January 7, 2010

Are Your Characters All The Same?


Why I Always Play Goofy Characters

I do. Or at least I always seem to, and now I'm wondering how much of my character choice reflects my personality. People often write about how roleplaying games are a way to step out of your environment, "pretend" to be someone else, or explore some part of your personality that you can't normally do in RL. For me, this never seems to be the case. Instead, I find that playing characters in an table-top RPG somehow always manages to be some distorted, or magnified, version of myself.

Goofy. Someone who speaks first and thinks... well, much much later.

As a scientist - these are not really great characteristics to have. Fortunately, they only come out at the game table (no really! it's true!)

As a gamer - well... things can be pretty fricken funny at times. For example - I regularly game with a couple of friends in a Deadlands Reloaded campaign where I play a seven-foot 160lb. marshal arts expert named Wen "Chewey" Shui. He is on the run for setting fire to his family's business ("It was an accident!") - The Seven Yellow Dragons Theatre. The fire killed the daughter of Shao Fan's mayor (San Francisco) and now there is a bounty on his head. Oh, did I mention that he's also a clutz?! And that I can't keep a secret? And he thinks he is Iron Man? Yeah... lots of fun, but goofy as hell.

There are plenty of examples of similar, silly characters that I've played in the past. Goofy wizards in a D&D game: a engineering dwarf wizard that believes the answer lies in explosives, not magic. Bumbling paladins who are scared of their own shadow, but follow the god of Stars and Night. I could go one... but I won't bore you with the details. My point is that these characters always seem to be spin-offs of one another; perhaps evolutions on a theme. I always seem to end up looking for obvious ways to mix oil and water in my PC creations. Fortunately, this is something I've only recently realized and now that I've figured it out - I'm quite sure that next time I'll shoot for something completely different. So, I started thinking about how other people conceptualize their characters and found some very good advice out there.

One of my new favorite blogs recently is The RPG Anthenaeum. The author (Alric?) writes in his article Character Development: What's My Motivation:

"When taking on the role of a character, improvisational actors often ask each other, “What’s my motivation?” The answer serves as a guide for how an actor might believably portray a character, since motives dictate actions."
Or more accurately, the question is aimed at themselves. Motivations. Goals. This is something I often miss when creating my PCs - instead I'm asking nothing and just thinking: What's a goofy combination that might be fun in this setting? The motivation sometimes follows later as the campaign develops, but not always. So - Alric has a point: by thinking about your characters GOALS and MOTIVATIONS before rolling the dice you can both challenge yourself and enrich the campaign world through your characters actions. In a truly old-school way, he presents a quick and dirty way to push the envelope even more by determining your characters motivations from a random die roll. Looking back on a (no-so scientific) survey I did last year where over 60% of you though random character background were indeed very old school - it's not that surprising. You would think I'd learn a thing or two and try random backgrounds / motivations myself - perhaps next time I'll remember to do this.

Another way to branch out and make something new is start with the crunch and then work backwards. Try to tightly interweave your character's background to their class, race, or abilities and think about what their motivations are in light of their character sheet. How did they become a Fighter? What are your Fighters goals? To be lord of the land? Get rich? End the war? Or... what life path made them a Thief, Rogue, Assassin, etc? Do they regret it? Are they remorseful or do they embrace their dark ways? You get the idea. John Lewis over at RolePlayingPro.com covered this topic in his post Class-Based Character Backgrounds. It's a bit D&D centric, but from his examples you can see what I mean. Again... personally, I fail at this and tend go think "what's a most goofy way to play a kung-fu sorcerer?"... perhaps there's something I should learn here.

Or perhaps not. I personally can't remember ever power-gaming my way through character creation as a player. As a GM/DM.. sure! Power game away! I mean, there's four to six other players at the table looking to do you in! As a DM, you have to power game your NPCs like crazy - so maybe that's why my PCs are always so goofy? Sort of the anti-power gamer character? Personally, I agree with Ameron over at Dungeon's Master. In his post Playing Against the Type, he writes:

"Creating a PC shouldn’t always come down to crunching the numbers. Embrace the role-playing ... it’s this spirit of adventure that I’m asking all of us to embrace as we make characters in the future."
Well said friend. Well said. So, whether you are rolling random character traits, thinking up backstory first, or starting with the crunch first - once again it's all about the story, the character, their role and how we have fun playing the game.
Its also important to make note of the inherent differences in player types. What kind of gamer are you? Are you a roleplayer or a rollplayer? (See Mike Bourke's explanation over at Campaign Mastery for info on the difference). Are you an actor or director? Leader or follower? Participant or observer? Players come in all shades and each has their own comfort zone. Which begs another question:

Do you prefer gaming in your comfort zone or do you look for ways to get out of it?
And I think that's the crux of it - the reason I play goofy characters is because that's where my comfort zone lies. The thought of playing a super-serious paladin or a dead eyed gunslinger screams BORING to me. But I'm just one person. There's no right answer here. Maybe what I need to do is exactly the opposite of what I'm comfortable with: play a furry for my next character...

Oh... the horrors...


  1. Dear god... I hope that is not a campaign that I'm a part of. Sadly, they are already a part of the genre at large, though. There's always a kitty-person race of some sort.

    I don't think I always end up playing the same thing... I just end up playing it as more boring or bland than I always imagine it will be, though. I find it hard to step out of the comfort zone and play something "loose", though I do try. Probably the only time I was successful was when I played a talentless Shadowrun character whose only redeeming quality was "Random General Trivia" knowledge... successfully saved the party I think exactly once by happening to know how to use and where to find a shutoff valve.

  2. Game rules and choices need to focus on what the game is about - there isn't much place for an Italian plumber in a standard D&D dungeon. Now if he had superior jumping skills and could cast Flaming Sphere and Enlarge ... but any points he puts into Plumbing skill will be points directed away from his other, dungeon-related skills.

    Perhaps this is a good way to produce an interesting character, fulfilling the side desire of having one that feels more realistic and well-rounded.

    But you don't want players to feel like they have to allocate resources to "useless" choices. Perhaps giving bonus points to put into non-adventuring skills. Or the successful use of non-adventuring skills gives a temporary, useful benefit.

  3. I agree about the interaction between character development and mechanics (fluff vs. crunch).. and in many games they don't play well together. Hence... power gamers vs. roleplayers.



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