As You Like It

By | June 29, 2013

Hello again!

So, we recently changed the game from being “yet another D20 game” to a game that just takes a lot of inspiration from the core D20 mechanics.  This has involved a lot of rebuilding things from the ground up, and that’s great!  Slow, but great!  And one of the things we recently revisited, thanks to this new outlook on Infinite Earths and this post on Reddit, was whether we should put specific roleplay information on the character sheet.

Now, previously we had discussed and dismissed the idea, because we didn’t want the Guide to have any business telling Players how to play their characters.  If, for instance, a character had a Generous roleplaying trait but the Guide didn’t feel the character was being played as generous enough.

We got rid of this at the time because it didn’t quite fit what we wanted to do with our social subsystem.  We pared this down into a simple truth-whatever-lies mechanic, and that worked out in some playtests but it just felt kind of boring. Four or five more iterations of the social subsystem later, and it felt once again like there was space for such “personalities” in the Personas.

And some folks like having this information defined for them on the character sheet.  We spoke at length with someone who liked King Arthur Pendragon and its technique of roleplaying within scales of traditional Catholic virtues and vices.  A couple of people liked the World of Darkness for the same, lots of people liked Dungeon World’s Bonds, and lots of people liked having to make stuff up without having to define it on the character sheet.

The benefits to having this information on the character sheet are clear:  Players will “know the character they’re meant to play.”  Having something on the character sheet reminding a Player that his or her character is supposed to be greedy, but care about children will help that Player play that character the way that character was defined.  It won’t necessarily make roleplaying better (and to my mind, that’s not the point – more on that in a minute), but it will make roleplaying more consistent.  Having roleplay information on the character sheet provides lock-in, something the Guide can look at to help determine how characters will react to story.  And in order to prevent the Guide from adjudicating that “you aren’t playing your character right,” we can just insert into the rules that “the Guide can adjudicate everything except that part of the sheet right there.”  Sure, it’s an exception, but some exceptions we can live with.

Except.  There’s another problem with having roleplaying information on the character sheet: it strongly leads to one-note characters.  I’ve seen this happen myself (I’ve even been the guy who does it).  Players see the set of adjectives that define their character and they latch onto them like a life preserver, behaving in whatever way that personality definition tells them no matter what’s happening around them in the story.  That kind of roleplaying lock-in may be great for “go in the dungeon, kill everything inside, take its loot” (I say may because I’ve never been convinced of it), but it’s certainly not great for story.  Story is all about the transformation of character through experienced events.  If you’re going to be XYZ no matter how much ABC you’ve gone through, what roleplaying information has given you is plot immunity.  And that transforms what could be compelling story (and here I’m thinking Babylon 5 is a good reference) into a reset back to the status quo at the end of every episode (I’m looking at you, sitcoms and pretty much all pre-90s television).

So, we thought, perhaps that is not the way.  Perhaps, instead, we could tie personality characteristics to XP, wherein if you behave in a way that your personality dictates, you get extra XP.  I’ll be honest, I hated that before the sentence was finished – that’s the very definition of the Guide defining for you how you’re supposed to play your character.

Or perhaps your personality traits could define certain abilities for you, unique to those personality traits, that you could only use once per scene.  That would encourage consistency while also providing “wiggle room” to roleplay however you like.  Except, we thought, that that risked Players still feeling like they had to hit certain notes every scene in order to “play the character right.”  Because, let’s face it – there is a certain school of thought that says that if you are not maximizing your character’s capabilities, you are playing that character incorrectly.

Now, a lot of roleplayers hate that kind of “min/maxing” attitude.  And it’s easy to take the tack that min-maxers “aren’t really roleplaying” or some other derogatory somesuch.  But really, the divergence between those who min-max and those who don’t isn’t out of some noble ideal of gaming.  It is instead born out of game design which rewards different situations and different builds in different ways.  It is born out of interesting game design that does not factor in story design.

For example:  a Player wants to play a paladin who was once a farmer.  But Profession (Farmer) isn’t on his skill list, so he has to spend extra character build points to take a skill that he’s only taking because he feels he needs that skill in order to properly roleplay the character.

The character is now weaker than he could conceivably have been, for role-play.  Some Players think that’s great.  Others don’t think it’s so hot.  And therein lies the division, and therein lies the space the game design can operate within to mitigate the division.

Keeping that in mind, we dismissed the idea of having personality traits on the character sheet (once again) because we didn’t want to necessitate lock-in; we wanted Players to have the opportunity to have their characters change over time, and we wanted that to feel organic, and if there’s one thing our social interactions playtests have taught us, it’s that mechanizing things too much can remove any kind of organic behavior.

So we began discussing the idea of Players creating certain character story goals that they might want to hit.  “Find my father’s murderer” or “Form a thieves’ guild” or something like that.  These story goals, once accomplished (or if the character takes steps along the way to accomplish them) reward XP to the whole party, reinforcing the idea that the party needs to work together.  On one hand, this could give the Guide quite a lot to work with.  On the other, the Guide could ignore them completely and not provide Players with the opportunity to interact with their own story goals.

The major problem with this is not that it informs the story, but rather that it deforms the story.  Players won’t necessarily be interested in any “side-quests” or the stories the Guide presents because they’ll be completely focused on their own goals.  While this is potentially interesting, it also limits the Guide in what the Guide can do; and that’s not interesting.  Additionally, it requires something that personality definitions also required:  please figure out, for this character you’ve never played, what the character cares about, how the character behaves, etc.

And anybody who’s roleplayed for any length of time knows that sometimes, the character you create and the character you wind up playing can be two different characters.  Is that wrong?  Should that be punished by game design?

In the end, we decided that roleplaying information on the character sheet would either be unhelpful or, worse, harmful.  This is largely in part because of the design space we’re operating in, in trying to be a very tactical game while still also incorporating story-based elements instead of being a more pure-wargame or more pure-storygame.  Because while you can encourage roleplay, you can’t enforce it without stepping into a minefield with far more egregious consequences than just “players aren’t really roleplaying.”

And that’s a dangerous judgment to make.  I once had a Player who, I was certain, wasn’t “actually roleplaying.”  So I presented this Player with a “roleplaying challenge” that, to succeed, would require him to think like the kind of character he was playing.  He knocked it out of the park.  As it turned out, he was roleplaying his character exactly as he’d imagined his character to be.  It’s just that, until then, I wasn’t on the same wavelength as him.  He taught me.  He schooled me, in point of fact.

In the end, Players are going to roleplay to exactly the degree they want, and they’re going to roleplay exactly the character they want to roleplay.  Making all Players fit some “standard of roleplaying excellence” won’t actually serve to improve roleplay or story, but will instead help to reduce characterization down to rote points without deviation for Players’ fear of doing something wrong.

And where’s the fun in that?