Up front, I don’t have an answer. As I’m sure I’ve
said before, I can’t tell you who your character is. What I can do is unpack
this question a little.
The hardest part with writing characters inside a
game is, you need to understand the game’s rules. It’s actually a much more
difficult kind of worldbuilding than simply saying, “I have a setting here.” It
also breaks from how reality functions in a critical way.
Games are, at best, a simulacrum of reality. Details
get sanded over to present the underlying philosophies. Sometimes that’s an
intentional choice by the developers. They want to talk about something
specific. Sometimes it’s an incidental choice that reflects how the developers
view the world. Sometimes it’s a fluke, created by the other systems.
This applies to the rules themselves, and can
reflect a developer’s priorities. A more intricate combat system suggests the
game is focused on players delving in and working through the intricacies of
complex tactical situations. A game with an abstract combat system suggests
that combat is less of a focus, or if it is, that it’s more of a venue for
player expression than the mechanics designed to keep the players engaged.
Roleplaying games aren’t about what’s real, or how
people actually work. It’s about creating a system with a specific goal in
mind. Usually, that goal is populating the world with characters who fit into
it, and allowing the players to experience (and hopefully influence) a story
(or a multitude of stories).
Class systems can serve several distinct purposes. In
games, they can be an attempt to push characters towards certain archetypes
defined by their setting or genre.
This is especially true in something like D&D,
where the player classes are designed to build into the normal fantasy hero
archetypes. You have your Aragorn or Legolas style Rangers. Your Conan inspired
Barbarians. Your academic Wizards who wander the world in search of lore. Your
chaotic and impulsive Sorcerers who cast magic as it flows through them. Your
rogues, freshly escaped from the pages of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These are
the kinds of characters the game wants available to the players. It doesn’t
mean that every Barbarian will be a shallow imitation of Conan the Chimerian,
but it forms the initial framework of the character. It’s a player aid, saying,
“hey, kid, you wanna be a hero?”
Now, remember what I said above about system focus?
Character creation in an RPG is the same; it informs design goals. An RPG that
simply gives you a non-customizable class is more interested in putting players
into the action. It may also suggest the game is one where individual
characters are expendable. Conversely a game without any class system
whatsoever is probably advocating character creation as an element of personal
expression. A game without a class system, or a more pervasive one will be more
accepting of “special snowflakes,” than a game that hands you your class on a
playing card and says, “it’s this or you could try the Waywatcher.”
When it comes to getting interesting material out of
this kind of a dynamic, your best bet is letting characters play against one
another within the range of who their class expects to be.
Now, here’s where understanding your game becomes
vitally important. If you look at classes as training wheels for building a
character, your next question becomes, “how restrictive is it?”
RPGs can have very open classes or very tightly
restricted ones. D&D’s done both, over the years, and had a lot of
different approaches to class systems over the years.
A restrictive class system is one where you cannot
break out of your class identity at all. An RPG with a strict gear list based
on classes. Where a Wizard can’t even use a sword or any armor, for instance,
would be a highly restrictive one.
A less restrictive class system might use certain
skills to control progress, and ignore or cap advancement in others. An
unrestrictive class system might let you simply buy out of your class and into
others as you progress.
For example: Third and 3.5 Edition D&D allowed
you flat out choose new classes when you leveled up. You’d start at level one
in those classes, but you’d gain everything associated with being a member of
that class in addition to the old one.
Another example would be White Wolf’s Exalted. Where
characters could buy skills and magical abilities outside of their Caste. In
one specific case, they could also buy skills from other kinds of beings in the
game. There were limits, but those were more about ensuring your character had
a basic core ability set, rather than saying they could not follow their
It’s also probably worth noting that the Exalted
were (explicitly) demigods, so their ability to do whatever they wanted was a deliberate
reflection of that nature.
The philosophy and worldview that underpin class
systems is that people have a specific venue. That may be they have a specific
skill set, and can learn others. Or it could be a far harsher view that “they
have a place in the world,” and cannot deviate from it.
In a very restrictive class system, it may not be
possible to buck the trend. If your character literally can’t equip armor,
because their class doesn’t allow it, they’re going to have a very difficult
time becoming a frontline fighter.
And it gets worse.
games, blacksmith wouldn’t be a player class. Not all, some MMOs will gleefully
allow players to pick non-combat/non-social classes, with the idea that you
want to simply roleplay in the world.
Most class based RPGs maintain a hard line between
playable and non-playable classes. Players stand head and shoulders above the
general populous. Your normal RPG is a power fantasy after all. It’s about
being bigger, stronger, faster, more cunning, or more lethal than you can in
life. You’re creating a character to be (one of) the protagonist(s) in a story.
Not the tavern owner that serves the heroes their beer while they plot to take
down the evil overlord.
