November 11, 2011

Do Character Powers Define Role-Play?

A few weeks ago, the blog Gaming Tonic wrote an article on the subject on the overwhelming choices that exist for certain RPGs, specifically Pathfinder and 4E; though to be honest many of the inherent points made within the article apply to any edition or RPG system. The basic premise of the post is that despite there being a large number of choices, in the end all the choices tend to boil down to a select few optimized builds. It then went on to proclaim that these builds inhibited role-playing since they are always the same build and thus the characters created were all the same and thus were played the same each time.

Even if I took more or less away from the article than was intended, for me it still brought up the question of…do character builds dictate role-playing of the character?

One of the comments to the post hit on several points that mirrored my own on the topic. Here is a sampling of that comment, though I highly recommend people go and read the entire article and its comments themselves for clarity.

“What’s keeping you from making a fighter in 4E and then having him be a joker-ish womanizer? … 4E has no hard rules for how a character thinks and behaves, only what they’re physically capable of doing power-wise. Because of that the sky’s the limit as far as “role-playing” is concerned.

...There’s nothing wrong with having a character in a system where the rules support his or her unique personality, in fact I personally prefer that over 4E’s empty desert where social mechanics should be, but it’s incorrect to assert that 4E has too many rules regarding role-play, when it in fact has hardly any at all. In the case of making a unique character and exploring who they are as an individual, according to what you “enjoy” 4E should actually be up your alley.”

And that is my thought. Characters class and character abilities do NOT define the role-playing of a character. Sure, you can play the “dumb fighter” stereotype if you want, but playing a fighter does not automatically mean you have to be dumb. They are two separate choices made by the player. One choice is what powers the character will have. The second is how the character will be role-played.

As an example, there is no reason why a fighter can not be religious without being a cleric. Some people may claim that in a system like 4E a fighter is precluded from taking the Religion skill (unless he expends a Feat to gain it). However, a character can still be a religious character, devout and knowledgeable of the gods of his world. Sure, the character may not know the intricacies of religious hierarchy or ritual dogma, but he would still know the basics that every other character within the world knows. From that limited character knowledge, a player can easily play a “religious” character.

To take this a step further, it is possible to play a paladin without being a Paladin. A paladin (a way to role-play) is defined by how he treats other people, how devote he is to his god, how his choices are affected by his faith. A Paladin (a class) is defined by his class abilities; lay on hands, special mount, etc. Often the two will mesh together, such as when a player plays his Paladin with all the devoutness of a paladin, but having the two is not required for the purpose of role-play.

For me, a character is not defined by his powers and more defined by his actions. You can play a “trickster” fighter without having to resort to the easy out of playing a wizard with illusion spells. You can play a coward, womanizer, cheat, drunkard, effeminate, cold-hearted, charitable, brusque, etc. None of these are forced upon you by the class you have chosen or the abilities therein.

In a way, this is a basic English lesson:
You can play a character as an adjective; a descriptive term that defines how your character is played, such as coward, sneak, thief, defender of innocents, etc.
You can play a character as a noun; a title such as Fighter, Paladin, Warlord, Thief, etc.

One point made in the article was that to build a character with a less than optimal build for the purposes of role-playing is a detriment to the party. Are you letting the other players down by foregoing the best options? My response to that is two-fold.

On one hand my answer would be a ‘yes’. If you have chosen to play a one-handed, blind fighter who has leprosy, then, yes, you are letting the other players down. Granted, not all players want to play something that extremely useless, but there is a breaking point where a player’s personal desires simply do not fit within a game system…or a game’s philosophy. Most games are designed to allow for the heroic, adventurous, and grand. To create a character otherwise is against what the entire system was designed for. Yes, 4E and Pathfinder are designed to allow for high adventure and danger, but then so is every edition of D&D and about 99% of the RPGs on the market. A one-handed, blind fighter who has leprosy will be detriment in just about every system out there.

And that leads to the concept of group dynamics. Every character in a party has a role to cover. Some kill things, some heal, some open locks. While it is possible to create a character that can not cover a party role, is that fair to the rest of the party? If for role-playing sake a person creates a character of no function or use in a party then that character is a detriment to the party. This, however, does not mean a character has to have an “optimal build” to complete his assignments. But it does mean that if your character is assigned to do damage you should at least be capable with combat.

Of course being capable does not preclude role-playing or the accompanying shticks. As an example, in my current 4E campaign, one of the players has chosen to be the healer of the group. The player is the aggressive sort; in the past he always plays the fighter type avoiding magic or non-combat roles. As such, he has chosen to play a “combat healer”. By this, he means the character is one who does not shy from melee combat. By the same token, all of his powers are geared toward healing; even if he has options to take a combat power over a healing power, he always chooses a healing power. It helps him accomplish his chosen role. However, he role-plays his character as an aggressive combatant. The character does not sit in the back throwing out healing spells. He always maneuvers up to the front lines. Granted, 4E allows him to do melee combat and heal at the same time (one of the system’s strengths), but how he role-plays his character is not defined by his class, powers or even group function.

My second response is to say, why not make an optimally built character and then role-play the rest. Do not let the build dictate how the character is played. You can have the best of both worlds; you can be competent and thus experience all the excitement of having a kick-butt character and at the same time play a character full of foibles and personality. Similar to my friend with the cleric; he stacks the deck for optimal healing but still role-plays a melee combatant.

As a counterpoint, it is possible to make an optimally built character that still is a detriment to the party. I have seen players build combat beasts and then allow “role-playing” to negate all their advantages. I once had a player play the character as a being of chaos wherein his every action was dictated by a die roll instead of forethought. Or another player who only ever had one response to every situation, attack it. So, even a “power build” can still cause a problem at the table when it comes to role-playing.

In the end, do not allow a build, character class or character abilities dictate how you will play your character. Choose to play adjectives and not a noun.
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