Archive for June, 2010

Superman Sucks

June 29, 2010 2 comments

I mean, seriously. That guy sucks balls. You want to know why?

Good Guys are Lame

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that characters that have nothing but virtuous disadvantages (Pacifism, Code of Honor, Honesty, etc) are horrifically boring. For one thing, they’re predictable. “Superman has to choose between preserving his reputation or saving a bus full of nuns! Whatever will he do?” Yawn. The only interesting decisions for the pure noble heroes are when they have to choose between two things that are equally bad, or are forced to make the decision that pains them deeply, a la Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. For those who aren’t up on their old-school comics, the Green Goblin put a bus full of schoolchildren (it would’ve been better if it had been nuns) and Spidey’s main squeeze Gwen on opposite sides of a bridge, suspended by ropes. He cuts both ropes at once and makes your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man choose which one to save. In classic (boring, predictable) hero fashion, Spidey saves the kids first and then tries to save Gwen – and fails. It’s a classic.* The problem is, our hero is actually a very passive character in this scene; the Green Goblin is the one who created the situation and therefore dictated the actions of our hero.

Whenever you’re reading/watching Superman, there’s very little suspense. You know exactly how he’s going to respond at all times. The suspense comes from Lex Luthor and his wily schemes. He’s unconstrained by a moral code, and thus free to take unexpected actions. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I always find myself rooting for Lex. Maybe it’s just because I have a soft spot for bald guys, maybe it’s because it’s because he’s a nerd who made good. Or maybe it’s because, unlike Superman, he can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound or take a bullet on the chin. Lex has to get ahead by thinking ahead. He has to work for it. Which leads us to our second reason that Superman sucks.

Being Too Powerful Is Stupid

Alright, so let’s catalog Superman’s powers. He comes from a planet with higher gravity, so he’s really, really strong. Not just pick-up-a-car-and-throw-it strong, either. He can pick up buildings, catch rockets, and push planets out of their orbits. He’s basically as strong as he needs to be at any given time. Krypton must have been really heavy. He’s also indestructible. Bullets bounce off of him, and he’s super-duper resistant to heat and cold. This kind of makes sense. I mean, if your muscle tissue and skeletal structure has to support the kind of weights that he can lift, that implies a pretty high level of resilience.  And he’s super-fast.  Again, kind of makes sense.  Oh, and he doesn’t have to breathe. Huh. That’s weird. And he can fly. And he has X-Ray vision. And he shoots laser beams out of his eyes. Freaking laser beams. And if something really, really bad happens, he can fly around the Earth reeeeeally fast and reverse time.** Basically, he can do whatever he wants.

This, once again, makes him a complete bore. Look, there’s a falling spaceship! I wonder how Superman will save them? Well duh, he’s going to fly up there and catch it. The bad guys are shooting at him! Whatever will he do? Basically, Superman wins by just being more powerful than his problems. It’s no coincidence that the only good Superman movie is the one where he’s fighting three people just as powerful as him. He’s forced to out-smart them, and that makes us like him a little more. Of course, that means that he also has the power to be super-smart when his smorgasboard of powers isn’t enough. Man that guy sucks.

But wait, you say. What about Kryptonite, our generic hero’s generic weakness? Aside from the fact that Kryptonite’s debilitating effects seem to be a bit… inconsistently applied, Kryponite is a really lame weakness. A good weakness both limits a character’s choices and gives them an added dimension. Dracula has a weakness to sunlight – he’s forced to live in the dark, a creature of the night. The Little Mermaid can’t breathe air, creating a very literal boundary between her and her one true love. The Martian Manhunter flies, shapeshifts, turns invisible, is telepathic and super-strong***. He’s also afraid of fire, a common weapon that any street thug can wield against him. Even better – his weakness is all in his head; in spite of his power he has irrational fears, just like us. It makes him seem vulnerable and, ironically enough, human. Green Lantern can’t effect things that are yellow. He’s relatable for people with colorblindness. Okay, so that one’s a stretch.

Superman’s weakness doesn’t do anything to make him interesting or relatable. It only exists because the poor saps that got stuck writing Superman stories needed some way to threaten their protagonist. It doesn’t constrain his movements or change his day-to-day existence. It doesn’t cause him to live in fear. As others have pointed out, the closest equivalent to his weakness to kryptonite for a mere mortal would be a bad allergy. A really, really uncommon allergy that almost never comes up. Like if you were allergic to enriched uranium. It would be a lot better if he were just allergic to bees. Lots of people don’t like bees, and small, flying things that can hurt you are kind of inherently threatening.

But noooooo. Superman is allergic to unobtainium, and it’s a ridiculous, tacked on weakness. It’s so generic and context-less that “kryptonite” has pretty much supplanted “Achilles’ heel” as the go-to metaphor for an unexpected vulnerability.

