposes.
Sabledrake also has a great Discussion Room function. Ya'll should check it out. I'd love to see some public discussion of my ideas (even if you don't agree with them). You can also let me know what other topics you'd like to see covered in "The Play's the Thing." I'll take a stab at just about any subject some of you would like to read about.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
Welcome to my first article. I'd like to thank you in advance for reading. "The Play's the Thing" is an interesting project for me. I started it over a year ago on Sabledrake Magazine. If you're really impatient, you can go over there and read ahead. You won't get everything, though, since I'm writing some columns exclusively for RPG.net, and I'm editing these a little. While you're there, go read my serial novel, Changeling Seed. It's in the first year archives.
But that's not why we're here, so let's get back to business. The Play's the Thing is about the player's job in an RPG. There are hordes of GM advice columns, but I haven't run across a lot of advice aimed at the players. Of course the GM has a lot more to do than any single player, so maybe that's fair, but I still think there's room for some player advice.
I'm not egotistical enough to say I can make you a better gamer, but I hope my ideas can help you, or maybe just show you an interesting way of looking at things. What I plan to do is take a single aspect of playing RPGs and look at it in different ways. The first four columns are about character creation. I have ideas for columns on group dynamics, character development, and possibly on playing in different genres, but that's a long way off.
Before we begin though, I'll tell you a little about myself. I've been gaming for over 20 years. My first game was Dungeons & Dragons. I played all through junior high and high school, moving gradually into science fiction, superheroes, cyberpunk, and horror.
Most of the ideas I'm going to talk about in this column emerged during a very long Shadow Run game that I started GM-ing in 1991 and played all through 92. In that time our group moved through two GM's and started on a second generation of characters. All of us were in college, with sufficient control over our own lives that if we wanted to spend all weekend gaming nobody could really stop us. Naturally, we played a lot. It was fun, possibly the most fun I've ever had gaming.
I'm more of a writer than an actor, so I spend a lot of time defining things, working out their details, and describing them. I tend to write tons of things that the other players never see, just to get into character. When I'm the GM, I try to integrate all the elements of the game the same way I put together all the elements of a story when I'm writing. Then, if I'm lucky, the rest is pretty easy. All the pieces fit together so well that the game just runs itself.
I also believe the most important thing in any game is the Player Characters. If the game was a movie, they should be the first people to get their names in the credits. Otherwise, the game should be focusing on the people who would. So, what better place to start than...
The theme for next four columns is character creation. Part 1 will cover how to integrate a character into the game. Parts 2, 3, and 4 will describe different philosophies of character creation.
To create a character as an integrated part of the story, you need to keep three sets of people in mind. First, you need to work within the GM's guidelines. Second, you need to create a character who works well with the other characters. Finally, you need to create a character who you will enjoy playing. ("Well, duh," you say, but you'll see what I mean later.)
I begin with the GM because he is, arguably, the most important person in the game. He creates the whole world and comes up with most of the events in it. Obviously if your character is made up contrary to his requirements, you're going to have problems.
Most GM's don't sit around making up restrictions on character creation just to annoy their players. Players are so easy to annoy that it's not worth the effort. When the GM limits character choices, he usually has a reason.
Sometimes the GM will limit character choices so that all the PC's will fit into the story he intends to run. For example, take a Star Wars game. Star Wars is a nearly limitless setting, with potential for a wide variety of characters. However, if the GM is running a game about Imperial Military cadets who realize the Empire is wrong and defect, all the PC's will have to be human, mostly male, and of military background. None of them should have much Force training, either. Lots of other people exist in the Star Wars universe, but none of those characters would be appropriate to that specific game.
The plot doesn't have to be quite that restrictive, but most games that have a more coherent basis than "you all meet in a tavern…" will have some limits on acceptable character types. Here's an example from my sordid gaming past.
About a year ago I tried to set up a Changeling game. My Chronicle concerned the fictional city of Scarborough, which was a Duchy in the Kingdom of Pacifica. The plot was going to be about the sudden disappearance of all the Grump Nobles, which would cast the city into chaos. I told the players they were supposed to play young nobles, mostly Knights & Squires, but some more powerful nobles would be fine. I asked them for concepts.
A little over a week later, I had a collection of concepts for several people who would logically hang out with some Faerie nobles, but nobody was playing a noble. Not one character had the Title or Freehold advantages.
I could have still run the game, but it would have looked a lot different. Commoners would get a different reception from local nobles, and would have different standards of behavior. Without Freeholds to protect, there was nothing to keep the Company in one place, which was something I wanted. In some ways, not having at least one noble would have made the game a lot harder. Commoners wouldn't be able to issue orders or command troops, which meant I'd have to work around those parts of the plot.
