Meta, Opinion, WoW

Does your character have a story?

Or perhaps the question should be “do your characters have stories”?  This came up in conversation last night while I was catching up on my latest alt, and on reflection I actually think my answer to the question is one that I would not have expected of myself.  To the copious-amounts-of-explanation-mobile, Batman!

RPGs and character creation

RPGs had no appeal to me before I started playing my first (which is itself the subject of a surprisingly long story).  The main reasons for this, if I remember properly, were twofold:

  1. I saw them as timesinks, pure and simple.  They made you spend a lot of time to accomplish simple objectives which had no meaning in the big picture.  That is to say, I didn’t think they were fun.
  2. I didn’t believe that RPG characters could be satisfying on a narrative level.

(2) is obviously the reason why (1) seemed so pointless: if you have no investment in “your character” the actions you are performing have no purpose, unless they are also fun in and of themselves.  I couldn’t imagine the RPG “actions” I knew of – datatable-based combat, trudging through endless generic maze-like environments, or having obscure conversations with NPCs trying to give off an air of faux-mystery by means of being a bizarre combination of loquacious and laconic – being “fun”.

(I have, by the way, since met real people who behave like that and they don’t seem even remotely mysterious.)

I can’t tell you exactly where I got these impressions from, but suffice it to say all the RPGs I tried in the early/mid nineties seemed terrible.  Adventure games, by contrast, I really enjoyed!  There was Hugo’s House of Horrors and Flight of the Amazon Queen and Simon the Sorcerer, and then later on games like Tomb Raider and Half Life (I know it was a shooter but it still did a lot to immerse you in its story).  And before any of that there was that odd niche of ASCII-based dungeoneering games epitomised in the present by Dwarf Fortress (which I’ve not played, by the way).

These games, and many like them, I enjoyed because they presented you with a character that the designers had created and shamelessly immersed you in their world, and that was all part of the fun.

RPGs, I felt, gave the illusion of letting you create your “own” character and explore your “own” world, but actually you were creating it within the parameters established by the game’s creators and to fit the world they had made.  I guess I thought of it as a sort of giant fallacy of freedom which was, ultimately, entirely unsatisfying.

Actually, that’s a good phrase, let’s use it for the next section heading.

Freedom fallacy

If you think about it, what freedom do we really have in RPGs?  We get our character templates mapped out for us with everything they can and cannot do pre-established before we’ve even thought of a name.  In WoW, we can maybe choose between one of six ear piercings or one of five different kinds of facial hair, but we’re basically all the exact same models.  And we start in the same places and do the exact same quests which tell the exact same story except substituting our character’s name and class in the relevant bits to make it seem personal.  Even WoW’s revolutionary quest game is a glorified series of narrative tramlines upon which our characters can ride until they reach max level: a “loremaster” is just someone whose character has basically the exact same story as every other “loremaster”.

Yes, I’m being very cynical here.

This is what I thought about RPGs.  Which is why the answer to the titular question surprises me.

My characters do have stories.

I think a huge part of what I got wrong when thinking about RPG characters is my reason number 2, “I didn’t believe that RPG characters could be satisfying on a narrative level”.  As y’all remember (come on it was like 3 paragraphs ago, keep up guys), I had no problem with assuming an existing character created by someone else but thought that the character creation offered by RPGs was an illusion.

Put it another way: I have no problem with writing my own stories, or with reading stories others have written.  But I do have a problem with Choose Your Own Adventure books.  And multiple choice tests, for that matter.  So yeah, I saw RPGs as a kind of multiple-choice test, where you fill in a selection of somebody else’s answers when you’d really rather they were your own.

Now I think I see them more along the same lines as I saw adventure games: I am creating an avatar in the world of Warcraft, and that avatar is a part of that world’s story – a story written by someone else, and thus a character ultimately created by someone else.  Thus I am playing someone else’s character just as if I was Gordon Freeman blasting his way through Black Mesa or Hugo trying to escape that haunted house.  And I’m basically OK with that.


