When I first heard the idea that most players only play three characters, I think I had the same reaction as everybody else, which was basically “That’s dumb, and you’re dumb”. I kind of resented the idea that players are so set in their ways that they can each be boiled down to three basic ideas. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s not that players only have three characters as much as they have three archetypes, or three concepts that they expand into multiple fully-fleshed characters.
It’s not that players say “I will only player fighters, dwarves, and raging drunks. And if I can fit them all into one character, bonus!” I doubt anybody sits down and specifies them at all, certainly not that clearly. There’s the occasional case where somebody might play the same character in different systems or settings, but I’ve only seen a few players even try it. It’s more that they enjoy certain parts of the system more, or they like certain things from other media more, or they’re specifically avoiding something they don’t like. Over time, this builds into a pattern that’s only really clear in retrospect.
I have some idea of what I like, but maybe by listing all my characters I’ll see a system that I hadn’t notice before. Since this is kind of a D&D blog, I’m only going to focus on my D&D characters, though my characters in other systems (pop star, strongarm zombie-killer, modern American minister, and insomniac Doctor Octopus) do contribute something:
D&D 3.0: super-fast rogue/barbarian
D&D 3.0: spider/dragon bard
D&D 3.0: healing snake-based druid
D&D 3.5: nimble swashbuckler
D&D 3.5: stalwart cleric/barbarian
D&D 3.5: curmudgeon cleric
D&D 3.5: shounen hero sorcerer
D&D 3.5: brooding favored soul
D&D 4.0: science-based robot paladin
D&D 3.5: civilization-building scout
D&D 4.0: science-based robot battlemind
D&D 4.0: rainbow spirit shaman
D&D 3.5: random-weapon ranger
D&D 3.5: giant reticent fighter
That actually did help. Based on what I’ve already played, I like the following:
- Healers — Five of my fourteen characters were primary healers, and two more were secondary healers. I can’t explain exactly why I like it, though. Maybe it’s the idea of being the glue that hold everybody together, something I don’t get to do in real life. Maybe it’s the thrill of managing the resources of an entire party, making sure they’re all able to do their jobs in a way other roles can’t. Or maybe I just like looking at the damage the DM is doing and subverting it. 4th Edition has changed this a bit with the concept of healers that heal while doing damage, because players love damage. But I love healing for healing’s sake, and over time I’ve come to request that role when it’s available (Note: now that I like it, it never is).
- Competent characters — This isn’t just regular competency or competency in expected roles, where most characters are expected to be. This is hyper-competency, where I take some corner case in the system and excel at it in a way that doesn’t fit the normal character role. For example, my 4th Edition robot was capable of doing 200 damage in a single round at L16, which was impressive considering that character is not a striker but less impressive when one realizes that I can’t do it for more than one round per day. My favored soul was a king of shield-based combat, my rogue was the fastest L5 character in the system, my ranger loved combat maneuvers in a age that didn’t have them, and so forth.
- Snarky characters — This is the type of personality I tend to play because it’s the type of person I tend to be. Intentionally or otherwise, eventually enough of my personality will seep in to the character that they end up sounding like Gregory House. This fits six of my D&D characters and three of my four non-D&D characters, and it’s caused countless moments where other characters shift into snark for a quick joke.
So it looks like my perfect character is a snarky healer who’s also great at something besides healing. I’ve actually played this once (the favored soul) and come close a second time (the spirit shaman), but I’ve never gone into a character with that intention. In fact, both of those characters are backups for campaigns where I could run a second character.
It’s worth noting that I have a habit of picking my character last to fill any holes in the party. Using the seven party roles, I determine where there’s missing competency and build a character that fixes it, allowing everybody to have the character they want but still play in a balanced group. Most of the characters above were caused by me taking something I felt I needed to do and mixing it with something I wanted to do. If I had free reign to play any character I wanted, I think I’d be so consumed by analysis paralysis that I’d never make anything fun.