Most adventures and campaigns (if not all) follow common “Hero’s Journey” story structures.
But, especially with how modern roleplaying is commonly played, some seem impossible without the removal of (at least in part) something that is held sacrosanct; total player control over their character.
I’d like to examine one, and open the table to the presentation of others.
The one I want to look at is the trope of the unknown destiny. In this trope, you have an ordinary individual suddenly have to deal with the fact that their world has turned on its head as they are thrust into the responsibility of destiny or fate. This is almost always coupled with a special power or ability and, is always coupled with a mystery to be unravelled, and “hard” choices that the fate of many rest on.
We see this trope played out in:
Many Super Hero stories (Hal Jordan is bestowed a ring and the pilot becomes a space cop. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and discovers that with great power comes great responsibility, etc )
The great destiny stories (Like Skywalker discovers he is the son of a great Jedi and must bring balance to the Force. Harry Potter finds out he is a Wizard and must unravel the truth before evil dominates the world. Percey Jackson discovers what it means to be the son of a God, etc.)
Now it is not impossible to have this as part of a player’s role-play experience … But they can only come into the story after the big reveal. In other words they build the character as the Super hero, Jedi, Wizard, Demi-God, etc.
Hypothetically you could ask a group of players to build a stock standard person with an ordinary background, but to ask them to do so, without knowing the earth shattering reveal, would likely not get player buy in.
Even if you did reveal that you were not playing Store Clerks and House Husbands, the thought that the GM would dictate what the Player character would become seems to breach sacred RPG pacts.
But … If you look back over the origin stories of just the characters I have listed above, how they felt with the sudden understanding of their true self and actual state of their existence, all the hard choices they have to make during the transition period between revelation and acceptance, and how it shapes how they cope with their new lives moving forward, is what defines them as much as the final battles they have to endure.
Yet, the player and playing group can never truely explore this in game. The revelation and hard choices are already made at character creation.
Hal starts play with the ring and Green Lantern Battery.
Spiderman has already overcome the trial of the bully and the loss of Uncle Ben.
Luke has already found Old Ben, buried his Aunt and Uncle and starts his journey like many D&D groups do; in a tavern meeting the other PC’s he will adventure with.
Harry has already moved out from under the stairs and has had the sorting hat decide his house.
Percey is already at the training camp with the other Demi-Gods.
Worse still, the mystery does not exist and the destiny is outlined in the creation because the player made it up.
Hal’s character sheet already states he is vulnerable to yellow, Sinestro betrays the Lanterns and he starts the game as a member of the Justice league.
Spidey’s character sheet already lists the Goblin as his best friends Dad, Gwen is already likely dead and he already made the call to let the robber pass him unhindered causing the death of his beloved Uncle.
Luke’s sheet clearly lists Anakin Skywalker is not only his dad, but is already known to be Darth Vader and that Luke is determined to being him back to the light side. He already has a light Saber in his inventory.
Harry’s character sheet already explains why he has a scar on his head, what happened to his parents and who Valdemort is in relation to the Potters.
I would argue that while this certainly can influence the way a player will interact with the unfolding story, these backgrounds never have the impact on the player or the story like they would if they were created or unveiled in the game.
On top of this, the game played has to shoehorn this in as opposed to it “being” the basis of the story. It does not drive the story it only influences it … Maybe.
I want to create an RPG experience that provides the players the ability to experience “the origin” story. Moreover, I want the choices they make in that origin story to not only be meaningful, but actually dictate the direction and focus of the game.
In other words, when the player hears…
“The ring has chosen you”, “You wake up and find yourself with more muscle mass and for some reason you can’t let go of your sheets”, “You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.”, “You’re a Wizard Harry”, or, “Humans see what they want to see.”
Their reaction is not only not pre-scripted, based on a backstory, but in game is when they discover they are a galactic cop, teenage crime fighter, space wizard, spell slinger or a member of a modern Pantheon … And how they deal with this is played out and explored.
If I invited you to a game set today, asked you to make a character that lived a typical modern day life and was a reflection of a person that could be found in a major city, would you play? Especially knowing, that at some point in the story, your character’s understanding of the world would not only be turned on its head, but I would dictate what makes your character unique?
Am I stealing player agency with this concept, or am I really asking the player to focus on who the character truely is as a being, and their unique abilities forthcoming are akin to finding a unique magical artefact and deciding to do with it?