Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Tips on Characters


Sometimes you just have to ignore everything your character sheet says you can't do, transcend the boundaries and limitations set by statistical probability, go against the system's established design philosophy and just go ahead and fuck someone's shit right up.

Click the image for a bigger one, by the way.

Last week a friend of mine asked me if I had any tips on making NPCs. Apparently this is something I am pretty good at, but I am a little ambivalent vis-à-vis people stroking my engorged member. I quite enjoy praise and mentioning how awesome I am, but I just don't want to be a jackass about it. It's a hard line to find, so I have decided to err on the safe side lest I cross over.

Let's just go ahead and write some character tips. I'm mostly thinking of NPCs here, but it can apply to PCs too (and I've used some PC examples). This is by no means comprehensive or entirely accurate, mind.

Practice Makes Perfect

The reason why it's not comprehensive or accurate is because I can't tell you how to do it. Nobody can. They can give you pointers, but the best way to make a good character is to keep at it until it comes naturally.

This point is so obvious it can be seen from outer space, but it's a nice place to start.

This Isn't A Freaking Novel

One of my players in my steampunk game has an ex-girlfriend who is interested in joining. I have no idea why anyone, ever, would invite their ex-girlfriend to play Dungeons & Dragons with them. (She's in once we have room though.) Apparently she already has a character planned with pages of backstory.

This is my face: ·_.

Okay, for a PC, it's not too bad. For most characters, though, you don't need that much detail. Most people won't see most of it. Ever popped open an adventure module? Most of the NPCs there have a few major personality traits and relevant major events in their lives noted and bang, done. Detail is great, but try and save it for the major players.

Character Quirks Are A Great Substitute For Personality

My Planescape game has a character called Uno, an enterprising and friendly young Fated lass. She's grown a bit over her few appearances, but one of the responses I've gotten is that her habit of saying "o-kay!" and making a ring gesture with her hand is adorable.

It's a little cynical, but character quirks, habits, ways of speaking, funny accents etc. can fill in for personality traits that aren't there if they have to. That's not to say that they should replace personality, but if you're stuck for an interesting character, they can help a lot. Besides, even when you've finished a character, they can still help it stand out. Nobody just stands around flapping their jaws like wooden puppets outside of video games. Unless that's their thing.

It's Okay To Be Gimmicky

This is what one of my players says a lot to dismiss ideas he doesn't like. In this context it's a statement against things that are done for their own sake, especially things done to make a character "wacky" or follow some obtuse theme that doesn't add much to the story. Usually I don't mind, because he's generally so picky about who and what he plays with that games are generally run for him instead of just with him anyway.

However, the same guy also names most (if not all) of his character's weapons things that reflect their wielder, regardless of whether it is in-character to do so. This extends to NPCs he has made for me.

Who cares? It's a roleplaying game, not a writing competition in Serious, Texas. If you want all your characters to have an unhealthy obsession with hats or something, do it. As with everything else, take this in moderation.

Don't Rub Their Noses In It

Sometimes you have a character which is just awesome. Maybe he's a badass warrior or a spunky mage or something, and you've got all these cool witty one-liners they can say and all these cool ideas for things he can do to establish how badass or spunky or judeophobic or whatever he is and you have awesome ideas coming out of your butt. That's great, really.

However, unless you are an amazing social outcast who stays at home all day indulging in amateur gaming design and drawing comics about how World of Warcraft changed your life on DeviantArt, you are playing your roleplaying game of choice with at least one other person. They have their own characters. They are not interested in taking a back seat to the antics of yours.

Especially don't act out your badass moments when it's not appropriate. Disarming an enemy just because you can and smiling smugly is kind of cool if you can do it without looking like a jackass. Disarming the king's guard just because you can and smiling smugly gets you jailed.

One of my players used to be the poster child for this one. She was so obsessed with her characters being badass and cool and unique that when required to make a low-level ordinary person for one campaign, she couldn't even make it through creation before begging me to allow her paladin to have a bear as a special mount. Being kind-hearted and kind of dumb at the time I said yes, and sure enough that bear (just like every familiar, animal companion and interesting rock she gets) was treated like a second PC and would be brought out anywhere, including into other people's homes, just to let people know she had a bear. Before that she was so obsessed with her characters being the best at everything ever that she'd probably have a meltdown over a lich PC dying.

These days she's improved and merely cries "railroad!" when her character catches a cold, or does things like make a foreign PC and spend enough time going "look at me! I can speak a foreign language you can't!" that people start telling her to knock it off.

That's another thing - you don't need to show off all your character's skills and abilities, especially when it would slow down the game to do so. (Especially don't complain and consider removing the skill entirely when you don't get to, start holding up the game to yell and hurl insults because you don't like the tone of the reply and then demand an apology for the way you were treated.)

