Posted by: Jess Riley | March 11, 2009

Mary Sueism & Acceptance Requirements

Sean’s recent post on Mary Sues made the point that there are things that the leader of a guild, or the GM of a tabletop game, can do to mitigate another player’s Mary Sueisms. This is a point I don’t quite agree with, but it sparked a train of thought, and I felt I had to go on to discuss the matter.

Personally, I think that how Mary Sueish a character comes across is dependent almost entirely on the player; there’s nothing you can do to mitigate the Mary Sueishness of a character in your game if the player is insistent that a pole-dancing skill also gives them gymnastics, seduction and intimidation, meaning that it’s impossible for anyone to disagree with anything that they say. Sure, you can tell them to get stuffed and that’s not happening, but it’s not going to stop them from sulking about it and trying to get all the leeway they can.

However, I will be the first one to say that not every character who looks like a Mary Sue at a glance is going to be one. It’s very much about how they’re played, not about how they look on paper. The troll paladin, which in some hands is hopelessly lost to Mary Sue territory, could be great roleplay fodder in the hands of a different player. I’m sure we’ve all seen this somewhere – the character who looks on paper like a Mary Sue, but which somehow works in roleplay because of the way they’re being played.

This leads us to the question: how can you tell whether it’s going to work or not? Sure, you could just ban any concept that looks a bit iffy, but that means you lose all the great roleplay opportunities if they are the odd player that really makes it work (even if such players are the exception, not the rule).

Rather than using a written application, which could be interpreted any number of ways, I propose using a roleplay sample to determine whether the character is an appropriate fit for the guild. This could take the form of an interview, a setup casual roleplay, or something else. I know a lot of guilds use an in-character interview process – and most of the time, it’s to determine how the guild master and the new character work together. Certainly, knowing how the characters will interact is also helpful, but the interview setup could also be used to get an OOC handle on how the character traits actually work in play.

In any situation, I also suggest talking to the player in question about your concerns, if you have any. Rather than simply stating ‘no, this is too Mary Sueish, it’s not permitted’, how about approaching it in terms of, ‘I have concerns about how this is going to work. Why, exactly, did you want to go for this idea? How do you imagine it working? What about this other idea as a less extreme alternative?’.

I like situations that call upon the guild master and the players to work together to reach a conclusion, rather than either one of them insisting upon things happening a certain way. Perhaps ultimately, you will need to put your foot down, but working with someone first may lead to even better roleplay for everyone involved, in the end.

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Responses

  1. “I have concerns about how this is going to work. Why, exactly, did you want to go for this idea? How do you imagine it working? What about this other idea as a less extreme alternative?”

    I am writing this on a sticky note, putting next to my computer, and waiting for just such an incident to happen again. If only you’d written this column a few months ago! ><

    But better late than never, I guess. Learn from mistakes, move on, keep on RPin’.

  2. To me a Mary Sue or Marty/Gary Stu is always the mark of one thing: inexperience. Most fan fiction writers go down the Mary Sue path when they first try to make their own fanon contribution to an established franchise. The same goes for RPG, perhaps even more as there’s not the distance of text and the luxury of the edit.

    Maybe telling people that we ALL go down that path in the beginning and telling them traits to watch out for when they play.

    It depends on the player though. One of my players recently had a character backstory that I considered rather Sueish as it seemed more like a fantasy tour of most of the popular events and characters of the franchise than a character history. I was worried, I told him to be careful and he’s the best roleplayer in the group.


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