So, a thing I’ve seen in a lot in indiegames, and particularly story-focused games, is less emphasis on the build and more emphasis on the portrayals of the characters. Maybe the game isn’t really tactical, so the build isn’t so important for carving out spotlight and success. Maybe the game is meant to be set up and played in a very short time, and builds are just not practical.
As a GM, it’s enormously easier for me to not have to think about and carefully balance, you know, math. That quarter-drow warforged whatever, that amazing bespoke combination of tactical assets that might actually be mechanically broken or at least exploiting synergies…I just can’t.
Or jeez, how about the 10 page backstories? It’s so much work for the players, some are much better at it than others, and then trying to fit it all together and live up to whatever awesomeness is already living in the players’ heads? I don’t know of a single system out there that actually delivers on the promise the player makes to himself and then implicates the GM in when they deliver their novella pre-game.
That’s all on me. All credit to the hardworking GMs who deliver good challenges and fit the backstories together, awesome. I used to! I don’t have the patience, time, or frankly bandwidth to do it any more. My prep time is smaller than it used to be.
So all this leads to what I feel like is one of the Hard Problems of players who are curious about small-press games that aren’t designed for this kind of play. I’ve seen it so so much, particularly at conventions but also at my own table, when someone has come from a siloed play tradition. I want my Night Witch to be psychic! My Ark mutant is the seventh son of a seventh son, destined to rule the Zone when he finds Eden. My round table knight has an ancient fae mecha hidden away inside a rock ring on an island off the shore of Cornwall. I am the only female minotaur in the Degringolade.
I’m sure billions of pixels have been spilled talking about this. And I love the player impulse this comes from! Sometimes! I love it a lot less when I’ve got a player who’s convinced she’s found the critical path through Teh Roolz to Beat The GM.
I don’t “call out” trad players, gross. Does anyone actually do that? This was maybe my cruelest indie joke but I’m totally just playing on outsider fears here. What I have done is take, say, the really gonzo backstories and tried to reframe them: like…it might not actually be true, you know, this thing about being the seventh son of the seventh son. Mecha hidden off Cornwall, eh? Maybe that’s something you’ve heard about but haven’t seen?
I really love the solution in 13th Age that lets you just outright state a true thing about yourself: maybe the best-in-class solution in the tactical trad game space. The Three Facts bit in Godbound looks like it placates the precious-snowflake urge, too, while building up backstory in a guided way. That’s great. (Great recommendation on Godbound, by the way, James Stuart.)
Now, personally, I’m mostly in a creative space where I’m way more interested in interesting portrayals than interesting builds. The past is the past; 99% of anything a player cooks up will never make it to the table, although it may exist for their own pleasure. When I’m a player I’ll pick something vanilla, even given the chance at a snowflake build. When I’m the GM, more interesting portrayals definitely make my job easier.
I wanted to include a link to the Plinkett Test, which is a great little guideline I’ve used at our table: http://www.pcgamer.com/sort-characters-from-cut-outs-with-the-plinkett-test/
I know it’s a link to a video game page but there’s an explanation of the test and a nice graphic.