When I first came to The Old Republic, I came from a culture where if you were new, your character was restricted to a low level of power and authority, so SWTOR’s culture came as a bit of a shock. I could make any character I wanted. I could make a Darth, or a General, or a Master Jedi. I ended up making a very rich Sith and spent the first few months of my time here going around giving out ridiculous amounts of money while trying to solve as many characters’ problems as quickly as I could.
It’s hard not to feel embarrassed now when I think about that. When I see other people doing the same, it’s easy to see where it comes from. People like to be popular, and they like to do good things for other people. It makes sense that in a fantasy world where you can have as much power to do good as you want, you’d instantly go into a glut.
The problem it results in is the same one faced by the first writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I know; it’s a bit of a reach. Stick with me.
When Gene Roddenberry was briefing the writers of TNG, he told them what no writer ever wants to hear: that he wanted them to write stories without conflict. You see, in the 23rd century, conflict has been made redundant. People solve their problems peacefully and without disagreement, so there are no arguments, feuds, or grudges. There’s no jealousy, hatred, or violence. Basically, there’s no story. If X wants to achieve Y, he has a full and frank conversation with whoever can make it happen, and it happens. That’s it. Five minutes in, and we’re at the end credits. This didn’t swing, of course. It took very little time for it to become clear that a show without ongoing, difficult problems had no legs.
When we go around solving as much as we can as quickly as we can, this is what we do to the written world around us. We remove the conflict, the argument, and ultimately the story. It might seem like you’re doing people favours by giving their characters a leg-up, but in a world with total creative freedom, if the writer wanted to give the character a leg-up, they could do it themselves. If there exists a problem, it exists at the author’s behest - and for good reason. The same reason if you flick on an old episode of TNG, you’ll find more arguments, feuds, and grudges than you can shake a stick at.
So you can’t go around fixing everyone’s problems, but your character is a nice sort who wants to help, and they have the ability to fix those issues. How do you justify not helping? You can bend character and introduce a little selfishness, but that’s never seemed right to me. Limiting the resources at your character’s disposal and giving them problems of their own is a better answer. When two characters with limited resources and different problems come together, you get story squared. One character needs X, the other needs Y, so they trade. The trade becomes the conflict and the tension.
'Consider yourself rescued... just as soon as you can get us out of this corridor.'
Take an example of some RP that happened about a year ago and has continued since because of conflict swapping.
An Imperial escaped from a ship taken over by pirates and fled to Nar Shaddaa seeking help in tracking the ship down and rescuing the friends she left behind. That is her conflict, her goal, and the plot hook she’s swinging out to anyone who’ll care to offer their cheeks to it. She meets a Twi’lek who knows a guy and introduces her to a group who specialise in anti-piracy operations. That group could accept payment for tracking down the ship and dealing with the pirates, or they could do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but here’s where the conflict swap comes in: they also need manpower for other, more minor operations, and this Imperial owes them. So, the Imperial helps them out in odd jobs around the local system while they track down her friends for a heroic rescue.
The heroic rescue hasn’t happened yet, but once the whole plot is tied off (if it ever is), the characters have bonded over swapping their conflicts. They’re now friends, associates, and a team. If you look at any quality stories about a team coming together, this is how it happens. Any games you’ve played, any TV series you’ve watched, any blockbusters about teams coming together have the characters bond by swapping their conflicts and helping each other. It’s not just good for keeping the tension and the conflict going, it’s also good for slowly increasing the cast of characters you RP with, in a fun, stable way. It involves no social networking, no tepid bar RP, just good stories.
Next time you see a character with a problem, try not to dive in and solve it off the cuff. Have your character offer a solution, sure, but give consequences, problems, and risk. It doesn’t have to take the form of each character doing a job for the other - there could just be issues with whatever solution is offered. It might cause further danger, it might be difficult, or it might not even work. If the story has the same tension or more after your input, you’ve made a positive impact.
The bottom line? In the real world, people don’t like having problems. In the written world, problems are their bread and butter, so don’t take one away without having one to give in return, and if you’ve got a really good one, share it around as long as you’re happy to receive in return. A good web of plots is like a swap-market for character conflicts.