Monday, February 21, 2011

What exactly does it mean to explore a character?

Once I started up a PbP 3.5 game on RPOL (is it .net or .org?  Don't remember.)  Most of the players were friends, but I left it open to others.

One guy, one of the others, wanted to play.  He was enthusiastic.  I said OK.

He wanted to play a Druid.  Fine.  We were starting at 1st level.  He came back to me with a whole huge back story. 

His PC was the son of a High Druid Priest, who was also a merchant in a caravan, and he had wandered all over the world and seen all sorts of sights in his wanderings.  Now he was coming home to take his place as a druid initiate, and loot tombs for gold, as druid initiates are wont to do.

I could see what he was doing.  It was blatant.  He didn't want to get called out if he tried to wild shape into a python, or an emu, or an unladen African swallow, or whatever.  He wanted to be able to say, "sure, I saw one when I was traveling in the caravan."  No way was I, as DM, gonna screw him over on that!  So he thought.

Then he gives me his goals for the character, vaguely disguised as his 'take' on who this guy was.  He was a natural shapeshifter, more than a spellcaster.  He was in tune with nature, and animals and stuff.  And because of this, he naturally wanted to take the 'natural spell' feat, which was one of the few I'd said at the start I didn't like and wasn't going to allow. 

For those of you not well versed in 3E, Druids don't get Wild Shape (ability to change into animal forms) until 5th level. 

And I repeat, this was a PbP game (S......L.......O......W......!), and we were starting at 1st level.

More recently, in my long prepared but short lived Maritime Campaign, Alex, at character creation, wouldn't be satisfied with the starting options I'd given him.  He wanted more.  And more, and more.  He wasn't satisfied with a +2 sword for his 5th level Fighter.  He thought it was lame.  Maybe I should have given him a max. Int, max. Ego intelligent sword with a bevy of awesome powers (detect minerals!), and just had it control his PC at the first opportunity.  But I'm not that much of a dick.  Anyway, then he wasn't satisfied with the small sailing ship they were getting for free.  He wanted a large sailing ship, or a warship, or preferably a large warship. 

Getting that sort of stuff from the beginning, I wondered, what's left to adventure for?

Now, I've had my share of characters who I came up with the concept first, rolled later.  Or even a few where I've been asked for, and provided, a few pages of back story. 

But I don't have many interesting stories about those characters.  Not the way I do about Belrain, the Chaotic Elf with a penchant for fireballs (especially from wands, or his Staff of Power), or Skarp-Hedin, the Dwarf Fighter-Thief who ended up on the wrong end of too many monster beatings but always managed to pull through.

Long story short, I find that exploring characters is more fun, and more memorable, if it happens in the game.  Doing all that work before hand, then having to hog the limelight during the game to get all that exposition across to the players?  Not so much.  Not being satisfied with the starting conditions of the game, because it doesn't match the idea I've got in my head of who I want this PC to become?  Definitely not. 

I find it similar to the way I don't enjoy 'tournament Magic: The Gathering.'  I always found the game the most fun when waiting to see what I'd pull out this round, what my opponent would do, and the randomness of it.  Having a carefully constructed precision deck where I've got a plan of how I can beat anyone in 8 turns or less?  Boring! 

I enjoy the action and response, the way my character interacts with the other players' PCs, with the DM's world, and with the results of the dice.  In other words, not knowing exactly who this character is--maybe I've got a few ideas, but nothing is certain--does it for me.  Besides, the whole point of 'character exploration' is seeing how that character will change and grow. 

If you've already 'grown' that character before play starts, what is there left to explore?

Your mileage may vary. 


  1. Interesting post. I'm a firm believer in not coming to a roll-up session with any preconceptions as to what character you want to play. The dice will decide, and all that. So if I land a thief when I've previously played MUs or vice-versa, that - for me - is a challenge. It often leads to some very interesting games.

    As a writer, the process of creating an RPG character is very similar to that of creating a character in fiction - I start out with a vague idea of who they are, some hook to help me see them in my mind and then tend to let them establish their character and backstory through dialogue and action once the narrative has begun. They may well mention something that surprises me and that means I have something to explore later (if I do so at all).

    The examples that you cite above seem to be elaborate methods of justifiying unfair advantages and for me, this is wholly against the D&D spirit of "Take what you've rolled and run with it". For the same reason, I have no time for dump stats.

    So no, my mileage does not vary on this particular issue.

  2. if i come back this summer, we should give the maritime thing another swirl. however, we do need less gear. it killed the game really fast.
    great concept though/

  3. I cherish the rare player who works up a background story which stops at the foundation - something that lays out the flavour of the character and maybe even explains why they've ended up as an 'adventurer,' and at the same time isn't trying to build-in powers or advantages of some kind.

    I do like to get a background from my players for ODnD, because that's how I determine what things I'll let them roll a d6 on. For example, in my ODnD games anyone can play a 'ranger' because I view it as a package of their experiences and such. Most characters with ranger-like backgrounds could track in the wild with a 2 in 6 chance, but there's no guarantee any two would have the same abilities. It's basically like an informal version of LotFP d6 skills based on history and adjudicated by the DM instead of bought with points.

  4. Migellito--I've got no problem with that. My example of the PbP Druid, though, the whole backstory for a 'first level' character read like what I'd expect for a 5th or 6th level character. Just to justify an ability he wouldn't even get until he really was 5th level. A bit of background that really is background I've got no problem with.

    Daddy G.--My fiction writing is similar. I start with a few vague ideas of who a character is, explore that through the first drafts, then revise as I get a better handle on who the character is. Lots of players these days want that fully fleshed out character from the get-go, and IMO leave little room for growth.

    Josh--maybe. We'll see what sort of schedule my grad school course leaves me with. I'd love to give it another shot, now that I see what options I used that made it a mess.

  5. Exploration of a character is highly abused, like in the examples you gave me. One of the reasons I got frustrated about running Conan, after I cleared up my misunderstanding with Josh, was Alex's character design, and how he wanted a million-and-one options for his character, and chalked it all up to "role-playing."


    Yeah. When I played 検診 in The Forgotten Realms, I played him as a fighter. Because 3.0's OA wasn't out yet, I used the 1st Edition OA money system for his equipment, with the DM's permission, and just made what conversions I could. I had a pretty elaborate backstory, but I wanted all that to be window dressing to the real story, which was his interaction with his new friends and environment. But I didn't have anything special beyond a masterwork 刀, and some samurai armor.

    Some concepts didn't work out. Ahmet, the sorcerer/priest of Thoth was far too unwieldy to make really functional. Others did, like Galen Servetus, the necromancer physician who was heavy into alchemy and herbalism (he liked potions and scroll-scribing), used zombies primarily to research body functions, and had a big problem with unlicensed necromancy performed upon cadavers without the previously obtained written consent of the deceased.

    All of these characters I came up with before rolling a single die, all were played out in 3.0 or 3.5. I had a great time with them and would love to pull them out again.

    But I didn't go hog-wild with powers and abilities and use backstory or concept as an excuse to get me powers that I had no real right to.