Last night at a family dinner, I talked gaming with a couple of kids that are about to graduate high school, and one of the things they discussed was finding folks to play Dungeons and Dragons with at their respective colleges this fall. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, knowing how much of an impact role playing games had on my own college life. I sincerely hope that they get at least a fraction of the positive experience out of them as I did.
Living on campus, the gang would gather together at my place for an adventure every weekend; exploring dungeons whose walls were drawn out with spare change on the kitchen table, sharing a single laptop full of PDF versions of the various rulebooks (I’ve since kept to my word and collected lots of D&D books that have never been opened to attone for the “digital borrowing” performed as broke college student), chowing down on communally funded food purchased from whatever restaurant we could get the best employee discount from out of our friend circle.
In doing so, we discovered who the rules lawyers were, who the smooth talkers were, and who the creative geniuses were. We watched relationships bloom at the table and continue out of character. We decided for ourselves what our characters would be good at (let’s put that 18 into Strength, I’ll use Charisma and Intelligence as my dump-stats and just grunt at the other characters), but we also discovered what our own skills and weaknesses were. We discovered one another’s minds, and we discovered our own.
The character sheets are long lost, but my heroes are still a part of me. When I’m out in a crowded bar, and a scuffle breaks out nearby, Tallon, Knight of Pelor, places himself between danger and my allies. When I’m feeling mischievous, Kettch the Kobold Sorcerer speaks through and has me play a prank on my friends just to see what will happen. Yeah, it’s cheesy to think of that way, but in retrospect I see where I was learning about myself through these characters, revealing to myself both who I was and who I wanted to be.
Now, looking back, it’s probably been 7 years since the last time I ran a D&D game and almost 10 years since I played in someone else’s. Considering how much that was a part of my social gaming previously, it blows my mind to put those numbers in writing. It’s not like I’ve moved over to Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Firefly, Mistborn, or any other role playing game system. I just haven’t been playing tabletop RPGs at all. The closest I’ve been to an RPG group in a long time was the Kingdom Death campaign I discussed a few months back (article links HERE and HERE). I’ve moved on to the real world of jobs and responsibility, where you can’t put the same 5 people in a room on any kind of casual schedule. I still get my gaming in, but the focus is drastically different. I play one-shot games that are about improving skill and tactics against whoever is across the table, not about adding new chapters onto an evolving story with the same group of friends for months on end.
So with last night’s conversation still bouncing around in my head, my psyche was primed for what was to come this morning. One of my Facebook friends re-shared a post (shown below) about a D&D game with a twist. All of the players start the game with a blank character sheet. The Dungeon Master has their own copy of everyone’s sheets, which are fully filled out. The idea is that players will discover their character’s strengths and weaknesses over time via trial and error. Frankly, I’m hooked on the concept. It’s not going to suit everyone ([Clunk clunk] “Aww, man, I wanted to be a thief. What do you mean I failed the sneak check on a 19 roll?”), but I think it’s an interesting challenge for more experienced role players that will challenge them to step outside their comfort zone and approach problems in a new way.
So if this interests you, how do you set up the story that nobody knows their skills? Well, the Dungeon Master can take the easy way out and say that the characters arrived where they are by magic, with little to no memories beyond their names. Poof, hand wave, you’re in the middle of an unfamiliar city, standing in front of an inn with a job board in front of it, a guild recruiter across the way yelling for your attention, and a shifty character in the nearby alley eyeing your coin purse. What do you do?
But there’s other ways too. Perhaps your characters all grew up in a life of relatively secluded luxury as bastard children of nobility, sent off to a special boarding school. They were sheltered from the outside world to protect their secrets, probably never being told about them, but were treated accordingly to their partial nobility. They never had to lift heavy things, they were never told that belching at the table was seen as crass, and nobody dared tell them that “fluffy the dire wolf” was actually “fluffy the house cat”; their proficiency (or lack thereof) at basic skills was never questioned by those around them. All that changes when someone hires mercenaries to kidnap them, hoping for leverage over their noble parent. Boom, the characters know each other (grew up together), have a motivation (escaping and getting home), and have no particularly known talents or applicable worldly knowledge.
The idea that not every member of the group is a powerhouse and master of their craft opens up a lot of space for true role playing as opposed to min/maxed “roll playing”. If each character seems to have a hidden talent, how would the group treat the last character who hadn’t found something they have a knack for? If poor Jim doesn’t seem particularly charismatic, strong, or agile of thought or body, is it a running joke that this average civilian is dragged along on these dangerous adventures? Or does the group treat him as something extraordinary because his hidden talent must be something beyond mere statistics?
Taking the concept just a little bit further, perhaps the characters don’t have any hidden strengths at all. Maybe all those unknown stats are mediocre at best, but can be improved through play. Whatever the player puts the most effort in to, whatever the character practices the most, that’s where the improvement will come. This lets your story show the growth from average person with a noble heart into a well seasoned adventurer, as opposed to the stereotypical progression from well trained savant to a well trained and equipped one.
Character discovery isn’t going to be the right concept for every RPG group. There’s no problem with picking what you want to play. Little Timmy just wants to smash things, and that’s okay. Let him put all his points into CoolGuy the Barbarian’s Strength stat and double bladed battleaxe exotic weapon skill. Johnny has a serious crush on Katniss Everdeen, so he’s allowed to be Naktiss Neverneed, heroic Ranger, martyr, and savior of the 5th District of Neverwinter.
But for more experienced groups, those looking for a new challenge and a novel way to explore a game, this seems like a refreshing way to go about it.
Now to dust off those old spell tomes and relearn how to cast “Conjure Enough Time for a Campaign”. But maybe this time I won’t have to spend the first hour filling out a character sheet!
– The Tabletop General