Dungeons not characters (again)

The “Other Side” blog has continued the ‘Dungeons not Characters’ discussion, although I get the feeling that
a) the participants don’t understand what I was trying to say, and
b) they seem to think the question presents a strict dichotomy of choice: I suspect they feel I am presenting the reader with a choice between 2 extremes: they think I am saying that one must either just plod around mapping out the dungeon and look in every room OR explore your inner feelings for your character in a gassy-ass larp… no happy medium availible.
c) the Other Side statement and responses seem pretty snarky. I posted a response there but removed it and brought it here because I didn’t feel like paddling my canoe upstream.

Consider the following heavy-handed illustration of my position on the matter:

I’m not going to pretend to know what other people think ‘exploring
dungeons instead of characters’ means. But as one of the early adopters of the
phrase and the dude who dragged it into the blog-o-sphere (having no idea of the legs it would have), I can only tell you what I mean by it. And it is not complicated.

People sit down to play a game of D&D. Player A has a written backstory and has decided that his character likes elves, does not like the color yellow and has a secret enemy whom the dungeon master will introduce later
— someone who killed his parents and he will one day seek his revenge… and
there is a magic relic in there somewhere too… and an evil twin… or
whatever. The character has yet to do anything in the game and yet there is already a lot of information “about” him. This level 1 character is named “Elphegor Dragonsbrother” even though the fantasy character has never met a dragon since the player thinks it would be cool to have a character who is fascinated with dragons. Whenever the DM introduces something yellow (like an NPC wearing yellow clothes), the player announces that since his character hates yellow he will be negatively disposed towards the NPC in the yellow shirt. When elves enter the picture, his player cites his character’s life-long fascination with elves as a reason why he should
be allowed to negotiate favorably with the elves. Player A spends game time
trying to make whatever events unfold in the game fit the backstory and vice

Player B shows up and rolls dice and decides that since his
character had a decent CON he will be a hobbit fighter. He chooses a name and
buys the weapons and armor he can afford. His hobbit is level 1, so he is pretty
much a blank slate. He goes off on adventures and, when he gets betrayed by an
NPC, the player then has an enemy that he hopes to get revenge upon in the
future. If he nearly gets killed by a blink dog, his character might avoid blink
dogs in the future. If he nearly drowns in a river, when he encounters rivers in
the future the player might annouce that the hobbit is going to be very careful
because of what happened last time. There is no backstory (other than what
happened to the character before in the game). The more the character does, the more the players ‘know’ about the character. The ‘events’ of the characters
life, that form him/her/it, take place at the game table. There is no
“backstory” that player B made up before the game and then has the other
players and DM play along with.

I prefer player B’s mode of play.
I’m not claiming its the right way or the only way, but, after trying it both
ways it is the way I like. Thus, I explore dungeons, not characters, and through
the course of exploring the dungeon and having the adventures, the character is
formed. The character is not a collection of adjectives, he or she is the
product of events.

I’d add that I don’t think any way is the wrong way of doing it, just that one way seems more fun (and more suited to my conception of a ‘role playing game’ as opposed to ‘acting’ or ‘improvisational theatre.’). If you enjoy writing out a ‘character background and using that to guide your actions in the game, more power to you.

7 Comments on “Dungeons not characters (again)”

  1. I really don't see what's so hard to grasp about the original aphorism, but it's good that you took the time to elaborate on it. Anyone who doesn't get it now is just being deliberately obtuse.

  2. I'm not a fan of Type A because I know the player has invested time and effort into the creation of a character that, more than likely, is going to end up dead before reaching 2nd level. 🙂

  3. Aos says:

    AS a DM I vastly prefer player B. When we started taking about our next D&D Metal Earth game, i told the guys that they could write a back story no more two sentences long. I've got one dude in our current game who hit me with the 4 page back story- for a supers game of all things- and wont leave me alone about working it all in. As the ref I already have enough to do, really, and once a game gets rolling and takes on a life of its own that back story stuff can be a lot harder to work in than some players realize.

  4. Mr. Chappell says:

    I tend to look at A and B as a spectrum. I know the group that I game with almost demand more of an A type of commitment, but sometimes I'm just happy to be a human fighter with a sword.

    Stef, in actual play at the table, is a very spontaneous player who uses the setting and situation creatively to build his characters. One character which was particularly memorable developed a split personality after being hit on the head. To my knowledge this wasn't preplanned but grew organically and spontaneously out of the gaming environment and events.

    One thing I don't like about the A method is that it tends to limit you, where you can become trapped into only thinking about a character's actions or trajectory within certain terms. It also assumes that characters are consistent in their actions. As I've said earlier, I find that when characters sometime act in contradictory manners or are conflicted, it can create a deeper dimensionality to them.

    If overly developed, type A characters are a 10, and under developed stat-based characters are a 0, I'd say that I vacillate between a 5 and a 2. I'll adjust to the GM's preference, but if it is up to me, I'd rather let the character grow organically out of the experience of gaming, as Stef described.

    The setting, the descriptions, the exploration, the creatures, the treasure… all of these elements pull me in much more than accents, back stories, or complex layers. It's a game. If I want complex characters I'll read Dostoevsky or Ibsen.

  5. Taketoshi says:

    I think one of the difficulties that the Dungeon-not-Character approach faces with regard to new-school D&D (not just 4E, but 3E as well) is that the player is faced with so many choices when making a character that it's both difficult to build a character without some kind of coherent picture of what that character should be like, and hard to make it through the character creation process without having invested a significant amount of time and thought in the character, which means that you're already leaning a lot toward Character and less toward Dungeon.

    I know as a DM I find strictly character-oriented players difficult to play with, because it makes me worry that they'll lose interest in the game if their character dies or something they weren't planning on happening to them takes place and “ruins” them.

  6. Taketoshi says:

    Also, to add to the snark level slightly:

    The dude over at The Other Side is totally reading a book called “Vampyre Kisses.”

    Just sayin'.

  7. Jim says:

    One reason I like Player B is that ALL the characters can then share in a mutual backstory. I've had Player A's before come up with characters with backstories SO DISPARATE it required a shoehorn and a pneumatic hammer to put the party together. Also, I feel guilty killing off those Type A characters. Doesn't stop me though… “Character Background is what happens during levels 1 to 6”

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