Anyway, we negotiated for quite a while. In the meantime, someone else ran a pretty rocking Pendragon game, and eventually my Changeling Chronicle turned into a Vampire game, which was a lot of fun, but totally different.
A lot of times, the GM will restrict access to some types of characters because they unbalance the game. A World of Darkness game might be open to Vampires, Wraiths, and Changelings, but not to Garou and Mages. Both of the latter have the ability to span worlds in ways that the three former do not. Besides, at low levels a Garou is a lot stronger than any other starting level character, and from mid to high levels, a Mage is vastly superior to any other character. With a little work the Kindred, Wraiths, and Changelings fit together. (It sounds like a weird game to me, though.)
Superhero games have a lot of balance issues. In the comics Superman and Batman can team up because the writers can manipulate things so that both characters get a chance to shine. In a game, the GM has it a little harder. While Batman is The Detective, one of the smartest guys alive, the guy playing him in your game didn't have the luxury of watching his incredibly wealthy parents get gunned down in a mugging. He's probably not much smarter than the guy playing Superman, and Superman is built on five zillion points.
Sometimes the GM won't let you play something just because he doesn't like it. While this is arbitrary and somewhat unfair, it is not wise to fight too much over these issues. If the GM doesn't like your character type, he's probably going to be harder on you than he would otherwise be. Besides, sometimes his opinions have good reasoning behind them.
When I ran Shadow Run, I never allowed any PC Deckers. The reason was simple. The Matrix rules were slow and clunky, so for the Decker to get to do his thing, I had to leave the rest of the players hanging for long periods of time. On the other side of the coin, the Decker wasn't good for much in social situations, or in combat, so his player would be bored whenever the other players were doing their things.
Eventually, my players started getting interested in the Matrix, so I compromised. I wrote set of quickie Matrix rules to handle things like trying to override the security on a door and so-forth, and allowed "split-class" Deckers. A couple of the interested players had their characters take up Decking as a sideline to their usual activities. If they wanted to do dedicated Matrix runs, we handled them as one-on-one sessions. Otherwise I just used a simple skill check system.
Several other GM's I've talked to use the same general guidelines. A PC who's designed not to interact with the rest of the group is kind of annoying.
As a side note, I don't mind Netrunners in Cyberpunk. The Cyberpunk Net rules are a little more flexible, and the Decker can practically go on the run with the rest of the team. SR3 may have gotten past most of my objections, too. I haven't had the chance to play it yet.
The Other Players
The fact that you need to get along with the other players is just as obvious as the fact that you need to stay on the GM's good side. There are two big issues you need to consider about the other players. The first is Character Ability. The second is Personality.
Ideally, every character in your party will have a specialty. The group will need a wide range of abilities in order to be successful, and no single character is likely to be powerful enough to possess them all. Specialization is the key. In D&D this is spelled out for you. The Fighter fights. The Thief steals. The Wizard casts spells, etc...
There's some overlapping, but in general every character class has a role. So long as the Players pick different classes, there's not likely to be any problems. In games without a class system, it's more confusing.
When you're designing your character, it's a good idea to talk to the other players. Each of you should pick a role to fill. If two of you want to play the "Magician," you should try to come up with sufficiently different Magicians that they're not just carbon copies of each other.
This is the one that's going to get me into trouble. Most gamers I know get a little hostile when someone suggests that they should play their characters differently than they are. I do it myself. Nevertheless, it's a sad truth that sometimes a character who's being roleplayed really, really well is still disruptive to the game.
The primary example is the crazy character. Dragonlance Kinder, Vampire: the masquerade Malkavians, and similar characters have some degree of insanity built into them. Too many players portray these characters as utter clowns.
When you're playing a weird character, try to find a way to portray his weirdness so that it enhances the game rather than disrupting it. If you get the choice, pick personality quirk that makes your character more dramatic. I briefly played a Malkavian named Piper in a LARP. Piper dressed in a ragged jacket covered in buttons with cute sayings on them like "Maybe I'll become an evil genius and destroy the world, and then I'll feel better." He played a bamboo flute, and never spoke. He pantomimed everything and looked really pathetic.
If that was all there was to Piper he'd have been cute, but ultimately annoying, and he wouldn't have really added anything to the game. But there was more. Piper was a Sabbat infiltrator. His real derangement was Regression. Whenever he was in serious danger he would curl up into a little ball and cry, and couldn't really remember what had happened if he survived it. His whole silent clown persona was an act designed to get people to underestimate him. Everybody thought he was harmless. I overheard all sorts of juicy gossip while sitting in the corner playing the flute. Beyond that, I managed to win the protection of one of the city's Primogen, and I got to vote in a Conclave. Nobody ever thought to ask me where I came from or who my sire was.
