Sunday, July 19, 2015

What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class is Limiting Your Creativity

Language is a funny thing in RPGs; we get a particular image in our minds, and then we never question whether or not the image we have is the only way things can be. For example, when you look at the Rage class feature, what comes to mind? Chances are good you thought of a hulking brute, howling and foaming at the mouth while attacking everything in reach. But Rage can be a lot of different things, from a physical transformation into a partially inhuman creature (through Rage powers that give you animalistic or demonic features), a no-holds-barred performance where you give this fight everything you've got, or even something as odd as a sub-routine that only takes over when you're threatened (as I talked about in The Android Barbarian).

It's the little things that we all accept without question that trip us up. That's why if you want to have a freeing experience the next time you create a new character, make sure you never, ever mention that character's class once you've sat down at the table.

What's In A Name?

More often than not we think of our characters in terms of their classes. Hakar is a ranger, so he is good in nature and he's a tracker. Beldrake is a sorcerer, so she has a great force of personality, and she will be physically weak and unarmored. Tim is a cleric, so all he's going to do is go on about his god, he'll pray quietly in the morning, and he'll heal the party.

Sir Troll Knight is a samurai and he... wait a second...
The point here is that we tend to use class as a shorthand for a stereotypical list of traits. Bards sing and are charming, rogues are dexterous and sly, paladins are church knights who refuse to break the law, etc. But if you take a step back from this accepted setup, you realize that in a lot of cases you have significantly more freedom with who your character is and how he or she operates than you think you do. Nowhere is it written that rogues can't be big, burly leg breakers who wield bastard swords. Bards don't have to be foppish and delicate, particularly given the training it takes to accomplish many of their acrobatic feats. Did you know that just calling the samurai a knight completely eliminates most people's problems with the class?

Dungeon masters do this, too, and it can broadcast to the players what a certain NPC's mechanical makeup is. That's why when I wrote the guide 100 NPCs You Might Meet At The Tavern I tried to include a few characters whose true skills and abilities simply don't match the first impression you get of them.

Who Are Your Characters, And What Do They Do?

Let's come at the issue from another direction in order to better illustrate it. Don't pick a class for your character first; instead, pick a profession. Something they would use their collection of class features and abilities to pursue.Let's say, for example, your character is a bounty hunter. That's a solid, adventuring trade, yes?

How does this character succeed at that job? Does he make the rounds of the taverns, listening to rumors and collecting tips about where a wanted person has gone to ground? Does she dog a person's trail, tracking them as much by scent and spoor as by the marks of their passage? Does your bounty hunter use magic to track the quarry, making it impossible to hide for long?

All of these are valid methods of building a man hunter. Whether you're a diviner, an oracle, a ranger, a rogue, a ninja, a bard, or a slayer, those are just the mechanics that fill out the bones beneath the flesh of your story. And like all mechanical bones they are most effective when no one sees them, or even suspects that they're there.

People's Example #1
When was the last time you asked what your character did before you asked what the character's class and stats were? For example, are you a bodyguard? A traveling thug for hire? Are you a treasure hunter? A spy? Are you a bandit? A burglar? Were you a war-drummer or a flute player with an army? Are you a soldier? A tailor? A tinker?

To belabor the point, let's take another example. Say that you wanted to play a wandering do-gooder. You know, the have sword, will travel sort of person. You could do this with a lot of different classes, but you decide to play a paladin. As we all know, in order to be a paladin you have to be of lawful good alignment, you have to follow a righteous god, and you have to maintain a certain code. Nowhere in the class's description, however, does it say you have to join a holy order. It doesn't say that you have to be trained by other paladins, or that you have to add the words paladin of (insert god here) every time you introduce yourself to someone. Nor does it say you must follow laws that clash with your code, or that you have to try and convert other people to your worship, or that you can't join the rest of the party in the tavern or the brothel (barring specific, completely-optional oaths that would be broken by intoxication and fornication respectively).

So what does that mean for your traveling hero? Well, perhaps he joined a great crusade (like fighting demons at the World Wound), and found both faith and strength in a foxhole. Maybe he was lost in the wilderness, ready to starve, when he was rescued by the intervention of Erastil. So now he lives his life doing the same, trying to help the lost and endangered of the world. Maybe she grew up in Cheliax and chose to embrace Iomede as a way of trying to make her country a better, nobler place, and to show that not everyone would sit idly by while devils made decisions in the upper echelons of power.

