Levels or layers of character identity

I’m looking now at the whole of fictional character identity. Classically, it’s composed of attributes, race, class, and a range of options concerning gear and spells. Many games have simplified or complicated this framework, and some have approached the idea from different angles, but it’s a simple idea that applies to any story-ish fiction and I don’t expect anyone to have trouble understanding it, or that it may have “hard” vs. “soft” vs. “emergent” parts.

The levels/layers

In a long-ago Forge thread, I proposed four levels or layers to concern ourselves with. Then, I was thinking only of “class,” which here I’m expanding to the more general concept I’ve described above. The following is paraphrased and updated from that thread.

You are free to think of these as nested or as a linear spectrum, whichever you prefer.

1) The player’s real-life explicit social role among the gaming group. This is a real-people thing. Who’s the leader, organizer, attention-getter, explainer, funny guy, flirt, follower, strategist, hanger-out, or any combination thereof.

One may protest that this is “metagame” and not the character at all, but I disagree. It will inform the character’s identity and conceivably frame the categories listed below, even or especially when the player deliberately deviates or attempts to play across a wider range than a single type of this kind.

2) The character’s explicitly functional role among the other characters, relative to the situational problems of play, whether explicit or implicit. This is less about specific settings and more about collective effort. If it’s a combat-squad game, then we have the gunner, the techie, the brute, etc. If it’s a social-intrigue game, we have the scheming skunk, the idealist-organizer, etc. If it concerns strife among the player-characters, we have the most trustworthy, the least trustworthy, the aggressor, the secret-keeper, etc.

This level presents an interesting interface between the people and the characters, because these roles are expressed in terms of what characters do, but they (the roles) exist at the level of the social contract among the people. Sometimes it’s acknowledged as “niche.”

3) The in-fiction character profession, social status, race/ethnicity, and activities, which describes what these characters do with their time, what opportunities they have and don’t have, where they are and where they came from, what expectations others have toward them, how they are perceived by NPCs, how they make money, etc. This level is relatively coarse because it’s based on categories, rather than the customized details. It’s a totally in-game definition, not to be confused with the above.

4) The specifics and customizing of a given character’s abilities, which at the most obvious are the actual effectiveness and resource values. However, this level is more important than it looks, because it also includes metagame tags and categories and actual contracts-of-play, etc. If Lightning Man is “hunted by Dr.  Gore-Spatter,” then that tag initiates a form of “task” or “role.” If Alizara the Elvish Babe is Neutral Good, then that tag initiates a form of “task” or “role” as well.

The classic first-edition AD&D human cleric offers a good breakdown. I’m most familiar with first-edition AD&D (1978) but the Mentzer version (1985) is similar, from which I’ve taken the image for this post.

  • At level 1, it’s the player who wants to or is willing to maintain a stable relationship with the other players and to provide extra glue for the togetherness of continuing to play.
  • At level 2, it’s the player with the character who repels undead and heals – basically a solid resource base that “ups the game” for everyone, in terms of comba survivorshipt. In some games this same effect is reinforced by the cleric being the “establishment” character who can gain NPCs’ attention.
  • At level 3, the latter phenomenon jumps to the foreground, including productive antagonism with “bad” religions or alignments; or conversely, this level is short-changed and the character is notably faceless.
  • At level 4, the choice of alignment takes on more nuance relative to other player-characters and such issues as the division of treasure, but less so for other choices like spells and weapons, in comparison for the crucial choices thereof for fighters or magic-users.

Design considerations

You can’t control #1. People are who they are and their social roles in a given group of others exist and change in their own ways, in their own time. The game may favor social and creative dynamics (my “playing on purpose”) which matter greatly at this level, but that’s the best it can do.

The task for #2 is very important, perhaps the most crucial if we’re talking about designing a good role-playing game rather than merely another one. It is simply lazy to rely on players’ own sensibilities, as addled by other media and old habits, to produce active character roles. It is also patronizing and limiting, as they will be making the “same old” stories and playing the “same old” games.

Instead, the point is to provoke the real people’s existing capacity to arrive at new and specific roles for characters to play relative to one another, in order for this particular play-experience to take on an identity of its own and a future which cannot be foretold or simply relied upon as a replay of what’s been seen and done before. The people may well not know they have this range of capacity, or if they have thought about it, may fear it – your job is to overcome any such hurdles.

What that means for both #3-4 (which if you look carefully, you’ll see my game structure diagram as it pertains to character creation!), is that good design does not over-stuff them. Completism is truly the devil toward the end of any procedures to make a playable character. Instead, the best design does all of these:

  • Puts the steps into a productive sequence of choice and consequence
  • Brings forward relevant details, or those seemingly irrelevant ones which are ripe for personal emphasis
  • Ignores others, or permits vagueness or veiling for them, even for things which “objectively” are not details but actual substance, which would detract or distract from finding what you’d like to do with this character once play is under way


RPG terminology has done a terrible job of confusing these four levels almost inextricably. It began, of course, as “class” as employed in D&D, which referred almost exclusively to #2, using #4 specifications to enforce it.

