Monday, March 26, 2012

Writing/Gaming - Roles!

So somewhere on the internet right now, a lot of people are very very upset about the loss of "roles" as a component to the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Oh right....yeah...disclaimer time....

DISCLAIMER! This post is going to start off a little nerdy, but I promise you, it'll get back on track shortly, just ride the dork-wave back to shore. 

Now in the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there are these things called "roles", which were card-based pieces of organizational material that helped players figure out what their characters could and couldn't do. (Yes, gamers, I'm way simplifying that for the reading audience, but today's post isn't ALL about gaming.)

And that is a terrible idea.

Your Character Is Not A Note Card
Let's try an experiment. Go get your favorite book and go get a note card. If you really want to, go get the HUGE note card that your grandmother used to keep track of what pies she had to make for which social event, you know, those big huge ones that are practically half a page unto themselves.

Now, label the note card with the name of the book's protagonist, or your favorite character or the antagonist or whatever - just write down a character's name. And then all over that note card, I want you to write down all the relevant NOT-BIOGRAPHICAL facts about the character. This isn't a space for a history of their life, this is where you can write down a list of their attributes and qualities, write down their skills and what makes them awesome, write down any relevant story actions (like "saved a cat out of a tree" or "totally defeated the bad guy in Book 2").

It doesn't have to be pretty, it just has to be a list. Here, I'll do one too with the first thing I grab off the shelf -- The Complete Third Season of Night Court (what, you guys don't have DVDs on a shelf in your office?) And from that cast of characters (which I own strictly for research purposes, I swear), let's look at Harry Anderson's character of Judge Harry Stone.

Judge Harry Stone
He's a Judge
Likes magic
Only child, broken family
Unlucky in love

That list has left my indie-gaming-senses tingling, because from that list (which I know is totally incomplete), I can generate a lot of Aspects (FATE), points (GUMSHOE) and verbs (Technoir).

But by no means did that list of seven lines sum up the character that is Harry Stone. And at no time should anyone think that a well-defined character can be completed summarized by half a note card. Yes, sure, we can do our best to find the right words that cover the most real estate of who the character is and what they stand for, but at some point, we cross a threshold of who they are and what they do.

You Are Not Your Khaki Pants
One of my great peeves in writing and gaming is that people have characters and define them by what they do. "Oh, he's a wizard, so he's some sort of Gandalf clone with a great sagely beard and staff." or "He's a detective, so he has to be a boozy, plodding womanizer."

This is where roles are more harm than good.

There's nothing wrong in summing up what a character CAN do in a few words or sentences - it's nice and helps other characters know how best to coordinate and collaborate. But there is a difference between "can" and "only".

If you've got a character with one particular skill, let's say they're the best chef in the county, are you only going to put them in situations where cooking is what gives them an edge? How many times are you going to imperil them with a mega-dangerous chili cook-off?

Just because a character has a go-to skill, it doesn't mean they have ONLY that skill. Come back a minute to the best chef in the county. Sure, they make a mean lunch, but cooking also means they know how to boil water, work a knife and prepare lots of different dishes. "Cooking" is a broad term for a whole suite of skills.

So too must the role of the character be bigger than their best or strongest skill and attribute. It's that fixed thinking that they're all one-trick ponies that developed the great cliches and tropes of our time:

Barbarians are stupid, fur-wearing, berserker thugs.
Blondes are stupid.
Women are secondary citizens, good only for birthing babies
Librarians are dotty old ladies.
No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.
Clerics are just walking first aid kits.
All detectives need to have a drinking problem
Brown-skinned people are property and inferior.
Every cop is either on the take, or they're the only good cop in a world gone bad.
Wearing a hoodie makes you a criminal.
To work in a cafeteria, you must have at least three moles with hair on them.
Bad guys will always tell you their plan just before leaving you cornered in an easily-escaped trap

When crafting a character, it is paramount that you get away from these thoughts and craft a character that exists OUTSIDE of these structures, not in defiance of them (because a defiance-built character is just a one-trick pony in the opposite direction).

So What Is My Role?
Gamers, your role is to participate at the table. Gamers, your character's role is to make the game enjoyable for the people to your left and right.

Writers, your role is to produce the best story possible and practice your craft to the best of your ability.

That's it. No pigeon-holing. No limitations. No restrictions based on personality, preference, or philosophy.

Gamers: Don't let your characters be pigeon-holed by anyone, anything or any arbitrary or capricious sentiment. Note: This is NOT permission to act bat-squeak insane all the time, but this is a permission slip and big thumbs-up to acting how the character would, based on philosophy, desires and interests.

Writers: Don't let the characters lapse from your creations into the commonplace templates of your literary forebears. Let them stand out, in their own ways, as you intended.

And with that definition of 'role' in use, that can never be taken out of a game. (Just like it never should have been adjudicated in the first place.)

Happy writing.