Chargen: None of the Above

I don’t like wasting time. Although the excruciating length of some of my blog posts might challenge that statement, I prefer to engage in something meaningful rather than dick around. For this reason, I tend to take special care laying out campaign proposals and character creation options, and expect players to work together to get their characters in sync with each other.

Desolate and Lacking Magic 

I will be launching my part of a shared campaign world next week, so we are in the final throes of character creation right now. The group has doubled in size, and it was this phenomenon which indirectly  inspired this week’s post. Upon receipt of the character creation guidelines, exactly half of the players submitted characters which violated the clearly stated guidelines. Interestingly – the reasons cited were less about the desire to be cool, and more about the ‘roleplaying challenge.’

I expected there to be some pushing at the limits to make room for little exceptions or what-have-you, but a 50% return on the “can I play the one thing we are prevented from playing” factor surprised me.

Is it so hard to see that the real roleplaying challenge lies in making a normal character actually be unique, rather than making a unique character appear mundane?

Burn the land and Boil the Sea

Take the cast of a beloved TV show for an example…

The group consists of two former soldiers, 1 pilot, 1 doctor, 1 mechanic, 1 religious leader, 1 mercenary, 1 business woman, and 1 dependent. For the sake of argument, and because it’s the gorram truth, let’s call them Mal,Zoe,Wash, Simon, Kaylee, Book, Jayne, Innara, and River – nine characters, 6 of whom are ‘just normal folk.’  (Seven really, as Simon is just special by extension).

What happens when hints about the oh-so-mysterious truths behind the other three begin to come out?

For me, I noticed conversation about the show, and story plots within the show begin an inexorable slide toward a focus on the peculiar characters, despite the fact that the other characters were far more interesting as people. With time pressure, and pressure to succeed it is understandable why a TV series would focus on the special snowflakes, but for table top RPGs…? There is no reason to do that at all. We have the time and the resources to create incredibly nuanced characters, and use the same damn templates as a starting point if we like. In the end, it is really what people do and how they react which makes them truly interesting, isn’t it? Worse, if wanting a challenge is code for ‘wanting more limelight,’ what is the payoff for getting it simply because your character is weird?

Stuck in the Middle with You

Let’s use Reservoir Dogs as a second example…

Throughout the movie, we are given an opportunity to see how a crew of men of similar background, profession, and general disposition react to the slice of steaming crap that fate serves them during a big heist. Each one is memorable, each one has depth, and each one takes the template of ‘hired thief’ in a new direction. The characters were given actual character over and above what they could do, and what profession they had.

The group consists of a whole slew of guys in the same clothes, with no names, and the same damn job… except for the one who is a cop, and incidentally is only interesting at all because he IS a cop. Really, for me – that is a case in point right there. The very fact of his difference completely obliterates any chance we have of getting to see into his character. Through it all, he is the cop – even when dying in a huge pool of blood. The same holds true in my experience for the assassins, the undeclared thieves, the spies, the betrayers, and all the other special snowflakes in the party. Take that away and you are left with nothing but bland, tasteless, characterless pieces of paper.

As a final example, let’s hire the Magnificent Seven. Were they an RPG cast, they would all have the same “class” or occupation, yet it would be hard to argue that they lack diversity, character, and unique charms.

It is exactly this sort of thing toward which I am striving in my half of our Desolation campaign. In the shadow of the apocalypse, everyone is merely a survivor. In adventuring together, how will the characters distinguish themselves?

Beware: Soapbox Ahead

It is easy to stand out when your energies are devoted to hiding differences rather than developing nuances. If you want your character to be truly unique – have their character be unique.

Comments
2 Responses to “Chargen: None of the Above”
  1. 4649matt says:

    Players rampantly defying the stated guidelines of character creation is obnoxious. I ran a game where arcane magic (especially trained) is extremely rare and ended up with the statistic anomaly of a party of nothing but arcane practitioners, despite requesting no magic characters. I am totally with you on that point.
    I am not so much with you on the next part. A character’s uniqueness doesn’t preclude them as an interesting character. The issue is when a character is nothing more than a trope or a stereotype. When a player brings a “unique trope” to the table, quite often you end up with trope vs trope rather than character interaction. If concepts are fleshed out beyond contrasting tropes and the impulse to try to be the main character is controlled, things tend to work out all right.
    Take Arrested Development, they are all unique snowflakes but the ensemble is in sync and they don’t miss a beat.

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