Last Sunday, I spoke to one of the players and started talking with him about the concept he wanted to play, as well as nailing down some of the alternative history which the campaign is set in (possibly a topic to revisit later). On Thursday, I spoke to two more of the players about their characters and got fairly good partial presentations of those.
And I noticed something which all three players did. It's understandable considering the system we'll be using for this game, but nonetheless, it's somehow ...troubling.
A Stage Set for a Particular Kind of Action
If you've been following this particular saga, you'll know that the system selected for this action is HERO System 6e, more specifically a custom derivative in the superhero genre resplendent with powers and odd special abilities.
Fun bit of trivia #1: Volume 1 of the 6e rules (affectionately called "6E1") runs approximately 460 pages.
Fun bit of trivia #2: Pp. 117–412, or 296 pages, or 64.3% of 6E1, are dedicated to the creation, customization, beefing up, limiting, or organizing of powers.
To a point, the focus makes sense. There was no Hero System in its first incarnation; it literally was Champions. The running of the superhero campaign was its only raison d'être.
Even after its outgrowth into the nebulous realm of the generic game, the presentation of powers is still critical to its purpose. Take a superpower, add incantations and gesticulations, and you have a spell. Select just the ego-based effects and use only the mental combat system, and you've got psionics. Stick superpowers into package deals, and you've got a quick and easy template for stamping out aliens. And so on. A good generic system has to have a way of handling all manner of extreme and corner cases.
The Big Rock
So, we have a system with the 800-pound gorilla of power creation mechanics. It takes up more than half the book the players will use to create their characters. It is the game's best foot, and the game puts it forward.
What do you think is going to take up most of the players' attention?
It happened in varying degrees. All three ended up focusing more on the powers the character has and less on the person behind the powers.
One of the three very nearly escaped the trap, but didn't quite. He had enough gumption to plan out things like nationality and career, but details still fell by the wayside.
One didn't simply fall for the trap, he did a swan dive into it, made nary a ripple, and didn't come up for air until days later. He was all about the power concept. Character concept, not so much.
That's the part I find troubling.
Disease, symptom, or hypochondria?
I have to consider that last possibility too. The game as I'm setting it up is 25% demo of a system other than a D&D derivative, 25% attempt to play something other than a D&D derivative, 20% scratching that persistent GMing itch, 15% attempt to find a regular group to have a non-episodic campaign with, and 15% undecided.
As part of a demo, my inclination would be to put the system's best foot forward too, and that would be the power system. It's remotely possible that I encouraged the behavior. Does that mean there's not a problem? Maybe, or it means that I fell for the trap myself.
That thinking unfortunately draws the question back one frame of reference, from "What do we do about the problem?" back to "Does the problem even exist?" or "What is the problem?"
Well, is there a problem?
The problem is that it's possible (not guaranteed, but it can happen) that the special features of a system will sidetrack a player. Rather than focus on the character as a whole or who the character is deep down, the player's attention is lured by the system's glitter. The prognosis: Shiny, glittery characters with one or two incredibly neat features but very little substance underneath. Characters that are no so much "people" as "special effects." Or pawns.
And this is happening in a pastime that is called, in theory, "roleplaying." While there are many ways to play these games—strategically, tactically, and achievement-oriented included—swinging the character around by his collected abilities feels like a serious deviation from the original intention.
Is it a problem here?
I would have to say maybe not. As I ultimately concluded in my previous post on campaign creation, if it's going to be a very short or demo campaign, not every detail has to be fleshed out to its fullest. We only need roughed-in forms, so any further decisions we make on the spot will have some shreds of guidance.
In that same way, the player characters need little more than the roughed-in forms, and the mechanical minima to function within the system. That includes things like powers.
The thing is, in HERO, that also includes things like Complications, which provide hooks for the GM to drag characters into situations. These are usually based on the character. So some systems require more character to begin with than others.
Is a solution possible?
I would think so. Some games make a bigger deal of characters than others. HERO and GURPS are the high-end cases, where very small, particular personal attributes could make it into the character. Others, often story games like Primetime Adventures and Fiasco only make hay with the most prominent character features; an entire character may fit on an index card and require 10-15 words if that. More complicated games generally require more characterization. Less complicated games make it easier to play without full characterization, but "proper" roleplaying can still be done.
If further character definition is required, perhaps a bunch of questions can be compiled, in the same way that some games provide questionnaires for campaign creation. This could be a future project.
Is a solution necessary?
That depends on what kind of game you want to play.