But of course WoW offers a lot more than just watching a character progress through a predetermined plot: we do have a degree of control and determinacy over our avatars.  This starts off at the Character Creation screen where we “customise” aspects of our race, gender, looks and of course “role” or “archetype” and it continues as we choose which quests and zones to focus on, the way we complete a tough fight, the outcome of our adventures into dungeons and raids, the factions we “support” through rep and of course the people we gather and interact with.  And so on.

I personally find that the moment I’m clicking through options on the character creation screen I’m actually developing a story.  Why does my character have that facial expression?  – because it says something about his or her personality.  Why that race? – it says something about his or her backstory.  Why that class?  Why that hairstyle?  Et cetera.

Then as I move through the world questing, I find myself making decisions based on this vague idea of my character’s personality and story: do I attack that PvP flagged character (or defend one who is being attacked)? do I really want to help the Forsaken develop this new plague? am I willing to kill Horde soldiers for the sake of a few gold?  Many of these kind of questions are not supported by the quest engine, but if we read the stories of the quests we’re involved in we have to deal with them in some way on our characters.

And I think on some level all of us must be aware of what’s happening to our characters on their own level even if we choose not to “care”.  I hope Chas at Righteous Orbs doesn’t mind, but I’m going to quote him here:

I don’t care how hardcore you are, or how serious, nobody who plays RPGs – any kind of RPGs doesn’t on some level care about what’s supposed to be going on “in character”. If you replaced the world with a featureless white plain, renamed the classes A through J, and all the powers “Class X ability Y”, if instead of fighting dragons and demons we fought floating tables of data which informed us how much damage we were doing, nobody would play the game. On some level everybody who plays WoW plays it because they want to feel like a wizard.

For me it goes deeper than that; I seem to be a rather empathetic person and thus, if once I get drawn into a world, I start to care quite deeply about its inhabitants.  I don’t mean I get all gushy and upset about someone killing a bunny in WoW (you monster you), I just mean that as the overall story becomes more involving, the little details as expressed by our characters become more important.

I have a story

So, quite contrary to my expectations and intentions, I find my characters have, over time, become more than just buttons and numbers and chat avatars – they have developed their own personalities, their own motivations, their own reasons for doing things or not doing them (or for being happy/not happy about doing them/not doing them).

My orc hunter – my first alt to reach level 60 – was the first character I think I noticed this on.  He was a bit of a nobody, just your typical orc, only he made his living through hunting instead of farming.  He got mixed up in various local political things and felt a bit of a need to prove himself to his fellow orcs, but at the end of the day he just wanted to be alone with his cat and hunt dragons for their scales.  This was an expression of the fact that he was my “escape alt” and that I didn’t have any grand endgame plans for him.  Later on my main character, my druid, began to realise that the discomfort he’d felt with world PvP while levelling was an expression of his druidic identity.  Since then all my characters have developed their own unique quirks and preferences.

These aren’t fully-fledged, FlagRSP, scar down one eye and a haunted expression telling of his mysterious past style backstories, but they’re nuances to my characters that make almost as much difference to my conception of them as the basic facts of class and spec.  While I don’t get much chance to express them in play with others, I do enjoy exploring this aspect a bit in solo questing or even when standing around Dalaran wondering why I’m not playing a certain alt.

…oh, didn’t you know?  My druid isn’t an abandoned main upset with the development in feral tank mechanics, he’s just had his fill of death and adventure and spends most of his time peacefully roaming the continent researching Northrend herb-life, only occasionally dusting off his old armor to help old friends with difficult tasks (like saving the world).  My priest isn’t my least favourite healer, he’s just a typical dwarven cleric who’s a bit cynical about being dispatched to Dalaran as a “medic” and spends most of his free time drinking ale and taking things apart with magic (he’d never admit it, but he is fascinated by how things work).

My shaman and paladin actually have fully-fledged backstories which I won’t bore you with now.  But more importantly, all my characters find themselves participating in their own kind of constantly developing narrative which is largely determined for them but which they still have an increasingly significant part in shaping.  You could say that while the facts remain the same for each and every character, the details and the context changes so much that each character’s story becomes unrecognisably unique.