The first insight is frightening, apparently: to remember what we’re doing with these things anyway. It’s not to create a quantified VR which “makes sense,” but instead to create working instruments for humans to use during play, i.e., a wave-front of created fiction. Ultimately, that functionality is located in #1-2, and nothing you do with #3-4 can “make” that functionality happen, it can only inspire and enrich it.

But to acknowledge that means shooting a hobby sacred cow, which is to insist that elements of (any) one of these given level(s) can dictate and enforce the specifics of another level.

The most prevalent version of that cherished illusion is practically hobby standard: to conceive of this structure as developing from inside-out, i.e., you specify #3-4 in exquisite detail and then expect to “discover” what the results “must” be for levels #1-2. It’s a way of pretending that real humans are not doing what they really want with the fictional instruments, but are merely vehicles for the fictional entities to “speak” and “do.”

Then there’s the design creep and sprawl problem: to combine that sacred cow with an unstated desire to maximize diversity within each of the levels, which results in “concept Currency” breakdown. Such games feature a mass of decisions and subroutines and procedures for character creation which ultimately produce little or no indication or inspiration regarding what you might want to do with the result.

One attempted solution, found in many Fantasy Heartbreakers as well as in Jorune, is to create “adventurer” as a #3 category, which is to say, to preserve the illusion that #3-4 “cause” #2, at the risk of being obviously pretty ridiculous in fictional terms. Another is to keep all the effort in #4 alone as in GURPS or Fudge, in which, typically, you get a bunch of plausible, skilled, genre-safe characters who aren’t good “for” anything. In such a game you simply have to wait for your indicated cue to go to the thing that’s planned for the evening or (similarly) to cooperate with what’improvised one step ahead of what you do.

I also want to stress an idea that Fang Langford introduced in that original discussion, regarding the term “role” playing. He suggested that it makes more sense in terms of participating in a collective effort (“so-and-so played an important role in getting g this thing done when he, she, and they did this thing”) rather than in thespian terms (“so-and-so did a marvelous job of playing/depicting the role of that fictional character”).

2 responses to “Levels or layers of character identity”

  1. Let me think this through

    Let me think this through here. Let me take Champions 3rd edition as an example. It seems to me that the game relies a lot on level 4 — all the point mechanics of how powers work —  and lets the other levels emerge. The players only have reference to superhero comics for a guide to level 2. Would that be correct? 

    And aren't disadvantages a level 4 detail that can define some of level 2 and 3?

    (Love the phrase "a wave-front of created fiction" by the way.)

    • Sort of? Tell me if any of

      Sort of? Tell me if any of this helps.

      The levels/layers all inform one another, in every which way. That’s always happening. My point about their separateness is that options within them (or the way they are for you) are chosen at that level, and are not determined, in the technical sense, to be a certain way by consulting a different level.

      It’s hard to talk about, because, inside your own head, when you’re inspired by some decision you made for one of them to address questions or options in another, it feels causal. And there’s nothing wrong with that feeling. But when someone else tells you that because you chose to play a cleric, it dictates that you will play the familiar heal/turn-undead (#3), and if it so happens that you made that choice on the basis of some other level’s play-potential (you may have noticed that a half-orc cleric/assassin is an excellent build in first-ed AD&D, and the fictional implications are delightful), you will swiftly find that the causality is not so “obvious” after all.

      Taking it to 3rd edition Champions, and drawing on the same supplements I referenced for Champions Now, I see the following:

      The first acknowledgment in role-playing texts of “player types,” i.e., priorities at level #1 (Strike Force), including the wise point that no, you cannot change these things by pointing out any rule or genre concept. [this point and nearly-exact text is often cited from a decades-later publication by Robin Laws, but it originated here]

      A very strong potential effect on #2 by #4, as you describe, partly because you customize so much in this game as opposed to choosing categories. This is what I was describing as good game design, providing a lot of inspirational power from step to step in character creation with the final step being dynamic play (rather than showing up with a static portrait who needs to be goosed into action).

      I suggest that #2 for this game is potentially less about combat niche and more about social identity, real-life context, relationships across the villain/hero divide, emotional kin/romance drama, and the accord to be found among differing definitions of “hero.” Again, Strike Force articulates it best. The whole brick/energy-projector/etc construct arrived in one of the supplements and as far as I’m concerned, it was a very bad design-and-writing move for the game.

      #3 is remarkably mild for the textual game, because it’s expected to jump into a local definition for each group. As I like to mention a lot, this is the only superhero role-playing game which refuses to parse the word “hero” at all, stating only that it has something to do with helping others, and letting each group run with what that might mean. In a lot of ways, this level is left almost empty with the express purpose of letting inspiration from the others fill it in.

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