In the world of Chimborazo, sometimes people have purple eyes. After all, it’s fantasy, so I’ve introduced a few extra colours into the gene pool. In a world with many many races, I think it reinforces the sense of wonder within the reader, and it helps that these untypical colours very rarely make an appearance. However, without noticing this originally, it turns out I’ve given a couple of highly specific characters purple eyes, which has been a source of controversy and speculation between players and readers. You see, the problem is that these characters are connected in a very special way – one of them bears the mantle of Supreme Sorceress and the other is her apprentice and current Sorceress Elect (the most likely candidate to become Supreme Sorceress if the current one were to die). So you can see how this, when noticed, immediately raises a particular question (and its variations) – Are people born with purple eyes somehow more powerful? Innately attuned to the arcane? Somehow… chosen ones?
So as the author, I get this question a lot. The interesting bit here is that my answer changes, every time I try to switch it up from the last, if I can remember what I said. Some times I say “yes, they are destined for greatness and more in sync with the Force than normal people”, while other times I say “no, there is nothing special about them, it’s merely a coincidence”. The real answer is that I simply don’t know. It wasn’t an intentional thing originally, but it’s kind of cool and one day I may decide that yes, there is in fact something inherently special about people with purple eyes. But the fact is… it doesn’t matter. Not to me, anyway. Because this is a perfect example of how we handle information, as humans. Everything has the meaning we choose to give it. We’ll come back to this and how people interpret this in-world, but first I want to describe how I pick character’s eye colour for those interested in the method.
Back on topic – it doesn’t matter. People will always believe what they choose to believe, and I know of many cases where fans didn’t even trust the author when they said something was unintentional. “Ah, we figured it out, so now he denies it, thinking he can fool us!” This is more common than you’d think. What you truly have control over as the writer, however, is how such a phenomenon is perceived by other subjects of the same fiction, a.k.a. the in-world explanation and interpretation of events. Something does’t need to be real for people to believe it is. You needn’t look further than outside the window to see that our very own reality is full of various religions and ridiculous superstitions. Long gone are the days since we couldn’t explain natural phenomena and needed to invent gods to blame them on, yet religion is still going strong to this day (math time – around 6.3 billion people identify as members of the top religions, out of 7.3 billion people alive at the moment… roughly). Anyway, point here is that the lack of gods doesn’t stop religions from existing, and the same goes for all types of belief, really, be that deities or the importance of eye colour.
I try to use the rare eye colours sparingly, which is why purple has such a low chance of being selected from the pool by the generator. So, when coincidences like the one I described in the beginning do happen, I must decide what to do with them. Since I have control over how others from within that world perceive them, I have do decide whether to just not engage with that bit at all or to handle it and how. On one hand, if I wanted it to remain a mystery I have to just pretend it doesn’t exist, on the other hand it would be weird because if external observers notice, it’s hard to imagine internal observers wouldn’t. So, since that incident, I have started to go back and alter the cultural significance of these things whenever there is an abundance of coincidences, enough to raise suspicion. Because like I mentioned, it doesn’t really matter how things actually work but rather how they are believed to work… and this is where world-specific continuity makes things a tad complicated, since belief in power actually creates it. In this case, dark elves are slowly developing the belief that purple is a colour which marks the person as special, so a game set in that world must somehow reflect that. Which is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy of course, because naturally when a child is given extra special attention and significance, they are all that more primed by the environment to succeed and realise that same potential everyone has within them.
Purple, specifically, is an interesting case. It’s incredibly rare in our own world and at the same time, a colour that many find to be very beautiful and appealing. So here we arrive at the crux of this article in the form of one very simple question – What happens when somebody chooses purple as their character’s eye colour? This is very tricky to answer, for a myriad of reasons. See, in most games, trivial aspects as the character’s looks are left to free form description. A character sheet might have a separate box for eye colour, as a key defining facial feature, or they may not, and people would put that somewhere in the character’s general description. But overall, nobody cares. A good GM and worldbuilder might take notice of extraneous character features and play around with those, but it’s rarely the case that they do. And for good reason, too, because this now creates a… situation, which many would see as a “problem”, and to understand why this is not a clear cut case requires knowledge of the player base that will have to deal with this feature. Unfortunately, there are different types of players which will have different experiences based on how they interact with the game, and it’s rarely the case that one group will consist of a single type of player. This is also not the article where I examine what all the existing player psychographic profiles are, so I will examine three very broad and general types:.
The casual gamer is at the table to have fun and that’s the defining experience they want out of your ttrpg. This is usually not the person who chose which system you’re running and they are rarely the GM. Most importantly, the casual will not engage with the game very deeply and cares about their character being able to do awesome things, regardless of the minutia surround how that happens. They are looking for more action-packed gameplay and how their characters shines through the narrative.
