What’s in a Character? Role-playing with Style.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed today, I came across something helpful for role-playing games. Admittedly, it brings up something I don’t think I do enough in most of my games. Of course, I have my reasons for falling short on this facet, which I’ll discuss in a bit. But, I wanted to share the post I saw with our readers here, provide some additional resources, and hopefully spark a discussion. The post was from the Writers Circle on Facebook and it’s right here:

writerscirlce-questions-for-your-character

Fleshing Out Your Character

Come on. Who doesn’t remember that title—or, something very close to it—from within the character creation section of one RPG or another? Games have often tried to get us to think about who and what our characters are besides just a collection of numbers, stats, dots, etc. Heck, most will tell us before we even begin the character creation process, the very first step is to come up with a concept for that character. Come up with an idea, roll some dice and try and match them to that character, fill in some additional details and be on your way to adventures and mayhem! Right? Right.

But, how far do you go with this? How far should you go with this? There seems to be a bit of a debate on this and both sides are valid. I think a lot of it comes down to what type of game it is that you want to and plan on playing. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll ignore the munchkin, power gamer, combat wombat style characters and players (it’s a whole different discussion if the two are actually one in the same or not, but I digress).

I once played in a World of Darkness campaign back during my high school days where someone had printed out a 102 question questionnaire to “help” with character creation and development. I say help, but there was actually bonus XP for each question answered. It was so long ago, I want to say it was one point per question answered. We might have gotten as many as three points per question based on the depth of our answers. I could be wrong, but that’s what my failing memory is telling me. One thing that sticks out in mind is that I immediately recognized the questionnaire when our GM (or, Storyteller, if you will) handed it to us. This was the same questionnaire our theatre teacher and director had given us. I was the only gamer in theatre—somehow, when I went to school, each group was home to its own, mutually exclusive dorkiness. I wish I could’ve found that same list today. Instead, I found a number of other questionnaires that serve the same purpose. I’ll share them with you here:

Character Questionnaire 

100 Important Items to Know About Your Character

100+ Character Questions

50 Questions to Ask Your Character

That’s a Lot of Work for a Game, Isn’t it?

Oh, how right you are. It can be a lot of work developing a unique character for each game you play in. I have had a number of people—other gamers—tell me that it is, in fact, a total waste of time. I both agree and disagree with them. Over the years, my time to play games has grown more and more limited. For all intents and purposes, I have been relegated to a lot of online gaming (mainly via Google Plus, sometimes with Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds tacked on). As I’ve gotten older, the people I communicate with regularly have also gotten older. They’re pretty busy too. Hey, I dunno who told gamers it was a good idea to get a job, move out of our parents’ basements, get involved with romantic relationships, sometimes procreate, but I’ll tell you this: it is the quickest way to kill or, at the very least severely limit, your gaming time.

rpgkids
A photo captured of two of my offspring while I probably should’ve been at home getting some work done, but decided to take them out and have fun instead. Amount of RPG time available that day = 0.

So, with limited time, online games, and so on, what I have noticed is that I end up be dragged into a lot more one-shots and short campaigns than I would like. I really enjoy the long game. I enjoy campaigns that last months and even years. For that sort of game, you need to invest something. You need to invest a significant amount of time, but also something a bit more. The more you play games that last for a long time like that, you will find yourself working at it more during non-game hours. Many write copious notes and reference them between games. Others write fiction and other forms of prose. You might put together a campaign website, a podcast, and all sorts of various play aids.

As a result, spending time further developing your character, including taking extra steps to help define them in the beginning doesn’t seem so odd.

With those one-shots and mini-campaigns, though, it can certainly end up feeling like a waste. You may end up spending more time on character backstory than actually playing.

Another Side of the Story: Another fellow player and GM said that he despises those long backstories. It’s not only a burden on his time to read these multi-page documents, but sometimes an affront to his senses as not everyone is a writer—even in a world where it may seem anyone with an internet connection is. There are other reasons. For one, he likes to have an open background, so concepts, ideas, supporting characters, etc. can easily be fit in without worrying about destroying even pseudo-established canon. As a GM, he wants that same freedom without having to worry about upsetting players by retconning their backstories.

I have an answer for that, too. Retconning is fine. If your story isn’t cool enough for someone to be all over it, maybe your story needs some work. Is someone is so married to their ideas that they’re not willing to edit or alter them, maybe they’ve forgotten they’re playing a game and not writing a book.

Why Go Into Such Depth to Define Your RPG Character?

That’s an excellent question. I’m going to go out a limb here and assume since you’re using your free time to read an independent role-playing game blog, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with spending your extra free time doing just what I’m describing here. Please, feel free to let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below. Meanwhile, on the off chance you’re relatively new to pen and paper RPGs or have somehow avoided this practice for years, let’s talk real quick about why you’d even do this.

Characterization in RPGs is important. If you don’t care who your character is, maybe just wanting a bad ass with a few awesome one-liners and a bad ass gun, maybe video games are more your speed. I’m not saying one is any better than the other, but they are different things that handle things in different ways. In a role-playing game, you are playing the role of a character. It’s kind of hard to play that role if you don’t know who you are supposed to be. As the saying goes: What’s my motivation? The better you understand your character, the better you will be able to act as them within the confines of the games. It helps to limit meta gaming, if you can get into your character. Yes, you—the player—might know that pushing the big red button is going to bring about a TPK, but your curious, impish rogue doesn’t know what the big red button does and, somewhere in their backstory, there is a flashback of his mentor telling him if he should ever come across a big red button, he should push it. Now, that’s a bit of an extreme, but it illustrates a point.

I have played some characters that have done some stupid things. Or, at least, to me, they were stupid acts. At the same time, I have played characters that are much more intelligent, thoughtful, and patient than I am (it isn’t really that hard to be all three of those things let alone any one of them). I have, in character, made the story spiral in unforeseen and virtually uncontrollable ways. Indeed, my characters have done things that have surprised me, the player. This adds so many levels of enjoyment. It also allows us to step out of our comfort zone, try new things, look at things through different lenses, etc., and so on.

By having a well-rounded character, you will typically enjoy role-playing games more. You’ll have more guidance and more to build upon. Furthermore, those playing the game with you will have more to enjoy. If you’re always the same character, maybe you do it well and it suits you, but everyone else knows what to expect. How often do you watch reruns versus watching a new movie or television program? Do you read the same books each month or do you bring in new ones with new stories from new authors? Shake it up a bit. Enjoy and grow.

So, what about you? What do you think about deeper character building? What cool tools and assets have you come across to help give you some guidelines to build out some awesome and memorable characters?

2 Comments


  1. Your situation mirrors ours. We are all 40 somethings with families but still manage to get together on a mostly weekly basis. We have a graveyard full of abandoned campaigns. Time and ability to devote to prep is one issue but depth of character certainly is another. So many characters are simply the cardboard murder hobo that the story has to be really good because the characters are just crunch. Not sure if I can get my guys to move beyond that point. I don’t want a novel for a backstory but some hooks and characteristics would be nice.

    Reply

    1. I agree. I think everyone has to find their own happy medium. As a campaign grows over time, so should the character. Or, at least, I think it should work that way. Looking over these sorts of questions will sometimes provide an idea or two that get our gears turning. And, looking over such questions from time to time, as we get to know our characters better through game play, might let us add some neat little details here and there.

      Reply

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