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Storyboard: Problem children

Eliot Lefebvre

Sometimes you have a character concept that just doesn't quite work. We've talked about that before, at least in the context of trying to make sure your awesome new idea doesn't wind up on your list of discarded alts. But there are also times when the concept is problematic long before you get as far as playing. There are certain archetypes and ideas that just do not work for various reasons or that (at the very least) require your square-peg character to be shoved in the roundest of holes.

The loner, of course, is the classic archetype that people love to play without its ever working correctly. It's hard to have a proper loner in an environment where socializing is necessary. But there are other problem types that aren't highlighted as often, sometimes because they're not as common, and sometimes because the people who want to play these concepts get very enthusiastic about them. Here, then, are some of the major problem children among character archetypes, as well as some suggestions about how to make them work right after all.

The Magnate

When it comes to money, the magnate doesn't just have enough, she has more than she can count. Maybe she's old money, or maybe she's new money, but she is so very definitely money either way. She's got private boats, private planes if the setting allows, a home in every city, and a contact in every alley. She's the sort of person whom you wouldn't necessarily expect to be a master of martial disciplines, but even if she is, she offers access to social circles that might not exist otherwise.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this character type is that even if the player has the deep pockets that his character is meant to have, that doesn't necessarily translate to the character concept. You might have enough gold to buy out anything on the local auction market, but that doesn't help you get those private islands and so forth. Even more to the point, money isn't a realistically handled resource in MMOs, and for good reason. No one would like to have his character deleted because he spent too much on gear and travel and not enough on food or housing.

Really, what the concept is going for is a sense that the character is connected to the larger world and has intangible resources. A former noble title fallen on rough times or a respected name can often do wonders for creating the same effect. The other side is that the character is meant to be a bulwark for younger characters -- which generally doesn't even require financial means so much as mentoring and careful attention. Both of these sidestep the issue of where your character's holdings should be without handwaving.

The Lovelorn

If the old expression about being unlucky at love and lucky at cards is true, this character is amazing at cards. He seems to have been born into life with a sign on his forehead, always searching for an emotional connection with someone but never quite finding it. And while his life is comfortable otherwise, it seems that his love life (or frequent lack thereof) leaves him unfulfilled. So he looks for affection in all the wrong places and winds up nursing a newfound sadness every few months.

Do I even need to spell out the problem here? If this character does in fact have a sign on his forehead, it's a flashing neon billboard that says "DRAMA." I wrote out a couple of big columns on romance, and everything there applies to this character twice over -- because the concept relies on his being unlucky. As soon as the character gets into a stable relationship, which is frequently the unstated goal, the whole thing falls apart, because the only defining traits the character has are his unluckiness in romance and his perpetual seeking. Not the firmest foundation.

Having a perpetually unlucky character can be a fun ride, but there's no reason at that point to focus on romance. If he's always unlucky, period, then a bad relationship wouldn't be out of place, but it wouldn't have to be the only storyline the character can take part in. Failing that, if you absolutely have to have someone always chasing and never finding, don't make him some mopey wannabe romantic comedy protagonist.

The Sociopath

The sociopath isn't a villain, at least not by design. Nor is she a hero in any real sense of the word. The sociopath is someone without any regard for the lives of others, a character who tends to be allied with a guild or band of adventurers by little more than momentum. She doesn't like the other characters most of the time and really only cares about one thing: killing every single living creature she comes across. As far as she's concerned, the proper solution to every problem is violence, and any ensuing consequences can be handled with even further violence.

Sociopathic archetypes aren't common in literature -- they seem to largely be inherited from webcomics, which tend to produce a memorable sociopathic type every couple years or so. (8-Bit Theater and Looking for Group probably have the most to answer for in this case.) This works OK in a comedic setting in which a writer can give semi-plausible reasons why the other characters aren't getting knifed up at the earliest opportunity. But the sociopath is funny to watch or to play, not funny to work with. He quickly winds up being obnoxious, and there's not much of a character there beyond the constant note of hurting others for no reason.

If you want to play an actual sociopath, you could do worse than watching Dexter, whose protagonist regards the very idea of other people's mattering as strangely alien. I'm going to guess most of these people just want to play someone who's violent and funny, though. That changes the game a bit, and I would recommend toning up the funny and toning down the violent. Schlock Mercenary has many, many examples of people who are exceedingly violent with only the thinnest veneer of social niceties -- but they still operate with some amount of unit cohesion, making them playable within a group setting such as that created during roleplay.

While there are no perfect solutions to problem characters, understanding and recognizing the type and how you can best handle his issues is a step toward making the character more playable. If you can think of any other problem types you see on a regular basis, either from yourself or from others, feel free to mail them in to Next week, we're back toward opinionated rants, as I'm rather liking swinging between the two extremes.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.

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