Boring characters are dumb

Really, this is what it all boils down to. Superman is just plain boring. He’s boring because he’s a predictable goody two-shoes**** who is too powerful to ever face any meaningful challenges. Good characters, interesting characters have something about them that makes them interesting as people. We can learn a lot of lessons from looking at Superman’s biggest foil in the DC Universe, Batman. Batman does not suck.

Batman hunts people at night. He actively strives to strike fear into his enemies. He’s out for vengeance. He hunts down criminals to get revenge for what happened to his parents. Those are petty, violent emotions and motivations. They’re also very human and very relatable. On top of that, Batman is an outlaw, a vigilante. He won’t kill, but he’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal to win. He fights dirty. What’s more, he doesn’t prevail by shrugging off bullets and catching falling planes; he beats people by being smarter and better prepared. These characteristics, on their own, are not a personality. They do, however, suggest a personality, and eliminate possibilities. The grim, gravelly, all-business persona is a natural outgrowth of these things. You know how you can tell that Batman doesn’t suck? He’s not predictable. He dictates the action. And you’re always rooting for him to win.

* You know why it’s a classic? Because it wasn’t predictable.

** Seriously? I mean, come on. Seriously.

*** This is how I imagine the conversation that decided the Martian Manhunter’s powers:

“So I want to make a new character that is an alien from another planet.”

“Like Superman?”

“No, this guy’s totally different. He’s…um…he’s green. And he… um… hunts men. I guess. Oh! And he’s really strong.”

“Superman’s really strong.”

“Oh. Well, my guy can fly too.”

“Superman can fly.”

“Well what can’t superman do?”

“He can’t read minds or change his shape or turn invisible or walk through walls.”

“Okay, well my guy does all of those things.”

**** What the hell does that mean, anyway? Was there really a period when shoes were so scarce that somebody who had two of them was considered to be showing off?

***** Wow, I really went overboard with the asterisks this time. My bad.

Categories: Mastering the Game

Character Advancement is Overrated

June 22, 2010 5 comments

I subscribe to Drive-Thru RPG‘s weekly newsletter. Generally, it has been a way for them to showcase interesting and new products. Recently, they’ve started including some other content to do with roleplaying. Of interest to this post is a column they’re calling “A Better Game”. Because the newsletter is distributed via email, there’s not really a good link to point you at, so I pulled out the relevant article to this page, hosted here at MR for convenience’s sake. Go ahead and give it a read before you go on. They’ve also got this thread going on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

A lot of what Sean says in that post is good stuff, but I felt, as I read it, that there were some underlying assumptions in the post that were going unexamined. Basically, he outlines three problems with the idea of assigning experience points (or Character Points or whatever your system’s currency is for buying character ability) asymmetrically among your players:

  1. A player who missed a session because of some other commitment has a less capable character and thus less fun.
  2. A player whose character died restarts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and less fun.
  3. A new player starts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and has less fun.

These are all valid points. A character that is significantly underpowered compared to his peers can, except in very carefully controlled circumstances, often lead to a frustrated player. That’s not fun for anyone.

Sean also stresses the cooperative nature of roleplaying several times, saying that the players, “aren’t there to compete or win against each other; they are there to share in the world and story you are presenting for them.” This, too, is true. The most reasonable way to construe of imbalanced character rewards as fair or unfair is if you’re thinking that comparison between characters is framed as a competition.

Sean has the right idea on many fronts, but that last sentiment really illustrates something it seems like he’s missing that Stewart and I feel is of primary importance: a concern with fairness between players and the envisioning of character points or XP as a reward might indicate that you’re thinking about the game too much and not enough about the roleplaying. That might seem like an inflammatory statement to make, but bear with me for a moment, as I examine some of the underlying causes of the things that Sean is worried about.

How did your characters get big discrepancies in points, anyway?

I sort of feel like if your PCs get into a place where they’re at vastly different point totals even though they started at the same total, then there’s probably one of three things going wrong: Your campaign has been going on too long, you’re handing out too may points for incidental stuff or you’ve got a serious attendance problem. I’ll elaborate in reverse order.

If one of my players has something come up, or can’t make it for some reason, we don’t play. I know a lot of GMs just want to play and so they’ll settle for a quorum, but I think that’s destructive to the narrative. In a character-centric campaign, each character is important enough that having them be absent suddenly or uncharacteristically quiet is very disruptive. So we’ll plan to play a different day or, because we play every other week, we’ll push the schedule a week. This can be a bit of a pain, but it maintains consistency at the table.

Also wrapped up in this is the idea that just because we’re roleplaying doesn’t diminish the fact that the evening is a social engagement and you have a social commitment to show up if you said you would. If a player is having a really tough time making my bi-weekly sessions, then maybe my game isn’t for them. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever hang out, or anything. I hadn’t really thought of it until I read Sean’s article, but this also handily avoids the case where one player is missing out on the minimum you-showed-up-and-played point award.

