Creativity Through Limitation

2007 September 25
by Vanir

I frequently like to step outside the box when I roleplay, and I read an article this morning that really got me thinking.

The great thing about roleplaying is that you can use your imagination and become whatever (and whoever) you want. Granted, in a gaming environment, you are subject to some limitations so there’s a sense of growth, realism, and challenge. But by and large, fantasy roleplaying is an exercise in wish fulfillment for the players. That is, they want to escape the drudgery and limitations of real life. They want to have exciting adventures, and to be more than themselves. A lot of people create basically a superpowered alter-ego for themselves and they can do what they’re afraid to in real life. D&D lets them live the dream to a certain extent, and that’s really cool.

Limitation as a Tool for Creative Thinking?

A different way to roleplay is to give the players a set of limitations with which to build their characters. A very light version of this is to restrict where the PC’s come from or their available races, etc. in order to mold how their backstories will work. In our last campaign, I restricted the party to being humans because the story required it. Another very common way to roleplay like this is to use pregenerated characters. While many use pre-gen characters in a more hack-and-slash environment because it’s faster and balanced, it can be a way for the DM to more easily control the story and for the players to step outside of the box they usually play in and try to identify with a new character’s way of thinking. If your players are in a rut doing the same thing over and over again, try keeping them away from the place they dug it.

My lovely wife Efreak, who is an artist, frequently tells me about how there are two kinds of artists: creators, and discoverers. Creators make something new from scratch. Discoverers tend to take existing things and blend them or find new meaning in something old. This type of roleplaying is discovery. It’s not creativity in the sense that the player gets to create a new character. It’s that they get to create their own version of an existing character.

Pros and Cons

I already know a lot of you crinkled up your noses at the words “pre-generated characters” and immediately thought of a bad experience you’ve had. It’s been sort of a mixed bag for me as well, but done right it can be fun. For instance, you use pre-generated characters at Nascrag. And despite it being some of the best fun on the planet, I will admit there’s a pretty steep learning curve handling those characters’ backstories and pre-planned motivations and feelings toward others. I saw a lot of people struggle with this, and it’s not for everybody.

That being said, you can hit the ground running if you play with pre-gen characters — especially if you give them out to your players well in advance so they can be familiar with the backstories you’ve written. We all know character generation can pretty much kill the first night of a gaming session. If you’re in a group that can’t meet often or you’re playing your once-a-year-only game at Gen Con with strange people from the Internet, this is a really good way to get started — fast.

Another good thing about writing the backstory for a pre-gen character is that you get to see how the player reacts to the cards he’s been dealt. A female bard character in Nascrag last year knew she was pregnant but didn’t want to tell anyone. And about halfway through, we were all going to be polymorphed to hide from the bad guys, which she knew (from her backstory) might be harmful to the baby. Watching that player wrestle with that decision and everyone dealing with her eventual decision not to do it made the game a lot more interesting because someone had to walk a few steps in shoes other than their usual ones.

Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Roleplay Here

If you really want to try something crazy, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes entirely. I haven’t played it yet, but there’s a new roleplaying game out called Steal Away Jordan, where you play as a slave in the South before the U.S. Civil War. No wish-fulfillment here, guys.

The concept to me sounds intensely interesting, but I don’t know that it would be “fun” per se. It strikes me that games like this are the gaming equivalent of method acting, and you’ll walk away changed but not necessarily having had a great time. (The photo in that article is priceless!)

But, then again, games don’t always have to be fun, just like art isn’t always there to make us feel good. Yehuda wrote a fantastic article in his blog a couple months ago that you should definitely read if this sort of thing intrigues you. In actual practice, you probably won’t want to go this extreme. Unless you’ve sat down with your players and collectively decided you want to try something like this, you’re probably going to have a lot of people not having fun.

Finding the Balance

What you can do is come up with a setting for your players and characters that need played. For instance, Nascrag’s last story arc revolved around a royal family and the PC’s were either in the family or close associates. This allowed the adventure to be geared toward specific goals involving these characters. Having pregenerated characters certainly made that easier, but there’s certainly nothing preventing you as a DM from fine-tuning how much you want to limit the characters. It can be anything from only limiting where they come from or what classes to be, to giving them specific roles in the story that need to be played (and they flesh out the details), to giving them complete pregenerated characters and throwing them in the ocean to swim.

If you’re going to do this, you should absolutely sit down as a group and talk it over. As I said before, it’s not for everybody and it really stresses some people out trying to think outside the box. Some will bristle at the restriction of their creative freedom. Some players wind up roleplaying the same way they always do even with a new character, and you should be prepared for that eventuality. Some, like me, will have a ton of fun with it and want every game to be like this.

Find your balance within the group, and if everybody’s still having fun at the end, then it worked. Just like everything else in roleplaying games!

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