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The Gaming Iconoclast: Whither Shortcomings?

Rafe Brox

Many MMO aficionados cut their roleplaying teeth on one of the many pencil-and-paper titles that formed the early generation of multi-player gaming. In addition to rolling (and rolling, and rolling, and rolling) some dice to come up with their basic stats and traits, character generation involved a lot of "wet work" when it came time to acquire skills. Often, players would bargain with their Game Master to get special dispensation for pushing the envelope.

Player: I want to run this adventure as a zombie elf with three arms.
GM: Okay, but if you do that, none of the other characters will trust you. Also, you will spend 50% more on shirts and body armor. Still want to do it?

Thus, the mechanic of trading character flaws for enhanced abilities was born. One of the hallmarks of tabletop gaming is this trade-off -- saddling yourself or your character with a shortcoming in order to obtain an advantage elsewhere, either as a skill, or a talent, or just another way to go about Min/Maxing. The huge number of available options in some games (Vampire: The Masquerade, for instance) ensures that any player, with only a few minutes' consideration, will have an almost absolutely unique character, fully their own creation.

And yet, almost without exception, the online iterations we all enjoy seem to have omitted this altogether. We are an immense legion of perfectly-formed, mentally-stable, socially-adept übermensch. Even the so-called "ugly" races -- World of Warcraft's Forsaken or Tabula Rasa'sHybrids -- don't explore the depth and breadth of this concept too deeply. Racial traits and differentiation are the merest tip of this particular iceberg.

Why does this rich milieu, this fecund ground of roleplay fodder and character diversity, languish? (And who left this thesaurus on my desk?)

Certainly, adding layers of nuance and complexity to the characters in the already staggeringly detailed virtual worlds we (or, rather, they) inhabit is no small undertaking. There is a whole constellation of development that this would entail. This can track everything from character art and animation to data to track the array and extent of the flaws and strengths for each individual. It's not an inconsequential amount of effort, to be certain, but is it really that much different than what's already being done? A few more data sets doesn't seem like a huge bar to entry; if there are any developers in the audience who can speak to this facet of character design and implementation, that would be marvelous.

At the same time, there has been a consistent call from players for more realism in the virtual environment -- whether that's merely a plea for more detail, or actual realism has been discussed elsewhere. What better way to proffer some variety than to allow characters to have more than merely trivial cosmetic differences? A world populated by the tall and the short. the corpulent and the emaciated, the crippled, the lame... you get the idea. Second Life's avatar system takes this a long way towards fruition, at least visually. Elsewhere? When everyone is the same height, you can't help but have the feeling you're someplace artificial.

Moving beyond mere eye candy, however, is the underlying mechanic that a flaws and rewards system offers. By providing greater customization of the characters we play, games allow us to feel more unique. There is pride in craftsmanship, even when it is imperfect by design. Character concepts can include overcoming adversity, or compensating for bad luck, and adapting to incorporate it into the whole.

In a completely different context, but apropos here, Adrian Bott put it thusly:

Give me a woman who's taken her knocks,
Who's tasted both gutter and stars.
Give me a lady with holes in her socks.
Give me a princess with scars.

Superman had Kryptonite. Professor Xavier was wheelchair-bound. Aquaman had "... but it's a dry heat." Why should our personal heroes and adventurers be any different? They are not perfect beings, nor should they remain so. Overcoming adversity makes victory all the more sweet.

Rafe Brox spends an inordinate amount of time annoying people who think they know more than he does, but can still be a big softie when you least expect it. When not causing friends and enemies alike to /facepalm electronically, he can be found extolling the virtues of the weird peripherals in his life, from kettlebells to the Trackman Marble. If you, too, would like to tell Rafe exactly how wrong he is doing it, the target coordinates are rafe.brox AT weblogsinc DOT com.

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