Eliminating that discrepancy essentially leaves incidental rewards; for good roleplaying, for single-handedly doing something awesome, for coming up with the brilliant plan that the PCs execute to wonderful effect. If these kinds of things are quickly leading to some PCs outstripping others then you may be over-rewarding. It’s important to think about why these things earn points: Chiefly it’s because they’re behaviors you want to encourage. So if one of your players consistently gets the good roleplaying Oscar, you might dial it back a bit over time. They get it. Really, these kinds of things should be worth just enough to say, “I see what you did and it was good.” More than that can get you into trouble independent of PC power imbalance: it can quickly lead to PC power creep, which can lead to campaign scope creep. By the time your players can slay a god easily, your plot about saving their home town from goblin barbarians starts to look a little quaint.

The final way I can envision a big discrepancy coming about is if your appropriately little incidental point awards pile up over a long period of time. If you’re running into this problem, you’re probably well into campaign scope creep. It’s a red flag that you missed with your campaign’s narrative arc. It doesn’t mean your campaign is too long, but this is a symptom of long campaigns that has to be carefully managed around and seems like an easy trap to fall into. I don’t plan campaigns to be super long because there are a lot of things that get bent into funny shapes when you draw them out so much, not least of which is the narrative.

Another thing that bears mentioning, though it’s not in my list of three, is something Sean brought up which I hadn’t really considered. He mentions that you might have, “a new player entering an existing campaign, one where the other players have been playing and gaining experience before they arrived.” I read that and thought, “What?!?” I’m so used to thinking of finite-length campaigns that I’d forgotten people did this. I would be very wary of bringing in a player in the middle of an existing campaign. I feel like if you don’t have campaigns ending and beginning frequently enough to bring in new players, that’s another red flag on campaign length. If you’ve built the setting and plot around your existent PCs strongly enough, having PCs come or go for out-of-universe reasons should be really hard to accomplish with any finesse at all.

The system I use

So, you might ask, what is it that I do that’s so awesome it avoids all this? Let me give some context first. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, my system of choice is GURPS, which is a point-based, classless system. A character that is made from 300 points is pretty epic, but unlike most class-based systems, a straight comparison of points doesn’t tell you who’d win in a fight. Those 300 points could mostly be in research and gadget-inventing skills, with no combat skills to speak of. Also of importance is the fact that I hold a play session every other week for 3-4 hours in the evening. So every other session, I do character point awards. You get one for having showed up and played. Everyone gets one if some major plot point was passed. An individual can earn one for good roleplaying or being especially effective, etc. The latter two aren’t very commonly handed out. Over the course of the campaign, the discrepancy in point totals just can’t get that big.

One thing that makes this work is the point-based-ness of the system. It means that they’re spending their points every few reward cycles and the characters improve gradually, rather than all at once. I also require that they justify what they’re spending the points on. If they want to raise a skill, they have to have used it, tried it untrained or at least seen it used in the last few sessions. In a level-based game, where character improvement is much more stair-step, if someone is only a small number of XP ahead of everyone else, it’s entirely possible they’ll gain a level several sessions before the others and have a significant effectiveness advantage. That’s part of why I prefer GURPS, but other point-based systems have this feature, too. Notice, too, that I don’t assign CP for dispatching enemies. That really reinforces the game aspect and side-lines the story-telling aspect of roleplaying.

Intentionally metered growth

There’s an philosophy I have that has been an undercurrent throughout this whole post and it’s that character advancement is overrated. In his article, Sean says, “[improving their character’s stats] is, frankly, one of the most compelling aspects of RPGs for many players.” That may be, but that isn’t the way we do things. In my experience, the protagonists of most fiction don’t increase in power very much over the course of the story unless that’s a central aspect of the story its self. Captain Picard isn’t several levels higher in season seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation than in the pilot episode. Han hasn’t dumped points into his piloting skill between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Aragorn didn’t seem to get in any way more effective or pick up any skills or perks in The Lord of the Rings.

My point is that in most fiction, the characters have a more of less set level of effectiveness and character growth comes from personality shifts. In GURPS, you can switch out Advantages and Disadvantages for other ones to reflect this kind of character growth but you maintain the same point total. And, really, you don’t need a system to mediate this kind of growth if you don’t want (I just happen to find it helpful). So rather than starting your PCs at level 1 and working their way up to the really cool adventures, why not start them at level 12 and get straight to the awesome stuff? Admittedly, this is another thing that works better, I think, in a level-less system.

So where did Sean go wrong?

