Monday, 25 March 2013

Genre-appropriate characters

This post is inspired by a recent post on Really Bad Eggs, which opened like this:

Me: . . . [I]f you sat down to play a game of, say, swashbuckling adventure, why did you create a character who desires neither swashbuckling nor adventure?

TheBigDice: What if I want to play a Jesuit priest? Someone completely genre-appropriate. But that doesn't own a sword, has never had any training in swinging from chandeliers and has no intentions of ever personally killing a man. Of course, he's got political acumen, contacts and social skills. He's a completely functional character for the setting. He just needs a reason to adventure, a push out of the door.

Me: Then he's not genre-appropriate as a swashbuckling adventurer. He's suitable as a period-appropriate npc, not a player character.

TheBigDice: See, now we're getting somewhere. What you're actually saying is, in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't about what you as the GM wants it to be about. So we're not actually in a true sandbox here. It's probably got aspects in common with a sandbox, but given that you're saying no to a primarily social character in favour of action oriented ones, I wouldn't say that the "open world" ethos is really on the table. If you're unwilling to accommodate a character that talks his way out of situations rather than fights his way out of them, and aren't prepared to give what [Mike 'Old Geezer' Mornard] described as an unwilling adventurer the push the character needs, then are you really giving your players the freedom that a sandbox seems to demand?

Apparently this is an argument about games and character options. However, it seems to me TheBigDice is using arguments about character limitation to criticize sandboxing, without entirely understanding what a sandbox is. Black Vulmea's post covers this, but there were a couple of aspects that I wanted to mention.

A Game of X

It seems to me that part of the issue with TheBigDice's hypothetical character is that "a game of swashbuckling adventure" is not the same as "a story of swashbuckling adventure". The Three Musketeers is a story of (amongst other things) swashbuckling adventure, and features characters who do other things than fighting. In fact, such characters can play very important roles in turning a swashbuckling adventure from a series of lovingly-described fights into an actual story. They can be major characters in a story, with great influence on events.

Take such characters in isolation though - the simple country girl, the well-meaning priest, the villainous noble, the protective mother, the thuggish landlord - and have them interact, and they will reliably not produce a swashbuckling adventure. Confront them with the typical challenges faced in a swashbuckling adventure, and they will either overcome them or not, without ever buckling swash. This, I think, is a useful hint.

Fundamentally, I think "a game of swashbuckling adventure" is not simply "a game in which swashbuckling adventure occurs", but "a game about doing swashbuckling adventure". In exactly the same way, "a game of investigative horror" requires at minimum a) "horror"; and b) "investigation" to befall the player characters. "A game of social intrigue" is about doing social intrigue: it is about being at the Duke's ball and mingling with the crowds, about turning people to your advantage or cutting them dead, about spreading gossip (or carefully not spreading it), or displaying the creations of an undiscovered milliner, or gaining the right person's hand for the waltz. If you are, instead, sneaking through the palace attic in search of the vampire's lair with lemon in hand, or battling a horde of orcs in the street just outside the palace while the nobles chat and nibble, you are not playing a game of social intrigue. At least, not if you're doing those things for more than a fraction of the time, but quite possibly if you're doing them at all.

Note this crucial line:

TheBigDice:...given that you're saying no to a primarily social character in favour of action oriented ones, I wouldn't say that the "open world" ethos is really on the table. If you're unwilling to accommodate a character that talks his way out of situations rather than fights his way out of them, and aren't prepared to give what [Mike 'Old Geezer' Mornard] described as an unwilling adventurer the push the character needs, then are you really giving your players the freedom that a sandbox seems to demand?

We're still talking about a swashbuckling game here. A Jesuit priest with zero ability to buckle swashes, but who is a primarily social character, is not competent to do swashbuckling adventure, which is the very basis of this specific game. As Black Vulmea notes, the priest is a setting-appropriate character, but not a genre-appropriate PC. And this question is irrelevant to the openness, or otherwise, of the world. You could easily run several campaigns in the same world, each in a different genre: social intrigue, swashbuckling, mystery, survival horror. In each game, different characters would be appropriate, even though the setting doesn't change. The Jesuit priest is perfect for a game about sociopolitical interactions in a small town, or even low-action mystery (think Brother Cadfael), where actual swashbucklers would be unsuitable; you could include swashbuckler-types, but they wouldn't have any swashes to buckle, so they'd be using that background while relying on social skills and family influences.

