Sunday, November 4, 2012

Characterization in Year of the Phoenix

Keeps plays the harmonica

In Martin Wixted's Year of the Phoenix role playing game, player characters are trained to be the first American “space soldiers.”  What exactly is a space soldier?  As the poignant flavor text quoted below indicates, not even the player characters know with certainty.  Of course, it doesn't really matter because the characters won't be space soldiers – at least not for very long.  Regardless, the cover of the 48-page book of character creation rules is fashioned to appear as an official government publication, Space Command Training Manual, complete with a 'classified' warning.  Most sections begin with flavor text in the form of conversations of the pre-generated characters as they proceed through their training.  (Rules examples are also presented as exploits of the pre-gens.)  Section 2.4 has the title 'Characterization' and begins with a discussion between Carol Horn and Bruce “Keeps” Keeler.
          Horn lay on her bed, listening to Keeps trying to play a harmonica.  He didn't have it yesterday, but that was nothing unusual – it would probably be gone tomorrow, traded for something else.  She swung her legs out from the cramped space and jumped to the floor.
          'I need a cigarette.'  It was a statement, not a question.
          'You know what the Major said about –'
          'I don't care.  I need a cigarette.'  He watched her face for a few minutes, dug into his knapsack, and produced a pack of cancersticks.  She held out her hand, but he pulled away.
          'You didn't get these from me, understand?'
          'I understand.'  She waited.  He dropped two into her hands.
          'That's all there is, Horn.'
          'Thanks, Keeps.'
          'Don't call me that.'
          'Sorry.'  She jumped back up, wrapped a sock around the sprinkler head she banged her head on at least once a day, and lit a cigarette.
          'What do you think they're training us for?'
          'Probably to bomb the Russians.  They need a good strafing – maybe a Hydrogen bomb right on Moscow *POW*.'
          Wake 'em up...How should I know?'
Wixted states on page 7, “[R]oleplaying is a game of characterization.”  He also writes, “[T]here should be something about [your] character you find challenging or intriguing.  Make a commitment to that character.”

First, Wixted provides a list of 'Appearance' details to prompt a player's imagination.  Categories and specific examples include:  Face and Hair (receeding [sic] hairline, conniving, oval, et al.), Voice (divine, tolerable, chilling, et al.), Build (dynamic, rugged, ample, et al.), and Overall Appearance (loose, foppish, sleepy, reedy, mature, et al.).

Next, Wixted introduces the concept of the 'Personality Profile.'  Page 8 of the Training Manual has a list of fifty traits – actually fifty pairs* of opposed traits such as 'Kind – Spiteful,' 'Shrewd – Forthright,' 'Envious – Satisfied,' etc.  Wixted's instructs players to choose at least five traits (not pairs), but players are encouraged to think of one or two traits not listed.  Each trait should be quantified with a descriptor:  Always, Usually, Often, Sometimes, or Never.  On the Gamemaster Screen (but nowhere in the actual rules), Wixted provides percentage values for these descriptors:  Always (100%), Usually (80%), Often (60%), Sometimes (40%), and Never (100% – which, one supposes, could be interpreted as 0%).  Two of Horn's traits are 'Sometimes Bitter' and 'Always Honest.'  Examples of Keeps' traits include 'Often Kind' and 'Usually Emotional.'

Last, Wixted provides his 'Personal History Generator' which your humble host reproduces below.
The idea is for the player to roll 1D30 at least five times (but no more than once for each year of the character's life) and record the numbers.  The player should then reference the results and – in whatever order – connect them to make a narrative of the important events in the character's life.  “This doesn't give you much except the bare bones,” Wixted writes, “Like everything else, twist and interpret this to your own desires and conceptions.”

*  To be technical, there are only 49 pairs; #13 is 'Liberal – Conservative' while #22 is 'Conservative – Liberal.'

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