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Author Topic: Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?  (Read 1235 times)

RollingBones

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« on: August 20, 2020, 08:07:28 pm »
While I've been quietly lurking on forums, and working on my own game system again (about the 1000th unpublishable collection of such efforts I've assembled since first playing Dragon Warriors over 30 years ago), I've stumbled into somewhat of an interesting dilemma. Which has prompted me to finally join a forum to discuss.

I could be wrong about this, but watching games change over the years, it seems to me that character personality has become increasingly codified, and built into game mechanics. It was kind of interesting way back when White Wolf did it with Vampire, and now it seems to have become the driving force behind many games.

I'd describe the change as a shift in focus, toward predetermined character behaviour, rather than emergent character behaviour. Recently it seems that if a game doesn't have it some kind of behavioural reinforcement mechanic, people look for ways to force it onto the system.

My question is, How people feel about whether this actually improves roleplaying and characterisation, or is just an interesting mechanic?

Is characterisation really improved by 50 pages of backstory? Does rewarding or punishing a character for deviating from their psychological template lead to more interesting and complex characters, or even a more fun experience?

For my part, if you give me a decent gear list, I'll give you a character. Sure, not much of a character at first, but once play begins, that character will flesh out with their own personality and quirks. I'd rather not know beforehand how that character will react to things. Half the fun is getting into a situation, rolling something outlandish, and finding out who your character is.

In the middle ground, building a character in Traveller is a game in itself, with what may seem like terrible rolls building into a fun quirky history, from which a character emerges. That is, a complex character *emerges* from that background, rather than being determined by a few simple traits. Even here though, I personally feel more like I'm performing the already formed character, whereas "back in the day" it felt like I was discovering the character.

I can definitely see the value in games like FATE, and I can appreciate systems that use personality aspects as their core mechanic, but I'm not sure it *necessarily* leads to more interesting characters, or more a more fun game. At least not to the extent that a similar system needs to be jury rigged into every other game.

So there's the debate, Emergent character behaviour vs pre-determined or codified character behaviour.

Obviously they're not wholly mutually exclusive, but to what extent could the trend toward codified behaviour mechanics actually reduce character complexity or even player enjoyment? Why do modern game designers seem to feel that it's *necessary*.

Cheers, I'd love to hear people's opinions.

Lunamancer

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2020, 02:05:30 pm »
I think it's counter-productive.

On a technical level, real life value hierarchies are strictly ordinal, not cardinal. While you can certainly try to assign then numerical values for the purposes of incorporating them into game mechanics, this isn't, strictly speaking, "realistic." Thus it would be an odd choice for me. Not that I necessarily place realism as the highest goal of my campaigns. But as it is, even the more cut-and-dry "physical" activities, in recognizing that we don't even have our real world boiled down to a set of usable rules for gaming, whatever rules an RPG use, no matter how "simulationist" the RPG is designed to be, is going to fail to capture the nuance and diversity of how things really work. To the extent I want my game to live and breathe, I thus must fudge rules and rolls from time to time. House rules will not suffice, as it's still too simplified a ruleset to feel organic.

On a practical level, I have observed that when you sit and make your character in a vacuum, including backstory and personality, there's no guarantee that when you actually go to play that the character will make sense in the context of the party, adventure, or campaign. (Indeed, ever since first making this observation and have been aware of this, I have yet to see a single group of PCs put together for an adventure and some mismatch not occurring.) And this is understandable because, again, looking to real life, our individual personalities are not merely expressions of our individualism. At least in part, they are adaptations to the world around us and other people we encounter.  Our personalities are not created in a laboratory, nor are they the creations of our own single mind. And so to the extent you want to take role play seriously enough to even be pondering the question of how useful personality traits are in the game, I have to believe a more organic creation of personalities has to be a value worthy of at least equal consideration.

I do like having personality traits noted for NPCs. If social interaction with the NPC is important to the adventure, it should be noted in the stat block, just as surely as combat stats are noted for things you fight. However, here, while I don't outright reject mathematical ratings, I recognize that no matter how exacting the system, it will necessarily fall upon GM judgement if or how the personality traits apply to a particular situation. Thus simple linguistic ratings are generally both simpler and more useful than some hard mechanical approach for the job.

WillInNewHaven

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #2 on: August 21, 2020, 02:58:24 pm »
They are not needed but they can sometimes add interest. When I create a character, I know what the family's social status was and how they made a living and where the character is from.

While not directly defining personality traits, these things can have an influence. Recently, the daughter of a landed knight was a character in my campaign where every other human was a commoner. The player and I discussed what she should be like. I told her that the young knight would assume, without much thinking about it, that she was in charge and that the fact that one of the other players was usually more assertive than she was should not discourage her. She could be autocratic or reasonable, those options were up to her, but she and the others should take it as a given that she had authority.

