Actana Muses on Various Topics - Myth-Weavers

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Actana Muses on Various Topics

Actana Muses on Various Topics

So hey. I often find myself thinking of this and that, planning on making threads about this or that, but I rarely find myself having the time or will to write down something that is truly worthy of a thread of its own; either because the thoughts are too scattered, I don't have enough material, or writing down all my thoughts onto the screen would take too much effort. So I decided to take the easier way out: a compilation thread for all my various random thoughts that pop into my head, with a less formal and more scattered "what I'm thinking about right now" approach. Expect somewhat incoherent and unrefined thoughts, points that might not hold water 100% of the time, or just random collections of various shorter writings. And, if people are that interested, as a place to discuss these things.

So without any more ado, I begin my quest for finding out what exactly makes games "tick" for me.

After some while of pondering of what I want in tabletop games and what kind of campaigns I enjoy running (and by "some while" I mean forever) I find that once again, the answer has been right in front of me for almost as long as I've been committing more theoretical thoughts to RPGs. It's quite a curious case of how that keeps happening. Probably has something to do with not being able to put these things in words. But I digress.

So, my great epiphany comes in the form of a simple concept I like to emphasize in games. What I'm looking for is: character. Not just any single kind of "character", but almost everything that is in that literary term. It's the idea of having strong characters that makes me tick. Character personality, relationships, bonds, moments, development and plot arcs, these are all among those things. But even then it's not necessarily enough to just have those: they have to be interesting, work with the themes of the game, as well as be, for the lack of a better term, "affective". Not effective. Their efficiency is of no larger concern, as it will grow from everything else, but it is how they affect things that is important to me. All those character-centric ideas (and more) should affect things in the game strongly. For me to get excited, I need to find and form characters who have presence in the game through their character, and how those things affect the game world and actions. It may be a bit poor in literary technique to do it, but the idea of being explicit about why a character does something is tremendously important and shows to me the idea of how a narrative can be driven by character.

Of course, the problems arise with the idea of a relatively large bunch of players all with their different ideas coming together to try to form character of their own. Not just the PCs, but everything I outlined earlier that comes along with them. The more players there are, the more difficult it is to keep focus on the overall experience. And I also like focus, but not as much as I like character. However, I don't think that the two are exclusive, but combining them comes at a cost. As a GM, I feel to accomplish both focus and character is to take a firmer authoritative position at campaign creation. Restrict things, focus things right from the outset. Heck, my current ideal method is to provide some dozen predetermined character "themes", each with a focus on a different aspect of the campaign, and let the players choose from those. Enough freedom to customize the option, but enough focus to include the character into the game's overall predetermined setting.

I guess it should also be said that my authoritative nature only shows itself in greater force when it comes to campaign creation and pre-game ideas. Once the game starts, things are entirely different. The result of the restrictions gives the game a solid base onto which the game can be launched into different but known directions, and those directions are things that all benefit the focus of the game from the onset, as well as giving everyone something they know is coming.

tl;dr: I have authoritative tendencies pre-game, and I think that's okay.

I think it's more than okay, actually. I think it will tend to promote the sort of game you want to run. One of the best GMs I game with (via PbP) does something similar prior to each game. He usually comes up with the theme and tone of the game and then he works directly with each player to develop the character. It's a back and forth / give and take sort of thing, with the player driving the process but the GM there to offer suggestions and explain what works or doesn't work in the context of the game.

Of course, these games come together in sort of the reverse fashion of how games come together here. In other words, the GM gathers the players (and the bunch of us have been playing together for a while). Sometimes the GM already has a concrete idea of what sort of game he wants to run, other times he doesn't know. Either way, the group as a whole agrees on the game premise first. Then the GM works with each player on their characters. A lot of times the players will toss out ideas on how they are connected to one or more of the other characters and then flesh those bonds out.

In any case, what is most important is character motivation - why are they doing what they are doing? What are the events that led up to this point? What are they working toward? What are they working against?

The GM takes all of that and builds a campaign based on ideas he has and what is important to each character. Overall, they have been the most enjoyable, memorable, and natural campaigns that I have been a part of.

I don't think you're alone in this method either. While I'm not sure I'm taken it to those lengths, I do find that when I run a game I tend to have a few distinct PCs archetypes in mind that I think will make the most sense. When I open the Ad (or the table) to completely made-from-scratch PCs, I find I'm typically disappointed that my heavy hints aren't drawn up the way I intended. Or, something worse, they corrupt my heavy hints into something that just doesn't seem fun to GM at all. I can adjust my intentions as a GM, I can even be pretty open-minded about PC concepts, but there's definitely been times where I
Or had a player join the table
picked a player and then was wholly disappointed by what they wanted to play.

