Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Problem with "Heroes"

Everyone wants to be the star of their own show. I think that’s what it boils down to.

Even me. ESPECIALLY me. But I don’t get to do that ‘cause I’m the Dungeon Master…which is great by the way, because then I get to be the master author/playwright/director and exercise my control-fetish over the game.

But the players? These days they seem to be a bunch of prima donnas…albeit without the chops, generally speaking.

Okay, folks are asking what the F are you talking about (if you’re asking “where the F is this coming from; just keep in mind it’s been a long time brewing).

IN GENERAL (I’m speaking in generalities right now) RPGs are about fantasy…whether the fantasy of slaying dragons or being a super-spy or flying a space ship it’s all fantasy NOT reality. And players who love RPGs love that fantasy and want to live in that fantasy…at least for a short while around the gaming table. And in peoples’ fantasies? Well, of course we are the heroic star of the show!

Few people WANT to play the bit part character actor. As a guy whose did a lot of acting in my early years (that’s one of my university degrees actually), I’ve had a chance to play both stars and bit parts. And as any actor can tell you, playing a bit part is a blast! It takes just as much commitment to the character but you have more leeway and less pressure and (depending on the role) just as much stage time (sometimes great QUALITY stage time) even with fewer lines. But no one tries out for the bit parts. You audition for the star role and get called back for the role the director things you’re best suited.

In a role-playing GAME (acting is role-playing too!) players have much more control over the part they play, assuming they get to create their own character. Which is kind of F’d in and of itself if you hope to create some semblance of a coherent tale from your “adventure” (I’ll explain why in a second). Much more control, I said, but not TOTAL control. Depending on the game being played.

FOR EXAMPLE: in AD&D one is constrained by the classes available (under the rules) and the results of one’s random die rolls for ability scores. In a way, this is much like a real life audition for stage. If I don’t have the pipes, there’s no way I’m going to get cast as the Phantom of the Opera, no matter how dashing a figure I cut in a cape and mask. In the same way, if a player can’t roll a helluva’ bunch of good rolls, there’s no way he’s going to get to play a paladin. That’s too bad…but you can still (in AD&D) play a fighter as long as your Strength is at least a 9…and you can role-play the hell out of him, making him a young paladin-in-training or a very ethical fighter, etc. Hell, if you really missed the spells and such make him a cleric; holy avenger swords are few and far between anyway.

But MAYBE you’re part of a group where Player Joe always plays a cleric and Player Sal always plays a dwarf fighter. If it’s the accepted practice of your group (your “troupe”) then allow the players to rearrange those random rolls so that they can play the character they want. Guess what, though: you’ve been type-cast!

HOWEVER most RPGs written since the 90s have moved far and away from this type of “role-playing game” (as in, a game of role-playing) by allowing extreme character customization at the hands of the player. To what end? Well, ostensibly it was to either A) provide “variety,” or B) allow players to re-create favorite characters of fiction. In practice, it simply allows players to create the maximum badass possible.

No, I am not talking about min-max hardcore gamists who are use break points, feats, and merits/flaws to push game rules towards their shatterpoint (and sometimes beyond). I am talking about the ability to customize an “ultra-kewl character” no matter what stands for “kewl” in YOUR brain, in order to star in your own personal fantasy.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

This is what really makes me throw up my hands and say, “why the F bother?”

And why should I bother to play a game where everyone is simply dancing around with their own fantasy masturbation exercise? If I want to daydream, I can do that without any books or games at all. If I want to tell a story about a heroic persona, I can write a damn short story for my own amusement…hell, I can write a whole string of stories about my favorite character and publish a blog about it.

But of course, many folks aren’t interested in this kind of “work.” They’d rather put together their tall, dark badass (or quirky-yet-powerful badass) and strut him or her about at someone’s game table. And boy howdy, whadya’ know…everyone else is doing the same damn thing, so I guess it’s ok, right?

Three to five prima donnas is what you get, hoping to massacre a bunch of random opponents. “Tactical exercise?” Sure. “Requires more imagination and social interaction than World of Warcraft?” Absolutely. But are you role-playing? Not in my opinion.

Sure you are “playing a role,” the badass fighter or beefy barbarian for example. But only as a means to a single metagame goal: fulfilling your own fantasy. Not in aid of manufacturing a story (except perhaps in your own head) and probably not in exploring the story/world created by the GM/game setting (that only matters as to how it relates to “your guy”).

I used to own an Xbox (before it burned out) and I would play games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on it. This allowed you to create a badass Jedi character and customize him (or her) with looks, feats, skills, and force powers…all the while kicking ass and exploring the story line that the game designers had programmed (and that you paid to purchase).

That’s not an RPG. That is living one’s solo fantasy.

