Monday, March 1, 2010

Creo Interest

This was an interesting weekend. I had Friday off because my parents were supposed to be visiting, but the storm up north put the kibosh on that, but it was just as well since I spent random parts of the weekend laid out by my sinuses. Net result is that it's one of those weekends where my awareness of the internet, or really the world outside my door, was pretty minimal. This is ok. Such things make for good relaxation from time to time.

Anyway, I've been thinking a bit about what makes people interesting. It's a broad topic, I know, but I was thinking a bit about the people it might be interesting to meet, talk to or otherwise get to know. Some of this is random fandom sort of thinking, but more broadly it was inspired by thinking about conventions and the nature of meeting large numbers of people. When there are so many folks on hand, why are some people more interesting than others? It's usually pretty easy to spot, since a certain amount of it is pure presentation and confidence, but that only goes so far. There's more to it. And for me, one thing that I can come back to is that, by and large, the most interesting people are the ones who have created something.

Now, the thing they have created doesn't need to be that interesting in and of itself[1]. It's the fact that they have gone through the steps and done the work to get this thing made that provides assurance that at least a certain amount of bullshit has been stripped away by the forces of necessity. It's not a guarantee - some writers will still be jerks, and some people who look like they haven't created are actually doing something interesting and worth knowing about, but when you're dealing with large numbers of people, you need some sort of rubric, and I'm ok with this (at least for the sake of argument).

And the argument is this: very few RPG characters have created anything[2]. And I wonder if that makes them boring.

See, the other thing conventions got me thinking about was compelling pregens. Characters which, when handed out, would make players have a hard time choosing which is most awesome as opposed to least lame. How many pregens do you pick up and think "This person is interesting enough that I'd love to have lunch with them?"[3] That in turn lead to me thinking about how powerful a question it would be to ask what a character has created.

It's a good question. Lots of powerful implications and secondary questions like "Why create that? What happened to it? How did people react to it? Is it your legacy?" Even if you ignore the rest of this post, consider adding that question to your bag of tricks when you're looking for a way to jazz up a character. Still, It left me feeling like I was on the cusp of something.

Creation is one good, interesting activity, but it's not the only thing we find interesting. We are intrigued by authority, secret knowledge, change and even destruction. There is similar mileage in asking "What do you have authority over (and responsibility for)?", "What do you know about?", "How have you changed the world?" and possibly by extension "What have you destroyed?". That's where it gets nerdy because those all end up lining up with, of all things, the verbs from Ars magica: Creo, Rego, Intelligo, Muto and Perdo.[4]

So now I have a neat little checklist of five things to ask about a character to try to bring him to life:

But that in turn suggests one more refinement. So far we've talked entirely about what the character has done: why not talk about what the character intends to do?

Adding a column for the future allows this to be a useful tool for the campaign as well as the character.

Now, in terms of actually using this, I think it might be interesting to fill in every line, but I think the result would feel overloaded and banal. A character with all of these things filled in is so thoroughly realized that it calls into question why he's being played. Instead, I think it becomes interesting in terms of the spaces left blank. If a player is told to fill in, say, five of the lines rather than all ten, which ones he chooses may be as informative as what he actually writes down.

I'm aware this is a little bit gimmicky, and for some GMs there may be an instinctive sense that this is too much to ask, especially when you're already getting things like beliefs and instincts, but I would argue against that. While I have not called it out explicitly, what is important about these five elements, as with things that make real people interesting, is that they tie the character to the world outside himself. Consider them to be complimentary to the benefits provided by more internal traits, like beliefs. One gives a better sense of what makes the character go and the other gives a better sense of their place in the world.

I consider this a big deal. One of the hardest things any person has to deal with is the gap between their internal landscape and how they're seen by the world at large. We trip up on it a lot, especially in our community, and I sometimes worry that the worst elements of that can be reflected in play when a character's design is entirely inward-facing. Mixing it up a little, introducing important ways that the character must interface with the world, is a very small step in the face of the larger issue, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

And if, as a result, it makes you a little more interesting? It's a nice bonus.

1 - Obviously, everyone creates, so it may seem a bit arbitrary that I put a published author in one category and a prolific producer of fanfic in another. At first blush that may seem like some sort of snobbery about the quality of their material, but it's more nuanced than that. Even if the book is terrible, the published author has done a LOT of work to get where she is - beyond simply writing the book, she has had to get an agent, get published and deal with the business and financial realities of authorship. The fanfic writer or self publisher faces few (if any) of these same challenges.

2 - Except magic items. But, to be frank, magic items in 3E and 4E are bland and disposable, so I categorize them as fanfic.

3 - There's an argument that blandness is a good thing in pregens, since that makes it easier for a player to make them his own in play. I am less happy with that thought as I watch games though: it's true, but it works because it does not challenge the players. Net result is you get a game that's exactly as good as the table skills your group brings.

