Friday, May 2, 2014

Caine, You Need a Hobby

 One of my favorite scenes in the movie Blackhawk Down is near the beginning where the audience is shown what the Rangers and Delta Force operators do during their downtime.  One of the members of Delta Force is drawing illustrations for a children’s book.  His squad mate complains that the image is too scary, and he replies that it’s the climactic fight when the knight meets the villain.  He says that the illustration is supposed to be frightening.  It’s a moment that humanizes these men.  Chris Kyle, former Navy SEAL sniper once said during an interview that he and his team played first person shooters like the Call of Duty series.  These modern day Spartans read, write children’s books, or play video games.  Regardless of how elite these soldiers are, they don’t spend every waking moment in training; instead they have hobbies to distract them in between missions.    

Be careful who you smack talk.  He could be a SEAL, no really.  He could!
            Unfortunately, when players start creating characters they completely forget that beyond the stats on the page and their back story, these characters are human or demi-human or in the case of a vampire, they are struggling to maintain their humanity.  Well-developed characters should have an identity that extends beyond a single narrow interest or professional skill set.  Even the most dedicated Tremere Thaumaturgist would not spend every moment of every night studying magic and learning new rituals.  A rage-aholic Get of Fenris Ahroun probably thinks about more than murder-mauling Wyrm-tainted monsters.  There’s nothing interesting or fun about playing a character that single-minded.  It’s just one note struck again and again.  Even if that note is enjoyable initially, soon it becomes repetitive, boring, and finally irritating. 
            Even the best players can struggle with creating a character who doesn’t suffer from monomania.  It’s an easy trap to fall into because every player wants to contribute to the success of the group.  Every player wants their character to become the very best Toreador Artist or Elven Wizard or Virtual Adept computer hacker.  The desire to be the greatest Toreador Artist who was ever Embraced or the toughest Brujah street fighter can cause a player to specialize his/her character.  Players start to believe that because they have limited resources, like experience points and character levels, those resources need to be spent in the most optimal way possible.  A player can optimize a Toreador Artist the same way that an Elven Wizard is optimized.  Players familiar with Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 will remember that one of the earliest “broken” character archetypes was the “Diplomancer,” a character type that abused the rules for the skill Diplomacy and other non combat skills to circumvent battles with a single dice roll.  The Discipline Presence can be exploited in the same way. 

