Archive for May 19th, 2007

Playing the Loner

Almost everyone, at one time or another, tries to play the type of character I call the “Loner.” This is usually the reserved, “strong and silent” type who prefers to work alone. In the superhero world we might think of Punisher. In Star Wars we might think of a Darth Maul. In fantasy we might think of Aragorn spending decades in the wild by himself. Loners are common in westerns too — Clint Eastwood’s “hero without a name” from the Spaghetti Westerns (Fistful of Dollars; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) comes to mind for example. There is a certain romantic quality to these Loner characters. Most Loner characters one can think of are undeniably cool (like the Punisher). Also they are generally gritty, and often play the “tough guy” role. After all, who wouldn’t want to play a Clint Eastwood “hero with no name” style character?

Such characters can be a lot of fun to make up. If you are writing a story or doing a movie, they can be a great deal of fun to work with. However, when it comes to roleplaying them, often one has difficulty. This can be true for GMed games, but is even more true for online ones. The reason why it is difficult to run a Loner character well in a roleplaying game is quite simple, of course: roleplaying games are social, and loners are, by their nature, as characters (without reference to their players) anti-social. I have seen RP scenes that include Loners played by very good roleplayers, where the Loner says very little, and the roleplayer then says apologetically in OOC chat, “Sorry, this character is not very sociable.” And I am not criticizing others here — I have done it myself. On one MUSH based around Star Wars during the Sith Wars (thousands of years before the movies in terms of setting) I chose to play a Sith Warrior who was a spy. She insinuated herself into neutral space, between Republic and Sith space, and there she would spy on the other side without being overtly Sith. It was a great excuse to get her into social places like cantinas, but her fundamental character, her nature, was to be a Loner. She was an observer, not a participant. But although I certainly played that character type well, it was very hard to participate in much of the actual roleplay going on, because she just would not, by her nature, start chatting peope up.

As a result, playing a Loner character can actually be quite difficult. It can be easier in a table-top setting, because the DM or GM creates stories for, presumably, all the characters, including the Loner. For example, I once ran a Champions campaign that had a character named Nightshade, who was a Loner if I ever saw one. I was able, as a GM, to get him involved in stories by having his “Dependent NPC” kidnapped, his “Hunteds” (arch-enemies) show up and get involved in major plotlines, and so forth. Still this can be a challenge for the GM. Other characters will often “get involved” by their nature, but the Loner is apt to stand by unless there is some good reason for him to “get involved” in the plot. And so the GM has to work extra hard to make sure there is always an explicit reason for the Loner to be there. Otherwise, in character, he would just walk away.

This is doubly hard in online games and MUSHes, where often there is no story-driven reason for the Loner to participate or socialize with other characters. In a MUSH, often the “social scene” comprises the bulk of roleplay. There is rarely anything to do on a MUSH by yourself (“solo”), and so you pretty much have to get involved with the other players. Because most MUSHes have only rudimentary economic, combat, or exploration systems (and many don’t even have that!), the vast majority of what there is to do on a MUSH is socialization roleplay… meeting in the coffee shop to talk about this or that event from the previous night, romance, gossip, or other social events. In such a setting it is nearly impossible to play a Loner and really stay true to the character. After all, if you’re alone on a MUSH (in a room by yourself) you can’t do much, and in a social area with other players, you’re likely to end up just watching other people’s dialog, which becomes tiresome after a while.

On MMORPGs and such games, the Loner is more viable as a character, but is still difficult to roleplay. Most MMORPGs have “soloing” options. For example, missions will scale to your level (City of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies) at least some of the time, or perhaps they give you “henchmen” to use (Guild Wars). So, you can be a Loner of sorts and go off playing the game and experience content by yourself. That makes it a bit easier. However, when you get together with other players to have “social” roleplay, conduct stories, etc, the same problem still applies: how do you get involved in socializing when you are playing a character who is the “strong and silent” type, and doesn’t like to socialize?

There is no easy solution to this problem. With a GM, at least you have someone to work with who can generate stories that your character has to respond to, but in online games, you generally won’t have that. There are a couple of options, but one has to think about it a bit. First, in MMORPGs you can usually play multiple characters on a single account (either on different servers, or on the same server, depending on the game). You can always have the Loner be your “soloist” character — the guy you play when you are not in the mood to group or when none of your guild mates are on. Then you can switch to more sociable characters when needed. In both MUSHes and MMOs you can have a Loner who is part of the team and has “reformed” a bit. Think of Wolverine from X-men here… He’s a Loner who has been made a real part of the team, and so he is not quite as much a Loner anymore.It can help to give the Loner a love interest (e.g., Jean Grey for Wolverine) but make sure you clear this with the player of the love interest first!

Beyond that, there really isn’t a lot one can do with a Loner. You can accept the limitations and just stick to playing the character correctly, but you need to be prepared to do a lot of watching dialog and very little participating in it other than to occasionally nod, frown, etc. If you like that, then by all means go ahead. Personally, I find that playing a Loner always sounds really fun and attractive at first, and then when I get around to actually doing it, I am bored when I don’t get to directly participate in the dialog. As a result I’ve sworn off them for now. Still, I am sure the idea will catch my eye again at some point. I usually try it again when I hit on what I think will be some brilliant new way to make the Loner work…and it never has, so far, at least for me. If I find a method that works you can be sure I will post it here!

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