Friday, March 11, 2011

Your Character Is A Coward And He Looks Like One Too!

Sometimes you have to think about what makes your favorite character our favorite character and why that doesn't apply to the character you're actually playing in your weekly/monthly/annually/fictitious games. You see, I have a very specific archetype I look for when trying to pick a favorite character in any show, comic, story, or other medium. I like my heroes to get the crap beaten out of them. I like to see my characters get ground into pulp. In my opinion, when a character is up against the big mother-beast of all things hairy and mean, he shouldn't get out without a couple hundred bite and scratch marks. Anything less than that and they weren't trying hard enough or the challenge was just kind of lame. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce
Angel is one of my top-five shows of all time. I love the ensemble, I like David Boreanaz more than a straight man should, and it's got amazing, epic story archs that just don't mess around. Every character is pretty great on the show, but one in particular, a throw-away character from Angel's mother show, Buffy, takes the cake. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is the man. Compare:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Wesley: 

Wesley after he survives getting his throat cut and abandoned by all his friends:

Wes is a fantastic character for a lot of reasons, but more than anything else, he exemplifies the Watcher attitude (like Giles on Buffy) that there's nothing he wouldn't do to save the world, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

Now ask yourself, when you're designing a character and throughout the play process, do you ever have any characters that end up like the damaged Wes character? I know I've had experiences where I've been terrified to keep much damage on my character before entering the next Hairy-Mean Thing infested room of a dungeon. I'm starting to feel like this is a real shame. My characters near the point of death slowly going down to zero HP and then, "quick! Cleric! Shaman! Bard! ANYTHING!" You get healed right back up.

Wes experienced this when his throat was slit open, and his assailant abandoned him to die alone in the middle of the night. He barely survived the encounter, and it absolutely marked a turning point in the character towards total 100% bad-assery. Instead of dealing with the actual physical damage and its consequences, our characters end up being magically healed back into our $400.00 suit and tie, hair neatly combed to the side. There's no growth, there's no risk, and there's no true heroic action.

No doubt about it: Spider-Man is the best superhero out there (shuddup Batman!). Is it the excellent retro 60's webbing on the costume? Is it the fact that he always has a hot blonde or redhead on his alter-ego's arm? Is it because working for a newspaper is totally cool? Well, yes, those are all true, but more than anything, Spider-Man gets the crap beaten out of him. It seems like every Spider-Man action figure line has a "Battle-Damaged Spidey" figure among its ranks. Spidey is a blue collar hero at his core, and the more he takes a beating, the more I'm enjoying his story. Take a look below for the before and afters of pretty much every Spidey story ever:

What separates Spidey from Wes is that he eventually does get better each time. His costume gets sown up, the black eye heals, and the bones mend. But instead of healing surges or any bit of help throughout a story arc, he just keeps getting worse and worse. There's something funny about Spidey though: the more he gets hurt, the more determined he gets. Spidey is fueled by pain and failure, and it's what has made him so compelling all these past, what, 50 years? Geez, get out of college already, ya bum!

Ok, so smart guys get beat up a lot, so what?
So what are you afraid of? Let your guy (smart or Int-is-my-dump-stat Barbarian) get a little roughed up. Take one on the chin and don't immediately scream for a band-aid from your group's heal monkey. Take a chance with your character. It's fun to play the big powerful wall of a tank, but it can also be fun to get beat up, scuffed up, and generally hit over the head one-too-many times.

I put a picture of the Cowardly Lion up at the top there because all too often I feel like my characters can relate to the Pusillanimous King of the Jungle. They have a lot of bark, they can even bite, but the moment something hits them they're off to the hospital to fill up on HP before going back to the battlefield. I'm not saying go out there, get stabbed a lot, and let your character die. I just think if we allowed our characters to get truly scarred and face some real adversity we may be able to transform a one-dimensional Mary Sue into a fully-realized, Battle-Damaged Wes.

Go out there and get beat up a little. It'll do wonders for your character (and your character's character for that matter).


  1. I enjoy having a hidden fear that I do not bring up to the PC's such as fear of small spaces or large crowds. Then acting agitated when I have to confront these fears.

  2. I like it! I'm a big fan of secrets at table that can barely be contained by the secret holder. Whenever I GM horror, I always focus on giving my players an uneven amount of information. I like the idea that your character has this flaw that would normally be, in a lot of games, something that would just give you extra build points, but you play it out like you don't want others to know and actually make it a secret part of your character's past.


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