There’s an issue that comes up in tabletop RPGs that only occasionally gets discussed. It is most prominent among newer players, whose experience with fantastic adventures comes from videogames or movies or novels that usually have a clearly defined protagonist. That issue is what I call “Main Character Syndrome,” or MCS, and it’s primarily symptomized by the tendency to create and play a character as though they’re the lead and every other player character is part of the supporting cast. This can adversely affect gameplay for a number of reasons. Today I’ll be talking about some of the symptoms of MCS, as well as some potential treatments.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about being judgmental. We’ve all probably battled with MCS to some degree, and I’m still in recovery myself.
Symptom 1: Pre-planning the Journey.
One of the most obvious tells that a player has MCS is when they create their character with not only a defined backstory (Which is good, backstories are good!) but also with their entire story already planned out from beginning to middle to end. This adversely affect gameplay because it means either they’re setting themselves up for disappointment or the GM now has to craft everyone’s game experience around making sure this player gets to experience the story that he’s already written in his mind. This leads right into…
Symptom 2: Bringing the Villain
A lot of great stories have a personal villain who’s part of the protagonist’s life from the beginning. Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII was clearly built into Cloud’s background and Sweeney Todd was kicked off entirely by the protagonist being done wrong by the villain. So it’s tempting to write a villain into your character’s backstory who is your character’s sole reason for continuing to exist within a story. Now this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with building NPCs into your backstory, even antagonistic ones, but injecting an NPC who is your character’s sole quarry not only puts some severe requirements on the GM but it also leads into…
Symptom 3: Why Are They With the Group Again?
One of the most famous tabletop RPGs of all time is Dungeons and Dragons. Your characters in this game typically go into dungeons and fight dragons, accumulating wealth and power along the way. This is what the focus of most campaigns is going to be: fightin’ monsters and gettin’ loot. But now you’ve created a character that has no reason to go into dungeons or fight dragons. He’s focused on one thing and that’s his personal story arc and you have to hand wave that every time there’s something that detracts from that. Or, if you’re playing in character, your hero immediately runs off in search of his plot when the players decide to chase treasure instead of his plotline.
Symptom 4: And He’s Got This Special Sword…
Iconic weaponry is cool, and it’s a staple of movies and literature. Bilbo had Sting, Arthur had Excalibur, so naturally your players are going to want to have a super special awesome sword that’s part of their backstory. We’re not talking about Exotic Weapon Proficiency here, we’re talking about “Well, he’s got his father’s sword which has super hidden powers and he never uses any other weapon…” This in and of itself would not be so bad except, again, it dictates the course of the game to the GM. Think about it like this, whenever you fight something in a dungeon you expect to find treasure. Now, let’s say you find a troll hoard with a super cool magic sword in it. Your normal sword is just masterwork, and this is magical and it’s flaming, how cool is that? But you’re like “Well, I guess we’ll sell this because no one uses swords but me, and I only use this one sword.” Suddenly the GM has to plan every treasure horde around the fact that if you’re ever going to have a better weapon he can’t give it to you, he has to find a way to balance wealth by level to allow you to enchant the one you’ve got while not giving other characters too much gold. That means that treasure hoards now contain a lot of coins instead of cool loot.
Symptom 5: And He’s a Misunderstood Misanthropic Outcast Loner…
Everyone seems to love Batman and Wolverine. I’ve never understood why. They’re characters who are defined by being flat and one-dimensional and never changing or growing or being interesting, but everyone loves them. I always assume it’s because we find misunderstood misanthropic outcast loners cool. My first character was like that, he was an elf who was all stoic and “too cool for school” and who didn’t work well with others and he was just overall a bad idea. When a player makes a character like this there’s usually the mindset that they’re going to force the other players to somehow earn his trust or respect. This not only forces the GM’s hand in creating those situations, but forces the players to put themselves in a bad position. This is really the worst type of character to ever play in a group game.
Symptom 6: “That’s enough from the peanut gallery, the hero is talking!”
Now let me clear, this isn’t about the party face who does most of the negotiating because he’s got the most skills in it. This isn’t even about the player who defaults to the party face role because everyone is shy or, in my personal case, because he talks too much. When I do it it’s bad, but for a completely different reason. No, this is about the player who interrupts the GM, or the other player, to monologue or make sure they are in focus during the scene. This not only breaks up the flow of gameplay but it can be very annoying, especially if it’s happening during what is supposed to be a dramatic moment for another character.
Symptom 7: And He’s Super Important
If your character’s background includes a plethora of resources or social pull that a character of his level should just not be able to have then you should look into new backstory. Want to play an adventuring king at level two? Well now we have to answer a lot of questions like “Why is off with this group of adventurers without his personal entourage?” The answer usually doesn’t make sense like “Well he’s a badass so no one stops him.” At early levels there’s no way that any court would see that as a safe gamble and neither would any responsible king. The other explanation is usually the clearest sign of MCS, “Well, what if the other players ARE my entourage?” I’ve seen this happen and it’s just generally a bad setup in fantasy adventure. I’ve seen this work out ok exactly once, and it was in a game of Call of Cthulhu.
Unlike the last issue I covered, which put the majority of pressure on the GM to be responsible, the pressure here falls heavily on the player. The good news is that if you’ve read this and diagnosed yourself with MCD there is hope! There are a few tips and tricks to bring your character back around to a member of an adventuring party, rather than a figure that keeps the rest of the party in his shadow.
The most important treatment is simple: when you make your character, make sure he has a reason to plunder dungeons and fight dragons. If your DM has to come up with a specific reason why your specific character would go into every dungeon, then you’ve done something wrong. If you want your character to have an antagonist, then that’s fine just so long as he’s not your character’s only motivation for existing. Think Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who plagued the hero but was ultimately not as important to Indy as the Ark itself, and not Mondego from The Count of Monte Cristo.
If you want your character to have a long term goal, that’s great. It only really becomes MCS when you’ve got the mechanisms for how already in mind and the GM is expected to do it that specific way. So instead of saying “So at some point he needs to go into the biggest city on the continent and save a duke so that he can earn favor with the nobility and become noble himself” pull it back and keep your motivations simple. Like “So he has a goal of becoming part of the nobility, and I’d like for him to achieve that at some point during the game.”
As for the super special sword idea… well, sometimes the GM should just be flexible about it. A character using a personal or signature weapon is such an established fantasy trope that while it can be problematic it’s also an easy thing to work around and it can add flair and flavor to a character. Just as long as it isn’t EVERY piece of your equipment. Set a limit of one, yo.
As for the other symptoms, well, the reality is that those are usually just things you shouldn’t do. Sometimes they work out ok, especially if you talk to the GM and/or other players about it ahead of time. Make sure everyone is ok with what you’re trying to do long before the game has started.
Well, that’s pretty much the core of Main Character Syndrome. Stay tuned for my next update where I talk about… er… something. I’ll figure it out.