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Author Topic: Playing a character as an individual  (Read 751 times)

Steven Mitchell

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Playing a character as an individual
« on: September 14, 2022, 11:59:13 AM »
In the all the recent back and forth about number of races, number of classes, mechanical widgets, human-only games, character backgrounds, emulating a certain styles, and so on, there's been this nagging, recurring thread running that I think I've finally pinned down what bothers me:  I want a player to play the character as an individual in the setting.  I want to get to that point as quickly as possible.

In this thought, I have a great deal of sympathy with those GMs that advocate for human-only games, minimalist design, historical games, etc. Though I'm not temperamentally or aesthetically in those camps.  That is, I think I understand the motivation, but I like my fantasy gaming, front and center, too much to share those tastes.

No doubt, personal experience plays a big part in this.  I keep hearing  from so many that having a lot of options, a lot of background, etc. will give what I want, but my experience is that it does not.  Instead, what I get from players with those options is a patina of the individual.  Player A isn't playing a stereotype.  Yay!  No, what Player A is playing is a shallow reaction to a stereotype, as if avoiding the stereotype was the end goal, instead of a basic starting point. In the end, this result is no better than the stereotype, and with many players, frequently worse.  All this really does is replace one set of knee jerk attitudes with a different set.  I don't like patinas, and I really don't like them when mistaken for something of more substance.

Or you could consider "baggage".  The less baggage there is, presumably the quicker the player can get into playing the character in the setting, with whatever twists and turns emerge.  However, again in my experience, not all baggage is equal.  A player needs a little something to "hang their hat on", so to speak.  One player's baggage of "classic elf" is another player's well understood starting point so the player can get on with playing Jasmine (the elven whatever) in the setting at hand. 

There is an obvious, clear example of not playing a character as an individual in the typical behavior of the woke--seeing how a central part of their problem is they don't see characters in books or movies as individuals, or in the worse case, even real people as individuals.  So of course they can't do it in RPGs, either.  However, that seems like a low-hanging fruit of a digression, when I'm more interested in more capable hands navigating with some degree of success.

For me, what has "worked" is to have some bare hooks into culture, race, setting, etc, and then have the individual emerge as the player reacts to the setting.  However, I find that those few, bare hooks work better, on average, than going even more bare-bones than that. 

Anyone else have similar or counter experiences?

Ghostmaker

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #1 on: September 14, 2022, 02:34:30 PM »
Mechanical options will only carry you so far in crafting a character. You have to develop some personality, and that means -- surprise! -- roleplaying.

I've contemplated a number of fast and dirty ideas to get my mind working if I need to develop a character. Anything from 'Is he an early riser or night owl?' to 'Would he appear on Hot Ones with Sean Evans?'.

Effete

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #2 on: September 14, 2022, 11:19:13 PM »
For me, what has "worked" is to have some bare hooks into culture, race, setting, etc, and then have the individual emerge as the player reacts to the setting.  However, I find that those few, bare hooks work better, on average, than going even more bare-bones than that. 

Anyone else have similar or counter experiences?

I operate along the very same lines. Not only as a GM, but as a player too. I NEVER have a "fully realized" character right from the beginning. The personality emerges when a new situation is presented and I think about how I want that character to react. As I GM, I try to present situations that make the players think outside of strictly binary terms. Classicly, this was the "do we kill the goblin babies?" conundrum. It doesn't always need to delve into ethics, but it needs to make the players think how exactly their character WOULD act, given the background they've already created.
____
Here's an anecdote:
In a game I'm currently in, I'm playing a human barbarian named Gan, and one of the party is a female halfling cleric. Gan has a low Charisma (6) so I decided this comes out as a crude sense of humor. The halfling is very altruistic, always trying to do the "right thing." Well, one time, the "right thing" got the party in trouble with an ornery half-orc, and Gan later mocked the halfling for it. She (completely within her own character) got upset and it created a slight rift between the characters. (Probably important to note that, as players, we were both cool with this playing out.) Eventually, one of the other party members confronted Gan and told him to apologize. Gan sincerely felt he owed no apology because the halfling had objectively put everyone in danger. Meanwhile, the halfling felt she owed no one an apology since she was technically in the right and the half-orc NPC was just a complete jerkface.

