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.
I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7. I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times. But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look. I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance. I’m glad I did. It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.
There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify. These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later. The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters. I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.
Before I get into any discussion I must first say that the game is wonderful and you should play it. If you have already played it, don’t plan on playing it, or just don’t care about spoilers, then you should feel free to read on. Otherwise you should go and play The Stanley Parable and then come back. Go ahead and read Jim Sterling’s review as a way to motivate yourself.
If you’re still unmotivated to go and play before I go into my analysis, then consider this: How much choice do you really have when you play a game? Do your actions truly affect whatever narrative you are participating in? Does deviating from the defined path truly do anything? The Stanley Parable experiments with these questions in a fantastically intimate way.
This article is honestly me cheating a bit as I would have preferred to write a true analysis or something more comprehensive than a question, but I’m busy! So this is what you get. But don’t fret, I think this question is actually extremely interesting, and very important.
Why do we play games? I ask this because I recently got into a debate and one participant countered criticism about a game’s setup with, “I hear people play games for the story.” Now this very well may be true since many games have fun stories, but so do books and movies, and you don’t have to fight your way to the next bit of stories in those. You don’t have to spend hours jumping from one plot point to the next. So why do we turn to games for story when we have books and movies?
To me I think the answer is “participation.” Games allow you to participate in the story. But it is with this answer that I then begin to question certain games which don’t let me actively participate in the story, but instead just force me to do task after task that holds no real meaning in the overall narrative. Along this vein, should we forgive games with great stories for their bad gameplay? I could go on, but I actually wrote a bit about this previously in my article about games and art, but I think we can go further into this question.
Since I need to get going I’ll leave the floor open for you to counter, explain, extrapolate, divulge, or what-have-you in the comments below.
I have written a few reviews for digital roleplaying games (RPGs), but in many cases I find the label is completely inappropriate. When I think of a “roleplaying” game, I think of a game in which I take control and can make important narrative choices. But most digital RPGs don’t let you make narrative choices at all. For that reason I would say that the label of RPG has come to be associated with a mechanic which is common to most RPGs, but isn’t the attribute that makes them RPGs. The mechanic in question is that of leveling up, and I hate it*.
In my last post, I talked a lot about what roleplaying is, and – surprise! – it wasn’t just one thing! That is part of the beauty of roleplaying, it’s full of options. What are these options?
Well, first, we have the three qualities talked about before:
Roleplaying, Storytelling, Mechanics. To keep in line with the existing literature on Gaming Theory, I have slightly renamed the categories I used in the previous post. I have renamed ‘Mechanics’ as ‘Competition’ (it goes by ‘gaming’ in GNS Theory, but I find that to be a bit ambiguous of a term); it essentially refers to how much of the experience of the game is rooted in competition. Storytelling will be referred to as ‘Narrative’, and Roleplaying will be expanded slightly to ‘Simulation’. Simulation refers to how much of the setting goes to recreating system-internal realism. Note that this realism does NOT have to be actual realism. For example, many unrealistic things happen in Star Wars, but there is an assumed set of rules which governs things like lightsabers. Any given game will have a balance of the three, like so: