Challenging the Character, Not Just the Sheet

This is an RPG Lexicon post. If you're new, you can dive right in, but it'll make more sense if you start with the Invisible Rulebooks.

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Today in the Lexicon I want to tackle a breezy one. Some of the terms I depend on in RPG design are ... provocative, in certain contexts. This one, not so much. Mostly.

Today's terms are strong characterization and weak characterization, as they relate to the characterizing potential of an RPG challenge.

In games leaning invisible, one of the qualities of an excellent problem (for the PCs to face) is a goodly dose of characterizing potential. In simplest terms, this just means "different characters are likely to solve the problem differently."

By this extra-simple metric, most problems have some small degree of characterizing potential. Even the fillerest of fillers, the Locked Door, will be solved differently by your basic videogame-style fantasy troupe: the burglar can probably pick the lock, the wizard can probably cast some kind of open-sesame spell, the gronky bricks can probably crack the door open with their otherwise-uncalled-for craniums, etc.

This exposes the limits of the simple definition, because that is some weak characterization. It reveals the basic niche of each character, but we learn nothing about them that we couldn't already tell from glancing at their painted miniatures.

Let's consider an example, the "Jumper Mayor:" In Superhero City, the mayor has just stepped onto a 16th-story ledge of an office building downtown. His expression is a bit glassy, and the only words anyone's heard from him are "I think I'm going to jump." Nobody's sure why: demonic possession? Doctor Hypnotic's Hypno-Satellite? A mayoral doppelganger sent by The Devious Duplicator? Or is the mayor just in a serious emotional low-spot, isolated and in pain?

The point being, Deadpool would handle this differently than Captain America, who'd handle it differently than Wonder Woman, who'd handle it differently than Black Widow who'd handle it differently than Green Lantern, and more to the point, the different Green Lanterns (and the different Captains America, and so on) might also handle it differently, from one another. Hal Jordan is a very different person than Guy Gardner who's different from Kyle Rayner and so on (lots of Lanterns to choose from). So it's not about what the green ring can do: it's about the kind of person who's wearing it.

I mean, if you had a power ring, what would you do? Let the mayor jump, but catch him safely from his fall? Bind him to the wall and prevent him from jumping? Knock him unconscious first? Try to talk him down? Give him the power to fly? Trap him in a force-bubble until you can figure out what the cause is? Would you make it a point to stand there on the ledge with him? Fly in front of him? Solve it from a distance? Would you talk first to the mayor, or to the witnesses? Would it be important to let the fire and rescue people solve it if they can, and not "superhero" all over it unless absolutely necessary?

Any possible response to the Jumper Mayor might solve the short-term problem while exacerbating a long-term one, or be distracted by the short-term problem while missing some vital bigger picture. So, in terms of characterizing, the Jumper Mayor has a lot of potential for strong characterization: any superhero PC who seeks to solve this problem is likely to reveal more than just their suite of skills or powers or gadgets; there's a good chance they'll reveal something about their nature, priorities, values and beliefs, and that's good stuff.

What's more, any solution to the problem is likely to spin into ancillary problems which magnify that potential.

As usual, we're talking about a spectrum, not simple boxes tagged "strong" and "weak." But it's a spectrum with some recognizeable bands. Here's a quick half-dozen, arranged from weaker to stronger:

  • Solutions to this problem reveal broad niches (tank vs. caster, good vs. evil, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal principal abilities or gear (gunplay vs. psionics, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal obscure abilities or gear (things the PC doesn't often call on: mastery of the cheese omelet, the ability to speak Hovitos, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character likes to project (outward style, self image, declared values and allegiances).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character's friends and family would recognize even if others wouldn't (down-to-the-wire loyalties, priorities, insights, capacity for sacrifice).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character is, but keeps hidden or even subconscious (deepest beliefs, hopes, fears, snapping points and wells of inspiration).

This brings us to the faint chance of being provocative, because this cleaves along visible-to-invisible tendencies. If you've been following the Lexicon series, you can work that out without me belaboring it. If you're new, suffice it to say: I consider it a point of GMing quality (and adventure-design quality, often both at once) that a "good" adventure provides at least a few central challenges with potential for strong characterization. An adventure which provides nothing of the sort is one I'll reject as an editor, feel shame about as a GM or designer, and roll my eyes at, as a player (before declining to attend future sessions, citing hair-washing and nose-picking responsibilities).

I carefully refer to the potential for characterization. There's no such thing, in absolute terms, as a 100% "characterizing" or "non-characterizing" problem, because games leaning invisible embrace tactical infinity as the core of gameplay ... so we can't be sure (and never want to be sure) how any given PC or PC-group will solve (or nullify, destroy, or end-run around) a problem. But characterizing potential is still a real, recognizable thing, something we can include, or fail to include. A keen eye for that potential is a critical skill in RPG design, with an impact most strongly-felt in adventure design, but with powerful echoes in setting and resource design, and even a few drips down to the systemic basement. When the time comes to dive into the design articles, you'll see a lot of these terms.

In the meantime: breezy! Mostly breezy. See you next time, in the Lexicon.

"Give a Girl a Gusli, and Everything Looks Like an Audience"