Anyway, Castles&Crusades gives barbarians a "discern true north" ability, so I decided that means that Gan probably knows a few things about star constellations. One morning, after the halfling cleric finished her prayers, Gan sat down next to her and said:
Quote
"The Weeper's eye did not twinkle; did you notice? Her mourning was done; she is content. We'll find happiness before this day is done. Do you believe that?" He looked the halfling directly in the eye. "Do you think we'll find happiness today? Or are the portents of the stars as foolish as the tongues of men?"
It wasn't a true apology, but it was enough to bridge the divide. The halfling then admitted not knowing much about stars, and the two bonded over nighttime stories while staring at the sky.
____

For Gan, the barbarian's class abilities were merely a canvas that I used to paint my own impressions upon. The full post is HERE if your interested in getting the full context.

Mishihari

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #3 on: September 15, 2022, 11:55:13 PM »
I concur that I want my character to be fully fleshed out people.  In particular to be people that aren't me.  I've found that discovering their personality emergently during play usually results in me playing myself in the setting.  There's nothing wrong with that, but most of the time that's not the experience I'm going for.  There are two ways I've found that are useful to avoid this. 

First, writing a character history.  It doesn't need to be a book - I find that a four or five sentence paragraph is usually sufficient, and I usually just keep it in my head rather than put it on paper or pixels.  I find that this lets me choose actions based on my character's pre-adventure experiences and is a good jumping off point for character development.

Second is coming up with a set of values, precepts, whatever you want to call them.  Again, this doesn't need to be extensive, just a list of four or five principles the character lives by, in order of priority.  And again this is a good starting point for making your character's decisions before you have enough in-game history to assist you.

Tallifer

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #4 on: September 16, 2022, 08:12:08 AM »
My characters too usually only evolve through play. That does not mean however that I feel constrained by too many options or too few options.

However I do occasionally like to play an archetype that works better with a unique race or class (say Tars Tarkas, the Tin Woodman or Friar Tuck).

Omega

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #5 on: September 16, 2022, 08:44:36 AM »
I usually have a basic grasp of a character and something of their past in case it comes up in conversation.

Old example being my first surviving BX character. Magic used with terminally low HP.
While apprenticing his teacher's tower was attacked by a wraith. Before it could be dispatched he had been partially level drained and so permanently lost part of his vital force. And became the inspiration for his illusion guise, to scare monsters.

Another player had something like this: Learned how to sword-fight from the town militia captain. Doesn't know how to ride a horse. Knows elven but doesn't let on that knows elven.

One I DMed for had the background of: Comes from a noble family under a generational curse. The black knight armour is his fathers as is the sword.

Eric Diaz

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #6 on: September 16, 2022, 09:23:19 AM »
Eh... I agree in theory, but I've yet to meet such players.

Creating multi-dimensioal characters is something even decent writers fail at. Doing so  while dodging traps and killing monsters is is a challenge.

And this has nothing to do with mechanics... necessarily. Personality will shine though in the moments of interaction and role-play. Maybe no dice are involved.

OR, play Runequest, Pendragon, etc., and put your passions in the character sheet. That may work even better to make personality matter.
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Steven Mitchell

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #7 on: September 16, 2022, 10:20:40 AM »
Well, yeah, there is only so much depth you can get with a character, short of playing it for a some time, with some thought.  Plus, I don't mind a character that starts almost a blank slate.  Or even a completely blank slate, provided that is not paralyzing to the player.  There has to be something to get the player started.

That's related, but not exactly what I mean here.  I'm talking about the thing where mechanics or background gets mistaken as depth, used as a substitute for depth.  Early, multi-dimensional is too much to ask, usually.  A hint of a second or third dimension is not.

Perhaps it is akin to the complaint about a game mechanics having too many "buttons" to push such that a character stops considering the situation.  That's about tactics, strategy, etc. engaging with the world as part of the game.  If you can hit the "kill monster" button and it usually works, you don't think about ambushes or flaming oil or other such situational gambits.  I see a similar dynamic with characters options.

Let's take elves for example, since that's a hot one for so many people.  Are elves boring?  To me, that's the wrong question, and asking it leads to the wrong answers.  The correct question is, "Is this elf boring?" The one being played right now in the game.  If yes, the answer is neither "ban elves" nor "introduce elventy versions of elves".  The first will get you a player doing some other race boring.  The later will get you the player on a dark elf or a half elf or whatever, still boring.