RollingBones

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #3 on: August 21, 2020, 08:27:44 pm »
Lunamancer, I think we're of the same mind on this. Personality trait mechanics are becoming so ubiquitous, I thought I might have been the odd man out. I definitely agree there's value in characterisation notes for NPCs too, if only for GM reference.

WillInNewHaven, I concur regarding personality elements arising from the character's backstory, especially if that backstory is integral to the campaign. Interesting thought about how personality and role in the party can create a specific dynamic.

My current game concept evolves backgrounds on the fly, so weaving character histories into the campaign would also need to be done on the fly, or during the usual planning between sessions. If I do introduce a personality mechanic, I wonder if and how I could tie it to the backgrounds as the come up? An interesting thought experiment.

Thanks, I appreciate the input.

Ghostmaker

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #4 on: August 25, 2020, 03:14:56 pm »
I would say it depends on if your game is character-driven. Personalities can make a game memorable.

RollingBones

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #5 on: August 25, 2020, 05:01:19 pm »
Quote from: Ghostmaker;1146407
I would say it depends on if your game is character-driven. Personalities can make a game memorable.

In a way, you've cut to the core of the matter.

I agree that personalities can make a game memorable, and I also tend toward character driven narratives. But I'm challenging the notion that player characters require, or even benefit from, tying their personality attributes to any game mechanic.

Does FATE, for instance, really lead to more interesting and complex personalities for characters than, for example, 1980's Dragon Warriors, or AD&D without class alignments? Maybe at the very outset of a new game that's the case, but I think PCs can develop in more interesting ways when their behaviour is not tied to the mechanics. Depending on the player, of course.

Steven Mitchell

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #6 on: August 25, 2020, 05:54:59 pm »
Part of it is the difference between short-term and long-term play.  If I'm playing, for example, an old D&D dungeon crawl, and barely naming a character until he makes second level, but the campaign is going on for several months or even years--then the emerging personality of the guy that manages to live for some time is contrasted for the collective audience (i.e. the players and the GM) in part by all the characters that died before him.  You've got events to react to which will establish your personality one way or the other.

If I'm playing a one-shot adventure, on the other hand, I've got to bring any personality to the game right away, to the extent that there will be any.  Exactly how I do that could vary depending on the shared history of the group, the type of game system, the nature of the genre, etc. Whether I pull from other fiction or a personality mechanic built into the system is largely a question of convenience.

Edit:  It is analogous to what works in creative fiction when looking at the differences between a short story contrasted to longer works.
« Last Edit: September 02, 2020, 07:53:46 am by Steven Mitchell »

RollingBones

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #7 on: August 25, 2020, 06:19:58 pm »
100% agree. Tightly written one-shots are often best served by pre-gen characters with solid backstories integral to the narrative, and well described characterisation in place before play.

I'm focused on the perceived benefits of personality mechanics in game systems, and I'm throwing out an accusation that they may be overrated or overused. Possibly to the detriment of more complex characterisation in long term play.

It's just a general feeling on my part, so I'm testing the waters to see what the broader community thinks.

It seems like if a designer were to release a new system, it would be considered incomplete or inadequate if it didn't have some FATElike personality mechanic, and that the first thing people would do is graft on a homebrewed aspect/alignment framework. So I'm torn. Do I write such a thing into the game from the outset, as [optional rules], possibly to the detriment of the game overall; or defiantly kick it to the kerb like the character-limiting-shallow-psychological-simulation it is?
« Last Edit: August 25, 2020, 06:24:52 pm by RollingBones »

pattybenpatty

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #8 on: August 26, 2020, 08:05:46 am »
I think there is something to it, but balance is always key. Defining the gameplay style for your design helps with that somewhat.

In my current pet-project, a rules light pulp system, players create a 6 word sentence to describe character agendas in the campaign (connecting words are free, "the," "and," etc.) And assign a single word to each of 6 categories to provide hooks for background and skills and the like. That's it for background, bonds, flaws, etc.

If a player consistently plays against the agenda statement and the other players unanimously agree they want to do something about it, the first player has to make a roll to see what happens to their character. Character death or incapacitation are possible. Not so much about character personality, as it is about giving the table a mechanical way to deal with a player at cross-purposes with the group. I think a lot of talk about personality mechanics might boil down to dissatisfaction with how a player is choosing to play, and people wanting some mechanical way to force "acceptable" play on that player.

I think my take is that at the character level baked-in mechanics usually lead to a reduction in options, but can be helpful for people that struggle to otherwise create a personality for their character. For so many, simply having a low Int character grunt and say stupid things is the extent of characterization that they can come up with. I reckon that is another segment that might want personality mechanics. Likely too for people that might well be capable of sophisticated RP but just want some simple/silly limits given to them so they can play a lighter/easier game

RollingBones

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« Reply #9 on: August 26, 2020, 05:15:07 pm »
Quote from: pattybenpatty;1146532
In my current pet-project, a rules light pulp system, players create a 6 word sentence to describe character agendas in the campaign (connecting words are free, "the," "and," etc.) And assign a single word to each of 6 categories to provide hooks for background and skills and the like. That's it for background, bonds, flaws, etc.

