RPG Player Tip: Great Stories Don’t Need Great People
Getting back on the regular track this week after Origins 2017 – con fatigue is a thing that is real, folks – there were two RPG player experiences I’ve had recently that taught me a valuable lesson. One is from the time-stamped video above that happened during Nerdarchy’s Open Legend RPG-sponsored live game Fridays at noon EST. The other is from my home group’s fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons game. Both situations illustrated a poignant paradigm. As you’ve undoubtedly guessed from this article’s title, the lesson is that great stories emerge from less-than-great people.
Great examples of not so great people in RPG campaigns who drive the narrative forward and create great stories are everywhere. Critical Role’s Vox Machina will be the first to admit they’re often terrible people. Dice, Camera, Action’s Waffle Crew barely get along. Acquisitions Inc.’s The C Team aren’t exactly shining examples of heroism. And Titansgrave’s cast of adventurers were built from the beginning with inherent flaws. Yet all of them tell compelling RPG stories full of action, excitement, humor and drama driven by characters who are far from perfect. I’m sure anyone’s home game has plenty of examples, too.
Great stories from not great people in an RPG No. 1
In the Open Legend RPG game I play a scuzzy female dwarf named Roz Rakheta who is brash, crass and not very feminine at all. She’s a bit of a drunk, with signs of PTSD based on her history in the dwarven military. Over the course of several black ops missions she witnessed friends and allies violently killed by terrifying creatures and began to question the reasons behind the orders she followed as a loyal soldier.
When the campaign began, she was chosen to join a cell of operatives for a clandestine organization called the Aethernati. Teamed up with aethermancers (wizards who manipulate dangerous energies), psychics, genius inventors and mystical warriors, she mostly wondered why the heck they picked her for the crew. Other than toughness and stubborn willpower, what could she bring to this group? As a damaged character, “great people” is not a description she would self-apply.
For the first few sessions she was out of her element, at least mildly tipsy most of the time with a pinch of brazen fatalism to top it off. But once I had the opportunity to reveal her character secret – that she’d been down to the mysterious surface of the planet that many people questioned even the existence of – she began to come into her own. If you haven’t followed our live game, the campaign takes place in a world of floating cities where most people assume there is nothing below, or if there is it’s a completely uninhabitable wasteland of deadly danger.
Once we had boots on the ground, as a player I felt a shift in the character. It wasn’t intended or preplanned but I got the sense Roz would be more comfortable in this environment. She had experienced trauma, pain and loss there, but also camaraderie and valor, and she had a sort of expertise that the other, fancier characters did not.
When the group encountered danger, she thought back to her time in the military. Training and tactics certainly served her well in those earlier times, but there was still a lingering sense that without knowing why they were sent there, her squad were merely tools. But now, she had a group of people unfamiliar with these particular dangers under her watch, and she could do things her way.
All of this is prelude to the moment in the video above, which came about on the fly when the group’s proper lady announced she headed off to shower and clean up. I can’t say exactly what motivated me, but the idea of Roz poking around perfumes and makeup sprang into my imagination. She had lived as a soldier, and later a squatter, and never took much interest in exploring her feminine side.
Thankfully, my fellow gamer Megan R. Miller bit the hook and the result is one of my top ten roleplaying moment great stories as her character gave Roz a make-over. In the course of the activity, Roz opened up a bit about the horrors she’d witnessed and shared a little bit about herself that she typically keeps guarded from others, the details of her past that make her the damaged person she is now. Following that we all enjoyed a hilarious moment at dinner when none of the party members recognized Roz. When it dawned on them, an ally who’d struck her earlier as payback for pushing his buttons realized he’d hit a woman. But that’s okay, Roz is nothing is not tough and was ready to take just dues for her big mouth.
It was because, and not despite, she’s not one of the “great people” that great stories like this moment emerged.
Great stories from not great people in an RPG No. 2
The home game is all about the D&D. The gaming group came together through the trials and triumphs of being full-time nerds in the part-time world of adulting. A humble beginning in a mashed-up Quest for the Heartstone and Against the Cult of the Reptile God with a dash of Dungeons & Dragons Online for D&D 5E mustered the party. New players, old players and returning players answered my call to create great stories together in my favorite RPG.
