My name is Charlie. I’m a mechanoholic.
It’s true. My disease compels me to pursue the best mechanical benefit in any situation, regardless of whether my character would actually do the thing or not. I can resist mechanics-driven impulses when playing games like FATE or old-school D&D knockoffs,┬ábut when I start playing 4E, all fiddly bits begin to whisper into my ear, “Go ahead, just roll another die. No one is watching. It’ll be fun.”
When I Knew I’d Hit Rock Bottom
Fourth edition game. Several seasoned players. A solid concept for a character, a great backstory.
Geech is his name. (My friends already know what I’m going to say.)
Geech was a “pacifist.” I used the 4E rules to build a hybrid 16th level wizard/cleric who suffered a penalty when doing direct damage due to the “pacifist” feat. In his backstory, he’d been made to sacrifice a goat he’d raised from youth in part of his religious training. He passed out (I imagined a modern doctor might diagnose him vasovagal), and made an oath to himself that he’d never directly do harm to another.
First problem: I never role-played any of this. I’m notorious for writing backstory I forget when I pick up the dice.
Second problem: what became known as St. Geech’s Blessed Meat Grinder. The final fight of the game saw us fighting a bunch of undead in an abandoned city. I followed the rules to the letter and laid down 3 different zones (Grease, Blade Barrier, Consecrated Ground) smack dab in the middle of the intersection. Every turn saw me sliding undead through spinning eldritch daggers on holy land that literally burned the undead.
According to the rules as written.
Fun as hell! But fun like a video game.
Where was my character in it?
I still can’t answer that question.
A Slow Path to Recovery
Geech’s first problem was that his character was built around manipulation of the rules. My next character didn’t suffer from this, and had a cool backstory that I actually played–when not in combat. But when the dice came out, I was whoever I needed to be to get that sweet, sweet high of the bennie.
True healing finally began when my group switched to Swords and Wizardry. For the first time since fifth grade, I abandoned elaborate backstories in favor of a single paragraph. Unexpectedly, this lack of history has resulted in a more characterful experience for me.
I attribute this to two things. First, simplicity is golden. A character who doesn’t come pre-defined offers more opportunity for growth. Second, and more emphatically, the system doesn’t tempt me with sweet, sweet rules.
B/X games don’t allow for the insane rules manipulation of later editions. Thus, I have little to do except play my character.
A mechanical problem, a mechanical solution?
To help me remember character before mechanics, I’ve been imagining a new style of character sheet recently. Instead of a sheet that resembles a tax form of mechanics and equations, I’m picturing a sheet of boxes that surround a character illustration. These boxes connect to parts of the body on the character, and in them, you write significant things about that part of the character’s body. (No, F.A.T.A.L. players, I’m not talking to you here.)
Some of these boxes explain what is carried and where (because, like emotions, that’s something I always forget about my characters). But, it will also include clothes they’re wearing, temporary conditions like wounds, glowing hands due to magic, etc…
Lastly, the sheet might represent “big character ideas.” For Geech, a line to his stomach might have reminded me that he loathed blood. For another character who was recently nearly squeezed to death by a bear, this might remind me of the deep tissue bruising that is likely to last several months. Yet another character ritually scarred himself to represent his duty to his allies–the sheet could be my reminder of my character’s reminder.
If I can execute this sheet successfully, I’ll post it here in a Game Ready Content article. In the meantime, I’ll focus on keeping things simple, remembering my character, and most importantly, staying away from the ambrosia nectar of my beloved mechanics.
Are you addicted to mechanics, too? Tried to quit cold-turkey, only to throw it all away when someone puts an action point in front of you? Have any tips for kicking the habit? Let us know in the comments!