The next quote is apparently intended to be a killer argument against character limits in sandboxes, but I think it gets it very nearly right without realising it:

TheBigDice:...What you're actually saying is, in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't about what you as the GM wants it to be about. So we're not actually in a true sandbox here.

Not quite. What I'd personally say is, "in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't a swashbuckling adventure".

Okay, that's wording it very slightly too strongly, but it's close. Any PC needs to be able to engage with the core of a game, be that mechanical prowess, skill set or attitude. A Call of Cthulhu investigator who adamantly refuses to do any investigation whatsoever or engage with the situation at hand is inappropriate. A D&D wizard who refuses to learn any spell not to do with interior decoration is very unlikely to be a functional companion in a dungeon-crawling campaign (though they might do perfectly well in some other D&D-based campaign).

To take an extreme example, imagine a four-player swashbuckling campaign in which every single player creates a pacifist Jesuit priest. No swashbuckling is going to happen. Is this still a swashbuckling adventure? Of course not. It may be a perfectly functional political game in the same setting - and the players' chocies may indicate that that's what they're rather be playing - but you cannot describe it as a swashbuckling adventure.

This is not simply a case of grumpy GMs complaining about their precious game being spoilt. Players commit themselves to a particular type of game, and everyone is expecting a particular type of experience (though of course, games can change over time by mutual agreement). An inappropriate character is very likely to undermine the game experience for everyone. A character who refuses to join in with the rest of the party's activities must be either dragged along (awkward and hard to maintain), left behind (boring for them, and causing split attention) or allowed to limit the party's activities to those they prefer. If four people have signed up for a game of swashbuckling adventure, but find themselves stuck trailing around behind a priest intent on using "political acumen, contacts and social skills" to solve every situation, they are not getting what they wanted, and may well not be enjoying it. This is especially likely because characters who have been created as swashbucklers or semi-swashbucklers, in accordance with the genre, probably aren't much good at politicking. What this leads to is one player controlling the game and hogging the limelight, consciously or otherwise.

Another point in this particular case is that action games tend to feature physical danger, and anyone lacking the ability to defend themselves is at risk. Even if the player decides to tag along with the swashbucklers, therefore, they will not be able to do their fair share of the work. They will need defending from enemies, placing other characters in unnecessary danger. They are more likely to be injured, and need healing, or to need help to overcome physical obstacles - the priest described above won't be leaping from burning buildings onto a horse, or vaulting aside from a runaway coach. While the stereotypical wizard can end up in a similar position in fantasy games, they compensate with an array of useful abilities that can defeat enemies, protect allies, and accomplish extraordinary feats within the range of likely situations faced by the party. In contrast, the priest's abilities are mostly relevant to situations the rest of the party have no particular reason to get involved in. It's the equivalent of putting a well-honed Fighter into our social game: her astounding prowess with a double-headed axe and ability to shrug off poison are of precisely zero use when trading bons mots with the Duke, while her complete inability to flirt, dance or discuss poetry will be a crippling social burden for her friends.

Taking a more coherent example: A feeble decadent aristocrat, a psychic Inquisitor and a manly manly Space Marine are all perfectly canonical and appropriate characters for an RPG set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, but each is fitted to completely different genres. The aristocrat thrives in political games, the Inquisitor is ideally-suited to rooting out mysteries, and the Space Marine is a perfect soldier. However, the first two will be trampled underfoot in the first rush of Tyranid termagants, and the aristo can't sneak or banish worth a damn, while the Space Marine has no small talk and stands out like a sore thumb when you're trying to blend into a slum on the trail of depraved cultists. Each game type has not only particular things you need to try and succeed at, but its own specific dangers you need to be able to survive, be they physical, mental or social.

Sand, Sink and Genre-Specificity

The other issue I want to briefly mention is that I don't think TheBigIdea's notion of a 'sandbox' matches mine very closely, and even Black Vulmea didn't quite cover this. BV says:

Put simply, a sandbox game-world isn't the same thing as a kitchen-sink setting.

Sandbox games, in my view, are those where players can go where they want (within reason) and determine for themselves what's important and what objectives they want to set. This generally calls for a reasonably close match in skill-sets between PCs (social types, adventuring types, detective types), so that they are looking for similar types of situation to interact with. In contrast, a kitchen-sink setting is about the content of the gameworld: it's something that incorporates a disparate set of cultures, technologies, fantasy archetypes, mythologies and tropes. A game can be sandbox, kitchen-sink, both or neither.

But neither sandboxiness or kitchen-sinking is really the limiting factor in character choice. As far as I can see, the thing that sets the boundaries for what sorts of characters are appropriate (and will contribute to the game's success, rather than detracting from it) is fundamentally how genre-specific a game you want to run.

You can have a fantastically kitchen-sink sandbox game where PCs head from the Hobbit village to the Dalek headquarters in their elven steam mech to unleash Great Cthulhu on their enemies, having determined the entire course of the plot without the GM's intervention; but if that's the kind of thing you're always getting up to, then you need characters who are action-based. Mixing Wolverine, Superman and Mr Bennett won't work. Or you can have a very controlled game where the GM establishes each chunk of narrative and the players follow up on it, aristocrats dealing with the latest French threat to their social influence in London whenever it arises. You need social characters who are in a position to have social influence, so a street urchin is not an appropriate character, and nor is Captain Hornblower.

It's possible for a game to accommodate a very wide range of characters, but I think there are two main occasions when that's readily workable. The first is when a genre isn't really established until after characters are created, and then the game is planned out to accommodate whatever you've got; I haven't seen or heard of this happening, but I can imagine it. The other, more likely one, is where you're basically using the same campaign to run a variety of genres, or mashing multiple genres together, rather than having a specific game for each genre. So maybe one week you're swashbuckling, but the next is a tense political battle for control of key resources in the region. In this kind of mashup game, different characters will dominate in different segments, but as long as everyone's happy with that (and with sometimes helping out the weaker characters of the moment) then it could go perfectly well. That being said, I imagine it would still work best with genres that are relatively close together and there's at least some overlap in skills: police procedural and political thriller, say, rather than Ten Things I Hate About You and Enter the Dragon.


  1. People do get oddly dogmatic about what is and isn't a sandbox - even, in the case of TheBigDice, people who don't seem to have much sympathy for the format.

    The idea that the GM can never set boundaries in a sandbox is obviously absurd, and Black Vulmea's 100% on the money as to why that can't be the case when he points out that there's a difference between "sandbox" and "featureless plain of sand". A more supportable position would be that a GM can't set boundaries in a sandbox which aren't declared in advance. Saying "You play swashbuckling adventurers" and turning down that pacifist Jesuit = perfectly OK. Saying "You can play anyone you like in this particular historical era" and then turning down the pacifist Jesuit = kind of irritating, and downright dickish if you knew all along you only wanted swashbuckling-capable characters but didn't bother to communicate that. Equally, as a player if you start out a campaign which is meant to be about swashbuckling adventure and then unbuckle your swash and avoid adventure you're not enjoying the glorious freedom of the sandbox, you're being a dick. Just because a game is a sandbox doesn't mean there can't be an assumed focus of play.

    People gripe about 4E D&D making it impossible to play a character who's useless in the dungeon, but actually most D&D characters are actually somewhat useful in the dungeon provided that people don't make completely silly choices about what equipment they buy or what spells they memorise, which I'd say falls under the category of "deliberately making stupid IC decisions" - and no edition of D&D protects you from the consequences of that. Making a D&D character who has no intention of doing any sort of adventuring is clearly against the spirit of the game and would be against the spirit of most campaigns, sandbox or not.

