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.