Let me tell you about my character, Baston. I’d just moved to Seattle and through a series of coincidences ended up with a new gaming group that I was really excited about, but also more than a bit nervous about being cool enough for1. We sat down to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying on the recommendation of a friend. The concept of the game was that we’d all arrive at the estate of our dead father to deal with his will. Everyone else rolled a human. I rolled a dwarf.
That was Baston Scurlock. Because this is fantasy and part of the fun of random results in integrating them, we stuck with the concept. Lord Scurlock’s butler duly pointed to a portrait of Lord Scurlock and his first wife… a dwarf. Baston was not only a child of Lord Scurlock, but his heir.
So this dwarf hunter became a lord. That game ran for a year or so, with Baston doing just about nothing related to his background and instead playing the politics of the city as magic and war were unleashed by his siblings. The character imemdiately pivoted from an outcast to the kind of social climber who uses “I’m not from around here” as a point of interest and an excuse.
Let me tell you about my character, the ditch digger. I can’t actually recall his name, despite having the character himself burned into my brain. I’d been invited to play Burning Wheel with folks that I’d me through a friend and gamed with some2, but I was late to the game and everyone else already had a few sessions of Burning Wheel under their belts.
I can still recall his life paths (more or less, I’m sure someone will point out that this particular path wasn’t possible in BW Revised): Born, Prisoner of War, Ditch Digger. The game was set in post-Arthurian England where we were caught up in the actions of some minor lord. And I can still remember two of his beliefs: “Arthur was the last good king” and “The dead deserve our respect.”
Over time he eventually gained the favor of our lord and started having a larger and larger stake in the domain. He tried to shape a world that better fit his beliefs.
Let me tell you about my character, Hobson Hornblower. As the pandemic took hold I got the chance to game with old friends again playing The One Ring. I was joining the game at the same time as another player so we decided to both roll Hobbits, kind of a Merry & Pippin situation. Hob was to be the straight man, the Hobbit who didn’t really want to admit that he wanted to be on an adventure.
Hob’s cousin Cork ended up not sticking around, leaving Hob without much of a character concept. The game was great, but aside from general Hobbit-ness there wasn’t much on my character sheet to lean on. The One Ring has a concept of “fellowship focus” which is another player character you share a close bond with, but at our table we just call them “best friends.” Hob shifted his fellowship focus to Arundhel the elf, but Arundhel’s fellowship focus was Hek the dwarf, leaving Hob as a bit of a tag along.
I wrote this in part because I wanted to prove I could write to the least interesting topic I could think of. After my post on The One Ring a friend said they wanted to hear more about Hob, and my first thought was “yeah, but that’d extremely boring.” And trying to write a good blog post about something extremely boring sounded like the kind of challenge that I enjoy, so here we are.
Part of why “let me tell you about my character” is a running joke is that it’s basically talking about yourself. Sure, I am not a Hobbit, a dwarf, or a ditch digger. But there are some consistent trends among these characters that show things about me, some of which I’m not all that fond of. There’s a stated distrust of power combined with social climbing, a lack of planning. These three fictional characters have enough in common that they’re clearly my creations, but also…
Baston’s social skills were awful. And I mean this in an objective way: in a percentile system his social skills all started in the 20-30 range, unmodified for difficulty (so on an ‘average’ task he’s still not all that likely to do well). This was more or less expcted: this was a game with rather low odds of success where you might play a rat catcher, and social skills were not a strong point for a dwarven hunter.
But his observed ability to win over and influence people was quite the opposite. I don’t think he failed a social roll for at least the first quarter of the campaign.
This is an interesting quirk of RPGs. We have both the empirical statement that Baston was not very likely to succeed, but also the observed history where he was quite good. If we only worked backwards from observed outcomes we’d guess Baston’s social skills were much stronger. If we only worked forwards from his character sheet we’d never expect him to succeed as Lord Scurlock.
