Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Makes a Good PC?: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 32

This week the Play on Target podcast talks about what makes a good PC. You can see we’ve cleverly put this up against the previous episode considering NPCs. We manage to do the episode with minimal “let me tell you about my character…” moments. Instead we talk about what’s a good PC for us as players and as GMs. I love a PC slightly flawed, but not too awful, who makes a difference in some abstract way. That can be having an impact in play on the world or managing to showcase some neat concept or idea. As important, a good PC has to have room to breathe: enough sessions and play time to come to life. There’s a whole graveyard of cool characters I regret because the GMs shut down their campaigns after only a few episodes. Super-frustrating when you’ve come up with something that immediately sparks for you.

In the episode we discuss PC flaws I’ve restricted in campaigns: Loner, Bad Temper, Stubborn. Usually these prove less a problem for the player and more an obstacle for the party & GMs. I don’t mind interparty tension or character flaws that create problems. But sometimes these don’t create challenges or difficult choices. Dirty Harry’s attitude gets him into trouble, but doesn’t generate meaningful consequences or troubling decisions He doesn’t struggle with them; instead he plows through and the world has to get out of the way. That’s fine for iconic characters and some games thrive on that. But a party jammed with or imbalanced by can become wearing.

On the other hand, I recently saw an exception to this. During a recent session, one PC (Mister Miracle) broke off on his own to plunge into the Phantom Zone. He ignored the warnings of others, didn’t tell anyone what he was doing, and potentially could have released a horde of supervillains. But it felt right and everyone enjoyed it as we moved back and forth between scenes. Why was everyone on board? Because that PC had built up trust and good will over the course of the campaign. He’s established himself as a thrillseeker, lured by dangerous places and traps. That’s been a consistent characterization. And in each of the three arcs he’s had one or two moments where that has gotten the better of him and created crises. But he’s also negotiated about that- been willing to be talked down without too much problem, hasn’t done anything to deliberately screw the group, and has generally used that personality quirk as something fun. He’s traded off overcoming those impulses enough times that I think the party had no problem when he did give in.

That’s hugely important. Those moves and moments come in the context of larger play. The group has an implicit dialogue about that. In a sense they’re trading moments. I’m going to withhold my disad now in favor of the group or back your moment where you indulge, but at some point in the future I’ll want an equally interesting and cool moment, and you’ll be down with that.

I can’t stress this enough- let your players be trailblazers for whatever cultures, races, organizations, and communities they come from. If they define them in a particular way: buy into those. That doesn’t mean taking everything as gospel, but be willing to adapt your vision to that of the players. If the players present themselves as a typical member- use them as a model. If they position themselves as exceptional or antithetical build the culture in contrast. I have Elves in my fantasy game and my vision of them has been in a constant dialogue with the players who run them. I don’t really like classic Elves, but some of them do- and that tension has really shaped their presentation. The Elvish people have survived and become more interesting because of that negotiation.

YRMV but I think the payoff for this approach beats out my sticking to my guns about how something ought to be. For one thing it encourages player buy in. They know that if they take the time to develop traits or come up with ideas about their personal history, it will have an impact. For another it can save the GM work. If you allow the players to fill in some details you can put your attention and labor elsewhere to complement that. Finally I really believe that you get more interesting material when different visions come together to make something new. When a player introduces a new element that spurs me to think about the context- and often spins out into even more cool and connected plots, characters, and concepts.

I made this an explicit part of the game when I ran The Last Fleet. Each player had a character from one of the surviving races. I let them determine what they were like- and how they reacted to one another. I riff off of the elements they put into play. Jeanne, for example, developed her feline Namiir race into a weird mix of practicality and artistry. They became more than just Cat People with a penchant for assassination. Kenny over the year helped share and create what Drow meant in our ongoing fantasy world- not AD&D undergrounders, but staunch traditionalists unable to change to deal with modern life. It goes beyond fantasy games, though. Sherri’s play in our first Changeling campaign helped me see elements about the different seemings and kiths. In particular she defined the “Wizened” as persons trapped in a role or duty, unable to break away from that. Matt’s presentation of Mister Miracle in our M&M game has shifted the campaign as a whole to be more cosmic. He’s helped to redefine the cosmology.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

1 comment:

  1. A great podcast! I only wish it had gone on another good half hour or so. I have all but assigned it to my players as mandatory listening (OK, I said please).

    My current group, which is a mix of people of known for a relatively short time and a good number of years now, simply gels differently from my older groups. Back in the day, I had a lot of groups who knew each other for a while, even if they were just meeting me for the first time.

    For example, in my old-old NJ group, one of my best friends for years introduced me to a group of people who consisted of: An old friend of his I didn't know. A couple and a young woman who had all gone to high school and/or college together. Two brothers, one of whom was married and his wife played too. A fellow who'd been friends with one or more of the others for years (but didn't know everyone).

    My current groups is considerably more 'new' to each other, and to gaming, and we run into a lot of the issues you guys discussed.

    Again, great podcast!

    Remember me if you ever do one on comedy games. ;)