Friday, April 16, 2010

Good Ideas From Bad Places

Even twinks can teach us something, if we know where to look.

So Merlin, the protagonist of Zelazny's second Amber series, and for people who play the DRPG, he is basically the template for a twink. In a setting where most of the characters are either from Amber (with the powers that come with that) or Chaos (with a different set of powers), he's a half-breed with powers from both.

He's hardly alone in this distinction. Mediocre fiction is awash in half-breeds with the best attributes of each side who are, despite their profound badass-ness unprecedentedly rare.

When I see a character like this in a game, my first instinct is to roll my eyes.[1] This is usually a gimmick to try to justify more than average powers or combinations than the rules might normally allow, and that's a big red flag. That may sound cynical, but it's not an unreasonable assumption. However, it does reveal something interesting that might be usable in almost any other game.

See, the truth is that there's a lot of mojo in hybrids. Interesting things don't happen in the middle of things: they happen at the edges and crossroads, and that's equally true of characters. Interesting characters in fiction and play are usually exceptions in some way, and hybrids are a good way to handle that.

First, it's conceptually powerful. White Wolf has pretty decisively demonstrated the power of combining two templates to make a character, and a hybrid character model can tap into that same appeal. The trick is that in White Wolf (or D&D, in the case of Race/Class) is that the combination is the NORM. Every character out there is something from column A and something from column B. There's nothing exceptional about any particular column.

With that in mind, there's something to be said for designing a setting where the combinations are possible, but not the norm. Create the factions and groups and declare that for the most part, they do not overlap, then quietly allow (perhaps even encourage) players to pick more than one. Everyone else may be a musketeer, and that makes it all the more fun when one player used to be a priest (or noble).

Anyway, my point is that while this is a pretty bad habit when used to exploit the system, it also reveals something that can be used to make a game more fun for everyone else.

1 - When I see that a character like this is an NPC, I am tempted to throw the book across the room. A setting has only so many "slots" for interesting exceptions before they start blurring the lines and making such exceptions meaningless. Those slots are for PCs, plain and simple, and every time a supplement author gives one to an NPC, a kitten dies.


  1. I've always maintained that there is a lot of fun to be had in letting players find loopholes to break the system a little, taking them over the top. It helps if they feel like they've found it as a secret that was never intended to be found. If the game is solid it should let those things happen without breaking down outright.

  2. I want to play a half-githyanki half-minotaur hybrid paladin/artificer.

  3. I think my objection to that would mostly be I have no freaking clue what that would even look like. How do you have a noseless minotaur?

  4. I think back in the beginning of time (okay, years back when AD&D was the big new thing), there was a sense that as a medium, a role playing game, even without winners and losers, had to have a level of strict enforcement from the Dungeon Master (it was always a DM and GM was a term from the FUTURE). You either forbid people from making power characters, or your rewarded them by railroading them into death in order to show them whose boss. Old "Monte Hall" stories seemed to be about that in the Dragon Magazine and elsewhere. A DM had to be about saying "no" and keeping the players in their place.

    I started out as a terrible DM, and then as a better, but still control freakish DM, and maybe mellowed into a reasonably competent Game Master before I ran out of time to do anything.

    Now, with hybrids, or any other "looks like it is breaking the system" requests, I think the answer should be, in general "yes." There is a big IF there, but it should not be about punishing or screwing the player for making the choice. The IF, which I have learned from reading S7S and SOTC and T&J and the words of wisdom from Rob and Chad and others, is that first it has to be FUN. And not just fun for the player, but for the game. Second, if it can be fun, it has to have meaning and consequence. Strings, that are not crippling, but do fuel stories and more fun, have to attach. This has to be up front. It is an agreement the player makes with the GM and the other players.

    You can still have power gamers and glory hounds, divas and spotlight grabbers who could spoil everything, but you had that under the old totalitarian DM system too, for all the "keep the players down" rules and advice.

    I like the new direction and I think that Rob is correct. Let the players play the oddballs (not the NPCs). It just has to be fun (for everyone) and have the proper context.

    Sure, Merlin seems to have the best of both worlds when he controls the powers of both Pattern and Logrus, but he also has twice the family complications and twice the number of people out to screw him, not to mention twice the number of friends who are likely to turn on him. Straddling the divide, he is contstantly challenged to choose sides, to prove loyalty, and to keep bridges from burning. With great power and all . . .

    It can work, just has to be fun and meaningful.

    My son is finally on the cusp of role playing and has created a S7S character where I am practicing my first "say yes" philosophy.

    Basically, his character is a Boba/Jango Fett inspired hero. He is a bounty hunter and my son wanted the character to have a kind of Viridian created "Mandalorean" armor that could fly in the Skies. I said "yes." He built the armor using the vehicle rules (one person, wearable vehicle), he put points into it and I had him take a Foible for it ("I didn't steal it!"). He has a back story that is full of hooks tied to the armor, and the gagetry is fun, within the rules, and has a context and consequence for the direction of the game. He gets to do what he wants (okay, not quite a Githyanki/Minotaur, but whatever) and I still have a fun playable game (in theory, assuming he, I and his mother get down and play now).

    The new game deisgn and new philosophy is freeing. It is not without the possibility of being broken, but I find it more positive and it makes me more excited about playing games, even where everyone wants to be a weirded out hybrid. They are, after all, the stars of the show.

    Great commentary as always, thanks Rob.

  5. Claude Levi-Strauss and his writings on Structuralism writes exactly about the power in boundaries and crossing them, and liminality (William Turner as well when he writes about rituals).

    The were-jaguar, incest, vampires, etc.


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