The lone wolf is dark and mysterious, and doesn’t run with the pack. Free of constraints, no one can tell where he’ll wander. He has no friends, only brief moments with people he meets along the road. The road to nowhere. He cannot love, for it is forbidden to his kind. He is a wanderer, sometimes kind, sometimes just, silently roaming the lonely roads, looking for something that no one will ever understand.
He is also a terrible idea, and I’ll tell you why.
We’ve all played in a game with a lone wolf character. I confess, I’ve had more than one of my own. There’s a good reason for that. It’s cool. The idea of being a misfit who doesn’t play by the rules, and who’s dark and edgy is awesome. It’s why Cyclops is boring and Wolverine is awesome. The hallmarks of the character are that they have a mysterious past, they’re a born misfit, and they hold everyone at arm’s reach for one reason or another. In stories, movies, games and comic, the lone wolf or antihero is probably the most used archetype of the last twenty years. But it’s not very useful for roleplaying games, without a lot of cooperation. Today I’m going to talk about the pitfalls of being the lone wolf, and then some strategies on how to make it work.
The Breakfast Club
The first problem with being a misfit is that typically, everyone in your party is a misfit. You’re not a kung fu master in a group of cowboys, you’re a kung fu master in a group with a demon, Harry Potter’s older brother, and a centaur who shoots lasers named Laserhorse. This means the lone wolf has to work harder to be a misfit among misfits, and odds are good that at least one of them is also a lone wolf. This brings about the minigame which I like to call The Loniest Wolf that Ever Did Wolf. You can’t have two lone wolves (or three, or four), so it becomes a bit of a competition to see who can be loner. I once had this end with a character who spent the entire session in the forest, ignoring everything, and then left the party. The point is that even if you win the game, you still lose. You lose out on participating in the game, which is what you came to do in the first place.
The other problem is that the core concept of the lone wolf involves not participating. It doesn’t just mean building different relationships, but not building relationships, whether that’s with the innkeeper or with the other party members. That works fine in stories because the author is in control of all of the characters, but players can feel like they’re being taken for granted, or that the lone wolf isn’t participating fully.This works both ways, as well. The lone wolf doesn’t necessarily reap all of the rewards which other PCs do, which can leave the player feeling left out, rather than just the character.
When addressing the lone wolf concept, the usual line is that they’ll come out of their shell and grow into the group, which happens all of the time in media, but is harder when you have four other misfits bombing around a fantasy world. For one thing, the thing that makes the lone wolf stand out is that they’re the lone wolf, so losing that by running with the pack means sacrificing something important about the character. Look at Wolverine, who’s had to play the lone wolf for nearly forty years now, resulting in all manner of ridiculousness. For another, we all know that characters shake out differently in play than they do in our heads. If you don’t know that, let me reiterate. Your character is never going to play out exactly like they do in your head, because you didn’t think about how they’ll react to the party’s bomb-obsessed gnome and philandering ogre. If it’s any consolation, no one else’s will either.
So those are the problems with the lone wolf. They have trouble participating, they’re hard to bring in from the cold, and they have to be lonier than any other lone wolf to really be the lone wolf. In short, they’re focused on isolation, when roleplaying games are chiefly focused on co-operation. But it is a really important archetype, so how do you make it work? Here are a few ways.
As with any character, negotiate. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Making what you’re looking for clear to the GM and the players vastly improves your odds of getting it. It lets them set up the kind of opportunities that you’re looking for, and tells them that this is a goal that you have as a player. Imagine the kinds of circumstances you want to see your lone wolf in, and be open to suggestions and other ideas. It’ll also let you know if anyone else is planning on being a lone wolf type, and help you work together to accommodate each other, rather than playing the Loniest Wolf that Ever Did Wolf.
2. Have a Trigger
Have something that immediately brings your character in from the cold. Something that, if the issue arises or is framed in that way, there’s no question of your character’s cooperation. A good example of this is kids. A lot of lone wolf characters care about kids, and will stop at nothing to help them. So if a situation is framed in such a way taht it helps a kid, then they’re in, no questions asked, no hemming and hawing. This lets the group rely on your character more effectively, and creates a way of building relationships both with characters in the setting and the other PCs. Make it broad, an idea or class of person, rather than a specific person. Of course your character will cooperate to destroy their nemesis, but that serves them, rather than serving the rest of the group as well.
3. Recognize that the Lone Wolf is Transitory
You can’t be the lone wolf forever. In fact, you don’t even want to be the lone wolf forever. Imagine if Han Solo had just taken off, and never come back to the rebellion. He never would have gotten the girl, or had amazing adventures…Or been frozen in carbonite. Carbonite aside, the purpose of the lone wolf is to one day not be the lone wolf. Be ready to move beyond that. Have a list of things you want to happen in order to move beyond that, but don’t get married to that list. Most importantly, don’t make being the lone wolf the defining part of the character. What makes them stand out once they’re part of the party? That’s the question that matters the most.
The lone wolf is a really challenging concept, but with some preparation and cooperation from the GM and the rest of the players, it can be a lot of fun. Unlike a lot of things in roleplaying, it’s the planning that matters most rather than the execution. What experiences, good or bad, have you had with lone wolf characters?