Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Affection for Shit Characters

A phenomenon that I have noticed, over my gaming career, is that people tend to view randomly generated characters with more affection than ones they have built and predetermined, for instance through point-buy or allocation of stats.

It is important to distinguish what I mean, here. I don't mean that people don't like characters they create when they have full control over the process. I am talking specifically about affection - that feeling that you get for something that may be flawed, annoying, stupid, weak, imperfect, insipid, and so on, but which you come to like despite, and perhaps because, of those problems.

It's a feeling you can't get with non-random character generation; you can deliberately weaken your character in some way, but for some reason it just doesn't replicate that feeling you develop for your randomly rolled STR 7 fighter who survives to Level 2, or for your utterly uninteresting cleric whose stats are all in the 9-11 range but you make interesting anyway.

Why should this be? The parallels with human society are obvious: we don't create our family and friends. They come to us as they are and we develop bonds with them over time. Characters in games are a bit like that, it seems.


  1. I think you get an extra something from overcoming adversity; things that you achieve despite the odds have a satisfaction that you just don't get when your success is guaranteed. I think the same thing explains why players tend to be more excited about a character where they rolled 17 STR than one where they decide to put 18 in STR and then choose Dwarf for a +2 STR bonus on top of that.

  2. It often helps give a character well, character that you probably wouldn't get otherwise, and makes you take options and play in a way that otherwise you might not.

    For example my last old school fighter, for whom I was lucky to roll high strength and con, but had 3 hit points.
    So "Wade the Wary" ended up starting his adventures with a shield, as much heavy armour as he could get, and a sling and spear so he could kill things before they got too close.
    (spear also doubled as a poke-at-anything-potentially-dangerous tool)

    If I had just chosen my stats I would have ended up with a very different type of fighter both in terms of equipment and tactics.

  3. Imperfections define personality - a superhero that never errs and has no weaknesses is boring as hell.

  4. Well said! I've always loved the wonky characters, playing against type, etc. My friend the min-maxer is perplexed by this, but I'm perplexed by how he can't see his character as a lovable little chap, warts and all.

    I think pretty much everyone who's played old-school D&D has a story about that fighter with 1HP (in a recent game, 18 Str and 1HP named Punchy) or magic-user with 6 INT who only knows Read Magic and Tenser's Floating Disc. They're some of the best characters in the game, and their exploits - live or die - are always the most memorable.

  5. I sort of get this, except I am a fiction writer and I use the characters from my stories in my games and I am way too attached to those characters. sure I grow affection to randomly generated, but even then, I will usually pull a name and a personality, usually a minor or one shot character from my stories based on what I want to play and stats.

  6. I think it has something to do with our tendency to root for the underdog. The built character is optimized, with his chances for success fairly known and fairly likely. The random character is unoptimized, and therefore the underdog. When he succeeds, the obstacles are much higher, relatively speaking, and therefore more significant.

    Another idea is that a randomly generated character is an opportunity for the player to demonstrate their skill at playing the game rather than just character building. A fighter with 1 hit point must be much more careful, choosing his battles wisely and optimizing tactics to cover for his deficiencies. Making it to level 2 in those circumstances is a testament to the player.

    Or you could look at a sub-optimal character as "hungry", someone with something to prove, something to accomplish. That first level fighter with 1 hit point knows that reaching second level means more hit points, so that's his target. If his Strength is low, he'll be hunting for Gauntlets of Ogre Power. If he wants to command a mighty army and only has a Charisma of 5, he's got a long road ahead of him, so he gets marching.

  7. I'm convinced that the kind of work the mind does when we look at a random series of numbers and tuen them into a person is somehow structuraly different that what we do when we imagine a person and turn them into a series of numbers.

    Part of me wants to say that it's like meeting a real person, the mind wakes up, realises it has to comprehend something outside itself and becomes more active. This leaves a deeper trace of memory than just doing something entirely inside the mind.

  8. I can not say as I have the completely opposite experience.

    The more say I had in creating or choosing the characters specifics, be they his advantages or his flaws, the more I care what happens to him and the more a like him on a personal level.

    This is one of the reasons I am not overly found of classic D&D and it's cousins. It takes me a long while to get attached to some random set of numbers who will probably die soon at the hands of some nameless brigand, meaningless, randomly encountered monster or roll high or die trap. If he survives a while I'll start to think about him.

  9. Random Characters are also something different.
    If you have an idea of a perfect character, that probably will not change much: you'll go for speed over power or for brawn over brains, or something that is good for your style. You'll end up making that character again and again, whereas you don't get that option with a random character. Chances are he will be pretty different and memorable for that reason, instead of all the ideal characters that blend together into one.