It’s that time again – finals week.
As someone who made the (in retrospect, unwise) choice to enter the workforce after high school instead of going off to a four-year college, I’ve ironically been in school for most of my adult life, albeit part-time. I have an AAS in criminal justice that’s never been used and I’m getting close to being done with an AAS in network security that, fortunately, tends to teach me things that are useful within a week of me learning them thanks to my new-ish job in IT. So my classes are handy, but I still have to prepare for finals twice a year.
That ritual, repeated as many times as it has been throughout my life, has some interesting gaming potential.
Most player characters, whether they’re in a traditional fantasy setting or a modern, sci-fi, or superhero one, are fairly well-trained individuals. Whether they’re combat, spellcasting, personal, or technical skills (like the ones I use in my job) made more awesome, a lot of adventurers have spent a significant amount of time and resources acquiring those skills.
But here’s the thing – skills, even commonly-used ones, need to be maintained. With some skills where there’s not much of a change in the state of the art, simply using them regularly is enough. The skills needed to operate a passenger car have been pretty static since automatic transmissions and anti-lock brakes became standard on all new vehicles, for example. Other skills, however, are constantly changing. The knowledge necessary to maintain cars changes a lot faster than the knowledge needed to operate them, because while the user interface (steering wheel, turn signals, gas and brake pedals, shifter) has remained relatively unchanged, all of the stuff those controls link to continues to evolve and be engineered upon.
And so it’s not much of a stretch for a wizard player character to have occasional contact with his mentor, or the magic school he learned at, for example. Obviously, especially with younger characters, the educational process can be the focus of an entire campaign. Harry Potter and The Magicians are popular at least in part because a school for exotic skills (magic) is fascinating. Some educational elements can, and probably should, creep into other more traditional campaigns. The continuing education environment that a spellcaster, hacker, or other highly-skilled PC stays enrolled in to keep herself sharp is an excellent source of potential contacts, adventure hooks, and interesting adventure complications. If you need to finish this mission up right now so you can dash over to the college and take your final exam, that adds an extra layer of tension that doesn’t involve life-or-death stakes. Conversely, much like I mentioned earlier, a PC enrolled in classes somehow related to what they do as an adventurer may occasionally pick up new and interesting things. Ways of using their existing capabilities, perhaps, or even minor but entirely new capabilities (at the GM’s discretion, of course.) People go back to school as adults for a reason.
School also teaches things that aren’t part of the curriculum itself. Students learn discipline, study habits, patience, stress management, and (often) how to navigate an academic bureaucracy. These can lead to subtle shifts in a character’s personality as they get more invested in, frustrated with, or burnt out by the academic process and lifestyle.
Finally, the differences in the life experiences between formally-educated academic folks, those who apprenticed in a trade, and those who had to learn through trial and error can make for differences in the various people that make up a PC group that can be fun to explore. In a cyberpunk game, the guy educated as a white hat penetration tester may have more-or-less the same skills as a self-taught street hacker, but the two characters will have different contacts, philosophies and styles depending on how they picked up their skills. They may also have intriguing gaps in their knowledge or areas of expertise with respect to one another as well.
So the next time you make a PC, take some time to consider exactly how they got so awesome, and also how they stay so awesome. Then, compare notes with the rest of the party. You may just find that there’s a whole other layer of roleplaying to be had out of that relatively simple exercise.