I like vanilla ice cream. I have for a very long time. Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too. Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.
When I was little, I played make-believe all the time. A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D. My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them. Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS. More other games followed. Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from. I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob. I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.
But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”? And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?
I love Boromir. I know I’m not the only one who does. And however much I like Boromir when he’s alive, there’s something that’s almost even more (tragically) appealing about him dead. This is less because I like his ruggedly handsome corpse, and more because of what Homer touched on thousands of years ago: in his death, because of how he died, Boromir becomes something more than he was in life. Boromir had what we might call a good death. Key to this, Boromir dies before he truly succumbs to the power of the Ring, and in his death he tries to make up for some of the mistakes that he has made previously. His act of self-sacrifice protecting the Ring-bearer is a fairly hefty weight in his favor on the scales of Judgement, making up for some of his earlier errors. Interestingly enough for such a perilous setting, he is also the only member of the Fellowship to die and stay dead.
It turns out that that single heroic death is pretty standard. Most stories, like most role-playing games, don’t have lots of character death. In reality, people engaging in the same activities that most adventurers and main characters pursue with wild abandon have a fairly high casualty rate. People are killed while fighting, they’re permanently injured, they get sick… and in many cases, their deaths and debilities feel meaningless. For every handful of people that die doing something we would idolize as heroic, far more are killed or injured in an almost banal fashion. Would we feel the same way about Boromir’s death if he had, I don’t know, been killed without having a chance to fight back? Stepped on a landmine? Slipped in the shower and broken his neck?
Reading the title you may be thinking that I am going to talk about how characters evolve in a narrative in roleplaying games, but if you remember last week’s article you may note the subtle queue in my use of RPG instead of “roleplaying game.” That’s right; today I am going to talk about different styles of stat/ability progression in RPGs along with minor discussion on the role of progression in narrative.
Let’s start with the title. When I say RPG, I (usually) don’t mean rocket-propelled grenade. Usually.
No, this post is meant to unpack the terminology surrounding role-playing games, and to be used as a future point of reference. I’m also going to refer back to Mattias’ excellent post about role-playing, because he did such a damn fine job of describing what role-playing is.
All three of us have written about role-playing games (check out the GMing category, and look at the older articles). Yet for the most part our posts have assumed a certain level of familiarity with RPGs and their terminology. I’ve certainly presumed that other people know what I’m talking about; but what the heck does it mean when I call a system “sparsely elegant“?
In an effort to minimize confusion, here’s a quick primer that will begin to bring you up to speed. I’ll do my best not to cover things that were done better elsewhere (see Mattias’ article, really), but there may be a little bit of overlap.
Monsterhearts sells itself as “the messy lives of teenage monsters.” But the truth is that the monstrous nature of the PCs in any game of Monsterhearts really just serves as a reminder of the alienation, discomfort, and feeling of mislabeled or misunderstood powerlessness that gnawed at so many of us when we were teenagers. And maybe as adults as well. Furthermore, themes which have filled classic literature for ages rear their heads again and again in this game; you don’t have to have ever experienced any of them yourself in order to be fascinated by and indulge yourself in them.
A quick background: this is an RPG which has grown out of the Apocalypse World system created by Vincent Baker. It takes the sparse elegance of Baker’s ruleset and applies it to a very different type of life. Read on to find out what makes Monsterhearts different from Apocalypse World, and learn some of what makes it so dynamic and so much fun to play.
I’m piggybacking off of Mattias’ article because in our discussions before he published it, certain parts of his character caught my fancy, and it inspired me to try my hand at my own iteration. The core of the idea at the time in our discussions was: Demon hunter who uses magic. After more discussion Mattias mentioned how he was playing around with the idea of multiple personalities and the He Who Fights Monsters trope. My thought: What if this were literal?
Mostly, I’m a GM; so when friends of mine said that he was setting up a group of campaigns and needed manpower, I thought he meant he needed extra GMs. But lo and behold, he needed a player! I was excited and awaited the details for the setting, which turned out to be little more than ‘basically D&D’, so I didn’t have too much setting to ground my character in. For many people, this is a boon! They have character ideas galore and settings only restrict them. After all, they want to play a character who does magic based on rituals, or based on some anime, or whatever, and the campaign just doesn’t fit that.
But for me, it’s the opposite. Given a lack of prompting, I feel unjustified with any details. I don’t have a character idea that I then fit into a campaign; I build an idea FROM the setting. Without a setting, I feel like I have no non-generic ideas.
And so when I started character creation, I was scared. And then I realized something. My fear made no sense. I was applying a standard from my old-school GMing (what if my characters don’t fit the setting) that didn’t even fit my new-school GMing style. I wanted to let players drive games, and yet here I was, a player, afraid to drive a game! I’d like to say that I overcame this fear right away and dove into character creation. But really, I didn’t until that fateful moment when the GM turned to me and said ‘so tell me about your character’. Until that moment, my character had just been a series of numbers, and character creation had been IMPOSSIBLE. But let’s back up a moment…
As promised I am now going go through the Stats-to-Who process of character creation. The Stats I will be working with is from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 because I think most people will be at least passingly familiar with that system (as it is the face of roleplaying). Below is a quick summary of the Stats:
This may not seem like much, and you’re right. A DnD character also has skills, equipment, attributes, and languages. But attributes are determined randomly, and the other bits aren’t really required at this point. For those unfamiliar with the spiked chain Fighter twink, this is the beginning core to a build that has many variations. The basic idea is that in DnD 3.5 you can trip your opponents from range with the chain, and if they try to get back up you get free attacks on them and can keep them lying prone. Over time you can add more area control maneuvers, damage, or whatever, but for now I am only going to care about the core. Now to the steps of character discovery!
For me, as somebody who GMs far more than he plays, roleplaying is all about rolling with the punches. You obviously can’t predict 100% what your players will do, and you can’t predict die rolls, or whatever random element is important in your system. Basically, shit happens, and you’ll have to deal with it. Here are a few tips I’ve found to make that easier:
Has anyone ever told you a story that you really not not care less about? It was probably about something inane and uncontrollable (they had very little or no influence on the outcome), like winning a game of Chutes and Ladders or War. It might have even gone like this: