Friday, March 23, 2012

Background vs. Personality

I wrote a comment for this back post that I think bears enlarging.

I've heard it implied here and elsewhere - particularly in reference to my own character background generator - that a character's background is part-and-parcel with a character's role in the game.  This is nonsense.  While I know Hollywood has done a wonderful job making background cliche A fit into motivation cliche B these past 95 years, not all people hunt for their father's killer, not all people raised as a blacksmith loves blacksmithing, and not everyone with a prostitute mother is ashamed of it.

The importance of a character's background, and exactly HOW it applies the character, is something that ought to be left up to player - not the DM, not any cliche, and certainly not to some preprogrammed campaign strategy.  As I said, if a character whose father was a miner wants to eschew any hint of mining in his present personality, D&D ought to be free and fair enough to enable that.  I designed the background generator as something that would restrict or contribute to a player's knowledge; or as something that would give the character certain shortcomings, that the character might have to live with (or overcome); or which would offer talents and an idea of social position.

But background CAN be mostly ignored.  Or twisted negatively or positively in the character's imagination.

If it happens that the character lopped off a foot due to an error in firelog judgement when the character was 12, that can either be something the player screams about, uses, fixes or simply shrugs over.  The player does not need to automatically hate axes; the character can get the foot restored after accumulating the wealth and finding the opportunity.  I don't personally care.  All I am trying to provide in a background is a suggestion that the character actually LIVED prior to racking up six numbers on a piece of paper.

It's not railroading, its not introducing rules for roleplaying, and its not an attempt to "roll" a pregenerated personality.  Personality is a complex, profound thing in the game, a mix of what the player likes and what the player is handed on the character-sized plate.  You can't "roll" personality into existence any more than you can use pencil and paper to trace a cat.

2 comments:

Derrick said...

This is an important topic.

I have to partially withdraw my remark about the amount of text on the character sheet being a barrier to play. It's not the character sheet that plays the game! However, the time the player spends creating the character does have an impact, especially so when character creation forms a game of its own. This process sets up pre-conceptions about the way that the character will relate to the world. But the solo character creation game has a completely different format, referee and group to the regular campaign.

Random creation - whether that's just roll 3d6 six times in order or a more elaborate system like the one that Alexis uses - doesn't have any such concerns.

If one is concerned about drawing a line between the two, my rule of thumb is judging the character. If somewhat can meaningfully say, "you did a good job with that character" before play begins, it was the result of a character creation game.

Oddbit said...

I must disagree somewhat with this Derrick, respectfully of coarse. But, this is because I am quite fond of the 'character creation game.'

I do agree, that the player will come up with certain expectations when creating their character. However, I feel these expectations will come up regardless of the method. For instance, should it be the most simple method of character creation, 3d6 automatically applied to each stat in order, the player will make some assumptions. Firstly, that certain stats are 'high' and others are 'low'. Secondly, that certain stats are important and others not so. Finally, they will assume that there are certain choices and strategies they can use after all the statistics are rolled, and others that cannot. If a player were to roll a low strength and high dexterity, they would assume they should play a class that does not melee.

However, even with stock rules, DMs have various tendencies. For instance, some DMs have general difficulty of opposition lower or higher than others, making 'low and high' stats lower or higher than expected in comparison. Furthermore, important stats are highly effected by a DM. Some DMs never use charisma, some do all the time. Some DMs wont insist that players check their WIS or INT all the time, making those stats less important. Finally, some DMs tend towards different environments and foes. Perhaps with that low strength they should still pick some kind of melee weapon ability. DMs could have the players ambushed all the time, in tight quarters and so on...

Furthermore, there are certain expectations from selecting each class, alignment (should you use it) and race. And we could go on for a year about equipment at starting level, and the expectations of what is useful. Let me just say, I've met some DMs that take issue with the 10 foot pole.

In the opposite sense, by choosing the wrong race/class/equipment, a player can create a 'bad' character. Does that mean the system is too complex if you can fail to make a 'good' character?

I feel like character creation should be made so that it as quick as possible, while allowing the most amount of safe customization as possible.

I feel like some systems tread into the overkill area, but it isn't as bad when you're familiar with the system and the DM.

GURPS is very complicated, with everything broken down into skills, and chapters of advantages, disadvantages, spells, psionics, conditional rules, maneuvers and multiple damage types per one weapon. After a while, you can understand what each thing does, and when to apply it, but the first three characters with a new DM will likely be horrible failures, not having this 'obvious skill' or that 'extremely useful' advantage.

Anyhow this kind of exploded, but I guess I have a lot to say. But I guess there's one last question, how important is character creation really when it relates to the game? If it takes less than an hour, and you spend over 30 hours with the character, how much does it matter except the results?