Thoughts and Ideas, Part I
So i’ve got some extra minutes this afternoon and i wanted to share a semi deep thought about organizing your gaming group and i am going to end up using one of those R words i don’t like to utilize. I’m going to break out a Rule for all of you, and bear with me for a second. I don’t like Rules in general because for every rule i can think of, exceptions apply. If a Rule generates more exceptions than the original idea the rule was supposed to help you by providing a guideline or a hard and fast way of looking at things, then the Rule isn’t much help is it? The Rule i’m going to drop on you is my rule 0, and it goes something like this “Don’t let the options get in the way of fun.” Seems easy right? It’s a fairly easy rule that i use as a guide for when i am building a character for an RPG, or an army for a Tabletop Miniature war game. There are some considerations for using this rule, and i’m going to talk about this first in terms of character (and party) construction, and then i’ll talk a little bit about designing an army for a Minis game. Bear with me, and i’ll see if i can help you out with the thought process behind Rule 0.
Characters (and Parties)
One of the most rewarding aspects of role-playing games to me is the ability to create a character that allows me to interact with the game world. This construct is the avatar that enables me to interact with other characters, setting elements, and the larger world around me (as expressed by the Dungeon/Game Master). Character creation is a fun way to learn the mechanics of a new game, and i have found in my experience that building a character (sometimes with extra help) can give you a firmer understanding of the mechanics of the game system you’re playing with. This is not always true, and some games are much trickier to get into than others.
Most games give you a host of options to build your character. Some are more clearly identified and stratified along race and class ideas like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. Others have concrete ideas and methods to determine attributes and skills like the Storyteller system that powers the World of Darkness, or the Savage Worlds system that powers a host of other settings. The last major group of systems are strictly point buy systems, where each player gets a specified pool of points to build a character, like GURPS or the Mutants and Masterminds 3rd edition system.
Understanding the system you’re playing in can help you figure out what options are good for the character you want to build, and which options are bad for the character you’re building. Not all options are ideal for the specific idea you have, and that doesn’t make them necessarily bad options, but they aren’t the best for what you’re doing. Being able to pick out the best options for your idea is a skill you pick up with time, or you can turn to the power of the internet for advice on how to build your character.
Now i’m going to give you a little bit of advice on this, but i also caution you to take the internet’s advice with a grain of salt. By all means seek out advice for topics you don’t understand, or if you’re digging into minute details of esoteric lore. If you’re curious about how the Magus class for Pathfinder works, or the way to create a power like Professor Xavier’s telepathy in Mutants and Masterminds, by all means, do your research. Look it up, check the collected wisdom of the internet and learn what’s out there to tinker with. If you want to put an idea up on a forum or message board about understanding how something works, by all mean, but be prepared for the wrath of the experts.
The internet is full of people who’ve spent more time in a given game and have studied the topic. I have been playing for more than 25 years, and i still get patted on the head by 40 year + gamers. They know the topic better than you (allegedly) and are eager to show how you’re doing something the wrong way, or how their way is better than any possible idea you could have. Listen to their advice (they are going to offer it anyway), but keep your mind open to new ideas and options. Not all answers are applicable to every situation, and you can find a lot of ideas on how a general problem can be solved. Your specific situation may be different, and take notes on their advice, check the math/mechanics, and see how it can be applied to your character.
There are a million different ways to make a character, and i look at character creation as a spectrum of functionality. Some characters are built to take advantage of a specific trick or a range of specific abilities. Other characters are more broadly built to be able to handle a range of different tasks and abilities. Some characters are built with no discernible pattern or idea until you look at the character’s background and get to know the player. The term optimization gets brought up to talk about how well a character is built to utilize the game’s mechanics to the character’s advantage.
Hyper-optimized characters (also known as Munchkins and a host of other terms) are usually built to either take the greatest advantage of the rules or to exploit the rules in a different way. There are dozens of different guides for building “the most powerful” and “the best” character of a specific class or build. If you’re building a new character, by all means you can take a look at these guides and study how the character’s mechanics work. I would advise you against building one of these Hyper-optimized characters for a couple of reasons.
First, these characters are kind of boring. Most versions of these characters are overpowered compared to both the world at large around them, and the characters they are in a party with. If your character is consistently overpowering everything you encounter, and you can overcome any challenge in the world, what’s the point of adventuring with a party of heroic types, and why do it?
Second, and this is an important consideration for building a coherent party/coterie/runner team/rebel cell, everyone needs to have their own niche/specialization/limelight. The characters that makes up these larger groups need a reason to come together, and the best rationale that immediately comes to mind is a group of experts solving a problem. Each expert brings a specific range of knowledge, practical skills, and competencies to the larger group, and the best groups combine very different experts into a functional group that solves tasks with the best of them.
