The Main Character Theory of Role Playing Games

Role-playing games, given a modest amount of time, will develop a main character.

This goes counter to one of the implicit objectives of running a game: namely, the idea that every player should be included equally. However, in my experience, it is unavoidable: there will be one character from who's perspective the story is most compelling, and without whom the overall story suffers.

Sometimes, this is the most vocal player, for obvious reasons: they contribute most to the storyline, by directly affecting it. The game I'm running right now features a character named Jokamo, and he does most of the talking, and thus the game seems to be from his perspective. Each character he's with is a strong one: a snarky wood-elf, a mage with the ability to take down tall buildings with a single evocation, and... uhhh... a quirky half-height mystic who likes to wear cups for hats and keeps a magical talking skull on her shoulder.

It is not always the most vocal player. However, I also played in a game of Amber where my character, Freeman, was based on the video game. He didn't say much of anything. And yet that game seemed to largely revolve around him, once the action started. Most of the other players (a strong-man, a monk, and an displaced steampunk IRA member) were out to kill him. When he took action, the universe changed, and the game with it.

It is not always the most interesting character. In a game of Cyberpunk that I played, the story was clearly from the point of view of Rolfe's character (who's name I've forgotten). Interestingly, the character himself was somewhat... drab. Certainly compared to the rest of the motley crew that accompanied him, which included a spunky mechanic, a Russian biochemist, and a cigar-smoking, wheeling-dealing fence. Rolfe's character has less social skills than the fence, no real combat skills to speak of, and didn't otherwise stand out in the crowd. He was, however, the leader of the group, and thus the story was clearly from his perspective.

It is not always the clear "leader" of the group. In a game of Continuum that I played, the main character was very clearly Liam's character Kelly... who was certainly the most interesting, but definitely not the leader of the group. Heh. No, he was as far from the voice of reason as is possible. : )

It is, however, the character most central to the plot. But to say so is somewhat redundant, since that's pretty much what defines a main character. : )

This theory does not universally apply. I ran a very large game (eight players at any given time), which (interestingly) ended up more as an ensemble, where a few of the players stayed on the fringe, but the others each had their moments in the limelight. No one player contributed enough to be considered central to the plot or to the gaming. ...It was a relatively unstable group, however, (heavy on the "drama") which may well have affected things.

I wanted this to be more of an exposition of an idea than a commentary about its effects. Yet I feel compelled to say one thing that I've learned because of this: it is more important for the players to be forewarned about this tendency than it is for the GM.


r_b_bergstrom said...

Good post. I'm linking here from my blog.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Heh, heh. Did I tell you how I completely misread your post?

I read "social skills of the fence" as "social skills of a fence" and therefore thought you meant (by the word "fence") an inanimate object, not another PC.

I was a tiny bit offended. :)