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Friday, November 1, 2013

Soul of a Player Character

I just heard from my type-setter. We're doing a last round of revisions trying to figure out why some of the images aren't showing up. I should get the completed files--make known corrections to them ... and then? Publish.

Maybe.

We've completed the Ghost Stories game and are now starting a supers game that promises to playtest the rules in a way we just haven't done yet.

The Soul of a Player Character
The way you distinguish (for traditional games) a PC from an NPC is that the PC is an avatar of you. NPCs are one of many characters who, to a degree, fulfill some function in the game world (even if its just verisimilitude).

The game structure we're setting up has given me some cause for reflection on something that distinguishes an NPC from a PC. I'm going to call it "a soul."

A Caveat
This distinction and phenomena I'm discussing isn't going to be universal. A lot of people play differently from me--but a lot of people (to my observation) play similarly--so I think this is meaningful but not, as I said, universal.

The Structure of The Game
The game is "super heroes." There's some back-story--I'll discuss it at some point--but here's the deal:

  1. We are told who we are in general (members of a large family with a mad scientist patriarch). He gave the children of his first marriage super powers and they turned out badly. We are either biological or adopted children of his 2nd wife. 
  2. We will make "normal" characters in this world.
  3. We know we will be given randomized powers. It works as I described before:
    • Every major heading in the 400pg book is put into a spreadsheet
    • With a few minor modifications we use use the random roller to give us each 4 headings to choose from
    • You can always choose Levels 1-3 of Fast Company (bullet-dodging action hero) to go along with some powers.
    • We have 128 APs to spend all/some/none within only those headings.
    • OR we can be Fast Company Level 4 with extra "normal person" style traits (at the levels we're playing at we won't be "normal humans" even if we do this).
So when I try this method to show the guys I roll:
  • Cybernetic Legs
  • Probability Control
  • Hard Wired Cyber-Reflexes
  • Void Control
I choose Fast Company L2, Cyber-legs (several levels), and some luck-based Probabilistic Control stuff. This guy is a bad-ass martial artist with cyber-legs and luck-based defenses.

He's weird--a stated goal of the set up--but for a world of strange supers he's fully workable. He's tough, agile, fast--kicks for a lot of damage and is pretty bullet resistant. In short, he's a viable guy to play ...

If you can stand being "Super Foot Metal-Leg guy."

I'm not sure I'd like to play a year of being that guy.

Now, to be sure, there are other combinations I could pick. I could be Disintegration Guy (Fast and Void Control). I could go heavily into Luck and stuff--but this was the best-fit that I came out with and I was, really, pretty pleased with him. He had a good range of offense and defense. He was pretty unlike characters I'd normally make. 

I could even see him as a character in a (weird) comic book.

But he wasn't a guy I was going to play.

The Soul of a Player Character
So on Monday, when we begin the next game we're going to roll up our powers together (note: I think this sort of activity really "increases the energy of play" and will test that theory Monday night and maybe write about it thereafter). Leading up to this we've done a bunch of test-rolls and the GM has built several NPCs.

Everything has gone swimmingly: almost no rolls were entirely useless. The characters were odd in the ways we wanted (we are channeling the Villains and Vigilantes vibe here). We believe the various header-sections we've separated out mostly work.

However: so far we have NOT rolled a set of powers for our Player Characters.

We don't think we can test that until we are actually going to play these guys. 

Why is that?

Well, basically because our attempts to test this have always been influenced by the fact that we're not playing these characters. We don't have to role-play being metal-stompy-foot guy week after week. He can have a rich imaginary life as an NPC--but I don't have to do the "I'm going to stick my metal foot up your ass, punk!" dialog.

In short: making a character you know you will play seems to be quantifiably different in terms of evaluating how "suitable" the character is than making a character you know you will not play. We've made many "good" NPCs. So far it's hard to say if we've made good PCs.

