I’m tired of asking people what their character is, only to have them respond with a splat.
In D&D: “What do you want to play?” “I dunno, maybe a Rogue.” This is understandable to a certain extent, given the tactical combat focus of the game, and the need to have a balanced party. However, when you ask, “so what’s he like?” a little bit more of an explanation is hoped for.
I once had a player play two druid characters in a row who were practically identical in personality. This is not uncommon with newer players; however it reached the realm of rather epic silliness when he said, “don’t worry, my next character will be completely different. I’m looking at the Spirit Shaman class.” For those of you who don’t have Complete Divine, it’s pretty much a variant- on the druid.
What makes a character? I don’t know, but I know class isn’t it.
What’s the worst game for this? Old World of Darkness, hands down. You’ve got 13ish monolithic splats, each one with a preloaded stereotypical character ready to play- likes, dislikes, quirks, allies, and enemies, all completely predetermined. For a so-called ‘story-telling’ game, the irony here is palpable. I have difficultly putting my hate of oWoD splats into words and qualifing it; it is simultaneously a barrier to entry for new players, who are assaulted with a bevy of arcane terms that are oh-so-important, a creativity-stifler for those who have understood those terms and straightjacket the potential spectrum of character into a baker’s dozen of goth-enough, zeitgeist-approved cardboard cutout templates, and it serves as the sloppy, lazy vehicle for which the ‘splat-book’ system is designed.
Splat books! A pox on the inventors of splat books!
It’s not enough to have what’s written in the book; each splat needs it’s own nifty powers, secret metaplot, ‘important’ NPCs, and extensive background information. None of these things in and of themselves are necessarily bad- except perhaps secret metaplot only available in one odd book that if you miss out you won’t understand anything, and uberNPCs, but the presentation is typically assinine; a cop-out to get another book on the shelfs, print a couple powers so people will buy it to keep up on the power curve, and make some more money for the publishing machine. Its just plain bad game design.
Let’s take a quick case study at the new World of Darkness. The splats are still there, but there’s 1) less of them, which means that there’s less confusion for potential new players, and 2) they aren’t obvious. You have to pick a combination, and ask yourself what that MEANS for your character. Too often, in oWoD, “I’m Clan *, what does that mean?” is too often truncated into “I’m Clan *” (We shall see however, what useless, stale sterotypes form of the covenants/orders/whatever.)
Let’s take another quick case study at 3rd Edition D&D. Between 2nd and 3rd edition, the lines between the classes were muddied quite a bit. Mutliclassing is easier and more sensible, and with feats and skills, it’s possible for two members of the same class, with the same ability scores, to have vastly different capabilities. This is a good thing! The Complete Books, rather than focusing on tricking out a specific class, have been more general-aspect based. This is a big step up for D&D. Will a future edition of D&D ever be classless? I’m not sure what that would look like and still feel like D&D, but I suspect we’ll see a lot more in the area of character customization.