I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my life. Dungeons & Dragons (2e, 3e, 3.5e, & 5e), Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Unknown Armies, Shadowrun and a few others that I’m sure I forgot. I dabbled in Shadowrun in college and just started really picking it up again when I moved to Portland two years ago. I started out in Shadowrun like I do with most other RPGs, as their fighter class. I do this for two reasons. (1) Because it doesn’t take much thought or talent to play a run-of-the-mill, gets-the-job-done, won’t-entirely-mess-things-up fighter: point yourself in the direction of things that need killing, kill them, and keep your mouth shut when NPCs are talking. (2) The mental bandwidth I save by being a “good enough” fighter allows me to learn the game beyond my role in the party. While in the game, I relegate myself to the dumb brute role, but in real life I’m paying attention to the mechanics of the actual game, roles of the other players, how other character classes operate independently and within the party, the intricacies of the magic system, the rules of the campaign setting, do’s and don’ts, when to burst in guns blazing, when to go cloak-and-dagger, and figuring out the lingo of the game universe, both within and without the game. I’m plotting, planning, and learning so that I can optimize my next character to fit within the universe and play a significant role in the party.
Fast forward a little while in my first experiences with Shadowrun. I create my first shadowrunner all on my own (mostly…Shadowrun is really complicated). My character is a technology mogul’s heiress daughter who got tired of her high class toys and getting presents from her uptown boys. She took an alias, stole some of daddy’s high-end tech, and started a secret career in corporate espionage just for the excitement of living outside the law. She’s a researcher, an expert at breaking & entering, quiet as the dead, lethal with a silenced pistol, and a skilled hand-to-hand combatant. She’s the one who’s always researching building layouts, planning for contingencies, and learning all she can before she chooses the exact moment to strike from the shadows and get out of dodge before anyone knows what happened. Your classic rogue/thief character class, molded to fit into a cyberpunk RPG universe.
Then I thought back. This new Shadowrun character seemed familiar. Like I’d played her before. Then I really thought back. I’d played similar characters to her before. On many, many occasions. In all iterations of D&D I’ve played, I’ve always been some sort of rogue or thief character. I was so happy that D&D 5.0 released “Assassin” as a rogue class specialization that doesn’t require you to change your alignment to evil and immediately created an Assassin character to play. My D&D 3.5 character in college was a thief and stealth-oriented combatant, often striking from cover or from behind on unsuspecting victims. In high school, I had a rogue character fashioned after Indiana Jones & Lara Croft that was built for exploring dungeons and ruins in search of ancient treasures. I’ve started playing a game called Eclipse Phase where my character (also a she) is a cyber-thief, working behind the comfort of a monitor to steal secrets from the powerful and make them accessible to the poor; a sci-fi Robin Hood. I even played a campaign of Unknown Armies in college where my character was alcoholic mage that used his magic to give himself secret agent skills like James Bond.
Then I thought back even more. My favorite X-Men are Rogue & Gambit, two characters with histories of stealth and thievery. The Ed Brubaker/Warren Ellis run on Secret Avengers and Rick Remender’s run on Uncanny X-Force were top shelf reading for me, because it was all about these larger-than-life, colorful heroes put on black uniforms and operate covert missions under high stakes scenarios. Video games I’ve played in the past shared the same pattern; I always gravitate towards the sneaky, strike-from-the-shadows (or at least from a distance) type characters. I played through Diablo I as the stealth-based Rogue, Diablo II as the archer Amazon and the stealthy, trap-setting Assassin, & Diablo III as the evasive, quick, and nearly invisible Demon Hunter. Tomb Raider was my jam even though I was really bad at solving puzzles; I just loved the nimble, acrobatic thief aesthetic.
Anyone remember the game Perfect Dark where you played as a secret agent who relied on her stealth and speed? I do. I loved it. I know everyone likes Assassin’s Creed, but when it came out it was the first game in a long time that I’d really felt excited about playing because stealth and subterfuge were key characteristics; it felt like Tomb Raider x 10. I loved the Arkham Asylum series of games for the same reason; brute force wasn’t the winning strategy, outthinking and hiding from your opponents was. I played the everloving crap out of Goldeneye 64 trying to be as unseen as possible (which, by the way, f*** the 00 Agent mode because remaining unseen that was difficult as hell). I even love watching well-coordinated heists in TV and movies. I’m not talking about the kind where they go in guns blazing and fight their way to the paydirt. I’m talking the carefully coordinated, well-planned, contingency-laden, research-driven heists that go off with almost no one knowing they got robbed until it’s way too late. The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, Now You See Me, and Mission: Impossible are some of my favorite heists to watch.
I don’t know what it is about me, my past, or my present that continues to draw me towards the cloak-and-dagger type characters, but it’s always those gaming experiences where I have the most fun. And when I’m playing the dumb brute to learn the game, it’s almost like I am that invisible secret agent, learning all the challenges and the terrain before figuring out my approach. Do you have a theme that you love playing out in characters you create? Is it fun for you? Is it challenging? Is it a chance to be a person you aren’t in real life? For me, it’s a personal connection to what the idea of a thief or rogue represents: the person who uses their brains & cunning to make up for where physical prowess lacks. The person who you don’t realize you need until you encounter a problem you can’t punch your way out of. The person who’ll be okay on their own, but shines with the right party members.
Did I really create all these characters in my RPGs, or did they help create me too?