So do your characters have a story?  Do you try and shape their stories or do you just let the game take control?  When you find yourself doing something you wouldn’t personally take part in, does your character react against it or do you just laugh at who the avatar you’re playing is becoming and go hunt down the next source of XP?



10 thoughts on “Does your character have a story?

  1. I am going to sidestep the giant NERDRAGE which arose when I read your thoughts on RPGs (I was practically screaming at the screen “JESUS CHRIST YOU ARE SO WRONG IN SO MANY WAYS OMG THIS GUY DOESN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT RPGs ARE”, etc), because I don’t want to go into a debate about the value of RPGs with someone who probably hasn’t even played any decent ones, uses WoW as an example of a good RPG and doesn’t have a cl- sorry.

    My characters do not have stories! I suppose the reasons are related to my view on RPGs, but to be brief: I don’t really see the point when you follow a preset storyline with quests which only have one outcome. Maybe on an RP server, or with people who actually enjoy roleplaying their characters in groups and stuff. But WoW defies all of the basic characteristics an RPG should have (which isn’t a bad thing in itself, it’s just a different kind of game, it’s more of an action adventure game than an RPG), which means giving my character a history and backstory doesn’t feel like it has a point to me.

    Also because I consider my character a representation of myself. If I take the effort to come up with a backstory for my character, and then basically NEVER use it aside from having some minor moral objections to doing certain quests or whatever, and other than that just constantly talk through this character as myself in chat, it defeats the whole purpose of building this character as an entity in itself in the first place.

    That’s different from immersing myself in the world, mind. That still happens because it’s an entirely different process, but for me that’s not dependent on whether or not the game provides me with freedom of choice or whether or not I’ve actually chosen to develop my character in a certain way. I can be just as immersed in a linear storyline (case in point: a fantasy world in a movie or tv series), as in any freedom-based virtual world. That’s dependent on how well the world and storyline is crafted, and WoW generally does a good job on that.

    But I wouldn’t even call it an RPG. NERDRAGE.

    Posted by Razz | January 31, 2010, 6:47 pm
    • Did you read the whole post or just the first paragraph, get annoyed at my heinous ignorance of the genre, then skim to the end to nerdrage at me? ¬_¬

      Anyway, I should clarify: the point of the first few paragraphs is to explain what was my opinion based on a very poor sampling of very bad RPGs, and I’m aware of this and tried to indicate it above: That was my past opinion of RPGs before I actually tried any really decent ones. WoW is not the first “good RPG” I’ve played, nor do I think of single player and massively multiplayer RPGs in anything like the same sort of way. But for us great unwashed popular gaming heathens I think it’s still a helpful comparison.

      (Actually, on a total tangent, when I have to present WoW to people in an academic context I use the words “role playing game” in a totally different way to what you’re thinking of – as an adjective rather than as a noun – but that’s a story for another time.)

      At first, I treated WoW as a game like you describe – the character was just me (hence the name of my first character) in the world, as if I was in an FPS or a racing game or whatever. The difference is that the longer I played, the more that changed and I found that the avatars I was inhabiting started to take on a particular “personality” in my mind – blurring the line between who they were really representing. Looking back on this, I find it particularly surprising given my opinion on “character creation” games in the dim and distant past.

      I agree totally that immersion (for me at least) is not about how much freedom you have – hence the comments about reading a book vs writing a book – but then it’s gradually turned out that, for me, neither is the process of “creating” a true “character”. It’s got to the point where working within the limits of the fixed quests and fixed parameters just makes expressing my own take on a character within those limitations more interesting.

      I’m not quite at the point where I can enjoy multiple choice tests, but I do at least appreciate that I don’t have to write so much.

      (Also, you should totally read the post I linked at Righteous Orbs)

      Posted by Charles | January 31, 2010, 7:10 pm
  2. My characters never start out with a backstory but I’ve found as I level them and play them, they do take on a sort of personality that leads me to create a story for them. I play on a normal PVE server (no RPG) so those stories remain in my head rather than being acted out. I found myself refusing to do certain quests (or side with certain factions) because it would suit the character.

