I am My Character, and He is Mine

There was an AD&D campaign that we started way back in the neolithic age.  This was the version 1.0 AD&D era.  Our Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals still looked good, the dungeon master’s screen was a new and exciting item, and strange philosophies, like the cult of THAC0, were still years in the future.

I still have these three books

The older brother of a friend of mine was going to run it.  He was one of those very smart and very creative types… and a college boy at a time when we were all in the pre-driving stage of high school… who could generate a campaign out of thin air that would get you excited to play.

So we sat around the living room of his parent’s place, rolling up characters and arguing as to whether characters from other campaigns could be brought in.  Arguments broke out over some powerful weapon that had no back story and how in the hell Spit the Spellbinder gained so many levels and whether or not that guy who always had to play a female role would be allowed to bring his character “Bodacious Ta-tas” along or would have to roll up something new that actually fit in a goddam fantasy setting outside of his wet dreams.

The usual stuff.   Many a campaign has died a quick death after a session like this.

In the midst of all of this I quietly rolled up, named, and equipped a ranger.  It wasn’t a bad class back then.  And, of course, I was under the influence of Tolkien at the time, and we know what his rangers are like.

Surprisingly, once a rule lawyering argument wrapped up about the relationship between experience and gold (The rules, as I recall, assumed that gold came with experience and getting experience should always be accompanied by a specific gold payout. Our DM didn’t hold with that, declaring that each was its own reward, but then insisted on holding to the rather steep fees required by guilds to level up a character.  It was a more complicated time.), the party actually started to come together.  Spit was in, Bodacious was out, and we actually looked like we might get past this first hurdle.

When the call came for my character sheet, I handed it over.  The DM glanced at it, tossed it back at me, and said, “No rangers.”  Being the only person in the room at this point who had not engaged in a heated discussion with the DM, I began to wonder if an argument was a requirement to join in.  I asked why not and the DM said he did not like rangers.

Had I been a more experience player at this time… or at least not a surly teen… I might have accepted that for the flashing red light warning that it was, crossed out ranger, wrote in fighter, and just got on with things.

But, dammit, I wanted to play a ranger.  A brief argument started in which it was declared, among other things, that rangers do not go under ground so he couldn’t come along in any dungeon or some such.  But the weight of the room was on my side.  Everybody else was ready to go and a lot of people were annoyed by the demands of the DM to that point, so I had support for my cause.  We just wanted to get on with it.

So with a huff, my ranger was allowed on the list with all the grace of Darth Vader accepting the failure of a subordinate.  My ranger would be made to suffer.

Not that it really mattered.  It was a diverse group that had not played together as a whole before and, as fate would have it, would never sit down together in the same room ever again.  It was the simply the amazing optimism of youth that set us down that path to another failed campaign.  And even if we had managed to get the whole group back together, things were not going well.

The DM made one of the classic blunders of campaign starts.  He put us all in a small town with an inn and expected us to go where he wanted without being totally strong armed into it.  One of the issues with this sort of free form campaign is that many holes come up in the environment, which is the sort of thing that attracts players like moths to a flame.  It is like handing the players a map with a town, a castle, a dungeon, and a blank area on it.  We will go to the blank area, thinking that the DM is hiding something cool there, never considering it is blank because the DM didn’t finish that bit.

We managed, as a group, to make it to the inn.  But we never left.   Things fell apart in all the expected ways.  For example, our DM was worked up about having a ranger in the party, but didn’t care that an elf and a dwarf were on the list and failed to take into account that Mr. Bodacious, who was now playing the elf (of course), would role play dwarf/elf enmity for all it was worth just because he was in a pissy mood at that point.

And part of the reason that things fell apart was that the DM decided to take over my character.  Not literally.  But every time my ranger did anything he would roll some dice behind his screen… rolling unseen dice is a DM method of validating whatever the hell he wants to do… and would call out what actually happened, as opposed to what I was trying to do.

Essentially, my ranger became Stomper from Bored of the Rings If he grabbed his mug of mead, he would knock it into somebody’s lap.  If he managed to pick it up, he would spill it on himself.  If he stood up, he would knock over his chair… or the table… or both.  Other patrons would ignore him or laugh at him.

The DM decided to make a very amusing tale for himself by overriding stats and skills and turning my character into a bumbling oaf.

Most of the details from that day are pretty blurry some 30+ years later.  I do not recall how the game broke up, just that we never resumed.  I got in a fight with my friend a couple months later that lead to a parting of the ways.  I never saw the older brother DM again.  Spit never played again that I know of, joined the Army after high school, and ended up on a farm in Montana. (Thanks Facebook.)  Bodacious fled the valley for San Francisco after graduation, while another player’s family moved to Minnesota shortly thereafter.

