You are Not your Character Class

This covers two topics today – both game design/play and RPGs. Limiting people and things to their class.

This is an incredibly common phenomenon in both writing and role playing. The Rogue is a Rogue-type, the Barbarian is a witless muscle-bound brute that runs in and smashes things, and so on. As I’ve delved into a number of recent fantasy books, I’ve noticed a trend that a number of characters, especially ones that aren’t the main character, fit into a trope surrounded by their role, almost invariably fitting into a traditional RPG class. At most, this is then also woven into a rudimentary morality system. “This is a Rogue, but they are Good, therefore they don’t steal from good people. If you are bad, they can do whatever.” MORALITY!

Now, I don’t think that there’s some “right way” to play roleplaying games. I do think that systems that encourage this are directing towards a specific type of play, though that can definitely be surmounted. The larger concern that I have is towards when writers rely too heavy upon simplified versions of characters to tell their story.

This comes from the third book in a row that, about a third of the way in, I am plagued by the ineffable sense that it was based upon an RPG from when they were teens. It comes from a combination of the characters, often with limited or shallow characterizations, and a sense that the events aren’t fully moored to the plot the way that some more developed stories are. I then went to research them and, each time, it was revealed that they were, indeed, all based upon that same origin story. Each was based upon an old RPG they had played.

The result is, frankly, predictable stories. “This person is going to be the Hero because that’s all they are, all they know how to do.” Each story fit this same pattern, and it disappointed me because all of them felt like they could’ve been so much more.

One of the areas that this is the most evident is in romantic pairings. When you’re playing an RPG, it can be weird to engage in that kind of story. You’re asking someone else to pretend to be in love with you, and we aren’t all actors used to that kind of exercise. The result is many stunted romantic subplots as we tried to tell a story without being too awkward. These don’t tend to be saved by the jump to prose fiction, often leading to stories that feel as artificial as the most awkward action movie.

I think that this comes, in part, from an oddity of our own culture. So many of us find self-identity and meaning in our jobs. The trappings associated with them, the reason we pursued this particular career, so much of that is wrapped into our own identity. When we’re given a class in an RPG, we tend to identify ourselves the same way. In the d20 style RPG, whatever the stripe, there are additional layers of trope that are reinforced and baked into the system.

In a recent discussion about characters for a project with a heavy creative element, one of the contributors came up with question “which one is the rogue?” Part of this likely alludes back to a variety of archetypes we have baked in, but this became a limitation on the project until we could move past it. No one had to be the backstabbing rogue who walked the dangerous line between turning on the party or sticking with them. We had all sorts of tropes and ideas we could play with.

Moving past these limitations is going to be integral. The best fantasy out there, the stuff that’s pushing the envelop and doing creative and fascinating things, it isn’t following these tropes. Tropes exist for a reason, and they need to be grappled with in the right way.

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