    1. I do think this is one of the great advantages of group chargen, when people have the luxury of time for it, or at least collaboration as in the Arcol campaign. As well as the obvious background connections and complementary skillsets, it helps to keep characters in roughly the same sphere, and flag up if people have wildly disparate ideas about what they're going to be doing. It doesn't even have to be conscious, because assuming you're not a complete jerk, you tend to passively absorb other people's notions of the gameworld and genre into your character concept. But it also gives the GM a chance to actively intervene, maybe bringing up possible conflicts in direction, or clashes with the setting that they just hadn't thought of, but also helping plug the characters more effectively into the setting and the party.

      I think that was one of the things I did quite like about 4E; by framing all the skillsets around dungeoneering, I actually felt like they left you fairly free to run out-of-dungeon parts of the game as you wanted with all characters roughly equal in both cases. Everyone starts out decent at dungeoneering, and so you don't have to worry about basic competence when deciding on other aspects of the character. Otherwise you can end up trying to guess likely playstyle ratios for the campaign at chargen, and if you get it wrong you'd be mechanically penalised.

  2. I can sort of see both sides of this one, although to me "sandbox" is a complete red herring here. The problem is that "genre" is actually quite hard to pin down, particularly when you're trying to communicate it in a pithy way. A "game of swashbuckling adventure" could mean anything from "piracy on the high seas" to "intrigues in the court of the Sun King".

    1. Oh, absolutely, I think that's where the original debate got lost - although it occurs to me now that I didn't actually mention it except vaguely near the end, so Could Do Better.

      A "game of swashbuckling adventure" could mean anything from "piracy on the high seas" to "intrigues in the court of the Sun King".

      True, but then if that's seriously the only information you give your players, you've only yourself to blame when your party turns out to consist of a WoD Guybrush Threepwood, a 4E Zorro and a BESM Dogtanian... Presumably the whole description for the game would be a little bit longer than that.

      You need to make sure people have a good handle on roughly what you're thinking of, although there's no huge reason to me why piracy and court intrigues couldn't be all part of the same game if one turns out to fit better than the other. I think the key point is going back to the original argument, though: a game of swashbuckling adventure could cover a few different games, but I'm pretty sure a pacifist Jesuit priest would be a serious problem in any of them.

    2. Sorry, was away over the weekend.

      I think the problem is that campaign descriptions and character descriptions are often very - for want of a better term - "fuzzy". Whether "pacifist Jesuit priest" is a valid character for a "game of swashbuckling adventure" depends a lot on how you interpret "pacifist", "swashbuckling" and for that matter "game."

      For example, you could want to play:

      - A pacifist priest who learns to use a sword but just doesn't kill anybody.
      - A pacifist priest who isn't very good in a fight, expecting to be able to contribute in other areas.
      - A pacifist priest who isn't very good in a fight, but who contributes via meta-game mechanics.

    3. Hmm, okay, I'll grant some leeway over "pacifist" but I'm not really seeing the rest of it. Particularly "swashbuckling" - I mean, there's different flavours of swashbuckling, but the actual swashbuckling is always the distinguishing feature.

      Priest One is a reasonable character - there's loads of non-lethal swashbuckling out there, and the party can always have moral debates over it if they disagree. Come the inevitable fight, the priest can do his share of the heavy lifting.

      Priest Three also sounds fine, assuming the meta-game mechanics include indirect contributions to fights - it's your classic D&D cleric. When the party gets into fights, he can contribute a fair share to that even if he's not stabbing anyone. However, I don't know what proportion of games do offer that sort of mgms.

      OTOH the second one doesn't seem to be able to contribute at all to the "swashbuckling" part of "swashbuckling adventure", which leaves me wondering what kind of compensatory abilities they could have that will support that premise on a regular basis? It's all very well having social skills, but then other characters can have swashbuckling skills and social skills, or swashbuckling and political connections, if you want to play up those elements.

      I mean, it seems to me like signing up for a game of dungeoneering, then rolling up a character who 'compensates' for a lack of weapon or armour proficiencies by being a decent cook and speaking several languages.