It was a minor moment in my life, a few hours were spent together in a room with this group, after which we were scattered to the winds.  Literally.  I think of the group, I am the only one who still lives in Silicon Valley.

Yet to this day, I remember this session.  It was one of dozens of games played during high school, most of which have been lost to the mists of time.

I remember this session because it represents something I really do not like in games, which is the game putting words in my character’s mouth or otherwise dictating what they do or say.

It was a defining moment in gaming for me, and forever has it dominated my destiny.

Which leads me back to MMOs.  And quests.  And that sort of thing.

I hate it when games start to dictate how my character behaves, when they try to impose a personality apart from my own upon the game.  I will go along with the flow of your story or quest chain, but I will do it on my own terms.  That for me is the essence, the “role playing” part of a “role playing game.”  If I cannot have at least that, my connection with my character becomes weak.  And it is often that connection that keeps my playing.

Beyond my moaning about bad blaster based combat in the game, this was the other big failing for me in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I found their fourth pillar, their dialog wheel, quite alienating.  About half the time I wanted a “none of the above” choice for my response.

I much prefer being left to my own devices.  And I think this gets reflected in the MMOs I choose.  Rift, which presents quests very much in the WoW model, offers up a take it or leave it choice.  Accept the mission for whatever reason or don’t, it is up to you.

And in EVE Online… well… nobody even pretends to understand your motivation.  You do what you will in the universe for what ever reasons you find.  In fact, finding reasons to do things is part of the trick of playing EVE.

Even Lord of the Rings Online, which ostensibly  is a very story driven game, doesn’t spend much time ascribing motivations to your character.

Meanwhile, it used to annoy me that once in a while EverQuest II would attempt to put more than bare minimum dialog in the mouth of my character.  SOE seemed to start off with dialog based question interactions as a goal, but then quickly reverted to basic “I’ll take your quest” or “Screw off, I’m busy” options most of the time.

But, as always, that may be just me.

How about you?  How much do you want a game to dictate your characters motivations and actions?

15 thoughts on “I am My Character, and He is Mine

  1. Tesh

    I’d prefer it didn’t dictate things. I’m a fan of more open ended games. I love Minecraft, for example.

    I’d love to see MMOs be a bit looser. One example I keep thinking of is letting me take my Tauren Druid and officially renounce the Horde and go join the Cenarion Circle or something. Another favorite example is making quests that just ask fro some end goal to be achieved, but each class could approach it differently, sort of like the problem solving in the Quest for Glory games. There, a Thief might sneak in and steal a desired object, a Paladin might talk his way into possession, a Fighter might just kill everything in the way and take it, and a Mage might use a Levitate spell to float the doodad out the window.

    These, of course, mean developers must be more creative and create broader toolsets instead of fifteen flavors of hammer. That gets expensive and time consuming. I think it’s worth it, but I’m pretty sure the beancounters disagree.


  2. scotth

    I played a panda through the starting area, to see what it was like (it was cool). Followed the quest line to join the horde, where the rest of my characters are, and met Garrosh Hellscream. Now I want to role play leaving the horde, maybe even joining the alliance. Garrosh is a tool.


  3. Aufero

    Classic D&D session – as I recall, the group I gamed with in my teens followed a similar time breakdown. (50% arguing about rules and characters, 30% pelting each other with things and eating junk food, 20% spent actually playing the game.)

    And to this day, I hate, hate, hate having games tell me how my character will react. If I never see another cutscene in which my character does something stupid and completely out of character it will be too soon. (I’ve spent the last ten hours sneaking around avoiding trouble and knocking people unconscious before they could get a single word off, why am I standing in the middle of a brightly lit room listening politely to the bad guy’s boring exposition of his dumbass plot while his henchmen sneak up behind me?)


  4. bhagpuss

    Brilliantly expressed and I completely agree.

    As I commented elsewhere, the best implementation I’ve seen of developer-written story is in The Secret World, where the NPCs do all the talking and do it well while my character listens in enigmatic silence, occasionally raising an eyebrow or briefly lifting a hand as if to protest before thinking better of it. If we have to have narrative, and I remain to be convinced that we do, this is the way to do it.

    In all other MMOs I have to tune out the responses assigned to my character, which is easier to do when they aren’t spoken aloud. The only place I’ve had to listen to my character speak recently is GW2, but the Personal Story there is largely avoidable, thank heavens.

    Most of the time I don’t know what my character is thinking. None of my characters are “me” and some of them want to do things that I don’t. Mostly I wait to see what they do, then go along for the ride. If I don’t know what they’re plans are you can bet no game designer does!

    As for AD&D, those were my rule books and I still have them too. I was out of university by the time I first played and I only ever played with a single group, every Sunday for about four years. We had plenty of drama in and out of game just the same. And my first character was a ranger and I still play versions of him (although he changed gender somewhere along the way) in Everquest and Rift.


