What makes a player character a great character to play?
All too often, I see people asking the most toxic questions in numerous online venues, along the lines of "What if orcs stumbled across Xenomorphs?" or "What if a sorcerer were assimilated by the Borg?" - and I realised something awful recently. What made those questions toxic was that those questions were about nothing but combat. At least, within the confines of roleplaying games and popular entertainment.
The unspoken questions were clear. "Would there be Xenomorph / orc hybrids with acid for blood, and what would they be like in a fight?" "would the Borg have all of their technology, plus magic, and what would they be like in a fight?"
You might as well ask "what if cops became hybridised with sea lions, and what would they be like in a fight?"
The Assumption of Combat
Roleplaying is an offshoot of wargaming; and the assumption came down from wargaming that all encounters - literally all encounters - had to involve combat to the death. Players would spend hours poring over the rules minutiae in order to minmax their characters specifically to optimise their hit points and the damage they could inflict. The only measure of success in old school roleplaying was a character's brute strength, damage, and hit points, and one's body count: you could only gain XP through killing, and every class of monster had an attached XP value.
Needless to say, this was not the most realistic of takes on life.
New Kinds of Character
Runequest, and all of its offshoots from Call of Cthulhu through to the modern BRP and Mythras, challenged players from that original old school fantasy roleplaying game, by having a character generation engine which allowed players to create characters who used different skill sets: skills which were not themed around combat at all. Standard Skills now included skills such as Dance and Sing; Professional Skills included Commerce, Courtesy. Oratory, and even Seduction.
Track and Survival, Musicianship, Art, Craft, Lore, and Language spoke volumes about the expectations of player characters with actual down time lives, as artists, musicians, wilderness hunters, even trellis-climbing seducers a la Ninon de l'Enclos, one of history's forgotten seducers.
Systems like Mythras allowed for sandbox play. A character could be dropped into the heart of a community such as, say, Fioracitta, and the player could choose their own adventure. A newcomer with a pretty strong Athletics skill could make their way to Prosoche or Little Fourche or Peligran and apply for a job in a Banevio fighting studio, training up in field and track sports, or developing Ride and becoming a jockey, or learning Swim and Boating and join a small ship's crew on Lake Lascha as a deckhand.
Other games emerged such as Traveller, designed to reject this simplistic old school philosophy. Travellers' Hit Points do not bloat up as they progress, no matter how much their skills and bank balances improve. A master of firearms in Traveller is just as physically vulnerable as a one-term raw recruit fresh out of boot. This physical frailty forces players to think not only tactically, but to look for solutions other than combat. This is a philosophy which is present in BRP games systems, including Mythras.
Call of Cthulhu is a game of cosmic horror, where entities are simply too powerful to kill. They very sight of them is enough to break player characters - now called Investigators, to reflect their new non-murderous role. CoC is a game where characters grow and develop as human beings, sometimes combat able and combat ready such as cops, soldiers and criminals, but despite the players' insistence on stocking up with weapons, very often the monsters win just by turning up and wafting a facial tentacle vaguely in their direction.
Not long after the first roleplaying games arrived, games systems began to emerge whose assumptions were based around achievements other than murder, where players had to develop characters whose lives focused on non-combat activities, and where players had to develop tactics for social play or investigative play, rather than on brute force and ignorance. Admittedly, many modern roleplaying sourcebooks' combat chapters are still the biggest chapters in their books - but they do have sections on non-combat encounters, so that is encouraging.
Social Conflict in Mythras Companion
One of the most recent developments in Mythras was the Social Conflict chapter of Mythras Companion. This was a whole chapter devoted to the tactical application of social skills in a conflict, using the same kind of cut-and-thrust found in the Mythras Core Rulebook, but allowing characters and opponents to choose the skills they wanted to bring to bear in the conflict, not just Combat Styles. In the case of Social Conflict rules, Deceit versus Willpower became a thing, with a cunning deceiver's fast talk being bounced off the opponent's mistrust, or an Ellakan pitting Influence against a Fiorese citizen's Passion of Fear (Non-Itarrans).
The Social Conflict rules allow for less physical kinds of conflict: battles of words and passions, of deceit pitted against angry rebuttals, of brute threats against scintillating wit, of seduction against Willpower. They allow for more dramatic interpersonal conflicts to unfold, where a character can be crushed without a single weapon being drawn, or wars declared, or won, or lost, with a careless tongue.
The Social Conflict rules have opened up Mythras to scenarios based on social dramas as gripping as any found in TV shows, movies, or plays, the more traditional forms of mainstream entertainment. If Mythras Companion is not available, it is even possible to run scenarios based on social conflict or investigation using the rules found in the Mythras Core Rulebook on page 287. It is possible to run scenarios in Mythras without a single combat scene appearing anywhere, based entirely on the Core Rulebook's social conflict rules found in the Games Mastery chapter, and come away from the table feeling a sense of tension and anticipation of what could come in the next session.
It is possible to develop a scenario where the players come to care about their characters, and the non-player characters who surround them in their daily lives.
Mythras is a modern RPG product. As such, the character generation rules allow for the generation of some very deep kinds of characters. Their cultural backgrounds, careers, skill sets, family, connections, and background events all combine to produce characters who are more than just the sum of their Combat Styles, weapon stats, and Locational Hit Points. Characters can be generated who can handle themselves in an investigation (Perception, Insight, Influence, Deceit, Acting, Disguise, Stealth, Track, Seduction), a social situation which can range from political conflict as two representatives stand for election against one another, to a Battle of the Bands, pitting Musicianship against Sing, or even a dance-off, pitting Dance against Endurance.
Mythras characters can be designed to handle any kinds of situations, from foot chases to competition horse races, to rescues at sea, to stealth infiltration of an enemy stronghold by water in the dead of night. There is so much variety available, that player characters can specialise - become master sorcerers, dedicated artists, and yes - even career soldiers, climbing the ladder of their martial Order, one battlefield promotion at a time.
Note how martial promotions are not based on random combat encounters, but on such aspects of a character's makeup as valour and bravery in battle, quick thinking (e.g. taking over from a fallen General, and using Oratory to rally the panicking troops together to push for a decisive victory in the face of defeat) and leadership. Intangible qualities which aren't so much measured by numbers on a character sheet as which can come from the player behind the character.
So, to answer the question, what makes a great player character? The answer can only be "the player," but the player has to learn to come to the game table with higher expectations than to run their character as a bunch of numbers on a sheet and lists of powers, with how those powers are used to kill and murder mooks like some video game.
Players have got to learn that there is more to their characters than being murderhobos any more. Characters are, within the context of their game settings, people. They are a part of their communities, with loves and hates and fears and ambitions and aspirations; with allies and contacts to help them out, family and pets to take care of and care for,;and even rivals and enemies to keep them on their toes - and not in the sense of getting into a random rooftop fight with them like the Spandex crowd in a four-colour comic book.
Great player characters are, above all, sentient beings (whether they are human, Bestia, Longane, Pelacur, or Bandaluk). And they become great when their players realise their characters' true potential (to be extensions of their personas) and play them accordingly.
Edited by Alex Greene