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I, Robot and Other Character Inconsistencies

by Frances Moritz

I recently watched I, Robot, or as I prefer to refer to it, Yo, Robot. (The Spanish trailer is available on the official website.) And while I found the movie somewhat entertaining, I couldn't grasp the main character's background properly. I haven't read the original story, so it's not that I object to the changes Hollywood made. I just couldn't understand how Del Spooner (Will Smith's character) progressed from thinking robots were flawed, due to his rescue experience, to his robot paranoia, where he thought robots were capable of criminal behavior. He even explained the robot's logic, acknowledging that it was logic rather than instinct that affected the robot's choices. To me, the character's background was inconsistent with the character's actions.

It occurred to me that this happens a lot in role-playing. Whether we have created thorough backgrounds or not, our characters evolve as we play them. Sometimes, even at the beginning of a campaign, the background doesn't mesh with the character sheet. You may see a former military commander without leadership skills; a brilliant nuclear physicist missing the necessary education; a master thief with a miserable lock picking skill. These are cases where the character concept is out of sync with the character sheet, where it really is just a matter of the numbers. That may be because the player could not give the character all of the skills and abilities that it should have at character creation, but the concept was so cool that they wanted to play it anyway.

Then there are the characters, like Del Spooner, where oddities in their behavior are supposed to be justified by an event in their lives. In his case, it's character motivation, which is information Beyond the Numbers. The effort of fleshing out your character gives you the opportunity to create past experiences that influence your character's life. But sometimes those events don't justify the resulting behavior to the other players. A character who experienced a minor goof-up at the bank could hardly justify a paranoia about banks and credit institutions; a character who experienced identity theft could. Or a character who was rescued by a robot when he told the robot to rescue someone else, becoming completely paranoid about robots.

Those are examples of characters being off at character creation, but it can also happen during a game. In a good game, characters progress and evolve, both on their character sheet and in their personalities. Sometimes though the character evolves because the player did, and their lives become tangled. Two gamers become a couple and suddenly all their characters are more intertwined, with romances developing despite conflicting backgrounds. Or - often harder for the gaming group - a couple splits up, but still games together. What sort of in-game conflicts occur when there are player conflicts in the group? Characters may develop odd dislikes for other characters, even if they started the campaign as the best of friends.

These are all situations that a Gamemaster (GM) must decide how to deal with. There often isn't a good answer, especially if a player is dead set on their character concept, or doesn't understand the GM's objections. There's no perfect solution, but it's something gamers and gamemasters must deal with.

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