Part of the whole~

Weak Analogies and Misdirection:


I love reading old pulp stories. Even though I live in an apartment with virtually no convenient storage or display space, on the other side of the Earth from the bunker in which all my other cool stuff is kept, I still have literal stacks of pulps from the likes of Maxwell Grant, Norvell Page, and Lester Dent, among others. While I rarely run an out-and-out pulp game [and in fact find them to be quite difficult to run], I do feel that a lot of the character and group construction of this form of fiction translates directly to table-top gaming.

I do not want to rehash all the well-known advice and truisms about how each character needs to occupy a special niche in the group, and how each player needs a chance for their character to shine, but I may come perilously close to that territory as this entry progresses. For all their fame, these two bits of advice do not seem to get followed nearly as much as they are repeated.

I agree whole-heartedly that a good playing group can be constructed from a group of individual characters, each with their own specialized skill or area of expertise. Most pulps which feature a team of individuals, such as in titles like Doc Savage, The Avenger, or The Shadow, have a motley assortment of agents bound together by one or more common ties, and demarcated by their world-class excellence in one field or other. The classic group, in my opinion, is Doc Savage’s.

Monk, Renny, Ham, Long Tom, and Johnny are experts world-renowned in the fields of chemistry, construction engineering, the law, electrical engineering, and archaeology respectively. Coupled with their leader’s excellence in damn near everything, they are a force with which to be reckoned. In addition to their occupational niche, each character is also easily identified by a remarkable appearance, no less intense than that of the Man of Bronze himself. This is a team built of real individuals, bound together first by loyalty to Doc, then by a united purpose, and fast friendship – despite all the teasing banter to the contrary. The Avenger and The Shadow have no less remarkable members in their cadres of assistants, but have an even greater dependence on their leader to remain together. It is an approach which works, and when it works, works well…in fiction.

The weakness of this approach is that in the hands of players, or as a result of a waiving of review by the GM, characters who have no business associating with each other, and who have no ties binding them together end up competing for game time, and constantly going off in separate directions to resolve separate agendas unless the players opt to ignore the specific traits of the characters they have designed and have them conform to the restrictions of the plot or setting for out-of-game reasons of their own. The reason I single out Doc’s band of companions is primarily because they associate together as friends and colleagues, unlike the Shadow’s crew of agents, but despite this friendship, most – if not all – of them would drift apart were it not for the force of personality and the dedication toward the goal of justice which Savage represents. The glue that binds the group together is almost entirely external, and even in the series itself, these characters diminish in prominence one by one, until they become little more than guest stars. Whether that external reason to operate together is a leader, a quest, or a circumstance, its removal is also the de facto end of the group.

Obviously then, in an RPG group, time has to be spent on creating more durable and interesting hooks than this. The characters need a combination of internal and external reasons to be together and stay together as a team. If they do not: there is no game. Shouldn’t this be obvious? Why isn’t it obvious?

…I digress.

There is something to be said for the team that is actually a team. What I mean by that is:

  • the group of men who grew up together, faced the terrors of the local dungeon together, gathered all the loot together, and who are now tromping through the world looking for butts to kick and loot to take.
  • a team of professionals who take on dangerous jobs no one else can handle
  • a bunch of bored dilettantes who dress up in silly costumes and masks to fight crime
  • a family
  • etc~

The overt team is not a necessity, though. All that is required is that the group sits down and shares enough about the types of characters that they want to play, and enough about the types of stories that they want to participate in/create, that each player can design and incorporate character elements which work in concert to promote group cohesion and interesting interaction.

I want to play an assassin:

Quite honestly, I was that guy who wanted to play the assassin in the group of good-aligned heroes. Part of this was that after a certain point as a gamer I so rarely had a chance to play on the players’ side of the screen that I had a hard time getting my fill of character ideas that I wanted to explore as a player. Part was fatigue from playing so many standard and stereotypical characters on the GM’s side of the screen. Another part of it was that even in the early red box days, I was looking for more role-playing in my game. An easy way to do that was to have to keep something hidden from the others in-game. It didn’t have to be being an assassin, it could be something more akin to Strider in the Lord of the Rings actually being a king not a vagabond, Terry Brooks actually being JRR and therefore not really being guilty of egregious plagiarism (or is plagiarism merely the archaic spelling of homage?), Cliff Marsland hiding his ties to the Shadow when maintaining a presence in the criminal underworld, and so on.

