Thursday, November 18, 2010

Building Characters: Not So Flawless (pt 1)

When you think of RPGs (and I'm referring here to pen-and-paper roleplaying, not the stats-building videogame RPG), you probably think of an adventuring party, taking on daring challenges and fighting off evil beasts.  The role-playing is how your character attempts to overcome the obstacles.  They apply their personality and their skillset to approach each challenge in a way unique to that player and that character.  There is high adventure, evil is overcome, a story is told.

But has your character ever done the wrong thing?

I think one thing that is often missing in bad movies (and is almost always present in good ones) and stories are real character flaws.  Not just superficial things like, "Johnny has a slight limp" or "Dorgath Blacksword has a scar on his face."  I'm talking about flaws in personality, flaws that cause characters to react in ways that might not necessarily be the best thing to do in a given situation.

It can be tempting as a player to look at a situation you encounter, analyze the tactics, and have your character perform the best possible action according to his or her skills.  After all, as a player, even roleplaying, you want to win.  You definitely want to ensure that you succeed at any challenge presented to you.  You don't want your character to die, so why risk doing something stupid?

But it can be greatly rewarding - and a great challenge in itself - to give your character a few real personality flaws that can affect his actions during gameplay.  Sure, Godred the Great can hate orcs - but what if he hates Orcs to a point that he does really stupid things to try and hurt them?  Maybe an orc in a tavern challenges Godred to a pointless duel, distracting him from his quest and risking his life in a streetfight - or maybe he gets goaded into a barroom brawl because an Orc is shouting insults at him.

Maybe your character is impulsive, and will run into the next room carelessly, not worrying about stealth or wondering what could be in that room.   Maybe your character is too trusting - and falls into a trap layed by a devious NPC - even if the player knows that NPC is evil.

That's the real tough part.  As a player, you really have to separate player knowledge from character knowledge.  You have to willingly do something YOU know is stupid, but your character might not have figured that out yet.

Taking this into account with an entire group could really enhance the storytelling aspect of gameplay.  Players whose Characters start doing less-than-the-most-ideal-actions will force other players characters to challenge those ideas, to try and stop someone from doing something completely idiotic.  Suddenly, players are not just interacting with the plot, NPCs, and GM - but truly interacting with each other.  GMs in this group could provide encounters simply by targeting player's personality flaws - but should be careful not to simply trap players into death because of a foolish action. You still want your players to have fun, and allowing your players to take risks- beyond just dice rolls - could really pay off.

These actions also allow you, as a player, to create memorable moments.  "Remember when we killed that succubus?" becomes "Remember that time Obre impulsively chased that hot chick into another room, leading him into a trap and we ended up having to spend the next 10 minutes searching for you?  We had to burn all the hanging curtains in that room just to figure out where you and she went!"  (incidentally, this actually did happen.  It's fun to mix things up with a flawed character decision... but it can still suck dealing with the results.)

GMs have a lot of power in creating their world, but players do not simply have to overcome the challenges.  They can bring their own creativity into shaping the story and bringing it into unexpected directions.

I've got a few more things to say on Character flaws in various forms... but they seemed to break up into 3 different subjects so i'll be doing 2 more blog posts directly related to this.  I find character backstories to be one of the most interesting parts of DnD gameplay, and i think these things can really be brought into play to make a game even more fun.

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  1. Hey I like it, and I've been looking for ways to allow rounded-out characters with flaws as well as awesomeness.

    For me, this is where Aspects (from FATE) really shine, and as such I had to incorporate them into my group's 3e game. Basically how they solve this problem is by tangibly rewarding players for making unideal choices in line with their character's identity. If characters follow their Aspects, they get paid Fate Points for all the trouble they get into. Fate Points can then be cashed in at critical moments for an extra surge of heroism when it matters most. In my experience, Aspects thus encourage story and plot development and focus the game on rich, fascinating characters by rewarding realistic complications and personality development as much as succeeding at killing stuff. It's transformed our game completely.

  2. Shoot, I meant 4e up above, when I said 3e. Drat. Never played anything but 4e.

  3. Heck yeah! Traits, Flaws, etc are fantastic ways to get under a character's skin and make them unique from other characters of their race and class. Unearthed Arcana has a fun trait/flaw system to work with where you can swap some skill mods or take a crippling flaw in exchange for an extra feat.
    Pathfinder also has a similar system that function in some degree like a 1st lvl only feat.
    Of course, the best way I've found is to talk with your DM. Every DM I've played with has been willing to talk character (especially if it relates to the adventure in some way)and work out a fun quirk with appropriate mods.

    However, the mods are in the end a clever way of getting some players to care enough to think about their characters at all.


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