Thursday, December 22, 2011

Character Series Part 2: The Round and The Flat


How Two Games Handle Non-Player Characters:

There is an element of character that I would like to discuss that is really an orphan idea and doesn't belong in any of the other planned discussions of character.  I call it "character shape" but it has nothing to do with the actual shape of the character but in terms that are described by something like shapes.  The best example that I could think of to support this was in discussing the difference between NPC's in the Dresden Files roleplaying game so I am going to combine "character shapes" along with a re-iteration of the difference between the Feng Shui roleplaying game's named and unnamed concepts for npcs and player characters.

Character Shapes:

By character shape I mean one of two things.  Flat and round.  Not really shapes but close enough to call them that.  What is the difference between the two?  Read on oh bold adventurer.

Flat Characters:

A flat character is a character that does not change in the course of the story.  By this I don't mean that they enter some sort of stasis machine and travel through the story as luggage like Han Solo in carbonite.  I mean their nature.  They don't change their thought process, feelings or behaviors over the course of the story.  They don't seek redemption for past evils.  They don't grow as a person.  They are what they are through the course of the story.  Examples that we have cited of flat characters in the podcast include "Nick the Rat" and "Brother Ephram".

Nick the Rat is a "stock" character that I use as an informant.  Basically he is a plot device that, when the right pressure is applied, reveals the plans of the evil bad guys.  I have been using Nick in this sense since about 1996.  His nature has not changed.  He is a bit greedy and unwilling to let go of his information.  He has very little tolerance for pain but in line with this he has an unnatural tolerance for physical trauma.  Kind of like the cheerleader in "Heroes".  Do what you want to Nick.  He will generally cave in and give you your much needed information and will be back in one piece when he is needed next time.

Brother Ephram was a player character that we have mentioned a few times.  I played him in a roleplaying game back in the day.  I was feeling ornery on the day we made up characters for a new game.  I was tired, mad and mean.  I was wearing a black suit, black shoes and a white shirt.  A priest came to mind.  Priest from a military order followed.  Priest defrocked and kicked out of his military order for heresy came soon after that.  A defrocked heretical priest who wanted to teach his misguided wisdom and take over the universe by taking all of the loot from his criminal activities and make a franchised chain of evangelical pancake houses was about as far as he developed emotionally.  Nothing would change that goal or that drive.  Ephram was about as flat as his pancakes.

Flat characters can be fun if you put some thought into them.  They have a shtick and they stay with it.  They don't mature, they don't grow up, they don't change their minds about the world.  If you make a flat character make them interesting or at least funny.  A flat character, be it PC or NPC, with no character has very little to offer your group in a game.

Round Characters:

There are a lot of round characters in American Cinema.  Probably the most common one is the anti-hero.  The anti-hero in movies is on a path to redemption or death on the road to redemption in about 90 minutes.  Hollywood will rarely step away from that due to moral tradition, Hollywood history, and audience expectation.  Redemption is making up for something bad that you did or for being a bad person.

By far my favorite anti-hero characters are played by Chow Yun-Phat.  He is a good actor.  He is charismatic.  He had a lot of acting experience prior to making movies from being a soap opera actor.  If you ever want to skip acting school and become a good actor get on a soap.  Daily scripts to memorize and a range of behaviors to perform and it goes on and on and on until you get a better job and your character gets killed off.

Chow Yun-Phat often portrays roles in movies as the archetypal "Redeemed Killer" character in the RPG Feng Shui.  A anti-hero that is trying to make good for that one day when he made that terrible mistake or that one realization that after many years it is time to make good.  This is a tricky background to sell.  You have to do enough bad to show you were bad or enough restraint from doing bad to sell that you are trying to redeem yourself.  In cinema this might also mean that about 15 seconds after you find redemption you also get fataly shot to make the audience really feel sorry for you.  This is where Chow Yun-Phat really shines.  He can sell mean and evil.  He can sell redemption and he can die like a champ.