Playing something different than the established tone for the game is almost always a problem, but as you can already guess I will say, it doesn’t have to be one. What can keep it from being problematic is the same thing which can keep our team of world-renowned experts intact – internal motivation.

What made my annoying urges to play an assassin in a group of do-gooders palatable to my DMs at the time was, I believe, that part of the character’s character was a complete and long-term reason to stick with that group through thick and thin. That certainly has been my rationale for approving or rejecting characters of that ilk submitted for games that I run.

While silly when I look back on them now, these characters taught me some valuable skills about looking at the characters being assembled for play, and trying to find reasons and justifications for working with each of them toward whatever goal the game presented. It has made my play much richer whether I am playing something traditional, or pushing the envelope of the setting.

In more recent days (again on a galactic scale), I created a dissolute gambler, down on life and people, who made a pathetic living from ‘entertaining’ bored housewives, and hustling drunken card-players. The game setup itself simply required each character to be a member of a club for the well-to-do known as the Pacific Adventurer’s Club. As I had something specific in mind that I wanted to try out, but that did not quite live up to the standards of that august society of gentlemen, I felt it was up to me to seek out and find ways for that character to be a viable member of the group, rather than dump the character on the GM and expect him to make everything fit. If I couldn’t do that, I didn’t deserve to have a ‘special snowflake.’

The hooks for bringing that dead-end character into the globe-trotting, wrong-righting crew of the Pacific Adventurer’s Club were the seemingly unlimited thrills of the life-and-death struggles the other members repeatedly got themselves into, the inspiration he drew from the passion of one member in particular,(a journalist of uncertain reputation but incredible dedication who used the penname Johnny Dare), and ultimately from the sense of self-worth he derived from doing acts which benefited others.

Each hook was something that the character could grow into over time, each flowing logically and organically from the previous stage. As the Series evolved, the character was able to evolve from the bored guy who tagged along for the sheer hell of it, to one of the primary movers and shakers in the group; from a passive character needing motivation, to one who took it on himself to motivate others. It was a very satisfying experience, made all the more pleasurable by the fact that the character was meant for just a limited-run game that has turned around and spawned years of play, and two distinct off-shoot series.

I am a star, I need to shine:

In the pulps, the central figure is far and away the most capable and least vulnerable character. Doc Savage is improbable, capable, and lacking in weaknesses. The Spider, likewise, operates on a level far above those around him. The Shadow can add inscrutable to this list of attributes as for much of the series, we do not even have an inkling of who the Shadow is, or why he really does what he does… other than it is right and just that he do it. Hell, in the actual pulp stories, we also do not even really know how he does what he does. In all three cases, each hero is practically unstoppable, and at times the reader has to wonder why agents or companions are needed at all, other than for expediency, and being able to act in separate locations in concert.

Players want to be these central characters, and who can blame them? The problem is that with characters this perfect, you really just need one of them. It’s not only overkill to have a group of them, it is confusing and boring. Worse, from the point of view of a hobby wherein character progression is seen by many as a primary factor for maintaining interest, there is nowhere for these characters to go. They are the peak of development. If you have a group of players looking to play in your game instead of just one person, something needs to be done to address this.

In cooperative play, players and GMs not only need to have a clear vision of where characters will begin and where they could end up developmentally, but also how the crew will work together as a unit and progress together as a unit. For many groups, this leads people to feeling that the focus needs to shift from playing the “heroic” Doc Savage to playing his “lowly” companions, and this breeds dissatisfaction as a result. I do not agree that this is entirely necessary, however. It certainly is possible to shift the focus from the end product (Savage) to seeing if you can build characters (those experts in just one field…) up to be like Doc, but more importantly, it is the focus itself which needs to be clarified. It is certainly possible to play a group of powerful characters working together, but it’s not enough to just slap some characters together and play.  Time needs to be spent on making each character distinct and enjoyable. Time needs to be spent on making each character individually capable in a relevant area, and able to contribute synergistically to the group as a whole. Finally, time needs to be spent on ensuring that each member of the group – including the GM – has a clear idea of why the group of characters is ‘adventuring’, how those characters fit together, what the players’ expectations of play are, and where the system is supposed to help them go.

