Unique Characters?

Recently, I finished reading Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3, by Tamora Pierce. She writes for the YA genre and I have been a fan of her books since I was ten years old and discovered the world of Tortall in the stories of Alanna. I could go on and on about how Alanna was the first fantasy crush I ever had, or how many times I made stats for the characters from the book in various games — but I won’t…

Actually, wait, that’s exactly what I want to talk about… the experience of imposing stats on book characters. I’ve been thinking about this for a while — and I’m certainly not the first to bring it up — but I realized the other day that: 1) it works on my mind more than I’d like to admit, and 2) I have only partial answers to how I feel about it.

What finally inspired this post though? Farmer Cape inspired this post. Master Cape is a mage in the Mastiff story who has an interesting and somewhat unique ability for mages in his setting (and the next line contains some spoiler’ish type stuff so if you are reading or planning to read this book or you think you might ever read this book then I’d advise you to just quit here and I’m writing this overlong disclaimer for a very small spoiler just so you don’t see it by accident…)

Farmer Cape is not a really powerful mage. His Gift is very capable, but not especially Powerful. He is very good at getting the most out of his gift and he’s quite dangerous and skilled but his big secret is he is supplementing his power. He is capable of “collecting” the scraps of magic that other mages sorta carelessly let loose when they work their own Gifts and use these to improve his own abilities. He can collect this power after the fact and store it up or he can do it on the fly, even while dueling another mage. This is a thorny problem to represent in character creation.

Why is this a problem you ask? Well, Farmer Cape is pretty unique among mages in his universe. Not many know you can even do what he is doing and even fewer would have any idea how to do it. It also changes the dynamic of his power in unpredictable ways because, effectively — during duels and when working with another mage’s magic — he can turn their own power against them. And this makes him quite capable of “fighting above his weight class” as it were.

So what do you do when a player comes to you and says, “I wanna be this guy!” You can always just say no, but what do you say when that player has that manic gleam in their eye and you know this is going to make them really happy? That’s an issue. And it’s an issue because games aren’t really designed (yes, I know this is a generalization, I myself can think of exceptions, but stay with me) to allow “unique” characters. Especially if that unique ability would make them more powerful than the beginning expectation in some quirky way.

Let’s back up a bit, generalize the problem a little, use a better example. Superheroes are a great example. Specifically, the Hulk, is a great example. I’ve been one of those guys who spent a lot of time in 2e and 3e converting comic characters into Mutants and Masterminds stats. I’ve also been one of those who spoke a lot about how much I think some of the “official” write-ups really missed the mark on the characters. Let’s leave that though. One thing you’ll see if you peruse the M&M Roll Call forums is a ton of different, very creative people who have tried to find ways to circumvent the rules of the game in clever ways (or work within but around those rules) to add to the Hulk some way to make him “Strongest One There Is.” This is a serious issue. The Hulk is supposed to break the rules. He is the strongest. That’s his schtick. He’s not just a brick like the Thing. He is strongest. And other Marvel RPGs have tried to model this in various ways too. Ultimately though, this is something that (in order to do it justice) is an ability outside of the scope of normal character creation. With good reason.

But let’s return to Farmer Cape, shall we? What to do with poor Farmer Cape? Is his ability out of bounds enough that it would create a problem for most games? Most fantasy games, it would. It is not an ability designed to work typically. In many ways it is a “power pool” and a “boost” for his magic that most fantasy games won’t support well — especially because most of the time, his normal operating mode is “below norm” for a character of his (probable) level/experience. Because in many games (again, not all) raw power trumps “skills.” That’s okay, it happens, but it makes things more difficult for the Farmer Capes of the world (and the Batman/Nightwing types too).

