There’s this thing that role-playing games have done, over the past three-and-a-half decades, that I think players want, but games haven’t been particularly good at supplying. As I explained in the last post, the original role-playing game places little or no importance on a character’s unique identity, and greatly privileges the fictional world created by the DM/GM/Referee/et al (I’m ‘a use all these terms and more, throughout).
Problem is, people like their characters! From the elaborate lifepath systems of Traveller and Cyberpunk 2020 to the point-buy character creation systems of Champions and GURPS, games that provide players with a way to carefully sculpt a more complete (more complete than Basic D&D) character have proved highly popular.
This game of character-building can take many forms. It can be completely free-form, in the case of page after page of intricate back-story. It can be completely random, Paul Jaquays’ system-agnostic Central Casting books, for example. And it can be a series of choices provided by the game for the player to make, as any point-buy or resource-allocation system is, be it Shadowrun, Hero system, D&D 3.x, or even Call of Cthulhu. Whatever form it takes, this game rejects the faceless ciphers that are beginning characters in Basic D&D, and allows the player to express his or her creativity, system mastery, or simple desire to discover more about the fiction.
Even in an old-school D&D game, you’re going to get some kind of character building. By the time characters gain a few levels, they will have created a pretty elaborate history of dungeons looted, magical items recovered, and quests completed. Even if they started as faceless nobodies looting the nearest dungeon at hand, at some point players will find their own drives and motivations, and begin to direct the story based on the motivations and desires of their characters, instead of simply accepting whatever dungeon the DM has prepared. It’s just that later games began to include this as part of character generation, not just as part of play.
I think this game is great. I like finding the optimal way to make a certain type of character with a given system—the combination that gives me the most bad-ass fighter, or the most gear and stuff, or the craziest background. I like taking my character through a complete dramatic arc, and seeing how he is changed by his adventures. I like deciding how he makes sense of everything, session after session.
What I don’t like is how DMing/GMing/Refereeing styles evolved (or didn’t evolve) to fit this desire. If the traditional approach is used, the DM prepares a dungeon beforehand, without reference to the player characters. This means there’s no guarantee that any of a given character’s abilities will be useful, and almost no chance that a character will be able to pursue his own personal goals, or explore his own relationships. And yet, it’s inevitable that when people are building their own elaborate characters, they’re going to build characters that aren’t interested in raiding dungeons or exploring the DM’s fantastic setting. They make characters that are all about their own goals, their own specific problems, and their relationships with other people. And not with the dungeon.
Instead of running a loose collection of situations (and when I say “situations” I mean “rooms with traps, monsters, or treasures in them”), the GM is instructed to run a linked series of encounters, which are more pre-planned than semi-random. And then this leads to the dreaded railroading. Outside the constraints of the dungeon, where players have unlimited choice, the GM has to anticipate their choices so he can prepare—which means limiting their choices! The GM may even be using a module, which has a whole series of scenes planned out, which have nothing to do with the characters. And so, players are told that their characters matter, and that the game will address their drives, goals, and relationships (because why would you spend time deciding on them or crating them?) and yet the GM is told to keep a strict reign on the plot, and not let the players deviate too much from it.
Even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, which is pretty close to old-school D&D, I’m still annoyed by the skill selection. I have a limited amount of points, and no idea which skills will actually be useful in the adventure or not. If only I’d put those fifty points in shotgun instead of photography, I wouldn’t have been killed twenty minutes into the game! Expand that out into more elaborate point-buy systems, where I’ve got all sorts of characteristics and relationships, how pissed off am I going to be when none of that comes up in play? Even in White Wolf games, which are pretty explicitly about relationships and conflicts, the Storyteller is still told how to create “your story,” and “the story you want to tell.”
Dirty little secret here, people: The story isn’t produced by the DM, the GM, or the Storyteller. Everybody produces the story. The GM’s job is to introduce situation, and to adjudicate the rules as that situation turns into story. When players describe what their characters do, they are either trying to enter a situation, deal with a situation, or get out of a situation. And when they do that, you say what the situation they enter is like, how the situation evolves when they deal with it, what happens to the situation when they don’t, and what new situation they enter when they leave the old one.
Basic D&D does a good job of telling the DM how to create situation. It just tells you how to make a dungeon. But most games where the characters are important don’t do a good job of telling the DM how to create situation, because the dungeon creation rules in Basic D&D don’t work for that kind of game. When you get past Basic and into Expert, your D&D game is probably going to turn into that kind of game, and you deserve the best of tools for running it when it does.
So I’ve done a lot of complaining here, just setting up this thing that annoys me. I should probably start proposing solutions, yeah? Okay. Here are some games that do a good job of making that game of building a character actually meaningful in play:
This game concentrates on cool, competent people in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game stays focused on the player characters first and foremost by directing the MC (the GM) to build the setting and the situations around the player characters. When you’re the MC, you ask questions, present situations, and react to what the player characters do. Instead of pre-planning locations or storylines, you prepare fronts, which are essentially countdowns. This is an old trick (and one used fairly well in Call of Cthulhu), but the game gives you solid rules to help you. Create a problem, and if it’s not addressed by the players, just make it worse when you re-introduce it later. Every situation is a question. Either the players will answer it, or you will, but you’ll answer it during play, not when you write the question.
This game is almost the exact opposite of Basic D&D. Instead of focusing on the dungeon, BW privileges the characters completely. The GM introduces setting, situation, and secondary characters in order to challenge a character’s Beliefs, which are written from the character’s point of view, but function as cues from the players to the GM. It’s the Beliefs of all the characters put together that determine what happens in the game, with the GM reacting to what the players want, and exploring the characters through their deeds, instead of the players exploring the GM’s fictional setting.
The main criticism of 4E I hear is that it’s too focused on tactical minis combat, but this is what makes the character building game work, in my opinion. Because all your character building is expressed through tactical combat effects, every choice you make when you’re creating your character has a concrete and observable impact on game play. Unlike Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel, you can play the game without worrying too much about the fiction, although you still can’t create a character without creating fiction.
Yeah, I know, that’s pretty short. Will I explain how to use techniques from all three of these games in higher-level old-school D&D games in greater detail in later posts? Of course I will!