Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.21: Player Characters

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, James L. Sutter, Dan Wells, Cassandra Khaw, and Howard Tayler

So, you’re the hero of your own story, and the hero gets choices, and in many ways directs the story. In our discussion of interactive fiction and writing for games, the subject of “player characters” is essential. From the array of options given at character creation/selection, to the paths available for character development and the final chapters of that characters story, “player character” touches everything.

Credits: this episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Go through the character creation process in an RPG. Pay attention to which parts were fun, and what attracted you to the different classes, creature types, etc. Identify what makes each major character build unique and appealing.

Thing of the week: The Dark Room

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Games give players choices between characters and choices in how the character develops. Focus is important, one or two abilities per character type, so characters are unique and different. This also lets players replay the game with different characters, to get a different experience. Be aware that while some power gamers love lots of stats, others like a simple way to establish their characters. Remember that the character creation system creates an experience for the players. Constraining the character’s abilities also gives the writer more freedom to create challenges. Remember the three pillars, when characters confront a challenge, they can solve it by fighting it, talking to it, or sneaking past it. Limiting or changing attributes can change the style of play completely. Make sure you think about both where characters start and how they change or advance over time. If players know they are advancing, unlocking new things, they will keep playing. 

[Season 16, Episode 21]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Cassandra] Player Characters.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[James] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And I’m an NPC.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[James] I’m James.

[Howard] Somebody should give me a name.


[Dan] No. You’re a nameless NPC. So…

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to call you Bunny.


[Dan] If we name the NPC Bunny, the players will adopt him.

[James] True.

[Mary Robinette] Who doesn’t want to adopt Bunny?

[Dan] So, when we’re talking about interactive fiction, one of the core concepts of that in most cases is that the player is a story. The reader or the audience is a part of the story. That’s where we get to player characters. So, Cass, what do we need to know about player characters in order to write for them?

[Cassandra] I think James is opening this one.

[James] Sure. Yeah. I’ll jump in on it. So, yeah, player characters really applies to games where you have a choice between characters or a choice in how your character develops. That can mean picking a particular character at the start. You don’t have a choice in Super Mario Brothers, the original one, because you’re Mario. But in later ones, you can be Mario, you can be Luigi, you can be Princess Peach, etc. Or it can be a game like something like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons where you are literally building a character from the ground up and choosing how they develop over time. So, for me, when I’m thinking about how I want a character to develop in a game or how to build a player character development option, I feel like focus is really important. I think it’s important to find one or two cool abilities per character type and really lean into them. That’s for a couple of reasons. One, it makes each character unique. You want to have your wizard character be different than your fighter character. It also gives players a reason to replay the game with a different character, because they can have a different experience in the story by having a different character. It lets… different characters can occupy different roles in a group. It can make it easier, that focus, to choose what you’re going to do each turn. If every character can do everything, it can be really intimidating to a new player. Whereas if they know that the thief’s go-to move is to stab somebody in the back, then they have a sense of how to play that character. You can strengthen the character’s theme. But, I’m curious, Cass, how do you think about developing a character?

[Cassandra] It’s very similar to what he said. There, I think, needs to be a very strong sense of narrative resonance. What you do should also reflect a list of player archetypes that might pick the characters. So, if, let’s say, you have a rogue, he should also have like stealth and deception skills, things that allow them to do things that are not necessarily combat related, but are kind of fun and thematically in line with the character. I, personally, write games where there are a million little stats for you to kind of tweak and turn and poke around. Then, next, my favorite thing in the world to do is to make a game master incredibly unhappy with me, he has to spend 20 minutes stacking seemingly nonrelated skills together to create a ridiculous power boost. Yes, I am quaint. But while…


[Cassandra] Some players really want those millions of choices, I don’t think that is true for everyone. Even if you want to present that option to terrible power gamers like me. But there should still be a number of clear competitive default choices. Sometimes you play a game, it should be a preset way of establishing stats or just general guidance.

[Dan] Yeah. I recently had the experience with a role-playing game on computer that I was so excited to get it, I downloaded it on Steam and I opened it up and for whatever reason, having to choose my attributes, put actual number points into the different attributes, completely turned me off. Which is weird, because I have played games like this before, but in that instance, something about it was kind of an overwhelming choice. I thought I am not ready to deal with this right now. Having the option of auto creation or random creation or even just removing the need for it all together can be really valuable for a lot of players.

