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The Contract

I am Jack's: The Preliminaries of Character

J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
April 10, 2001
Why is it so important to discuss character? Because it is so important. Why is it hard to discuss character? Same reason. Why am I going to discuss character? A column on gaming meta-theory would be a farce without doing so.

I had wanted to just lead into the fray and start pontificating from my electronic Vatican. I cannot do so, because without some sort of framework you would get lost awful fast. Okay, not all of you, but it is best-face-forward-time now that the new management signs are up. Such a mass confusion would happen because character, in the context of role playing games, is more than its textbook definition.

And no, I am not going to give you its textbook definition. If you want that, get up, go to the library and discover the academic porno that is the OED. They allow split infinitives now, so they are on my good list.

Character in a non-gaming context refers to several sorts of things, but all of them focus upon a certain point. We can talk about someone's moral character, referring to the quality of his or her ethical strength. We can talk about the character of an old house, explicating what sort of charm it holds on its inhabitants and visitors. We can talk about which character someone acted out in the play last night, just which person they were. In all these things character serves as a qualifier of identity.

Out of all the choices there is one way that things are, one way that an identity is. Such a limitation or resolution is at the essence of character. This is the way that things are; these are the traits and appearances of the thing. In a final accounting, this is all character in role playing games is. Character is who you are, or more precisely, character is the answer to the question "who are you?"

Every aspect of character in role playing games leans towards the resolution of this question. Yet "who are you" has so many answers. For instance, I can write regarding a character of my own and accurately answer the question by saying:

        "I'm Kile, Kile Atreau;" or

        "I'm a 14th level Paladin;" or

        "I'm a noble warrior in the service of Torm, keeper of the Crystal Flame, who loves his daughter more than anything else;" or even

        "I'm Sumner, and I'm playing this cool game."

All answers are accurate, all are valid, and each one fits one piece of the puzzle. Take away one and the question is not really answered. Even with all those words there are still questions. After all, a phrase like "test of moral character" shows there are more levels at stake than verbal definition. The answer to the question "who are you," and likewise the riddle of character is not only what you call yourself, but also how you act. After all, a "noble warrior" who has lost his title and spends most of his time in prayer, having learned to shun fighting, is not really a noble warrior. Likewise, if I only joined the game for the sake of chatting up the skirts at the table, can I be expected to actually be playing a character? I would be, but that character would be in the mode of the actor who just reiterates lines. And yet that is a character, or a sort of character, as much as the person who is only playing the game for the sake of interacting with the modern world as a 17th century vampire or to knock some notches down on the sword.

Ergo, a character is many things. The many things must all be laid bare for all to be meaningful. And meaningful it must be, of why do we play but for our characters? Certainly there is a multiplicity of reasons for playing role playing games, but all of those reasons are exposed, if not exercised, in characterization. Answer the question "who are you" and I'll have a damn good reason as to what your kicks are in playing role playing games.

In a highly reductive sense, the definition of a role playing game is a game in which someone plays a role. A role playing game is the act of being a character in a context. The full explication of that sentence will take us many moons to unpack. But each column will be an answer to the question "who are you?" and maybe, you'll learn a little about just who you are in the process.

Until next month,
J.S. Majer
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