This is where we cycle back to the "humans only" crowd.  If you can't play a human character with some personality, then you can't do it for any non-human either.  And a non-human can easily become a crutch--such as a dwarf that begins and ends with a bad Scottish accent and dislikes elves.   Of course, that suggests a reason that "ban elves" or whatever is not the answer, but is sometimes the starting place--kick the crutch away so that it stops getting used.  That's also completely separate from the unrelated question of whether or not the race fits into the setting or not.  Because always playing the thing that doesn't fit is also a crutch--a very crude, obnoxious crutch, but there it is what it does to the integrity of the setting that is a bigger deal than a player never growing.

I guess what I'm cycling back to is that I only really enjoy working with players that either collaborate on the setting before play starts (we decide on elves or no elves for reasons other than crutches) or are happy to engage with whatever the setting provides in the way of options.  The reason being, that I've found that such players will begin to show some modest depth with any character they choose to play.

Greentongue

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #8 on: September 16, 2022, 01:37:23 PM »
There is always the Pendragon method of have a series of Traits on a scale of 1 to 20 that defines the character.
These Traits can shift through play but they do mechanically give something to define a character from the start.

Eric Diaz

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #9 on: September 16, 2022, 01:53:20 PM »
I think having the players participate in world building is worth a try.

"How are the elves in this setting, and how does YOUR PC relate to his people?"
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Mishihari

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #10 on: September 16, 2022, 04:13:19 PM »
I feel like there’s a tension between using some characteristic to define your character and not wanting to become a stereotypical whatever.  Maybe in a particular setting elves are artistic, great fighters, and act like 10 year olds with ADHD.  If you don’t want your character to be like that, then why be an elf?  But your character is like that then he’s a boring stereotype.

And I want race to matter to characters’ personalities.  I’ve lived and traveled enough places to know that there are very real differences in culture amongst us humans, and those differences affect the personalities of the people in them.  Just in the U.S., I could describe in detail the differences between folks in L.A. vs New Orleans vs Chicago vs Iowa vs Boston and so on.  And the differences from the US to folks in other countries where I’ve lived and worked like the Philippines and Nicaragua are an order of magnitude greater.  It just makes sense to me that a character of a nonhuman species with a different biology is going to have even large differences from humanity. 

As an example, maybe on a scale of some personality aspect like flightiness, the typical human will range from 10 to 30, and an elf from the above example will range from 50 to 70.  Elves have the same range on the scale as humans, but to a human, including us players, they’re all just going to look like total flakes without any variance because they’re off the scale of our experience and we don’t see any meaningful gradation between them.

The only thought I’ve had about how to address this is consider the range of a personality characteristic for a PC race, such as what is the meaning of a 50 vs a 60 vs a 70 in the above example, and figure out the differences.  Then pick where you want your character to be.  To be honest, I haven’t tried it because it sounds like a lot of work, but I don’t’ have any better ideas.

hedgehobbit

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #11 on: September 27, 2022, 10:47:59 AM »
I think it is helpful to look at this situation from the perspective of a player. If a player is interested in creating a well rounded character, you don't really need to add any mechanics to support him. He'll do it anyway. OTOH, if a player doesn't care about his character then additional mechanics will be either ignored or viewed as a hindrance to pay.

From my experience, I've found the best way to get a player to create an interesting character is to get the player interested in the game world and NPCs within that world.

However, since this thread is about mechanics, here are some of the changes I made in my OD&D game to try and trick players into making characters that aren't just generic "adventure dude":

1) Randomly roll for a character's race at character creation. I'm a big believer that limitations enhance creativity so race is randomly rolled for a player's first character. Not only does this insure that the race will fit into the game world, but it also helps break players from their natural inclination to play the same character over and over again.

2) Unlocking new races and classes during play. To avoid the clutter of too many race and class choices, all the exotic choices are only allowable after the players have encountered an example of that race or class. Either befriending a group of monsters, such as Gnolls, to unlock the Gnoll race or by finding a Paladin to recruit the players into that new career.

