Monday, March 9, 2015

PCs and Main Characters are all "Special Snowflakes"

In recent years there has arisen a derogatory term that has been used to refer to players coming up with unusual concepts. The term is “special snowflake”. The concept is that a player isn’t happy being a normal character, they have to be special. They have to stand out somehow and so they take on some ridiculous backstory elements in order to explain an ill-conceived combination of character concepts. There are lists of red-flag character elements, tests to see if your character is a Mary Sue and many other such things. And if your character happens to hit something on that list then suddenly you get derided for wanting to play a “special snowflake.”

It might be the fact that my first gaming experience was in superhero gaming via Champions First Edition where you created your hero from scratch and didn’t have a set template of abilities to limit the directions you could take your character. However, I do not see a problem with someone who wants to play a “unique” concept. I’m not going to roll my eyes when someone says “but I want to do something that nobody else can do”. That’s the very point of superhero gaming, after all, you have a power that is your power. It’s not something pulled from a standard list of spells. It is something that you have created for yourself from scratch. If you and every other player aren’t some sort of “special snowflake” then what’s the use of making a character?

Done right, even being average can be considered a path to being the special person. This is, after all, part of the nature of Batman’s popularity. He is “just” human and yet he is somehow capable of standing on the frontlines of battle alongside Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. He represents this idea that, somehow, human ingenuity will keep us level and even with pretty much any force. Another example would be Kyou from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Amongst a cast that includes an alien AI, a time traveler, a psychic and a girl whose mind can unknowingly change reality, Kyou is normal and yet he is the character around whom most of the action revolves because he is the narrator. His very average nature has made him the “special snowflake” of the group.

Truth be told, we all want to play the character that stands out. We all want our characters to be extraordinary. None of us would be happy with playing Human Fighter 6A or Half-Elven Ranger 37X. We want our human fighter and our half-elven ranger to be unique. We want them to stand out, or we want something that isn’t in the list of common races and classes. We all want to play the “cool” concept and there are certain concepts we’ve marked as being “not cool” because of how often we’ve seen them done poorly or because we think it is an attempt at munchkinism or powergaming. It isn’t the concepts themselves that sour us, but the execution most people take to the concepts. However, most of us don’t bother to look past the surface similarities of any particular concept we have to see if the execution is done well.

Any well-made character is going to stand out. Most well-made and well-developed characters will end up scoring high on those “is your character a Mary Sue?” tests because most of those tests dock characters for taking up common and popular central concepts drawn from comics and movies that have been around decades as well as literature that has been around for centuries. In order to score low on the Mary Sue/Special Snowflake tests, you need a character so blah and ordinary as to be a non-entity. If you come up with at least three major occurrences in your characters then you will likely stumble upon three separate and recognized tropes, each of which will get tagged as signs of being a “Mary Sue”/”Special Snowflake”.

Some game systems find ways to discourage playing concepts that the developers think should be rare. One example of this recently is that my brother, friend and I got ahold of Run Faster via a DrivethruRPG shopping run. We found a large number of variant metatypes such as centaurs, oni, changelings, minotaurs, goblins and so forth. We started noting that some of the variant metatypes cost more build points than others so we started doing a mechanical comparison of the various metatypes What we found was that there was little if any overall differences (based on how much karma getting the various abilities and stats would cost) between any of the variants and their base race. We came to the conclusion that the more expensive karma-build costs was meant to serve no other purpose than to enforce the rarity of those particular metatypes. As such, we dismissed the higher build costs and simply used the karma costs of the base races. We ended up with a dryad, an oni, a troll and a human.

Putting a tangible cost on playing a race merely because it’s meant to be rare in the game world is bad design. If there is not a mechanical benefit to go along with that extra cost, then that extra cost should not exist. Arguments about enforcing the rarity do not apply, because no matter how many rare character types exist within the collection of your player characters, the player characters still represent a miniscule portion of a world’s population. The rarity of those particular character types is still in your control. They don’t suddenly become common just because there’s a PC playing them.

Worries that people will suddenly not want to play the basic races because they’re “boring” are irrelevant. That would be like Baskin Robins making chocolate cost more in order to make sure that vanilla is more popular. We wouldn’t accept that is valid and we shouldn’t accept it in our games either. If the GM doesn’t want a particular race in, trust them to tell the player that they don’t want it in.

In my Divine Blood playtests, we had a prophet (which operates slightly different from what you think…oracles in DB see futures….prophets create them), a Visionary and an oread. Canonically, there are twelve known living oreads in the entire Divine Blood world, a population of around six billion. There is only one other active living prophet in the fiction that I’m aware of in the Divine Blood setting, they’re one of the fiction characters. There are probably close to twenty thousand Visionaries around the world, which makes them more common than either of the other two but still rare. For further fun, the prophet was also a Demi-God and to date neither Gods nor Demons had ever developed a prophet. All three character types were rare to extremely rare within the rules of the universe but their inclusion did not suddenly make the game world suddenly full of prophets, oreads and Visionaries.