If the game doesn’t get there, no one will care as long as fun is had by everyone along the way~

6 Responses to “Part of the whole~”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    I don’t know. I’ve been with you on most of these posts, but I think i have to take issue.
    Issue 1: the leader. Yes, I can see how a character playing the more powerful leader type could create a rallying point for the rest of the group, but you hit many of the problems here, and I’ve never seen a game successfully resolve them in practice. Mind you my most prominent example was mechwarrior, but for the moment, lets pretend it qualifies as pulp. 🙂 This is a game that I would absolutely love to believe could work for roleplaying (delerious maybe). This one campaign had some of my favourite fellow gamers, and a great story line. One player had a character from a previous campaign with a small merc outfit, small dropship and looking for a few extra pilots to start taking contracts again. The group leader had the experience, the money and equipment to pull it all together. But we never got the sense that he actually needed us. We always felt outclassed. The game spiraled out of control as the rest of us got into crazier attempts at trying to make any significant impact on teh world around us.
    Issue 2: the assassin. Ok, let me start by saying I am also the assassin. Most of the people that i enjoy gaming with are the creative types that like stretching an idea beyond the stereotype. (remember my character in the templar campaign that didn’t want to be a templar?) Maybe myself and other players I have tried to GM through these identity crises didn’t give enough to the GM to integrate, you have a point there, but its hard to imagine any hook that would keep a lone wolf in line with the pack in all situations and still stay in that character (Wookie life debts not-withstanding).
    I think you hit the head with fun being had by everyone. Maybe we could use a couple of articles on how to pull off character imbalance (power or background) in solid examples. 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      I don’t think we disagree~

      1. The Leader:
      My point here was that if everyone in the group plays a character that capable, the resulting overkill can make the game dull, unless you take steps to clarify what success in the game will mean, and what progress might entail. I didn’t really get into a way to deal with one character being superior to the others. Like you, I feel that the theory of how to run such a game is easy, and just requires each person to understand and be aware of their part in things, and the GM to focus things properly, but I can’t picture an extended game with a great difference in ability between one character and the rest, where this could continue to be satisfying…. unless it were troupe style wherein each player had a prominent figure to run, and a member of each others’ companions to run, so that everyone got equal time being the lead and the support.

      I was in a part of that Mechwarrior campaign, too – I think. I never got a chance to appear, though. You might recall (I am pretty sure it was the lance you were in) trashing a small unit that took to the field without their leader (me)? The encounter began with a Grasshopper (Scott Wood) charging to the center of the field at a run, then coming to a full and complete stop with no cover in range of the enemy (you lot), but not in range to fire back? I think you trashed the three members of the lance in something like 5 or 6 rounds of play.

      I would have loved it if that campaign could have really taken off (especially after all the prep-work I did). The trouble you describe with the main character is what basically has me suggesting that players and GMs work out a way for the game to not be competitive, or to have it all be competitive and let the chips fall where they may – as long as everyone is clear about what is going on. I don’t believe balance needs to be enforced to the point where each character is equal, but there are limits and that rare commodity known as common sense. 😉

      2. I remember that Templar game very well…
      I think only a single member of the group (Brad) was not pushing the bounds of the stereotype in some way or another. The degree of secrecy and personal agenda-keeping in that game was incredible – especially for you, Dave, and myself. It is a true testament to Tom’s skill as a GM that it all held together so well, and ran so smoothly. I doubt that I could even come close to how he did it, if all of the characters in a game I was running were so different from the idea I pitched to them.

      Amusingly, most of the secrets are still secrets, I think – although Dave and I have talked over a lot of our characters’ back stories on his occasional visits to Seoul…. when I can hear what he is saying, “Over the wheezing of the old man~” 😉

      I think the key to keeping a lone wolf character connected to the group is exactly the one Tom and I worked out for my character in that game. We clarified at the outset that the character was one I wanted to play for the duration of the campaign and so, if I felt it was necessary to create such a dis-social and closed-off character, whose background was so different from the others, I would have to accept that their influence on his life would cause him to change, in some way. Due to the nature of his skills and abilities, we thought it would probably be best if he came to depend on the other characters for a sense of family. We hoped that the character would be able to offer something to the group which would make them want to have him around. That was the beginning. Later, the story took its course and the idea of going off on my own left me with the ugliness of being a coward and abandoning these courageous men with whom I have fought and bled, and, if I do abandon them, either spending the rest of my days in hiding, or having to deal with what was opposing us all by myself.

      That gave me both and internal, emotional hook, and a logical hook to use to help shape the character’s growth.

      A real lone-wolf would have just wandered off, and left me out of the game, or creating another character.