[Howard] Yeah. One of the things that Alan and I did with Planet Mercenary, we scrapped the game engine twice in the building process because we realized each time that the stuff we’d been building at the lower level was being abstracted up to the next level in a way that the players were making all of their decisions a level up and didn’t need those lower-level numbers at all. We actually abstracted clear up to the skill and proficiency level where everything you do is about, well, you choose. Do you want to be good at stealing things? Do you want to be good at shooting things? Do you want to be good at talking to people? Well, that’s fine. We have character backgrounds and proficiencies and whatever else, but at no point did you have to look under the covers and see, well, what is my strength? What is my intelligence? What are these numbers? Now I get that there are people and there are game systems where those numbers are critically important, because you can change them later on. That’s not the way we built it, because we wanted to focus on what the different player types were rather than the physics simulation.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the games that I play on a daily basis is Habitica, which turns your to do list into a role-playing game. I love it very much. One of the things that I deeply, deeply appreciate about the way they have it structured is that you do not have the option to adjust your player attributes until you’re a couple of levels in. So that you have a chance to understand how the game works, so that you can make good decisions. Then you have two choices. You can either go in and tweak them individually, or you can just hit a button that will assign it for you. I love that they have thought about the fact that there are two types of players, essentially. There are players who really enjoy sitting there and fiddling with the numbers, and there are people who are like, “This is going to stop me from using the thing.”

[Dan] Yeah. On top of that, I would layer the idea that there is different kinds of games. Howard kind of hit on this a little bit, that the character creation system you’re dealing with, it creates an experience. You can choose what experience you want to give your players. So, for example, one of the player character systems that I immensely love is Stardew Valley. Every choice you make in character creation is purely cosmetic. There are no numbers, there are no stats, there’s no attributes. It’s just what color do you want your hair to be, do you like cats or dogs, like all of these kind of meaningless things. But because those are the choices you make, they become meaningful. So as you’re replaying the game, it’s not which powers am I going to have this time. It’s well, which of the townspeople do I want to romance, what kind of person do I want to be romancing them this time? It becomes all about relationships rather than about stats. It creates a different experience. So you kind of choose what you want to give to your players.

[James] Well, I think that ties into like one of the reasons why I really like narrowly themed characters is that I feel like it gives you a chance to really play with that character in a different way. Right? Where, think about in Portal, the character only really has one ability. Or, like, think about the X-Men. The X-Men are not nearly as interesting if Cyclops also has Wolverine’s claws and Storm’s weather abilities. What makes those characters interesting is their limitations and the fact that, then if you’re telling a Cyclops story, you can explore all the different ways that Cyclops could use his powers. Right? Like, oh, he could use his eyes to blast open that door and to make toast and to do a bat signal into the sky…


[James] To some of the others. So you want to give yourself a narrow enough set of abilities that you actually let the players figure out all the interesting uses of that ability.

[Dan] Let’s pause here for our game of the week, which is coming from Cass.

[Cassandra] The game of the week is A Dark Room. It is an [inaudible idle, older] game and it opens on a white screen with just one option. It asks you to light a fire. Slowly, as time progresses and the fire begins to dwindle, you can stoke the fire. It sounds very minimalist, but [garbled as it?] progresses, it just builds and builds and builds. It’s an old game, but I’m not willing to spoil it, because it is an amazing experience to discover on your own.

[James] All right. I also want to throw out really quick that the reason to constrain your character’s abilities aren’t just for the players enjoyment. It’s also for you as the writer.


[James] By constraining a character’s abilities, you leave yourself a lot more freedom to create challenges. One of the first… When I first started working on Dungeons & Dragons back when I was editing Dungeon Magazine, the first rule they taught me is that as soon as it’s possible for any character in the party to fly magically or otherwise, you have to design your dungeons totally differently. Because suddenly every trap that relies on gravity is potentially broken. The thing about tabletop is you don’t get to select what characters people are going to play. So you don’t know if the group is going to run that with a wizard who has levitate or a fighter who doesn’t. So you need to plan for every possibility that any character could have when designing an adventure. So by limiting what powers people have options… The option to choose, you give yourself a lot more freedom to create interesting challenges.

