In Defense of Non-Magical Characters

This summer, the Platinum Warlock decided to host a weekly Deadlands Friday night game running through The Flood, an epic Deadlands plot-point campaign. I decided to join, at least until Wittenberg University started school and the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild resumed their tradition of Friday Night One-shots.

The question came as to what type of character I would play. The Platinum Warlock told me that the other players were playing a Mad Scientist, a Huckster, and an Indian Shaman. In Deadlands, magic exists in the world and each of the aforementioned character types uses magic in some way. But I decided that I would play someone who wasn’t magical in the least and not “special” at all. I decided to be a muckraker (i.e. a journalist).

This made me think about how in role-playing games, the trend seems to be getting away from “normal” character types and more towards “magical” character types. Looking at Dungeons & Dragons 4e, we see that of all the “power sources” of the various character classes, there are 22 classes that get their powers from some sort of magical energy (such as arcane energy, divine energy, or primal energy) but only 4 who get their power from their own innate ability (those who have the “Martial” power source). In other words, characters who aren’t magical are in the minority and for every 1 character out there who is out to save the world with their own talent, 5 are out there who are empowered by some form of magic.

Sometimes this isn’t really an issue. If Harry Potter were a role-playing game, I don’t think anybody would complain about Muggle characters being underrepresented because a conceit of the setting is that it’s about people who are magical and presumably all player characters would be such. Same with superheroes: nobody is really expecting a guy off the street to be a player character next to Superman, at least not unless he has Batman gadgets to go with it.

But in many settings, this becomes an issue when “magic users” are supposed to coexist in a party with “normal people,” but the magic users wind up overshadowing them. Rifts (which admittedly I’ve never played) took this to the extreme by having the “Vagabond” class as basically a hobo and a fish-out-of-water in the strange, strange world. It’s an interesting concept, but Wikipedia’s list of character classes shows that such a character is likely to be adventuring alongside cyborgs, psychics, mystics, techno-wizards, and even dragon hatchlings (all from the core book!). Many versions of Dungeons & Dragons have the same problem with “linear warriors, quadratic wizards” with Fighters turning into cheerleaders for the Wizards.

It doesn’t have to be so extreme. In my experience with Star Wars, people tend to want to play Jedi (the Star Wars “magic user”). Dark Heresy and the other Warhammer 40,000 games, role-playing games almost always have at least one Pskyer in the party. It’s usually not from a lack of imagination either. For instance, pages 23-25 of the Deadlands Player’s Guide list 14 suggested non-magical character archetypes along with 3 suggested magical ones, and yet over two thirds of Deadlands characters I’ve seen are magic users.

Each of these situations just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think that they’re working as they are intended to and it has the unfortunate consequence of making regular guys boring and passé.

There are a few solutions to combat this problem. One is to raise the bar for the normal folk to the level of awesomeness of the magical folk. For instance, Legolas is an Elf who can fire a bow like nobody’s business and can take down a war-elephant single-handedly! Why would you want to be a wizard Gandalf when you can be Legolas! Sometimes this requires thinking outside of the box, but I believe that it is generally possible to make normal folk capable of feats of equal awesomeness as their magical counterparts. Often times all it requires is a change in perception.

Another approach I’ve seen is to actually enforce the rarity of magic users, requiring most players to make characters who are “normal people” and thus lowering the bar for typical levels of awesomeness. The most direct way to do this is GM fiat, excluding certain types of characters. Traveller has an interesting alternative in that it mechanically supports enforcing the rarity. Characters can choose to be a variety of professions including nobles, soldiers, explorers, and even entertainers. Psionics exist, but they are rare. So rare in fact that players cannot choose to make a Psionic character. Instead, the only way to become a Psionic is to randomly roll a life event that puts you in contact with a Psionic institute on the fringes of space. The odds of that are approximately .07% every 4 years of your character’s life, meaning a character has maybe a .8% chance over the course of his lifetime to get a chance to become a Psionic and even then, if they don’t have the potential, they might not get in. Perhaps it’s limiting, but it does provide an effective way of eliminating the problem of overshadowing. (By the way, Traveller actually does have a hobo class, called the “Drifter”, who is able to fit right in with other characters!)

It’s my personal opinion that role-playing games should support non-magic users more than they do now. Every character deserves to be awesome, not just the magical ones.

And for what it’s worth, my Deadlands muckraker wound up doing all kinds of feats of awesomeness, including snapping pictures in the midst of battle (which will hopefully net him a whole lot of money), blinding martial on top of the train with his camera flash and making them fall off, and helping commandeer a steam wagon that was driving alongside a speeding train! I’ll even go so far as to say that in this first session, my character even overshadowed most of the party’s magic users!


Posted on July 31, 2011, in RPG Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with you.

    I think that in a setting like Deadlands, though, part of the uniqueness of the character is the fact that they’re an aberration. There are tons of gunmen throughout the Weird West…not so many Hucksters, Shamen, Mad Scientists or Blessed. So, what do people gravitate towards? The ones that make them a “special snowflake”.

    Truth be told, 4e D&D’s been about the only edition of that game that makes Fighters, Rogues, and Rangers feel like actual bad-asses, instead of as speed-bumps for the monsters to run into before getting disintegrated by the wizard or cleric.

    I think it’s also a matter of being able to insert yourself into a power-fantasy. Since magic doesn’t really exist in real life, players enjoy having powers that really stand out and allow them to test the impossible. Mages, Pskers, and the like allow that to be much more visible than even the most “mystic” of fighters or rogues.

    That said? One of the most memorable characters I’d ever played was in one of Jules’ Eberron games–a straight Ranger, who was a geologist/archaeologist who wanted to explore Xen’drik. His family life was a mess–his mother abandoned his family when he was a teenager, and his sister left to become a Paladin of the Silver Flame when she came of age, unable to stand their father. Fantastic game, with great role-playing…

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