Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Players Align Characters Through Actions

Since I got back into role-playing almost 5 years ago I have never used alignment in a game. It just seems ass-backwards -- writing down a promise to do some abstract things on your sheet, in a vague terminology, and then arguing about whether the specific things you do add up to that vague promise or not. If you're not arguing about your alignment, you're either doing your alignment or ignoring it, either of which is equivalent to what a player does in my games anyway, depending on whether or not they have a clear character concept.

To paraphrase Gygax, "character background is the first three levels" and in the same spirit, alignment is what you do with your character. Player alignment. Not the semi-jokey kind of schemes that lay out how players tend to behave towards each other, the GM and the game structure. One of those appears below.

By now several of these sectors are as mythical as the catoblepas (has anyone ever actually seen a "scenery-chewing thespian" player?) but this will do to illustrate what I am not talking about. I am talking about observations made over the years as to how players, when not constrained by alignment, tend to play their characters. Player-determined alignment is real but, going beyond what I wrote several years ago, it doesn't correspond to any alignment scheme used in D&D or in the most fervid, hair-splitting heartbreaker. It's a characterology all its own, that deserves its own terms, put together in opposing pairs.

Never put a fork in a toaster - PolyvoreImpulsive: The player can't stand boredom and pushes the character to propose reckless plans, start fights, and generally see what they can get away with. Their action will usually account for half the party's failures and half their successes.

Strategic: One kind of leadership role, this player moves very cautiously, often is found physically restraining other characters, and wants time to think things through. Not a rules lawyer, but the most likely to consider the rules as part of the plan.

Exuberant: Another kind of leadership role, the player runs the character as a striding, swaggering bag of charm; not so much reckless as eager to please the crowd with the best move, the best solution. The crowd, by the way, includes the GM.

Quiet: This player may be introverted, unsure, or just enjoys watching the game play out around them. They respond when spoken to, are often asked to run point or guard the rear or cast a spell, but rarely propose anything on their own. There is a lot of middling GMing advice written about trying to draw this player out but I find that acknowledging their existence in small and meaningful ways works best.

Dark: This player, through their character, expects the worst of what's around them, and so feels justified in doing the second-worst. This can take many forms and is not always the stereotypical dark elf assassin, but distrust, avoidance and sneak attack form part of their usual counsel to the rest.

Naive: The player enjoys portraying an overly trusting person, whether a fool or just really kind-hearted, to lighten up the grim, heavy, paranoid world of adventure. They're such a perfect patsy for the usual DM array of sympathy traps that you almost feel bad springing them on such an obvious mark.

Obsessive: What the "thespian" stereotype gets wrong is that real acting is hard, ham acting is self-policing, and usually players who want to play their character to the hilt open up a can of spam based on one obsession, be it food, wealth, combat, sex, religion, or hate. They use it more as a running gag than an excuse for soliloquies. Really, there's enough irony in the water these days that if the room isn't laughing heartily, they'll turn off the shtick real quick.

Eccentric:  Kind of the mirror twin of the obsessive but coming from an opposite place, this character sends out a lot of random signals but there's a difference between playing weirdo and playing impulsive - the impulsive player is trying to accomplish something and sometimes succeeds but the eccentric is just trying to make a style point, like Nerval walking a lobster. Truth be told, though, frame-breaking jokes are so common among everyone that this one's "wacky" in-character pronouncements get mistaken for out-of-character banter half the time. White Wolf did a good job of writing niches for this kind of player into their games.

So with this scheme in mind, there's really no reason to write it on the character sheet, because it's what the player does. But for a GM, rolling a d8 or two to come up with personality elements for an NPC that's easy to play because you have the examples all around you - that's another matter.


  1. Over the years, I have seen a number of RPG types you describe. Much of this seems to be based on a number of types I have noted over the years. I have been an off and on RPGer since the mid ’70s. These days, the mechanics of the game and the group dynamic holds as much fascination as actually playing or GMing. Not all of these types I am listing are negative per se, some are just good people in over their heads. I’m not going to cover those you have already talked about, but here are a few types I have seen as well. I guess it’s more about their motivation to RPG than about the in-game role playing itself.

    There are the folks who play what they know. They are going from a position of strength, which is a good thing, especially for beginning players. There are those, for example, like weapons and add that knowledge to their game play. Their character is an added extension to themselves. They go from the known to the unknown and what they know the best is themselves. These types are generally pretty good players, although a bit obsessive on occasion, but they often fill out to become really good RPGers if they can hang on long enough.

    There those who play opposites. It’s more than a challenge, it’s a compulsion, such as the 12 foot Amazon warrior queen is played by a 5 foot 5 guy who really needs to be outside getting exercise. The unempowered person suddenly has powers or at least is trying to get them, often at the expense of everything else. Playing an opposite is actually a great challenge or playing an alien character and trying to figure out how its mind works & etc. But playing an opposite or an unknown factor is not generally for the beginner.

    The Bored One, you know the type, they just want things to happen because if they are not in play, they just can’t stand it. They think messing up a careful group plan is funny and their head is not into the game or the or role playing. Bored players may not always be their fault. Bad group dynamics, a poor scenario, environmental factors, and the like may play its role. So it just might be more than a short attention span. Many bored ones are peripheral players, fine for a quick and dirty game, but not so good on a campaign.

    I think over the years RPG playing as really mellowed from the GM adversary to the PCs and thing have become more cooperative and synergetic. The idea that the GM is part of the team and uses feedback both ways to the PCs has been around for a while, but it doesn’t always hit its stride early one, especially with people just thrown together. Anyway, I enjoy your posts, they are insightful and I find them rather nostalgic. Consider having a post about the types of GMs out there. I hope to see more of your posts on the fascinating group therapy called RPGs.

  2. Thanks for your observations! Indeed, I see the first two types you mention as being an interesting case unto themselves, being about the relationship between player and character that doesn't necessarily follow into how the character would act in the fantasy world.

    The important thing about the "play what you know" type: best when they provide flavor, when the medieval martial artist describes all kinds of moves to explain their d20 roll, when the esotericist provides plausible incantations as their character casts a spell. The temptation, though, is to question the rules and rulings and strongarm the GM into a mechanical accommodation.

    The against-type character is the butt of much humor and psychological speculation especially when crossing gender lines. When done wrong it can be awkward, even offensive. Judgment is needed, for sure.

    One comment about bored players - when I DM'd in high school, for sure they would try to wreck the game.Nowadays they just tend to retreat into their smartphones.

  3. I've seen way too many thespians. They all need to be kicked from the party and the game group.

  4. "To paraphrase Gygax, "character background is the first three levels" "

    Can you site the source for that quote? I've been looking for it's origins other than "Gary Gygax" said it.