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Angry Rants: Discovery vs. Definition

You might know that I’ve recently started one new D&D 5E game and restarted another. And that second group is still fairly new. We restarted after only a couple of sessions. So, basically, I’ve got two fresh, brand new campaigns going with two groups of people of varying levels of RPG experience who are mostly strangers to me. It’s been an interesting experience. I’m no stranger to running games for inexperienced players and I’m no stranger to running games for groups of strangers. But it’s been a while since I had this many strangers and newbies all at once. I had to lead one group completely through character generation. Usually, that’s not something I want to get involved in. If I wanted to be involved in character, I’d be a player. But I’m too smart and clever and creative and witty and sexy to be a player.


And I noticed something pretty odd about character generation. At first I thought it was unique to 5E and the Inspiration/Personality system. But then I realized it was also a problem in 3E and Pathfinder. The Personality system simply expanded the problem to a completely different aspect of character generation. Or rather, it codified the expansion of the problem. Because, honestly, the problem is something GMs have been forcing on their players since time immemorial. And by immemorial, I mean probably since AD&D 2E. Not so much before. And look at me dancing around the problem, teasing you. Well, hold on. I’ve got at least one more paragraph of dancing and teasing in me. Dancey teasey.

There’s this phrase. It goes “no plot survives contact with the players.” Usually, it’s screamed at me as part of an argument that goes “planning anything for your game is the worst thing you can ever do and the only game prep should be to tear out a blank piece of paper from your notebook and bring it to the game.” But if you get past that excessive overstatement bulls$&%, there’s some wisdom there. That wisdom actually comes from Helmuth von Moltke, a Prussian general and chief strategist who helped bring about Germany’s unification in 1871. But he wasn’t talking about role-playing games. He was talking about war. “No plan,” said von Moltke, “ever survives first contact with the enemy.” And in that, he was actually translating something Napoleon was famous for saying about “never having a plan of operations.”

His point was that, once a battle started, there were so many variables — so many things you couldn’t predict — that you couldn’t possibly plan for every eventuality. Instead, whatever your original plan was, you had to adapt to changing circumstances. Note that he wasn’t saying “have no plan.” He was saying that strategy is constant adaptation of the plan to changing circumstances.

Now, while I don’t want to compare role-playing games to actual warfare because the scope, the scale, and the stakes are VERY different, they are similar in that they are completely unpredictable and you have to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. You’ve got a GM and five players with their own free wills, God bless ‘em, all of whom also have their own particular ideas about what makes a game fun. And you’ve also got dice injecting randomness into the whole big mess. And you’re also operating on two different levels. In the game, the characters make choices based on their motives and goals. And outside of the game, the players make decisions based on what they think will be fun or interesting or help them win or whatever the hell happens inside the players’ brain that causes them to make the bats$&% insane decisions they sometimes make.

So, when we say “no game survives contact with the players,” we’re accepting the fact that a GM has to be able to adapt to all sorts of changing circumstances driven by free-willed people, random dice, and things just not working as expected.

Isn’t it kind of odd how much forward work we ask players to put into their characters? First and foremost, let’s talk about this whole personality mechanic that 5E has. Choose five different personality traits in four different broad categories. And those traits define your character. Play in accordance with them, get a bonus. Ignore them to your peril. The more I think about Inspiration and Personality in 5E, the more problems I see. I’ve already written about how forgettable and nonsensical it is, but I ultimately concluded it was basically a usable system with some fixes. And the whole thing was very obviously tacked on and vestigial to begin with. But there’s another something else. Two something elses.

The first something else is that it asks the players to put a lot of forward work into their character’s personality. Decide who your character is and how you are going to play them. And commit to it, dammit. Because there’s an extra mechanical bonus riding on this. But is it really wise to ask for that level of commitment in the vacuum of character generation?

See, that whole “no plan survives contact” thing is often true of players. I’ve seen it happen and experienced it firsthand. The character you PLAN to play tends to morph a little bit (or sometimes a lot) through the first few game sessions. Group dynamics have an impact. Interactions with other players have an impact. You might discover your character is more wry and sarcastic than you intended. Or more outspoken than you thought. Or you might discover than your leaning toward pacifism doesn’t work well in the game or with the group you’re playing with. And this is as it should be. In fact, it’s essential. Role-playing is a cooperative endeavor. And that means it is one long string of compromises.

The moment you make someone write down their personality traits and promise them a bonus for it, you are either stating or strongly implying that the player has to make a commitment. And no matter what you say about how willing GMs should be to allow changes to those personality traits, you’re still implying that they should be set in stone. “You chose this character,” you’re tacitly saying, “now play it or lose out on bonuses for good role-playing.”

In point of fact, choosing a personality and punishing people for deviating from it is the exact opposite of good role-playing. It’s bad role-playing. It’s inhuman. People are not nearly that consistent. People have failings. They make mistakes. They act on weird impulses sometimes. Sometimes, they can’t explain why they did something. People adapt to different situations. They change. In fact, people are strongly affected by their interactions with others. As groups work together, they tend to become more similar. They moderate each other. Adaptation and change, especially in social situations, is a known facet of the human brain. It’s how we grow.

