Roleschooling: Character Development and Complications

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As a game master, as I see it, the major benefits of roleplaying games in general, and roleschooling in particular are A. the ability to adapt and customize your campaigns to suit your player characters in levels of both skill and engagement, as well as B. by choosing the type of role-play and storyline that best suits your group. As a parent, I think the main benefits are: 1. being able to help your players gain self-knowledge through introspection and character development; 2. stretch their confidence and guide them to reach goals of personal growth through the challenges of the game; and, 3. through the act of role-playing, overcome fears, anxieties or behaviors that are standing in the player’s way in real life.

[Flawed] Character Development

In our own campaign, the players are their own character rather than existing characters within the canon stories that we visit. We’ve found that this practice liberates the characters from the confines of the original script and allows for creativity and a freedom in gameplay that wouldn’t be possible if your players assumed the already established parts of the main characters. Also, in our experience, the players don’t really want to BE a given character — instead they want to interact with their literary, historical or movie hero within their world. They don’t want to BE Herminone they want talk to her.  They don’t want to BE Percy Jackson, they want to hang out with him. They don’t want to BE Mark Twain, they want to go on adventures and hear him tell funny stories.

In our points-based campaign, based on the HERO system, the players are actively responsible for developing a baseline version of their character as they want to see themselves, with a percentage of overall character points set aside for creating genre- or story-specific abilities or skills. We use that baseline character, also known as the “meta” character as a starting point for creating a world-specific character, adjusting by multiples or points if necessary for other universes.

To really achieve the full benefits of roleschooling, within your character development, you can incorporate a concept that the HERO system calls Complications. D&D calls them Character Flaws and Pathfinder has Drawbacks, but you could easily create house rules to accomplish the same goal. As I’m most familiar with the HERO System version, the discussion below and examples will be based on HERO System rules.

An Intro to Complications

Complications are problems, character traits or other issues that are causing problems or difficulties for the player on a periodic basis.  On the upside, each Complication gives the player points that can be used to help pay for statistics and abilities. As a game master, I typically ask the players to focus on something they want to improve on within themselves: a psychological limitation, a character trait, or a psychological effect of a physical limitation. These are often things they can change with attention, intention and practice and are willing to put some effort into – IF it’s something that they choose themselves.

Players can work to buy down Complications by spending accumulated experience points (and through actual efforts in the real world) but because these points are sharply limited, the GM would be wise to guide and direct the players to choose Complications that accurately reflect actual areas of desired improvement. It’s amazing how introspective and self-honest kids can be when they are creating and playing a fictionalized version of themselves, especially if there is a tangible in-game reward for each Complication that they can identify and achieve. Never mind any real-world improvement in their relationships with others and ability to accomplish their goals, wink wink.

For more creative freedom on the part of the Narrator/GM and the players, consider associating the player characters with groups that were less prominent and/or more vaguely defined in the original stories. Assign them to Hufflepuff rather than Gryffindor. Have them be in Hecate or Demeter’s cabin instead of Poseidon or Zeus’. For really advanced players, and GMs, consider showing them how even Slytherin can be good – challenge the false dichotomy!

How Complications Affect Game Play

The specific complications are defined based on two things: how commonly they occur, and how much they affect the character. The point value of these limitations is well codified in HERO System rules and inherently balanced in terms of points vs impact on play.

For example, a Complication might be something like:

Fear of Speaking in Public
Uncommon – Shows up in play once every five games or so.
Strong – Takes Irrational Actions. Make ego roll to control.
Points 5 (Uncommon) + 5 (Strong) for a total of 10 points

In game, this type of character development could be arranged in many ways. Here are a couple of examples:

In a Historical Scenario… the player is in the position of being the only character able to research how a particular chain of historical events actually occurred (the extinction of the Dodo, the rise of Hitler), and must share their findings with the group as a presentation. The player becomes the hero of the game ensuring that the group can then set about putting the flow of history to rights.

In a Modern Day Superhero Context… the player might be tasked with infiltrating the villain’s lair to find the “files” that describe the specific biology (think “botany lesson”) behind the rapidly growing Poison Ivy vines that have been inflicted on the city, so that the team of scientists can develop a counter measure. Too bad the files can only be read in place (though in real life the player can take their time reading and researching) and not physically retrieved. And it’s a shame she’ll only have 3 minutes to convey all the important information to the group. Now the player needs to read the materials, makes notes, summarize and present the findings instead of just handing over primary materials.

Obviously, your mileage may vary, but in our experience, having the player research a topic and practice public speaking in this way can help accurately assess skill level, build confidence and with any hope, shatter the fear of the unknown. Simply the act of doing the research, and presenting the results can be beneficial in terms of the information learned by the team all while teaching a player how to research a topic and organize the results in order to make a speech and save the day! MUCH more fun (and less terrifying) than an oral presentation of a book report.

How is This Learning?

Ever put on a costume or even just a mask and assumed the role of a character, and felt empowered by the chosen character’s personality, history and charm? Were you able to stretch yourself and try things you wouldn’t have done ordinarily, in your own persona?

This is what you’re doing for your players. By helping them to visualize themselves in challenging situations, layered with just enough fiction to provide psychological distance from their bugaboos, players can conceptualize and then materialize their best possible selves. You’re giving them a way to work through self-consciousness, fear and other issues in a safe and supportive environment. It may not be a “lesson” in the math, English, or science sense (though it can certainly contain one), but it’s a fun, ninja-parenting method to help children grow to be their own best version of themselves – something that we feel is well worth the time and effort.

Roleschooling: Building a better world one game at a time!

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