Episode 99 of Critical Role may have irrecoverably changed my perspective of role playing games forever. Well, that’s not 100 percent sure. Jon Heder, who is coincidentally from my home town, made my favorite D&D move I’ve ever seen. He took Path of the Duck Totem Warrior. That’s right, instead of Bear, Wolf, or any other standard Totem, he went with Duck, which I assume he worked with Matt Mercer to custom make. My mom and I talked about it, and we kinda figured that being from Oregon played a role in him wanting to be a Duck, because there are tons of other ridiculous animals that he could’ve gone with. But the point is that he chose to do something ridiculous, and ridiculous it was. Not only was it ridiculous, but he used the opportunities to largely squander them. One of his skills was Commune with Ducks, which he used to get completely useless information.
Using design to maximize role play opportunities in a TTRPG
Why is this important? Why all the fuss? Plenty of people make all sorts really great role play decisions. Plenty sacrifice mechanics for the sake of role play. That makes what Jon Heder and Matt Mercer did was to design something that maximized role play opportunities. Even his useful skill, Roll off the Back, was more character design than mechanics. Would they have included something like that if the phrase, “like water rolling off a duck’s back,” didn’t exist? I personally don’t think so. Especially since combat wasn’t guaranteed. Jon Heder and Matt Mercer likely worked hard for a thing that might’ve never happened. In fact, if Grog hadn’t decided to pick a fight out of frustration, we may not have known that they put in that work at all. That’s important.
That’s where this conversation starts. Lately, I’ve been talking about design philosophies, and the importance of thinking about how and why we design things. I even applied my design philosophies by walking through them as I was creating my new race, the Aatier. Thus far, it’s been about making sure you have a good reason to design something, and making sure you’re thinking through your design choices. That shouldn’t change. If what you want to do fits within the reins of what’s there, by all means, use that. However, the game is designed for mechanics, and the players are supposed to find the role play. If the person you want to create doesn’t fit reasonably within the confines of the established design, then design something that that fits. But, as I’ve said, just make sure that you’re not creating something completely new to make a few minor tweaks.
If you’re going to design something for role play, consider these suggestions before you do.
Make sure you need to design it
In an article I did about character backstory, I linked to a video I did for my players about how to build a strong backstory. It’s over an hour and a half, but I literally created the entire backstory live, and without any editing. The premise I had for the character was that I wanted to have a young girl who didn’t have any control over the innate magic inside her, which has already been unleashed. Most of what’s in there is straight out of the book, but I did have to customize the background some. To me, it kinda stemmed from X-Men a little bit, where some mutants have disastrous actions with their own powers. Even without the wild magic sorcerer, I didn’t need to design a new archetype, because I could’ve accomplished the same thing through backstory and role play.
You don’t need to design it if you can reskin it
Things don’t need to be what they are. What I mean to say is that if you have a character concept, make sure that what you’re trying to do doesn’t already exist, mechanically speaking. As an example, if you wanted to be a jester, you might look at the bard and see that it just doesn’t work. However, with some simple re-skinning, the rogue’s swashbuckler archetype is super perfect for a jester. Just change the names, words, and the role play.
Granted, not everything will fit that perfectly, but doing a little mixing and matching, and some re-skinning will likely take care of most of your needs. As an example, I just picked up the Early Access to Pugmire, which I’m super excited to check out. However, I don’t want to be a criminal. I want to have a spy character. The criminal background works for the skills, tools, and abilities, but Friends in Low Places doesn’t fit my character concept. So, I can take Nearby Expert, and make it about spies and intelligence agencies. I could do the same for the Friends in Low Places trick, but I saw my character to be more about learning about the world through a history of intelligence gathering than a network of spies, which would equally work for another spy concept. A simple reskin to make my character work exactly as I need them to.
Design with care
If what you want to do doesn’t really exist, and you need something more robust, then make sure that you consider every aspect carefully. Matt Mercer and Jon Heder’s Totem of the Duck Warrior is a prime example. They thought about what would make up the composition of that aspect. Yes, there was humor in there, which makes sense to make it more engaging for Jon Heder, but they also took the time to think about why it would exist that way. If Jon Heder’s character was raised by ducks, then it’s not inconceivable for him to develop an attunement with them (we are in a world of magic, after all). If you’d like a deeper breakdown, my previous articles do a good job of that. The long and short of it is to think carefully about what you’re doing, and always have a reason for doing it.
Have fun, and stay nerdy.