The few times that I've not had any preconceived ideas for characters for a story, my mechanical requirements have narrowed the field. What I got from those games was a mixed bag of characters that did and/or did not make sense for the campaign.

Something I have found rather enjoyable in my time on MW is working within the parameters set from a GM. I've been playing long enough that I know what my wheelhouse is character-wise. I might come up with something outside the Basil Box on occasion, but when given a blank slate for character creation I tend to rely on my favorite styles, etc. So when a GM has a square box and asks me to make it my own, I get excited at the chance to meld ideas with them. Collaborative creation (even on the slightest of levels, for example having a required character be Male and Old) is something that I find very fun to play with and also think/hope that the GM gets more invested in my character when things are done in that fashion.

I concur with what B_B said. Having someone work with you to create a character that fits the game is rewarding not just because its fun but also because it shows that the GM is into the game he is going to run. That is to say that it's not a throwaway thing. That's why this is my method as a GM as well.

To be a bit more explicit about the specifics of the style, I might as well explain the method I'd be using with the character concepts out there to begin with. It's from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting for 4e D&D, one of the best sandbox style campaign setting books to be published. It gives out thirteen different character Themes, mechanical addons to characters (much like, say, traits in PF) which are all linked to the campaign setting in one way or another, and very often linked to one of the numerous factions in the book. Here's a few of the first ones in the book:

Neverwinter Noble, the lost heir to the city of Neverwinter. Born and raised in Waterdeep by a minor noble family, they've only recently learned of their heritage and now have to decide what to do with it. Currently the city is under the rule of the Open Lord of Waterdeep.

Oghma's Faithful is a character who is, voluntarily or otherwise, receiving visions and nightmares in both their sleep and waking hours. Sometimes cryptic, otherwise explicit, some of the visions have told the character to restore the House of Knowledge in Neverwinter, and to aid the city in a fight against a hidden foe.

The Harper Agent is a member of the Harpers, obviously, but the sect working in Neverwinter was fractured and betrayed from within. The former leader of the region, Cymril, sold out the other Harpers, but perished in a triple-crossing. The Harpers were at the time aiding a rebel faction in the city working to oust the current Lord Protector. Only a few Harpers remain in the city, and you aren't sure if they can be trusted either.

The Dead Rat Deserter is a former member of a very prominent Luskan wererat criminal gang, but had to flee after there was a purge of disloyalty, whether deserved or not. Neverwinter is a new city, but the reach of the Dead Rats extends here as well, but perhaps there's a slight chance of not being recognized here.

An Iliyanbruen Guardian is one of the Eladrin who have returned to find their cities in ruin and are working to restore their kingdom. But the Shadovar and Thayans both in the area are fighting over artifacts and power in the Neverwinter Wood, leading to far larger problems than simply reclaiming what was formerly yours.

There's also themes for an Uthgardt Barbarian, werecreature barbarian, dwarven heir to ancient lost cities, renegade red wizard, a Shadovar noble, someone branded by Asmodeus, a person with a unique spellscar, and a drow Bregan D'aerthe spy. Each of them are very much tied into specific subplots in the setting, but with enough customization in them to fit almost any type of character mechanically. Some of course have racial or class requirements, for example a Renegade Red Wizard is almost bound to be a Wizard thematically and mechanically the theme enhances those abilities, and the Iliyanbruen Guardian is by definition meant for Eladrin only.

With thirteen themes with wildly different plotlines and factions, there should be more than enough variety for every player. Each of the themes is evocative, has plot arcs attached to them and firmly places the character into the setting in a way that enhances the game, not just there as a sidenote. And that's what I really like in games.

I've not played that particular AP or Edition, I find those example incredibly acceptable, ESPECIALLY for the PbP Application process.

I've never had the confidence to narrow the field quite that way as a GM, but as a player I love to see these kind of setups. As I said before, I don't like working in a vacuum, which is why I have a hard time when Ads are nothing more than mechanical CharGen and not much in the way of expectations/pre-campaign setup/ world lore. Lots of GMs and player can play freely, happily, and successfully in that blank slate world, but I cannot.

I once did a random generation CharGen. In that instance some of the professions were going to have very distinct starting points and NPCs. But even then, I allowed the players to help shape them to make sense for what they came up with.

I think the method you propose is great. There was a GM maybe 15 years ago when I got into PbP that started his games using this method (or at least something very similar) and it really helped tie people to the story. The key, I think, is to allow for sufficient customization so the player can choose a theme without it impacting their options a whole lot. On the GM side, I think having the politics and tensions surrounding a given theme detailed well allow more freedom for a player thematically. In other words, think more in terms of the landscape the player will be inserted into than a specific plot for the theme.

