I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”
I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.
Reflecting on that moment… I realized that I’ve become less tolerant of player characters without attachments to other things around them. I’m fine with characters being hermits, or being lonely, or outcasts or outsiders or what-have-you. But I have little desire to tell stories for characters who don’t have more emotional buy-in and connection to the rest of the world.
That matters significantly less if I’m running a strict loot-grabbing dungeon delve, where we know the characters are there as player-avatars without much narrative weight of their own. But when I’m running a game that has more narrative focus, I really want PCs to have a reason to be there, or to join the other PCs in their quest.
That’s in large part because of my preferred form of narrative game, and the extra work involved in adding unconnected characters.
My preferred form of narrative construction, as part of an RPG, is collaborative. I think my frustration with unconnected characters arises from my feeling that the player is actively making collaboration with me more difficult, whether they know it or not. I like working with players to engage them in the story through their PCs; I want to build our stories from the elements their PCs bring to the game. Characters without connections, plot hooks, or driving motivations are slippery and hard to work with. When it comes to collaboratively building a story with that character, it’s like trying to build half a bridge. The narrative won’t stand on its own, and it doesn’t go anywhere. If the storyteller wants to connect the character, they must do twice as much work (building the rest of the bridge) to join the character to the rest of the narrative.
It’s totally possible to not sweat it, and let the player figure it out. For better or worse that’s not usually my style. I prefer to ensure that PCs have strong motivations or connections, especially with new players, so that players don’t sit back and feel unengaged when things happen around them.
I think it’s tempting to play characters who don’t have clear connections to the rest of the world around them (people, places, things, desires or causes, etc) because that lack of connection is easier. It takes less work on the part of the player, because you don’t need to figure anything else out once you establish your basics. It also may appeal due to mystique, or a feeling of “coolness;” lots of characters in classic genre fiction start their stories without much connection to the world around them, whether they later develop connections or not (that particular trope is a separate issue, from my perspective). But beyond requiring less work, beyond being a genre staple, that lack of connection is also safer for a player because it doesn’t require building connection with other players (including the storyteller).
I want to restate my last point with a different focus; collaboration requires connecting with other people. That connection doesn’t always happens naturally (or at all), and isn’t necessarily comfortable without practice or acclimatization. When players don’t know each other and/or aren’t practiced with building those connections, that collaboration can feel difficult or scary. And, like every other social interaction, it’s an opportunity to be hurt. So it helps to be kind.
If people try to add material to a collaborative story that a player really doesn’t want, that adds social cost to the player who must speak up for themselves or else put up with material they can’t stand. That’s part of why talking as a group about what things players really don’t want in the game (abuse, sexual violence, particular squicks) is extremely valuable. Furthermore, if you see players in your group (including the storyteller) ignoring or belittling another player’s discomfort, I strongly suggest that you speak up or leave. If you think you can have a productive conversation about it, I recommend that, but take care of yourself.
All of which is to say that I can understand why people might not immediately want to build connections for their characters.
But having those connections and underlying motivations makes a phenomenal difference to my experience of playing a character, and to my experience of drawing characters into narratives. And as such, I consistently push for PCs to have those connections.
Some of this comes from my theater experience, and particularly from the concept of “spine.” Constantin Stanislavski advocated for actors to understand and internalize what he called a character’s spine, the character’s major goal or objective which determines their other choices. The stereotypical semi-petulant actor asking “But what is my motivation?” is a reference to this. Players don’t have to know what their PC wants to have fun playing a game; they can find out in the course of play, or have fun playing that character as a foil for their own curiosity and drives. But if they want to create narrative connections between their character and the world around them, Stanislavski’s concept of spine helps. It’s part and parcel of those connections and drives I mentioned earlier, telling the storyteller exactly where my character is going and how to lead my character by the nose.
This is the player’s half of building that narrative bridge I mentioned above. When I tell the storyteller that my character is focused on X, very attached to Y, and terrified of Z, I’m giving the storyteller hooks, things they can use to motivate my character. And when they introduce new story elements, I can ask questions to offer connections between what they’ve built and my character’s hooks.
Let’s say I’m playing a greedy treasure hunter with massive debts who’s afraid of my loanshark kneecapping my cousins as punishment for my missed payments. Obviously, my character wants money. Also, my character has clear feelings about some other people (my loanshark, my cousins).
When the storyteller offers a quest to rescue someone, I can ask whether there’s a reward (and suggest that the presence of a reward, any reward, would bring my character onboard). The storyteller could say “Yes,” or maybe “No but the kidnappers are known to have stolen other loot which you can steal.” Either way, my character’s buy-in for the quest is established. Similarly, the storyteller could offer a quest from people connected to my loanshark, or from someone who’s offering to help my family escape the terrible predicament I’ve created. All of these work. And if my greedy and indebted character cares about other PCs, then my character might follow the others even if the quest didn’t immediately connect to my desires.
Plus my character always has a clear course of action, even when nothing’s happening: find rumors about nearby treasure. This means that the storyteller can build whatever they want off of that, and I’m never at a loss for what to do. It’s not super original, but that’s fine. These things don’t have to be original, they’re there to drive the story and the characters forward.
All of which is to say, I strongly prefer characters in my games to have these connections. I find it much easier to engage players when their characters have strong drives, and engaged players generally have more fun than unengaged ones. And that’s what this is all about, really—I’m trying to make as much fun with other people as I can. So yes, sometimes it’s fine to have characters be Bland-Face McBlankSlate. But I recommend building connections and motivations, even if they’re goofy, trite, or weird.
And yes, basically all of this applies to writing fiction too, except I get snippy with myself instead of with other people.