The Play is the Thing, pt. 1

AutoclytusOne of the most important things in a game is developing a memorable character. That doesn’t mean a character with incredibly high statistics, or with the most powerful weapons, although those elements make make the character immortal. Conan must have had incredibly high stats and Elric certainly had the world’s most powerful blade, but that is not what made their characters memorable. Conan was the village rowdy, a drinker, a fighter, and a womanizer. He took what he wanted, and didn’t go whining to Crom when things weren’t going his way. And I hope you’re not visualizing Arnold Schwarzenegger right now, because I’m talking about Robert E. Howard’s original writings. Elric was the anti-Conan, a weak mewling aristocrat unable to lift his own sword, completely reliant on magic or on his buddy Moonglum. Conan builds an empire; Elric loses one. But Elric is also unlike Conan because Elric questions his loyalty to Chaos, regrets some of his actions, and tries to change for the better. That’s a memorable character.

There is another way that characters become memorable, and that is in the roles they play. There are no small roles, remember, just small actors. The same thing works in role-playing. Glen C. Strathy talks convincingly about the use of archetypal characters, and the 16 different roles they can play in the 8 opposing pairs of Dramatica theory. That’s a bit deep for me, but he makes a good argument for why those characters are memorable. They serve a purpose in driving the story forward, even if they are not the primary heroes or villains. “The play is the thing,” those characters cry, and they make themselves memorable and play their roles and we remember them for it. “You killed my father, prepare to die,” says Inigo Montoya. “Don’t figure the percentage in that,” says Jayne Cobb. “Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them,” complains Joel Cairo.

Carol KaneLet’s pause for a minute here, because I just realized I don’t have any female examples. And that’s not because I haven’t looked for the. Most of the great movie lines were said by men. When a woman has a great line, it is usually because she is a key character, either the heroine or the love interest. “When I first saw you, I thought you were handsome,” says Carol Connelly, “Then, of course, you spoke.” “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” asks Princess Leia. The only female character actor I can think of is Carol Kane as The Ghost of Christmas Present: “It’s a toaster!”

At any rate, let me just renew my plea for memorable characters in role-playing. We’ll remember them a lot longer, and a lot more fondly, than “that guy who had the +5 sword and Cloak of Elvenkind.” I hope.

If this was interesting, see also Part 2 and Part 3

About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Advice to Beginners, Journeyman, Navah Campaign, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

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