To play that way at a table with others is, frankly, madness. Or masochism (if you’re the DM). No one’s paying to play (except the folks that bought their own books). Yet all are expecting the limelight. It’s supposed to be interactive. It’s supposed to be exploratory. It ain’t supposed to be Twister (figuring out which character fits best where, i.e. “tactical”)…at least not as the major impetus to play. At least not if it’s being billed as a Role-Playing Game.

Where is this rant coming from? I don’t know…I’ve felt pretty ranty lately. Last night I was perusing my old copy of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, thinking of giving it another try. God I desperately wanted to like that game (werewolves being one of my all-time favorite monsters of film, lit, or comics). It starts out with a cool premise (you’re a werewolf!) and then quickly degenerates into the dumbest RPG ever invented. You are a big, hairy, ass-kicker in a tribe with other big, hairy ass-kickers. Your powers make you a great fighter. Being in fights makes you more powerful. Blah blah blah.

Yes, I suppose you could create a weakling Werewolf character. Who would then get upstaged by the others of the group (because the game is all about fighting “the Wyrm,” dontcha’ know?). Or you could play one-on-one (one player, one Storyteller)…but again, that is living one’s solo fantasy, not role-playing.

This afternoon I ran across some notes from back in my 3rd edition days. I had done the math necessary to creating highest hit point character possible under the 3.0 rules. It ended up being a gnomish barbarian/fighter. This is the stupidest thing ever. There’s no way I could have ever justified playing a character like that. I think he had over 800 hit points at 20th level (when raging).

All the characters I created under the D20 rules were dumb. I mean, some were cool, many were fantastic and most (besides my gnomish barbarian) were NOT min-maxed. But they’re all dumb. Because all they did was allow me to play out private fantasies…whether my Halfling ninja, my Dwarvish duelist, or my half-elf ranger/bard/assassin. Sure…I could give them justifying back-stories (for my own amusement), I could play them (until they got upstaged by someone else with an even cheaper-ass character and no back-story). But hell, it’s more fun to make them than to play with ‘em.

THAT is not role-playing either. Just thinking about it made me depressed earlier today…in fact it was the last straw that touched off this little piece o crap prose.

Older games (and by older I pretty much mean pre-1991, though certainly some older games diverge into the realm of “make your badass”…Champions, for example) are far more likely to facilitate role-playing and exploration than wish fulfillment simply by dint of their more randomized character creation models.

Look, metaphysically speaking I DO believe that we all choose the time, place, and body of our incarnation here on this Earth…that’s something I take on faith, though. From my human perspective it just seems random chance that I was born the guy I am and not a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks (good thing, too, as then I’d probably be sitting out the season with some painful injury like the rest of ‘em). Random character creation mimics this human perspective of our birth and life…not everyone is born a badass, that’s just the way it is. When we play RPGs, we sit down to play a GAME, we are not sitting down to write a novel or screenplay of our favorite monster-killing wizard. Forcing players to invest hours of time into crafting a super-cool avatar is antithetical to what role-playing IS, at least in my opinion.

Anyway, that’s my perspective. I’ve ranted here and other places about why I don’t like elaborate chargen systems. This is something new. From now on, unless I’m creating a game that facilitates a narratavist agenda (where shared narration/”screen time” is part of the game design objective), any system I write is going to be heavy on the random chance factor. Certainly this won’t appeal to everyone…too f’ing bad. There are ways to balance RPGs without giving players the option of crafting their characters from the ground up.

Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: Marvel Superheroes.


  1. Excellent!

    This is not an angle I've heard before on character customization, and I think there's a good deal of truth in it.

    Hacking characters from various media into PCs is a passtime that I enjoy, but it has nothing to do with my gaming.

    The systems that I use at the table (Moldvay-Cook/T&T/Gamma World) are ill-suited to it. As you imply, that's what makes them fun.

  2. Hmmmmm, a great deal to ruminate on. An excellent post.

  3. I couldn't agree more! It's a symptom of the me-me generation...a wave of gamers who are so busy being kewl in a 'look at me' sort of way that any 'group' fun is lost.

  4. Hahaha, I had a similar WTF moment when I talked with two of my players and they said that the adventures were really hard, and they would appreciate less of a challenge. (This is D&D 3.5 at level 8 and they've had one character death.)

    I couldn't help myself. I just blabbed it right there at the table: "But this is adventure! It's supposed to be dangerous! The game is called DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, not WANKING WITH ALEX!!"

    So when you write "why should I bother to play a game where everyone is simply dancing around with their own fantasy masturbation exercise?" -- I laughed out loud. Thanks. :)

  5. Yow! Preach it! helluva post - you really nailed a lot of things that I've not been able to put into words here. thanks!

  6. Yeah, folks...it's probably a topic that deserves more thoughtful analysis and less off-the-cuff ranting. I was just trying to figure out why I feel so depressed when I start creating cool characters for these RPGs. And I realized that a cool character doesn't usually translate to a cool over-all game experience.

    But it's definitely more noticeable from the DM's seat.