    I guess my main (draenei shaman) does reflect me in some ways. My favorite zone is Zangarmarsh and so my character has a lot of history there. I like collecting vanity pets and so my character has a soft spot for animals. She is serious and doesn’t suffer fools lightly — too close to me for comfort. lol

    My alt, however is a hard-drinkin’ trash-talkin’ dwarven lass who’d as soon punch you as look at you. Completely different from my shaman.

    Ive thought about rerolling or transferring my toons to an RPG server to play out these stories but really… they couldn’t really match the adventures in my head. 🙂

    PS: Also a big thanks for this wonderful blog and the work you’re doing for the ele shaman community!

    Posted by Shamazonia | February 1, 2010, 1:12 am
  3. WoW was not my first, nor will it be my last RPG, but it is the only one (so far) that has actually made me want to, well, choose what to do on a somewhat subjective basis. (This is beyond the obvious moral scheme of RPGs like KotOR or Neverwinter Nights)

    But I also find me drawn into different playstyles based on what spec a character is, currently. The best example here would most likely be Lovira, my Gnome Warrior, whom, while specced for tanking, is very much a cautious and collected young gnome, and then, the second she picks up her two oversized swords, she just wants to hit everything as hard as possible as many times as possible.

    Another example would be my Rogue, who only ever used tabards as a means to get rep for useful things, and when she’d gotten that, she never put one on again, because why should she care about what some high-strung wizard in a flying city cares about her, because all that matters is killing that next thing in the most interesting way possible.

    One thing I have noticed with my own characters is that I might not actually have a separate, well, persona for each, but rather a general idea of how the character is, but overall, if it’s a tank, it will be played in a calm manner, never pulling eleventy billion packs for speed’s sake. At the same time, most of my DPS characters are reckless and borderline psychopathic in their appreciation for the violent arts. As far as healers go, I haven’t played one since early TBC, but I’d say that I was more or less of the same mindset as when I am playing a tank.

    And then there is the hidden moral choices of the game, especially common for horde players, of questing, and if a character really would do what the character is doing. Is my priest comfortable with helping the undead make a new plague to kill both the living and the scourge? (Yes, she was once a member of the Lordaeron Apothecarial Sociery, and still has ties to them) Would my paladin, bastion of all that is good and holy, kill innocent animals for a slightly deranged dwarf? (Yes, said dwarf reminded him of a friend whom was instrumental in killing Illidan)
    In the end, though, I think I’m too much of a POWERGAMER to ignore the benefits of a quest in favour of what my character really wants, especially so with my alliance ones, as there really isn’t a lot of potential evil outside of a certain inn in Stormwind.

    Thinking back on it, the most heavy roleplaying I’ve ever done with a character ingame is probably when my warrior and a certain mage were killing everything in a too-efficient manner for said mage. But even then it basically boiled down to yelling about how the things I attacked was “HUGE and therefor has HUGE GUTS” aswell as proclaming how I would like to “RIP AND TEAR” at them.

    So yes, that’s how I do it, and I’d like to think that I’ve somehow managed to hit a line between occasional powergamer and having an idea of the nature of each of my characters.

    Posted by Clav | February 1, 2010, 7:20 am
  4. All my characters do have story and stories. I used to play pen and paper RPGs, mostly the narrative ones, not rulebook, where the fun was in actually playing your character instead of rolling dice. Then, when I come over to WoW I rolled on RP server. Chmur, Rahana they both have few pages long histories and stories of their adventures, I engaged in fictional RP on my Orc warrior too – with the big guild plot and stories told over forums with other guildies.

    Even after moving to PvE server, there are still things that my characters won’t do as it wouldn’t fit their bio; as well there is certain way they express themselves in PuGs. While Chmur is cheerful and berserker type, even in speech, Rahana would be the more responsible and proud one. For example, if anyone insulted them, Chmur would probably just laughed back and pulled a trick on next pack that would make life bitter for the person, while Rahana would type back some well-constructed insult and paid back in lack of healing.