As I stated in the introduction, Sean isn’t really wrong. He has an admirable goal and the right idea: promote cooperativeness. This isn’t a competition. But the problems introduced by imbalanced PCs aren’t symptoms of giving out asymmetrical awards. They’re symptoms of not emphasizing the narrative structure of the campaign enough, of not focusing on the characters as central and basically of over-focusing on the game aspects of roleplaying. If you keep the story in mind as the primary concern and the PCs as of primary importance to the story, the actions that make most sense to serve that also dissipate the imbalanced PCs problem.

Before I let you go, I do want to say that Sean’s audience is probably very different from ours at MR. He’s not in the business of evangelizing a certain (less common) way of running a campaign; he’s trying to give advice that can be used by the most people. I don’t want it to seem like I’m hating on Sean at all. I just thought it was another great example of why Stewart and I think the way we do things is best.

How to Predict the Future

June 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Prophecy is a really common trope in fiction. You most often see it in fantasy, but not always; case in point: this post was inspired by my thinking about the Oracle from my RPG Adaptation about The Matrix. This one presents some serious challenges when trying to run it in a roleplaying game. We’ll look at the challenges briefly and then I’ll propose some methods to mitigate them, but first, let’s talk about the trope a bit.

So How Does It Work?

Prophecy works differently in different pieces of fiction. You’ll have to decide how it works in yours. Is it all smoke and mirrors and a tendency for people to look for what they expect? Is it all written in stone and cannot be averted? Is it a glimpse of a possible future that, now with the power of forewarning, could be altered or averted?

You’ll also have to decide whether most people in the campaign know what the nature of prophecies is. If it’s written in stone, but the world is very similar to ours, most people will think that it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. If it’s all smoke-and-mirrors, then it might be that people think it’s either written in stone or something that can be (with difficulty) affected. These two decisions will have a significant impact on how prophecy plays in your game.


The first challenge that comes to mind is rather obvious: You’re not actually psychic. Stat and skill numbers can help you mimic playing someone stronger or faster than you but they help very little when trying to play someone smarter than yourself. Similarly, a die roll isn’t really going to help you know what will go on later in your game. What will the PCs plan to do? How will those plans actually fall out? No idea. So that’s hurdle number one and it’s rooted in the fact, again and as many such hurdles are, that roleplaying is an inherently cooperative medium. It means you can’t predict the other people at the table.

There’s another, somewhat related, hurdle you have as a GM. It’s entirely possible that you’ll have a player (as differentiated from the player’s character) who resents having the future told to him. He doesn’t believe in all that fate crap and is even more militant about it because it came from the GM. So you might have to deal with someone working against whatever prophesy you lay down in a meta-game sense.


Let’s make a short list. I think you have basically three main paths available if you’re wanting to use prophecy in a game: railroading, spoilers or vagueness. Railroading is, you know, the heavy-handed approach. You say something like, “The city will fall on March 13th,” and no matter what the players come up with or how well they pull it off, you keep coming up with newer, better reasons that it just wasn’t good enough and the city has to fall. This is not something I recommend. It seems like the fastest way to divert what should be an interesting discussion of free will and fate into a major case of player frustration. The PCs being frustrated and angsty that they cannot effect the world is fine. Players feeling that way is less fine.

Spoilers are not quite railroading. If you can manage a prophecy that has mostly to do with NPCs, then your predictive power goes up somewhat. So you could tell the PCs that one of the King’s closest friends will try to assassinate him on the Thursday after next. This doesn’t really force their hand or dictate their actions. And worded as it was, it doesn’t guarantee an outcome. This can be a little tricky, since you’re skirting the edge of railroading, but if you craft the wording ahead of time, you can be pretty certain of dodging that bullet.

Vagueness is the real-world fake psychic’s bread and butter. There might be “dark events” or “grave danger” or “blissful happiness” at some unspecified date in the PCs’ future. I mean–it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the characters in an adventure story are up for some grave danger in the near future. This one seems tricky to get right in that if you’re too obvious, the Players will see that you’ve told them effectively nothing and the prophecy looses it’s oomph.

An Example

In my current campaign, my players learned some time ago of a prophecy from some NPCs. The NPCs are a religious group that believe the prophecy has to do with one of the PCs. It goes more or less like this: A killer of men will slay a white lion, will leap through rings of fire, flee from those who praise him, be chased through the streets by wolves, dance amongst the legs of titans, ascend the unassailable wall, then climb a high tower at which point the God of Death will rise and, you know, end the world. These NPC priests consider this world ending to be a Good Thing. Also, the implication is that the tower and evil god are certain ones very central to the setting.

The PC in question had, in fact, killed a white lion, fled from people who’d praised him, leaped through rings of fire, been chased through the streets by wolves and dodged and flipped through the legs of stampeding elephants all by the time they finally learned about the prophecy. According to the NPCs, he’s got a wall to climb and a tower, then everyone can die happily ever after. The PCs, however, have learned of an assassin (an NPC) who is, obviously, a killer of men. He assassinated a noble who’s crest was a white lion on a field of red. He fled the scene where he’d been posing an an entertainer and received praise.

