Saturday, June 20, 2015

Character Sheet Philosophy

I have recently run across the argument that any point buy game system will end up resulting in every player having the same exact build. The phrase used is “one true build.” This attitude mystified me because I have never seen this “one true build” materialize in over twenty years of playing roleplaying games the majority of which has spent with point buy systems such as HERO, M&M, BESM and the like. Comments that I’ve never seen it materialize were met with the assertion that my GMs must not have been making the games tough enough. Further comments from both myself and other point buy players that we haven’t encountered a GM where it is even a good idea to have everybody built the same way was responded to with the comment that once we figured out a GMs habits and tendencies then we would start building to respond to those and then everybody would end up with roughly the same build. Which is where I found the base discrepancy that was resulting in the idea of a “one true build.” These players read character sheets in a vastly different way than point buy games do.

I am not going to focus on comparing the different philosophies of reading a character sheet. What I will say is that the “one true build” seems to come from a philosophy that the character sheet represents primarily what a character is capable of with perhaps some notes of background. I am instead going to focus on my own philosophy for building and reading a character sheet. For my purposes, a character sheet is most importantly a roadmap to the sort of events and themes a player wants to run across in the game.

All character sheets present areas where characters are extremely competent which makes finding things that the player wants to show off easy in most every game. In any given adventure or campaign, I try to create incidents that allow a character to show off their most stand out abilities. I try to find ways for every character to have the spot light at some point. The lore master needs a chance for their character’s intense knowledge of lore to prove useful. The assassin needs a chance to kill someone quietly. The paladin needs a chance to smite the enemies of the god or cause. The brick needs a chance to show off their superhuman strength. The martial artist needs to show off their exceptional skill or honor. The detective needs a chance to make deductions.

The next most common element of character sheets are complications. They might be called any of a number of things, but they generally present some story-related situations that make your character’s life difficult. For example, one player’s character might have a code of honor and another might have a nemesis. Yet another might have issues of prejudice due to their race, species, religion, gender or whatever reason. When I create a character sheet or I read a character sheet, if a player goes to the trouble of putting it onto the character sheet, then it is something they want to deal with on a semi-regular basis.

There are two kinds of very memorable victories: victories because of some characteristic and victories in spite of some characteristic. For this purpose, escapes are considered victories. This is, of course, very simplistic, boiling matters of human behavior like this to an either/or is always going to be problematic, but they will often be closer to one or another of these two poles. Also, this is not meant to discount the thrill of using strategy and tactics to achieve a particularly impressive win. Achieving victory in spite of your weaknesses rather requires that you are either very lucky or else you are very clever. In addition, achieving victory because you have some special skill doesn’t mean you just steam-rolled over things, you could have been in a desperate situation that your special skill pulled you out of. In fact, a victory in spite of a negative characteristic can easily overlap with a victory because of a positive characteristic.

The challenges I design in an adventure are meant to enable, negate or complicate the characters’ lives. Both should be used sparingly. If a player has abilities to create fire in some way, then it is a good idea to have situations where enemies are vulnerable to fire, situations where enemies are immune to fire and situations where using fire might make the situation more dangerous than it already is or else might destroy something valuable. You don’t want to do any of the three all the time. For example, if a player were to pick up the Dimension Door spell and suddenly every place the party fights is equipped with some sort of anti-teleportation spell on it, then that player never has a chance to show off their special skill and may feel a bit disappointed.

If an ability is missing from a character or even an entire party, then I assume that nobody is interested in the sort of obstacles that would require that ability. If a D&D party has no rogue, for example, then I will likely use traps very rarely and most likely would provide ways to make it fairly obvious that a trap exists to allow the players to create their own ways for getting around said traps. If a party has neither a cleric nor a paladin, then I will likely make undead less common for them to deal with. In my normal sort of games, this same logic applies. If I am running a Champions game where nobody took mental powers, then mentalists are going to be rare. If anybody took Power Defense, then there will likely be enemies that drain powers, but if nobody took Power Defense, such enemies will be exceedingly rare. In a Dresden Files game, if nobody takes a full wizard or sorcerer, then I will be unlikely to present obstacles that require a full command of magic.

