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Storyboard: The stock

Eliot Lefebvre

So there I was, sitting down and preparing to play through Mass Effect for the third time, except this time it was with the intent of playing a character straight through to the end of the franchise. That meant going through the list of regular roleplaying characters I had, trying to decide who made sense in context. I had already played through twice, which meant my options were a bit more limited, but I was willing to bet that I could find someone in my stable of characters worth playing.

How is this relevant to roleplaying with MMOs? Simple: These are characters whom I'd played and generally created via MMOs, heroes and villains alike. And the lure of sticking to a strong character is seductive because you know whom you'll be playing and how to play the character for maximum impact. But you run a very real risk of being locked into a narrow range of character possibilities, and after a while, having stock characters built up becomes limiting rather than liberating.

Stock characters are something that I think pretty much every roleplayer has. Maybe you have a core cast that shows up over and over; maybe you just have a couple of individuals who crop up repeatedly. But the ones who stick in your memory tend to stick well past a given game. You know the ones, and frequently you'll give them different names but still use the same personality. In my own experience, it doesn't matter if I stop calling her Truce -- if she's still a shy and failed pacifist with isolation issues, she's still Truce. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a stock character.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. When you're staring at a character creation screen with the knowledge that you can be anything, it's a kind of daunting task to assemble your character from nothing. Similarly, if you know you enjoy playing a given character nine times out of 10, you'll be more likely to make that character multiple times. After all, there's a lot of work to building a character up in an MMO -- better to tie all that work to someone you want to play rather than a character you'll hate in 10 levels.

The problem is that as you play more games with more variables and more things to learn, it's very easy for new characters to fall by the wayside. Character creation stops being a question of "how can I make an interesting character to play?" and starts being "how can I shoehorn existing characters into this new framework?" Worse yet, you generally are bringing in a character whom you've had in an emotional arc before, meaning that not only will you be shoehorning-in an old character, but you'll also be bringing in an old story arc and set of expectations.

In other words, the only thing that's changing is the supporting cast and the mechanics of the game. The actual story is just being retold over and over, with the differences relegated to minutiae. And that's not a positive environment.

Sometimes, of course, you can change a stock character by just tweaking some element of his or her backstory. I have at least one character I'm planning on playing in Star Wars: The Old Republic whom I've played before -- but where she's previously been a well-intentioned extremist surrounded by more moderate personalities, she'll now be surrounded by other extremists who violate one of her central beliefs. The core of her character won't change, but the environment and the sort of stories she works in will be very different.

Of course, it probably doesn't need to be said, but this sort of thing can easily result in a tweak that isn't a tweak at all. Changing a normally male stock character into a woman shouldn't really affect characterization all that much (something I've talked about at length before). Changing class or setting alone is not enough. The tweak has to be a major environmental shift, or at least a subtle shift to some major element of the character's personality.

Most of the time, what you're going to need to go for will be a big change. And the key to that is generally to start in what seems like the most infantile possible place -- take your usual trends and go in exactly the opposite direction. If you normally play smart characters, play an idiot. If your characters tend to be polite, make someone rude. Take everything about character personalities that you're familiar with and do a complete reversal. Heck, you can even take one of your stock characters and completely invert his or her traits.

You might argue that this leads to making a one-dimensional caricature, and that's a fair point -- but that's also what you're trying to do when playing against type. You need to get out of your comfort zone so that you can stop thinking about characters in terms of a set lineup and in terms of broader options. Don't worry about elaborate backstory and careful motivation right out of the gate because otherwise you'll be right back to square one, since a new character can't possibly compete with the existing cast of stock characters. Just roll up, invert traits, and go.

Later on down the line, you might find that the character you invented to buck your stock conventions is more fun than the ones who created those conventions in the first place.

I hope everyone enjoyed this week's somewhat more introspective take on matters; I'd love to hear your feedback, as always, whether directed to or to the comments below. Next week, let's get back into the mix with events.

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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