Now, there are a few obvious things to look at here:
  1. Personal suitability. If I like playing tough-guy gunslinger types and I roll a bunch of sense sand ESP I'm going to be a bit out of my comfort zone. That's not hard to understand.
  2. Heroic aptitude. You can say that being metal-foot guy is just as good a fit to being the "hero of the story" as anyone else--but I'm not sure I believe it. I'm not totally sure I don't--but it's worth thinking about.
  3. The other PCs. The GM doesn't really need to worry about how NPCs fit in to the rest of the PC's team if they aren't on it. Even if they are regulars in the game the range is broader. If the NPC is slow and always goes last that might be annoying for a Player but (probably) shouldn't be a source of frustration for the GM. If an NPC entirely over-powers / eclipses (makes the PC irrelevant) a PC that likely could be a problem--so it's not like any NPC is fine--but it's a slightly different issue. Note: if one PC eclipses another PC that's also an issue--but the dynamic is different--the GM can easily dump the NPC. The other Player may (rightly) be attached to their character.
However, I think there are still a few more things going on here.

Immersion
Immersion has been a tricky and contentious thing for some people writing about RPGs. I won't claim it's "simple" or means "the same thing" to everyone--but I think it is, across some spectrum, (a) getting inside your characters head so you feel an emotional charge similar to what the 'character feels' and (b) to some (mild, usually) extent losing yourself in the fiction of the game--getting caught up the same way you do in a movie or book where you are focused on the game (in this case through the agency of the character) and are less detached.

Both of those are possible and desirable to me (some people find the above absurd or undesirable: YMMV)--I think that while it's possible for me to eventually get behind any character, I might have some issues with characters that simply don't "click" with me. This is hard to define--but I think Cyber-Legs guy might be one such bad fit.

Out Of Order
Our mechanics are weird. Almost no super heroes (none that I am aware of) were envisioned as normal guys before the creator determined what their powers would be. For all I know, maybe the first draft of Spiderman had him as the school jock --but I'm pretty sure he always had "the powers of a spider."

In our case we have to make normal guys. We might even play them as normal for a while--and then we will give them powers (we'll give them powers during the first session--that's our agreement--but we might either (a) play them back-in time before the powers or (b) roll the powers but then play them as normal for a little while or even a few sessions before actually giving them to us in the game. 

I'm not sure.

However it asks a question that, to my understanding, is very, very rare for RPGs: how do you create a super hero when you really don't have any idea what their powers will be?

Usually super powers are integrated with the normal-guy personality. Often they play off it (Thor has to learn a lesson about humility so we, the reader, get introduced to Dr. Blake). Often the "real character" is the guy in the mask and the normal-guy persona is really reverse engineered by the author.

In this case though, the natural order is broken. I have to make someone with in-flight issues, problems, etc. who will THEN get super powers of a sort I have only limited control over. This means I can't create anyone who will get themed powers--or powers that play off their personality or anything like that.

This, for me, is weird.

It's interesting--but it's strange.

Now, to be fair, I can take the Batman option: Fast Co L4 and make my guy a super-human level badass. 

I also have control over HOW I buy powers--depending on what I roll I can make numerous different characters.

However, I may wind up:
  • With options that largely mutate me. Do I make a character who is still playable being non-human? Do I assume that won't happen--or if it does I'll take the Fast-4 option?
  • Cybernetic. How I approach this will be interesting (we are opening the door to having the character 'crippled' and augmented, wounded at war, etc.)
  • Limited offensive options (it's rare, but can happen). If I make a character who is fighting with people that could be a let-down.
So I have a lot to consider.

Conclusions
Classic V&V actually had an answer to this: you played yourselves (and the game had almost nothing that referenced your normal character guy anyway). I doubt a lot of people religiously did this--and, instead, rolled powers and then fit them to their "mundane character." 

I don't think this stuff is really a problem--it's more (at this stage) like very interesting to us--but there's the chance the game could "fail on launch" and we'll have to go back to the drawing board. 

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