Sunday, January 24, 2016

The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing

The great thing about roleplaying games is that they provide us with escapism, and entertainment. And while everyone's escapism is different, there are certain character archetypes that show up again and again no matter what game you're playing. Whether you're dragon hunting in the newest edition from Wizards of the Coast, enjoying shadow politics in one of the incarnations of Vampire from Onyx Path, or gearing up to take on the multiverse in Savage Worlds, Rifts, GURPs, or any of a hundred other games, here are some PCs you should probably avoid bringing to the table.

#1: The Bigot


We've all seen this character. Maybe you're in an Old West or 1920s setting, and the player wanted to try being "authentic" to the time period. You might be in a fantasy setting, and one player at the table rolled a die to declare that he was actively prejudiced towards one of the base races of the world. Most of the time this decision isn't made to be offensive, but that doesn't change the fact that the results usually are.

White swans are inferior. Got a problem?
Think about that job you had for a while where one of your co-workers thought it was perfectly fine to talk about women's bodies right in front of them using crude, offensive language. Or that time you were stuck on a company road trip, and discovered your manager wanted to tell you he was surprised that you were unlike all the other Asian/Hispanic/African Americans he'd ever worked with, and then proceeded to list off his secret opinions of what an entire group of people was actually like. If you're lucky enough that you've never been in a situation like this, use your imagination. That is an uncomfortable position to be in, and it's never a good idea to purposefully bring a time bomb like that to a game where everyone's trying to have fun.

But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...


If you decide that your character must be prejudiced in some way, it's your responsibility to sit down and put some heavy thought into why and how that came about. For example, you've decided your paladin is sexist. That's fine, but why? Is it because he was raised to view women as delicate, and to put them on pedestals (a white knight in more than one way), and he insists that his view of an entire gender take precedence over reality? If your dwarf has a noted prejudice against orcs and half-breeds, what form does that prejudice take? After all, if you've fought an enemy for decades, or centuries, there's no denying their courage, strength, and viciousness. So, does the dwarf instead believe that orcs lack discipline and control? Would this lead said dwarf to talk down to orc party-members, acting more like a disapproving father than a co-worker? Or does he believe orcs are stupid, and therefore ignores strategy and knowledge that is perfectly valid because of its source?

The biggest thing you need to ask, though, is how are you going to maintain prejudice that doesn't stand up in the face of reality? Prejudice, by its very nature, is a broad judgment of a people. If you believe gnomes are cowards, or that fae are all capricious, how will you alter your beliefs when they don't hold up? Characters need to develop, and the Bigot is one who needs more development than most.

#2: The Joke


This one is particularly problematic with newer players, who often confuse silliness with creativity. Maybe it's the guy who comes to Vampire, and uses his potent Disciplines to bend people's minds in order to make them re-enact The Emperor's New Clothes. It might be the new player who decided to play a thief who steals everything that isn't nailed down, purely because the image of a burglar with a bulging sack filled with her compatriots' belongings never fails to get a giggle from the player. At its basest form, the joke character is that guy who comes into game with a character who acts like a cat. It's amusing the first time, but like a 25 cent gumball, loses its flavor in a big damn hurry.

Yeah, it was very funny. Now hold still.
Characters should have quirks, and players should feel free to embrace personalities from all ends of the spectrum. Characters who are genuinely funny, or completely unique, should be encouraged. Joke characters, though, are neither of these things.

But, if You're Going to Do It Anyway...


If you really can't let the concept go, then you have to transform it from a joke into an actual character. Say, for example, you had a character who was a bard, but who was a terrible bard. Can't sing, can't dance, and all his music is off-key. Sure, that's amusing in a "wow, this guy really sucks at his job," kind of way, but the joke will only last until the end of the first character introduction. The question you need to ask is, if this character is awful at music, what is he good at? For example, was he a drill sergeant in the army before leaving, and his battle cries and strategy are unmatched, giving huge benefits to his allies when the swords come out? Is he actually a barbarian, who can shatter skulls with his lute, and then write a truly terrible tune about it afterward?

