Telling Stories: Getting better but never good
A character who can solve no problems is boring. A character who can solve every problem is boring. But odds are that you’re more worried about hitting the second threshold than the first, because most roleplayers tend to make competent sorts. Which is still fine… until, of course, you get to learning new tricks.
Everyone wants their characters to expand, obviously. You want characters who change and grow over time, learn new skills, gain new experiences, and so forth. But at the same time, you recognize that having a character who can just smash through everything and solve every problem is just plain boring; it’s not fun to have a character with a skillset that can solve everything.
In video game terms, you always are getting better. In narrative terms, you should never be so good that you can’t be touched. So how do you strike a balance between the two and be just good enough to keep improving without becoming irritatingly invulnerable?
Let’s start to answer that by taking a step back, though. No one cares how skilled your character is, they care about your character’s potential for drama and how many problems get fixed solely by your character. We watch and read fiction constantly about skilled characters, many of whom are skilled to a functionally supernatural degree; you can tell me that you like reading about Hawkeye because he doesn’t have powers, but no one in the world is actually as good at shooting things with a bow as he is. He might not be explicitly superhuman, but he’s above what any real human being could do.
No, what matters is what your character does and what effect it has on the world around them. A tabletop game may very well a character in the group who is leagues ahead of everyone else in combat. If you’re running a Shadowrun game there’s probably the one person who can infiltrate a network and a whole lot of people who can’t. And it’s quite possible that said hacker is also good with guns and driving, maybe even the best at a few other vital skills in the group.
But this is only a problem if every conflict your group gets into involves those specific skills.
Frequently, people ask the wrong question about character abilities. The question isn’t whether or not your character is too capable, but whether or not there’s the potential for interesting conflicts and problems that they can’t solve. It’s whether or not they’re fun to be around and add to the storyline rather than just fixing stuff.
Which brings us back around to your character getting more capable. Sometimes this is a matter of your character leveling up and getting fantastic new powers, sometimes it’s just about things that your character didn’t specify before. But what matters more when making sure your character isn’t awful isn’t “make sure that you have a character below this power level” so much as “make sure that your character is still able to get into trouble and get out of it with interesting methods.”
That’s the metatextual side. You do, however, have a lot more tools at your disposal, starting with specialization.
My main character in Final Fantasy XIV is an engineer. Sort of. She’s more of a weapons engineer. Actually, she’s more of a talented hobbyist who has just enough knowledge to put together existing technologies in ways that feel new. She’s familiar with technology, which is a rare trait in Eorzea, but she doesn’t actually possess any universal gifts for it. The most complicated piece of technology she ever found was something she managed to only half-decipher, and even that wasn’t a complete success, seeing as people who tried to use that tech based off of her notes wound up both destroying it and not having the intended effect.
New abilities are all well and good, but having strict limitations on them means that you introduce a possibility for more drama just by presenting characters with something that they partially understand. If you’ve got no one with any engineering knowledge, there’s not much drama, but stuff happens when a weapons engineer is suddenly tasked with repairing a broken airship when she understands the loose principles of how it works, but not how they fit together. And she’s on a strict deadline. And she’s unfamiliar with this model.
Even when limitations aren’t applicable, expanding your character’s abilities should still have something of a learning curve associated with them. What your character is familiar with is going to come more naturally, and presumably their skillset at the start of your roleplaying career is all stuff they’ve had a long time to study. By contrast, anything new that they learn opens up the possibility for mistakes and bad assumptions, simply based on how long they’ve been studying.
Aforementioned main character has only been studying engineering seriously for a year or so, with a few gaps; she had studied before, she’s not unfamiliar with it, but she’s painfully aware of what her limits to realistic knowledge are. (Not that she lets that stop her.) She makes mistakes, and in at least one instance had to throw up her hands in desperation when she couldn’t make something work. It’s not a core part of her identity or who she is.
More than anything, you want your characters to fail, to make missteps, to goof things up and to make stories entertaining. It’s not a skillset that makes characters feel irritating by itself. Sure, your super-warrior super-spy with complete and perfect knowledge of all sciences and arts isn’t given a compelling set of talents… but a lot of that comes down not to the abilities so much as how they destroy conflict. Expanding what they can do is fine, just so long as the skill they don’t possess is “perfect ability to fix everything ever.”
After all, people love Batman, and we know what he trained to be.
For next week’s column, I want to address the mechanics of offscreen assumptions, how they’re valuable, and when you need to be more explicit. The week after that, let’s talk about characters who want things – and the rare times when they really don’t.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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