So what’ve we got in this prophecy? First off: The players don’t know if the prophecy actually holds any power. This is a setting where such things are possible, but these NPC priests do a lot of drugs, so who knows about them. Also, if it does hold power, they aren’t sure if it’s something that can be altered or not. Because some of them read this blog, I won’t say what the answers to those questions are, but you can see how answering the “How Does It Work?” questions can have an impact on your players.

Secondly, this is a mix of spoilers and vagueness. I intentionally worked it so that it was unclear who the prophecy pertained to. This is vagueness. It’s also a little spoilerey in that the thing says explicitly that this god will rise up and destroy the world. And they know that before that happens someone, at least, will have to climb that tower. Also, if you look carefully, you can see how I avoided railroading. First off, I worded many of the lines in such a way that the outcome of an event was not foretold, just the event (he’ll be chased by wolves). In other cases, I put the PC in question in a situation where the obvious course of action was to do what I had in mind for the prophecy (like killing the white lion and fleeing from those who praised him). And just in case something went weirdly differently than I expected (as happens so often in roleplaying), I left my self an escape hatch: The PCs didn’t know about the prophecy until much of it was “fulfilled” (quotes because it’s in doubt whether the PC doing that stuff actually fulfilled it or not), so if I’d wanted, I could have altered the prophecy slightly to fit how events fell out. That’s pretty much cheating.

Now, I won’t know until after the campaign is over, when my players and I are doing post-game analysis, whether this was a successful use of the trope. I feel like it’s served the narrative so far, but then I can see all the pieces and it’s sometimes hard to guess the effect from the point of view of the players who see a less complete picture.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium

Character Building: Olcanor Parin

June 9, 2010 3 comments

This is one of a series of articles where we’re walk through the process of building what we think of as a good PC. The goal is to reveal the process and help GMs and players when they are making PCs of their own.

Like the post from a few weeks ago, this character will be set in the Karthasia setting that I fabricated in a previous post. For a quick review, Karthasia is a setting where a sect of death priests (the Xanx) overthrew the existing benevolent theocracy (run by the Albanists) and replaced it. They did so with the aid of the nature-magic wielding Nine Tribes in the woods to the north, who have since become uncontrollable and overrun many cities. There are a few of the Albanists still alive, and they have formed an underground resistance. Lastly, there is an order of scholarly mages, the Order of Arcane Brothers, utilizing the magic of the four classic elements, earth, air, fire, and water who study in secluded towers. They have remained neutral and undisturbed in the conflict thus far.

Character Criteria

We avoided Magic last time around, so let’s focus on it this time. Our imaginary player, when hearing about the setting, was really excited about both the prospect of the scholarly Order of Arcane Brothers and the shapeshifting shamans of the Nine Tribes. He’s not really sure what sort of personality he wants his character to have, he just wants to play somebody that does cool things. While this flexibility may seem like a good thing on the surface, restrictions breed creativity; I find that characters created without some sort of emotional center end up feeling hollow and boring. If our player doesn’t have a strong opinion about their character’s personality, we can try to sculpt a personality that suits their playing style. Our imaginary player is a person with a strict moral code, and he has trouble relaxing that in-game. In past campaigns, he has struggled to believably play characters that didn’t share his morals, and tends to vocally censure other characters when they don’t act according to those beliefs. It has occasionally damaged the fun of his fellow players, but not so much that they won’t play with him. With that in mind, whatever character we create should be somebody that has a strong sense of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to speak their mind.

From a GM perspective, the fact that our player is interested in playing a shaman creates an interesting dilemma. We know that one of our other players has already created a PC from the Nine Tribes. We’re only expecting to have three players in this campaign, and if two of them are tribesman, it will significantly affect what we had in mind. If our fictitious third player was also interested in playing a Tribesman, then perhaps we should take the hint that they are where the cool stuff is, and adjust accordingly. If, however, playing a tribesman doesn’t appeal to them, then we will probably want to dissuade this player from playing a shaman. Although I’ll be presenting the character-creation process for these characters serially for the sake of simplicity, it is for exactly this reason that I like to talk to all of the players about the sorts of characters that they might be interested in before I sit down with anyone to finalize their character.