Since then we took a left turn at Albuquerque into Spelljammer territory. A newcomer to tabletop RPGs and D&D joined us, as well as one of the group’s 12-year-old son. We’ve branched off into one-shots where they all played grung, and had an impromptu session of delving into Tales from the Yawning Portal’s Sunless Citadel.
And we – meaning the larger “we” of the entire D&D community, including you (yes, YOU!) – welcomed a brand new Dungeon Master! The self-same tabletop newcomer asked if he could try DMing sometime after only a few sessions of playing. He of course got an enthusiastic affirmative (especially from me – a break sounded delightful). He asked me for advice, which I was more than happy to share. I also pointed him towards the best resource on the internet for D&D tips.
We had our session zero, and everyone was excited to create new RPG characters, like you do. All of us wound up imagining – and rolling – tremendously flawed characters. Mechanically and characteristically, this party has their fair share of problems. There were a few whispers of concern at low ability scores and unbalanced party makeup, but not from me. I love screwed up parties of adventurers!
We’ve got a tiefling haunted one phoenix sorcerer, a whispergnome rogue, wood elf ranger and me, a charlatan drow illusionist – the best of the bunch, ‘natch! With Wisdom 6, I knew immediately how his adventuring life would begin for this unrepentant con artist. His first scam in this frontier village went sideways right from the get-go when he tried to swindle the wrong person. Winding up in the town jail, he awaited the start of session one.
Before our first adventure session, our DM explained his campaign world and ideas a bit, and I latched onto an offhand comment he made that this group would be kind of like Task Force X, more popularly known as the Suicide Squad. Whether just or not, they are branded criminals and completing quests will commute their sentences. I don’t think that was intended to be the main thrust of the campaign, but I love this concept! Sounds like the basis for many great stories to come.
As a more experienced player, I feel some responsibility to encourage as much roleplaying as possible. I went all out for this one, and Mesmogdu quickly became one of my most favorite RPG characters ever in just one session. Drawing inspiration from characters like Big Ernie McCracken from Kingpin, Ron Burgundry from Anchorman and The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Mesmogdu is perhaps the furthest from being “great people” I have ever played in an RPG.
He’s liar, a swindler and lazy gadabout.
When the party arrived at the site of the caravan ambush they were tasked with investigating, Mesmogdu spent the time casting unseen servant as a ritual and getting a foot massage in the shade of the overturned cart. (Hey, it was daytime and he’s a drow. His sunglasses only go so far!) When the baron asked if we were listening closely, his response was a resounded “nope.” And earlier when the group met a wilderness guide to show them the way, he sold the fellow a vial of green sugar water a five-hour energy drink. Oh, and he’s teaching the wood elf about economics by trading him a bag of ball bearings for 10gp.
With a list of aliases and false identites numbering over a dozen, good ol’ Mesmogdu figures he’ll move along to the next town after his disguises, forged documents and well of scams runs dry in this one. By the time Mesmogdu the Magnificent, Mesmogdu the Maleficent, The Duke of Droaam, Schecky Glitterdark and the rest have worn out their welcome, hopefully Big Mes’ coin pouch will be fit to bursting.
All of that sounds like a recipe for disruptive play, but I can assure you our game allowed for equal participation and a great time – and great stories – around the table. Everyone played up their characters’ flaws and weaknesses, turning them into roleplaying strengths. On the flip side, we were better able to discover our mechanical strengths and cover for each others’ weaknesses.
Oh, and by the way he could be wrong, but he believes Bahamut is an old, old wooden ship. Now, allow him to introduce himself. His name is COLOR SPRAY! (At least, that’s how the goblins of the ruined masoleum know him now.)
Not necessarily a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s an adventurer…
If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s that the next time you muster at your gaming table to create new characters for your favorite RPG, take a shot at playing less-than-great people. Or if you’re already playing in a game, put some thought into all the events that have taken place already.
Adventurers tend to experience a lot of horrific things, traumatic moments and challenges that would crush the spirits of most folks. Use those experiences to let your characters express flaws and weaknesses. On a similar note (and I’m not breaking any new ground here) find ways to make your lowest ability scores the most colorful aspects of your characters. For Roz, who has zero extraordinary attributes of any kind, she had to discover meaning for how and why she fit in with a group of people who can do incredible things. For Mesmogdu, his thoughtlessness gives him a reason to adventure and also an excuse to be oddly heroic when he overestimates his capabilities.
RPG characters don’t have to be great people or heroes, only the people for their time and place. And that’s what makes for great stories.
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