After my post a couple weeks ago about, among other things, my need to play more and GM less, I’ve gotten invited to play in three games. ZOMG. One is the D&D 4e game I mentioned previously. Another is Werewolf: The Wild West and the third is Exalted. Additionally, the kids game has rebooted rather than combusted.
I’ve been frantically working on characters since the first session of D&D is today and the first sessions of the other two games are the following weekend. This work has brought up a number of thoughts. I’ll try not to let this devolve into, “Lemme tell you about my character.” I’d hoped to cover all three games in this post, but in the time it’s taken me to write up just the thoughts on D&D, I’ve kinda run out of time. I’ll try and post about character creation thoughts about Werewolf and Exalted within the next week.
I knew that the GM for the D&D game is the sort who focuses more on good roleplaying and character interaction, so I really wanted to play against type and go for a non-combat oriented character. (For those who know where this is going, just stop laughing now.) I figure: I’m an experienced roleplayer, I’ve created memorable high concept characters in an assortment of systems, this should totally be doable. I was also heartened by gloomforge‘s post in which he talks about utility powers and their role in non-combat situations. I had in mind this sly rogue, most comfortable in urban environments where he gets by more on his glib tongue than anything so crude as a weapon.
I bought the Player’s Handbook, pored through the options, and realized that what I wanted was impossible. Because (a) you don’t get utility powers until 2nd level and (b) you have to pick 4 attack powers. Added bonus? Most of the feats are geared towards combat. I’ve found more since my initial pass, but at first I could only find three feats that were non-combat oriented.
I appealed to my f-list on my private blog to see if they could point out anything I was missing. Mostly they laughed and pointed out that what I missed was that I was playing D&D for god’s sake. One person put a lot of effort into trying to convince me that this emphasis on combat is a good thing for roleplaying, in that by having minimal non-combat stuff it prevented arbitrary rules from interfering with roleplay. I remain somewhat unconvinced.
I think part of what threw me off is that I made the mistake of coming up with the idea and then trying to bring it into D&D, which doesn’t necessarily work. When playing any of the iterations of d20 in the past, including Star Wars, I’ve found it easier to imagine my character within the close confines of their character classes. But the last couple d20 games I’ve played, I’ve instead gone high concept and found that it doesn’t work as well in the system. For example, in the Star Wars Saga Edition game I played, we were encouraged to come up with our concepts before thinking of rules to go with them. And that generally worked, but left me often feeling strangled by the mechanics as I tried to find feats and talents for my character to take.
In my defense, what I came up with for this D&D game was a concept you could wiggle into 3.X a bit. While 3.X also tended to have a lot of your abilities focused on combat, it felt a lot easier to de-emphasize that and focus more on other abilities. With 4e I felt like my only real choice to pull away from a combat character was to just deliberately hamstring my stats, and that wasn’t a step I was willing to take. I’ve known some game designers who are strongly against advantages/disadvantages. If you want to make your character a one-eyed leper for the sake of roleplay, that’s entirely on your head and you shouldn’t get anything extra for it. But really: I want my character to be good at something. Nothing’s more of a buzzkill than not being competent in some venue. I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot for the sake of art. If I could re-direct my abilities from combat to something else, that would be awesome. But that doesn’t seem to be an option.
I ended up going with “eclectic abilities” since I could not for the life of me escape from having combat powers. What I came out with was a half-elven rogue, with the multiclass feat for warlock (he joined the cabal because he was hoping to score with a cute girl) and his “diletantte” ability being the warlord’s ability to have someone else attack on your action. Probably going to go for Ritual Magic and Jack of All Trades for future feats. Even with all that, I’ve got some mean nasty stab-in-face powers. Can’t decide if I want to go the full multiclass route or not. It eats up a lot of precious feats, but none of the paragon tier options for rogue really appeal to me. Granted, I don’t know if my character is necessarily interested in changing career to full fledge warlock, either. “That would be, like, work,” as my character would say. (This of course assumes that my character makes it to 11th level. Maybe I shouldn’t count my chickens before they’re hatched.)
