This month’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is Life and Death in RPGs (see here for the kickoff article) and shockingly enough in the insanity of my last few weeks, I have some ideas to share…

Let’s start with Life, and then we’ll work on Death in the next post.

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For me, “life” in RPGs is more than deciding who lives and dies in a combat or trying to keep my PCs alive. It’s the roleplaying side of the house that keeps me interested and excited. So I try to define more than what a character can do and delve into why they can do it, when they learned it, and how they learned it or use it.

In the original Moebius Adventures system, we broke character creation into two large chunks – Childhood and Professions. Childhood covered everything up to age 12 or 14. And a character’s childhood might be very different than their choices of Profession. Look at a character like Conan. He was a normal child until he watched his family and village get slaughtered and was then taken as a slave. You think that might have shaped his attitudes, knowledge, and skills a bit?

So I propose that when folks are creating characters that they think about it in those two major buckets. What did the character learn as a child that has stuck with them into adulthood? And what choices might they have made as far as their professions go (or what choices were made for them)? Obviously not all skills you learn as a kid are useful. But many we continue to develop throughout our entire lives.

You could even go so far as to build in a tree of known associates. Who did your character grow up with? Have they kept in contact with any of those folks? Or did they part ways? Was it an amicable departure or one with enmity? Is it someone you might encounter during a game? What happens if a childhood enemy faces you as an adult? How is that different from a random monster encountered in an adventure?

Perhaps your character did or didn’t have a great family life growing up and they simply wanted to get out and explore the world or get away from what they knew before… What events shaped the decisions to learn particular skills? Did your parents teach you to forage and hunt or were you orphaned early on and forced to scrounge for food, learning what you could to stay alive? Did you gain any scars from early practice of weapons skills? Did you witness the death of a family member that you still seek revenge for years later (think Inigo Montoya)?

Not only do you end up with a basic history of your character to go with the skills they have, but you end up with contacts you can leverage in-game and that your GM can use to help tie things together and make them easier to relate to for your character. It works to the benefit of both the player and the GM to develop more backstory to better inform future events.

Yes, I know that D&D only gives you a few skill points here and there. Other games have the same issue. But slot a third or even a half of those skills towards defining your knowledge from childhood and you’ll end up with a better idea of where your character came from.

Next time we’ll talk about Death in a variety of ways. Stay tuned for part 2!

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This article has 14 comments

  1. Da' Vane Reply

    @Fitz: Likewise – I tend to play Warriors, since I like their simple-minded approach combined with their often dashing heroism. Another aspect of escapism is wish-fulfilment, as you hinted at with wanted to control magic, and for me, I find being a hero very empowering and enjoyable. I’m the sort of person who would play Conan or Red Sonja… or Sturm Brightblade. Being a hero and able to make a difference in the world – now THAT’S escapism!

    I know from my personal perspectives that a lot of the “deeper roleplaying potential” is fun, but only if it aligns with these simpler goals. It’s very rare that the deeper aspects are specifically chosen unless they are made fantastical. Why just have a friend, when you can have a friend that is fantastically cool?
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – Very true. And who wouldn’t want to have Conan or Red Sonja as a friend. :)

  2. Da' Vane Reply

    @Fitz: If Thulsa Doom skipped Conan’s village, I imagine nobody would want to play Conan so much. It’s the critical events that shifts things from mundane to fantastical.

    As you say – you simulate life on a regular basis, so why would you want to play it in a game? This is exactly my point. Yet, would you be more interested to know that you can be a Ghost Hunter, a Secret Agent, a Super Villain, or an Inventor in the Sims? How about becoming a Vampire, or a Ghost, or having a Robot or Mummy in your family? That you could go on to have a string of love affairs, become a Master Thief and steal from the homes of others, or become a major celebrity?

    This is just the appeal of one sim – you get to control a whole family of them, a whole town of them. The emergent gameplay of the Sims is pretty much as close to true roleplaying as you’ll likely get in a video game. It’s just the fact that it is about modern life – something we all have and pretty much all take for granted, so it doesn’t seem all that appealing.

    Think for a moment – what about all those gamers who play while in the armed forces while serving in warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan. What games do they play? I’m pretty sure that they are less likely to play games revolving around modern warfare, simply because this is something they already have experience with on a daily basis, even though many others not in those circumstances probably would have played games set in just a genre because of how different it is to their normal life.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – Good points on all fronts. We want to escape from our everyday. I prefer playing wizards of thieves because I want to experience what it would be like to control magical forces (and because our world lacks magic some days) and because I like being mischievous, unpredictable, and dare I say it – “naughty” – because I’m none of those things in my real life.

      I totally agree that escapism is a good thing. We all need our release valves.

  3. Da' Vane Reply

    @Fitz: Well, I figure this is going to come up a lot – I may have to start writing a blog post about all this stuff, since I talk on so many forums about the same thing, I should really start bringing this stuff all together at some point…

    Anyhow, the escapism issue is a very big factor in why people play games, and it is pretty much summed up in the main reason many people give for their aversion to The Sims franchise: They don’t see the point in playing a game about doing mundane things in life, like going to the toilet, when they have a toilet in real life.

    This is understandable, and the popularity of the franchise increases the more fantastical that it gets. It’s more interesting making friends with a rock star than just making friends with anybody. It’s more interesting being married to the Emperor of Evil than to just anybody. When you focus on the mundane – it’s mundane and not important, but when you focus on the fantastic, it becomes fun and enjoyable.