You know what else that means, though? It means that if you don't want to play a paladin loaded down with a foundry worth of steel, and who isn't blazing with holy symbols, you can do that, too. In fact, if you want to be a stealthy bowman who calls on the power of the divine to guide your hand and empower your arrows when hunting wickedness, nowhere in the book does it say you can't do that. It's just that focus on how the class is often depicted (and what other players feel the class should be) often blinds us to the different ways we have available to play it.

Beneath The Skin, Outside The Box

If you feel like your games are getting stagnant, it might be because you're relying a little too much on the names of your classes and abilities, and not enough on what makes up your actual character.

There are those who call me... Jeb.
The next time you sit down at your table, and everyone is introducing their characters, think of something to call them other than their class (even if their class name is applicable). Instead of being Erin the bard, why not introduce yourself as Erin Silverstrings, harper, tale-teller, and seeker of adventure? Instead of opening up your dialogue by saying you're Mortran the wizard, why not something like Mortran the Sage? Instead of telling everyone you're Dirk, Inquisitor of Abadar, why not give yourself a job title like Dirk, Accountant of the Missing?

Your class name is handy when you're discussing things out of game... but if you want to get better roleplaying in, and free your mind to create truly different concepts, stop focusing on what so many people say these classes should be, and instead ask what they could be if you just thought about them a little differently.

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  1. I agree completely - I once started a character sheet by listing "1HD Sociopath [Fluid Extraction Specialist]", "Dual Class: Killer Fashionista / Psychotic Disney Princess", and ran with it.

    The gaming group, two games later, in a completely different system, still refers to doing something scary and devastatingly effective *because* you're doing it stylishly as "A Sasha"

  2. One idea that you might consider posting about, if you haven't already, is what characters call themselves.

    Elim Garak: Exiled spy from the Obsidian Order, Cardassia's killer intelligence agency that rivals the Romulans' Tal-shiar. "I'm a simple tailor."

    The Elric Brothers' Alchemy mentor: Pummels her enemies with both alchemy and her appendages. "What is she?!" "I'm a housewife!"

    Tarik, one of my D&D 3.0 characters: "I'm a barbarian." His best ability score was STR, he came from a tribe living in the frozen wilderness, got his powers from a bloody and painful tattooing ritual, and grumbles about how weak cityfolk are. He was a psion specializing in psychometabolism.

  3. I did something like this with my last character. I originally created a rogue who introduced himself as a scout, please don't refer to him as a rogue. He had no interest in treasure or riches, he wanted to gather information and know things. I later had to respec him, for personal reasons, into a ranger, but kept the "I'm a scout" title for him because that was who he was. Ultimately the class didn't matter as much as his role did. though how he went about gathering information was of course completely different.

  4. If you asked my Druid what her class is she'd probably just say lower. She thinks and acts like a rogue though. Just one who can turn into animals.

  5. Just to comment on this, "Nowhere is it written that rogues can't be big, burly leg breakers who wield bastard swords.", while the book doesn't specifically say they can't, rogues don't have proficiency with Bastard swords, and in 5e D&D at least, they can't use sneak attack with one of those. So you can try to be a big burly legbreaker who wields a bastard sword, but you won't be a very efficient rogue.

    1. It actually said finesse and ranged weapons. Finesse says you can choose to use dex to determine to hit and damage, normally you'd use STR. So technically only the longsword part would be wrong. You could RAW sneak attack with a javelin or rock.

  6. The Fallout Model is a good analogy for this. :) Everybody is aware of Magic, Gods, and Fighting. Some people just happen to be better at one or the others. :)

  7. What an excellent article! I totally agree with the premise & will start using it from here-on out. Nice writing!

  8. A character I made a while back, Mikaeus, looks like a rogue. He acts like a rogue. He sneaks around and gathers information, trading secrets for coin. He wields a wicked dagger and specializes in using poisons. But Mikaeus is not a rogue. He is a druid. He makes his own poisons from his wild shape, he sneaks around as insects and vermin to get information, and he uses the Thousand Faces ability to blend into any crowd. Class names do not define a character. Creativity goes a long way.

  9. My Halfling Rogue was a courier he traveled between cities transporting rare goods to his employers on the back of his Dragonne.