Character development is probably the one RPG topic I complain about most. Inconsistent character development, shallow character development, the lack of my own character development, the topic of developing personalities and motivations for game characters is likely the topic of thousands of words that I’ve written over the years. When I began running my online group’s short Apocalypse World “backup” game, the amount and quality of player buy-in blew my mind, and turned me from an indie dabbler to someone who shouts PbtA from the rooftops.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that a good character-focused PbtA game would have the same effect on me sitting on the other side of the screen, a player. But yet, when it happened it still took me by surprise…even more surprising, the effect was even more profound than when it happened to me as a GM. Maybe it’s not that surprising, actually. There are two reasons I GM: first, it appeals to both my creative mind and my desire for control in specific ways. Second, the majority of my experiences as a player in the formative years of my gaming development were, at best, mediocre. GMing was always more fun for me, though as I’m finding a lot of this was how I was able to build my own fun.
Recently, after a fair spate of so-so player experiences, I decided to look inward, as opposed to blaming the game system or the play style (or the GM). When I saw myself running through a game on autopilot that others were enjoying, I had to conclude there was something I wasn’t doing…after all, I’ve been playing with this group for over a decade now, and I know where our playstyles align and where they clash. For our most recent games, I took the tack that making characters pop takes effort on my part not only to think through them and think about their motivations, but also to keep them relevant in the game, in both meta and mechanical senses. For the most part it’s worked pretty well. Sadi and Nant, in our Dark Heresy and Force and Destiny games respectively, are two of the more engaging characters I’ve played, stretching back to either our first Shadowrun campaign or the Cyberpunk game “Island Paradise” (the characters for those games, Zeke and Roland, also had distinct and strong motivations, as well as better built mechanical niches than many of my others). But then, as if to shout from the rooftops “System Matters!”, Seamus ran Masks at our annual Beach Weekend and blew my world open.
Masks is a superhero game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse, but not just any superhero game. It takes cues from Monsterhearts and makes your characters teenagers, about to inherit the superheroic mantle from the three generations that came before them. Before we even look at the mechanics there’s a great platform for a range of motivations and origin stories. Then, the rules add to that. Instead of a harm clock, you have conditions, emotional states which make things more difficult and can be given to you by teammates just as easily as enemies. Character stats can be shifted, both making social interactions *extremely* important but also representing the volatility and fragile self-image of the average teenager. The influence mechanic is there (a simpler version of Strings/Debts/Giri from Monsterhearts/Urban Shadows/The Veil), but adds the niggling detail that every adult named NPC has influence over you until they spend it, which adds yet further to the teenage milieu.
So yeah, the game’s fantastically built, and like most PbtA games it’s fairly simple. But what about my character? I built Gilbert Philips, a normal nerdy kid who after getting some experimental cybernetics shipped to him, becomes CryptoHertz, hacker and parkour master. Thing is, unlike the rest of the characters (which included a transforming blood monster and someone whose moods can set them on fire, literally), Gilbert doesn’t have any real powers. The enhancements make him do things that he, nerdy high school kid, thinks are superhuman, but he’s pretty normal compared to the others. He has imposter syndrome while many of his teammates envy his normality, alive parents, and ability to go to school and have a social life.
Gilbert is overwhelmingly based on myself from high school. The name comes from two places: “Gilbert” was the name of an over-the-top nerd character I played in a college Greek Sing show, and serves to broadcast the character archetype. “Philips” was the last name of one of my players in my high school RPG group, and is a signal to exactly what part of my life I’m borrowing most of the personality traits from (high school, but specifically the latter half of high school).
More importantly than the supporting details (driving his parents’ minivan, running gaming groups, strange levels of interest in exercise and physical activity despite being terrible at them), Gilbert enters the game with some strange demi-romantic relationships that he has trouble dealing with. They aren’t representative of actual things that happened to me in high school (Gilbert has way more game than I did, even if he’s fucked it up badly so far), but they’re indicative of an aspect I want to explore. Already in one session, playing Gilbert has been immensely therapeutic, as I get into the mind of my high school self and see similar scenarios with a very different viewpoint. It’s a weird sort of inverse cognitive behavioral therapy…get back into the dysfunctional mindset you had before, to better understand why you are now more able to handle those sorts of scenarios.
As I keep on playing games, writing games, and running games, I am getting a better hold on what I’m looking for from said games. Character escapism is not really my thing, at least not in terms of ability. That said, having the power to make impactful decisions is important to me, and you can’t have impactful decisions without consequences. It’s also fun and cathartic to be given license to make the wrong decisions…in some ways you never have more power than when you drag the rest of the party along on your ill-considered impulse journey. More than impulses and power, though, you have to care. You have to be rooting for not just your characters but all the characters, and get invested in the journeys you take. When it comes to Masks, we know the journeys ahead will be difficult, even though we don’t know what form they’ll take. I talked about the game with Seamus, and he pointed out we didn’t even know what the main villain looked like. Despite not having a solid arc yet, the game has already coalesced into a drama we care about, on the strengths of the main characters. It’s only going to get stranger, and we’ll be sitting at the table cheering on the misfits in front of us even as we grab dice and conspire to make their lives more difficult. I can’t wait.