Roleplaying is a wonderful combination of improvisational acting, socializing, and cooperative storytelling to tell a tale of adventure. Story arcs, both from the players and the Game Master, can build a narrative that is exciting in its execution and offers a good time had by all. At the center of the story is the player characters themselves, who they are and who they become. Motivations and histories, often painstakingly crafted by the players, are taken into consideration on the part of the playerâ€™s actions. As the story goes into full-swing, the player-characters (the protagonists) are fully living, breathing personas who have wants and desires.
And none of that matters one damn bit.
Dictionary.com defines an adventure as â€œan unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.â€ Since every game is an adventure for the characters, there are always any number of hazards in their way. These instances of danger exist to stop a character from succeeding in their quest, from perilous pitfalls to gun-toting grunts, and they wish your character harm. Fall victim to any of these obstacles and that beautiful mÃ©lange of character history and dramatic turns will end well before it can run its course.
Role-playing games are predicated on a system of rules, often numeric in representation and ruthless inefficiency. The book from which these rules are laid out is often available to everyone, letting player and Game Master alike learn what the game gives mechanical emphasis to, from high-speed car chases to madness inducing riddles from beyond. Itâ€™s often dense at first, but all the manners in which a personâ€™s avatar (their character) can and will interact with the game are laid out to be learned. The rules may reward your personal narrative, but in the end, they only exist to show you how things are going to be. No beautiful story of loss and growth, hardships, and determination, will mean much if you ignore the rules.
Want to make a fragile opera singer in a world of tough-as-nails soldiers? Fine. Feel like pouring your energies into the sad background of sickly saloon owner in the savage Wild West? Go for it. Just know that the rules are there, waiting for you, and if the game doles out deadliness like a poker dealer in Vegas, your narrative wonâ€™t matter because youâ€™ll be filling out a new character sheet before the ink is dry on the old one. The cold truth is, stats and mechanics mean more than story.
Your character is the only avatar you have in the game and is the only way you can interact with it, so it needs to be built to survive. If your character canâ€™t endure the dangers of the story because you simply had to play a person with most of their points in World War 2 Trivia and Cajun Cooking, then that character is not long for this world. My advice: Work backwards from the stats and see how your concept fits. Survivability should take precedence over concept, because like it or not, the two-dimensional powerhouse who only speaks in one-syllable sentences and doesnâ€™t even have a last name for most of the game is going to be the only one standing when the smoke and dust clears. In the end, the dice donâ€™t care about your story, and you canâ€™t avoid the dice.
Have examples of what Iâ€™m talking about? Disagree and wanna fight? Leave your comments below.
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5 comments on “Your Character’s Feelings Don’t Matter”
To be fair real life doesnt care about your feelings either
Though with mechanically unimportant skills such as Cajun cooking they should just be given as freebies
Nice read, David.
I’ve been transitioning to a more hard-nosed, simulationist style of game mastery and it can be hard to stick to the cold rules when you A) love your players’ characters and ideas or B) are running out of time and want to draw the game to some sort of conclusion.
I think that it becomes easier for players to “work backwards” from the stats once they understand a system, but when you and your group are starting something new, nobody has any idea what finer points of fiction the rules are trying to support – but you guys oft manage to make rulings that serve the story you are trying to tell when you are running a new and unfamiliar system.
What I like about the hard-nosed style of play is that victory really means more when you know the dice can and will kill you. The fact that some people get so frustrated at their character’s relative inability to interact with the game world – and I’ve been there often, wanting to play a bewildered average-joe in a world of mindflayers and dragons – may be solved by making a greater number of systems popular, or at least known, so that people can find the system that actually lets them play what they want. The problem with that, of course, is that usually, those people are the ones that have to GM the thing, since they alone are trying to convince their friends to try the new system, so the problem remains that they never get to play the character they want. I’m not sure theres a solution to this, and I just shrug and work within the systems that friends are running, figuring no perfect experience is within reach anyway.
RPGs use chance as the primary mechanic to resolve conflict. The game in which you are playing does not and cannot care about your PC and so by playing you are thus throwing said character to the whims of fate for the sake of the story. That story will exist whether your character is in it or not, and that’s what keeps it interesting, the idea that the shifting sands of a characters wants and desires may lead them to their own tragic or careless death.
Depending on the system in which one plays, the ‘luck mechanic’ can be dice, cards, or some other random number generator but in essence it comes down to chance. These mechanics are what drive the games and thus determine the outcomes. If we expand on this idea and the worlds within which the players are living we come upon the strange fatalist/existentialist dichotomy in gaming that David has mentioned. We can determine that which drives our heroes, we can determine how they’ll react to any situation, but in the end if the game says you fail, you generally fail. (Yes you can use fate points, hero points, edge, effort, insert your favorite ‘save your butt’ mechanic here but if you’re all out of those, the point remains) That failure might be as simple “Oh noes I botched a social roll I’m so embarrassed…” Or it could be either of the following: “I botch a jumping roll, I’m dead. I botch a shooting roll, I’m dead.” (Fandible GTRT episode 38, 01:16:05? Here’s a link https://fandible.com/gtrt-ep-38-2018-episode/#comments ) That’s it, it doesn’t matter what kind of awesome backstory you’ve worked on. It doesn’t matter how many levels or karma you got, that character is gone. Your character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, plans etc. only matter as long as that character is alive. After that point it doesn’t matter and yet, the story rolls on. Those ideas may be important at certain times within the campaign. They may determine how other PC/NPCs respond to you, how they interact with you but if the dice decide you aren’t supposed to be around anymore, they will cut you out and make your life hell. Statistics/Mathematics are cruel concepts to players and GMs alike but at the end of the day, as far as RPGs are concerned, they’re what give our protagonists agency.
Love the article. Counter point – No one at Fandible plays a character outlined like this says. Dont want a fight, just Dave to admit Narrative > Dice/Mechanics. Thank you Fandible.
These are all great points and I’m glad this article resonated with people, since the subject is on my mind a lot. To your point, Memnochas (and I don’t want to fight either! I love you guys.) I’ve had a LOT of conversations with Fandible off-mic about this (specifically about Mr. Tagos from our Long Shot series) and have exclusively made tanks/fighters for games that seem to be a long-term thing for us, such as Shepard from Rotted Capes, Marcas from Unhallowed Metropolis, Zap from Hollow Earth Expedition and most recently Noise from the Mutant Chronicles game we just dropped today.
In a game, and especially a podcast, narrative is absolutely crucial. After a few plays with my Skald in Hellfrost, though, I came to the realization that narrative, and the work I put into it, is pointless if my character can’t survive the basics of adventure, and I told the storyteller Tex that I was shifting my build to combat going forward.
Again, I can’t thank you all enough for giving me your thoughts on this! Sometimes I feel like I’m dancing on the line between legitimate critique of a pastime I’ve dedicated over 20 years to and bitter gamer who just wants to *win* at stuff. Y’all are the best.