In the footsteps of giants~ (RPG Blog Carnival – 12-2011)

This will be my final entry for the December 2011 RPG Blog Carnival. This post fills out the trio of posts I wished to contribute on the theme during this carnival: namely the potential hero in each character, the GM’s role in calling heroes to action, and the value of incorporating heroes both living and dead in character background design.

Is there anybody out there?

Teen Idols

One thing I would like to see more of in gaming is the presence of inspirations, or heroes, in the backgrounds created for PCs and NPCs alike. It is one thing to provide an exhaustive list of traits slathered in splat-book prose to give us a sense of the character, it is quite another to tell us who they are including an idea of who they  idolized or wanted to be growing up – and have that mean something.

Dirk Dyre-Darkniss

Vowing to revenge the death of his beloved sister, Dirk trained his mind and body to become a weapon of vengeance. He is totally focused on finding his sister’s killer, and will not rest until he has brought the villain to justice.

Yawn: the Boring

More often than not, characters seem to be defined by what they can do, what they have done, and for a dose of trauma or pathos, what has happened to them. While this can of course give us a pretty clear sense of how they are to be portrayed, it does so in a way that isolates the character from broader connections with the game world. It deprives them of that additional humanizing layer of collected influences which color how we do what we do, and shapes our responses to what is done to us. Without the inclusion of people both positive and negative in the creation of the character, we are denied a sense of all the whys and wherefores of how and for what reasons they do the things they do in the particular way that they do them. Without the humanizing influence of other characters, both living and dead, in a character’s past, we are left with closed-circle choices of pure self-determination, or random chance. This is not specifically a bad thing, but it is a limitation which affects options for the future growth of the character, and opportunities for connections between characters.

Heroes found, and heroes  made to order

One of my favorite settings of the late 90’s was Trinity and I very much enjoyed each aspect of the series. I was thinking a lot about heroes at the time, and both my initial readings of Trinity (when it was first released, made from black plastic and had a different name), and my later readings in 2004 and again in 2009 made me wonder about a world where much of the history had been lost. One of the most evocative links to this theme in the book is the image “We’ll always haveParis” which turns the familiar words of love and memory fromCasablanca’s reassuring tone, into a mournful lament. Parts of the world destroyed, history lost, history expunged, tales distorted and excised… If you control history, you can control the range and scope of people who other people come to admire and emulate, and in so doing, you control who they become. Building characters is really no different. Building them in isolation, unconnected to heroes living and dead, limits what they are capable of becoming to a meager question and response modality: parents killed = becomes lone vigilante.

From 2005 onward we ran a shared, long-running, and multi-generational foray into WW’s Trinityverse. I was able to play in Adventure! and the first half of the Aberrant timeline, while running the latter half and Trinity. My aberrant character was a Nova created very much with these thoughts in mind, and as I looked back on the 90’s and its attempts to deconstruct and ridicule heroic archetypes, I had an idea which turned my character into his own hero and his own villain.

The core of the character concept was to take a television actor and B movie star, and propose that his eruption took place as a result of a suicide attempt brought on by feelings of failure and a sense of being forever overshadowed by the over-the-top comics style character he had played on a long running cult TV show. The attempt followed a long and convoluted struggle to either divorce himself completely from the character he had so deeply invested himself in portraying, or to reviving the show and giving up any hope of ever playing anything else. The eruption triggered by a drunken leap from a bridge when he could no longer bear the dual rejection of himself as an actor and his iconic character as a property, transformed him into the very character he felt had both ruined and defined his life.

Upon realizing that he now was in body the character he had only been in name, the character entered play with choices. As one of the pillars supporting the campaign was the idea of perceptions of heroism, it fit very nicely to have the character evolve away from who he was, and toward the hero he had portrayed; evolve toward selflessness from the epitome of selfishness.

From a campaign and character design standpoint, that minimal idea is enough, but… where do we go from there – As the character notably said after transformation and subsequent hounding by helpful folk from the nearest Rashoud Facility, “Now what?”

That important final step~

To my mind, that took one more layer of past. The necessary layer, to belabor a simple point was of course, heroes. I felt it was essential to know who this actor had grown up admiring, and how those reactions and selections might influence what skills, occupations, and experiences he had pursued, and how those in turn had led to him being cast as the character and simultaneously had led to him being so heavily affected by the role.

This knowledge in turn, allowed the character to be influenced, inspired, persuaded, dissuaded, and otherwise manipulated by characters, organizations, and ideals which I might have let pass him by untouched if I were merely focused on the idea that he “chose to embrace his heroic side” and left it at that. With a full working knowledge of the sorts of people and ideals which had resonated with him in his youth, I could more freely, more realistically, and most importantly, more immersively interact with the ongoing social, philosophical, and moral battles being presented by the GM.

Wait a minute! Didn’t you say…?

Yes, I did say I hate origin stories, and I like the idea of a hero being a hero because they simply choose to do the heroic thing at a time of need – but to be clear – I mean those things in the context of having grown tired of the popular media needing to justify heroism and laughing up collective sleeves at the notion that such justification should not be necessary.

Please note that this was a very careful process to focus background development efforts not on what the character should or would be able to do in play, but on what reactions and predilections got the character to the point where play started. I do not see this part of character design as a process of justification for scores in traits that I want, or as a means to force the traits to represent things which they do not. I see this as a method of tying all the elements of a character together into a coherent whole with emotional and identity arcs in motion bringing us to the point where the campaign can start and the real development can begin. This is more about ‘how’ than ‘why’ and I feel that if the end result doesn’t answer the question, “Who is the character?”  it does not belong in this part of the design. A huge part of this stage for me is defining who had an influence on the character, why they were admired, and how that person was perceived by the character. With this knowledge, it is far easier to engage in evocative and consistent play as the character as your interactions are settled on the same sort of foundational bedrock as that of a real person, rather than a collection of dynamic memories and responses to defining moments.

Choosing heroes for the character is not about explaining and justifying that character to others, it’s about getting a real grip on it yourself, so that you can show the other players who your character is in play.

Speak your piece~

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