9 March 2009

D&D Characters

I know, I know, I'm having a pop at D&D again. I'm going to reiterate that if D&D floats your boat then go for it. It's actually a highly sophisticated dungeon-crawl RPG and I'd prefer to think of people enjoying a D&D campaign than playing hours of WoW. But it's just not role playing. Well, not given any reasonable definition of the words "role" and "playing" when in the context of one another anyway.

This has never been made more apparent to me than in the unfortunate habit I have encountered in some gamers to create what I shall dub the "D&D Character". The D&D Character must satisfy the following brief to be considered thus:

  • Must have a fascinating instant impact or be unusual in some way for examples of class, race, occupation, alignment etc. This feature in a proper story would serve as a hook for the character. In a game where one has to start the adventure with a large degree of presumed incompetence could also explain this hilarious incapability away. For example, if you created a normal everyday hulking warrior with a big sword to kill things with his early incompetence is nothing short of embarrasing. However if Jongar the Allyrian is obsessed with cheese one could point to his failure to perform even the simple tasks of his trade as a being a byproduct of his unhealthy pecadillo.
  • Could have a detailed but largely tertiary back story; thus explaining the cheese obsession. Also it will probably dangle alluring plot hooks for a GM who hardly, if ever, finds a way to work these into the story which wouldn't involve shoehorning, long periods of not using dice or showboating from the player who invented the character. Of course in a story people mill about they come to the fore, they retreat, they circulate. If you had some support for group storytelling instead of a bunch of dice heavy combat rules... ahem.
  • Is designed to always have something to talk about in a one or two-dimensional manner. These are never deep things and are always topics of conversation that can be pulled out for a "character moment" at the drop of a hat e.g. having an imaginary friend, being a bit dodgy and a pointlessly pathological liar, having an obsession with some harmless and often incongruous topic such as toast or flower arranging... yes, yes, or cheese.

The symptom, as is so often the case, points to the disease. Generally speaking I've not met role players who weren't yearning for a part in a game that allowed them to feel like the hero properly. Sure there should be challenge and difficulty otherwise the game is dull but in the end the challenge and difficulty should arise from factors other than the character's blatant incompetence. It's a well worn trope of fiction that a character should be likeable and in heroes capability is likeable.

When you create a character who has to be lame until they've levelled up a few times you necessarily begin to be irritated by them during this process. Making them into a bit of a weirdo accomplishes the twin aims of poking fun at your pathetic character but also gives you a chance to vent your frustrations at a game which promises so much and delivers so little. The D&D character provides a way of letting off steam and having fun in a situation which, despite claims to the contrary, is short on opportunities to do either out of the box.

In fact this tendency also works against the player ever getting that moment in the sun. Even if a GM is adventurous and allows Jongar to encounter the evil master baker who grilled him like so many pieces of medium sliced white when he was naught but a boy the player's already made it quite plain that Jongar's a looney. If you were trying to run a semi-serious campaign Jongar's either got to be less of a looney or the whole encounter is going to end up on a Python-esque route perhaps not entirely inkeeping with the spirit of the game.

I have, on occasion known GMs to bemoan this very thing, when the game turns "silly". It's six of one half a dozen of the other. So Jongar's player is making a mockery of the serious plot, let's face it having to roll 2D6, 1D8 a D20 and a D4 every time Jongar swings his mighty broadsword also makes a mockery of the serious plot, just not in a fun way.

Just as attempting to introduce plot to a board game may be a bit of a morale killer so making merry quips within the "plot" framework is a counter morale boost.

So this dysfunction balances out nicely in that type of game. In a game that has a serious story potential, however, the dysfunction just collapses into broken.

D&D characters are no good in the long haul, five or six episodes and the character's all played out. They don't have subtlety, layers, aspects, they just have furry underpants and an obsession with toast. It all seemed so amusing at the beginning but now? Hmmm.

So next time I'm creating a character concept I will be sure to make sure there is definite dramatic complication in there. Now the story is real I want to be a real character within it. If that's what you've been yearning for in your campaigns, either as a GM or a player maybe it's time you tried to find a solution.

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