Redemption isn't the only route to being a round character.  A coming of age plot could do this as well.  Although most coming of age movies are about beer and cars and girls there is still a part of them that lends themselves to roleplaying and that is the transition from being a child to an adult.  This is a very round process as judgements, behaviors and expectations of the world change.

The journey of the hero is also a path to change even if they are not seeking redemption.  Take the Star Wars movies for example.  Across three films in each set of the three movies the hero changes from a naive boy into a considerably different man.  Luke, a hero's hero, goes from gullible to cynical.  From weak and untutored to strong and masterful.  Anakin, a tragic hero, goes from even more naive and innocent through a lot of whining and then to dark, ruthless and evil.

It is my opinion that in any ongoing roleplaying campaign that the majority of the characters should be round characters.  Ones that are not only willing to change but seek change.  Be it from good to bad, lucky to unlucky, or even bad to good.  A cast of strictly flat characters isn't a story.  It is a cartoon.  A long cartoon where you meet every Thursday at 7 Pm and that is not my idea of fun roleplaying.

Furthermore a campaign without at least one flat character to me would be boring as well.  As smart and dynamic as my friend Will is I would expect nothing less from him in a roleplaying game than to be the most flat and belligerent warrior type that he can be so well.  He does a great job of this and it is a lot of fun running about and fixing the relationships with npcs that his wonderfully flat characters destroy at the end of an axe.

Dresden Files Characters:

In the Dresden Files RPG mortal characters are by definition round characters.  "Monster" characters are flat.  Two things in the game to describe a player character are "free will" and "choice".  The two that define (non-mortal) non-player characters are "monster" and "nature".

Characters that react by their nature, the npc monsters, act like their type of monster.  Vampires act like vampires.  Ghouls act like ghouls.  Fey act like Fey.

This is true for the game and for the Jim Butcher novels as well.  I did a write up on the fairy "Toot Toot" from the Dresden novel "Storm Front".  It was originally part of last week's post but I edited it out.  Toot is a fairy.  By nature he is greedy when it comes to food.  In the novel Dresden uses this to trap Toot to get some information.  He traps Toot in a magic circle by baiting it with milk, bread and honey (favorite foods for Butcher's Fey) and once Toot starts eating it Dresden closes the circle so that he can interrogate him.

After getting his information and releasing Toot, Dresden is confronted by a warden of the White Council for using magic to control the mind of Toot.  This is a violation of the Council's laws of magic and Dresden offers up that he gave Toot a choice but knowing full well that with this "npc" it had no choice but a nature.

Toot is an EXTREMELY flat character.

As evidence of the roundness of mortal characters I offer this.  Characters in the game are collections of traits, skills and abilities.  There are quite a few character sheets, Dresden's included, that will note the changing of the character's traits over time.  For example an early trait of Dresden's is "the Sword of Damocles" or the fact that because he murdered someone using black magic, even though it was ruled to be in self defense, one more transgression against the laws of magic and Harry loses his head to a warden.  Later in the story line this trait is removed and Harry himself becomes a warden.  Enforcing the same laws to which he was victim in the past.

One of the best elements of the Dresden Files RPG to me is the distinction that mortals have choice and monsters have nature.  The round and the flat.

Feng Shui Characters:

I have discussed this game a bit and even the difference between it's named and unnamed characters.  Named characters are round, mostly, and unnamed ones are as flat as flat can be.  2nd guy on bus will always be 2nd guy on bus just like in a movie's closing credits.  If ever 2nd guy on bus becomes something more, something round, something distinct he is no longer 2nd guy on bus but something like Hobo Frank the friendly panhandler.

The distinction in this game between the round and the flat is so marked that there are even two sets of combat resolution.  That for the round or named characters and that for the flat or mook or unnamed.  The round get the benefit of their toughness, armor and hit points.  The flat, if they get hit, take one hit and are out of combat.  Chopped down like so much wood.

Summary:

So here you are.  Some more sophomore English Lit to help you on your way to having a more fun game.  Just for fun the next time you sit down at the table for your roleplaying session look at each player and make a note.  Are they playing their character round or flat?

--MCL