Saturday, August 27, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 27

Having not gamed in any unusual or exotic circumstances, I can't really speak to the scheduled topic for today. Instead, I'm going to backtrack to something I mentioned the other day.

When talking about "What makes a good character?" I focused on the narrative and table-centric elements: Backstory, Goals, and Personality. This time, I'd like to talk about the place where mechanics and character meet, and how that interface can be difficult.

Form vs. Function

One of the problems I run into most frequently on this subject is the conflict between mechanically representing the character I'm making and mechanically optimizing the character.

For example, perhaps you're playing a Paladin who grew up as a street urchin. He started in a life of crime, picking pockets and so forth, until some life event drove him to become a champion of law and justice.

It would make sense, then, for the character to have some usually Rogue-like skills: Sneaking, Lock-picking, that sort of thing. In a lot of systems, this would be difficult to achieve. Perhaps it's not even possible for a Paladin to be skilled in those skills, or just prohibitively costly. It might be the case that those skills are non-functional for the Paladin; his divine oath might exclude such indirect actions, or maybe the Paladin's tendency towards heavy armor renders stealthy approaches irrelevant.

The point being, the story being told means building the character one way, but practical considerations warrant building it another way. 

A lot of players avoid this by building the character first and telling the story around the mechanics; work with what is required and take advantage of the "empty spaces," so to speak. Sometimes, the solution is more story telling; taking up the Paladin's mantle naturally led to those skills becoming rusty and unusable, so it's not necessary to take any of them. 

Limitations of the System

In some cases, though, it may just be best to acknowledge that the system isn't practical for representing the character. This can happen in a number of ways.

One possibility is having to compromise between combat and non-combat skills and features. Given how central physical conflict is in a lot of games, it makes sense that players want to maximize the combat prowess of their characters. However, if that comes at the cost of proficiency in non-combat roles, then realizing the character might become difficult or impossible.

For example, consider trying to build Batman in a system. He's at the peak of human physical potential, trained in martial arts, stealthy, incredibly wealthy, an expert in many fields of science and engineering, and often considered the world's greatest detective. Combining all of that into a single character would be quite difficult, depending on the system. The trade-offs might necessitate downplaying some elements, or forgoing them completely. 

Another possibility can come from a clash between expectations for a character versus the actual mechanics in play. For example, during the D&D campaign I ran a while back, two of the characters were to act as a team, with one acting as the bodyguard for the other. In any other system, this would have been fine. 

Unfortunately, because this was 4th edition D&D, it didn't work out quite so well. Every character in this system is fairly sturdy, so there's often only little-to-moderate risk at any given time. Additionally, both characters were Defenders, classes focused on going to the front of combat and intercepting attacks. This led to some incongruity at the table. Both players felt unable to play their characters the way they'd imagined or intended them to be. Had we all considered this possibility before the game started, it might have been avoided. 

In either case, the best solution is to keep the system in mind when building the characters, so problems like the above can be avoided.

Devil in the Details

In other cases, the conflict might come down to circumstances unique to any given game. For example, a player might want to play a grizzled war veteran. It's not a bad trope, but if the game is to start at level 1, or whatever the lowest marker of competency is in the system, then it would probably be hard to accurately portray an experienced soldier.

It's not hard to come up with other examples: Playing a tinker in a system that doesn't account for technology. Playing a wizard in a low fantasy setting. Playing an atheist in a setting with clerics and other divine champions. Playing a gunslinger in a setting where they're scarce. Building a character concept around an ability they can only use rarely. 

In general, these sorts of conflicts arise because there's a break between the character the player wants to make and the game the GM wants to run. In some cases, a change of game system might accommodate this, but often the bottom line is that there has to be an acknowledgment when a character simply isn't a good match for the game.
This group really would have benefited from using a group template.

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