A situation in the Shadowrun game where I found the increased karma cost to make sense was in the creation of vampiric or shapeshifter characters, because those characters had actual mechanical benefits that common characters lacked. Also, in the creation of a Changeling, there were three options of increasing karma cost. The first option had you roll all your inhuman features randomly, the second had you roll your weakness randomly and the most expensive gave you complete control over your race design. This is another case where the increased cost is worth it, being able to spend more points to have greater control over your character design is worth it. Having to spend more points because somebody thinks this race should be rare is silly.

D&D is pretty bad at this. There are set standard races, usually based on Tolkein’s Legendarium, and then there are monster races, which a lot of people will give you dirty looks for suggesting that you be able to play them. As an example, I took the HERO, Strands of Fate, Fate Core, BESM and OVA game systems and created a gorgon archer in each of those games easily able to fit within the point cost of a standard, starting fantasy character. The character had a stony gaze, though it was a temporary paralyze rather than a permanent change, poison, the ability to cure poison with her blood, excellent Charisma, decent other stats, good skills with the bow and skills in navigation, survival, stealth and tracking. It took me less than three hours to create five versions of the character for each of the five systems, some of which don’t have systems that easily convert to each other. In order to make the same character in the same 1st level power scale within D&D 5e, I had to create a custom race which took me two hours on its own. Furthermore, I don’t even know if that race is appropriately balanced because I am not privy to the mathematics behind balancing the various 5e races.

D&D at least has the fact that majority of monster races are designed as coherent antagonists complete with already having training in various skills rather than being designed as a race meant to be combined with a class. Goblins, orcs, ogres and the like are not meant to be playable characters and it takes some effort to separate the training from the inherited characteristics represented by the monster entry. Medusas/gorgons even more so since they are a rare monster race. D&D is a template system, it is meant to be easy to create a character by simple walking along an assembly line a picking up a race, a class and a background, done. The ease of creation comes at a sacrifice of flexibility.

The Shadowrun creatures previously mentioned were introduced as player character options. However, instead of trusting a GM to say “I really don’t want those in my campaign, please stick to this list of races I’m fine with running” they decided to build a little bit of discouragement into the system in the form of increasing the karma cost to build such characters without compensating with equivalent capability. It’s sort of like saying “we know you asked for the ability to be these things because earlier editions that we didn’t produce had them, but we really don’t want you to be these things, so we’re going to put in an extra cost.

That said, it might be likely that someone will come to me and point out that I increased the cost of healing from the Strands of Fate standards as well as reducing the base effectiveness of attacks and armors. So it might be asked “isn’t that the same thing as what you’re talking about?” No, it is not. I am adding a mechanical cost to a set ability common across everybody who has that ability because I want the ability to be rare. This is a decision that affects both game play and game flavor, but primarily it affects gameplay. Making healing more expensive means injuries are harder to get rid of. Making natural armor and attacks have a lower base level of effect makes weapons like guns, swords and even daggers more dangerous and enforces the concept that training generally supercedes born ability. For people that want powerful natural attacks and protections they can spend more points to reflect greater degrees of training with their natural gifts. They may not have to pay for guns with points, but their natural abilities can’t be easily disarmed and won’t run out of ammo. They get something for the points.

The case in the Shadowrun situation is one where two species have similar characteristics but one is a flavor that’s supposed to be rare and so is made more expensive. For me to do the same thing I’d have to say something along the lines of “healing costs 4 pts for this species but it costs 6 points for this other species just because it’s rare for that species to have that sort of talent.” It’s the same ability at different costs because someone decided that X species shouldn’t have easy access to it. I increased the cost of healing and lowered the effectiveness of some powers in order to affect gameplay. Shadownrun upped the costs of some metatypes purely to charge players for a desired character flavor. Flavor that has no impact on gameplay should not cost extra points.

Going back to D&D, in our current 5e game, we have a tiefling but she doesn’t look like the latest rendition of tiefling. No reddish skin, no horns, nor tail. She looks quite human with the only sign of her infernal heritage being her eyes. This is the way tiefling used to be described, as mostly human with one slight sign somewhere about them that they were tainted. The GM did not make her pay for that flavor. It is completely without impact on the way the character plays and thus shouldn’t be worth any points. Likewise a character’s hobbies and interests might have more than a few points and skill levels, but unless those hobbies are likely to be useful in the course of the game, the GM shouldn’t require a player to pay for them.

It is the player’s character. It is what they want to play in order to have fun. A player character should be a “special snowflake” how they achieve that “specialness” is up to them. They might want to be the basic human fighter and just run with the total badass. Or they might want to have a complex backstory. Or they might want to have a unique character concept that you hadn’t thought of before but which doesn’t violate the flavor of the campaign world. Flavor should not cost points.

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