Saturday, August 24, 2013

Playerwoes: Why I Don't Reroll an Imperfect Character

I believe there is a sort of maturity that comes with extensive playing of tabletop RPGs, a hard-learned lesson that players more familiar with computer/console games needs to learn before they truly enjoy themselves in true roleplaying.  Something even I've only recently grasped.
Tabletop RPGs are designed to allow you to create an avatar for yourself, unfortunately there is often the assumption that this avatar is a perfect creation, even when dice rolls dictate otherwise.  I mean, it makes sense.  Why would you want to pretend to be a fallible being in a fantastic setting?  We've all read books or watched movies where the main character never loses, or at least never loses for long.  And in games, the only time the player loses canonically is when control is stripped from us.
In Final Fantasy VII, any time a party member dies, you can use an item called a Phoenix Down to resurrect them.  Unfortunately, you're unable to do this very simple, system-canon approach when Aeris is killed.  Every other time, you are in control, and you win.
Tabletop RPGs are different, though.  Because they depend on dice rolls and chance instead of automatic success or infinite retries, you can never make a character that can hit a target at one hundred paces, one hundred percent of the time.  Your expert marksman will, eventually fail horribly.  He'll also likely be terrible at other things.  Those skills he attained to become a crack shot mean nothing in delicate social situations, where saying the wrong thing could have far worse repercussions than missing a target at a competition.  Your circus strongman will not be able to make heads nor toes of the Dewey decimal system.  But those are to be expected.  What isn't expected, when you make this character, is that the marksman will miss, or the strongman will be unable to lift something, or that the mathematical genius will be unable to figure out a simple Sudoku-style puzzle that is locking a door.
Let me tell you the story of Sir Blaen of the Pendragon RPG.  Sir Blaen was an able horseman, strong with the lance, better at hunting.  He 'graduated' into knighthood, assumed control of his heritage household, and was sent to various tourneys, where he was utterly trounced in the joust.  After perhaps ten to twelve sessions of playing as Sir Blaen, he ended up having the absolute worst tourney record in the game setting.  Sir Blaen is the type of cursed character that would have failed in a joust against a small child armed with a piece of driftwood and a toothpick, seated on a rocking chair.  He was routinely trounced in the melee, and in his only duel he lost all will to fight before his opponent had even drawn his sword.
Sir Blaen was a knight of constant sorrow, is what I'm saying, and I occasionally had a horrible time playing him, because when I created him I was envisioning a master horseman, unparallelled with the lance.  He could track a hawk on a cloudy day, if he could only roll well enough to.
Which brings us to the issue.
With dice rolling, there is no 100% success rate.  No one stays on their horse 10 out of 10 times at the lists.  That gallant knight I created, ended up being covered in shame (and likely horseshit) by the time our campaign finished.  The times I arrived for the game, I came for the story, because I knew what would happen with Sir Blaen.  He would fail, and I wouldn't have any enjoyment from his failing, because I desperately wanted him not to.
This hope was different than other types of hoping for good rolls.  Occasionally there will be something important in a game, and you'll need to roll.  And you'll want that roll to succeed.  Imagine arriving to a game, and rolling, and hoping that any roll will succeed.  Sir Blaen was a fun character, and I got some enjoyment out of roleplaying just how much of a failure he really was, but I still wanted him to win, because that is what I created him to do.
Let's talk about another character now.  A portly, dorky, uncoordinated virgin named Jordan Antimonius Baxter of the Solar Patrol.  Jordan was born-or created, if you will-to be an utter failure.  His back-story set him as a middle child of a military family, underachieving in his life, and being a disappointment to a father who, in desperation, sent him out to die in the Solar Patrol.  As a black sheep, I had no expectations for Jordan to succeed consistently.  In fact, I had set up his character in such a way that I deemed it a success every time he lived to the end of a play session.
His occasional successes suddenly became points of pride for me.  Every time he failed to fail at a task, I was enjoying myself.  Every time he failed, I enjoyed myself, because the dice were roleplaying to the character.  This character was an absolute success for me, because I never expected him to succeed.  My conceptions about him colored the bad rolls and skill checks in an understanding light, and every time he exceeded my expectations I felt like I was watching a Mighty Ducks film.
However, neither of these characters was ideal to play.  First of all, no one wants an aspiring loser like Blaen as their character, or even a whole party of Blaens.  And likewise, no one wants an entire party of Jordans.  Or an entire party of Eeyores.  Or Chris Farleys.
With characters like Blaen and Jordan, you never get your hopes up during play.  You're always expecting failure, and being "pleasantly surprised" when you get success instead.  Gameplay needs tension, and risks, and that hope that this dice roll will succeed.
There needs to be a balance, not just in dice rolls, and not just in character traits, but in the player's perception of his character.  Perfection is, without cheating, impossible in tabletop games.  Therefore, creating a character that is meant to be perfect is an exercise in self-induced slow burn insanity.
Instead, think about creating characters with realistic flaws, similar to what exists in the real world.  You'll be better off for it, I think.

No comments:

Post a Comment