Characters in TRPGs

I’ve noticed a pretty large discrepancy in the types of characters that are made and played in RPGs of the West and Japan.  I believe that these differences are based on both play style and inspiration.  Like my badly written post here, about railroading, I think that we can learn a lot about the “soul” of JRPGs by looking closely at these differences.

First off, let’s take a look at the first “player characters.”  These were ostensibly the adventurers played by Gynax and co., those hapless fools that delved into dark places and got snatched up by monsters pretending to be walls.  Or monsters pretending to be tree-trunks.  These guys sucked at first levels, and even in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, cats pose a threat to unarmed civilians.  These characters would become incredibly powerful over a long period of time, coming back to smite evil housecats with magical powers that have the power to destroy campaigns and liches alike.

Most modern western games focus on campaign play.  Player characters have a few skills and fight giant rats or lackeys or generally run errands for more powerful people.  Over the course of months or years, these characters gain skill and powers, etc.  The most obvious inspiration is Lord of the Rings.  Little ol’ Frodo starts his journey with his small band of merry hobbits, and by the end of the story, the PCs are becoming kings, have become wizards of incredible power, and have smashed the most heinous evil in the world.  Of course, not every game is like this, with quite a number of indie games breaking this mold.

Japanese games these days, however, throw the campaign format out of the window (another post for another day).  Characters often start off as powerful movers and shakers in the world, and even if they are played often, they don’t necessarily become much more powerful.  In fact, in some games like Double Cross and Tenra, its often dangerous to become too powerful.  It seems to me that the combination of the lack of focus on campaign play and anime/manga heroes have pushed the JRPG scene in this direction.

Both styles have their good and bad points, of course.  Western heroes carve their own history and develop rich and interesting stories.  They may also end up being boring to play for a while and players often have to wait for the good stuff.  Japanese characters are ready to play immediately, are almost always satisfying and the player can execute their character concept immediately.  They can often lack depth or a connection between player and character.  Of course, it’s possible (though often a lot of work) to make one-shot characters for games like DnD, and there are always options for campaign play for games like Shinobigami (in which your character is guaranteed longevity if you so choose).

At the conventions I’ve attended, I’ve noticed a healthy mix of both types of games, as a good number of contemporary JRPGs still use the campaign format, so there’s still plenty of chances to play either style of character.  But I’m a little surprised, since the episodic hero has been created specifically for convention play.  As more JRPGs are coming out, though, I’m seeing more and more of the episodic style play.  I think that we’re going to be seeing more and more of these types of games, and maybe even start to see them seep into mainstream Western games.


~ by mattgsanchez on February 14, 2011.

5 Responses to “Characters in TRPGs”

  1. I have also noticed something like that but on player’s mindset, in one side there are those player that go on more for the ROLE PLAYIN aspect of games and in the other, those that like more the KILL ‘EM ALL side of the scale. As every player must know, this is not new and has always been.

    But, the thing is that in the last years I have seen that there are more players of the second kind who like to make killer combos to make minced meat out of enemies instead of Role Playing a Character it seems that they are in a shooter or beat ’em up game. And this in my humble opinion has kinda scraped a bit the rpg world.

  2. Hurry up with the translations so we can argue about their good & bad points too!

    If you’re able to take time away from your wedding preperations to answer a specific question though: How exactly does Shinobigami and Hunter’s Moon roll up character emotions and relations after events play out? I imagine it’s based on what exactly went down, but is there a random factor in it?

    This framework storytelling is really the most intriguing part of what I’ve gleaned from your articles

  3. Well, I had a chance to play a couple games of Hunter’s Moon the other day, so I’ll be able to explain it a bit better than before, I think. I just wrote up a long post detailing how to make emotional bonds in shinobigami.

    As for Hunter’s Moon, there isn’t really a whole lot of relationships being built among the players. The focus of HM is more on the group vs. the monobeast, so all the players begin the game with a sort of relationship towards the monster. During the opening phase, each player rolls to see how they are connected to the monster and determines if they start off with Fear or Anger towards it. As the players start using their powers, their emotion builds up past a certain number (10, 20, or 30), they go berserk. After the phase ends, their berserk phase ends and their relationship to the monster is flipped, meaning that angry characters become afraid, etc.

    To be honest, there wasn’t much role-playing in the games of Hunter’s Moon that I played, and it doesn’t really seem to me like a system that promotes it to the same level as Shinobigami. It’s still a fun game, but it’s very much a pen and paper version of Monster Hunter.

    One of these days I’ll need to pick up Peek-a-boo, the first in the Saikoro Fiction series, to see how it compares to these two.

  4. There certainly is this aspect to Japanese games, but the popularity of western games (D&D, WHFRP, and T&T), in addition to Japanese games in which characters climb a ladder of experience levels (Sword World, Infinite Fantasia, and other SRS systems ) makes me wonder how much of this is a relatively new development (similar to our indie games).

    • I agree, I think that the games with characters that climb levels are probably in the majority even in Japan. But even SRS games start characters off at a relative power level much higher than similar Western games and I think a large part of it is because you won’t ever have a chance to really play the character you want to play if there’s no steady game group. I do think that the new type of character is pretty new and I think it evolved parallel to our indie games over here.

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