Super Role

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.

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8 Responses to Super Role

  1. Azel says:

    This reminds me about the “Blue Skies in Games” movement from UK:Resistance, complaining how modern video game are all dark, gritty dystopian ghettoes, where the dark-haired, blue-eyed, ex-spec op w/ 3 day old stubble must struggle against a machiavellian plot by the illuminati. Tends to get old on the Nth iteration. Yeah, at this point someone playing a regular Dudley Do-right paladin would be pretty novel.

    But what exactly are you musing about? Lamenting how most players want to play a dungeon crawl (what I think, sadly, most D&D ends up being) OR how character definition bleeds into one another in systems nowadays? I never minded some class mixing — because I always believed in letting the players play what they want. But I do understand how having a slew of Mage-Warrior-Assassins quickly dilutes the gaming experience.

    Tabletop gaming shouldn’t solely be an exercise in character/party optimization; the story (and character archetypes) should mean something, too. Part of that is GM responsibility. However, I can see the argument where — post Diablo-esque video game dungeon crawls — tabletop game companies have abandoned even this limited responsibility to character and world definition. In exchange, they now focus on molding mechanics into World of Warcraft (or whatever). The abandonment of character specialness into min/max tailoring feels like a loss for me personally.

  2. iclee says:

    I was inspired by relevance. I tend to only care about player relevance, character’s abilities be damned, but a character may be so irrelevant that no matter what the player tries the character’s actions are meaningless.

    The thing about my HoR3 characters is that my player actions can matter even though my character’s abilities are completely overshadowed. But, I could just as easily be playing a different character and achieve the same effect, so why not play a character who has abilities that matter?

    • Azel says:

      Hmm, but isn’t character relevance a function of campaign story? It’s one of the reasons I liked 1st ed AEG L5R; on their modules they’d directly state whether it was political, investigative, or combat focused. That way you as GM knew what you were introducing to the party.

      And since you were GM, it was assumed you would have very good reason for retaining a hodgepodge mix of characters. The idea of characters being so disparate from the main party thrust, and main campaign arc, seems like either a) bad GMing, or b) doing paint-by-numbers, fixed path gaming. Which might lead me that maybe a Global game world with a set module run is the problem.

      Or maybe I am misinterpreting the interpretation of relevance you are using. Is it that the session outcome is the same, regardless of the means used? Be it spy, courtier, or samurai, one can say ‘all roads lead to Rome’? If that’s the case, that just sounds like crappy reward write-ups in the modules. GMs should tailor the consequences, or at least be allowed to, in a Global campaign.

      • iclee says:

        I find it unusual for GMs to tailor games to the abilities of the characters, at least at a specific level.

        The thing about HoR is that it isn’t just that the mods are fairly rigid and GMs can’t adapt them, which is fine/necessary, it’s also that you don’t know what sort of party you will be in. I frequently game with a character who does social stuff better than my monk, which, besides dueling, which he doesn’t even have a katana for, is what he mostly adds. Now, it is the case that only really courtiers have a problem with redundancy and only if they are of the same type – it’s fine to have an investigator (my HoR2 main), a talker, a something else-er. But, two talkers just get in each other’s ways.

  3. Azel says:

    Oh, I think I get it now!

    It’s like having a written story add randomized characters, instead of filling archetypal slots essential for moving the narrative. Thus you may end up with a party of 2 Mages, 2 Thieves, 1 Diplomat/Healer, and no Warrior/Tanks — and you are dungeon crawling for a small village along the way to the castle. In a narrative, it just does not balance. You have gaping holes, while having redundancy in others.

    Is this what you mean by niche? Not that the game mechanics prevents niche (or leans too heavily into homogenized uber-characters), but that the party casting call is miscast. Where roles that would shine normally in the story are filled in with an also-ran waiting in the wings, ‘cuz the star was sick.

    Normally that’s a GM thing to fix. They’d call out for various ‘professions’ needed for the next ‘mission’ (or, with more estrogen, ‘story’) and fill the roster with appropriate members of the PC cast. Usually the fastest way I fix this is one of two ways: let PCs keep same character and separate their story arcs OR let PCs keep a roster of different profession characters to fill ‘mission roles.’ Guilds and divergent stories (that converge in the future) are great for the first. Letting PCs discuss, and bid/audition, for roles before assignment is fun for the other.

    How strange HoR3 is. So far it sounds very RPGA-ish — and that’s not a wholly resounding endorsement right there. “Serious and competitive role-playing” always seemed like an oxymoron to me. But then I’m a method actor gamer… :)

    • iclee says:

      HoR1 was RPGA. I don’t know how serious and competitive play is, mods are just supposed to be consistent from table to table. But, parties aren’t. Can theoretically have a party of all courtiers (of the same type). I ran one mod where the only character with an above average Intelligence was being played by someone falling asleep because of the time difference.

      That I tend to play with a particular group these days means that I can either go in a different direction than planned or play a different character, the latter is what I’m trying to do, but there are still reasons to play my first character.

      I’m not just talking about HoR, though. I’m talking about sessions where the character I’m playing has nothing to offer. Basically, I just end up being an observer. Being an observer doesn’t bother too much, but it’s annoying when you can suffer based on what is going on or what other party members do/don’t do when you have no ability to impact outcomes positively.

  4. Azel says:

    This part about being a stuck observer (like a bad dream) reminds me of a character I ran in Call of Cthulhu. He was a professor of linguistics — including several ancient ones, which was the set up for his neuroses (Disadvantages for more character points). So he was morbidly obese, kleptomaniac with a fixation on returning said stolen objects by sleight of hand or otherwise producing french fries and potato chips off of people with which he is talking (mmm, character points).

    He had his place — to read the scary Mythos books then scream profusely, and otherwise add quite a bit of color to game sessions. But his high morbid obesity made him an absolute liability in combat-prone investigation scenes. (I botched a save to climb up three flights of stairs and almost tipped over to crush half the party behind me; thank goodness they made their strength rolls… good times, good times.)

    So when it came to “investigate the mysterious mansion” my guy ended up being foisted into the carriage to tag along; yay, enforced party dynamics. But after arriving to the scene, my character refused to enter the mansion. He had no business being there, and I role played it as such. Thus he sat in the carriage waiting, being the lookout ready to go seek NPC party support (but mostly he practiced the art of nonchalantly materializing a french fry from his nostril and eating them).

    Now, even if the session was written that way, I as a GM would have given my character the opportunity to ‘do something else.’ Whether it was critically relevant to the narrative is a function of how well it is played, I think. He could have easily been given the rapidly made-up responsibility to talk to various NPCs to garner firepower support. Given his personality quirks it would have been a role playing challenge, and offer breaks of levity in an otherwise intense investigation scene.

    That’s why I come away thinking the GM has a duty to decouple narrative linearity from party presence. The best plays don’t have every lead character on stage for every scene — it makes no sense. Why should gaming be any different? At some point every game ‘doesn’t work’ for the given circumstances at hand using the basic rules; that’s where judgment and creativity have to intervene, right? Just a personal philosophical observation.

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