[A Slight Rant] Just Because You Awakened / Exalted / Turned / Etc. Doesn’t Mean That Your Old Life Is Over

One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed in rpg games where the PCs experience some sort of sudden change to trigger their current state as a Superhero / Monster / Other Being is that a lot of the time, most Players are perfectly fine with dropping everything that their characters were used to doing in order to pursue something different.

It’s an odd decision to make, honestly, and perhaps we GMs are also to blame from putting too much focus on the shiny new status quo to think about just what this kind of change might really be like.

I’ve been thinking about it a little more, and perhaps I’ve stumbled upon one of my pet peeves when it comes to those kinds of games. People don’t just get to drop everything that they used to be for the sake of something that changed their life right now.

Let’s go over an example:

Natalie Wong is a twenty-something Chinese-American and up-and-coming Account Manager for an international Marketing Firm.  She’s single (and dating,) relatively successful, anxiously waiting for her promotion and has just enrolled in a Masters course to further her education.

Then we slap her with a standard PC life changing event.  For the sake of something simple, let’s say that she Awakens as a Mage (from Mage: the Awakening.)  Natalie is given a sudden and shocking glimpse of the world as it truly is, and becomes able to change reality to her will.

At this point in a game, most GMs tend to focus heavily on the alternate world.  The bizzare and mysterious occult workings behind the scenes, as Natalie is drawn deeper and deeper into this new society with the help of new Mentors or friends that are in the same boat.

But at the same time, it would be a disservice if the GM didn’t play up the fact that even if she’d Awakened, Natalie still has a whole bunch of dreams from her mundane life before her Awakening.

  • Being a Mage doesn’t make her asexual.  She’s young, and wants to find Mr. Right.  So dating is still definitely in her list of things to do.
  • Just because she can change reality doesn’t mean she can quit her job.  She’s put too much effort into getting to where she is, and she’s proud of her work.  Natalie is not about to disappear from her firm, in fact, she might even try to use her powers to, uh, help her along with that promotion that she’s been angling for, because she deserves it, right?  Right?
  • Her Masters Course might be something she’d have to drop, but she couldn’t risk doing that without making people curious, she’s already committed to it, and the bosses higher up might see it as a sign of her being unable to follow through if she quits, so she sticks to it, even if her Awakening has put an even greater strain on her free time.

Take note that none of these three are related to her Awakening per se, but they’re all good launchpads for complications and story elements that can come up due to the spanner in the works (i.e. the Awakening).

I’ve seen some players complain that some games like Mage: the Awakening are boring because “I don’t know what characters are supposed to do.”  I’d like to answer that by saying that games like these aren’t going to hand you a roadmap or a to do list.  Instead, they throw you into a situation where you have to deal with how a life changing event can screw with your status quo, and the goals you’ve set as a character.

If your character doesn’t have a goal or life to begin with, then there’s no point in looking for how these games are supposed to provide a direction.  These kinds of games work best when you come up with a fully-fleshed out character with dreams, relationships, ambitions, fears and hopes first.


  1. “If your character doesn’t have a goal or life to begin with…”


    Hammer to the anvil.

    Chiaroscuro! Subtext!! Social Relevance!!

  2. The funny thing was that I was thinking of the exact same thing in my last VtR game two weeks ago. In the end, I took something from one of the characters’ mortal lives and turned it into an chronicle.

  3. I think this is similar to the problem of “my character is an orphan from a village that got burned down by goblins.” Most players don’t want to have a backstory that can interfere with being a hero, because they don’t want to play a heroic accountant – they want to play a hero.

    Plus, most of those plot threads you listed are things that the other PCs and players won’t care about. An occasional sidequest is fine, but when even ten minutes every game are devoted to the accounting firm? Times four or five PCs?

    I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t see it as practical for most games.

    • Hey there Swordgleam!

      There’s truth to what you’re saying with regards to these hooks being too personal for other player characters to really care about. What I’m saying isn’t that RPGs should be the Sims where every teensy detail should be dealt with (“Your character feel the need to pee. Yes, really. What? Stop looking at me like that, I’m trying to simulate the world here.”) But it shouldn’t be easy for someone to just immediately drop everything and go off on adventures without fulfilling their social and personal obligations to the relationships that they already have established.

      These little personal details can be a source of interesting conflict. The moment they stop being a source of conflict, it becomes boring and therefore shouldn’t be emphasized anymore. 🙂

      • Yes, this!

        I have real issues with, for example in Vampire the “I became a vampire, I have no siblings, no love interest, and changed cities so I have only me to look out for”. Such backstories go hand in hand with the character being some mega bad ass. Plus if the character was just turned it is completely without logic.

        The best things about characters that have pre-splat associations is that the conflict that then arises serves to show the players just what it means to have changed and at what cost. It means a Vampire questions turning others, or that a Mage understands when another recently Awakened teenager is crying for the world to just go back to normal.

        I think most important is to enforce that characters do not spring into life from nothing. That orphan from the village, he may have some family in the neighbouring village, or friends of the family.

    • It all boils down to ‘Escapism’ – the root of all “Role-Playing” “Games”

      Casual players play Characters that don’t want to be bogged down by things that ‘have been’. But rather, want to be immersed in things that ‘could be’. Seeing as RPGs give the opportunity of a what-if scenario.

      What pointyman likes to stress in his games is Consequences. It’s more cinematic to simply forget a Character’s mundane life in light of a life-changing discovery, with backstory hooks simply adding flavor to (but not inconveniencing) his quest towards heroism. But Players have to remember that their Characters weren’t born as a strapping 16-year old lad with a weapon twice his size – even if Character Creation does seem that way.

      And if Players “don’t want to have a backstory that can interfere with being a hero”, then it’s sad to think that they would want to play as a 2-D cardboard cut out.

      Even Superman had social obligations he had to fulfill.
      If not, then every comic he’s in would just be that he’d appear, punch the bad guy into a red mist, and fly off.
      His strict moral code of saving the helpless and not-killing was brought about by a kind and caring upbringing. That alone can serve as a simple, yet powerful backstory which Player and GM can both bounce between one another.

      Agreed that backstory doesn’t have to be the main focus of a Player character. But when lost or in doubt, you can always turn to it for guidance and direction – and that’s what makes it important.

  4. I agree with the idea behind this, though in practice it can be hard to pull off. Especially when your game starts growing to the 6 player range. I tried running a super’s game, where one of the points was to have people’s personal lives involved with what was going on. Sadly, I don’t think I did it as well as I wanted to, and 99% of that is on me.

    There are problems with time management. Time spent on player 1’s personal life, is generally time that players 2-5 can’t be a part of. There are also times with the fact that the other stuff is usually the main idea. The fighting, the big plots, and it can be very easy to get wrapped up in the big stuff and lose track of the little things.

    When you can pull it off though, it is absolutely amazing and you get some very real characters out of it. The real question though, is how to manage it all without going nuts.

    • I think the trick with games where you don’t want to be cutting in on other players is to in a fast and loose fashion explain what you want to do with the GM, and then going into the details as part of a downtime/blue book. That way, yes your character did go to work/see loved ones etc but it doesn’t hog the limelight. If the actions done during that time have significance then they can be followed up upon in game (say a loved one turning up at the wrong moment etc). It requires a lot of play buy in and GM player trust but it is worth it.

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