    To this end, the “deeper roleplaying aspects” are often considered to be mundane things like marriage, relationships, children, and such, but are actually more about the fantastical elements of those things when we thinks about wanting to do them.

    You mention Conan being taken as a slave as a child – this is not a mundane childhood, it is a fantastical childhood. A mundane childhood is being the middle child of a farmhand in the southern empire. A childhood where nothing much happens, except he grows up dreaming of being a hero, get’s bored and sets out to become a hero. A mundane child who’s parents are nobody in particular – would you still want to roleplaying visiting your folks for sunday dinner on their goat farm? Why not visit your real parents for sunday dinner?

    BTW, I find it somewhat amusing whenever the term Roleplaying Game is used in the video games industry. It has a very different meaning there, than it does to the Roleplaying Games industry and elsewhere. In general, Roleplaying Game revers to a type of game play, which basically means there is character advancement – it has little or no bearing on whether there is any actual roleplaying in the game.

    This is largely because using the term as defined by the Roleplaying Games industry, it would correctly apply to any game in which you play a character as part of a story. This means that the majority of games would technically be called RPGs, just by virtue of having a script or a story. This means Doom, Mario, and Grand Theft Auto are all technically RPGs too by this definition.

    This is why CRPGs focus on XP-farming and loot-gathering – these are the two primary means of character improvement, and character improvement is the gameplay definition of RPGs within the video games industry.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – I would love to read one or more articles from you on this topic. Obviously you have a unique perspective and I think it would spawn some thought-provoking discussions among gamers of all types.

      I never understood the fascination with the Sims, whereas I was hooked early on games like SimCity and Civilization because they dealt with broader concepts than watching people go about their simulated lives. I simulate life on a regular basis. :)

      Conan did have a mundane childhood (growing up in a village, learning to be a valuable part of society, etc.) until that critical event when his village and family were slaughtered and he was taken as a slave. Who knows what would have happened if Thulsa Doom had skipped his village?

  4. Da' Vane Reply

    Interesting ideas, Fitz. I just wanted to point out that Pathfinder RPG actually has Character Traits which are a series of mini-feats which can be used to determine a character’s background, while providing a bonus to the character – equivalent to half a feat. These are a great way to define the background of the character as you suggest, but also help integrate them with some mechanics, without detracting from resources such as Skill Points. The Pathfinder RPG Adventure Paths use them a lot to provide hooks for getting characters involved into the various adventure paths.

    Just wanted to comment on the influence of CRPGs on RPGS for a moment as well. The “deeper roleplaying aspects” are often overlooked because in many ways, these opportunities are already in existence in our own lives. For many players, especially those for whom escapism is important, this makes them of lesser priority than the other features which are not commonly part of our lives, such as the killing and looting. After all, if you want to socialise with your friends, you will get more satisfaction doing this in person in real life than you will having your character do it while roleplaying. As such, it is less likely to be seen as a priority during roleplaying itself, but rather more of a coincidental thing.

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – You bring up some great points, as per usual. :)

      The last campaign I played in was a Pathfinder adventure path (Second Darkness) and I had forgotten about the Character Traits idea. That does achieve a similar effect, while also binding the PCs together in some way before the adventure ever begins. I think this is a good thing. Thanks for reminding me about these.

      And I am well aware of the escapist nature of games overall. I live in the real world (with a family, kids, job, house, cars, etc. to keep track of) and typically use computer games and fiction to “escape” the everyday insanity when I get a chance to do so. My concern is that with a world full of online CRPGs like WoW, that achieves the same social gaming goals without the deeper roleplaying aspects. You can hack/slash, spend time with friends, and disappear for a while whenever you feel the need. On the flip side, I approach tabletop RPGs as more of a chance to become someone else for a while – probably more like an actor on stage than playing a character in a CRPG.

      It’s not for everybody. And YMMV.

      On the plus side, I have to admit that the convergence of CRPG concepts into tabletop RPGs has the benefit of bringing new people to our hobby. I’m just concerned that it’s watering down the story aspects and replacing them with simply becoming an avatar in a social way where you can kill monsters, take treasure, and save the girl. I’m old fashioned and prefer more complex stories, personalities, and goals in my worlds I guess. :)

      Thanks for the thought provoking comments!

  5. Johnn Reply

    btw, I spotted a code issue in your lefthand sidebar under the RSS box. It’s currently dispalying “”); //]]>–>”

    • Fitz

      @Johnn – Thanks for the spotted weirdness with XML code showing through the theme. Not sure what’s up there. It looks fine on Chrome but appeared on Firefox. I’ve removed it (it was something I commented out in case I needed it later, but I don’t) and now it looks fine I think. :)

  6. Fitz Reply

    @Runeslinger – It’s funny. I have a running debate with a friend of mine about the influence of CRPGs on RPGs and how it’s all about killing things for XP and collecting loot. With that approach it’s less about the character and more about it being an avatar for the player – so you miss out on the deeper roleplaying aspects of RPGs… But yeah, like all of us, a character should be more than the sum of the #s of the character sheet. :)

  7. Runeslinger Reply

    Very nice~
    I like the way you clarify the idea of not just having a background from which to build, but defining it in terms of events and perceptions carried forward from one stage of life to the next~

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