A joke is a one-note character. You need to write an entire song, and to figure out what's going to still be useful and endearing about the character once the joke's already been told.

#3: The Mute


This one always sounds like a good idea, ironically, but it is rarely as great as the player thinks it will be. In the player's mind, a mute character is sort of like Ariel in The Little Mermaid; we'll be paying more attention to them, because we'll want to know why they can't talk. In reality, though, mute characters tend to get sidelined because so much of the interaction at the table involves speaking. The result is that even if the player who brought a mute character thought it was a good idea, he or she will quickly get frustrated that everyone ignores them.

At which point they have to communicate in exaggerated expressions.
The most frustrating part of the mute character is that you might have a really cool story behind why you can't talk. Demon stole your voice in exchange for a boon, you're operating under a curse from a sea hag, or you're pulling a Silent Bob and just never talking until that one moment in the adventure where it will make everyone's head turn. But that moment isn't going to be in a few hours; it's going to be months until you get to drop that bombshell. If you ever do.

But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...


If you insist that you can make your mute character work, there are a lot of things you should consider. The most obvious is a partner; a Jay to your Silent Bob, if you will. This could be another player at the table, or even a character under the storyteller's control, but the point is you have a mouthpiece that will keep you involved, even if your character isn't talking.

The other thing you need to think about is the point of playing a mute character. For example, say you're involved in a shadowy Call of Cthulhu game where you're playing a mute who is also an expert in mythos lore. However, you have a secondary role for the storyteller as the head of the local Cult of Hastur, and you keep silent around your compatriots so they won't connect that you are also the threatening voice on the phone trying to manipulate their movements. That kind of double-blind situation can be very rewarding, and you're plugged into the action because you're spying on what the party is doing. However, not being able to speak is a huge handicap that rarely pays off the way we think it will in our roleplaying.

#4: The Hedonist


We've all seen this character at least once, and it's one of the only kind that travels in flocks. It's the bard who decides to try to seduce the queen, in the throne room, while the king is delivering your quest. It's the changeling who decides he's going to just chill at the bar, and refuse to get on the plot bus unless it makes a stop downtown in front of his favorite watering hole. It's that one guy who comes along on your spy mission, and thinks it would be a topping idea to start shooting up medical grade amphetamines that actually hinder his prowess while trying to sneak into an enemy base.

In short, it's the character who should really be an NPC.

"The necromancer raises his staff, and-" I seduce him!
The Hedonist is all play, no work, and tends to make amazingly stupid decisions as a result. The best case scenario is that the character stays behind at the tavern. The worst case scenario is that you brought their scabrous, drunken ass with you into a place where you're actually depending on them to perform.

But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...


The key to the Hedonist is the same as the Joke; develop past the one-note character trait. You have a drunken dwarf, who never goes anywhere without a supply of spirits. Okay, good for you. Add some drama to that situation by asking, why? Is it because the character is coping with the emotional trauma of making a living by putting his ax into thinking, feeling creatures in exchange for gold? Is it because the wound that got him dismissed from service, and brought shame to his family, still pains him, and he drinks to numb it?

These kinds of questions can deepen the character, and add layers of personality you weren't expecting. Everything from drinking and drugs, to sex and gambling can be made relevant in a character's story. As long as, that is, the character can still do his or her job when called upon to strap up and ride out.

#5: The Misanthrope


This is the character we all dread showing up at our tables. They have no interest in making friends, they don't care about teamwork, and generally give the impression that they would be much happier if tabletop games came with a single-player version. They're usually trying to reach for the essence of characters like Batman or Wolverine, but instead they just end up as surly murderhobos who will grumble and growl until it's time to kill more things.

No, I won't shower. I don't care what you think.
Misanthropes are one of two things. Either they're incomplete characters, or they're a result of a player forgetting that roleplaying games are a team-oriented pastime. Either way, the reaction to the misanthrope is going to be strained patience at best, or letting him get eaten by a dragon at worst.

