Jason recaps the events from Roll For Combat, Episode 026: Back To School.
Consider Odo’s nose.
I’m going to assume most of you have watched Deep Space Nine and know who Odo is – I gotta think the overlap on the fandom is pretty high. But just in case you sat out DS9 because you liked Babylon 5 better or something, Odo was a shapeshifter who can turn himself into pretty much any object, but for some reason can never get human noses right, so he looks a little… “off”.
Think about that as a Starfinder character for a second. Odo is probably an Operative, though if you wanted to make a case for Soldier, I wouldn’t argue too strenuously. What’s a disfigured nose? Maybe a -1 or -2 to Charisma? It’s a dump stat anyway. If you were playing Odo at a gaming table, that nose isn’t going to lose you any fights; you probably don’t even think twice about it.
But think about Odo’s nose as a story element. Think about how it represents his distance from his fellow crew members, a symbol of his otherness. Think about how his sense of being an outsider holds him back from making his feelings for Major Kira known. There’s even something about the fact that it’s kind of human, kind of Bajoran, but not really either. That’s an awful lot of meaning to pack into a little bit of prosthetic makeup. That little detail has a way of signifying a whole lot more.
All of this is preamble to discussing Steve’s GM tip this week about flawed characters.
One of the recurring themes I come back to in these posts is the idea of the balance between gameplay and storytelling. When it comes to designing characters, I think this is one of those places where the gameplay and storytelling missions of a roleplaying game can come into conflict with each other if you’re not careful.
The gameplay side of the house often pushes the player to emphasize survivability. The elephant in the room is that one can tout the storytelling aspects of role-playing games until the cows come home, but at some point, 99% of these stories involve combat, and you can’t experience the rest of the story if you’re dead. So that tends to push people to create characters that win fights.
Unfortunately, if you’ve designed your character just to win fights, those are actually some of the least interesting kinds of characters from the storytelling standpoint.
The Min-Maxer is the obvious example: that guy who digs through the back pages of the rules and finds some esoteric combination of feats and gear that lets him do 4d12 with a freakin’ dagger or something. For a player like that, the rules themselves represent the puzzle to be solved, not the story. While I can respect the technical acumen of something like that, I don’t have a lot of patience for it as a player (or a GM, though I don’t GM a lot these days). It almost always ends up in a situation where the GM has to start modifying his story to neutralize the Min-Maxer’s choices, and it reduces the entire game into a pissing contest between the GM and the Min-Maxer with the rest of the group as bystanders.
In short: don’t be That Guy.
The slightly lesser offense is the purgatory of Safe Choice Charlie, which is – full disclosure – a trap I sometimes fall into. It’s not full-blown Min-Maxing, but it’s playing everything conservatively by the numbers. Take the race that has the right racial stats for the class. Stop all your ability scores at even numbers to get the most bang for your point-buy buck. Optimize feats, skills, etc. for combat survivability. Overly planning your character out multiple levels down the road. It’s not game-breaking in the same way Min-Maxing is, but it also leads to kind of generic characters that don’t really stand out. Their defining trait is that they fight well, and that doesn’t give the GM a lot to play with on the story side.
I don’t think you can do much about the Min-Maxer situation. That’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the game. If someone wants to play that way and you don’t want that at your table, I think you just have to confront it and either ask that player to change for the good of the game (as Steve did with Chris way back when), or maybe even just admit you have different gaming goals and move on. I think building in imperfections is more valuable for bringing some texture to that character that’s within the bounds of the rules, but is in danger of being meta-gamed into a generic shell. The main difference between a tabletop RPG and an MMO is that level of creativity you can bring to it, and I think the latter case is where the meat of Steve’s tip becomes helpful.
And here’s where we come back to Odo’s nose. Injecting flavor into your character doesn’t have to mean kneecapping your stats and making it unplayable. Put another way: the character build can still be fairly conventional if you can find a way to play it in an unconventional manner. I think I mentioned this in a previous Talking, but Bob had a character in Iron Gods that was a fairly by-the-book sorcerer in terms of stats/spell choices/etc. – if you put that character sheet next to 100 other sorcerers, nothing about it would stand out. But Bob played him with limited social awareness, so the differences came in how he reacted to people and situations. That created a lot of interesting story moments without any real adverse impact on the stats sheet.
