Use the cool
No, I am not talking about Fonzie again.
I’ve been thinking about some of the things that I find frustrating in RPGs, and I’ve noticed some patterns.
- In D&D, there are a lot of cool options – feats, prestige classes, races, spells, and things like that – but in any given game, you are likely to only use a small fraction of them. If you tend to play either long games or short games that start (and end) at low levels, then you’re not likely to ever run into the vast majority of these things. The coolness is wasted. Exalted is similar. There are far too many Charms for all of the cool ones you’d like to try out to show up.
- The old World of Darkness games were full of all-but-prohibited-yet-cool character types and powers. Salubri? There are only a few of those in the world. You can’t be one of them. Abominations (vampiric werewolves)? Uh, yeah, there are rules for them, but they aren’t made to be played. Here, the coolness isn’t necessarily wasted, but it is denied to the players. The player characters are assumed by default to be typical supernatural creatures (whatever that means), rather than extraordinary ones. Shadowrun (at least 3rd Ed.) is similar. Options for a variety of non-standard supernatural creature-types were added later on, but generally speaking they couldn’t be played using the standard character creation rules. D&D has this problem to a lesser extent with non-zero ECL races. Exalted, at least, doesn’t have this problem. Characters are assumed to be the extraordinary exception and the default character option is both rather rare and probably the most powerful creature-type in the game’s world.
- In games that I’ve played, I’ve often gotten frustrated when NPCs overshadow my character. This takes a number of forms. I tend not to like playing narratively unimportant people or people who won’t make a difference. This is one of the things that turned me off to Godlike – the explicit assumption that a single character isn’t going to make a difference – and is also one of the reasons that I tend not to be fond of playing Call of Cthulu. I see this as a more generalized form of the (problematic) case in which a particular NPC is deemed more important to the story than the PCs. Sometimes, this can work (My Life With Master)… but it is usually either because that NPC is treated more as a setting element than as a character or because the campaign focuses upon influencing that NPC somehow and, in that arena, the PCs are the focus; and it almost always requires explicit player buy-in. More often than not, however, this is just a bad idea.
So, what do I take from all of this?
- If there are cool options in the game (and there better be), they should all be theoretically able to show up without multiple years of playtime being necessary.
- The player characters should be at least as cool as anything else out there in terms of game-mechanical/setting options. The player characters should be the ‘special’ and ‘unique’ ones in the setting. The game mechanics and character creation should support this.
- The player characters should be the protagonists. This should be able to go without saying, but – unfortunately – it can’t. Games should be about the PCs, and the game mechanics should support the fact that the PCs have a special status within the created narrative of a game.
try Pretenders, in the No Press RPG Anthology. Not perfect, but it does a damn good job of the “every PC is unique, special, powerful, and the focus of the story” thing you mentioned.