It’s the story that raise characters above a list of numbers and turns them magical. The art lies in using your die rolls to create that story. Regardless of the game, whether you’re at a tabletop or in an online world, your attempt to create a living character comes down to a few key questions and their answers.
Experienced roleplayers are often comfortable with the notion that not every character holds equal power and influence. They have just as much fun playing the prince’s humble manservant as they would have playing the prince. Balanced power levels are a control on player behaviour. Playing the manservant and putting together his background, personality and story is not fun if within ten minutes of play, the prince’s player calls for the guards to lop the manservant’s head off for bringing him the wrong cravat. This is why even completely improv games still need some kind of rules, some kind of coming to terms on what is acceptable and what is not. This is why we have stats and die rolls.
The die rolls
The function of die rolls in character generation is to limit your character design. Stats and numbers force everyone to play by the same rules. Every character has the same pool of options, the same choices to make. As characters advance in the game they grow better at doing things, grow more powerful, and become able to face greater challenges and emerge victorious. It’s a reminder that roleplaying games evolved from war and strategy games where the simulation fails if the strict rules are not upheld.
Having your choices restricted is not a bad thing. While a limited number of points can force you to deny a character skills or opportunities you would like for them to have, these choices also provide depth to a character. Nobody’s good at everything. What you chose for your character makes story. You get to answer not only ‘where did Joe learn to shoot bows?’ but also, ‘how come Joe is an archer who knows squat about following a trail?’ (Joe obviously learned his archery on a range and has never spent a night outdoors in his life). The character begins to take shape.
In most games, characters don’t start out powerful. Power is something they achieve over the course of their adventures. People change and learn all their lives, harvesting experience and skills from what life throws at them. In this regard, character generation never stops; when your character finally is done evolving and growing, it’s likely because he or she is pushing up daisies. Character generation is just fast-forwarding through the character’s very early years and taking note of what they picked up before the point you start to play them.
Game mechanics don’t exist to make your life harder. They exist to make certain that everyone’s in the same end of the pool at the beginning of play. Where they go from there—that’s what the game is all about. Most will learn to swim. A few will sink like a stone while their players go to make other characters that’s a better fit.
A character’s story can be as complex as its player fancies, but it only needs to answer a few key questions in order to work.
Where do you come from?
Where are you going?
And how do you plan to get there?
Where do you come from?
The first question can be answered with an eight-page essay about Jack’s harsh childhood on the streets of Dickensian London, complete with the names of every boy in Fagin’s band of thieves. Or it may be just be ‘Joe Rock, Gunnery Sergeant, he’s from Tennessee’. It’s not the number of words that matters—it’s whether you, the player, can play off it. When the story is unfolding, Joe the laconic soldier who rolls his sleeves up and fight monsters may feel far more real than Jack whose player is constantly checking his notes and complaining that the game master has forgotten about his notes on page three. Immersion is key. If your background lets you get immersed, you’ve done it right.
Pay attention to the setting and to the other characters. If everyone else is playing beautiful elvish heroes, you can still be an orcish warlord—but if you want the orcish warlord to become a valued member of the team, you’re going to have to find a way to make this work. Is it that you really want to play a strong, very physical, blunt character? Then it may be worth your while looking into whether these prettyboy elves have a caste or subrace that meets these criteria instead, or if there is another physically imposing species that they are not openly at war with.
If the game setting is zombie apocalypse, you can play a Machiavellian mastermind but you’ll be manipulating the distribution of resources and ammunition, not taking over the government of 15th century Florence (not that Machiavelli did that either). Remember that storytelling in roleplaying games is a group effort; the other players are not there to act as your character’s supporting cast. Nor are you theirs. Everyone matters.
As a game master, I encourage players to write complex and detailed background for characters, because this forces players to think about the people they are creating. But if they want to toss it all away once play starts, that’s fine with me. There are no right or wrong answers. There’s only what works and creates good story, and what doesn’t.
Where are you going?
This is the question that determines not who the character is, but why. Of all the people in Gotham City who’s at some point lost a relative to gun-related violence, why is it Bruce who puts on a costume? Because it’s Bruce who envisions a safer world where a boy doesn’t need to worry about his parents being gunned down in the street. Bruce is going towards that safer, better future. This is the question of a turning point in life. The making of a decision. Coming to terms with what drives a character to act.
Not all decisions are dramatic or traumatic. ‘I want to be a world famous archeologist’ is a legit answer, as is ‘I want to feed my family’. The only answer that is not legit in character creation is ‘I dunno’. The people who dunno, the people who have no drive, no ambition, nothing they want in life, do not make good player characters because they have no incentive to act. They’re also very few and rare in between, because in the game as in real life, everybody wants something. Even if that something is for everything to stay the same so they never have to move outside of their comfortable little niche.
This question is one I expect my players to consider. They don’t need to tell me their answer but I want them to tell each other. A game group works when the characters have at least some motivations or desires in common. It may fall apart if these motivations or desires are opposed. It’s important to go into the game wanting to go in a direction that’s at least remotely similar, even if it does not need to be complex. ‘We want to get rich’ or ‘we want to make the world a better place’ is fine.
How do you plan to get there?
And thus, before you know it, the game is afoot. Once the third question is reached, the player is already contemplating character actions; plans are being made, ideas are ripening. Once the player is thinking about where to go and whom to talk to, they are ready to take the reins and engage the world.
I ask my players to consider this final question but not to put too much effort into it. Don’t plan too far ahead into the game, because you don’t know what curveballs life (that is, me, the game master) is going to throw at the character. Have an idea of what you intend for him or her to do. Whether this idea works out is to be seen; that’s literally the beginning of the first game session.
Crunching the numbers
It’s not your choice of game system that matters. In my not at all unbiased view, IMAGINES is obviously the only game system out there worth using, but in the end, they’re all the same. Game systems are a framework that you use to hang a story on. If the characters tell a good story the players will be entertained. If the characters seem stiff, poorly constructed, or simply do not come alive, no framework can save the day. The final rule of character design must always be, if it ain’t working, toss it.
Don’t be afraid to start over. Some combinations of stats and abilities just won’t provide the story you had in mind. Some personality traits and backgrounds turn out to just not work with the game setting, or with the other characters.
Sometimes you can fix it by asking your game master to allow you to tweak a few things, shuffle a few points, retcon a bit of your background story. If what you ask for is not disruptive to the game balance or the main story line, the game master probably won’t object. Game masters tend to be quite approachable as long as they feel that you have the good of the group in mind, rather than your or your character’s personal agenda.
If it creates good story, you’re doing it right.