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The Play's the Thing

101 ways to amuse a player character

by David Goodner
Dec 17,2002

 

The Play's the Thing

101 ways to amuse a player character

By David Goodner

Welcome back. In this season of giving, I can think of no better topic than "getting stuff." So that's our topic for this month's column. Last time we talked about all the interconnected goals that make up a roleplaying game. This month, we'll focus on the ones that really matter: Character Goals.

Goal Setting for Fun and Profit

Let's get started with the premise that people have goals. PCs are people, ergo they have goals. First, a group of PCs usually has a goal. In a really simple game, it's probably "finish the dungeon," or something similarly short-term and liner. If that's the way you play, you probably don't need to set a whole lot of goals for your character. The rewards of the game are immediate (treasure), or intrinsic to the character (levels).

In a more complex game, it could be both more complicated, and longer-term. For instance, in a very strange futuristic occult game I played, our group goal was "defend our clan from another clan." We had lots of short-term goals like "repel the invasion," "figure out where the ninjas hid the bomb before they blow up our house," and "blow up the other guy's house." All of those fed into the larger goal in one way or another. A few others didn't, early on.

Within the group, individuals have goals. One PC in the aforementioned game was a kind of adopted member of the clan who wanted full membership status. Another one wasn't really family at all, and only hung out with us because our enemy was his enemy. My character, just to contemplate matters, was in love with a member of the enemy clan.

A single individual can also have contradictory goals. Megan, my character in that game, wanted to find her missing brother - the only member of her original family left alive. When it turned out that he'd been involved in killing all the others and had been working for the main bad guy all along, there was a bit of conflict there. Megan could never bring herself to kill him. Eventually he killed himself to spare her the choice (or else there was just some kind of kill spell on him. I was never completely clear on what happened). Love makes people do strange things.

Choose Your Battles

The trick with setting goals is to set goals you will actually be able to pursue during the game. I'll stick with Megan as an example, so first I'll have to give you some quick background. Megan was a member of a race of dragon shapeshifters. Before the game began, her family was killed. She was the only survivor besides her brother, Michael, who had run away from home years before. She lived with her aunt and her aunt's new family (also dragon-people). Megan was a little weird because she'd learned to take her dragon shape about five years early. In her culture, that made her a full adult even though she was only a sophomore in high school (home-schooled once the faculty found out she could turn into a 10' long, fire-breathing lizard). She was also a magical prodigy, with a mastery of spells that would usually take decades.

She lived in a sort of over-the top, anime cyberpunk world. Take Shadowrun and make it weirder, and you're most of the way there.

I could have set a lot of goals for Megan. In fact, I did, and discarded several as the game shaped up. The ones I considered were:

  • "Find out who killed my family"
  • "Become a master of the mystic arts"
  • "Lead as normal a life as possible"
  • "Rebuild my father's mercenary unit"

Of those four, the first was the only one that was really practical. The person who killed Megan's family turned out to be the main bad guy, acting through Michael. Out of character, I pretty much knew that going in. If you hand a GM a plot hook that big, of course he's going to use it. In character, Megan figured it out fairly quickly, which made her even more determined to beat the bad guy. She promised him she'd eat his heart while he was still alive - and at the end of the game she did.

Mastering the arts of magic was going to take longer, even for Megan, than the game was going to run. Besides, she was usually to busy running for her life to study much. She regretted it, but had to mostly put aside gaining much more magical proficency.

Similarly, there was not much chance of her leading a normal life. She tried whenever she got the chance, though. She had a boyfriend (who happened to be the son of a major enemy), went shopping, and liked motorcycles.

She never got the chance to rebuild her father's merc unit. I eventually discarded that goal because it wasn't adding anything to the game. That came down to the fact that the GM didn't think our group really needed a merc unit mucking up his Romeo & Juliet style feud story. I decided, on reflection, that it wouldn't have really been in character for Megan anyway. Leading a merc unit wasn't what she wanted to do. She might have tried, but wouldn't have stuck with it for long - which is pretty much what happened in the game anyway.

