Last night, my friends and I had a discussion about character in role-playing games and specifically character conflict. Our host was talking about starting a new RPG campaign using the Burning Wheel RPG. While I’ve never read or played the game, the selling point he and another friend of mine were touting was a sort of trait system which forced players to hold to a personality trait or belief established at character creation. They buttressed their argument by comparing pen and paper rpgs to a video game. They felt their current group of regulars had a video game player mentality where you are encouraged to seek the best possible outcome rather than act out how your character should or would.
I can certainly understand where this opinion is coming from. In the group I play with irregularly, there is some crossover of players. I rarely see the other players initiate stories or ideas on their own. They are purely reactionary and only look to see how they can get the ideal result when faced with a dilemma placed before them by the game master. Rarely will the characters act upon their beliefs or personality. Rather, they look at the situation from a more objective outside point of view and then act upon it. This is very much a style of play we see in video games which might present you a choice, sometimes even more than two, but really there is one answer better than the others. As this is a Fading Suns game, one of the ways to earn experience to develop your character is express what you or your character learned from the session. Rarely will these players articulate what their character learned but rather what they as a player did or will refer to facts revealed during the session. The other option is they will state something I personally find quite weak but thrust it upon their character learning this (a laughable one being you need power to be able to do stuff coming from someone who is already a powerful character).
Now, this is not to say there is a good or bad way to play pen and paper RPGs or video games. These are simply subjective critiques. We can each derive our own sense of amusement from these experiences. So long as everyone is having fun the purpose of the game is achieved. The players I referenced earlier do have fun witnessing the story. They are not the protagonists but rather sidekicks or supporting characters. These are roles they feel comfortable with. I often become the de facto leader and main protagonist because I am more assertive or ambitious than my fellows. When we play games where I don’t play this role, the campaign tends to lack direction and eventually get abandoned. In my professional role, I am often more a mediator than a leader. I also feel more comfortable in that role from a personality perspective. Interestingly enough, the first few sessions of any RPG, I try to be the one who builds consensus until even my patience is exhausted before I just take charge in the face of paralysis.
Sandbox video games do offer more freedom. While most have a main plot which is more or less on rails, it is often actually secondary to the freedom the player has to explore or make whatever fun they want. This is accomplished through side quests, persistent worlds, or tools to be a total sociopath and just cause untold destruction and murder.
GTA IV is a good example of this. Despite lackluster driving controls, there is plenty to do in the game when you aren’t pursuing the story missions. You do have choices, even if a video game is significantly limited when compared to the possibilities offered by the imagination. The designers certainly made many memorable characters with personality which gave a certain vibrant nature to the world. This is the least of what a good pen and paper rpg can offer.
Now how this ties to improv, comes as we have begun to explore characters more and more in our classes. Last class, we took part in an exercise where we were crafting a character to take part in a scene. At first we began by walking around the room and were instructed to now walk like our character. Following up on this, we got home, and then had to prepare for a night out. Throughout, continuously acting as our character would in the various situations. We were then instructed to pick a name for a character and say it aloud. The instructor handed us a piece of paper giving us each an additional trait or quality we had to exhibit. In a normally heavily female dominated class, I decided to play a female character. I drew inspiration from an ex-coworker who was very status conscious and materialistic when it came to fashion and a lesser extent men. I was Tina Martinez. When I received the piece of paper describing my character as rich, I chose to have her wealth be through her husband. However, as we were then ushered into a facsimile of toastmasters and through the conversations with the other participants, I found myself adding more depth to Tina. She was largely lonely with her husband Ricky constantly away on business trips. She had one of those purse pooches she named Fluffy to keep her company.
In my writing or my rpg characters, I never really considered the character’s movement. Although lately, I have noticed while DMing our D&D 5th edition game, I am adding a more physical element than in the past. The players have largely responded positively to this. As an introvert, I often internalize or keep my feelings to myself. I have a very neutral or deliberate posture. Even touching others or being touched was a source of discomfort. With age, improv and my own dating experiences have made me more at ease. Often, my characters will be the stoic or reserved kind with an unflappable will once a course of action was decided. More a follow by example than by speech type of character.
The only character I am playing right now is very far out of my regular range. A fairly rambunctious young woman of slight build and height who is the boss of a group of mercenaries/ex-soldiers and a pretentious noble. She’s street smart but also very approachable and prefers to make friends or defuse tense situations with humour. I’m going to have to consider what kind of physicality to bring to the table when next I play her.