To tie into THIS campaign, one of my first character concepts before I settled on Tuttle, was going to be something along those same lines – a Solarian who rejected half their powers and only used their dark/light powers. It kind of died on the vine a) because it felt too much like I’d be ripping off the Jedi-Sith dynamic of Star Wars and b) some of it was the unfamiliarity with the system – since Starfinder was so new, I didn’t want to create a quirk that might lead to a TPK because I didn’t understand the rules and borked my character too thoroughly.
And that brings me to my other point. If you ARE going to play a character with flaws that could be problematic in the game itself, I do think that presupposes a long-term group you’re comfortable with and would be accepting of such shenanigans. Steve mentions working with your GM on character concepts like these, but there’s also an assumption that your fellow players are OK with a bit of suboptimal character design in service of the story. Thinking back to Ezrik – my warpriest who kept drinking Numerian fluid – every time I did that, there was always a chance I’d roll that 1 or 2, kill my character and derail the game for a few sessions while I re-roll. I do think you have to be in a group that’s accepting of that (and that’s one thing this group definitely has going for it – we embrace all sorts of weird shit if it makes the game more fun) and doesn’t see it as screwing around or hogging the spotlight.
If you’re playing in a setting where you don’t know the GM or the other players (first session with a new group, or a short-term setting like a convention or something), maybe it’s OK to just be a little boring and play by the book. I’m not sure a pick-up game would be welcoming of these sorts of idiosyncratic characters, and “hey look at me, I’m a rogue with bad DEX” might come across like you’re just trying to derail the game. But if you’re in a long-term group? Embrace the weirdness. Find your character’s new nose.
Unfortunately, my thoughts on the substance of this week’s episode are a little slim. Some of it is real life intruding, but part of it is that it was a kind of transitional “getting from A to B” episode. We get our next mission from ChexMix – dig into the mystery of the alien writing with the writings of some bygone alien explorer – and it’s off to Castrovel. It’s got a feel like we’ll eventually be doing an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt (I counted at least four Raiders references while re-listening) where we go looking for the alien runes in the scarier parts of Castrovel, but we’re still at the “getting the headpiece from Marian” stage of the story. (Guess that makes five references.)
Does that also imply we’re going to have Space Nazis? Is Wahloss destined to be the more serious Marcus Brody of Raiders or the comic-relief Brody of Last Crusade? Will we have to teach CHDRR to fight with a bullwhip? All important questions.
On a character level, I am kind of excited we’re heading to an academic setting because that might mean more intelligence-based skill challenges that would give Tuttle a chance to do what he does best. Smashing around the criminal underworld of Absalom? That’s Mo or Hirogi’s bag. Bossing around a PhD student or searching dusty archives? Science Rat’s got you covered! Off to college we go!
OK, for extra credit this week, since I’m actually re-watching DS9 on Netflix these days:
Commander Sisko – starts as a Themeless Envoy, takes on Icon or Priest once he embraces his role as the Emissary.
Major Kira – Priest theme, class is either Operative or Soldier, depending on how you characterize her role in the Bajoran resistance. Was she more of a fighter or more of a spy? Could go either way, but leaning Soldier.
Dax – let’s see… married a Klingon, played tongo with the Ferengi, thought the alien with the transparent skull was cute… definitely a Xenoseeker Mechanic. Though one of the previous hosts was a test pilot so the Ace Pilot theme wouldn’t be a stretch. Kurzon Dax was DEFINITELY an Envoy, though.
O’Brien – Themeless Mechanic. Maybe take a level or two of Soldier to symbolize his role fighting the Cardies.
Bashir – Spacefarer Mystic. I realize there’s no perfect analog for magic in the Trek world, but since Mystics are healer types, I’m rolling with it. Spacefarer goes to his earlier season infatuations with “frontier medicine”.
Odo – Bounty Hunter Operative (but with a Lawful, probably Lawful Good, alignment).
Quark – Mercenary Envoy. He’s more of an influencer than a fighter. Speaking of flawed characters, he’d be an Envoy with low charisma.
Worf – Priest Soldier (Klingon beliefs representing a religious identity).
Garak – Outlaw Operative. Character spec is fairly straightforward. Alignment is where it gets tricky with Garak. True neutral? Some sort of evil?