Character Poisoning

Over the past few weeks I have been observing a side-effect of having a strong character-concept which I have not seen since the early days of White Wolf games. This side-effect, the result of what on the surface seem to be player traits beneficial to good play, works in the background to erode fun, and twist expectations, until an intervention of some sort is necessary. Last year, I wrote an entry called Premature Imagination which explores the same error, but only as it applies to action resolution. This entry will look at character realization and actualization through the filter of “My Character Concept.”

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Vile to the last drop

As gamers, when we choose to shift from running simple avatars to generating more complex characters, the games we play generally encourage us to delve deeply into all the little details of personality and personal history which frame the person we intend to portray. I emphasize the idea of ‘person’ here, as I feel that a lot of players get caught up in not who a character is, or how they think, but in what a character can do, and by extension – ‘must have done.’ It is that latter point which can really spark issues in play, but both set a pattern of conception in motion that once play starts, can work against the group rather than for the characterization. Once this poisoned dose of discontent has wormed its way down the gullet of play, much agony – and even death – may ensue.

Meshing Concept with Mechanics

Easily one of the most frustrating elements of RPG characters is discovering in play that something doesn’t work like you thought it worked. The more important this element is to the character’s concept, the more unsatisfying and off-putting the experience of playing that character can be. Most GMs I have ever played with tend to allow a revision of the character in the first session or so, particularly if the game is new to the group  or the player, or if that character brings rules or game elements into play which have not yet been touched upon. Trouble comes when it is not immediately obvious that a particular competency or trait is not capable of performance conducive to supporting the character concept. When a character has been in play for a while, it gets harder and harder to accept altering it for ‘better performance.’ Mistakes are one thing; growing dissatisfaction with a lack of cool, or whatever, is quite another.

To that end, running some tests of the mechanics with the player and the sorts of encounters you envision them experiencing are a good first step prior to full-on play. Most groups just want to play, though so without this period of exploration and experimentation, alternate means of addressing the issue tend to be necessary.

With that in mind, it strikes me that the best route to take is to allow yourself the pleasure of discovering the competencies of the character in play – particularly in a new system – and focus your energies in character generation to the less tangible aspects of character, such as their outlook on life, interests, strength of reactions, and connections to other characters. Avoid things which exist entirely as die rolls and are intrinsically tied to resolution mechanics. By stepping away from the train of expectations, you negate any chance for it to pulverize a character stalled on the tracks linking concept and performance.

Knowing your Place

It can be very hard to assess at first if a game’s PC generation system produces green characters, experienced characters, or Big Damn Heroes. Even when the game comes out and tells you the relative strengths of character types, the first few runs will still be a process of learning to understand what these levels really mean in reality once the dice hit the table.

Obviously, if you are running a vanilla version of a system which produces beginner characters and the player tries to create a living legend there will be negative feedback in play. People hate it when living legends suck. Paying attention as a GM to the nascent character ideas (and remembering to explore them with players rather than taking them at face value) can save a lot of frustration later. As a player, paying attention to the game pitch, and the tone and sample characters provided for comparison (if any) are two good ways, in addition to keeping lines of communication open with the GM, of preventing the concept from expanding beyond the production capacity of the generation system. If you are set on creating an experienced PC when the GM and the game itself have geared up for beginners, you are headed for dissatisfaction. That, of course, negates the whole point of playing.

If in play, you find yourself actively and vocally trying to reinforce or actually create a conception of your character in the other players’ minds, this can be a hint that your concept has outstripped the ability of the system to reflect it given the points or abilities allotted. You shouldn’t have to tell the other players who ‘your guy’ is, they should just be able to see it.

Timmy: My guy remember, is a super-deadly assassin, and has a history of silent kills at close range which have baffled and mystified his enemies and employers alike.

Jim: I’m sure the 7-11 owner who hired us appreciates that.

Manuel: Silent…? Like the time he alerted all the guards in the warehouse and we had to abort before we even entered the place?

GM: Focus guys. Ok, Timmy – you have a stealth of 1 and a brawl of 1, and lost initiative. Declare your action for the turn.

Timmy: I totally kill them all!

Manuel: Lord Thunderin’

Carts and Horses

Backstory is important and helps bring a lot of character elements into cohesive focus, but a parade of accomplishments in the character’s out-of-game past can often conspire to heavily fictionalize the character. This can cause concept inflation, and again lead to a frustrating disconnect between how the player sees the character, and how the game actually presents that character in conjunction with the GM’s vision of the campaign.

In my experience, players who derive the most pleasure from accomplishments their characters have achieved in-game, and source their character concept in those accomplishments and the resulting consequences and reputation, tend to be the players most satisfied by play. Players who try to force their vision of a character onto the events of the story and onto the system supporting the game tend to feel the most frustrated. Who needs that?

