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The Play's the Thing

The Best There Is at What I Do

by David Goodner
May 28,2004


The Play's the Thing

by David Goodner

The Best There Is at What I Do

Welcome back. In this installment, we will embark at long-last on the topic I've been putting off for a while, personality types. This will be a little different than the character archetypes I discussed earlier, because it won't focus on abilities at all - just personality traits. What I have in mind is to pick out some classically annoying personalities, and discuss how they might be played effectively.

First up, the "Moody Loner."

Everybody knows the "Moody Loner." He was orphaned at an early age, quite possibly raised by a ninja clan, has no particular ties to anyone else, and tries to be completely self-sufficient. He's the Masterless Man, not shackled to any cause, any place, or any group. He's free to do whatever he wants, limited only by his personal code of honor.

He's a very classic literary character. I could point to Gilgamesh (well, he had one friend), Percival, or Perseus. I could mention Josey Wales (or almost any other Clint Eastwood character). It would be almost criminal if I didn't mention Wolverine of the X-men. Fortunately, I'm covered there because I used his catch-phrase as the title of this column.

But literature and gaming are different beasts. In a work of literature, while the Loner is off brooding or whatever, there aren't four other loners waiting their turn. The story just happens. In a game, a character who demands a significant amount of one-on-one time can be a burden to the rest of the group.

So how can you make it work? How can you play a loner in a group activity?

A few ways.

Just Deal

Your character is a loner. He doesn't really care about the other PCs very much, and whenever faced with the choice, generally acts alone. This frequently means that the GM is forced to run a split group.

This is the least constructive way to handle the problem, but sometimes it's the right one. In a PBEM or PBP game, loners work much better than in tabletop games. In a LARP, it can also work OK, to the extent that if you want to have any fun, you'll still have to talk to other characters, but none of them have to be your character's friends.

Even in a tabletop game, you have some options. As I've said before, you only have a right to expect roughly as much of the GM's attention as the other players do, but if you don't mind sitting and watching a lot, you can do so. You can also try to handle your side-trips and personal quests in between games if the logistics work out.

Pick the Right Game

In games that eschew the traditional "party" structure, all the players might be playing Loners to some degree. Games like Amber, or an all Elders Vampire chronicle tend to blur the "PC/Protagonist NPC/Antagonist" division, so PCs are frequently acting on their own, against each other, or in shifting alliances. A loner character isn't so disruptive, since the social contract of the game is built to handle it.

A troupe style game might also work, to some extent. This is dodging the issue a little, because your Loner PC will have something of an entourage, but they'll be his subordinates, rather than "other PCs." Psychologically, he can still be somewhat of a loner, while not really monopolizing too much of the game.

Pick the Right Situation

Most of the literary examples of Loners get involved in groups to some degree. There are ways to make that happen. Your character may be a rootless wanderer, but perhaps his code of honor won't let him just walk away from a grave injustice. If some other people are fighting the same injustice, he might join up with them, "strictly temporarily." From there, he might always be on the fringes of the group, or might come out of his shell a little.

A Loner might be forced into working with a group, rather than choosing it on his own. Loners can be hard to manipulate, since they're built with few hooks. If you've chosen to play a Moody Loner because that way the GM can't "screw with you" then I think your motives may be a bit misguided. It's not really fair to expect the GM to be able to craft a game to your personal specifications in which nothing ever happens that you don't like. The literary experiences RPGs try to re-create are full of characters forced into situations they wouldn't choose: loved ones are kidnapped, killed, or cursed; Powerful enemies rise up from the past; Protagonists are bribed, begged, or blackmailed. If you're not willing to play along a little bit, you might be better off writing for your own entertainment than playing a collaborative game.

(Ok, I'll get off my soapbox now)

Pick the Right Loner

My favorite option is to build a character who might think he's a Loner with no compassion and no care for anyone but himself, but really he's not. Wolverine, particularly the way he's portrayed in the X-men movie, is an incredible example. Here is this guy with no past, wandering alone, but when he's confronted with someone who really needs his help, he gives it. He complains the whole time, but he does what needs to be done. And when he finds a group, he joins it, still complaining.

A "Cooperative Loner" can be antisocial, moody, headstrong, and stubborn, but he has built-in reasons to work with the rest of the group at least half the time. He's built from the get-go to be part of the group, even though he doesn't want to be. Or better yet, he really does want to be, but he's got hang-ups that keep him from realizing it.

I'm playing one of those in a PBP Witchcraft game right now. I didn't really focus on the Loner aspect, but it was certainly there. When I was invited to join, the group was a little short on straight, physical muscle, so I whipped up a vampyre PC. Gabriel de la Luna was a Conquistador, turned into a vampyre by an Aztec vampyre/magician. Eventually, he escaped his master's control and became a member of the Fellowship of Judas (your basic "vampyres in search of redemption" group, for those who don't play Witchcraft).

He was full of self-loathing, adhered to a rigid code of honor, and that was about it. (Hey, I was in a hurry) As I fleshed out his background, I decided that he hadn't always been that way. Once, he'd had friends, and begun to think that he could really do some good and become "human." He didn't think he could really be mortal again, but he thought he might have something like a family.

Then they all died horribly.

That left me back at square 1, with a warrior vampyre who would honorably do whatever he promised. The NPC he considered to be his feudal lord asked him to protect the other PCs, so he did.

Over the course of the next few adventures, he started to care about them. Eventually, he fell in love with one, after a really complicated relationship with another one. (Fun game, kinda like a soap opera with periodic demon invasions).


Oh yeah, like you really think I have any conclusions by now.

The Loner is always going to be a little hard to play in traditional settings, but I think what I've outlined is a pretty good place to start. Like just about anything else you might want to do, it'll be good if you do it well, and bad if you do it poorly.

Your motives are important, of course. If you're playing the Loner to explore his effect on the group's dynamic, and the group's on him, you're probably in better shape than if you're playing a Loner because the other players are such losers. (And one wonders why you're playing with a bunch of losers).

When you're looking for examples and inspiration, it might be better to look at sources with something of an ensemble cast, rather than stories where the Loner is the only focus, to see how the authors split up the time. But even in more centralized examples, Loners almost always end up with some kind of connections. Find out how those work, and try to make them work for you as well.

Next time up, I think I'll try another concept, playing an insane character.

See you then.

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What do you think?

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