It’s Okay for Player Characters to be Special

The Continuum

Some people believe that player characters (PCs) in roleplaying games (RPGs) should be “average people.” That they shouldn’t have any truly exceptional abilities. Others believe that PCs should be special; they argue that there’s little point to playing something too close to real-life.

There are good arguments for each side. Ultimately it comes down to this: what do you want to play? Some people enjoy playing the theme of “average person out of his depth and pitted against things he cannot comprehend.” This is great. This can be an entertaining game to play.

I do believe, however, that some people have taken the “only average people!” argument to the extreme in reaction to some people’s tendency to take advantage of the “PCs are special” argument. They believe that “only make average people” is the same as saying “don’t make ridiculously powerful characters who have no good reason to be that way.” I believe that these are two entirely different statements.

Arguments for Special PCs

Average Doesn’t Mean Average

Being an “average person” does not mean having no above average abilities. These are two different concepts which often get confused. The mythical average guy off of the street would not have exactly average ability in all of his skills; in fact, a person who isn’t good at anything would be fairly unusual.

Half of the People

The statement “Half of the people you meet are above average” may be something of a fallacy, but it still gets the point across. A large number of people in the world are exceptionally skilled or talented. Having a PC with such skills is nothing unusual. Admittedly most of the people I hang out with went to MIT, but I’d give most of them at least one exceptional ability if I were writing them up as characters, probably more like three or four. In some cases, noticeably more than that.

The Intrinsic Nature of PCs

PCs are not average simply by virtue of being the PCs. They are unusual people in an unusual situation, inherently. Unless, of course, you’re running a game in which the biggest problems the PCs face are getting the dry cleaning and finding a new job. To call them average and then say that they’ll be spending the next few months dealing with the supernatural (or whatever) is something of a contradiction.

If you want to approach it from the other direction, you could instead say this. If your PCs are average people and they get caught up in the supernatural side of life, especially in the “darker” games, they probably won’t live all that long. Some might, yes. And running a game in which the theme is that normal people learn to overcome the odds and thrive on the “dark side” makes a great premise. But if you ran every single game that way it would get repetitive, and it would keep you from exploring other areas of gaming which are (in my opinion) just as entertaining. Not to mention the fact that if every PC is an average person who somehow manages to overcome the odds and survive despite being in a dangerous world filled with the supernatural–well, that’s hardly average, is it? It certainly defies the odds, and stretches belief rather heavily, which seems to defeat the point.

You can of course solve this by having some of the characters die off in their struggle to survive, but this too can get ridiculous if carried too far. If the characters can’t, on average, survive long enough to get anywhere, then why play them? One of the whole points of PCs being above average is that they need to be above average to survive and remain PCs. Creating characters that cannot realistically survive the game defeats the purpose unless you’re deliberately playing a high-death game.

Escapism

Some people roleplay in order to get that “I’m something special” or “I can do something special” feeling. Roleplaying is, at its heart, escapism, and many of us like to escape to more competent identities. What’s wrong with that? It may not be your particular cup of tea, but that doesn’t make it wrong, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t allow any of your players to do it.

Real Life Obligation

Some people argue that in real life, people with exceptional abilities are tied down to jobs and responsibilities, and they would never drop everything to save the world. First of all, simply by nature of being PCs, the characters are the people who are most willing to drop whatever they’re doing in order to save the world (or whatever). If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be PCs. Second, people with exceptional abilities run off to do their own thing all the time. (I’ve known enough people like this that I feel completely comfortable making this statement.)

“Exceptional” people are in most ways just like everyone else, except that they often have more resources if they’re putting their exceptional abilities to good use. And with those resources they’re often better able than the “average” person to run off for months at a time to do their own thing. If this were a gaming world, I’m sure that academics who took two years off to write a book would really be learning sorcerous arts in mystical places. Web designers who went off to photograph Alaska would be battling evil demons and taking the photos as a cover story for why they were there. And so on.

Also, not everyone who is top-notch in a field is necessarily famous or swamped with obligations. It’s entirely possible to be a fine violinist but to be almost unrecognized outside of a small circle. You can even use politicking and personal differences to justify why someone with strong abilities might not be afforded the recognition he or she deserves.

Maintenance

Some argue that high-level abilities require an intense amount of maintenance, and that if the PC doesn’t have time for this maintenance (and PCs rarely do), they shouldn’t be able to keep the ability.

This both is and is not true. Some abilities do require a lot of maintenance. Some don’t. Some people take up a hobby on a lark (writing, bicycling, pistol, painting, cross-country running) and discover that they just have a knack for it. This is such a common concept, in fact, that there’s a whole host of words just for the occasion: talent, knack, aptitude, gift, faculty, facility, genius, capability, proficiency, flair, and more.

If you’re an exceptional doctor and you’re two years out of your medical practice you probably haven’t lost but a tiny fraction of your knowledge and ability. If you got back into practice and read a couple of journals to bring you back up to speed, you might well be back up to your old level, especially if you have a quick mind.

Yes, it’s ridiculous to say that you haven’t practiced medicine or picked up a medical journal in fifteen years, but you can still doctor with the best of them the moment you’re called upon. But it’s just as ridiculous to say that after two weeks you’ve forgotten how to hit a bulls-eye in target practice.

The old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike makes a good point: practice a little, and you can get back most skills that you haven’t let lie for too long. Pick up a couple of books and you can refresh your memory on things long-forgotten. Don’t let your players carry this to one extreme, but don’t let yourself carry it to the other.

Keeping Special from Becoming Ridiculous

Yes, it is possible for people to abuse the “PCs can be special” philosophy. This just requires a little oversight on the part of the GM. I would suggest requiring players to justify any ability above a certain level (for instance, if you’re playing in White Wolf’s World of Darkness you might require them to justify any ability of level 4 or higher). Tell them to explain how they developed the ability, how they maintain it, and anything else that you believe needs justification. If you don’t like the explanation, don’t let them do it.

Just try not to be too draconian about it. Again, remember the above points. It’s okay for PCs to be special. They just need to be realistic, too.

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