Monday, 3 August 2015

On "Character Builds"

Disclaimer: I don't give a monkey's banana how you play your game. I mean that sincerely. However...

The two words "Character Build" makes me cringe every time I hear them. This process of character creation has been described in both "official" and "unofficial" capacities, and it honestly perplexes me. Despite the fact I was weaned on 3rd edition (mainly), and I became well acquainted with poring over tables, dense paragraphs, and rules and options galore, I can't help but feel this term is misplaced. In a game in which death lingers around every darkened corner, it is preemptive to plan so far ahead to predict a character's distant fate. Is this not the role of the game itself to determine? 

The idea of "character build" makes way more sense in a video (or digital) game. Usually, death is as inconvenient as reloading from your last save, or as involved as retrieving your items from whence you were slain. By this mode of play, the idea of a "character build" is logical. By and large, the autonomy of a character's destiny is in the hands of the player. If they don't like how the computer...err computed...that last battle, just reload the game. Someone will invariably argue that video gamers are destroying the hobby and blah blah blah, but I would suggest the prevalence of min-maxing has been around since day one. This is evidenced in Gygax's distaste for some of the hobbyist hacks of the day, where umpteenth levels were not uncommon. Munchkinism right?

If you are a munchkin/min-maxer, all power to you. Then again, in a tabletop role-playing game — especially if you're playing a relatively high lethality system (like most OSR games) — I feel the idea of a character build puts an unfair burden on the DM. Why? Because when a player says "I'm going to have a 20th level x, who has taken x feat, and adds x amount to attacks and damage" the DM, in their role of "facilitating fun", is more likely to take this player predilection on board. A bias (and arguably a detractive one) occurs. The game becomes less free. 

I'm a huge fan of letting the dice fall in whatever random pattern they may. If this benefits the players, so be it. If it destroys my careful preparation, so be it. If a character dies, so be it. Even if I am a player, and my character dies because of a shitty die roll, I honestly couldn't care less. The merciless randomness of "chance" is more fair and exciting to me than any hyper-effort towards true game balance. One of my biggest attractions to D&D is the fact that real-life intelligence can be helpful. Yes, there is an arbitrariness to the whole thing. DM decision-making and the whims of the dice can be a cold fate to swallow, but a system that facilitates the immediate creation of a superhero is tediously boring. The game purposely involves dice. Surely, the game is meant to contain some level of randomness. If a purpose of a role-playing game is a (rather loose) simulation of reality, why would everything work in a player's favour? Characters will and should die. 

As a DM, I just want to run my game, and for it to be enjoyable. I don't want the nagging thought in the back of my mind that a player is expecting their character's inevitable specialness to shine through every session. If they're invested in the game, I believe that will happen by itself. I see that specialness every session when my players blow me away with their awesome ideas. For me, part of the fun of the game, is the notion that death could be around the corner, and if I want a level, or more gold, or an awesome sword, I need to legitimately "earn it". I can distinctly remember my least enjoyable games. They have usually involved a predetermined or unavoidable narrative path I (as the player) must follow, or the complete absence of real danger to my character. Let me know death is not only possible, it's probable.

For the record, I'm not going to pretend slaughtering a whole village of orcs is not fun, it is. But I like that powerful feeling to be interspersed with moments of terror and the imminent realisation that my character kind of sucks!