“Do you like getting right up in a monster’s face and giving it what for? Do you prefer to stand waaaay back and throw fireballs or shoot arrows? Or maybe healing up your comrades is more your style? Let’s discuss how to choose the right personality for your RPG character.”
It was a great honor to participate in FenCon’s “What’s my Role” panel with Chaz Kemp and Rie Sheridan Rose. Special thanks to Sarah Brigdon for successfully wrangling a panel whose passions ran to so many different yet worthy aspects of roleplaying.
Conversations along the lines of “Okay, I’m the frontline fighter. You’re the rogue. But we need a caster. And who is going to play the cleric?” are as old as gaming itself. Yet, the more analytical approach of party composition and conflation of combat role with personality is relatively recent, only making its way into the gaming community in the past 15 years or so (yes, my friends, against the long history of gaming, that qualifies as “relatively” recent).
Fourth-Edition D&D gave us the terms “Controller, Defender, Leader or Striker” and the part breakdown of “The Tank, The Damage, The Healer, The Support, The Control, The Face, The Scout” has become pretty ubiquitous. Sometimes, MMO terminology like DPS even makes its way into table top gaming.
That this is a recent development is the more curious as, over the long line of gaming history, there is clear trend toward less time in combat and more time in other activities/challenges. There are, of course, exceptions. In seeking to emulate online gaming, 4E D&D was very much a throwback — and certain systems, including Traveler and the various Warhammer RPG products, can lend themselves to combat heavy games. But, for most gaming in 2021, it is important to look at PC roles beyond combat. Below, I take a brief look at three alternate lens for this issue.
Functionality: This lens considers a PC’s preferred approach to problem solving. Cyberpunk 2020’s use of “roles,” is a good example of this. A given “role” provides skills, experiences, and abilities reflecting an attitude and approach to the meeting the world on the PC’s terms. To cite a few examples: Yes, solos are “kill it with lead and monofilament katanas” kind of people. But there are fixers who, if they can’t do something or find something, know someone who can. Techies believe if a machine can’t solve your problem, any problem, it’s to sit down and build a better machines. Conversely, nomads feel there is no problem than can’t be solved by inviting along another sibling our cousin. This lens ensures party are well covered for a variety of challenges and settings, not only combat.
Archetypes: This lens considers the internal landscape and emotional constitution of PCs. One of the most obvious examples is the Nature/Demeanor system from White Wolf’s World of Darkness universe. Players chose both a nature (true self) and demeanor (exterior persona) from a large preset list of archetypes (Autocrat, Bon Vivant, Child, Loner, etc.) for their character. These are more than just guides for roleplaying, acting in accordance with one’s nature and demeanor is the main method for regaining Willpower, which is important in World of Darkness. Having diverse natures and demeanors in the party helps ensure that someone is always regaining Willpower. Even in systems where this is not explicitly rewarded through game mechanics, there is a qualitative advantage to party of diverse mental states and emotional constitutions to respond to a variety of situations.
Narrative Dynamics: Roleplaying is collaborative storytelling. So it is little surprise many of the tropes and dynamics that are effective in other forms of storytelling work in roleplaying as well. The right party dynamic, or even dynamic between two or more players within a party, can really bring an adventure to life. The dynamics between characters in other media can serve as inspiration or conversational shorthand for party composition. I’ve seen a party who, six sessions in, realized their Call of Cthulhu campaign was a cosmic horror Scoobie Doo. I’ve seen Shadowrun street samurai who might as well have been Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I’ve seen two Vampires go “Winchester Brothers in reverse,” tracking down hunters in a black van with blacked out windows. I’ve even seen a concept campaign inspired by Sartre’s “No Exit,” with characters designed to hate each other but be unable to escape each other. Nobody wanted to push it beyond three sessions, but those sessions were fascinating and entertaining.
No one of the lenses discussed above is inherently superior. And, yes, even in combat light games, the combat lens still has its place. Most parties will get the best results from using a mix of all of them, and the doing what sounds fun. These lenses are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is to create compelling characters with rich stories that allow them to engage with the world on multiple levels. Whether they gel in combat is not trivial, but is a secondary consideration. As a GM, I would happily taken on trying to design fights for a party that is sub-optimized for combat if it means I have a party full of compelling, three-dimensional personalities that let me create opportunities for rich and meaningful collaborative storytelling.
With so many types of characters to choose from in RPGs, does playing a character that is different from your real self give you empathy for that type of person in Real Life?
In 2015, a study administered the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standard psychological instrument for measuring empathy, to 127 frequent roleplayers. These gamers significantly outperformed a control group.
I suppose it should be little surprise that gaming can correlate to high levels of empathy. That, I think, is part of roleplaying’s appeal for many of us – the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. And, while people have different baselines for empathy, it is a learnable skill that strengthens with use.
Psychology and counseling make extensive use of free form roleplaying. Frequent uses include confronting phobias and managing stress, anxiety, or trauma – with the goal of patients gaining insights or experiencing emotional catharsis. In Relationship Counseling, role reversal is often used to promote exactly those kinds of insights and sympathy – the building of empathy.
Of course, just because roleplaying can build empathy, doesn’t mean it always does. Most gamers have stories about “That one player” or “The GM who delights in torturing their players.” If you’re lucky enough not to, or just want to indulge in some top quality schadenfreude, Google “Worst D&D player ever” (or equivalent), makes some popcorn, and settle in. Or, if you want more curated account of gaming with terrible human beings, check out Al Bruno III’s roman a clef “The Binder of Shame.” (TWs for just about everything).
Multi-classing: Yay or Nay? And Why?
Somewhere between a “provisional yes” and “it depends.”
Personally, I enjoy multi-classing because my character concepts often do not fit neatly into the boxes of class-based which system (which is why I often gravitate to classless systems like FATE, Savage Worlds, or GURPS which are on a point-build or concept-build rather than a class-build.
But there are things to consider before creating a multi-class character. I think the biggest one is to be sure that it’s actually your character concept…rather than that you have two concepts you’re having difficulty choosing between. In my experience, splitting the difference between two competing concepts through multi-classing is an emotionally unsatisfying compromising, giving too little of what attracted me to each class in the first place.
And while this, in itself, is not a reason to say “no,” it is worth remembering that, in many systems, including D&D and Pathfinder, a character who is Level 5 in two things is less capable that a character who is Level 10 in one thing.
But, for all my high-minded “only do it if it feels right,” rhetoric, sometimes multi-classing is a choice that is forced on you. When you’ve got two or three people around the table for a D&D game, it may make sense for someone to be the cleric/rogue.
How important is it to “stay in your lane”? Do you play your character as just a healer? Or do you try to pick the lock with the metal wire you happened to find on the ground?
Honestly? Those are the moments roleplayers live for.
- When the fighters are unconscious on the ground and the wizard is out of spells but manages to land that last blow, knocking the giant unconscious with a staff.
- When the Dex 8 cleric evades an entire castle of guards to find the treasure room.
- When the Barbarian is the only one who remembers the words to the secret chant.
Those are the kind of gaming stories that keep getting told…
In the best case scenario, such moments can serve as catalysts foe new directions of growth and development – enriching the charter, the party, and they player’s experience.
It only becomes a problem when it turns into what my gaming group always called “stepping on someone’s shtick.” Players want time in the limelight for their characters, that’s one of great appeals of roleplaying. Each PC having things they are uniquely good at helps ensure everyone gets the spotlight. So, when the party’s rouge suddenly starts dumping points in diplomacy, which, until then, has been the bard’s shtick, it can create tension and reduce enjoyment unless handled very carefully.