4 - For the unfamiliar, Ars Magica used at Verb + Noun system of magic, so Creo + Pyrem (Create + Fire) was used to, well, create fire, while Perdo + Pyrem (Destroy + fire) might be used to quench a fire. The verbs were Creo (Create), Intelligo (Understand), Muto (Change), Perdo (Destroy) and Rego (Command).
(edit: Will sets me straight, fire is Ignem, not Pyrem)


  1. The Ars Magica noun for Fire is Ignem, not Pyrem.

    I think it's interesting that you refer to ArM in the past tense and D&D 3 and 4 in the present.

    Anyway, this seems like a pointed questionnaire, which can be good. Yeah, it's a little gimmicky, but that's not necessarily bad. I'm not sure it would solve my problem with a lot of pre-gens, though, which is that the most "awesome" of them are often the biggest letdowns when the story at hand doesn't deliver on that character's promise.

    Delivering on the promise for every pre-gen can take all of a story's time and energy, for better or worse.

  2. Heh. The past tense and the terminology mess up are more reflective of how long it's been since I played it, but yeah - tense is a slippery beast with games

  3. @Rob, As a questionnaire, I think it is a great tool. It is a different perspective on a PC and that is always a good thing if you're looking to get the most mileage out of a character. I can see it providing a richness of character.

    I've never given this much thought before because I have always looked at the PC as being in the point in their life right before the interesting stuff happens. That's why I like the addendum of looking ahead in those various categories.

    I have not played many con games, but my impression of pregens is that they have just enough info to get the game started. I hope to play in some more and see what there really is out there.

  4. Just short comment. This is one of your best blog entries! It is very practical and solves real issue (internal vs external description on a character) in very elegant way (yeah, bonus points for Latin ;)

    Thank you for this.

  5. "...very few RPG characters have created anything."

    Most adventurers (pre-gens for a certainty) are in it for instant gratification (kill the monster or solve the plot and get the treasure or save the world). There is little incentive to be other than ephemeral, despite the fact that the game world literally revolves around them.

    To change this I think that they need two things. Firstly, some sort of investment in a community, so that they have a reason to see the change, and secondly, and more importantly, the time so that this change can be realized. Time for their actions, for good or ill, to actually have consequence.

    I think one of the major advantages of Ars Magica (and Pendragon too) is how they limit the opportunity for adventure, whilst presenting both plenty of downtime and a community (the covenant and fief respectively) for the characters to be invested in.

    Similarly the original D&D idea of carving a domain out of the wilderness was a powerful motivator that disappeared in later editions, being more concerned with the "development" of the character instead.

    The more time that a campaign extends over, the greater the desire to leave a lasting legacy, whether it be a new domain, a prosperous community, a monument in the town square, a heirloom sword,* or, sometimes most importantly, a family. So that one can say, many years later, that I was responsible for that.

    [* One fun thing I did in D&D was allow a fighter's sword to be a henchmen and benefit from experience. Thus many of the more interesting weapons came complete with free histories.]

  6. I've been thinking about Dave the Game's 5x5 system lately. So, since you have 5 verbs, I naturally want to come up with 5 uses.

    I'm not up to 5 yet, but I did think of one that I like: Failure. What thing in your life have you failed to create (children?), understand (your master's last lesson?), change (your social standing?), destroy (a rival?), or command (the power of the wind?)?

  7. Your idea as usual is insightful and a decent tool for character concepts and growth, but I think you're missing the mark when you consider people who have created something to be more interesting.

    If I might speculate is what you're missing is the aspect of fraternity that is the common bond between you and the people you find interesting. People who have created something have that in common with you and that creates fellowship. A person who hasn't gone through that initiation has more to prove. I think you miss this because you're a really nice guy and probably don't like the thought that in some small way you might be elitist, which is admirable but doesn't change the fact that the brotherhood of common experience drops one more barrier on the road to common ground.

  8. @cin The irony s that I suspect the full list is too much for a con game, but the underlying idea should help.

    @ifryt Thank you!

    @rev My favorite for that was probably Birthright, but since my friends are HUGE Pendragon and Ars fans (and I do like them!) I try not to say that too loudly.

    But yes - the act of building a legacy in play is incredibly powerful. That may merit its own post.

    @Marshall You should totally write abotu that when you finish it!

    @helm Funny you should mention common experience...

    No, you're right, there's a lot more that goes into our relationship with other people, but I like to come at it from many angles because it's too big to take in all at once. In this case I was specifically inspired by fandom and it's ilk: who are the peopel who we have nothing in common with but we want to meet? They are the people who have made things or dome things that have affected us in some way. Their work feels like common ground, even if it isn't.

    That's a strong, common response, so my thought was to see if it could be tapped for something useful.


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