Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What is a "Character"?

Last weekend's reunion got me thinking a lot about how we used to play back then, in high school. In some ways, we played in a very "archaic" fashion - long on hack & slash, short on character background development - and yet, somehow, all those characters are still very memorable today. Before high school, I lived in a different part of Florida and played with a group in middle school.

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.


  1. "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."

    Exactly. In RPGs, characters really don't become three-dimensional beings until they're LIVED, so to speak. Or should I say PLAYED? Really, it's both. For a character to come to life, it must be played. Backstory has its place, sure, but it is just flavor. The real meat of a character is the exploits that evolve through play. Those experiences are always going to be more tangible, more meaningful, than the story you make up for background. Because you lived it!

  2. Proof that Dungeon-crawling is where it's at:

    "Character is what you are in the dark."
    —Dr. Emilio Lizardo

    Yeah, he's quoting Dwight L. Moody, whoever that is...

  3. Don't forget to check yer e-mail, matey! ;)

  4. My most memorable character was a half-orc ranger/barbarian I played in a PBP. My GM let me substitute an intelligent greataxe (inhabited by the spirit of a blind Sidhe princess) for an animal companion, so there was an "old married couple" feel to the character; lots of friction but lots of affection as well. The other PC's and the NPC's could interact with either one; they had completely different personalities, and her ability to become indefinitely immobile often frustrated his desire to hack everything and everyone to bits. This was all 3E with lots of Mike Mearls insanity thrown in; many of the things you could ad hoc in OS (or call a trick or a test of will in Savage Worlds) had been codified into rules, but Badriche the Hair Shirt still managed to hurl himself like superball all over the campaign. Since he had Gwenneddh as a foil, he could start trouble in character and be brought up short before the other PC's had to feel the effects. That way, his impulsivity (well, my impulsivity) was flavor and fun rather than an annoyance or danger to the other players. He was a loose cannon with a good set of brakes; fun and unforgettable.

  5. What a great post...

    As an addendum, because those characters were so memorable they also made absolutely terrific foes.

    Example: We had played AD&D (G / D / Q series and more) all through Jr. High, High School and into University. We were wrapping up a trip to hell (I think our characters were 13th level) when, on the way out through a gate in one of the rings (the last if I recall correctly), we were ambushed by a pissed off prince. (can't remember who) The fighter in our party ended up holding the breach while the rest of us retreated back to the prime.

    Our last view of him was w/ his back to us, swinging his +4 defender back and forth as the gate closed.

    Until, several years later (real time) at a fest in University (we used to get everyone together to game non-stop for a long weekend and call it a "fest") we were making our way through a castle in some odd pocket dimension when we open a set of double doors and who should we see but our old comrade, the fighter.

    Apparently he was not killed in Hell, but captured while just barely alive. Tortured and turned, he was being utilized as a general of Hell. Of course he was a complete bad ass, but what made it all the more poignant was the fact that we had adventured w/ this guy for years and seemed as if we were truly up against a friend. It was one of the most memorable encounters I've had in my D&D experience.

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