The place of levels in backstory

Time for some additional musings...

My observations this time have to do with the starting level of a character and their presented backstory. Rather often, and I'm guilty of this myself, even the lowest level characters have extensive backstories about their past deeds, competence and just general story. Which seems strange, because level 1 characters really are at the start of their careers. They don't have much, if any, experience in their classes. That's why they are level 1. Fully fledged backstories seem a bit weird. And while I do believe that levels are an abstraction, I also don't really like ignoring mechanics because of it. I think it's a weird kind of disconnect that can often be seen in characters.

So why is this? Of course, each case is its own individual story, but I might have a few theories. The first thing that comes to mind is the disconnect between the game and the character. If the game played (talking here about that specific campaign, not the system) doesn't support integrated PCs, players come in with characters of their own, fitting the concept into the presented character creation rules.

Second, many games (as a generalization once again) consider player backstory very little. Especially APs which are more often than not focused on the presented story rather than the PCs. It's possible that this leads to the phenomenon where players feel the need to "finish" their character's concept in the backstory because it'll likely see marginal inclusion in the game itself.

Overall though, I'd say it's far more interesting for a player to have a "complete" character at the very start of the game, rather than one they'd see organically develop into their class and role in the story. Divorcing the backstory from the mechanics, however, can seem strange at times, especially if there is an egregious power level difference between the two.

Alternatively, I may be off base entirely. Any thoughts on the matter?

I think it sort of depends on how you're looking at it. A 1st-level character can be thought of as at the beginning of their story, but even if they're in their teens, they're not at the beginning of their life.

I tend to find that most of the time, the extensive backstory (and I'm certainly guilty!) has a few goals. (These are in no particular order.) A big one is providing the character with a motivation to do what they're going to be doing. In your classic D&D adventurers situation: why is the character at a loose end without responsibilities that wouldn't allow them to wander about taking on dangerous jobs for pay, why would they want to do that or why do they have no better options, etc.? A second one is showing how the character concept fits into the GM's world or campaign goals. A third is showing where the character's personality comes from. And a fourth is supplying the GM with a couple of possible story hooks to use, if s/he likes.

By the time that you've told a story that addresses all that, it's pretty long.

Now, if it were a book (film, etc.), a lot of that would be part of the book. In fact, it would probably be the first book in "An exciting new fantasy trilogy!" But, because storytelling here is divided between players and GM, it's part of the backstory for individual characters. If you like, what we're doing is like starting the story with the second book (or second film in a Marvel superhero series, etc.).

I just applied for a game where the GM was asking for a 2-3 sentence pitch for backstory, and I enjoyed the exercise of trying to boil down what I wanted the character to be to something very short. But I noticed that most applicants ended up submitting the usual 2-paragraph backstory, and that may be because they felt that they couldn't really get across why a GM might want to accept this character without that.

I agree with Voord here. I think there's a distinct difference between mechanical experience and life experience in that the mechanical side should probably coincide with the mechanical level of the character. However, that character did not appear on the campaign's planet out of a vacuum, they came from somewhere.

Life experiences, or even bullet-point attributes, that help shape the characters personality and mindset are crucial pieces of the character. I find -using your generalized commentary for a moment- that when applicants do not spend enough time on the motivation/why's of the character, then when that character hits the table he or she does so flatly. The character suddenly relies too much on the player's default personality, standard gaming tropes, and a healthy dose of genre-awareness. All of which can be disheartening to the campaign (or other players), or worse... destructive.

I'm a big proponent of letting a campaign shape my character. My most successful story-telling as a player came when I did just that at a tabletop game. However, looking back, I also was probably a groan-inducing teammate for a good portion of the beginning sessions as I ran my character from one overdone 'act' to another, all while the veteran players watched on in horror. Had I been aware enough to put together a foundation for that character beforehand, I believe the story-telling would have launched sooner and stronger. So campaign-specific changes to a character are not exclusive to how well the background is shaped, but in PbP's slowness, it's definitely a heavy assist.

Voord mentions the blurb, which I've seen once or twice myself, and I like it only if I'm allowed to them explain things 'better' further down the app. As a one-off descriptor of the character, I don't like them because they devolve the character (or the player's intentions) down too far for the sake of relating it to the general public (and GM). Someone once asked me to describe Deadpool in one sentence, what I produced was an atrocity that sounded awful to anyone that might even remotely want to watch a Comic Book movie. Had I been trying to sell someone on that concept for a movie (or say, an app for a game), I might have been laughed out of the room.


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