Looked at another way: if we say Russel Wilson has a 51% completion rate on deep balls we’re mostly saying how he performed in the past (2015 in this case) from which we can guess on the future. Sure, outside of the yips we’d expect Russ to keep throwing a great deep ball, but we also wouldn’t treat 51.7% as the odds for every future long ball. Any given statistic is an empirical measurement of past performance, not a guarantee of future odds.
RPG character sheets on the other hand are guarantees of future odds. When we assign a character a high or low score in games that involve chance (which is most RPGs) we’re saying exactly what to expect in the future.
But then, for many games and many stats outside of combat, we make a fairly small sample size. Sure, the odds are low, but with only a handful of rolls the observed result may not be all that similar. So we end up knowing both that Baston is not very good at social interactions and that he was able to win over the nobles of Praag.
In the ditch digger’s first session his friend, the necromancer hedge wizard, needed some bones to perform a spell. Coming at this from a mostly-D&D background I said “oh yeah, sure, let me dig you up some bones.” This seemed like hitting a locked door and being a rogue: my character sheet said this was my moment.
The GM just nodded and said “what were your beliefs again?”
In that moment it clicked for me. I, the player, had no compunction about digging up fictional bones to help a friend. The ditch digger, on the other hand, had dug graves as a prisoner of war and had a belief about respecting the dead. Of course he wouldn’t dig up bones just so some hedge wizard could work a spell.
This character I created had taken on a life of their own within a few hours. There was no going back.
At some point during the game someone jokingly asked if Hobbits were anarchists. That ended up being Hob’s hook: he doesn’t care for the great doings of wizards and kings, he cares for the quiet folk trying to live among those that would rather frame their battles as cosmic light and dark. He’s a mix of Tolkien’s own views and The Last Ringbearer.
Of course this is Tolkien and a roleplaying game, so for all of his beliefs Hob has accumulated considerable wealth, holds land (which we describe as a community farm, but the game represents as a money fountain), and has been known to spend time in Thranduil King’s halls singing with the elves.
He did kill one of the great spiders of Mirkwood, though.
All of these characters are clearly me, but also clearly not me. I created a thing, but it took on a life of its own.
This may be one of the most compelling parts of RPGs. No matter if it’s through unexpected dice rolls or character beliefs or simply endurance and change over time RPG characters become in some sense beyond their creators while being entirely created.
There’s a wonderful feeling there, a feeling of an idea that has taken on its own life. Tolkien seems to have felt that way about Middle Earth:
They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially, even apart from the necessities of life, since the mind would wing to the other pole and spread itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.
Charlotte Brontë did as well:
At the end of 1839, Brontë said goodbye to her fantasy world in a manuscript called Farewell to Angria. More and more, she was finding that she preferred to escape to her imagined worlds over remaining in reality – and she feared that she was going mad.
The interplay of system and player in RPGs can create a bit of that same dynamic (hopefully without literally sucking anyone in). RPG characters are clearly and unambiguously created, but they are defined in motion. Any initial creation is incomplete as a character doesn’t fully exist until it’s played at which point the creation is continued beyond the initial design.
This can be mirrored in the GM’s experience, at least when the GM abides by rules. In the same way a player character’s skills may turn out to be different than those they have written down, or they may make choices different than their creator, and NPC can do the same, though often the GM’s scope seems to lessen the effect. When your character is the entirety of your creation the effect of it diverging seems much larger. Most of the time in most games the GM’s overall vision and direction for the world isn’t challenged by the outcomes of dice roles or the constraints of their creations’ drives. Systems that drive the GM to play out the world, like in Stars Without Number, push the GM towards the same life of their creation.
Telling you about my characters is telling you about myself, but also about the dynamic created when a game system put my creation into motion.
And also maybe it wasn’t quite as boring as I thought.
At this point the combined design output of that gaming group includes Dungeon World, Undying, and Blades In The Dark, so maybe I was right to be a bit nervous. ↩
That group ended up including all of the best men at my wedding who weren’t blood relatives, so I guess the second theme of this post is you never know when some random game is going to introduce you to your best friends. ↩