Unusual Suspects

Rick sold the Cafe and the real adventure began.

Sometimes, a person just has to stay up late, turn out the lights, and wrap themselves in the flickering light show of accidental greatness.

Rick (often): I stick my neck out for nobody.

With stacks of games about me, my dog asleep at my side on the sofa, the narrator’s voice got me thinking that Casablanca is the prequel to perhaps one of the greatest action-adventure stories that never was.

Despite all of the sage advice that gets written about good roleplay in pretty much any roleplaying series that persists, I think a lot of people, myself certainly included, have had some of our greatest roleplaying experiences from characters thrown together off the cuff, with little or no detailed analysis of exactly what and who we were assembling in the genre’s typical Frankenstein fashion. Moreover, I believe that this is more likely to happen in a system or setting which is new to us.

Does that mean the sage advice is all crap?

No. It does, however, suggest to me that the foundation of a good character is not in the details so carefully chosen from lists, statistics, traits, and niches, but instead is in the mix of spoken and unspoken questions we answer with the actions we take in our newly emerging personas.

Rick: “Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think?”

I am not saying that a good back story is not essential for a meaty character. I completely believe in having a solid and embellished backstory. I feel to truly provide a character with someplace to go, we need to establish a firm sense of where that character has been. If we build on a firm foundation, that sense of past gives us substance and direction to begin telling the character’s story. It is that direction, however, which I feel gets missed. Too often we try to play the character before they are ready to answer our call to greatness.

Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

Rick: It’s a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

The true story of Rick begins at the end of the movie. Richard Blaine is almost as much of a mystery at the end of Casablanca as he is at the beginning, but the one truly significant thing that we establish over the arc of the film is that he has finally chosen to shoulder the heavy mantle of hero which has been within his reach for all the years preceding the movie, and all the years he languished in bitterness and loneliness in Casablanca, but lacked the strength to grasp. Until he faces his own weaknesses and desires, and in seeing them, finds the resilience and nobility to cast them aside, he is not; and cannot be, heroic – at least not in the sense of the word that we know will follow him in the unseen story after the credits roll.

None of the hints of a past of gun-running, mercenary adventurism, womanizing, and stoic isolationism amount to the oft-quoted ‘hill of beans’ compared to Rick’s final realization of the greatness inside of him, and his newfound ability to cast off the shackles of mere humanity, and transform himself into something larger, greater… more heroic. No: actually heroic.

That is where we often let ourselves down, I believe. We say things like, “I want to run a decker.” Or we speculate about the future by saying, “My next character will either be a duellist, or an alchemist.”   To do this is to describe Rick as being, ‘a bartender.’ Can’t we do better than that?

Rick’s transformation from an inward-directed malcontent, to an altruist and likely freedom fighter occurs on such a fundamental level and is in fact so profound that it has transformational effects on those around him. Lazlo is further inspired, Ilsa is given strength and renewed committment to carry on, and Renault…?

Renault: I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean. I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.

Renault transforms from self-serving lecher, and corrupt official to hero, right alongside Rick.

I don’t think we can get to either of these two characters by summing them up as ‘bartender’ and ‘cop,’ any more than we can get to the root of our next characters by thumbing through lists of archetypes and stopping our thoughts once we find one that doesn’t suck.

The only active character I have at the moment is for Palladium Fantasy, in a slow-boiling adventure set in the Eastern Territories. If asked to describe him, it would be so easy to say, “He’s a Palladin,” and let both the listener and myself be constrained by what that narrow label conveys.

I do not think of him that way, however. I first of all think of him by name, not as ‘my palladin’. Attached to his name I have a vision of a tenacious young noble, desperately seeking the nature and source of nobility and honour. Questing after the elusive qualities in a person which separate them from all that is weak, corrupt, and dark in the world.

I see him as what he must do. He has set himself on the road of a quest to travel north, among the bestial-seeming tribes of that hard, cold wilderness, and see if he can see the inherent nobility in their leaders and great warriors. If such as they, can act with honor and righteousness, then surely those qualities can be found within himself as well.

I can only hope that he ends his days as even half of the bartender that Richard Blaine was, or at the very least, can be the sort of authority who is at least susceptible to the sort of heroic transformation undergone by Renault in the presence of such a cryptic phoenix in the guise of bartender as presented by Rick.

To me.. that sort of concept is the kernel of a real character. The rest needs to be discovered in play.

One Response to “Unusual Suspects”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    True. It seems that those memorable moments, roleplaying or movies, happen while overcoming. Overcoming external adversity, or internal limitations. I know I tend to focus on my strengths when I create a new character, but perhaps these weaknesses are a better definition, and perhaps a better place to start?

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