In fiction and performance, the author and artist are able to craft fully-realized characters and fully control the arc through which they travel, carefully shaping and presenting the perception of that character to the audience. RPGs, while certainly an art-form, have a wider base of participatory players and two external filters – the GM and the system – through which everything must pass before it manifests in ‘reality.’ As players, we have two choices, only one of which produces positive effects. We can choose to work with the engines that drive the game, or we can try pushing and pulling against them – gritting our teeth against the rising bile of frustration until it eventually chokes us.

10 Responses to “Character Poisoning”
  1. anarkeith says:

    I just spoke with a player in my D&D Encounters (organized play) group about a similar challenge. He had an involved backstory, and was soliciting my help as DM in getting it into play. I told him I thought there would be plenty of opportunities for that, but he’d have to be patient and let it play out through the course of the 15-week season. Character development through play, rather than assumption, as you say.

  2. Runeslinger says:

    Right, creating backstory and personal history in the form of hooks to be used, rather than laurels to pose with~

    It’s good that the player came to you to talk about how to better realize their character in play.

  3. BF Wolfe says:

    thought you would sneak this one in while I was away? I will certainly play devils advocate on this one. 🙂 With books and movies we place ourselves in stories as passive observers, but with roleplaying we are active agents in these rich worlds of possibilities. In every game I am aware of, the world we perceive is filtered through our characters’ senses, and our ability to influence our environment is likewise determined in large part through character design and game rules. ln life we have years of trial and error to learn what time and effort can achieve. We enjoy sports and want to be better so we practice. computers intrigue us, so we take classes and play until we learn what we want to know. Feedback from our our attempts to our senses may not be perfect or immediate but we learn to adapt our choices to what we want to achieve in life. I know some people who give up a dream of Olympic glory because of a lack of dedication or conflicting goals, but I don’t know anyone who spends their life shooting for Olympic hockey gold only to discover that they forgot to learn how to skate.
    very few of our characters are children. blank slates with no past and infinite potential. The idea of a ‘character’ is a collection of dreams, goals and abilities. And like our lives those goals should be rooted in the past. We understand our present by only by way of comparison, and I think its commendable to try the same with the roles we choose to play. Of course its our responsibility to make sure those goals are realistic for the game setting, but we are also choosing to explore roles that are very different from our own lives. This holds true for the characters themselves and for the worlds we choose to play. I have no idea what it takes to wield a sword, nor will I ever understand what forces are at play in casting a spell. I rely on my understanding of the game world to make a connection between the role I choose to play and the world which those choices will be made. That character would have known what choices to make as a young child in the world of darkness/magic/technlogy/cthulu, but I do not. A teenager in the training pits of Solaris VIII may have tried to build his strength to gain an advantage against his training sims, but would not have kept going after it became obvious that no advantage was to be gained. Madness is in trying the same thing over and over expecting different results.
    For many years now, the call of ‘optimization’ has been a dirty word among role players to rally against those who try to create characters who fit their goals too perfectly. But isn’t that a part of life as well?

    • Runeslinger says:

      Absolutely – not so much Devil’s advocate as Lucifer’s Lunchmate.

      As you say:

      Of course its our responsibility to make sure those goals are realistic for the game setting, but we are also choosing to explore roles that are very different from our own lives.

      My post focuses on the first part of your statement, but I don’t think this post ignores the second part or acts as a criticism of optimization. It is more a caution against letting the imagination of what the character might do run away with the player and so spoil their appreciation of what the care can do.

      I do believe that optimization can go in several ways and I favour making design choices which bring the character out, rather than those which allow for a maximal benefit for a specific skill set under the rules, but to me understanding when and how to optimize a character or specific traits is a sign of player skill and is to be appreciated. The issue I am getting at in this article is where the character concept is held above the realities of the character design – as the supposedly humourous dialogue is intended to suggest~

      Welcome back!

      • BF Wolfe says:

        yeah, I liked that quip. 🙂 And to be honest, I think the mechwarrior system we’ve been using is a nice way to deal with this. The life modules (for the most part) assign reasonable points to reasonable skills. If you go to a military college, you will learn tactics. It puts the emphasis back on descriptive history and character concept to achieve those character realities in the first place.
        I suppose it boils down to ‘why’ the character failed to meet expectations. 🙂

        • Runeslinger says:

          Very much so –
          It’s one thing to have the system sabotage fun by not delivering what the fluff promises (ie, the descriptive text over-inflates the meaning of a set of scores which the mechanics can never deliver), but it’s entirely another thing if the player inflates the idea of the character’s effectiveness regardless of what the mechanics and/or fluff state.

          I agree about chargen in AToW. Despite the accounting, going through the process really gets creative sparks flying and leaves you with the sense that if you follow through on it, your character will be able to do what they are supposed to be able to do.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] a post I wrote a few weeks ago called Character Poisoning, I suggested that building a false fantasy about one’s character can only lead to disappointment. […]

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