One couple, two perspectives, tons of geekery

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Problematic Character Concepts

You're doing it wrong

Games, by their nature, are a social activity. When we come together, we are creating an interactive story. It’s a process of synergy wherein players and storytellers combine their creativity into a cohesive force. Well at least ideally anyway. Often we have plenty of issues along the way that spring up to prevent that synergetic process from occurring. Sometimes this occurs on the storyteller’s end and sometimes this occurs on the players end.

As players, it’s important to recognize that the game is not all about you. This realization and acceptance needs to start at character creation. When joining a game, it is your duty to understand what the setting and genre is so that you will be able to make your concept work. You also need to consider your fellow players and think how your character will benefit the game and how they will be able to contribute to the overall experience. So let us explore so common character archetypes and explain why they are problematic.

The Loner

This concept can range from the painfully shy misfit to the stone cold mercenary. For whatever the reason, your character just doesn’t play well with others. Are the warning signing flaring up? Because they should. Let’s take a look at the very first line of this post – “Games, by their nature, are a SOCIAL ACTIVITY”. Its fine to play an introverted character and it is fine to play someone with a dark and mysterious past, but when you take this to the extreme you are doing a disservice to yourself, your storyteller and your fellow players. You can play a loner, sure, but you need to create ways to hook your character into the plot and connect to other characters so that you are not forcing the game masters to jump through hoops to get you involved. And furthermore, its simply unfair to expect that the GMs should have to run you exclusive RP simply because you refuse to interact with others. They already have their hands full. Don’t wait on the GMs to throw you plot cookies. Flesh your character out and give him/her motivations that will help you connect them to the game and other players. If you are not interested in having a social experience, then you may wish to consider sticking to video games.

The Psychopath

From the cute little girl with a bloody knife to another Joker rip-off, mental illness is suddenly so very in because heck, it’s just so darn cool. Only… it isn’t. Mental illness is not cool. It is not silly. It is not awesome. It is a very serious debilitation and to properly role play a character with such problems takes a commitment to do some extensive research. Too many times people describe their characters as “crazy” or “a psychopath”. But what do they mean by that? What specific mental illness is the character suffering from? Most immediately say “schizophrenia”, which seems to be the fan favorite among gamers and yet so few are willing to put any effort into understanding the ailment, and we have yet to see it accurately played. If you do want to accurately portray a mental disorder, then you need to pick up a copy of the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly referred to as the DSM IV among psychologists) and do your research. Try volunteering at a psych ward or consult a local psychology professor.  Do your homework. It can be insulting and disrespectful to improperly portray these illnesses to people who actually have suffered from them or who have loves ones who have. Please treat these concepts with the level of respect and sincerity that they deserve.

The Nobody

The Nobody comes in a few different flavors. This can be a rushed character concept with just numbers on a sheet and no backstory or personality, the amnesiac character that the player just told the GM to come up with the character for him/her, or the character is a blatant rip off of a pre-existing character in pop media. For whatever the reason, you’ve put the minimal amount of effort to create an original, fleshed-out concept. You haven’t delved into who they are and are just drifting or else are trying to box your character in to a concept you didn’t create. In the first case, it’s an easy to solve problem - just take some time to actually think about your character before playing. If you don’t have a solid concept you run the risk of becoming inconsistent doing random things out of boredom because you don’t know what else to do since your character is lacking in motivation. The amnesiac is in a similar situation. It’s fine to play a character with amnesia, but have an idea of their baseline personality at the very least and work closely with the GM so you can have clearly defined goals to keep you involved in the plot. Lastly, we come to the blatant rip-off.  It’s fine to take inspiration from outside sources and piecemeal together a character from a patchwork of different characters, but when you create a character clone and just give it a different name you run the risk of confining your creativity. Your character is likely to be in situations that the base character was not in. Instead of struggling to figure out WWJSD (What Would Jack Sparrow Do), make your own character. You will know the in’s and out’s of their personality and have a clearer motivation which will allow you to react more naturally as the character. If you are struggling to connect to your character, then speak with your GM and ask for assistance. Don’t be a Nobody – be a Somebody!

The Badass

Ahhh… the Chuck Norris with a side of Samuel L. Jackson. It’s fine to play a toughie, but when you refuse to allow your character to lose, look foolish or give someone else the chance at a victory, then you are in danger of becoming a problem player. This is less a character problem and more a player problem, because it becomes a “sword”-waving contest which usually results in the player becoming irate if they don’t get their way. One way to avoid this from occurring is by giving your character flaws, faults and fears and being aware of them and allowing them to play out and be exploited. You need to be aware that your character is not infallible. Perfect is boring. Mary Sues and Gary Stus are annoying. Not one wants to play with a sore loser. This kind of behaviour and character concept should stay at your kindergarten sandbox. Much like the problematic Loner, the Badass player needs to realize that gaming is a social activity. A player who throws a fit anytime his/her character loses is not going to win any friends. And honestly, these concepts aren’t interesting. Flaws (and we’re not talking the “cool” my-character-has-an-eyepatch type flaws – we’re talking about my 16th level samurai has an intense and crippling fear of confined spaces) are interesting. Grow up and shake off the inner power gamer.

What this all boils down to is being prepared and not settling for a gimmick, stereotype and/or a cliché. Problem characters mostly just come down to players who have not thought about the consequences the character will have to the game. Consequences being both good and bad here. Players simply need to be encouraged to think about two things when developing a concept:  1) What will this character add to the game? and 2) Will this concept hurt the game or others enjoyment of it?  Before jumping into any game, take the time to fully develop your concept. In the long run it will make for a more enjoyable experience for you and everyone else involved.  
(We would like to thank the members of the NYC LARP Troupe for their insightful discussion which helped to contribute to this article. Thanks guys!)

1 comment:

  1. On the psychopath one, I'd comment that being too close to realistic can be just as big of a problem if playing with people who have experienced the disorder. Being exposed to a "good" portrayal of schizophrenia, or other mental illness, can make the person who experienced start to experience symptoms, or otherwise react in a negative light.

    This is one of the reasons that hollywood generally gives the "hollywood version" of these illnesses, and not the full on exposure. Treating the disease with respect is good, and proper, but there's often not a need to go completely into the illness for the character either.


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