Oh, and from a cheese-monkey approach to rules, why wouldn’t you take a multiclass feat? SRSLY.
To be fair, D&D is hardly the only game that boxes you in like this. Some games do well in letting you have a fair amount of wiggle room in their particular “splats.” Exalted, for example, allows for a wide variety of character concepts within their castes and aspects. Dawn Caste doesn’t need to mean “fighter” any more than Night Caste has to mean “thief.” It has options for encouraging those archetypes, but it’s very easy to play against type and still be good at what you do. (I think for the next roleplay-oriented Exalted game I play, I’m going to make a Dawn Caste scholar with no combat skills out of spite.)
Some other games don’t do so well at “outside the box” sorts of characters. Amber is one I infrequently run afoul of, especially Amber-as-written, which is sometimes very different from Amber-as-often-run. Amber characters are considered broadly competent to varying degrees in four different unequal categories. As written, you get to be “better than the best human” for free. The four stats are, essentially: wrestling, all other combat situations, psychic power and stamina, each designed to represent arenas of conflict the Wuj picked out of the books. And the categories are… okay, I guess, if your the posturing nine princes who mostly don’t do much more than beat the crap out of each other. Not so good if you want to be, say, Princess Florimel.
The “Florimel Dilemma,” as you could call it, is the question of where you put Flora’s points. She’s often considered a socialite by players of the game, but there’s no traits covering social fu. (And the validity of having social mechanics and how to implement them is a *huge* argument all to itself.) Frequently the solution I’ve seen is to either house-rule in some rules for social ability or just give her some ability never previously realized. Often it’s Psyche and Sorcery, but I have seen her in one campaign beefed up on Strength. (The rationale was, “Well, the points had to go somewhere.”)
The other tripping point with Amber is if you just want a part of an attribute but your concept doesn’t necessarily require all of the abilities. The Warfare attribute covers ranged combat, armed melee combat, tactics, strategy, agility, logical thinking, perception, leadership… I’m probably missing something. Really, 4 of the 6 classic D&D stats. In some games I’ve played in, you might as well just call the attribute, “Badassery.” It is often an attribute I neuter when I GM. Since I’m usually averse to getting involved in the posturing and jockeying for position that often occurs around playing The Badass (which I’ve seen cross gender lines), I often try to go against the grain on some level. In one game, I tried to play a Great Detecitve type character, who was clearly not a combat person. By my reasoning, much of the deductive reasoning of a Holmsian character would fall under Warfare. But I really didn’t want to get all the rest of the trappings. Some have suggested in these cases that you just voluntarily take less than the full gamut of abilities, but that’s always a bit galling in play. Whenever I do that, it seems like the abilities I dropped suddenly become very important. Others have house-ruled some sort of rules for specialties that I’ve seen work to varying degrees of success. In this instance I ended up just dropping his Strength attribute so that he could have the basic knowledge but not necessarily the muscle to back it up. In general it seemed to have worked, but it took a lot of conniving around the rules to get there.
I guess a lot of stuff goes into this, mostly revolving around, “How do you encourage a particular approach to roleplaying?” Do you narrow options? How far do you narrow them? Do you use a carrot to encourage players along a certain route? D&D 4e is clearly about beating things up and they don’t back down from that. Like Star Wars Saga Edition, though, it seems to be at least streamlined enough that it’s inoffensive in it’s rules. (I’ll know a bit better how it works in long-term play starting tonight.) In many games I’ve liked, I’ve had little difficulty saying, “Okay, here’s my general concept for what sort of character I want to play, now what would work best in the setting to allow that.” Often I’m not overly concerned about specific powers outside of broad strokes. Clearly that bit me in the ass with D&D in this instance. (If, on the other hand, I’d come up with an effete rapier duelist on a mission for a local noble, then I probably wouldn’t be as frothingly annoyed. Though I’ve found that that concept, also, requires a bit of massaging to squeeze into the 4e system.)
Anyway, I’m running out of time. I’ll follow up with this later.