Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grounding Characters in the Campaign

We're not munchkins -we all took 4 ranks in Perform,  we just never use it.

Barking Alien had a thought-provoking post recentlly here.

(That's nothing new- I like the road he travels on that blog so he provokes a lot of thought here)

It got me to thinking - how "into" the game do I need my players to be? How :into" the game do I need to be? The short answer is "It depends" and the long answer is below.

A lot of what I play is D&D. D&D sets up a fair amount of character buy-in for you. Every edition of the game has Alignment, Classes, Races, and Ability Scores, and those 4 things give a player a pretty good start. Once you have them you have some idea what a character looks like, how they act, and what they do for a living. Even within a class this makes a difference -A Str 18, Con 16, Int 8 Fighter? The classic big dumb strong guy. A Str 13 Dex 16 Con 12 Fighter? More of a finesse guy. It's fairly easy to pick out an archetype or even a stereotype and run with it, like Scottish Dwarves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Legolas-type elven archers. Then mix in "Lawful" or Neutral" or "Chaotic Good" and you have a pretty solid picture of a character's broad traits, ready to be refined by violence and looting.

This is probably where my minimum buy-in falls: I need a name, a personality or hook, and preferably a place of origin somewhere in the campaign. If you have that much then I can work with it and the rest of your character will be defined by what happens in the game. A paragraph or two is fine. How you got your powers is fine. The name of your tribe and your father or best friend is fine. A sentence describing the reason why you went adventuring is fine. The name or type of your most hated enemy or most desired goal is fine if you have one.

What I don't need is pages of background story because in most games it has no bearing on things and none of the other players are going to care about your not-so-short story. They care that last session you scored a critical to bring down the red dragon or that you fumbled when you tried to bring down the dragon, not that your hometown was raided by gnolls when you were 6. To me its largely a waste of time and because I don't feel obligated to use any of it you're probably better off not doing it. Plus, if we decide that it matters later on down the road (like say in a supers campaign) then when we decide to cover your origin story and tie it to a major villain, I can't easily do anything with it because you went and wrote a novel before we ever started. If it's going to matter in the campaign then let's cover it during the campaign not before. Would Indy be cooler if he had explained why he was afraid of snakes in Raiders or was it cooler if it just came up a few times then we finally got to see why in the opening of Last Crusade?

Now some games encourage background development mechanically and that's very cool:
  • Traveller and Star Trek and Cyberpunk and Mechwarrior 3E and Mekton all have a kind of lifepath system during character creation that will build a framework of a background by mapping out the character's professional development and usually include mechanical effects based on it, from your skills in Traveller to what kind of mech you start with in Mechewarrior.
  • Hero and GURPS have advantages and (mostly) disadvantages that players can take for things like psychological issues (code of honor, bloodthirstiness, fear of snakes), dependent NPC's (Aunt May), to physical issues like missing limbs to enemies and allies actively hunting or assisting your character. It's probably a good idea to nail down some of how that came about but even then it's not required. If a set of blue-gloved ninjas ambushes your team a few times then your teammates will be a lot more interested in your story than they will if you bog down the first session with a long pre-written tale.
  • Shadowrun has a system of Contacts and even if you have identical powers the character who starts with a bartender and a squatter as contacts clearly has a different story than the one with the Media Sensation and the Mayor as contacts. I don't need a 5-page story about it, just think about it, make a few notes and we will work it in.

Plus some games are just more character-centered. If we're playing the New Justice League then I might want to know more about your character to work in shared enemies or allies or that we need a hanger in the base to park your jet. If we're playing Keep on the Borderlands then all I really need to know is that you're a sword & board fighter or a magic-user who knows sleep and we're good to go..

Licensed games are also a little different here. You're playing a wookie? Cool, got it. A Klingon? Great, I know a fair amount you already just based on that one word. You're the Red Ranger? Noted. Cimmerian? I have a picture in my head. Browncoat? Awesome. Intelligent talking car that's impervious to damage and can superleap? I may know a bit about your background. Autobot? Nice. All of these words convey a wealth of images and information that take care of a bunch of the stuff that is typically associated with a character background.

History is valid here too for the same reasons: Spartan? Check. Roman? OK. Doughboy? Alright. Flapper? Sure.

Published game worlds fall into a similar category. "I'm from Cormyr" tells me something different than "I'm from Chult" if we're playing in the Forgotten Realms. In Greyhawk a Keolander and a Frost Barbarian will likely look and act differently from each other. In Shadowrun a Sioux Wolf Shaman is very different from a Sidhe Hermetic Mage.   In Traveller being from a TL 4 planet will shape a worldview quite a bit different from that of the character with the TL12 homeworld.  There won't always be mechanical effects for these, it's more of a look and an attitude and it's up to the player to decide how much to emphasize or use it.

So anyway, my point with all of this is that there are such widely varying levels of expected buy-in for the RPG's we play that it's probably worth bringing up before you start a new game. Everything from names to advantages/disadvantages to contacts can be affected by this. Is it a one-shot? Is this an ongoing campaign? Is it a sandbox or a limited or plotted campaign? That all matters too. Even with people I've known for years some of them won't assign a name until the character makes second level while others will write 3 pages of backstory before they roll any dice, and I've mostly been treating them the same way. It's something to think about before the next session to try and make the game that little bit better.

1 comment:

Barking Alien said...


This, this, A THOUSAND times this!

I couldn't have said it better myself and I haven't which is why I think my style of gaming is sometimes misunderstood.

I don't need you to write 'Roots'. I need a quick paragraph or two that says, "this is basically who I am, this is basically why and this is why I do what I do."

Sure, you might give me a bit more than that in Supers and if that's the case I say more power to you. Heroes has origins. Fantastic. You mentioned a secret organization originally developed Serum-Zero X. What are they called? Perfect. Expect to see them show up periodically.

I don't play much D&D for the buy-in for us might be, on the average, a bit better than for you and your crew largely because of one difference in our styles that I did note...

First, regardless of genre, a lot of my games are indeed more character centered. I build a lot of my side treks and subplots off the characters so I do need a little something. Give me absolutely nothing about your character and I simply have fewer ways to give him or her the spotlight.

Second, most of my plays are reverse of the 'norm' you describe. They (and I) care less about the fumbled dragon attack and more about who they are as characters.

I'm really glad I inspired some discussion and especially if it results in a post like this.

Incidentally..."I like the road he travels on that blog so he provokes a lot of thought here".

We'll see if you still feel that way after March. ;)