Character Possibilities

Since the shaman is our problem child, let’s start with that idea and see if it’s even viable. The shamans call upon nature spirits to talk to plants and animals, and to transform themselves into the forms of all manner of beasts. My vision was of fluid, dynamic transformations, performed mid-combat, shifting from wolf to snake to bear to eagle as required. This is significantly faster and more flexible than the default shapeshifting rules in my system of choice (GURPS), so it would need to be adjusted accordingly to cost more so that it is fair relative to other options. All of which is to say that a significant portion of a shapeshifter’s points would be allocated to their namesake ability, and they would not have much left over for other advantages or skills. Additionally, the mystical and cerebral nature of being a shaman means that the character would need both a fairly high intelligence score and a lot of points allocated to skills like Herbalism and First Aid. If the shaman was not in an animal form, his physical attributes and skills will be, by necessity, rather poor.

In the case of an NPC, this is probably a small issue. If our protagonists encounter a shaman, they would most likely do so in his territory and on his terms. He might have warriors to protect him, and he would have little need for skills outside of nature lore and shapeshifting. Player Characters, on the other hand, are faced with a much wider variety of situations, and they seldom get to set the terms of an encounter. For a certain type of experienced player, this can make for a fun challenge as it forces them to maximize their advantages and solve problems creatively. For most players, however, it can be very frustrating when you have a character that constantly feels ill-equipped for situations. Our shaman is also limited simply by virtue of being a member of the nine tribes. Like N’Kava Tharak, the previous PC that we’ve created in the setting, they would be unfamiliar with the culture where much of the campaign would take place, and they would have have foreign customs and beliefs.

With all of that said, there are some strong matches between this character and our mythical player’s preferences. He wants to do cool things that use magic, and the shapeshifting definitely qualifies. He requires both a strong moral code and and a moral justification to share that code. A respected wise man from a foreign land would most likely have a strong formalized value system, and would feel empowered to tell others that they should adhere to it. If the GM and the player were able to work out a moral code for this character that was somewhat mystical and harmonious (more Yoda, less Fire & Brimstone) then his shared wisdom could even seem diplomatic and endearing instead of preachy and condescending. At the end of the day, I don’t think that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are some ideas here that could be informative for evaluating other characters. Namely, that if the player can’t help himself from telling people how they should behave, then we should provide him with a character where that behavior is appropriate, and a philosophy to extoll that is as non-disruptive as possible.

Straying a bit from our player’s initial preferences, if we focus on the moral and evangelical aspects of the character, an Albanist priest seems like a logical choice. They represent the archetypical “good” deity for the setting, and would have an entirely justifiable reason to encourage others to behave in a moral manner. Of course, the few remaining Albanist priests are refugees from the law, and the character would therefore have to be a little bit subtle about their teachings. Depending on how you look at it, that could be an advantage, giving the GM a convenient way to curtail ethical discussions if they get out of hand (“Two Dark Knights enter the tavern. You guys may want to table this conversation for later.”).

The other problem with an Albanist priest is that their powers, as written, aren’t cool enough to get our player excited about playing one. Healing wounds, buffing allies, and producing blinding light are all powerful abilities, but they aren’t necessarily viscerally thrilling the way that throwing a fireball would be. If you, as a GM, really want this player (or any player) to play a priest, you would probably need to tweak their abilities to see what would make them cool enough. Holy Fire? A magic sword? Light concentrated into holy beams of power? In this case, I don’t feel that sort of change is merited – it is possible to tell a story about the Albanists regaining their kingdom without any of the players being members of their order. If there were other aspects of the priests in this setting that appealed to our player, such as wanting to play an oppressed minority or a person struggling with maintaing their faith against impossible odds, then I would reconsider.

So at this point we can rule out three of our four groups of magic-users, the shamans are too narrow, the good priests are too bland, and the bad priests are too evil. This leaves us with the Arcane Order of Brothers. If we can’t make something work there, it’s time to start over and re-evaluate our initial concept.

The Brothers are predominantly scholars, secluded away in remote keeps near the sort of unusual land formations that attract powerful elementals. Locations that are attractive to more than one type of elemental provide them with more options, so their keeps tend to be built on remote and exotic locations such cliffs next to waterfalls, or windy canyons next to an active volcano. These sorts of locations make the Brothers well-suited as a quest for the PCs (“Traverse the Blackstone Jungle, then cross the Deathwater River at the You’ve-Gotta-Be-Kidding-Me rope bridge, then climb up Certaindeath mountain to get to the keep.”) but it also means that any Player Character that is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers needs a good reason to have left their ivory tower and involved themselves in the mundane world.

Additionally, we need some sort of moral code for our player to espouse, and the Brothers are the faction least-suited to preaching about morality. As constructed, they are the scientists of the setting, conducting experiments to tap the power of elemental spirits. Politically, they are Switzerland, refusing to take sides. This means that our character would be somewhat of an oddity amongst his brethren. This suggests to me that whatever morality we construct for him would also be the reason that he would leave the cloister to interact with the world. Otherwise, we have a character that has two unusual characteristics given their background with no tie between them. I think that it’s fine for a character to have a diverse set of personality traits, and sometimes it’s even interesting to create characters with failings that are in opposition to each other, such as the noble knight with a pure heart, righteous beliefs, and a weakness for coin. In that example, however, the conflict between their characteristics is what is at the heart of the character. It feels natural. What we want to avoid is the pyromaniac hemophiliac pariah with one leg and bad vision. You want all of the pieces to fit together into a coherent whole.

