Why Do We Create Our Characters?

So, I was reading Reactions to OD&D: Character Sheets, and I came upon

The counter-argument, of course, is that nothing stops me from making a wizard with his highest abiltiy score in Wisdom. True. But there is a distinct difference between facing a challenge and dealing with a self-imposed handicap. Just as there is a difference between being given a character and seeing what you can make of it and carefully scultping every detail of the character for yourself.

And I think there’s also a tendency to read the word “challenge” and think that I’m merely talking about the gamist side of the game. But I’m also talking about a creative challenge. The act of creation does not always have to begin with a blank slate. In some cases, deliberately eschewing the blank slate will give unexpected and extraordinary results which might never have been achieved if you limit yourself to a tabula rasa.

Which reminds me of something I’ve always wanted to do, but have mostly not managed to make happen. I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere else, so I won’t take credit for the idea, but what I want to do is a fantasy game where we all use minis to make characters. That is, everybody goes to the store, or digs through a website, or whatever, and finds a miniature they like, and buys it. And then makes a character to fit that mini.

The appeal of this, for me, comes from 3 different aspects:

First, there’s simply the novelty of it—that’s not how it’s done. And it may force people to create atypical characters, especially for those who have particularly eccentric tastes, normally. Even barring that, the sheer novelty may shake people up, encouraging them to try something unusual, simply because they’re already thinking in a different way. And, hey, for once everyone’s mini will be a perfect representation of their character.

Second, there’s the creative challenge. Suddenly, the sky’s no longer the limit. First, there’s what you can actually find in minis. Second, there are the constraints that whatever mini you finally settle on provides when creating your character. Not only the obvious challenge of figuring out how to represent the characteristics of the mini within your rule system of choice, but also the possible challenge of falling in love with a cool mini that simply is atypical of the sorts of character you would normally create, forcing you to figure out how to create and play a different sort of character—or, possibly, how to fit this interesting mini into a more-typical-for-you character. This aspect particularly comes into play with restricted character creation options, whether due to classes, or lifepaths, or the prioritizing in ShadowRun.

But both of those are fairly obvious consequences of this method of character creation. The third is the most interesting to me, and I hadn’t quite put my finger to it until i read the quoted bit that started this post. There’s just something different about the feel of a character that you create yourself, whole cloth, and one that is provided for you, in some fashion. Much as it’s different to be handed a character with a low Intelligence, and decide to play a wizard nonetheless, than to specifically choose to handicap your wizard with a low Intelligence, a character that starts with someone else’s visualization is bound to be different from one that starts out in your mind’s eye. For me, at least, it supports the illusion that these people have an existence beyond our games. That they grew up and had a life before they became adventurers, or superheroes, or whatever, and do things between adventures, even if we don’t talk about them, and will continue to live on after we’re done (provided they survive that long).

And I like that notion. The stronger the existence of our characters, the stronger the existence of the whole world. And the fact that these characters might be “imperfect”—that is, that their characteristics and capabilities haven’t been tailored just for my preferences—gives the whole world more verisimilitude.

Now, while I haven’t gotten to create a whole game this way, I’m not just hypothesizing here. I’m extrapolating: I finally got to get a taste of this last summer. I used this process to create my Iron Heroes character, and it had most of the effects I’m citing above. In fact, I actually created 3.5 characters (I never finalized the 4th), because at the initial mini-buying stage I found more than 1 too-cool-to-miss mini, and decided to just get them all and decide later. And made it all the way to the first session of the game before actually deciding which to play. And, had i continued in that game, I’d like to think that I could’ve brought the others in, if my character had died. And given the deadlier nature of Iron Heroes, especially at 1st level, I might well have had the “opportunity.”

The parts I knew about beforehand played out as expected: It shook me out of my rut, and was a creative challenge. Particularly the archer with arrows the size of spears. In fact, I had been at a loss for a character for the game, prior to buying the minis. I normally play non-combat characters, which isn’t really an option in Iron Heroes, so I was having no luck getting inspired to play something appropriate. Until I let the mini do the deciding for me. And then I had all sorts of awesome ideas—I just needed something to kickstart my ideas.

And, in hindsight, these characters definitely had more existence than most of my characters do. And I think it’s in part because of that external representation—something that not only is beyond my internal image, but something that came from somewhere else. I didn’t choose a mini to represent a character I already had; I found a mini, and then “discovered” the character it represented.

And this whole thing—both the general strategy, and my experiences with it—raise in my mind the question of why we create characters the way we do? Is the additional control of most modern character creation systems, with the ability to craft exactly the character we think we want, actually an unqualified boon? Or would our games benefit from “discovering” instead of “creating” characters? Perhaps the truly-random stats of OD&D, or the semi-random lifepaths of Traveller and Cyberpunk 2020, aren’t just artifacts of their times, or primitive design notions, but bring something of value to the table. And complete control over character creation is missing out on something.


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