    Posted by Rahana | February 1, 2010, 7:22 am
  5. If my characters don’t start out having stories, they definitely develop them quickly. My old main (from start of tbc to just prior to the release of Ulduar) was retired from the raiding game because the trauma to her mind was never going to heal (she was a bit evil) and she was no fun to play around other characters. So she went off and found an evil layer to found, and is now plotting her return.

    My new character is a member of the same family, a hedonistic live in the moment shaman who was born in the heat of the draenei’s battle for survival. She’s very jovial, but it hides a lot of rage and anger. She makes odd jokes with very dark humour, loves to get drunk, and rushes head long into danger.

    However her experiences in battle lead her to change from enhancement to elemental, because she figured out that she wasn’t as strong as the warriors around her, nor could she slice as deep as the rogues and cat druids.

    Or something.

    They all develop a personality, as they come across things to react to, I find out how they’re going to react!

    Posted by pewter | February 1, 2010, 9:19 am
  6. Oh by the Light, I hope my clown suit never appears again…. even though my paladin was the first character I got a bit of lore behind and fleshed out.
    Never intended it that way, he just became an extension of how I wanted to play a paladin… just a shame he looked like a Power Ranger. I do remember “he should be bald, feels more paladiny”.

    Of course, I now play a Death Knight who I changed his name to be that of my paladin. I still get the few remarks of “Oh, you are a Death Knight now?”. To which I reply with the standard X-Men reply “I died but I got better.” My DK has a bit of a back story and I’ve lost count of the amount of times he has remarked on how he used to know how to hold a shield…..

    Posted by mydran | February 1, 2010, 5:48 pm
  7. I just discovered this blog and the information contained here today. Rather than wade into the shaman debates, (I am a student here not a teacher), I decided to bump this blog with this soft ball question.

    I have 5 level 80’s and 2 more in the 70-80 range. I play on a PvE server, but I still build basic background characteristics or traits for each character. Like some of the posters above, I like to lose myself in wow and all of my characters represent me in some fashion. That is why I never really accept the concept of a main character. All of these characters are a part of me since all of them were built from the ground up over the past several years (going on 5).

    Basically I start out with the proposition that if I were placed in this environment, the World of Warcraft, and I was given these abilities or roles (Death Knight, Priest ect) how would I react? What part of my personality would become foremost, would I be cautious, an egomaniac, evil, good, caring, uncaring, jaded, cruel, thoughtful, sarcastic or what not, and then try to distill the character to a certain set of basic traits.

    For instance, my mage, was originally an undead, so the story goes that he found his forsaken state while in a burn pile for the victims of the scourge. Therefor he hastes fire, is afraid of fire and chooses to study frost and arcane as a mage. The new mage technology of frostfire left him with a trouble conscience, but ultimately that was cured now that arcane is king.

    So for each of my characters there are those short back stories, or who would I be like if I was . . . Tauren druid caring and savage when provoked, a protector a tank, a Blood Elf, the ability to heal and destroy, (choose shadow for those playing along at home).

    This approach allows me to pick my characters based on what is happening in my life, and graft upon them characteristics that make the character more fun for me. I don’t normally write out full character profiles, I only mentally keep track of how I feel about a character as I am leveling it, and work through a short mental image on where the character comes from.

    I hope this is instructive.

    The shaman — The shaman represents my recovery from a bout of depression, and my regained confidence and self control. He went elemental to control the elements, to touch lightning at its core. No more super “human” beats on people up close, no more (healing) putting others life before his own (no more suicide) putting yourself in harms way (tanking) this is a confident life is on track, regain my control and my self respect character. As a shaman he controls his element but is in touch with his elements, or his own core. He stronger and more aggressive, and more confident.

    Posted by Woeful | February 26, 2010, 3:48 pm


  1. Pingback: Single Abstract Death Knight « Planet of the Hats - March 21, 2010

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