Tis the day of the Super Bowl, an event branded on celebrating excellence. While more true in the case of the commercials (even, then, they’ve gone downhill) than in the case of many of the games (which have gotten a lot better in recent years), the marketing machine works wondrously for promoting the idea of greatness.
Anyway, I could talk just about greatness, but I’m more motivated to talk about something else.
Still, can start with greatness.
What do people want out of RPG experiences?
By what sort of characters people typically build, it’s not what I would have expected thirty years ago when I was introduced to RPGs. Or, what I expect to some extent even today.
What I find curious is that I thought the point of RPGs was to play the characters one finds in books, movies, TV … in stories. Not necessarily the exact character but one just as heroic, successful, ideal, and/or cool. That interest is something I find terribly rare in playing RPGs.
Maybe because it seems naive and, therefore, uncool to play a heroic character, but I find that a lot of folks would rather play characters who are villainous or ordinary and forced only by circumstance to be heroic. That may be realistic, but gaming isn’t about realism.
Sure, I don’t make blatantly heroic characters. Part of that is being too aware of how “unsophisticated” that is; part of that is because such a character would never fit into the parties I play in; and, part of that is that I don’t like spending much time in the spotlight. But, I aspire to something greater.
Perhaps the aspirations of greater power are more common than greater deeds, but still, greater deeds is a pretty common aspiration. So, why all of the morally ambiguous or bankrupt characters?
Okay, I need to be more specific. I do understand that gaming is an outlet for letting loose and being able to take actions that would be unacceptable in real life. Why all of the morally ambiguous or bankrupt characters in heroic genres?
I get that Conan’s world isn’t a heroic world; it’s probably less heroic than many a sword and sorcery world. So, our groups being heroic only by accident is more amusing than questionable. But, what about L5R? Why is the Scorpion Clan so popular? Why do people want to play Spider characters? Assholes of any clan or concept? Yes, L5R’s world isn’t as nobly inclined as, say, Inuyasha’s world or Middle Earth or whatever. Part of the attraction of the game world is that it can satisfy a wide range of interests, from mass combat to monster-fighting to political war to intrigue to black ops. Sure, only really monster-fighting in that list is noble, but there are plenty of bad guys that can be countered besides Shadowlands monsters. Yet, rather than an interest in being an actual force for the common good, I see far more those who only concern themselves with their own interests or actively work against others’ interests.
Perhaps some of it has to do with the nature of a living campaign, where PC vs. PC is an element and where constantly opposing blatant evil is not. Perhaps others don’t see L5R as a heroic genre, reserving that for their D&D games or supers games or whatever.
What do people really want?
I know what I really want. I want my own niche. There is nothing I find more important than niche protection. If a character isn’t unique, isn’t special, in some way, then it shouldn’t exist. I harp on systems that encourage like characters, often through unbalanced mechanics that too heavily encourage a limited number of builds, because characters should always be distinct and have their moments when they are the most important thing in the story. And, that’s why niche protection is so important – everybody needs to be the star some of the time, even if it’s less time than somebody else.
This has been in my thoughts recently because my first HoR3 character clearly fails in this regard. In HoR2, the archetype was extraordinarily unusual based on my experiences. In HoR3, Tattooed Monk seems to be the most common school, social monks are standard due to the trait bonus being Reflexes (which encourages Awareness) and one of the better tattoos being Crane. Not only does my general concept lack any sort of uniqueness, but the party I usually play in has another TM and a character who is strictly better socially (who is even a Dragon!). Now, I can establish my own identity through personality, which I think was more so the case with my main character in HoR2, but this is always a greater challenge for me than establishing characters mechanically due to my inherent subtleness and, somewhat, due to my trying to play personalities different from my own. I’d still have a mechanical problem, as I don’t see a way to claim a distinct enough mechanical identity given the restrictions I’ve put on myself (i.e. that this character needs to get to rank 3 and my other character rank 4).
I’m still fuzzy on my second character’s (my main character, in theory) personality, but I already feel distinctiveness after only one play even though I wasn’t even playing the school he will be a member of! Unfortunately, two of the next three mods are ones I intend to play with my first character either because they are part of a series or because of what is publicly known about one of the mods (that it’s political).
One could argue an inconsistency here. If everyone is heroic, no one stands out as unique, right? I don’t see that. I see people who don’t aspire to greatness being less likely to stand out. Aren’t stories full of groups of heroes who retain their own identities?
What don’t people want?
Yes, there are those people who play RPGs to just let off some steam, whether by murdering a bunch of monsters or by making crude jokes or by making nerdy sci-fi/fantasy references that other gamers will get. Sometimes, that’s all there is and the story is not so relevant. For me, though, that’s not really the desired RPG* experience, as those things can be satisfied with tactical boardgames (D&D) or, nowadays, MMORPGs. Yet, the lack of interest in there being a unique narrative is prevalent.
* Tabletop. Well, “tabletop” since I don’t actually play L5R much at a table. How about “personal”? Still has problems with definition. Is there really any difference between a living campaign played online and a MMO? In my experience, incredibly different, but maybe it’s because of how little MMOing I’ve done. Then, why rag on D&D as not being real RPing? Because it’s often not, where a character is a set of numbers.
There are those who can make a strong argument about MMORPGs being the RPG experience they want, and where I find MMOs to be a failure is that characters aren’t special/unique. It’s not just limitations on builds and what can be acquired, it’s also limitations on situations. What has millions of players and makes tons of money, though, versus what has maybe a couple of thousand and barely survives to publish?
Did I have a point?
My topic is not that clear. What it was really supposed to be about was relevance. I have played recently in sessions of RPGs where my characters just weren’t relevant. This was mostly due to mechanical irrelevance where either the character was inferior in every way that mattered to others or had no mechanical impact to the adventure (he wasn’t alone in this). In one case, though, it included having no relevance in decision-making.
The advantage of a home campaign is that you can always tailor situations to cater to the PCs. Some of that control is lost with something like HoR, so it’s up to the player to put more effort into establishing a recognizable niche. For the former, there’s a responsibility on the GM to work with a player to establish that PC’s role. In the latter, the player may have to change plans, as I’m looking to do.
What makes for a great character? Does a great character need to be great?
In most of my experiences, the characters I had the most fondness for were those who had their moments, who did great things because they were capable in ways that others weren’t, no matter how goofy those ways may sound.