RPG characters compared to characters in stories

pemerton

Legend
I've been thinking about posting this thread for a while. I've been prompted to do so by @The-Magic-Sword's interesting thread about neo-trad RPGing: Thinking About the Purpose of Mechanics from a Neo-Trad Perspective

Back in 1981, Lewis Pulsipher gave the following advice about designing character classes for D&D (it's from White Dwarf 25, though I know it from the Best of White Dwarf Articles v2):

Create a character class you could believe if you read about it in a good fantasy novel. . . .

Begin by giving the class powers at the high or "name" levels, say tenth or eleventh, equal to those you see in the tradition or story on which you base the class. Find some evidence of how the character fared against creatures or dangers already defined in AD&D. Say the character fought a bear - did he have much trouble? Even if the eleventh level Eldar or whatever killed the bear in two rounds in the story, a first level wont necessarily do as well! . . .

When you model a class after a group or character from a particular story, there are several things to keep in mind. . . .

[R]emember that protagonists of epic fantasy are "born lucky". They roll 19s and 20s for saving throws, and stumble into good positions. The character class should be able to reproduce the greatest feats of the model only when the character gets lucky, not as a standard action.​

When I first read it, I took it as gospel - not that I designed very many classes, but I think it probably helped me build my sense of what counts as broken in AD&D build options.

But in more recent years (probably the past decade or two) I've started to change my thinking: particularly about the "19s and 20s" bit. It seems to me now that I want the ordinary play of an ordinarily-built PC to emulate (more or less) the ordinary feats of the literary or mythological inspiration. This doesn't mean auto-success - after all, those inspirational figures don't always succeed. (Even Gandalf is thwarted by cruel Caradhras.) But it means not requiring extraordinary luck to achieve, in play, feats that emulate the source material.

4e D&D was the first RPG that I grasped as revealing this possibility, though now I know of many more, some earlier than 4e (like Prince Valiant, Over the Edge and HeroWars), some more recent (like Agon, Marvel Heroic RP and even Torchbearer after a fashion). That's not to say that Pulsipher was wrong - his model in his article for RPG play is classic dungeon crawling, and this sets tight parameters around permissible player-side moves (eg Shadow Cat-style intangibility, or a Conan or Spider Man-level of trap avoidance, become broken in that context). But I haven't played that sort of RPG as my main thing for nearly 40 years, and so it doesn't need to frame my thinking today. In a RPG with more "open" fiction, and with non-dungeon techniques for establishing adversity and consequences, there's no reason why the play of a character can't and shouldn't reliably emulate the source material that inspires it.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
There's a fairly simple question underlying the difference:

Is character advancement (growth in power, as opposed to change or narrative character development) supposed to be a major portion of the game experience?

If yes, then Pulsipher's got a solid bit of wisdom there - growing into the role becomes a notable goal of play. If no, then you can largely ignore that suggestion.
 

darkbard

Legend
There's a fairly simple question underlying the difference:

Is character advancement (growth in power, as opposed to change or narrative character development) supposed to be a major portion of the game experience?

If yes, then Pulsipher's got a solid bit of wisdom there - growing into the role becomes a notable goal of play. If no, then you can largely ignore that suggestion.
Why do you see growth in power/advancement as opposed to or incompatible with solidly competent/not reliant upon tremendous luck for success?
 

pemerton

Legend
@Umbran, I don't think that power growth is a big part of this. 4e D&D has plenty of power growth in its PC builds, but as I mentioned in the OP was the game that crystallised my realisation that Pulsipher's advice didn't make sense in all contexts.

The difference, I think, is the parameters within which a PC's actions have to be adjudicated and consequences worked out. Dungeon crawling, which is the context for Pulsipher's remarks, sets pretty strict parameters that don't need to be adhered to in other contexts. Eladrin teleport (nearly) at will is just one illustration of the point.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Why do you see growth in power/advancement as opposed to or incompatible with solidly competent/not reliant upon tremendous luck for success?

Because the bulk of fantasy stories aren't about "solidly competent" people. Unless the story is specifically about growing into power, then the characters are generally top of the power curve for their type when we encounter them.

In a practical sense, if your D&D character is supposed to be able to emulate Aragorn, Conan, or Merlin while still at level one, only going up from there, your power level steps into being kind of ludicrous quickly, and you actually stop emulating that favorite character, because you step out of the realm of power the stories typically portray.

If the goal is emulation of fictional character types, then your game can only have a power curve as seen for those characters - which typically isn't much. Aragorn does not show major mechanical change over the course of the LotR books. Neither should a character trying to emulate that performance.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
@Umbran, I don't think that power growth is a big part of this. 4e D&D has plenty of power growth in its PC builds, but as I mentioned in the OP was the game that crystallised my realisation that Pulsipher's advice didn't make sense in all contexts.

No, of course his advice doesn't hold in all contexts. I agree there. I'm laying out some notable boundaries between some of those contexts. I just happen to be looking at some of the full-game context, rather than scene-level contexts.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
The context of the source material here is pretty important. Which is why I like tiers in D&D, and bespoke for start out the gate being X. Dial it up to what you need, or the entire game is based around that need.
 

Because the bulk of fantasy stories aren't about "solidly competent" people. Unless the story is specifically about growing into power, then the characters are generally top of the power curve for their type when we encounter them.
Having played quite a few games with epic to cosmic stakes, it isn't so much about the absolute power levels of the characters, although "normal people" or "everyday minor figures" are not usually involved. It's more about the players being highly skilled at playing their characters, a kind of skill that only seems to come from long experience with the individual characters.

With that, the players, through their characters, can grasp a situation, and find the right thing to do when that isn't obvious. Being able to seize the moment, in the right place and with the right circumstances, often counts for more than damage-per-round.
 

aramis erak

Legend
On the power-levels score, SciFi often is lacking the constant successes of much fantasy. Niven, Pournelle, Bujold, McCaffrey, Doohan, Stirling, Card, Cole & Bunch... all have failures as a key part of the stories..

Hell, even Herbert's Dune is a series of failures driving the plot.. Failure of the Bene Gesserit to anticipate Jessica's emotions, failure of Leto to anticipate a spy inside, failure of Yueh to resist manipulation, failure of Vlad to assassinate the boy... even Paul's failure to forsee his children's fates. Sure, Paul's an ubermensch; but he's constantly failing to act, and avoiding the needs of society.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Because the bulk of fantasy stories aren't about "solidly competent" people. Unless the story is specifically about growing into power, then the characters are generally top of the power curve for their type when we encounter them.

In a practical sense, if your D&D character is supposed to be able to emulate Aragorn, Conan, or Merlin while still at level one, only going up from there, your power level steps into being kind of ludicrous quickly, and you actually stop emulating that favorite character, because you step out of the realm of power the stories typically portray.
Agreed.
If the goal is emulation of fictional character types, then your game can only have a power curve as seen for those characters - which typically isn't much. Aragorn does not show major mechanical change over the course of the LotR books. Neither should a character trying to emulate that performance.
I'm not so sure about this last bit. Aragorn might be (in game terms) high-ish level when we first meet him as Strider, but he still "mechanically" grows and develops as the story goes on. If nothing else he goes from being a lone wolf to being the leader of a party to being the leader of armies; which in game terms means he's picking up leadership feats left right and centre. :)

That said, one could argue that Aragorn more fills the role of a party NPC and that the actual PCs in LotR are the four Hobbits, all of whom go on a pretty clear zero to hero journey through the story.
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top