In Dungeons and Dragons, this means that you probably need a character who’s an expert in arcane magic, a character who’s an expert at finding and managing traps, a character who can heal other people, and a character who’s an expert at combat. There are other roles and ideas that you can work out with, but these are broad areas of expertise that a group is probably going to need in order to function in most gaming environments. Shadowrun has a similar breakdown of mission specific roles and successful groups are able to combine individual experts to form a functional project group.
So what does this mean for you making your character? Find your niche. Your character is likely going to be an expert in at least one specific area (usually determined by your class or your archetype) and some systems allow you to specialize in a couple of specific areas. These groups work very well because they cover internal deficits and everyone has a role to play. Everyone has a spot that they’ve claimed as their own and they are capable of contributing to the group’s success.
Character builds are the options and choices you make to define what your character is and what they’re good at. Some systems do this with Elf Wizard, while others go with a broad archetype, like Gadgeteer. This is one of the places where a player can have an awful lot of fun, because you get to make all the decisions about your character during creation and you also get to select how you spend your upgrades. Even if your system doesn’t have a level up mechanic, it has experience points (or something similar) that you can use to make improvements to your character.
There are elements of optimization that fall into this process and I look at character building in one of two ways (neither of which is wrong, it’s a matter of how you want to build your character and how you define fun). Are you building your character Mechanics First, or are you building your character Story First? Other folks do things a little differently, and i am certain you can find their opinions other places. This is just how i tend to break things down, and i have used both methods to reasonably successful effects.
Building a character mechanics first means you start by looking at what you want your character to do, and select options to make that work. You’re probably considering a long term design goal (I want to be able to cast Xth level spells by Y time) or are working on tinkering with a new rule or an idea (Hmm, i wonder how much use i can get out of the Intimidate skill in Pathfinder?). This type of a character design focuses on the abilities and options of the character and builds the character’s story and background around those ideas. In this type of a character build, the player is kind of focused on what the character can do, but not necessarily who they are.
Story first characters are the polar opposites of a mechanics first build. The player sits down with an idea of a character in mind and will often fill out background information and other details about their character before they even pick up the rulebook. The player will take the narrative in mind and select the options that fit that narrative, even if there are mechanically more powerful options available. The player in many ways is focused on Who the character is rather than what they can do.
I always encourage players to sit down with the DM and build their characters together. This is especially critical if the game itself is new, or there are additional considerations for character creation (mostly house rules, but Call of Cthulhu has two actively available time periods you can play in, so knowing which one is important). Usually this is called a session 0, but i have heard them called character nights, or meet n greets, depending on who’s putting it together.
As a player, these are tremendously helpful. First you get the opportunity to meet and interact with the other players you’re going to be spending time with. This lets you figure out what ground rules for the game you want to get out of the way and hopefully iron out any personality conflicts that are looming on the horizon. You can annoy each other’s characters all day long, but players annoying players isn’t healthy for the game (or either of you) in the long run.
The second thing that is extremely critical for this first meeting is it allows you all to pick your spots and niches for what kind of a character you want to play. Communicating with each other and collective brainstorming is at the heart of a shared narrative gaming environment (which is technically one way to look at an RPG session). Without collaboration and communication, it’s very hard to make progress in the game, and it feels like parts are missing.
Remember, that a party is a lot like an ensemble cast. Everyone has lines and points in the story where they shine. They also interact with each other in new and interesting ways that help tell wonderful stories and provide hours of entertainment. I would encourage you to find your spotlight and help the other characters find theirs. If you end up with two of you in the same role or archetype, work together to share the spotlight. This is a social activity, be social.
Thoughts and Ideas, Part II
The idea behind this (i just had to delete the world Rule, that’s how much i dislike that word) can also apply to miniature wargaming (and a host of other hobbies. Within every wargame are a host of factions, each with their own units and design philosophies. Understanding what you want to get out of that experience is critical, but learning how to play can be a costly waste of both time and money. We wrote one of our first articles about this with Warhammer 40,000 which you can find here. It’s full of advice and ideas about getting started with Warhammer, but the ideas are broadly applicable to just about any wargame out there. My advice to a new player is to start slow, play with people who’ve got more experience, and absorb as much information as you can. You’ll find the army you want to play and the style you like once you get some practical experience, and that’s the best teacher of finding what works for you and what doesn’t.
As always, we hope this has been some helpful ideas and thoughts on building and putting together gaming groups and characters, and remember that our Rule 0 is a strongly worded suggestion. You can take this advice to heart, or you can toss it. It’s up to you, Game Fans.