D&D and character: an open letter to Ben Rosenbaum

Hey, Ben—

Dunno if you’ve been following this (guessing not since you’re busy moving) but Wizards of the Coast has backed off significantly from the worldofwarcraftification of 4th Ed. in favor of more improvisation and roleplaying.

There’s a fairly hefty section in the new basic rules (free PDF download) on character personality and background (including sexual preference, gender identity, and gender presentation) that has me thinking about the differences between the D&D approach to building “character” and (my limited experience of) the more ‘actorly’ systems that seem to be in vogue. D&D doesn’t explicitly model your relationships with other players or your current motivation, but it wants to know your name and sex and gender and height and weight and alignment (inescapable :P) and personality quirks and ideals, but it also wants to know what languages you speak and what god you worship or what thieves’ guild you were a member of or what lord’s army you used to serve in. It’s an enormously long list of choices (or dice rolls/table lookups) and while it all provides flavor most of it (even more than in the actorly systems) is going to stay on the mantlepiece during any one play session.

D&D’s default assumption is that every character has a (character-)life-long campaign(-plus) to look forward to and a world to explore / change / transcend, that (despite, certainly, all my experience to the contrary) a character is for life, not just for an evening. Wizards has of course sound economic reasons to try to enmesh you in an ongoing campaign (or at least to entice you with the possibility of one) and to try to interest you in purchasing some or all of their fine collection of geographically- or advanced-character-developmentally-themed sourcebooks, but there is a legit source of reader or rather player pleasure there.

It makes me reevaluate our discovery some years back that my default approach to character in fiction was to situate the character in society and your default approach was to situate the character in a network of interpersonal relationships. Maybe there’s always a never-to-be-written multi-volume epic in the back of my head, whereas you’re focused on completing the story at hand.


7 thoughts on “D&D and character: an open letter to Ben Rosenbaum

  1. Some of this is approach to world building too, no? Kevin and I have been noticing this as we talk about my new book project — he keeps asking me about this or that aspect of the world / universe, and is startled because I haven’t considered that yet. And I just don’t care about defining any of that until it impacts my characters and their story. If he were writing SF, he’d start with his cool premise, figure out the logical consequences, build the society, and then create interesting characters to explore that premise. I start with the characters and their relationships and fill in the rest, as needed. Which came first, the characters or the universe?

    • I would say that it’s always already impacted your characters and their story. :) But yes.

      It certainly drives me up the wall when the pieces of the world don’t seem to fit together, but it drives me equally up the wall when the pieces of the characters don’t seem to fit together.

  2. What are these “more actorly systems” supposedly in vogue you speak of, and how are you using the term “in vogue?”

    I maintain that (1) 4E was as good a system for role-playing as any of the other dozens of RPGs I’ve played, because (2) role-playing is going to happen or not happen independent of system qualities, and that, further, (3) systems that appear (because it’s always only an appearance) to encourage or even require more in-depth role-playing and character-building often or even usually produce(d) characters more notable for their banality and shallowness than for anything else (I’m thinking specifically of my experiences with White Wolf games).

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