Monday, June 6, 2011

Static Characters

I've been thinking a lot lately about RPG characters versus characters in the stories that we consume through books, movies, and other mediums. It seems to me that there is an interesting break between them; how the character progresses, changes, and grows. No story is considered good if the characters in it don't change, don't grow in some way, but how that growth happens is often very different than how it is in RPGs. So, today I'd like to talk about that.

Batman Doesn't Get Better
I've been an avid reader of Batman comics, as well as a consumer of his stories for a long time. As we speak, I have all save one of the Batman movies on DVD (the one I'm missing being the made for TV animated movie, not the theatrical release one), all of Batman Beyond, Batman The Animated Series, and several other programs featuring Batman. You know what is interesting? Batman doesn't get better as time progresses. When we see Batman (Specifically Bruce Wayne) he is already pretty much at the peak of his abilities. This is also true for a number of other characters. When was the last time you saw Spider-Man get better? How about Sam or Dean Winchester (albeit, they did learn some new wards at one point in the series).

These characters still grow and change, but they aren't becoming more powerful. Their stories are mostly about how they apply what they already have to solve that situation. Their growth comes in their relationships with others, who is in their life, and changes in their world view depending on what they have witnessed over the course of the story.

This type of character is actually incredibly common in the stories we get outside of our games. Even in videogames where the player's abilities get better over the game, the character in the game is always portrayed to be about that competent (I'm looking at you Mass Effect).

We Need A Montage
Even when we do see a character get better in a story, it is usually done in the middle of the story. We don't see the characters continued growth over time, but rather there is a set break in the action where the character trains up. Rocky can't win how he is, so he has a montage where he juices up. We only see real progression as a cause of these montages. Rocky isn't a better fighter after fighting Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang until he gets his next montage. After which, he is pretty much the next level of super saiyan and all is well.

Not, this is theoretically possible in RPGs. Any time the GM only allows XP to be spent after certain sessions (say, between stories for more episodal games) this is basically going on. The story happens, it pauses, there is a montage, and everyone gets better. Still, this is rare, and still not the case with most games.

Terry McGinnis Becomes Batman
Terry McGinnis, the star of Batman Beyond, is closer to how most RPGs handle their characters. As the episodes go on, Terry gets better skill wise as well as picking up better gear. This is the kind of character that we're used to in our RPGs, but it also means that we are restricted to one specific kind of story. Namely, the kind of story where the heroes are coming into their power. Not one where they already have it.

The Question
So, the question I have is, is it possible to do a long term RPG with characters that are mechanically static? Has anyone done one? Obviously, the characters would have to be fairly powerful to not need to grow, and it would take some careful GMing. Alternatively, has anyone simply had players reach a peak? I know that D&D capped at level 20 for a while, and L5R used to cap at Insight Rank 8. Theoretically, after hitting these ranks there wasn't really anywhere to go.

Are there any games where characters are static by design in this way? With the focus not on the growth of the character ability wise, but in other areas? Would one like that even work? Or do we, as players and GMs, need/want the ability for our characters to grow mechanically as the game progresses?


  1. The first game that comes to mind is Traveller which has no progression other than wealth. When I was younger I remember a few games that didn't allow for advancement and I would drop them immediately. Now I'd be a bit more open minded but the game would have to have a different structure that made it interesting to play.

    I'm reading "Gamemastering" by Brian Jamison, while I wouldn't use all his methods there are some interesting ideas. One that would fit here, is that PCs don't start as a beginner. He lets the players choose their skills and how good they are at them. This could give an alternate system that is still interesting to play. His experience and mine find that the more experienced a player is the less powerful a PC they make.

    He focuses heavily on the players naming NPCs (or GCs as he calls them) that the GM then uses to create adventures. Primarily the player names a nemesis for the PC and the GM uses that to make the adventures. This strikes me as the kind of character progression you're looking to so it might give some ideas.

  2. Having players start off with the character they want can be a fun thing to do. The more experienced PCs also are more likely to start off weaker at times as well. However, those games also usually still involve a growth mechanic. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    I can also see a game where your character never improved being potentially very boring, which is why this would have to be handled very carefully.

    Systems like Amber I think also have a lot to add to the conversation. The number in your stat is less important than your place in the order of things and then you have to work around that.

  3. I think a game like this could work with the right group of players and the right GM. There are plenty of roleplaying systems out there that focus more on creating a unique and interesting story rather than creating powerful player characters.

    Misspent Youths is a good example of this, because the character creation consists only of making a character personality and the only "advancement" is selling out which only means your character becomes more like "The Man" and less like a rebel.

    The players and GM(more like a storyteller in this case) would need to be more able to and comfortable with staying in character more, because the out-of-character information would remain static on the character sheets if the PCs never leveled up.

    I've been doing play-by-post games and I'm playing in a freeform game right now that involves no dice rolls and it feels a bit like that. There are power increases since the player characters all have some sort of magic or something, but it just doesn't feel the same when there are no mechanics written down for how they all work.

    Interesting post. It sounds like a really cool idea that might make for a fun game.

  4. I'm hoping it will, Broken. May try to tackle it from a design perspective if I ever finish these editing passes on the current WIP.