Friday, 7 June 2019
Like an egg stain on your chin
Recently I’ve been reminiscing about our roleplaying days of yore. Not in order to wallow in nostalgia, but for the sake of some interviews and podcasts I was doing. I talked about the saturnine loner who achieved enlightenment and saved the people he realized were not lackeys but friends. The civil war that split our party when each player-character came to different conclusions about the right and honorable course. The subtle ways that characters within a legion, even at different ranks, could push their disagreements as far as military rules allowed.
I’m forced to the conclusion that the roleplaying was better back then – more immersive, more nuanced, more surprising – when we just took a Tirikelu character and developed them by playing. Now we mostly use GURPS, which encourages you to plot out every preposterous detail of the character before you start playing. It’s not a springboard for the imagination. More often it’s just a straitjacket.
And by the way, I'm just singling out GURPS because it's the game I've played most in the last ten years. Plenty of so-called narrative systems are just as bad, with their nannying insistence on each player writing down which other character they like, which one they have a grudge against, and so on. It's like being at infant school and being made to write about your weekend. The point of playing is to discover these things, not scribble the backstory to a bad novel.
I much prefer the approach taken by Stephen Dove for his Jewelspider Chronicles campaign. There you begin with a short "mission statement" for the character, clarifying some background details but leaving plenty of room for future development. As an example, here's my initial description of the character I played in Tim Harford's Company of Bronze campaign.
I already talked about why GURPS’s mental disadvantages don’t work but there’s a problem with character disadvantages in general. Say you cap disadvantages at -20 points. All the players will immediately take the maximum allowed. What's wrong with this picture? Simply that if the disadvantages were properly priced, you'd expect to see some players not bother with them at all.
“Ah, but character diamonds.” No, giving extra points for disadvantages is the junk food version of interesting characterisation. A lame epileptic drug-addicted albino with the regulation five quirks is not the slightest bit interesting. What makes a character compelling is in the gap between desire and duty, wants and needs, feelings and experience. And better by far if those internal conflicts are drawn with a subtle brush, not the cartoonish personality traits offered by the GURPS rules.
So I'd allow players one disadvantage. Just one. That's it. Not a mental one, either, because they're all anathema to good roleplaying. If you take the disadvantage, you can spend the points on an advantage. Again, just the one.
How are you going to get that interesting characterization? Do what good roleplayers manage without any of the personality-by-numbers stuff. As Laurence Olivier said: dear boy, just try acting.