November 07, 2011

Essential Elements of a Player Character

A question over the transom from blog reader The Cosmic Goose:

When you sit down to create a new character, be it for a story or game, what aspects do you consider core to that character’s persona? Its emotional and spiritual, so to speak: the place from which the character moves, that influences their choices and decision making process? Background is certainly a part of this, but I find that its almost an afterthought. Background tells you why the character is the way he is, but not the more basic question of what or who he is. This is all from a gaming perspective, of course.

As the truism goes, Cosmic, character is action. We experience a character through what he does and, to a lesser extent (in forms that allow for interior monologue) thinks.

So to create an interesting gaming character you have to have some sense, broadly speaking, of what he is going to do. This is why it is so crucial for an RPG to come with a built-in default activity: exploring the spaceways, rectifying paradoxes in the timeline, solving eldritch mysteries, or killing monsters and taking their stuff. If your GM hasn’t clarified what your character will be doing, find out before you create him.

(An older school of roleplaying would have it that the willingness to undermine the game’s core activity represents true dedication to characterization. This “my character wouldn’t do that” syndrome came about for a particular set of historical reasons I may talk about later, but by now has clearly established itself as dysfunctional.)

So, knowing what your character is going to do, find as compelling, unique and urgent a reason to have him do that as you can. In certain GUMSHOE games, this is hardcoded into the character creation system as the character’s Drive, allowing you to grab a core motivation off the shelf. For other games you'll need to create one.

Then work outward from there, developing the backstory that adds detail and perhaps an origin to the Drive. Everything from his appearance to his gear to his special powers can arise out of this.

This covers you for the procedural narratives that are roleplaying’s bread and butter. For dramatic characters, stay tuned for my upcoming DramaSystem, as seen in its debut game, Hillfolk.