The lesson in all this is that you need to pick goals that are within the scope of the GM's game, or at least not too far out of it. The GM should, of course, also be ready to work with you, but you need to keep in mind that he has other characters to consider. He has less room for compromise than you do because there are more demands on his attention. If the GM wants to run a modern crime game where you take down a ring of Triad heroin dealers, then your FBI guy should probably not decide he wants Fox Mulder's job. At the least, he could keep his UFO hunting a little in the background.

Don't Bite Off More than You can Chew

A big, overarching goal like "become Emperor" might not be a great choice for some games. If the game has nothing to do with being Emperor, and your character is never going to so much as go to the Imperial Palace, it's going to be good more for flavor than actual play.

One of Megan's goals, becoming a major sorceress, was just going to take too long. The fact she wanted to do it meant I spent every experience point I could spare on magical stuff, and by the end of the game she was pretty good, but she still had a long way to go. Fortunately, it wasn't a huge goal for me (the player).

Goals you can achieve are fun. In one of the first Pendragon games I played, my character, the not terribly creatively named Sir Daffyd, wanted to win enough land for his huge family. That was, I thought, going to be pretty tough. In fact, since the GM ran the invasion of Rome, he ended up with more than enough land, but most of his male relatives died off in the fighting. The irony just added to the savor.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

This one is the bane of players everywhere, and I feel like a GM shill for bringing it up. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to choose goals that fit within the GM's plot. The GM has a lot to do. He has (if he's good) invested a lot of time in the game, and made a lot of plans for where it's going and what's going to happen. He's made up locations, events and NPCs with whom your character will interact.

Unless you decide to have your character go in the opposite direction at every opportunity. I used to play with a guy who did that, and the one time I GMed for him, it drove me nuts. (kind of sad, really) However, if you pick a course of action that at least makes you hang out in the general neighborhood the GM picked out, the game will run much better for everyone.

If you find that your goal isn't practical, maybe your character will change his priorities. Finding the Seven Cities of Gold is all well and good, but if you just got information that evil Templar agents are going to summon an elder-god in London, maybe now's not the best time to leave for the New World. (Later, after the hellfire, damnation, and waking nightmare begins... that would be a good time to leave.)

A classic example comes from my accursed Fantasy campaign. I call it accursed because every time I try to run it, something bad happens. Neverhtheless, I really like the world, so I keep trying. In this particular attempt, which was cut short by two players having to quit partway in, I had one player who was playing an exiled nobleman. His family had lost a civil war a few years back and fled to the campaign city. His big goal was to go back home and retake his lands. That was actually cool, but unfortunately the player didn't seem to care about anything else. I dropped plot hooks all over the place, but if they didn't involve an invasion of this other country, he didn't care.

Of course, the game got cut short after only a few sessions. Maybe he would have perked up after a while. If so, that would have been fine. I really had plans for his big goal, just not right at the beginning of the game.

Keep Your Friends Close...

Unless you're in a fairly unusual situation, there are some other players. If they've been reading this article, they might have some goals, too. (If not, feel free to show it to them) The game will be better if you decide how your character reacts to those goals. Helping is good, but sometimes so is hindering. Think about what another PC's goal means to your PC. A noble, honest Paladin might not want his Wizard friend to obtain the Staff of Bones if his religious training tells him that the Staff is evil and anyone who wields it is invariably corrupted. That could lead to some interesting intra-party conflict. As long as everyone is mature about it, that's really fun.

The other PCs can also help you with your goals, or might want to get in your way. Look for opportunities to involve other PCs in your plots. Presumably, the group hangs out together. They should take some interest in each other's lives.

In my Now is the Winter game (which I'm sure you're bored of hearing about now), Catlin the Ravanos stripper had a blood disease that she wanted cured so she could feed freely. Dr. Zhou the Tremere offered to help her. While he was doing it, he conned her out of a couple of traits of her blood more than what he needed for his research. He almost used that blood when the bad guys offered him something he really wanted in return for it. If he hadn't bothered to help Catlin, that subplot could never have happened.

In Conclusion

I don't really have a lot of concluding thoughts for this one. Setting and pursuing goals for your character is a great way, possibly the best way, to flesh him out and make him more than the sum of his stats and equipment. On the other hand, it's also a good way to disrupt the game, so you should keep a handle on it.

So, that's it for this month. Next time, we'll talk about how to pursue these lofty goals of yours.

See you then.

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg