This is RPG-ology #42: Who?, for May 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Who?, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
There is something about role playing games I find at least a tad unrealistic. It has to do with character generation. And it doesn’t generally matter whether character generation is done by randomized rolls, point purchases, or decide what you want and run it by the referee. They all seem to have one thing in common: the player knows everything that matters about the character; the character knows everything about himself.
That is not the way my life has been. I somehow doubt that your life has been that way, either. I have spent a lifetime working out my strengths and my weaknesses, and even today the list is tentative. I would say that I am intelligent, articulate, creative; that I have strong innate skills in music, and strong abilities in math. On the other hand, I have little skill in the visual arts; I don’t have the hands for drawing, and dance is a completely opaque medium to me. And my business skills are terrible. I’m a poor salesman, can’t run a budget, and am too disorganized to keep reliable records. For years I’ve been cataloguing in my own mind what things I do well and in which I should defer to the expertise of others. But it is far from a complete list. Each year I find things I thought I did well at which I am not so talented as I believed; each year I discover new things to add to my strengths. I expect—I hope—this is also your experience.
Yet it has rarely been the experience of any of my role playing game characters. From the moment play begins, they know their strengths and their weaknesses; and if they gain new skills during play, or improve old ones, they know how good they are at these with far more precision than you or I could even imagine for ourselves. In Dungeons & Dragons they can compare an 18(73) Strength against an 18(74) Strength, or a 30% chance of picking locks (level one thief with +5 racial or dexterity bonus) against a 29% chance at the same skill (level two thief with no bonus). In Multiverser, too, we know that the character with the 1@6 strength is just a bit stronger than the one with a 1@5 strength, that all other things being equal the 2@3 skill is better than the 2@2, and that a one-point difference in chance to hit can make or break a character on that critical attack. And with that one percent difference, we can decide which character should attempt the shot; we know that, however infinitesimally, he is better. The precision with which we understand our characters is unavoidably transferred to the precision with which they know themselves—they know when they are good, and they know how good they are, in very specifically definable terms. (And if you don’t think this is true, take a look at my material on ADR’s and Surv’s, a system for accurately determining the best attack forms and the most durable characters in a[n Original A]D&D party, to see just how well some game systems lend themselves to such analysis.)
To some degree this is unavoidable. Game system characters must comport to game systems. Their abilities must be in some sense quantified (and just because the scale lacks numbers doesn’t mean it isn’t quantified). And many things must be agreed before they become necessary, or the session degenerates to an argument about what the character can or cannot do instead of proceeding as an exciting game experience.
Yet there are certainly ways to give characters at least a little mystery. And if done right, they can enhance the game experience without interfering with the flow.
I’m going to save a lot of space here by referring you to a page I have about mystery options. This was not my idea; it was something developed by E. R. Jones before we met. But I provide it as a sort of player option in my AD&D games. The short version is that when the character is created, the player is permitted (not required) to roll for things he does not know about his character, things which the character does not know about himself. Such things serve as plot hooks and premise devices during the game, but they also make the characters something extra, people who find that their own lives are stories, not just characters who try to become part of the stories.
But that’s only one way to do this.
In most games, if your character learns a new skill he has learned it at the lowest level of ability possible. Multiverser gives a bit of leeway to this—a player character can on a good roll learn a skill at a slightly higher ability. This edge, however slight, makes it seem that the character had a knack for something, and so picked it up more easily than most people would have done. It’s almost entirely random—but there’s no reason why it has to be. The referee could easily determine for each character that there are certain things at which that character would excel were he to put his hand to them, and keep that list secreted away in his notes. When the character attempts to learn the skill, success could be automatic, or at least heavily bonused. The player would get the sense of “I’m good at this,” and the character would have discovered something about himself that was unexpected.
You could push this further, giving the character low-level skills he doesn’t know he has. Not credible, you think? Well, think again.
When I was knee high to a grasshopper, my parents would occasionally take me to this farm where they would put kids on the back of a horse and walk the horse once around a paddock. I never learned to ride. Years later friends put me on a horse, and although I was not entirely comfortable they agreed that I had a “natural seat.” I had learned a bit of a skill I didn’t know I knew. You can find a way to give characters these hidden skills, either by listing them secretly when play begins or by adding them at moments during the game.
This might seem fairly straightforward stuff, and many of you have undoubtedly used variations of this—secret character papers on which the true abilities are listed, character background stories which include mysteries to be unraveled and revealed during play. But it might have escaped your notice that there are two distinct ideas at work here. How you use this very much reflects the way you think about your games and what is important to them; and learning to use them the other way could significantly expand your horizons.
What to most of you will be the obvious concept is the way in which these past secrets affect the character’s abilities in the present. The player who discovers that his character can already tie a knot or climb a cliff or fly a speeder has an in-game advantage, an edge related to play. So does the one who has an affinity for a specific weapon he tries to use, or a facility for computer use. These types of secrets make for stronger characters in the competitive sense—they have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.
But past secrets can also affect the character’s relation to the plot. The one who can open the magic door because he has the blood of the trusted general of the ancient king is not just in the story; he’s part of the story. The same is true of the one whose ID tattoo contains the activation code for the interface, or whose family heirloom holds the secret to the location of the lost treasure. When this is well done, the characters are the story. Sure it can be fun to be an adventurer seeking a lost treasure Indiana Jones style, just lucky enough to be the one who got to it first. But it’s so much better a story if you are seeking your treasure, fulfilling your destiny, and not just out on a lark with some friends. By carefully crafting these unknown aspects of your player characters you make them stronger in a story sense, in the sense that the world would not be the same without them, that they aren’t just another interchangeable set of explorers.
If you’ve watched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, consider Dawn. She was abruptly introduced one season, and everyone—including her—accepted that she had always been Buffy’s sister who somehow hadn’t been around (staying with Dad, perhaps?) But gradually we learned that Buffy never had a sister. Dawn was some incredible secret power sought by a powerful supernatural being that the gods had chosen to hide by disguising it as a person and connecting that person to others who would protect her. She became the focus of many stories and much emotion, as one by one everyone figured it out.
Now imagine that you thought of that, and that one of your player characters is Dawn. No one knows that but you. The clues will be dropped along the way, and slowly everyone will realize that Dawn’s explanation for herself doesn’t add up quite right. They will suspect her of deceiving them; she will be confused and uncertain. Meanwhile, there’s the villain out there searching for her, not knowing what form the power took. Maybe the player characters become aware of this, but don’t know that they have it. The regular adventures of your game continue—but beneath, behind, and around them all is this other aspect, the revelation of the truth about Dawn. You have given depth and drive and distinction to your game which will pull it all together as a string of unrelated adventures under a meta-story which slowly grows in importance.
Like I said, there really is no reason why any player should know as much about his character as the referee does. As God knows me better than I will ever know myself, so I feel obliged to know many secrets about my player characters that they have yet to discover.