Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide

This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends. 

Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.

But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game. 

Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.

Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.

Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.

But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”

Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.

And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.

Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.

Darktide has taken a different approach here.

There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.

And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.

Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.

But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.

A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.

I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.

This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.

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Collaborative ideas for Blades in the Dark

I’ve been wanting to play Blades in the Dark for a while. Despite having had the system for several years, I still haven’t played it. I’ve played a game inspired by its sci-fi hack, Scum & Villainy, but my friend running that game paid very little attention to the system’s rules despite using the rules as reference material. The game was fun. It didn’t really let me see how any of the things that make BitD distinct actually work when run as designed.

Now it looks like I may finally have a chance to play! One of my friends is putting a group of players together, people I enjoy playing with. I’m looking forward to it.

And, even as I’m looking forward to game, I’m thinking through all the ways the system looks most likely to break, or where it looks like the GM will be carrying the heaviest workload. That’s reflex at this point. The spot most likely to be lost in the shuffle, as best as I can tell, is the storyteller’s implementation of the faction system—probably followed by tracking debt and its effects.

So I’m coming up with ways to share the load.

For context, Blades in the Dark comes with a whole host of background material. I don’t think any of it is necessary for a fun game. All the supplied narrative fluff can absolutely be ignored, as long as you have some forces in play that replicate the pressures those pieces of fluff offer: corrupt cops, competing gangs, and bigger and more powerful gangs (and individuals) scuffling for power far beyond the PCs immediate grasp. Groups should be able to come up with their own versions of Duskvol without any trouble, and fill them with the characters and groups they want to see.

But alongside that pre-supplied narrative fluff, the game also has a whole system set up for how to track the relationships and power of the different groups in the setting. I think tracking those is extremely important. That’s how the game tracks that pressure I mentioned above.

Now, there’s no reason the storyteller couldn’t bullshit their way through all of that tracking. That would be pretty normal, in my book. But much as the rules of Traveller are designed to simulate a crew’s constant struggle to pay off their ship’s mortgage, impelled into ever more risky and (hopefully) profitable exploits to stay a few credits ahead of their operating costs and debt payments, I think BitD is designed to push the PCs into bold action at the risk of utter catastrophe. 

I really want to see how that works. I really want the group I play with to try using those interlocking systems (with debt, faction favor & power, etc). I don’t want to lose that in the overwhelmed-GM shuffle.

This is where my ideas about sharing the load come in.

Apocalypse World had some very functional ways to play a two person game, where people would take turns running different Fronts and groups of NPCs for each other. I see no reason not to do something similar in BitD. Each player could handle the basic duties for tracking countdown clocks and behind-the-scenes action for a few of the different factions, and divvy up the responsibility for maintaining a living, vibrant, dangerous world instead of putting most of that on the storyteller.

The obvious sacrifice here is a lack of surprise around some NPC actions. And players would have to be willing to hand over the various factions’ agency to the GM, or else take a turn as the storyteller when their managed faction have center stage. But with a bit of conferring between players and the storyteller, I think it’s perfectly manageable (we’ll have a group of players that I trust to play well together).

I also think it’s worthwhile to encourage or require players to manage factions that their PC is not allied or friendly with. That reduces the temptation to use NPCs to treat their own PC favorably.

I’m curious about doing this in other systems too. I think it doesn’t work as well in games with more adversarial dynamics or hidden information. But there are always chances to offload work from the GM, and to give other players more time playing off each other and with the game’s world. Always a plus.

I really hope this game comes together and actually works out. If it does, I’m sure I’ll have more details to share here in some months. If this idea works, and if that plus having players track all our various debts and whatnot lets us dig into how the system-as-written forces more audacious play, I’ll be pretty happy. Honestly, I’ll be happy to just play some BitD.

RPGs as tools, quick thoughts

RPGs are magical. They’re incredibly powerful tools for personal exploration, when used intentionally. And they’re some of the best fun I’ve found.

I’ve played many different characters, seeking many different things. I spent a long time playing characters who wanted to control things or be prepared for all eventualities—something I associate with the style of game I played as a kid, and with my fear of failure or character death (heck, even character misfortune). Those traits, and the struggle to optimize or avoid failure, took a long time to unlearn. I still feel their pull.

I suspect that Monsterhearts, with its suggestion that you “drive your character like a stolen car” helped me break out of this mold the most. But it took me a long while to carry that same delight and freedom, and embracing of consequences as part of the game and story, into my games in other systems. Now, years later, the majority of the characters I’m playing these days are closer to that carefree mode. I feel considerably lighter playing those games, and I feel lighter when I am able to bring some of that same openness to the rest of my life.

I appreciate how my awareness of this has shifted, how I’m better able to recognize my preoccupation with not-failing and not-suffering in games and elsewhere. And I appreciate how RPGs give me an opportunity to explore failure and suffering without actually being stuck in those things. That exploration has been therapeutic for me. Giving in to my characters’ heedless pursuit of fulfilling their desires and achieving their (often simple) goals—and accepting the many ways they end up stubbing their toes or bloodying their noses on the way—offers a profound release from the constant clenching struggle of seeking perfection and avoiding failure. 

In many ways, this exploration has paralleled my personal struggles with perfectionism, control, and risk avoidance. My characters have served as a means of venturing outside my comfort zone, of exploring what other possibilities I have and what other modes are available for interacting with the world. My characters often take that exploration to the extreme, far beyond anything I’d want to engage with in real life, but they offer a safe place for experiencing what it’s like to live differently than I do. And they offer an avenue for both self-reflection and growth.

Of course, I play my characters for fun. Most of my characters aren’t designed with any of this in mind. And I don’t make my explorations at the expense of other players at the table, or without their engagement in the kinds of characters I play (my friends’ fun matters too). But with a bit of foresight, self-awareness, and reflection I’ve found RPGs to be right up there with meditation (perhaps like meditation’s active counterpart) as a means of uncovering and facing parts of myself, and growing myself in new directions.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.

Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms

One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.

The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.

I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.

If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.

So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.

Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts

This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.

Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.

In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading

Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.

Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.

So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading

Why Roll Dice? Two Misconceptions

Maybe some of you have seen something like this before:

Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I hit it with my axe. I get a 3 on my attack roll.”
Storyteller: “Well… that doesn’t seem very effective. The bookshelf doesn’t move.”
Player: “Okay, I swing at it again. 5.”
Storyteller: “…”
Player: “Not good enough? I try again. 1.”
Storyteller: *Sigh* “The bookshelf falls on you. You take 6 damage.”

These rolls are boring, and this scene is a clear failure in my eyes. Not on the part of the PC, who can’t get a break with that bookshelf, but on the part of the storyteller and the player. It plays into two misconceptions that crop up in RPGs, either of which can Continue reading

Killing PCs, a quick reflection

Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.

Did I actually follow my own advice? Continue reading