I like your idea of an 'agenda', that sounds far less less restrictive than a simplified personality archetype. It sounds like a tidy way to keep some consistency in the party's goals.

Quote from: pattybenpatty;1146532
For so many, simply having a low Int character grunt and say stupid things is the extent of characterization that they can come up with.

I hear that. Reducing every low Int character to a dull English-as-a-second-language trope is funny the first few times, but has gotten really old over the years.

Quote from: pattybenpatty;1146532
I reckon that is another segment that might want personality mechanics. Likely too for people that might well be capable of sophisticated RP but just want some simple/silly limits given to them so they can play a lighter/easier game

I think you're right. There's definitely a portion of players who want personality mechanics, for better or for worse. I think I have to resign myself to an optional 'identity lite' mechanic. But I don't want a band-aid, so I feel it needs to be more nuanced than "you roleplayed a few words from your character sheet, have a bennie."

There's something in your idea of an agenda I really like. Moving the focus to a goal that supports the party dynamic, rather than reductive presupposition of psychological drives. Not nicking your concept, but I might try to tap into the kernel of it, to see if there's something there I can draw inspiration from. Cheers.

Hmm. Plenty to think about.

pattybenpatty

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« Reply #10 on: August 27, 2020, 07:43:06 am »
Cheers, glad to contribute something.

Spinachcat

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #11 on: August 27, 2020, 09:06:02 pm »
You can boil down great memorable characters to a few words. You don't need volumes of text or mechanics.

A three dimensional character only needs 3 unique traits, aka 3 keywords.

If I give you a character sheet that says "Persona: Mysterious, Altruistic, Calm", I'm sure most you would do a great job roleplaying at the table...because I've had no issue with 10 years doing this (after I explained what "altruistic" meant).

Anthony Pacheco

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Do Player Characters really need codified personalities?
« Reply #12 on: August 27, 2020, 11:02:01 pm »
Over the years *cough* I've started to invest my game table with acta non verba. Don't tell me how your PC is, or what they did, or who they are.

Show me. In the game.

Now, some players need to write an old fashioned early aughts background to do that. Whatever works for them. But I've gone on record that in the sandbox, they're going to need to bring what they wrote to the forefront through means of drama, conflict, or action. That's their job as players. I've stop reading character backgrounds.

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pattybenpatty

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« Reply #13 on: August 28, 2020, 08:21:33 am »
Quote from: Spinachcat;1146723
You can boil down great memorable characters to a few words. You don't need volumes of text or mechanics.

A three dimensional character only needs 3 unique traits, aka 3 keywords.

If I give you a character sheet that says "Persona: Mysterious, Altruistic, Calm", I'm sure most you would do a great job roleplaying at the table...because I've had no issue with 10 years doing this (after I explained what "altruistic" meant).

The homebrew system I mentioned earlier uses 6 words beyond the agenda statement. Players pick a single word for Appearance, Background, Passion, Profession, Weakness, and X (X being something they choose).

I'm finding some people have a bit of difficulty with this, but a little conversation with the DM (me) clears it up, and in the end we both get something quicker to make than an elaborate background story that is also easier to use while remaining very flexible. Appearance Passion and Weakness provide great hooks for the DM, while the others primarily help the players ground their choices and descriptions for actions.

RollingBones

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« Reply #14 on: August 31, 2020, 03:46:43 am »
Quote from: Spinachcat;1146723
If I give you a character sheet that says "Persona: Mysterious, Altruistic, Calm", I'm sure most you would do a great job roleplaying at the table...because I've had no issue with 10 years doing this (after I explained what "altruistic" meant).

Very true. I'm not sure if it's what you intended, but I'm imagining the Sphinx from Mystery Men. It's almost enough to make me want to create a monk character based on it already. He'd be awesome and funny to play. So mysterious.

Quote from: Anthony Pacheco;1146743
Show me. In the game.

THIS. Like life, your character isn't what you claim, it's what you do.

Quote from: pattybenpatty;1146769
...in the end we both get something quicker to make than an elaborate background story that is also easier to use while remaining very flexible. Appearance Passion and Weakness provide great hooks for the DM, while the others primarily help the players ground their choices and descriptions for actions.

Hell yes. Quick chargen is happy chargen. I do use histories and personalities as hooks sometimes, but generally not until further into a larger campaign. Hopefully what I'm developing will not quash that.


Anyway, Thanks all!

After much deliberation I've had inspiration for an optional mechanic I don't hate, that is almost entirely player facing, so the GM doesn't have to worry about it at all until the player wants to lean on it. Even better, I think I've found a balance so the rewards for leaning into a character's written down raison d'etre are minimal without being insignificant, and I've avoided the use of bennies. Plus, it's almost original. Almost.

I won't bore you all with it, unless/until I actually get it the whole schemozzle together into a working document. But this thread has been a massive help. Thanks again!