So then, what is the morality of our Arcane Brother? The first thing that comes to mind is a moral philosopher, educating others in the teachings of the setting’s equivalents of Kant and Mills, and debating the right course of action. This is problematic for the actual player we have in mind, however, as he tends to see things in black & white terms, and a philosopher would be most interested in the ethical gray areas. Of course, we could say that he adheres to one philosophy and apply it mercilessly, trusting that it is right even when it seems wrong (such as the Kantian example of telling the truth and thereby letting a innocent child die). That could be an interesting character indeed – but it still doesn’t quite fit what we are looking for, as our player has had trouble in the past when the morality of their character differed from what they felt to be right.

So we require a scholarly wizard with a somewhat traditional moral code. What if they are a devout believer in a religion, and only see the Order as their vocation? There’s a rich tradition of this style of hero in Western media, such as the cop who is a father first, or the soldier who’s loyalty lies with his country and not his army. If this is the case, then what religion does he adhere to? The Albanist faith, being a generic “good” religion in the Judeo-Christian/Tolkien traditions, seems like an obvious fit. This also provides an easy reason for him to leave the cloister – he left to help restore his church/nation. We could also create a new faith for him to believe in, but it seems unnecessary in this case.

If he’s a devout Albanist who feels compelled to guide others, and is inclined towards scholarship and magic, then why isn’t he an Albanist priest? Perhaps he was, but he was expelled. Or perhaps he wanted to be one, but was not allowed. Hmmm… that’s interesting. Let’s suppose that the Albanists viewed all of the other forms of magic as heresy. This would fit with their relationships with the other established factions – they persecuted the Xanx, and were unwilling to make peace with The Nine Tribes. It would then follow that they would also be opposed to the Order of Arcane Brothers and anyone who shows a penchant for Elemental magic. Our character wished to enter the priesthood, but his magical gifts leaned towards Fire and Water magic instead of Healing and Light. So he went out and joined the Brothers, still considering himself to be an Albanist despite their rejection (much like homosexual Christians in the modern Catholic church). The Order’s keeps are cut off from the outside world, so the revolution had been over for two years before he received the news that the Albanists had been overthrown. Once he heard, however, he could no longer remain in seclusion – he felt compelled to leave the cloister, rejoin the world, and help the Albanists regain power. This seems like it has a lot of win for me (and we don’t have any other choices). I hereby dub this character Olcanor Parin.

Fleshing Out the Character

We’ve already established Olcanor’s basic story – he wanted to be a priest but he couldn’t, so he joined the Order while maintaining his faith. Let’s expand upon it somewhat. Olcanor’s family was very religious, and he had a long history of Albanist priests in his lineage, although not his direct ancestors, as Albanist priests are required to remain celibate as part of their vows. When Olcanor was sixteen he applied for admission to the priesthood, and with his obvious intellect, dedication, and piety, he was accepted. During his first two years of study he was the star pupil, demonstrating a firm grasp of the finer points of theology and a love for research and scholarship. He was greatly praised by his teachers, and resented by his fellow students. As such, he had few friends, but found solace in his studies.

When basic magic was introduced to the curriculum Olcanor began to struggle. He understood the theory of magic, how he could open himself to Alba, and through it’s light perform miracles. He would try for hours, meditating and clearing his mind of all impurities, but Alba’s light never poured through him. He began to fall behind in his studies. During one of his lengthy attempts to perform a basic Light spell, he stayed up after the other students had gone to sleep, reading by the light of a small candle. His reading uncovered that some priests focused their power by focusing on sources of light, and feeling a kindred light, Alba’s light, burning within them. He stared at the candle flame, focusing on its light, and tried to find it’s reflection within himself. He did indeed feel… something, although it was not the awesome glow that he was anticipating. He found that if he focused on the flame, he could bend and shape it to his will. He was unsure of what this meant. Unfortunately for Olcanor, one of his fellow students was watching him instead of sleeping, and reported to the priests that he was performing sorcery. When he was confronted with this allegation, he considered lying, but knew that it would be wrong. He spoke the truth, and was branded as an outcast and a witch, and excommunicated from the priesthood.

