An Unnecessary Perspective on Character Builds

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in some of my various players.  For whatever reason, whether it comes as a part of their personal history in role-playing or some sense of competition, I’ve watched different players approach character building as an exercise in questionable min/maxing, to the point that their character has utterly no purpose outside of an extremely narrow focus.

I’ve already spent a lot of words talking about the inherent abilities in different game systems to allow characters to be useful outside of combat or to approach combat in a different manner than immediately evident.  What I’m talking about here is the tendency to move outside of these particular qualities within a game and dive directly back into the shallow pool of single use characters.

There’s no specific term that I can apply to this practice, as ‘power gaming’ doesn’t specifically apply to a character that has no real use outside of the one thing that they can do.  In a strange way, it seems the polar opposite of what I would normally label as power gamer ideals, since there’s almost nothing compelling about the character, especially if the GM chooses to run an adventure that doesn’t focus on the particular qualities they excel at.

Part of this is also because I consider myself something of a power gamer, insofar as optimizing builds goes.  This has more to do with my own internal criticisms than any real external accusations, but the perception still remains.  Whenever I’m first conceptualizing a character, I tend to focus on a system that isn’t being approached in any depth by any other player character for the game in question.  If there isn’t a Social-based character, I will shift my points to be able to excel at it, even as I maintain enough points in other skills to complement other abilities.  If it’s a build based on talking my way out of things, that means that I’m also going to reserve enough points to be able to fight my way out of a bad situation.  That way, I reason, I can get myself out of whatever thing I’ve talked my way into.  It only makes sense to me.  As far as it goes, I also like to have relatively well-rounded characters to be able give them some manner of options.

A lot of the time, I try to maximize my flaws, if the game system allows for it.  One of my dear friends proposed just building this sort of rule into a system, where there was an assumed amount of negative points spent, and it was up to the player to decide which direction these flaws went.  Rather than mess around with whether or not the characters were put together with a specific amount of drawbacks, everyone was created with an equal amount of bad karma and built up from there.  And to my eye, it’s the flaws that make the character unique.  I still remember the points and the flaw list from a GURPS character I played back in high school, since those were what made him interesting.

But that’s the thing.  The flaws didn’t detract from the character.  In some ways, I would have taken these for the character anyway, just to have something to hook to in the midst of the session.

Another trait I’ve found myself indulging is the practice of trying to buy up the traits that simply cannot be bought later on or that are far more expensive once character generation is finished.  In most White Wolf games, this often references the Backgrounds, which are assumed to be static once dice are rolled, never to be purchased later.  In the context of Edge of the Empire, this takes the form of the Attribute points, which require using a fifth tier Trait to be able to upgrade.  Yeah, it can be done, but it’s a serious investment of points to get to that level.

These practices, while they seem like power gamer tendencies to me, mainly inform the long term build of the character, over the course of his life.  I’ll take certain initial disadvantages for the sake of having it pay off later on in the campaign with a higher overall character arc and power level at a specific point.  There’s an acceptable level of weakness that I’ll play around with in the early sessions, with an eye on covering those weaknesses as play progresses.  I strive to keep the character well-rounded, even in the slow start to the character, but it all depends on how the campaign goes, really.

What I see others do is the opposite, where the character is front-loaded and largely unable to improve in any meaningful degree.  Character that’s running something like twice the initial advantage at the outset is unlikely to be able to expand significantly from that point, especially if the system in question is skill based.  (Level based systems like D&D and Pathfinder see the phenomenon of specific ‘dump stats’, where the character will simply be unable to progress in anything based on the minimal stats the player assumes will prove to be unimportant.)

What wound me up was watching another player work with a wholly ineffective character recently.  He’d built a sort of scholar character in a combat oriented game, pulling points out of normally requisite attributes to throw them into the Intelligence stat.  The end result was a character who had no business even being within earshot of combat, let alone wandering around with a crew of mercenaries.  This was made worse by the guy sitting next to him, whose hardened arena fighting merc had thrown so many points into his melee weapon that it rivaled explosive damage in the scale of raw pain it could dish out.  Neither characters had any other notable skills, and outside of their particular bubbles, they were largely useless.

The net effect, so far as I could ascertain, was to allow the players to ignore most of what was going on at the table and focus solely on whatever social media updates their phones were informing them of.  Or in one case, keep track of the real-time strategy game they’d been engrossed in during all of the previous sessions.  They only had to wake up and pay attention in very rare moments when their particular specialty was called upon, allowing them check out for the rest of the time and focus on what was important.

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Posted on May 11, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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