But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...


Don't. The proper answer to the misanthrope is to go back to the drawing board, and fill in the blanks until you have a character that can work with compatriots in order to achieve his or her goals.

Now, that doesn't mean you have to be friendly. It doesn't mean you need a ray of sunshine to shoot from your nether regions. What it does mean, though, is that you need to design a character that can act like an adult when it's time to follow the plot. Whether that's taking point on a government black ops team going after ancient cults in deep jungles, or working with a team of monster hunters trying to beard the local vampire prince in his own court, is up to you.

Easy ways to hammer a misanthrope into a more acceptable shape include making him part of an official organization (so the storyteller can simply order him into areas, as a commanding officer), attaching him to one of the other PCs (lifelong friend, trusted partner, or someone he owes a debt to. The misanthrope might not say it out loud, but he cares about this person), or simply making sure his aggression is pointed toward the enemy, rather than his allies.

You Can Make Any of These Work


As I've tried to point out, a good roleplayer can turn any of these archetypes into a complex, compelling character. However, most of us are nowhere near as good as we think we are, and the execution often falls far short of the image we had in our heads. Additionally, there are just certain concepts that fly in the face of a game's flavor, and canon. So, while I don't want to discourage players from stretching out, and trying new things, I would strongly caution against bringing monkey wrenches into a game.

If your character is going to cause a strain, whether it's because there's friction with other PCs, he won't follow plot hooks, or his concept simply can't pick up his share of the work load, it's time to go back to the drawing board. You won't have fun with it, and neither will anyone else at the table.

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20 comments:

  1. The other good way to deal with the 'WolverBat' character? Give them a side plot where they have to solve a 'mystery'...doesn't matter what. Create a hook - and they'll usually soliloquize about their 'enemies' etc. and provide you with the details. Let them know the mission comes first -- dungeon delving, rescuing people, beating the Prince of Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) -- but once that's resolved, they can do things to solve the mystery. Add bits that will appeal to one or more of the other characters, and you've got a binky that will keep them in line -- and having fun! :)

    Cool, eh? :)

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  2. All GM's dread these kids of players. Well put, I truly agree with #5 it's my least favorite kind of character to deal with.

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  3. " Is he actually a barbarian, who can shatter skulls with his lute"

    Bard-barian. Come on, that was an easy one!

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  4. I played in a campaign that had a lot of arbitrary combats thrown in, and it made little sense to fight some of the creatures. I ended up walking away from one particular combat because we had already gotten the information we needed and there was nothing blocking the door, but my party insisted on trying to kill everything they laid eyes upon. Any suggestions for reasoning with your party to think about their motivations without leaving them high and dry?

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    Replies
    1. Basic response? Encourage your fellow players to develop characters who aren't bloodthirsty, or who have standards of victory other than "everything is dead."

      When I played "Curse of The Crimson Throne" everyone in my party was a member of the city guard. While that's sort of a plot device used in the adventure path, we took it very seriously. We arrested almost every enemy we found, and exerted the authority that came with our badges to socially cull a lot of NPCs into compliance. When combat wasn't necessary, and would do nothing but waste resources, we avoided it entirely.

      In short, you need a party dedicated to achieving the goal, rather than a raucous group of brawlers disguised as adventurers. Or, perhaps, breaking the mindset that combat is the only thing that matters in an adventure.

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  5. Interestingly I find number 5 to be the most tolerable, Just make sure that the other pcs are their "trusted" friends and everything goes smoothly. Just expect a high combat style of game.

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  6. So, what would recommend if a player wants to play an expy of Sona? If you're not familiar with League of Legends lore, Sona's a bard who's totally mute, as in she can't even vocalize. At all.

    My guess is that she'll need a nearby friendly telepath, but relying on a fellow PC being a lashunta isn't a reliable option. Then there's the fact that mute folks won't get many opportunities to use those super social skills that're a bard's stock in trade. There's letter-writing I suppose, but how often does that come up?

