Buy in at the character level

July 7, 2010

Over on the Forge, Ron talks about a pretty common issue I’ve seen in rpgs:

And all of a sudden, you look at your character and it’s just a pile of points and terms on a sheet of paper. You’re not feeling it. You don’t know how you came up with it. It looks sensible, but nothing currently happening in play seems to relate, either on that sheet or internally. You either start doing random shit in hopes that something clicks, or start strategizing in a vague way that doesn’t have any real payoff, or you shut down.

This is one of those crucial things I mean when I talk about “buy-in” to playing a game.

It’s tough, though, because a lot of people have been trained out of thinking of “character” to be a character in the literary/fiction sense- this interesting person, and instead, a set of stats.

(Don’t take that as roll vs. role playing- you should pick stats to reflect your concept, or build a concept around your stats – these should work together).

There’s a ton of games that you spend a lot of time, reading the fiction, then going step by step through creation process, and at the end, you have a concept, solid, sure, but not interesting to you. And if the character isn’t interesting to you, how will you play the character interesting to anyone else?

The usual functional process for this is:

1. Read the setting/idea and get inspired of what kind of characters you’d LOVE to see in it
2. Take that inspiration and form it into a character
3. Play hard to see that inspiration brought to life.

If #1 fails, either because the writing is confusing, the GM/group failed to convey “What’s cool”, or it’s just not what you’re into, it’s pretty likely you’re not going to get a good #2, and if that’s no good, you’re certainly not going to hit a fun #3. (Also: if players focus on very different aspects of the setting in #1, they usually end up with non-compatible characters for a different set of problems…)

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of framing. It can be easy to get lost in the crunch of character creation and lose whatever idea(s) you had going.

It’s reasons like this I like to use a mad-lib style Character Concept Generator – you’ll notice that it’s totally loaded with conflict material- all you need to do is cherry pick the setting stuff you find interesting for a particular game and drop it in.

This always ends up being one of my litmus test for a character concept- are you excited? Is there a direction for this character? Can you envision scenes with this character?

If you cannot articulate concrete fictional goals and why they make you exciting, odds are you’ve got a dud. Time to either start over or start soliciting ideas from the other players to put a twist on it.

When one person doesn’t buy-in, they end up being sorta… there, but not doing anything. When multiple players end up in the same position, the game just stalls out. Then it just becomes a contest of how stubborn the group is, rather than how much fun they’re having.

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