      Anyway, even though I do not believe that we actually disagree on the points raised in this post, I shall pick up the challenge you have thrown and see what can be done about backing up my pontification with actual-factual examples!

  2. BF Wolfe says:

    ahhh ahahahah. I forgot about that grasshopper. 🙂 It would have been interesting to see how you guys were supposed to come in.
    So I think I will give you the assassin. You are right that Tom kept that templar campaign working despite the secret agendas. The leader problem though, I have never seen work despite the quality of players and GM. And can’t imagine how it would work, even in the short term. Not as an integrated team anyway. Maybe it boills down to the main difference between roleplaying and acting. In acting, you main objective to find joy in simply playing the part. Roleplaying is about discovering the part and creating your part in the world. Discovering and creating are what the framework of the systems are designed for, since there are many other agents in that world trying to do the same thing with uncertain outcome. You could bring up the disparity in power between NPCs and players, but this works because of differing agendas, and a GM can play off the portion of the power that the PCs interact with. Not so easy on an integrated team with the same agenda. So I think that I disagree that we don’t disagree. 🙂 but I look forward to reading some examples.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I went back and read the piece again, and now I think I see why you think we disagree, and so I continue to disagree that we disagree… because we agree.

      I used the example of Doc Savage and his cohorts, so that I could use Doc as an example of a dissimilar group’s external motivation to stay together, not as an example PC. I seem to have jumped ahead a track on the album of my thesis, and so if you read it with what I meant in mind, it is clear, but if you read it with only what I said in mind, it is not. Apologies for the confusion. I have returned to it and filled in some of the blanks.

      It is possible to run a game with PCs at different levels of ability, but I personally do not think it is always worth the effort. I will post an entry with examples – but not tonight.

      Ye gods, it would have been grand if that mechwarrior campaign had flown~ I think you guys would have “enjoyed” what I had had in mind… 😉

  3. Murderbunny says:

    Who here has heard of Gary Stu (the male version of Mary Sue)? In a nutshell, Gary Stu the perfect male lead – too perfect! He’s hard and badass, he always gets the ladies, he’s the master of a million martial arts as well as having an IQ of 200+ and several PhDs, he never suffers from long-term stress or trauma (unless it’s some kind of generic rage that’s meant to make him gritty), and if he has scars they are the cosmetic kind, highlights on his badassery.

    He exists because he is wish-fulfillment incarnate. He is also usually badly-written and hard to tolerate in most contexts, and in a role-playing game he is absolutely toxic to the group dynamic. The nature of Gary Stu is that he has to be the best at everything, and there can only be one “best.” So if Gary Stu joins the group, the other players will either be overshadowed by his awesomeness, or be actively trying to one-up his awesomeness and usurp the crown of Gary Stu. The problems that come from this should be pretty obvious.

    So why not have all the player characters be Gary Stu-like? Well, as you said, it’s boring. When you have five people who are the best at everything, you have five clones. Even if you pit them against enemies that could potentially make the Gary-Group sweat and work for their victories, the battles and victories would still be deadly dull because there isn’t very much difference in storytelling between having one Steven Seagal beat up bad guys, and having five Steven Seagals beating up bad guys.

    This is why niche becomes fairly important, I think. Some people, embittered by poorly executed video games and D&D-like campaigns, may snobbishly look down on the “Fighter-Cleric-Mage-Thief” group dynamic, but it does serve its purpose in making the group more effective by combining their diverse powers and skills to a achieve a common end. In a well-constructed scenario, each player contributes to the success of the group, and even better, gets to thinking their their skills are absolutely critical to the success of that group.

    No one likes feeling like dead weight and if some people are shoved aside so that Gary Stu can save the day… again… it contributes to a sense of helplessness and dis-empowerment. “Why am I even here? Gary Stu can do everything without my help.” This is exactly the opposite of the feeling you want when you participate in heroic (or anti-heroic) fantasy!

    My preference these days is to create a “Mission Impossible Team” dynamic, where everyone has a reason to be together, a common goal to work towards, a certain amount of skills in common (they all know how to fight, shoot, sneak and con) as well as certain specialists (the tech/hacker guy, the disguise/infiltration specialist, the sniper, the hand-to-hand specialist, the medic, etc). Everyone matters, everyone is vital to the success of the group, and everyone wins.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] I had had and used this game as a chance for us both to explore it for real. We were both prone to playing capable characters with a sort of lone wolf attitude, that left us on the outside of whatever PC group with which we associated. We both saw it as a […]

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