3) Free multi-classing for everyone. This is another way that helps characters grow and change. After meeting the aforementioned Paladin, a player can multi-class into Paladin and take up that class. Or a player can simply transition from a Fighter to a Thief based on the circumstances of the campaign.

All these methods are meant to create a situation where the composition of the party, both in terms of races and classes, is a reflection of the adventures that the party has experienced during play rather than just the hodge podge of random races and classes that we usually see. Plus, no two parties in the same campaign world could possibly have the same collection of races and classes as any another.
« Last Edit: September 27, 2022, 10:50:50 AM by hedgehobbit »

Shawn Driscoll

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #12 on: September 27, 2022, 03:34:11 PM »
In the all the recent back and forth about number of races, number of classes, mechanical widgets, human-only games, character backgrounds, emulating a certain styles, and so on, there's been this nagging, recurring thread running that I think I've finally pinned down what bothers me:  I want a player to play the character as an individual in the setting.  I want to get to that point as quickly as possible.

In this thought, I have a great deal of sympathy with those GMs that advocate for human-only games, minimalist design, historical games, etc. Though I'm not temperamentally or aesthetically in those camps.  That is, I think I understand the motivation, but I like my fantasy gaming, front and center, too much to share those tastes.

No doubt, personal experience plays a big part in this.  I keep hearing  from so many that having a lot of options, a lot of background, etc. will give what I want, but my experience is that it does not.  Instead, what I get from players with those options is a patina of the individual.  Player A isn't playing a stereotype.  Yay!  No, what Player A is playing is a shallow reaction to a stereotype, as if avoiding the stereotype was the end goal, instead of a basic starting point. In the end, this result is no better than the stereotype, and with many players, frequently worse.  All this really does is replace one set of knee jerk attitudes with a different set.  I don't like patinas, and I really don't like them when mistaken for something of more substance.

Or you could consider "baggage".  The less baggage there is, presumably the quicker the player can get into playing the character in the setting, with whatever twists and turns emerge.  However, again in my experience, not all baggage is equal.  A player needs a little something to "hang their hat on", so to speak.  One player's baggage of "classic elf" is another player's well understood starting point so the player can get on with playing Jasmine (the elven whatever) in the setting at hand. 

There is an obvious, clear example of not playing a character as an individual in the typical behavior of the woke--seeing how a central part of their problem is they don't see characters in books or movies as individuals, or in the worse case, even real people as individuals.  So of course they can't do it in RPGs, either.  However, that seems like a low-hanging fruit of a digression, when I'm more interested in more capable hands navigating with some degree of success.

For me, what has "worked" is to have some bare hooks into culture, race, setting, etc, and then have the individual emerge as the player reacts to the setting.  However, I find that those few, bare hooks work better, on average, than going even more bare-bones than that. 

Anyone else have similar or counter experiences?
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Jam The MF

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #13 on: September 27, 2022, 03:55:28 PM »
All Player Characters should be played as distinct individuals, and all significant NPCs as well.
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Steven Mitchell

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Re: Playing a character as an individual
« Reply #14 on: September 27, 2022, 05:43:47 PM »
For clarity, I'm mostly interested in what has worked for others in practice.  Reason being, I see a lot of theory crafting, that if looked at uncharitably boils down to the two extremes of:

1. "Back in the day, we had a blob of clay, and we liked it.  Any personality you had, you brought yourself!"  Also popular in the modern, ultra minimalist crowd.
2. "I can't get into my special guy being the fifth best cook in the city, unless the mechanics work out so that is the case, taking into account not only my overt cooking skill but any related abilities. Here is my background history that explains it."  In a game where cooking might arise once in years of play.

 ;D

While those are exaggerated to make the point, I detect frequent appeals towards one extreme or another in some discussions--as if the extreme itself was a principle to follow. Now, I'm definitely closer to blob of clay guy than mechanics for every tiny detail guy, and not only because I think it is a little more workable.  However, for me the sweet spot is pulling back from that brink. 

It's in the messy middle where the good game play seems to happen.  Every mechanic has a complexity cost (weight on the system) and provides an opportunity to engage with the setting through it.  Obviously, complexity is all over the place.  Less obviously, I say engagement is too.  I can tolerate more complexity in a mechanic that gives relatively more engagement.