    So, any advice in addition to what you already gave?

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    1. My advice is simply not to do anything gimmicky with a character whenever possible. Playing a mute has always seemed like a gimmick to me, and it rarely adds anything to the game.

      That said, if someone is insistent on playing that sort of character, you need to determine what your role is, and how you're going to fill it without the ability to speak. Bards lose out on a lot of performances, requiring instruments where others would be able to sing. Spells will need to be modified with Silent Spell in order to be cast at all. Communicating with comrades may require something like a pseudodragon familiar to act as a go-between, to vocalize your thoughts to others.

      Unless it's somehow a core part of your concept, I'd recommend against any of the 5 archetypes above. They are, in a real sense, playing the game on a more difficult setting.

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  7. I played a mute, but me and a friend were both learning American Sign Language at the time. So my character signed and his translated for the party, and it was a useful exercise and fun.

    Not that this exception is relevant to the topic, it's just a cool-ish gaming story.

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  8. Excellent blog! Makes me want to improve my role playing! Feeling a renewed drive to develop my character.

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  9. On the topics of Mutes, my friend plays as an r1 model astromech in a Star Wars game with me. (R1-K0, or Rico for short). He has a soundboard of mech noises he plays whenever he types something into a secret Chat that only certain players whose characters understand binary can read. That's one cool way to do it!

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  10. Something else I've thought of. How would I play a devotee of Arshea without it being problematic? Arshea's celestial obedience alone will need some forethought.

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    1. I would suggest doing it the same way you'd play someone with the Calistrean Prostitute background. You treat it as a religious observance, and you do so with forethought according to your character, and how that character indulges.

      That might mean you go to a tavern, and select someone based on your personal preferences. It might mean that you begin an ongoing relationship with the Cayden Caillean worshiping fighter in your party (if you're both comfortable with that). It might mean seeking out fellow adherents, or simply taking some private time to go along with your prayers. How you do it is up to you, as long as you keep it flavorful, and ensure that it serves the story rather than the other way around.

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  11. What about that one guy who always wants to RP Drizzt Do'Urden? And then they act like that's not what they're doing?

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    1. I am now officially naming this kind of player the Fan Fic Homage. Because the player isn't just taking inspiration from a piece of pop culture, or making a conversion (I have a whole page dedicated to those), but awkwardly trying to wear a character's skin while pretending it was their own idea.

      If you want to play a dual-wielding drow ranger, go ahead. The same if you want to play a vigilante ninja, a big green monster who spends most of his time as a 125 pound alchemist, or a tech wizard in a magic suit of armor... just make the characters unique to you, so that you're not just playing with someone else's toys and trying to re-tell someone else's stories.

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  12. There's a sixth type of player we all hate: The guy who feels its his right to tell other people how to play their characters.

    You concentrate on your guy, and I'll concentrate on mine.

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  13. Great article. Especially love the "But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway..." sections.

    I'm surprised there isn't more info under the mute... I'm used to playing GM-less games or GM-based games where you, as the player, are often asked how a scene looks, and you get to vignette a bit. Just cause the character is mute doesn't mean the player is mute... and if the party is used to travelling with the mute, they would probably be familiar with most basic communications from the character.

    I mean, you are still crippled with many transactions, but you could still do something of this ilk:


    GM: You're in the bar and accidentally step on someone's toes. You turn to find a very large Orc looking down on you with dagger eyes, saying: "Why problem make?!"

    Mute player: Knowing that Orcs say 'hi' by insulting each other, and being familiar with some somatic Orc insults of the "step off or I'll kill your mother" variety, I gesticulate wildly and rudely at him.

    GM: Make a Diplomacy roll.

    Player: 18.

    GM: Grum'sht steps back with wide eyes, surprised a small gnome knows such rude handy-work. Then starts laughing hysterically, slaps you on the shoulders, and buys you a beer.

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  14. Says don't play a bigot, it can get offensive. Goes on to imply only white males are bigots

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