Searching for My Neo-Fantasy: Characters and Development

Posted: August 8, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Campaign Design, Roleplaying Games

Of the three things I discussed about the campaign I’ve been thinking about, this is the one that doesn’t really quite belong to me.  Player characters, after all, are the domain of the players, and hardly does a GM interact in any meaningful way with regards to the choices they make in character generation beyond vetoing certain class options because it doesn’t “fit” with a campaign.

So why am I bringing it up?  Well, for one thing, I’ve been thinking about Character Development, whether it’s possible or not, and how to encourage such a thing from happening.  There are those that say that character development happens naturally over the course of the game, assuming that the player can be bothered enough to give even a half-assed attempt at it.  Others say that the idea of character development in a tabletop rpg is a dream, a foolish quest of GMs who are far too enamored with story to accept the reality that players are out to win a game, not to develop their characters in any other fashion aside from that of higher stats and better gear.

If there’s one thing that I enjoy about the fantasy genre, it would be the fact that the lead character are those that undergo a significant change.  I don’t necessarily need young PCs to make that happen either.  David Eddings, an author whose works I still regard highly as my personal favorites, worked with an experienced character in the form of Sparhawk from this “Elenium” and “Tamuli” series.  Sparhawk wasn’t a wet-behind-the-ears type farmboy, but a grizzled veteran of war.  Likewise, Shen Tai, Guy Gavriel Kay’s hero in his latest book, “Under Heaven” is also a man used to ways of the world, but there is still a lot of room for these two characters to change.

Perhaps it’s a selfish sort of dream, honestly.  I’m a GM, and as such, I bear the responsibility of being the narrator and audience of the entire campaign.  Whereas players can (and often do) get away with not really giving a heck about how everything falls in the bigger picture, or the entire narrative, the GM is the one who is subject to being the witness to their character’s actions.

To put it bluntly, I have to sit through hours coming up with a campaign, making a setting, a world and npcs for your characters to interact with.  The least you can do is interact with this setting and simulation I’ve so painstakingly devised in a manner that is entertaining to you and to everyone else on the table.

Development is a matter of learning.  Characters learn all the time, that’s what the experience points are meant to simulate, after all.  However, players need to be able to make decisions on their character’s emotional learning as well.  Some character grow wiser, more understanding, or kinder to their fellow man.  Others grow to distrust others, to close their hearts to the plight of the weak for the sake of keeping themselves sane.  Each character changes depending on the situations they are put into, and the dangers and hazards that they face.  Perhaps some find their kindness rewarded, and thus their optimism to helping people is justified, while others are betrayed and resolve to never allow such a thing to happen again.

Every event, every encounter is an opportunity for a character to learn and grow and develop.  It’s just a matter of a player’s willingness to actually think this sort of thing through.

That said, I have yet to find a system that manages this sort of thing.  Certainly systems like FATE might have Aspects for this sort of development, but I’ve still to get comfortable with that particular set of rules.  A part of me on the other hand, insists that you don’t need rules to pull this off, just a little bit of conscientious effort on the part of the players to make their character more interesting even after character generation.

  1. dbro36 says:

    You and I seem to think alike on many a subject. This seems to be the problem for many GMs. I simply decided to give my players pre-generated characters. They can choose to play a Human Warrior, an Elf Hunter, a Human Wizard, to name a few, and those characters have pre-generated stats, and even their armour and weapon are set. They can use Perks and Handicaps, as I have called them, to give their character bonuses for certain actions, or to enable special actions, such as hunting, or being able to steer a boat. I guess they are sort of the Aspects of the FATE system, but I have no experience with that system.

    In a way, this sort of limits the “character creation”, but with the Perks they can give their characters a clear role in the world, and with clear roles I can create clear scenarios.

    That said, it would be nice if some players would be okay with playing a character that I, the GM, want them to play. Most of my friends grew up with console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Suikoden. In those games, they have no problem “playing” a character that talks for them, makes choices for them, all that. The only thing they have control over in those games are the types of attacks they want to pull off to kill the enemies. Why can’t they do that in a tabletop RPG?

