Day One (?): It’s the Players that Make the Play

Okay, first real post.

Now that we’ve made an acquaintance of each other (if we haven’t PM me for an intimate, sensual, and mentally disturbed personalized Acquaintance-Maker 9000), here goes:

The Case Against Heroes: Storytelling in Roleplay and Writing

Heroes just aren’t that fun to GM for.

This is not a belittlement of players, nor of the heroic narrative. It’s a commentary on what makes a truly fascinating hero, as far as writers, dungeon masters, and role-players are concerned, condensed into three neat points, and probably leaving out a lot of other details (I need more than one post, alright?)

In a good campaign, regardless of what plot the DM may have laid out, it is ultimately the players’ characters who tell the story. At least, I assume that’s what a good campaign is because my players are still with me, and I’ve come to accept that whatever story I write down is not the one that will be told.

With that said, the player characters do not necessarily tell a good story. The DM may not have a better one either. In fact, separate, without communication, it is virtually impossible to create a quality story. It might create some occasional eye-roll worthy moments or the odd burst of laughter as a random passerby is mugged for his kidneys, but characters disjointed from setting can’t tell a story that can touch (a subject for another blogpost in itself.)

When it comes time for a new setting and to ask my players to roll up new characters, I’ve noticed they tend towards the epic scale of character origins. The example I’ll use here is with a Pathfinder campaign I homebrewed in a vaguely Asian setting called Saichu, a low fantasy feudal JapanChina with some Scottish elves and giant lizard men (called Syntar in setting) tacked on for flavor. I began preparations for it about a month in advance, my players having the same time to stew on their characters.

What we got was a former bodyguard to the empress of the Syntar turned bounty hunter, a possessed sorceress whose father was a retinue man of the shogun, an initiate demon-hunting monk of a long forgotten order dedicated to fighting the god of chaos (and talkative crows), a crackshot yakuza assassin cancer patient (an example of everything that can go wrong with dice-rolled stats), and a drunken samurai with serious daddy / brother / mommy / relative issues.

Though taken as a sum this should have been an amazing combination, it quickly became a train wreck of a campaign. Players tried to murder each other on at least three occasions, someone tried to debate trickle-down economics with a samurai lord, and the Syntar kept kicking people through doors. Not only was the balance of combat destroyed, but the story itself failed to progress meaningfully, in large part because the characters were already too developed. Not by levels or power, but by their stories. With so many vastly different objectives and no particular reason to work together nor common background, the group lost cohesion, and stumbled sluggishly from one DM-suggested objective to another.

This mess was in large part my fault. Because I had failed to effectively communicate the idea of ‘progressing’ characters to my players and had failed to coordinate their character creation, the campaign limped on for six sessions before they caused an apocalyptic flood while attending a communist musical.

Was it a boring campaign? No, not by any stretch. That result depends on what you, whether player or DM, want out of a campaign. If you’re just here for a bloody good time, then there is no reason not to indulge in ridiculously overblown characters and frequent overreaction; i.e., trolling.

But if you are intending to tell a serious story in which your characters undergo meaningful change, and exit the plot with some profound internal insight, then the characters must also fit the setting.

At any rate, this is a complex topic, best discussed in multiple parts, and preferably without Charles Barkley yelling at me from the next room over.

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