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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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.

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

Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts

Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.

This week I’ll add: be boring.

“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.

Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.

Be unoriginal.

If you’re really stuck, Continue reading

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

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…  Continue reading

Exemplars & Eidolons: Post-Mortem

It turns out that Exemplars & Eidolons was almost exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. It also turns out that I failed to sufficiently anticipate the bottleneck that I would create by not printing out more materials for my players to use while making their characters. So much for “less than half an hour.”

To be fair, most of character creation was finished faster than that. The dice-rolling and number generating side of things, and the decisions that people had to make about equipment and such, were really quick. Choosing their gifts, with the limited information that I gave them, was really quick too.

What took time was copying information about their gifts onto their character sheets, and coming up with facts about their characters. The first of those has a pretty obvious solution; I can give out more pre-printed materials after people have chosen their gifts, instead of being the only person with access to the full text of the gift entries in the book. The second seems a little trickier.

The game suggests that players write three facts about their characters. As the text puts it in the one page cheat sheet, “One fact should be about their past life and how they obtained their skills. Another should be about the family or social ties they have, and the third should be about some special trait or personal quality.” It took a little convincing from me for them to say ridiculous and awesome things about themselves. I also had to tell them that these were intended to give them more hooks or ways to interface with the world, instead of being intended to shut them away from it.

Maybe it’s because first level characters in Exemplars & Eidolons don’t look like all that much on paper, but I don’t think they really believed how badass I was encouraging them to be. The truth is, if I were only looking at the numbers on the sheet without having read the rule book, I might think that most E&E characters were doomed to suffer ignominious deaths at the hand of a few goblins with pointy sticks. In point of fact, I think just about any E&E character would totally wreck those goblins, probably on their own… but it’s tough to embrace that when you look at your character and don’t *believe* it.

So how am I going to make that side of things go faster? To some extent there’s no way for me to rush the creativity of my players. If they can’t come up with anything they like, they can’t come up with anything they like. I’ve certainly had that problem today, getting 720 and 530 words into two different tries for a flash fiction piece and liking neither of them. But I think I should write three examples of different kinds of facts for each of the prompts and include them in the additional materials that I print up. I can also include my little reminders about how people should make their facts more badass than not, and how they should create further engagement with the world if at all possible. Maybe I’m deviating from the original intent, but I don’t want players to hobble themselves because they decided to make their fact about “some special trait” be ‘dies their hair green’ when other people are throwing around things like ‘walked barefoot through the Valley of Knives both ways, in the middle of winter.’

And, if all else fails, they can write their facts while we play. Heck, that might be the best possible option. If I prep some adventures right now so that I can start game the moment people have the relevant numbers, and start with the characters already undertaking some task, I’m pretty sure a bunch of improv trained LARP campers can come up with some personal character details.

Oh, yeah, the session was awesome. I’ll probably talk more about it later, but suffice to say that improvising and flying by the seat of your pants is really easy in this system. It’s great, and fighting spooky snake sorcerers in a dark and creepy space is scary.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Quick + Dirty OSR

There’s a tradition at the overnight LARP camp where I work, one that has been carefully nurtured by my friend Zach, of playing RPGs when you’re not busy LARPing. Zach has run a wide variety of games at camp, but in the past few years he’s used Old School Renaissance games almost exclusively. I think I’ve finally discovered why.

Continue reading

Why David Weber, Why?

Reading about flat characters in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I have just been reminded of one of the things that routinely frustrates me in David Weber’s work.  Weber likes trying to make characters who should essentially be flat, more or less caricatures intended to draw up conflict or drama or comedy (or maybe they should be comic but he refuses to use them in that way, making them painfully comic instead… more on that later).  But instead of accepting that these characters should be flat, he tries to flesh them out.  He tries to make them round, and make me care about them.  Nine times out of ten, he fails.

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Flash Fiction: Characters in 250 words or less

Like it says in the title, this week’s flash fiction challenge is to create characters and convey them in 250 words or less.  I’ve had a few knocking around in my head recently, and I decided to let two of them out.  I’ve already written stories about both of them before, which you can find (amongst others) right here.

Continue reading