Meanwhile, I was passing along everything I heard to the Sabbat. In one session I got the names of all the Primogen, and cracked the Prince's mortal ID. Later on, acting on my information, the Sabbat nearly killed half the vampires in the city by blowing up one of the Elyssium buildings.
I was one session away from getting the Prince to take me home with her before the game broke up and we shifted to Mind's Eye Theater, Revised. Pity.
The point is, though, that Piper was a very effective part of the game because I made sure he would be. He was originally a "throwaway" character I was just playing for a few sessions until I could work in my serious character, so I could have just played him for laughs. Indeed, a lot of people liked Piper - even after they found out he was the one who tried to blow them up.
After the weirdo, the next really problematic personality is the Loner. The problem with Loners is they're really attractive to play. They have great dramatic potential, and they're well represented in the literature. It's a lot of fun to portray the hard-bitten cynic who wants nothing but to be left alone, and relies on no one but himself. Unfortunately, your character has to work with a group of other characters.
The key to pulling off the Loner is to build certain hooks into his background so that he will be forced to put aside his misanthropic ways and cooperate. In the X-Men movie, Wolverine is a great loner, but he's too good a guy, deep down, to leave Rogue by the side of the road in the snow. Once he's taken responsibility for her, he never lets it go, even when he's seen her safely in Xavier's. He's still a loner, but he'll work with the other X-Men because he knows he needs their help.
You can use several traits to get around your loner's isolationist tendencies without compromising his personality. A Code of Honor is good, as is some sort of obligation. Maybe your character is a Samurai, and his Shogun ordered him to work with the other PC's. He doesn't have to like them, but he does have to stay with them. Possibly shared goals are enough. Maybe in your character's background an evil overlord killed his little sister. If said evil overlord is one of the group's enemies, the loner might join up with them for a better shot at revenge. If one of the PC's happens to remind him of his slain sister, he's almost certain to remain.
There's no reason not to play him as very independent, either. Just keep in mind that when you run off on your own the GM is likely to spend more time with the other players. Try to handle your solo operations one-on-one with the GM outside the regular session if possible.
Finally, purely psychopathic or sociopathic characters are hard to work into a group (except in certain games). If you insist on playing a cold-blooded murderer, and the rest of the group isn't of like mind, don't be surprised if your character ends up being sent to jail or killed by his supposed allies.
It's actually pretty unlikely that you need help with making up a character you enjoy, but there are a couple of things to look out for.
The One Trick Pony
When you're making up a character, you should try to make up a reasonably well-rounded individual. It's perfectly OK to make up the super swordsman for a fantasy game, but if all he's good for is swinging his sword, he's going to be pretty boring most of the time. You should think about what else your swordsman would have learned. If he's a nobleman, he should be reasonably adept at court. If he learned to fight as a bandit, maybe he's had dealings with the underworld. He should probably have a little bit of Healing or First Aid or whatever no matter what.
Fun to Write, No Fun to Play
This has only happened to me a few times. I've had a couple of characters who were really interesting to write, but when it came time to play them I didn't enjoy it. One was too much of a jerk for me to ever get sympathetic about. One was very logically just too boring to do much with. A third one just scares me. I still hear her voice in the dark of the night, and she won't go away...
Anyway, the point is make sure you'll enjoy acting out the actions and thinking the thoughts of your character. If things go well, you'll be hanging around with the guy for a long time.
OK, I've said quite a bit about what not to play, and why you shouldn't play it, but now it's time to talk about what you want. You should always get to play a character you enjoy, otherwise, why play at all? Here are a couple of tactics for getting what you want.
First, figure out what you really want. Develop the personality you want to play, a rough idea of the characteristics and abilities, and a background. At the beginning, all three should be somewhat separate. Any of the three might not work out, so you need to be ready to compromise. Generally, if the GM has objections they'll relate to your character's stats or his background. If you don't get too attached to any one aspect of your character in the early stages, you should be able to keep a finished product that looks pretty much like what you had in mind.
Second, offer some choices. When I go into a game these days, I usually outline three or four characters, any one of whom I'd enjoy playing. That way the GM can pick the one he likes best. I can also choose the one that works best with the other players without having to wait until everybody else is done to make up my character. Making several characters also keeps me from getting too attached to any one idea. Of course every so often I end up with three characters I really want to play, and I can only play one.
I hope the guidelines above are useful to you. The next three columns will focus on different aspects of character creation. After that, I'll do four RPG.net exclusive columns. I don't have topics for those yet. I'm open for suggestions. In fact, what I'd like to do is write the RPG.net exclusive columns based on your input. Let me know in the forum, or by private e-mail, if there's anything you're particularly interested in.
See you soon.
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