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.


13 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.

      • Oddly, though, I’m often more Kevin-style when worldbuilding core-SF-type stories. Many of my stories were worlds long before characters showed up in them.

        I think my approach is really tactical, in the end — or highly influenced by form, anyway. For a complex SF story I may follow idea until it leads me to character. For a short postmodern irrealist flash I may follow pure language until it leads to plot. For a grand ongoing RPG campaign I may want a system that immerses me in detail and lets me find my way. For a focused one-off evening of roleplaying I may want a system that gives me a web of relationships, a set of already-tightly-wound plottish strings ready to snap, and throws me into the middle of it to hit the ground running.

        I find Fiasco pretty much the ideal system for a one-off meeting of 4 or 5 actorish adults, if we’re optimizing for reliable, predictable, timeboxed fun. I find Apocalypse World type games pretty ideal for a year-long post-every-three-days PBP campaign with old friends. I found Runequest ideal for playing intensively ongoingly with Noah during the interstices of a stay-at-home-dad day. Local conditions drive optimization.

  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).

  3. So, in response to Christopher, the classic essay attempting to refute point 2 is Ron Edward’s “System Does Matter”:


    That plus things like the GNS business (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNS_Theory) launched a whole body of RPG theory in the early part of this century. Much of it was specifically in response to White Wolf games, which were accused of having clunkily tried to privilege roleplaying without tweaking the relevant bits of system, with the results you cite. I have only played WW one time and it was with a perfect storm of awesome roleplayers (Amal GM’ing, plus Moles and Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s young friend) to where, from my perspective, it could not really have gone wrong, so I don’t have a dog in the pro- and anti-WW fight. But it’s worth noting that WW is the canonical example, among a lot of the people who made what Moles is calling “actorly” games, of how not to do it.

    My experience is that it does matter, and there is a vast difference in feeling between working against the grain of a system and working with it. This is not a criticism of D&D 4E, nor a claim that it doesn’t encourage “roleplaying” — because people mean a lot of things by that. I haven’t played 4E either, but my impression is that if you want a rich open world and an awesome, board-game-tactical-interesting combat system and you want your roleplaying to be hilarious and poignant and awesome and gritty and vivid and telling things that serendipitously happen in between the combat/magic/economy/resource-management/timing/risk-reward-tradeoff stuff that the game mechanics are about, then 4E is great. If you want something else, like if you want the evening to be absolutely driven by theme and relationship — if you want a game that could just as easily never have any combat or treasure in it, say — then it’ll be uphill work doing that with 4E.

    Monsterhearts, to take a great example, is a game which figures violence not in terms of competent means-to-ends but in terms of loss of control and undesired consequences (and it’s a game saturated with violence) , and mechanically evokes the feelings of social exclusion, and ambivalent attraction, and fuckedup adolescent power games, and loss or reclaiming of identity and self, in the same vivid crunchy mechanical detail that D&D deploys for combat/magic/treasure. If you tried to do what Monsterhearts does with D&D, or what D&D does with Monsterhearts, you’d find yourself either never picking up the dice and just freeforming (which can be great with the right crew, but the game gives you no help if you’re out of ideas, or going too hard or too easy on each other, or annoyed by someone else’s esthetic choice, etc), or making what essentially would be boring rolls — one where neither outcome is really that interesting…

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