Olcanor was devastated. He returned to his family, and they provided him with food and shelter, but no companionship. His gift had made him a pariah. What made it even worse was that he could not stop himself from practicing with his newfound talents, and he was drawn to study and manipulate the flames. In time, he found that he had an equal gift to manipulate water, and he would absentmindedly make small whirlpools in his glass during meals. The summer after Olcanor returned to his family was a dry one, and some of the less educated farmers were grumbling that they were being punished by Alba because they were sheltering a sorceror. Olcanor’s father came to him and told him that he must leave, for his own safety and the safety of his family.

Olcanor expected to feel sadness at this, but all he felt was relief, and shame at his relief. He found a visceral joy in the small craftings that he was able to perform, and he desperately wanted to learn more. He had been disowned by both his church and his family, removing all of his ties and freeing him to join the Order of Arcane Brothers. He set out for the nearest cloister, a tower high atop the Ironspine mountains. Though he was older than the average student, he was able to persuade the First Brother to admit him. But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). The Order of Arcane Brothers was committed to complete secular neutrality; when one became a member, they were required to foreswear their allegiance to all nations – and religions.* Olcanor was deeply torn about this. He desperately wanted to join the Brothers and learn more about his gifts, but he was unwilling to lie about his beliefs. His church had rejected him, and with it his family and his country. Why should he continue to be loyal to them? He decided that he would renounce his beliefs, and live as the Brothers lived. He took his vow to renounce all nations and religions, honestly and with good intentions – and immediately regretted it. He knew, as soon as he said the words, that he could not stop believing in Alba simply by saying the words. But if he revealed that he was still a believer, he would be expelled from the Order. Though it pained him, he chose to keep his beliefs to himself and live with his secret.

After he finished his initial studies at the Ironspine Cloister, Olcanor traveled to the Mordak Island Cloister as his permanent home. Mordak island is an active volcano, and the cloister is constructed at it’s base, near the sea. Olcanor lived there for 25 years, and became a skilled and respected sorcerer. He would have lived there for the rest of his days, had the Xanx Insurrection not occurred and overthrown the Albanists.** Travelers to the island are few, and news travels slowly, so when he heard about the revolution, it had already been two years past. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, that his life was in the Cloister, where he was liked and respected. In the end, however, he was still an Albanist first and an Arcane Brother second. He went to the First Brother, and asked for an indefinite leave of absence to travel to the mainland. When the First Brother asked him why he required it, he had a difficult choice to make. Did he lie, and thus preserve his place among the brothers, or tell the truth and, in so doing, cause his own banishment? Though it was difficult, he had to be true to himself. He said that he was going to use his powers to overthrow the Xanx and restore the Albanist nation.

Now Olcanor is back in the Southern Cities. As a sorcerer he is a pariah among the Albanists. As a believer, he is an outcast among the Brothers. And as a revolutionary, he is a criminal among the Xanx. He is searching for the Albanist resistance, to help them restore the nation that has no place for him.

There are a lot of implicit character traits in this backstory. Olcanor is honest to a fault, and deeply moral. He is remarkably resilient and strong-willed. He would probably have some form of Pacifism, most likely using his powers only in the cause of self-defense. Along with these classic “good” disadvantages, he has a couple of less noble traits. He is intensely curious, and has an incurable desire to learn. This can lead him to make decisions that he otherwise would not. His story also has some hints of a martyr complex, as he is willing to sacrifice his life’s work for a cause (a cause that would probably feel more comfortable without his help).

Once those things are in place, the character pretty much builds itself. High intelligence, moderate to low physical attributes. Some points in Theology and Philosophy. Some social skills, probably Diplomacy rather than Fast-Talk. The rest of it goes into his magic. His primary solution to problems is going to be talking his way out of a problem, either through reason or demonstrations of his power, with violence only as a last resort. As written, he’s got a strong conflict between his Fire Magic and his non-confrontational nature. Fire is a difficult weapon to use to subdue, and has a tendency to inflict unintended harm. Water is slightly less damage-oriented, but is still difficult to use for subduing enemies. I think that’s a fun conflict, but if the player felt differently you could easily change the character to have Air and Earth magic instead with some accompanying edits to the backstory.

*This wasn’t originally part of my conception of the Brothers, but it isn’t much of a stretch, and it makes the character significantly more interesting, so why not?

**When I originally came up with the names for the factions in this setting, I wasn’t expecting to visit it again. As such, I didn’t put a lot of thought into them, I just wanted things that were easy to remember and identify. Now that I’ve decided to explore this world a little more and use it as a backdrop to demonstrate character creation, I really regret the names. The name “Albanists,” literally “The Whitists,” with it’s connotations of purity and generic Good, seemed like a good idea at the time. The more I have to use it, the less that I like it. I mean, seriously, Albanists? Okay, so their deity is named Alba. That’s a little weird and trite, but not terrible. What is their nation called? Albania? Ugh. But since I’ve already used it in the previous posts, I’m stuck with it. There’s a lesson here about the importance of taking the time to come up with good names.

Categories: Character Building