The invested gamer is at the table for the story – the narrative, the characters, the locations, the plot, the little details that make the world feel alive. They put the role in role playing and that’s the defining experience they want out of your ttrpg. They will devour the lore, they are the ones that will make characters that are both flavourful within the setting and that suit their own play style, often sacrificing or disregarding power in the process.
The power gamer is at the table to compete, to demonstrate mastery over the game and to show he’s smarter than the rest. Challenge and competition are the defining experiences they want our of your ttrpg. These players will min-max and build characters that are strong within the rules of the system rather than awesome on their own. They care about the lore, but only in so far as to use it to their advantage, and their interest in the narrative directly correlates to how challenging it is.
*This should probably go without saying, but most people are a combination of these types and often exhibit a mix between their defining traits. Still, one is always more dominant than the rest. Oh and… these are my own definitions, rough around the edges so far but still in the special quote format because if I’m going to be quoted some day, might as well start now.
Now, we can look back to the “problem” at hand and see how the different types of players interact with out lore (purple eyes, in this case). From what we’ve established, only one of these types of players will actually read the extended lore enough, to the point where they might be aware of the phenomenon and that it even means something in the first place. Then again, that won’t be a leading factor in their decision, and a player focused on aesthetics that wants to make an elven character might still go with light green or light blue eyes – an aesthetically pleasing combination that sticks to the established lore. The power gamer, on the off chance they are aware of the interaction (because remember, even if didn’t give a small power up… which it does in some cases… they would still be regarded as special by certain societies) they would almost always choose purple as their eye colour, because once you stop caring about the specific look of the character to match a certain detailed picture you’ve drawn in your head, it’s almost strictly better. Lastly, the casual player will most likely be completely unaware of the interaction in question.
So then, this puts the writer and/or designer in a curious situation. On one hand, these things are cool and make a lot of sense to matter in the narrative of the world, as per already established. On the other, the different types of players will interact differently with that, based among other thing on the very nature of the content. Seeing as this is essentially trivia, where does it fit? Obviously somewhere within the rules there has to be an excerpt about “small power ups and bonuses from random narrative-driven choices”, but a list with all these little things (and there are a lot of them spread throughout the narrative) would result in a “D&D feats list”-like element that I despise. Clearly the solution lies in some universal way of making these small bonuses matter. But regardless, that’s not even the crux of the issue here.
The real problem is that this is a free-form opt-in into more power. This will create a natural imbalance between the characters who partake in it and those who don’t, which as established can be knowingly or not, a.k.a. voluntarily or completely involuntarily. Which… is absolutely fine. The reason I’ve been putting “problem” in sarcastic quotation marks so far is that it really isn’t one, but on the surface is perceived to be. Most games strive toward that perfect state of “being balanced”, while completely disregarding core elements of design that enable fun – player agency and options for personalisation. While striving for perfect balance is ultimately a fine goal on its own, there is a fine line to walk between pursuing it relentlessly and taking a step back to acknowledge the different needs of your different players. As I alluded to earlier, it is extremely rare that one group will consist of a single type of player, and even within them there can be variations between people’s secondary psychographic attributes. You don’t want to restrict an invested player from giving their wizard purple eyes because they want to match them to the amethyst-crested staff they have because of some convoluted background. You don’t want to restrict the power gamer from access to that min-maxing strategy either, because that’s what they find fun and want to do with your game. At the same time, you enable an awesome moment for the casual gamer when the GM tells them they accidentally have access to slightly more power – random positive discoveries are a very satisfying feeling.
Overall, we have to realise that not everybody is looking for the same type of experience. Some people want to play struggling peasants, fighting for survival. Others want to be the hero, overcoming increasing adversity and rising to the challenge. Others yet want to straight up play demigods or deities, able to wipe out humanity on a whim. The important thing to take away from this is that all of these are valid experiences that we as designers should strive to enable. They lend themselves to different themes and utilise different tropes – each one is a completely separate and unique type type of narrative, and they will appeal to a varied audience. But they are all interesting in their own right, and due to that fact they are all fun.
So, how should the author, or the GM handle that? I say let them! Let them play their demigods, let them play their purple eyed characters if they so desire. If this is how they have fun. All types of role playing experiences are equally valid. So what if power isn’t equally distributed among all members of the party? Not everyone has that innate need to be the most powerful, people have fun in different ways. This also mimics very well the inherent imbalance in our own world, full of imperfections like that. But it is they that make it so vibrant and interesting. And after all, it really doesn’t matter, does it? I never intended for purple eyed characters to be somehow special, yet people believe so. Therefore now they are. On its own this is a pointless fact, since as a writer I am not really bumping these characters in power level in the slightest, however this small thing allows an entire new layer of gameplay depth and interaction with my players to emerge in the design. So I will continue to switch up my answer every time I’m asked the question, and players will continue experiencing it in their own unique ways. Which is ultimately the point.