And it goes beyond that. Many GMs demand backstories and motivations and personal goals and quests before the first session. And, again, all of that gets written down. It gets set in stone. But here’s something I’ve also seen. I’ve seen players come into the game and a particular plot thread or legend or idea that comes up in session two really resonates with that player. So much so that it becomes more interesting than their personal goals. And they want to be tied into that. And I’ve seen players discover that background elements they’ve written just don’t work out. Or they’re boring. Or whatever.

And, honestly, I think by asking too much upfront work, we’re losing out on an opportunity. We’re losing out on the opportunity to discover a character by demanding that we define a character and then rewarding zero deviation from that definition. In fact, this is an important aspect of storytelling. We know very little about the characters in a story at the start. The characters emerge gradually. We build an understanding of them by seeing what they do and how they interact. And, over time, they “come to life.”

That happens in RPGs too. And I don’t just mean that it happens for the rest of the players as they discover YOUR character. It happens for YOU with YOUR character. As you start to portray the character, you discover more about the character. As the game presents choices and questions, your actions and your answers help you understand your character. And then there comes that moment when your character suddenly “takes on a life of their own.” That’s a great moment. But, for MOST people (I’m not saying ALL so chill the f$&% out, but I will assert MOST) for most people, that moment relies on malleability and adaptability. That moment relies on taking time to find the character, to find their voice. Good role-players speak in exactly those terms. “I need to find my character.” “I need to get comfortable in my character’s skin.”

And so, here’s my radical idea. Here’s my crazy plan. This is what I’m doing. I started the games (both of them) with a very simple premise. This is basically what I told them:

You’ve come to a new city for some reason. You need to make ends meet. There’s a guild of adventurers offering work. Take on a few jobs, get to know the game and the world and the other characters and then things can grow from there. If you have a background or a plan or a goal in mind, I don’t want to know. Don’t write it down. Just keep it in your head. I’ll ask you about it in a few sessions. Also, leave all your personality things blank. You can have ideas in mind. But I’ll come back in a few sessions and ask you to fill them in. For that matter, don’t even fill in your alignment yet.

The people who want to have a firm plan are going to do that anyway. They will come up with something. And they will live by it. Good for them. But the rest now have permission to settle in for a few sessions before they have to make heavy decisions. And even those with a plan have the option to adapt. And I’ll also be able to say “well, you claim you have this trait, but you haven’t been playing it. How about this instead?” And that will make the whole system much more useful.

But I actually find this problem in 5E particularly funny because 5E actually took steps to get rid of the problem in the OTHER place that it traditionally crops up. What do I mean? Cast your mind back to 3E and sideways to Pathfinder. There were a lot of little bits and pieces in 3E that migrated to Pathfinder that not only rewarded mechanical forward planning, but actually made it very difficult to build an effective character without a lot of planning.

Take, for example, the simple idea of feat trees and feat progressions. There were lots of feats that required you to have other feats or certain ability scores or other prerequisites, right? And those were mostly really good feats. Signature type stuff. If you wanted the awesome Whirlwind Attack, for example, you needed a combination of multiple feats and at least one specific ability score. You had to plan out your feat progression if you wanted to get at any of the really cool feats. Likewise, things like multiclassing or taking a prestige class required you to navigate prerequisites or restrictions and to have access to certain abilities at just the right level. The end result was that a lot of serious 3E and Pathfinder players tended to (or still tend to, with Pathfinder) build their character at some high level and then figure out what choices they had to make at each level to get there. You didn’t generate a 1st-level character, you generated a 10th-level character and then grew into it.

Even without those major choices, there were a few smaller choices that were actually kind of situational. My absolute favorite is the ranger’s favored enemy. Depending on the GM, that comes down to either a lottery where you win if you correctly choose an enemy the GM actually plans to use more than once OR submit your choice to the GM and then have the GM veto said choice, then pick an actual useful one instead. It would be so much easier if you could declare your favored enemy as a revelation later in the game. Like, you could hold back the choice until your character said “goblin tracks? I’ve been fighting goblins all my life. I know their ways.” And then, bam, favored enemy chosen.

And 5E did away with all of that brilliantly. Notice how a lot of the biggest decisions you have to make about your character’s class abilities don’t come at first level? They come at second or third level. And most of the decisions have you narrowing in on a specific archetype. And because there are far fewer prerequisites and restrictions, you rarely lock yourself out of a choice. The idea is that the first and second level are kind of “apprentice” levels. You’re a member of the class, but you’re still just mastering the basic skills. You can specialize in a few levels once you’ve decided where to go.

So, I find it kind of funny that, after being specifically designed to allow mechanical growth and discovery, D&D 5E also did its damnedest to put a stop to psychological and social growth and discovery. But you can’t have everything, I guess.

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