For games like D&D, that means that NPC classes
(even combat focused ones) are flat out inferior to player classes. For
example, if you’ve played 3.5 Edition D&D, you’re probably aware of the
Fighter class. Did you know there’s also a Warrior class? It is almost the
same, except it doesn’t have any bonus abilities, fewer hit points, and a much
shorter skill list. It’s a class for NPCs, designed to allow the GM to
introduce professional soldiers, guards, or other combat capable NPCs, who aren’t
as powerful as the party but can fight alongside, or against, them.
If you’re curious, D&D 3.5 has five of these NPC
classes. The Expert (a highly skilled non-combat character), the Adept (a weak
healer), the Warrior, the Aristocrat, and the Commoner.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t done a
full lit review of how RPGs have influenced modern fantasy. I see it frequently
in passing, but it’s a specific interaction that I’ve never really researched,
so take this with a few grains of salt. It’s my opinions, not empirical fact.
The rise of RPGs, particularly D&D, have
influenced how we write “conventional” fantasy. A modern generic fantasy novel’s
setting often owes more to Gygax than to Tolkien. This is a symbiotic
relationship. It’s not that people are “ripping off,” D&D nor the reverse.
Simply that D&D has become a nexus of modern fantasy elements that has superseded
Within post-modern fantasy lit, there’s a
substantial chunk of lit dealing with a very specific paradox of D&D and
RPGs in general. If your character is a normal farm boy (or girl) one day, and
an adventuring hero the next, what the hell just happened? How does a character
go from being a background NPC in their world one moment to becoming a
significantly more powerful player character?
I brought up D&D because it, systemically,
illustrates how strange this paradox really is.
Some of this is because it’s how Campbell’s hero’s
journey works. Your protagonist comes from nothing, and in a moment is revealed
as the protagonist. They were always there, hidden (even from themselves), and
are forced to reveal themselves.
Some of it is supposed to be glossed over. You
rolled up your character to play a hero, not to spend thirty years forging
horseshoes before being killed by a goblin to provide a nearby adventuring
party with an adventure hook.
It’s entirely possible to cheat around this. Your
character finds some magical doohickey that “reveals their inner potential,”
and changes their class. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it doesn’t
actually say anything meaningful, it just levels your character up and pushes
on with the quest, but it’s one that many writers do fall back on.
Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for you,
just more questions:
How self aware is your setting? There’s an entire
sub-genre of D&D lit where characters are literally discussing how the
rules function in setting. Order of the Stick is probably the best example that
comes to mind. A story where adventuring heroes wander the land is going to be
substantially different if people are actually talking about the result of To Hit
rolls, crit confirmations and hit dice.
Is this something the rules actually allow for?
There are games that will allow you to flat out break class. Hell, one of my favorite
methods for subverting the level scaling in Oblivion was to roll an Acrobat and
then specifically play against class, to artificially deflate the character’s
level in comparison to their skills.
What does being a hero mean? This one probably needs
to be further unpacked, but at a basic level, who does your character want to
be? In many campaigns player characters are little more than exceedingly
homicidal magpies on the prowl for the next loot piñata. That is something he could aspire to. But it’s
a pretty warped definition of, “hero.” It’s fun, and game designers usually
come up with contextual elements to excuse it, but this is a genre that can
become pretty messed up when you step back and ask, “but why am I hitting this
man with a giant club made from the incisor of a petrified dragon?”
How does your character deal with failure? Even
under the best of circumstances, your character isn’t going to get what they
want. How they deal with failure is at least as important with how they deal
with success. This one’s a pretty good question to think about for any
character you’re writing.
Who’s playing this thing? Is your character a player
trapped in the character sheet of an NPC, or are there actually player
characters wandering around adventuring while your character looks on? If it’s
the latter, what is the GM after? This can lead to some incredibly surreal
weirdness. Especially if it’s 3am and everyone’s still laughing about the
butterscotch zombie, while the GM’s trying to get the game back on track, while
your character’s just trying to deal with the insanity unfolding around them.
Somehow, Discworld seems to be the most appropriate
reading recommendation. It might not make sense immediately, but Terry Prachett’s
approach to messing with fantasy conventions and clichés is on point. I’m linking The Color of Magic, but feel free to poke around and pick other ones from the series, if they catch your attention instead.
focused on one interesting twist on what you’re talking about. Exalts were
superhumanly powerful. For the weakest variety, their powers were usually hereditary,
but in some cases the offspring of Dragon
Bloods would fail to Exalt, and remain mortal. It’s part of a larger
setting, but if you’re worried about your fantasy setting being too generic,
then Exalted’s setting might help. It
also spent time talking about characters who went from nobody to demigod in a
moment, and how they dealt with that. More what your character fantasizes about
than their life, but still.