Also, it is important to remember which players have which elements on their character sheets. If you are playing in a medieval setting Fate game and two separate characters are playing female warrior types. One has the Trouble “A Lover’s Heart” and the other has the Trouble “A Woman in a Man’s World.” The first player is going to be interested in facing lots of complicated romantic issues while the other is going to be interested in facing a lot of prejudice. You shouldn’t bleed these troubles over on to each other too much. The first warrior is likely to never have trouble getting respect from men while the second is much less likely to be successfully seduced by a smooth talking bard for the simple fact that neither character mentioned those things on their own character sheet. This assumes that the campaign in question does not have an overall Aspect dealing with either romance or prejudice. If the group started a campaign under the Aspect of “Old World Bigotries” or “Epic Tales of Love” then any character in the party could suffer from issues of prejudice or romance (though the characters that list it on their sheet specifically will still deal with it more often.)

This can present some conflicts when other philosophies of reading a character sheet come together. For example, someone who views character sheets from primarily a mechanical viewpoint will try to get the best effect they can for the minimal risk. If such a player is trying to come up with a disadvantage for some points in a Champions game, they might purchase a vulnerability or even susceptibility to some unusual substance such as “wood” and purchase it as “very common” on the idea that wood is everywhere though they actually expect that this vulnerability will never come up because how many bank robbers and supervillains are going to be using wooden weapons? A GM like me will ask them for some rationale for why they are vulnerable to wooden weapons and then proceed to arrange for wooden weapons to be very common in the campaign for one reason or another because that’s the frequency the player purchased it at, I assume they’re both willing and desire to face wooden weapons pretty constantly. Most likely, in an early fight, the character will get knocked back into a tree and word would spread about the cry of pain from striking the wood. The player would feel unfairly targeted because I tailored the adventure and campaign to this vulnerability while I will be either confused as to why the player is upset that I tailored the game to match him, or annoyed that someone took a disadvantage for no reason other than points.

On the other side of the issue, if I make a character who has a personal connection to both a seelie and unseelie fae (one as a significant other, the second as a sibling-in-law who happens to be identical to the first) then I expect to have to deal with my character’s sister-in-law pulling pranks of various levels of malevolence and occasionally having to protect my SO as well as trying to tell the two apart. If the GM never brings up either girl in the campaign save peripherally, then I feel neglected. If the GM notices this or if I tell him or her about it, then they might start asking me what I didn’t like about the campaign. If it turns out that I like everything they did put into the campaign but still feel dissatisfied, they will be confused as to what they could have done to fix it because from their perspective I liked every part of the campaign, but I still wasn’t satisfied which doesn’t seem to be a possibility. If he figures out or I say I wanted my character’s story to appear even at least once, then I might get perceived as greedy or demanding for wanting the GM to tailor his adventure to my characters.

Another situation might be in a case where a player is not used to the players being proactive and the GM responding to them. They might expect the GM to provide them a reason for why they are going on this mission but when asked what sort of story they want to have might not be comfortable saying anything. The GM in this case might feel at loss because they don’t really have anything with which to base an adventure on because the player hasn’t said much about their characters’ backstory or desires. Attempts for more information might make the player uncomfortable and under unfair pressure. They may feel like they are being asked to do the GM’s job while the GM feels like they can’t do their job because they don’t have enough information to make an adventure they’re confident of.

In all cases, the breakdown is in communication and expectation. Some people expect the adventures to exist as it does regardless of any abilities a group of players lack. Other people expect that the adventure to be tailored to match the characters and consider it unfair when the GM frequently springs stuff on them that he knows they’re not equipped to deal with (note the word frequently, you should do this occasionally just to shake things up). Neither method is particularly better or worse than the other. In the above examples, some are ones I experienced and others I heard about second hand. It’s the reason now why I would discuss carefully with each player when they add elements to a character. For example, when someone presents me a “Very common” vulnerability in HERO system, I make sure they are aware that this means I will be making sure that wood appears very commonly in the campaign. I might also suggest that they could make it “uncommon” on the idea that the vulnerability exists but not many people know about it, so it rarely gets used against the character.

That does seem to be the essential discrepancy. If the table’s expectation is that the players should respond to the story or adventure as built by the GM then it is possible that “one true build” might develop. If the table’s expectation is that the GM builds the adventure in response to the players’ build choices, then “one true build” is much less likely. You’d have to have a bunch of characters who came to the table and built exactly the same way.
In any case my general guidelines for reading characters are as follows:
  • Stand out strengths and weaknesses are chances to draw the spotlight.
  • Every player should be able to regularly stand in the spotlight one way or another.
  • Showing off and suffering can be equally fun.

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