Snake-Eyes

The Loniest Wolf

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 Anti-Team

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.

1. Negotiate

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?

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10 comments

  1. Great read, and yeas, we’ve all had that character at some point in our game. I like that you put a lot of it on the player to integrate themselves into the group, rather than expecting the GM to take the lead. I’ve seen more than one player leave a game because they weren’t doing enough with the plot and were getting bored. At no point did they think that it might be something to do with their characters avoiding contact with other people and moping about on roof tops when everyone else was kicking in doors and finding clues.
    shortymonster recently posted..Excitement? Adventure? Steampunk explorers totally crave these things!My Profile

    • Jim says:

      I think a lot of the onus has to be on the player, because lone wolves are essentially immune to GM intervention. Attempts to draw them in are often rebuffed because it compromises their lonely nature. I do work with players of lone wolf characters out of game to find ways for their character to get involved, but in game, it’s mostly up to them. It’s an important archetype, but you can’t let it get in the way of kicking in doors and finding clues.
      Jim recently posted..October Madness, part 2My Profile

  2. Jas says:

    I will go out of my way to tell my players – when I’m gathering a disparate group, like in a play by post situation – that what I’m looking for is a team, not a bunch of individuals. That they need to come together to form a group that already has some cohesion, and a reason to stay together. I also tend to stress that I’m looking for damn heroes, because that seems to be lost on some players, who come to the table with the apparent desire to do nothing that entails any level of risk or self-determination.

    It’s an old song, but I blame video games.

    In a video game, you’re allowed to save your game often – because if they don’t include that feature, it’s “too hard.” It’s there to make sure that players take risks with the bunch of electrons they have instantiated on their Xbox instead of always playing it safe. That said, if you’re one guy with a controller, you’re also dealing with an automatic lone wolf situation. Even in the old days, where you rolled up a party of characters, you were effectively all the same guy, with the same goals and there was no real interaction.

    So now I go out of my way to pull in players who want to play the game I’m offering, and yes, that means the onus falls on them to step into the role, or to find a different game.

    • I actually try to have the basic seed of my games set up with a group who will have to work together in mind, as an example… http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=132

      As for playing heroes, my biggest gripe, way more than lone wolfing it, is the player who can’t bare the thought of harming a hair on their cherished character’s head. Played recently with one such who was a commissioned officer, but would never place himself i danger. *sigh*
      shortymonster recently posted..Excitement? Adventure? Steampunk explorers totally crave these things!My Profile

      • Diblums says:

        If the risk of death is removed from the game, so is the aspect of fun. I remember playing video games with cheat codes as a kid. It always ended up being about 5 minutes of ridiculous fun, kicking over buildings and wreaking havoc. Then it was the most boring ting in the world. So if you don’t ever have to escape death or put in any effort, all the fun is just lost.
        It’s great if you have a player who is attached to their character and wants them to survive at all costs. The opposite would be the guy who doesn’t care and gets his characters killed over and over. But to fear death to the point of not participating in the game? That’s no help to anyone. Take a chance, get your character’s hands dirty.

        • Jim says:

          Jas, I’m not clear that risking a bunch of fictional numbers on paper is any more or less of a risk than a bunch of electrons, but I tend to negotiate with players so we can all get the game we want. Not everyone wants to be an up front hero. Anti-heroes, reluctant heroes, and even villains are all completely viable ideas. that said, you’ve inspired next week’s post, which is about getting the group together.

          Shorty and Diblums, I don’t have a lot fo experience with that kind of player, but when I find them, I usually remind them that their character is practically genetically engineered to take risks. Why spend all those points on fire breath if you’re never going to use it? And with risk comes reward, whether in the form of treasure, experience points, or accolades.
          Jim recently posted..October Madness, part 2My Profile

  3. Gresh'Kaal says:

    I really liked this article. I’m pretty new to tabletop RPGs, so I think that this will really help me in the long run when I run across a member in a group that’s going Lone Wolf, or if I find myself in that role.

    Also, it’s true when you say that your character will never be what you initially planned. I joined in to a Pathfinder game when everyone was at level 5 as my first serious game that would last more than 1 session before just disappearing. I was an Alchemist with the Grenadier archetype, so I was planning on being this crazy yet badass guy with crazy bombing skills and awesome infusions. So far, I’ve ended up as a strange, unsure individual with fun explosives and a pleasant selection of infusions. And I love it.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks Gresh’Kaal, and welcome to the awesome world of tabletop!

      There was a Prussian General, Helmuth Graf von Moltke, who said that “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Characters are pretty much the same way. They have to survive contact with the setting and the rest of the party, and the concept comes away changed. The trick is to be willing to adapt, and you seem to have that down cold. How are you enjoying Pathfinder? I don’t have a lot of experience with it, so I’m always interested in people’s accounts.
      Jim recently posted..October Madness, part 2My Profile

      • Gresh'Kaal says:

        I’m having a blast with Pathfinder. I don’t have a lot of experience with D&D, so I might love Pathfinder for some things that D&D also has, though. Anyways, I find Pathfinder very flexible and open when it comes to the races and classes. The races have different traits you can choose from and plenty archetypes for each class to change them just how you want. In my party, there was a Cavalier, a Rogue, a Druid (who happened to be a Dwarf), a Wizard, and I joined in as an Alchemist. So far, we’ve slaughtered a ton of Trolls, and it seems like everybody get to take part in the fight. Haven’t been in town a lot yet, so can’t say there, but I’ve had a ton of fun so far.

        • Jim says:

          That’s awesome. I’ve heard really good things about its adaptability, and how it builds on 3.5 D&D, but haven’t had a chance to set up a game yet. I do like the idea of organizing it by archetypes, rather than just by class, though.
          Jim recently posted..October Madness, part 2My Profile

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