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Storyboard: Problem children, part the second

Eliot Lefebvre

Creating characters is hard work. It's hard enough when you're just concerned with making a really cool melee character who can kick other melee characters up and down the block, and it gets infinitely harder when you're trying to put together something that at least looks like a three-dimensional individual at the right angle. That having been said, there are certain ideas that are just problematic, character types that might seem like a good idea when you're staring at the screen but become a really bad one as soon as you hit "create."

Our last look at problem characters focused on the sort that you know you're creating at the time, the sort that sound nifty in your head but cause some serious problems in actual play. This time we're looking at the other side, the sort of thing that's far easier to notice while interacting with characters rather than while creating them. But it's still well worth keeping these types in mind so that if you start traveling down these roads, you can make a turn. On to the problem children!

The Brooding Dark

Frequently a subset of the classic loner, this character is someone to stay away from. He has a Dark And Mysterious Past, you see, and he carries that around like a backpack wherever he goes. He might have been some sort of Socially Reprehensible Yet Badass Occupation (assassin, criminal, warlock, accordion enthusiast), but now he's out on his own. But what he did or had happen to him still haunts him, and so he acts like a cynical loner and a jerk all the time. Remember, dark and mysterious past. So mysterious that he can't be bothered to actually explain the details, but just dark enough that he'll take every opportunity to remind you of how insanely dark it was.

The whole idea of a character with a dark past who constantly makes reference to said past has always bugged me on some level. You would think, logically, that a man trying to move on from a dark past wouldn't really want to talk about it much if at all. You would also think that this sort of person wouldn't be constantly played up as a loose cannon ready to go back into his horrible baby-killing ways at the slightest provocation. I know there are a number of things that I've done in my own past that I'm not proud of, but I treat them as bad ideas I have since moved on from, not like some action-based equivalent to narcotics.

Naturally, the real problem here isn't the past; it's the fact that a dark past is a single note that you can only hammer on for so long. There are a lot of things that can be done to make this character more interesting, but as it stands, a dark and mysterious past fits into so many different backgrounds that it may as well be a wildcard. Focus on making him a character instead of cliche. The characters who do the "dark past" best are usually the ones who do it the least.

The Mad Lib

You have certain characters who just seem to come from nowhere. Not in the good sense, such as when his origins are a mystery with a specific answer that the player wants to slowly tease out, but rather in the sense that he is a prince of the werewolf kingdom in a game which contains neither werewolves nor kingdoms. And the character isn't insane; the player will insist that there is a werewolf kingdom, no matter how many ways the game disproves this, no matter how well it does or doesn't mesh with the setting of the game. He's not even an expy, because the player insists that he's a native to this game setting, no matter how much the setting has to be manhandled in order for his history to fit.

It's no secret that I'm willing to be kind of flexible with the lore when the concept is cool enough, but there's a difference between bending the lore and breaking it. Bending the lore is just a matter of saying that the official story doesn't cover everything and requires you to find space that's unexplored and likely to remain so. Breaking the lore is the matter of saying that the official story is just flat-out wrong, or that the character is so special that it doesn't matter how lore-breaking the new addition happens to be because he's super-awesome.

To reiterate advice I've given earlier about bending the lore, the trick is to only make the alterations that are absolutely necessary. If your character concept is way off from what the game allows -- for example, you're trying to bring a robot into Lord of the Rings Online -- and you're absolutely in love with the concept, treat the character as an expy like we covered a couple weeks ago. Burning down to the core of the concept and then rebuilding is going to ruffle fewer feathers and keep the character more grounded in the setting.

The Lore Problem

Our last problem child has the problem of not being grounded enough in the game he is playing. This one has the exact opposite problem -- she is far too grounded in lore. She is the daughter of no less than two and no more than seven major characters, has quite possibly had a torrid relationship with several more, and fulfills any and all prophecies spoken within her immediate vicinity. She also possesses a number of unheard-of traits given her species or class, because you might not know that she's special just yet. She might even be pregnant with the child of yet another major character, although that won't stop her from various new romantic entanglements.

Unfortunately, major lore characters have the inconvenient habit of being earmarked by the company in charge of storylines and developments. A character with that much relationship to existing characters has a biography that reads like fanfic about the game world, and rather than getting the sense that she's an intimate part of the game world, most people will get the sense that you're trying just a bit too hard.

Both this type and the previous type generally stem from the same root: the player wants a very special character, the sort that people will remember, and she figures that rooting the character in the gameworld more firmly will accomplish that. Leaving aside the obvious statement that what makes characters memorable are their actions post-creation, if you really must link yourself with a lore character, choose someone minor. Go for someone obscure, someone that you need a quick browse through the game's wiki to even know by name. I'm going to remember a contemporary of Horus in City of Heroes much more than I'll remember the fifth love child of Arthas and Jaina Proudmoore in World of Warcraft.

Those are this week's offering of problem children, and we can only hope that the now two-part series has been enlightening. If you have some ideas for other problem children of RP, or just general thoughts or feedback, you can feel free to leave a comment or write to me at Next week, I want to try something a little different as we take a look at things that kill immersion right off the bat and how to deal with them.

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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