    Maybe though, you can come to some sort of concensus. You ARE the one taking immense time in creating a story for them, they need to respect that and run with it. Perhaps you can ask them one day to play a “chapter” in your campaign where they play a group of people that have some dealings with their own characters and see how they like playing with characters they didn’t make up themselves?

    • Hey dbro36,

      I tend to wonder if playing pregenerated characters is a good solution to this issue as it adds an extra layer of “distance” between a player and the character they’re playing. The fun part of RPGs as a players is the art of crafting their own characters, and I’d like for them to retain that. After all, character creation is perhaps their biggest opportunity directly plant something into the world that is truly theirs.

      That said, I think that relying on the maturity of my players might still be the best way to go, rather than to take away options. Communication is key after all.

    • Hikkikomori says:

      Expecting Players to relate to Pre-Gens is like asking them to empathize with a puppet.

      Pre-generated Characters are ok if it is with the consent of the Players. If they are unwilling to play pre-set characters and are just forced to do so because of the lack of any other games to play – then that ship has sunk before it has even left the port.

      I think a way that Character Development can be promoted in a game is by focusing on Mental and Social abilities and challenges.
      Games always reward Physical abilities /advantages / feats more tangibly than Social or Mental ones. i.e. Slaying X no. of beasts will garner you X amount of EXP. Whereas talking down a trio of rampaging giants or solving a puzzling deathtrap will only net you a lesser reward.
      The latter challenges have subjective rewards, whereas the former has more objective and instantly and mechanically gratifying results.

      So by focusing more on Mental and Social challenges and Character Abilities, it will force players to lean towards more plot and character related development, rather than just focusing on which specie of goblin to annihilate next.

  2. dmnyo says:

    One way of really getting the PCs to interact with the world make them feel that there’s something at personally at stake for them. It’s important to have the PCs create a background story because this also gives you something to play along with.

    • Hikkikomori says:

      Which only works if the PC’s themselves want to build something that lasts. Or at least make an effort to solidify their foundation (ie. backstory) to begin with.

      And not just remain a dice-rolling experience vacuum.

      • dbro36 says:

        Perhaps my comment makes my approach seem more one-sided and easy than it is. In my game, players definitely have a choice of crafting their character the way they want to, just not when it comes to a stat-line. I always felt that rolling for stats isn’t character development, it’s just rolling for stats. And choosing out of a million different “skills” is just false freedom. Besides, many RPGs you still choose a “Human Fighter” or “Elf Wizard” anyways.

        I have to point out though, the game I am writing isn’t a pure RPG. It has elements, but is also has elements of board games such as Descent. Also, I do not have that much experience in RPG systems besides the popular ones.

        Not that I want to pitch my game here, but I chose to give them the freedom to play their character the way besides stats. The perks and handicaps give them a means of giving their character quirks that make them unique. This gives them that chance to plant their unique characters into the world.

        Weapons, though pre-generated (of course I will have different options eventually) can be upgraded with things that will make them different from another character’s. Combat skills are not from a book of a thousand different ones but are found in a skill tree, so they can train their characters to a specific goal.

        They can craft their own character, just not their own stat line.

        Hikkikomori, you start by saying it is a bad thing, and I understand your viewpoint, but you end up with talking about how rewards are usually wrong and devlopment should focus on social aspects. I feel the same way, I just decided that whether your character has STR 8 or 9 has absolutely no bearing on their character development.

        Then again, I have little experience beyond D&D and Pathfinder. But trust me when I say my character “creation” system is more than just pre-gen. 🙂

      • Eh. That is so true.

        There’s no point of making players feel more empathy on their characters and pursue character development if they see their character as nothing more than a playing piece that needs to win via rolls of dice. The only character development they’ll only be interested in is seeing just how easier it is to shoot bigger shit up.

        That being said, making players want beyond better stats and gear; well it’d be just easier finding players who don’t give that much emphasis to character stats and gear in the first place. Making people care for something they don’t even want to begin with is just giving yourself a headache and subsequent heart ache when you see the world you worked hard to make hardly ever appreciated.

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