  5. Kevin Brill (@kevinbrill)

    I was completely in that “don’t tell me what to do” mode the other evening when questing in the Valley of the Four Winds. Li Li told me to track down all sorts of animal blood, and instead of killing the nice looking stags and their families, I hunted the mean looking wolves instead.

    Did it take longer? Yes. Was it what the quest designer intended? Probably not, since the tooltips indicated that the deer dropped the blood as well. Did it make me feel more inline with what I think my dwarf priest would do? Yep.

    Sometime I long for the days of Ultima, where I could type in all sorts of gibberish to NPC, and they would politely tell me they didn’t understand what the heck that I was talking about. But at least I *could* say it.


  6. Shiolle

    I love to watch a story unfold in an MMORPG, but I prefer for my character to remain on the sidelines. It’s too immersion-breaking for me to be praised for something I know thousands of player have already done.

    As to the freedom of choice in the dialogues, I came to treat them more like choices the character could have come up with given the setting and personality laid out by developers. In this sense dialogue options are more like a powerful tool to explore the possibilities of a story rather that the representation of my thoughts on how that character would act.

    I don’t think computer games quests or any developer-made story could even begin to approach the freedom of choice tabletop RPGs enjoy. It’s one of the limitations of the medium I acknowledge; it doesn’t, in my opinion, diminish what a game’s story could be like a lack of any choice whatsoever doesn’t diminish the value of a book.


  7. Knug

    I find it kinda ironic that in EVE, where the only role play provided is 100% out of your brain, that RP is looked down on by most folks.

    And as for those 3 books, yep, still got’em.

    The best times as DM (DUNGEON master, not ‘game master’ thank you) was when your players did walk off the chart and you had to wing it. The better the back story & history you’d developed for your world, the easier it was to create on the fly.
    I was told a number of times when I mentioned later that they’d wandered off the intended garden path, that they hadn’t noticed a change in their experience. I hope that meant that they found it equally enjoyable.


  8. Shintar

    I agree, but for me this is actually one of the reasons why I love SWTOR, that I can express my character’s attitude in game. It doesn’t matter so much if the words don’t exactly match up with my own ideas; it’s better than always just being the quiet guy who does whatever he’s told. (Of course you can always imagine your own interpretation of the story in your head if the game has a silent protagonist, but the result won’t be reflected in game in any way. It’s like writing a detailed character background for your P&P campaign that never even comes up during play: a bit of a shame.)


  9. tms

    Well, telling you I’m a ‘sandbox’ MMO guy, you should know where I stand. I too, came from the D&D (Original… Advanced came later), I suppose that background predisposes you to hate having people tell you what to do.

    As a matter of fact, bad DM’ing (/salutes Knug), of the nature in which Wilhelm waxes poetic was, what forced my hand to become our group’s DM.


  10. mort drucker

    Your tale is so simliar to so many other gamers. The best game for totally going off the rails in the first ten minutes is Paranoia. What a great game! It was designed to go off the rails and get out of control and I don’t think we ever had a time where we weren’t going completely crazy shooting everything that moves. The games always ended with us shooting each other in a blaze of paranoid delusion. Good times.


  11. Telwyn

    I found myself in the same position, very unexpectedly as I thought I’d prefer heavy-story focussed MMOs. In the end I’d rather talk to NPCs to get story, or read some dialogue between them. Subtle things that I can enjoy or ignore at my choice like the text of the collectibles in Rift.

    I’m no sandbox MMO gamer, but I’m an old-school RPG player and freedom of choice has always been the cornerstone of that for me. It’s funny that I find so much to like in games with dynamic content like Rift and GW2 – maybe because there’s a glimmer of hope for player-led gameplay there.

    Your post reminds me of my first character in DDO, a paladin of the Sovereign Host. There’s a quest in a later zone to invade a temple of that religion, no problem for most players, but I always refused to run it with the guild. I was glad it existed though as it was faithful to the Eberron D&D setting to have it in there – and I could chose to ignore it as there was no forced ‘epic questline’ to follow.


  12. morgs

    Was part of an RP guild way back in WoW called the Kul Tiras Marines.
    We Rp’d a section of Kul Tiras Marines and tried to make it work. But not killing horde all the time or having to support the alliance your really not a part of….makes it hard.

    I like eve….do what you want but know there are consiquences. Ya you can shoot that guy…nothing is stopping you.
    But the police may not like it….and they have bigger guns.


  13. Gripper

    Great article! I remember those books so well – and then I remembered the same things happening…I am not sure if we ever even got to the Inn – it always seemed like we roll the characters then plan a time, that falls apart – 3 people make it to the next a few weeks later and we are at the entrance to the dungeon! Not sure how that ever works…


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