February 7, 2012

The Separation of Player and Character

Throughout the evolution of D&D there has been a gradual separation between player and character. To best understand what I mean by this we need to take a look at the earliest days of D&D. In those days the capabilities of characters were based on the capabilities of the players.

For example, if a character was able to find a secret door or hidden object it was because the player had stated where the character was looking or what the character manipulated within the setting. There were no die rolls or skills to rely on. Success at this time was wholly dependent on the decisions and reactions the player had to the setting.

Likewise with social interactions. If a character was going to “fast-talk” his way past a guard, it all came down to how well the player was at fast-talking. If the player was an introvert and had difficulty speaking in public settings then there was no way he would talk his character out of a given situation.

After the initial edition of D&D things began to change that paradigm. This came about in a two-front assault; one caused by the players and one caused by the DMs. 

Players started to expand their game play into areas not covered by the rules. The players used intelligent and crafty responses to situations and the rules did not state how to deal with these new tactics. Questions began to arise that had no easy answer. Can the character jump the chasm? Can the character climb the tower wall? Did the character hear the guard approaching? It fell to the DMs to adjudicate the results and there was a wide spectrum of responses. Some allowed everything to happen, some rolled a 50/50 chance, some simply disallowed such player creativity, some developed elaborate house systems.

The second was that DMs wanted to expand what they could throw at the players. The introduction of such things as locked boxes, secret doors, rivers of lava all required special methods for the players to circumvent them. But again, questions arose. How does a player character open a lock? How do they find the secret door? How do they jump the lava without burning from the heat?

Slowly, special systems were put into place that added rules to cover these situations. This change reached its first real threshold when thieves were given their abilities of Climb Walls, Pickpocket, Lockpick. By adding these to the game it then prohibited other characters of a different class from doing those particular activities. The power of the player began to be taken away and handed to the characters. No longer could a player say ‘I open the lock with the lockpicks I found on level 3’ and instead it became ‘The thief in the party rolls his lockpick skill’.

From here the gap between player and character continued to build. Further additions of player options, proficiencies, skills, feats, powers gave more power to the character while taking them away from the player. Character’s capabilities became defined by their stats and not by their players.

Is this new methodology bad? No…and yes. As with most things involving rpg systems and play, it all devolves into each individual group make-up.

Some groups prefer a system wherein characters are divorced from the player. For them, it frees them from their biases and tropes and allows them to role-play a character outside of themselves. It allows them to do things they would not do as a player, or even fail where they as a player would succeed.
Or maybe they prefer a system that creates a level playing field wherein a dominant and skillful player is on the same footing as everyone else. For them separation of player and character is a matter of balance. It is an attempt to mitigate the effect a player can have on the game.

And then there are the groups that thrive on the fact the character is really but an extension of themselves. They view the challenges of an adventure as one for them as players to overcome.

Both approaches are fine. The trick for each group is to find the system that best reflects their play style. This is why some groups have stayed with older editions or gravitated to retro-clones…and why some have embraced the crunch and player options of later games.

Understanding where you and your group stand on the separation of player and character can help you find your ideal system.

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