Of course, in Classic World of Darkness games there are plenty of ways to use the system itself to make your character interesting or well-rounded.  Rather than looking to the system for a solution, players and Storytellers (remember Storytellers have to create all the NPCs too and are just as prone to creating one dimensional characters as any player) could simply give their character a hobby. 
            Everyone has hobbies, and most of you are reading this article because you have a hobby, role playing.  A lot of us even define ourselves by our hobbies.  I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m defined by my job as cashier in a warehouse store, but I gladly label myself an old school, tabletop gamer.  Yet, when we build characters, we don’t even think about what hobbies they would have.  Instead we design action heroes who have no purpose beyond one single-minded concept:  a sword master, a street brawler, a paladin, and so on.  We play those characters and try to make them well-rounded, but we never ask what those characters do when they aren’t crushing skulls or researching a new ritual.  Between adventures when characters have downtime, the players want to use that time as effectively as possible.  It’s a resource, no different from experience points or skill points, and often players feel they should optimize that time as well.  A Tremere specializing in Thaumaturgy, for example, would spend that time learning a new ritual, seeking a mentor for a new Path or studying occult mysteries.  These activities further only the singular goal of Thaumaturgy.  
Instead of trying to optimize that time and further a goal, perhaps the player should consider using that time to explore or develop their character’s hobby.  That hobby doesn’t necessarily have to be completely random or unrelated to a character’s goal nor does it have to involve the expenditure of experience points.  The only purpose of the hobby is to provide greater depth to the character and offer some diversions away from just accomplishing in game goals, whether that’s forwarding the plot or an individual character goal.  The hobby, however, should not preempt or distract from the flow of the game.  It’s shouldn’t be disruptive, but just a way to provide further characterization. 
One example of monomania run rampant is a Brujah martial artist who practices his kung fu daily, he may speak Mandarin, Cantonese, or Japanese because he studied in the Far East, and he only learns physical Disciplines or Disciplines that make him a better fighter.  He may even have a quirk such as watching old Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films, but every detail about this character is focused on one singular concept, the martial artist.  And during a session, when the Storyteller announces that the characters will have some downtime between adventures, the Brujah Martial Artist will be practicing his kung fu or looking for a new mentor to learn more kung fu.  There’s nothing wrong with this character.  The Brujah martial artist has an interesting quirk and is reasonably developed, but everything about the character is focused around specializing in hand to hand fighting.   This is a one dimensional character, a well-developed and interesting, but one dimension character. 
Replace the clocks with RPG books and DVDs and you have my room!
A more interesting quirk would be that the character wants to be a movie star, like his idol Bruce Lee.  Instead of watching movies, he goes to acting classes, but he is a terrible actor.  It makes for a great counterpoint to the character’s sublime skill as a martial artist that he is so bad of an actor that he couldn’t get a role in Sharknado.  He is so awkward in front of the camera that he can’t even get work as a stuntman.  The player doesn’t have to invest any experience points to improve abilities related to acting such as Expression, but the player now has an interesting hobby and a way to use down time.  Also, the Storyteller has a way to introduce some new story elements that may provide a diversion from the normal storylines. 
The hobby doesn’t have to be useless necessarily; conversely, a player could select a hobby or profession that offers advantages beyond just adding characterization.  An example of this was Skeeve, a character from a Star Wars Role Playing game where I was also a player.  Skeeve was the ship’s pilot and not too bad with a blaster; however, Skeeve was also a smuggler and trader.  Whenever we left a planet, Skeeve would do a bit of research on our destination and then buy whatever trade goods that he could resell those goods for a profit when we arrived.  Although trading and smuggling are professions and not hobbies, per se, Skeeve’s smuggling functions in the same way as a hobby.  It’s a side interest that keeps Skeeve busy during down time.  Also, since the group where supposed to be traveling covertly across the galaxy, Skeeve’s smuggling gave us all a cover story for our movements. 
While keeping track of all of this trading and profiting may sound like it took up a lot of game time, in fact everything was accomplished with a few dice rolls and consulting one chart in the core rule book.  Skeeve received a small advantage in terms of extra credits to buy equipment, but the benefit was small and didn’t unbalance the game.  The player who was running Skeeve only had to invest a few points in Diplomacy to earn a profit smuggling or trading which in the D20 Star Wars System wasn’t a very big investment.  Eventually, Skeeve decided to make a big score by smuggling slaves, and when the rest of the party found out, including the Jedi, Skeeve had to choose between his loyalty to the party and his desire to make money.  It made for a great role playing and character development moment. 

Players should keep several things in mind when selecting a hobby for their character.  First, the hobby should be active.  Although many of enjoy watching TV or movies, these activities are passive and require little effort.  Active hobbies require the hobbyist to venture out, locate supplies, meet people, find a teacher, or explore new places.  Second, the hobby shouldn’t disrupt the game or require a large time investment at the table.  One die roll or two and a quick aside are all that should be necessary for a PCs hobby.  Third, players should consider whether they want their hobby to compliment their characters’ primary interests as in the case with Skeeve the Smuggler or contrast their character as with the Brujah Martial Artist who wants to be an actor. 
This topic was inspired by one of my favorite gaming podcasts, Fear the Boot,Episode 310. I highly recommend this podcast.  Even though it's not about Vampire the Masquerade or the other Classic World of Darkness games, they offer lots of great advice in quick, content filled episodes. 

1 comment:

  1. But this is not the worst, the worst is when one player tells you: "This is my drug lord/dealer now one Follower of Seth" and he didn't think about things like Contacts, Resources, Streethwise, or Finance; just one generic Setite vampire without trace fo past living human life. Or the kids with Medicine 4... on Dark Ages...