Wednesday, September 19, 2012
What is a "Character"?
That group played things very differently. I can barely remember one character (an elf, I think), though I played dozens. We used the Moldvay/Cook sets back then, and games were basically a meat grinder. I don't remember for sure whether it was because our DM was out to get us, or because we thought getting killed in dungeons in spectacular and gory ways was simply part of the game. I suspect it was both. A character in those days was little more than a Parcheesi pawn - I, me, was the one exploring dungeons, playing a game, not my character. To continue with the Parcheesi pawn comparison, I had a set of Grenadier "hero" miniatures I had clumsily painted, and I'm pretty sure I cycled through the entire set at least three times!
All that changed when I met the new group in high school. These guys had been playing (AD&D) together for years before I met them, and they often played the same character for months or even years at a time. They knew these characters so well, they could play them anywhere, at the drop of a hat. Books, dice, and table were preferred of course, but occasionally around a campfire or during a roadtrip sufficed just as well.
When I joined up, I plunged into to the fray with the reckless abandon (and Monty Haulish list of magic items) from my original group. And died. And died. And died again. It wasn't long before I noticed no one else was (well, at least not every session). I started to pay attention. These guys were cautious. They were crafty. They planned, and planned well. They were meticulous, knowledgeable, and brutally efficient. I started to learn.
As I learned, I noticed something peculiar: these guys were not playing a game (with Parcheesi pawns), they were playing characters in a game. During "game time", they stayed "in character". Whatever they said aloud was considered to be what their characters said aloud. If they picked up something I thought was obviously a wand of fireballs or a laser pistol, they still experimented with it, refusing steadfastly to fall back on their "out of game" knowledge, preferring instead to take on the challenge of figuring it out on their character's terms.
Slowly but surely, my own characters began to survive! I was meticulous, knowledgeable, and brutally efficient. I planned, and planned well. Characters like The Ravyn, The Nameless Bard of Nehwon, and Adron the Desert Druid are still fresh in my mind after all these years, as are their exploits. Their backgrounds aren't something I wrote down on a piece of looseleaf paper before rolling up the character - their backgrounds are what happened from 1st level to 10th level, or even higher. Their exploits became the stuff of legend, shared across campfires and open beers for decades after their character sheets had long since moldered into dust in the corners of mothers' attics.
Of course, all things change.
Soon, Dragonlance would rear its head in the world of D&D gaming, and characters would become part of a story, rather than the center or catalyst of a story. Shortly after that, 2nd edition would arrive, and what a character could do would slowly become based more in static rules like non-weapon proficiencies and class kits, and less rooted in meticulous planning and brutal efficiency. That's not to say gaming was tremendously less enjoyable, but it would rarely ever be as engrossing or engaging again.
Which leads us back to our question: what, exactly, is a "character"? After so many different styles of play, editions, and groups, what a character is, really, is pretty amorphous. In the end, I guess, characters are, simply, what we make of them.
And for a while there, we made them pretty damn good.