[Dan] Yeah. When I write RPG adventures and scenarios, I try to remember what I call the three pillars. This is something I learned from a writer named Lou Agresta who works in role-playing games. The three pillars of game writing are when characters confront a challenge, they should be able to solve it by fighting it, by talking to it, or by sneaking past it. If I just keep those three simple things in mind, and it helps me remember, oh, we’re going to have a lot of different kinds of players, different kinds of characters. I don’t know who is going to be going through this dungeon or talking to this shopkeeper or whoever. So as long as I have presented entertaining options for all three of those pillars, then every player has something that they love that they can do that will be effective.

[Howard] In the TypeCast RPG games, the sessions that Dan runs, I’m one of the players. The previous campaign, I played a bard cleric with high wisdom and high charisma. In many situations, we ended up with me being the person who knows what probably the wisest course of action is and me being the person who has to communicate that to NPC’s. Because I’m the one who’s most likely to succeed in the charisma check. The new game, I have an even higher wisdom. I’m playing a flying magical karate bird…


[Howard] Because [garbled]

[Love it]

[Howard] And hates flying characters, and I’m a bad person. I have a high wisdom and a really low charisma. What’s changed for me as a player is the realization that, well, I have great ideas, and I know perhaps what the wisest course of action is, but now I have to convince the other players, some of whom are dumb, to communicate that to the NPC’s. I’ve gone from being the face man to being that advisor who sits in the background. It’s all about the limitations of attributes. It changes the play style completely.

[Mary Robinette] You’ve just reminded me of this game… It was a D&D one shot. This is David Seers again. He set it all up as… It was a Snow White retelling. We had all been assigned characters, but he didn’t tell us that we were doing a Snow White retelling. We just all knew that there were seven of us and that we were all playing dwarves.

[Ha ha]

[Mary Robinette] Each of us had a tic. So you knew what your tic was and you knew what your trigger was. If the trigger happened, you had to roll… To save against it. Mine was that I would attempt to make friends with any sentient creature.


[Mary Robinette] So… He knew that, going in. But what he didn’t know was how it was going to manifest, right? So I… We roll in and there are these giant apple trolls. I roll a natural one. I’m just like, “Hello, friends!” and run towards them. He’s like, “Didn’t see that coming,”…


[Mary Robinette] And had to completely change everything on the spot, because I’m attempting to make friends. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not, very badly.

[James] I love that.

[Mary Robinette] It was so much fun. Somebody else had narcolepsy. It was ridiculous. I was happy. It was great. But by giving this very specific constraint, the entire game was so much fun.

[James] One other thing that I want to throw out is to think about not just where characters start, but how they’re going to advance. If you’re running… One of the great things about role-playing games is that characters can develop over time. That can mean both in terms of their personality, but also in terms of their mechanics, their attributes, what they’re able to do. So one thing you can do to make your game a lot more addictive is to make sure that players always feel themselves advancing, feel themselves on the cusp of unlocking something new. So maybe as they go on, they get new gear or new abilities as they gain experience. That idea of, oh, I’m almost to the next level, will keep people playing and give them something to look forward to.

[Dan] The Diablo series is absolutely intravenous crack for this kind of carrot method of getting you to stick with something because you’re constantly on the verge of a new level that will give you new power. Or you know that you’re going to find a new piece of equipment that will give you a new power.

[Cassandra] It reminds me of my experience with Baldur’s Gate 3. I was going to play it with my cousin, we went through one of the earlier builds, and we were like, “Okay, we’re going to leave this alone and not touch it until the game releases.” But then the developers released the Druids. I think it was at level five, you could turn into a bear. We basically just spent a weekend just rushing to be a bear. The sheer joy of knowing what was waiting for us. Of course, I then spent the entire time as a cat, because my friends [let me]


[Dan] I love it. Well, I think that it is time for us to end our episode. But, James, you have some homework for us.

[James] Yeah. So I want you to go through the character creation process of a role-playing game. Any role-playing game, on your computer, on your phone, and a tabletop version. But pay attention to which parts of character creation are fun, and also what attracts you to the different classes, creature types, etc. Look at your options and the ones that you get excited about, identify why you’re excited about that. What makes the different character builds unique and appealing?

[Dan] Cool. That sounds like fun. I am notorious for creating endless characters in role-playing games that I will never play. So this is a really fun thing. Anyway, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.