Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Starting Player Character

I recently got into a discussion of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, and particularly where to start when reading them, on Google+. The apparently natural place to start is the first volume, which depending upon which release you are reading, will be Swords and Deviltry or Ill Met in Lankhmar – either way, with "The Snow Women," "The Unholy Grail" and "Ill Met in Lankhmar." Unfortunately, that's a terrible way to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. You're well over 100 pages in before you actually get to Fafhrd and the Mouser interacting. It puts me in mind of modern Hollywood, which is obsessed with telling and re-telling "origin stories" because they follow a predictable pattern. It's a really bad one with Leiber's characters, who are at their best once they've actually gotten together. Reading the Lankhmar books in order denies you the good parts for most of the first book.

It happens that I started reading Leiber with the 1996 release of Lean Times in Lankhmar, and more or less began with the titular story. I wanted to read their origin stories because I knew who they would become. And of course, Leiber didn't start with "The Snow Women" or "The Unholy Grail" or even "Ill Met," but rather "Jewels in the Forest," set after Swords and Deviltry.

A starting OD&D fighting-man has the level title of "Veteran." I like that; it implies that he or she has been through a war and survived. They are not farmboys, and have some training and idea of what they're doing. (Dungeon Crawl Classics changes this, which I think is odd.) But given the way the game is set up, we don't know if they are going to survive.

What I've found through play is that pre-written background doesn't mean anything. This is because of a principle that writers are expected to bear in mind: the story you are telling should be the most exciting and important thing that has ever happened to the character. A background made up for a PC before the start of play is, of necessity, not that interesting; after all, they never got any experience points for it.

This is why fan fiction and prequels tend to be markedly inferior. If the earlier story was the most exciting thing that happened to the character, things that happened before tend to be less exciting by definition. Even characters with serial adventures tend to have a best episode or two, compared with which everything else is simply lesser work.

Interesting player characters in my games have always been the ones that emerge in the midst of play. No amount of background has ever really fixed that. Improvisational roleplaying creates character traits that were often totally unexpected. You can't bake that into the character by writing a story of what happened to them beforehand. The best examples I've seen tend to be people who start from very broad strokes and only become more specific in the heat of the game.

Really, I think this is a big part of why D&D's class system has been so enduringly popular: it gives players a good basis to create adventurers from whole cloth, and then let them gain more definition as the game goes on. Maybe a background story will be appropriate when they hit 4th level and become a "Hero" – just as I only appreciated the origins of Fafhrd and the Mouser once I'd read their adventures in Stardock and Quarmall. But at the start, I really find they're not needed, and only distract from defining the character in play.


  1. I think some like more guidance on how they should act in game, and some are comfortable seeing what comes.

    You can get good performances as a method actor and good ones as an improv artist. I'm not always willing to put much work in beforehand, and I know the tropes well enough to play whatever comes so I don't feel like I need a BUILD

    A class, a couple of items, I'm golden. I think too much info up front can clot up the discovery but not everybody is into that kind of thing

    As you appear to be saying already.

  2. This is kind of tangential, but would you be willing to share the recommended order for reading the stories in question? I feel like I tried to get into Leiber at one point but bounced back out, and it may be because I simply started in the wrong place in the wrong mindset.

    1. Start with "Jewels in the Forest" (either in Swords against Death or Ill Met in Lankhmar, depending on which collection you have) and continue through "Lords of Quarmall." That will have you read either Swords in the Mist with Swords against Wizardry or Lean Times in Lankhmar. Then you can double back to Swords and Deviltry. That covers all the really essential Fafhrd and Gray Mouser material.

  3. That said, I do see the appeal of character backstory, even elaborate character backstory, and of starting at level 0 and working your way up to "veteran" over the course of a starting adventure. It all depends on what you want to get out of play. In practical terms, I've used both and gotten some fun character arcs out of it - the former as player and DM, the latter as DM.

  4. We don't characterize our pawns before they start. The closest thing we do is assign a hierarchy to those areas they have had experience in: urban, rural, wildlands and noble. Their story starts with adventure. Characterization is terse and efficient. Deeds define them. This does not detract from the story they tell nor who they become.

    1. Mr. Anderson - whatever works for you is great, for you. I'm not saying that you can't start a character as a blank slate and define them entirely through play - I'm just saying that doing so isn't the only way to have a good game. No?

  5. Here are the first seven Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories to be published:

    1. "The Jewels in the Forest" (AKA "Two Sought Adventure) Aug. 1939
    2. "The Bleak Shore" (Nov. 1940)
    3. "The Howling Tower" (June 1941)
    4. "The Sunken Land" (Feb. 1942)
    5. "Thieves' House" (Feb. 1943)
    6. "Claws from the Night" (AKA "Dark Vengeance") (Fall 1951)
    7. "The Seven Black Priests" (May 1953)

    All seven stories are in my copy of Swords against Death.


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.