Part of the problem though, again, is that issue I mentioned before, games seek to have clear abilities to prevent rules breakdown and arguments. This is good. But at the same time, it limits and legislates creativity. Let’s take a 3rd edition D&D example. If you wanted to be an archer, it was pretty much always a good idea to take the first two levels of the Order of the Bow prestige class because your archer no longer provoked attacks of opportunity in melee combat for using their bow. Which is awesome, btw. And there really wasn’t a “better” option. Or even an equal option, that made as much sense to shoot for. Why wouldn’t you want this ability? And that’s the problem. In order to “solve” an issue for archers, you just made the vast majority of archers in your game look alike. D&D (and not just 3/3.5) has this problem all over the place. In order to standardize abilities you have to limit those abilities — but worse — you have to offer them to everyone. Every archer eventually can see the “build” that they can get the most out of (usually just by stopping in to your friendly, local, Character Optimization board — no rant, I promise) to look at what the system wonks have broken out for you.

And yes, fluff is one answer. I like fluff and I think that fluff can easily solve many of the problems I’ve just mentioned. If you want to say that your mage uses borrowed power to do their extra powerful magics then go for it. That’s flavorful and causes no harm to anyone. But mechanically, I continue to turn more and more away from traditional systems because they are, “one size fits all” and I don’t really want to be.

This is long. I have a few things left to add but I’ll get to those later — and maybe some will be addressed by your comments!

Thanks for reading.


4 responses

  1. In general, I can say that this is relatively easily addressed in d20 through feats (for relatively minor changes) or custom class abilities (for deeper, more complicated changes). This kind of situation is pretty much exactly what d20 is intended to address.

    In the specific case of Farmer Cape, though, it would be tough. Not because d20 doesn’t have the means to customize the character, but because the D&D magic system doesn’t work that way. (I can rant at length as to why the D&D magic system stifles the entire rest of the system.) If you were working with a simple spell-point system, you could simply give him an ability like “every time a spell is cast near you, gain one spell point”.

    If you want to address the Order of the Bow issue, the answer is really pretty simple. Create another prestige class that gives the same bonus, but has different abilities for the rest of the levels (and, preferably, comes with a different set of prereqs to encourage a different early build). Or just take that class ability and make it a feat, so it can be folded into a number of other builds.

  2. You are absolutely right in your assessment. What bothers me about that assessment though, is the very fact that those, skills, feats, etc. that you use to individualize your character are all exactly the same for every character, balanced and packaged. That is to say — it’s kinda like all the teenagers who express their individuality by shopping at Hot Topic…

    What I’m getting at is stepping beyond a game having the “means to customize a character” and instead simply making a character and having the game-parts come second.

    Your point with the Order of the Bow is well-taken and is, again, what I’m driving at. Creating another prestige class is exactly the answer. But instead of giving it the same ability, I want another prestige class for archers that lacks that ability but is still built to be interesting/mechanically interesting enough to be worthwhile even though it lacks what seems to be a “must have” ability. Or maybe, let’s not have “must have” abilities. Which may be impossible in the long run for a game like D&D/PF

  3. Hmm. Have you looked at systems that use “define your own” abilities? Risus, PDQ, and, to a lesser degree, FATE. It is a different way of working with the system. It may be closer to what you want to do.

    It is difficult to avoid “must have” abilities. It’s simply the nature of not only systems, but of life itself. On the other hand, not everyone agrees on the “must have” abilities. Personally, the whole “doesn’t provoke AoO’s” thing was never that important for me as an archer. I could think of a dozen abilities I’d prize higher. (Personally, I was shooting for Woodlands Sniper rather than Order of the Bow for the threat range.)

  4. I have looked at define your own ability systems and I tend to be a fan — but I think I’m not completely happy with any implementation of the concept that I’ve yet seen. I mean, Risus is really cool — don’t get me wrong — but it doesn’t quite do what I want it to.

    FATE is a system I’m not a fan of — though that has less to do with defining your own abilities and more to do with how tagging, compelling, etc. work. I may have just had some poor experiences with the system that turned me off though. I’d be willing to try it again. I do find “Compels” to be a horrible mechanic most of the time.

    I’m really glad you engaged with the Order of the Bow example. Thank you for that. Again, your point is well-taken. I’m glad that there was another concept that you prized more highly that got you away from OotB. I know that my own experiences with 3.5 players are the reason it took me so long to decide to play Pathfinder… I met a lot of power-gamers during my 3.5 days. And the term “CharOp” makes me cringe. But strangely, I really only feel that way when discussing it in D&D terms. I don’t have the same issue with other games…

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