Flaws Are A Good Thing

One of the things I like about the BESM system is that it forces and encourages players to take flaws - not the shitty D&D "I'll take a flaw to reduce my primary stat to 16, all right bonus feat!" kind, but things like "I have an NPC nemesis who actively meddles in my affairs!" and "I am claustrophobic!" Characters whose only discernible flaws are all suspiciously related to his dump stats are not particularly interesting, and it's not going to gimp you to be afraid of spiders or something.

Provided you don't ham it up, personality flaws can make your character really interesting, and don't necessarily detract from the character as a whole. I enjoy trolling people, frequently vent and say terrible things about friends to other people to get them off my chest (as seen on this very blog!) and am a huge hypocrite about most of the advice I give but you don't see me getting hate messages.

"But It's In Character!" Is A Stupid Phrase For Dumb Babies

The second half of this article says it better than I probably could, but here's an example.

So one of the PCs in my high school mecha game is a mind-reader and illusionist. One of his personality traits is that he reads the mind of every character he meets and acts very surprised, innocent and offended when people take offense to that. He has explained to me out-of-character that for the PC, mind-touching other people to get a read on their thoughts is as natural to him as a blind person touching someone else's face.

However, nobody gives a damn, because to everyone else he's still a creepy guy who invades people's privacy. Also, he has expressed a preference for re-visiting the minds of cute girls.

Just because you're being in-character doesn't make it fine. It's good that you are, but you should be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions - and if those consequences create problems out of character, it's an even worse excuse and you're a dumb baby. Okay?

Lacking Statistical Correlation Doesn't Make It Funny

Lol, that's so random!

Did you want to punch me in the mouth just now? If so, congratulations, you can skip to the next point.

To everyone else: I have these friends. I really like them, but they actually say "Lol!" out loud and make Portal jokes and I want to break their teeth and make a necklace out of them (bushman's rules). I think if one of them said "that's so random!" I would be making balloon animals with their intestines.

"Random" characters are basically the syphilis of roleplaying games. That's right, I said it. If your character could be described as "random" on his Facebook profile then I'm going to scrunch your character sheet into a ball and force it through your eye socket.

For The Love of God, Diversify

A few of my players have this tendency to play characters very closely to themselves. I've seen various arguments for this behaviour (like highlighting singular character traits that set each character apart from the others or "I treat all my characters as shards of my own personality"), and most of them are flawed. This is usually more pronounced in stressful, life-or-death situations when the player might be more willing to break character and do what they would do to get their PCs out of it.

It can be as something simple as having a lot of characters with the same class and/or race and/or cheese preference, or as complex as having a lot of characters who happen to be intellectual casters who say "Hmmm" a lot. Just... I don't know, try making an orc who likes cheddar for once? Something different.

The more characters you make that aren't like the ones you've made before, the better you become at making characters, and the better your games are for it.

Don't Stuff Straw In Their Butts

This one's a little complicated, so here's the summary. Just because you like something or hate something doesn't mean you can't make good, interesting characters that feel a different way.

I'm going to be edgy! and use politics as an example. Say you're a young and hip left-wing student who hates elves, religion and pudding. You've just gotten behind the DMing screen. What do you do? If your answer is to make a utopia of atheist liberal dwarves who prefer custard, no. Bad hypothetical person!

Here's an interesting experiment: Make a utopia of right-wing pudding-eating elves with a monotheistic religion that adds meaning to their lives, and the dwarves a dystopia.

This is a hard concept for some people to wrap their heads around, for some reason, but you're making a world here. Not everyone in it is going to be alike (usually). People can disagree with you and still be smart, intelligent people who can get things done.

I'm running Savage Tide for some pals - okay, I'm running my own adventure and cribbing from Savage Tide a lot - and they're currently at Farshore. The current de facto leader of the place is this guy Meravanchi, who comes across (at least the way I play him) as fairly lawful and right-wing, and while he is very, very good at running a town, his foreign policy ("let's assimilate the natives and take their land") is disliked by some residents. I tried to set it up so that both him and his opponent had their own merits and drawbacks, and I feel I succeeded.

However, one of my players insists that this makes Meravanchi a "snake" and has had his character threaten to cut ties with NPCs who like his style because his player doesn't like it.

This is what I mean here. If you really want to have varied and interesting characters all over the place, they have to be different. That means not all of them can like the same things or have the same viewpoints on religion, politics, sexuality and toast.

And most importantly, you still have to sell the ones that like things you don't as people the PCs can relate to. They're not evil mentally-damaged strawmen just because you don't like the cut of their jib. They're people - intelligent, interesting, likable people - and you damn well better play them that way.



Phew. That was longer than I thought it was going to be. Still, I hope it helps, even the rambling parts I'll probably need to rewrite and clarify later. Just remember the first one:

You don't make good characters by listening to people telling you how to make good characters. You listen to them and then you work on it until you, too, are able to make good characters and write silly blog posts about twenty people read giving them pointers.