Customization, Part II: Physical Appearance

In the first part of this series I mentioned how suprising it was that players are not encouraged to customize thier gear more, as it had fairly little effect on the game overall. Todays topic, characters physical appearance, is a little more complicated to make sense of customizing, but is so personal that I felt it needed to be part of this series.

First off, I think the base physical appearance of a character needs to stay roughly the same, unless you want to make plastic surgurey a prominent feature of your RPG world. That being said, there are still a ton of options for customization, some of the most obviouse that come to mind are changing hair color or getting a tattoo. It’s not nescessary to go even this far to make a substantial change though.

I like to draw on TV shows or movie series for inspiration. Consider Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars trillogy. As the movies progress, in each one his hair gets shorter and he holds his jaw more firmly. If you saw a picture of just the actors face, you could tell which of the movies it was from. TV shows tend to do the same sort of thing, slightly altering the characters appearance from season to season.

I like to think of my RPG characters lives in “seasons”. For instance, I have a character in a western rpg, who’s on the run from a wizards guild, trying to hide out in the frontier as a gambler. For his first “season” I described him as looking very put together, with a black suit and well combed hair. During that time he was a little ackward and tended to panic in danger. I view his first season as ending in our last campaign we played, which involved a botched heist in a big city, a lot of running away from gaurds, and then my character being suprised and blasting an innocent gaurd in the chest. After alot of debate the gaurd died, and I feel like that’ll have a huge effect on my character.

I plan on describing him as looking a little less put together, with his hair always just kinda in need of a cutting and his jacket unbuttoned. I also intend on playing him as resisting his panic and trying to think in danger.

I don’t think physical appearance gets enough thought in RPG’s after the initial setup, so I’d encourage players to bring it up to thier GM’s or GM’s to ask every few adventures “Do these last few events make your character look any different?”

Fun Limitations vs. Character Flaws

First off let me say that I’m slightly annoyed at the terminology already used by D&D, because it makes diferentiating a error in character abilities from a playable limitation difficult. What D&D refers to as character flaws I would call a limitation: Your character is afraid of snakes? Very good, have fun playing with that characteristic.

What I would refer to as a character flaw is a character whose game balance is flawed. If your character cannot hit an enemy, notice any object in a room, recall any information, or survive a couple of enemy attacks, then I would call that character flawed.

I’ve been playing a Dwarf scholar in an RPG called Adventures in Middle Earth for several years, and when the character was at his first level he was flawed. In the first two battles we played he was almost totally useless, and in the next two battles he came very close to dieing. Fortunately our DM saw this issue and realized it for what it was, a flaw in the characters balance. To remedy it, he gave my character a more powerfull weapon. I still didn’t hit very often, but when I did I could take out a significant chunk of the enemies health. I now had a chance of removing enemies before dropping unconscious.

We played Adventures in Middle Earth again last week, and I took a moment to appreciate that my character has some limitations, not flaws. My character can’t talk very well, but insists on trying. It results in alot of fun, but he can easily be overruled by other players. My character can also hold his own in a battle, sure, he might get down to single digit health points, but I know I can deal damage and heal myself, battles aren’t frantic attemps to survive anymore, they’re fun.

Why is My Character Starting in Prison?

For an upcoming one-shot I’ve been told that the party will be starting the game in a prison. I don’t know if the GM will be telling us why we were all arrested, so just in case he doesn’t I’ve been brainstorming a few reasons and thought I would share them here.

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Buying RPG Dice for Beginners

Don’t Buy a $50 Metal Dice Set… Yet

The first reaction of many people I’ve introduced to Role Playing Games is “I want to get my own set of dice.”

I personally love this sentiment. I started buying polyhedral dice years before I played an RPG.

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Using Mental Stats

An Incomplete Education

Your party sits in the restaurant, anxiously awaiting the governors arrival. He walks through the door, attendants on either side of him, yellow robes billowing behind him.”

I stand immediately!” the Bard blurts. At last, this is his big chance to put all that charisma to use. The rest of the party follows suit much less eagerly, but even the Barbarian knows that this meeting is important.

Very good, the governor sits at your table.”

Governor Basho, thank you for deigning to hear our petition. Would you like anything while we talk? Food? Drink?”

The Barbarians player rolls his eyes at the Bards speech and wonders how long he spent preparing it.

The governor fixes his gaze on you and smiles thinly. ‘I would like a glass of warm wine, that is all.’ he says in a clear voice.”

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The Village Idiot

A fool’s errand…

Last week’s post was aimed at GMs. This week I’ll talk to the players.

If you play RPG’s long enough, you are going to come across “that guy.” You know him (or her). They push the red button, attempt theft in broad daylight, and insult dignitaries to see what happens. It seems like they just want to watch the world burn. Maybe they are trying to play a specific archetype, maybe they think they’re being funny, but the rest of you think they should be hung by their toenails on the nearest light pole.

I think most of us would have to admit that we all get a little satisfaction from causing mayhem in an RPG. What “that guy” (or gal) fails to realize, is when their fun is ruining fun for everyone else.

Playing the fool.

But maybe you want to play the goofball, the idiot, the counter party character. How is that done without ruining the fun?

Here are some suggestions:

Ask the GM: Most GMs have an assumption about how PCs are going to interact with the game world. Tearing apart the narrative on a whim makes the GM’s job hard and if the GM says no, don’t push it. The GM is hopefully looking out for you. Letting the GM know you want to play that character ahead of time allows them to work it in, if it works at all.

Ask the Party: While spontaneity is fun, you really want to read the rest of the group. The other players are the bulwark against which excessive stupidity can break. More asking you say? Won’t that slow down the game? Yes! So…

Limit your “that guyness”: Goofing up at just the right time can lighten up a game. Goofing off all the time slows the game down. Players will quickly build up an immunity (followed by an allergy) to your play style. All things in moderation.

Don’t flippantly foil other PC’s success: We’ve all seen a movie where the hero is sneaking around “big bad villain guy’s” lair. His accident prone side kick knocks something over, the hero is detected, and a chaotic montage of scenes follow. As the audience we love this! However, in an RPG you are not the audience, you are the mortified heroes with no idea if they will survive the encounter. Never do anything that knowingly ruins the game. If you know the big red button kills the party, don’t push it. If the whole party is low on health and items, don’t kick the sleeping dragon they just snuck past.

While there are many other tips that could be given, these few should help steer you away from some of the biggest blunders of playing a counter party character.

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