APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 8 September, 2000


Who Am I? - Character Creation

Janne Kemppi

Role playing game has a game master and several players. All players have usually their own character: a player character. These player characters are the stars of the game and alter egos of their players. They are, however, a lot more than sum of their statistics. Characters should have -in a way- a character of their own yet be believable. This means that there are two separate considerations: First, there should be external consistency of physics of game world. Second, there should be internal consistency of workings of game world.

External consistency springs from the game setting. For example Heavy Gear is a description of universe in war where colonies are fighting against Earth. Technology is typically believable with the exception of Gears themselves (no real tactical use) and Landships (magnetically floating ships used in Terra Nova). However, otherwise game universe is fairly realistic and so close to our own world that its workings can be thought without terribly huge leaps of faith. Thus we can safely assume that typical player character is human, with human strengths and weaknesses. Human emotions and urges should also drive characters as well as entire universe.

Internal consistency is considerably more tricky issue. It really means that character should be believable within context of the game universe. Character should be therefor be someone that conceivably could be met in that game setting. If character is somewhat out of place in said setting, there should be a very good explanation how it became possible. For example, CEF soldier stranded in Terra Nova would have very hard time finding work in either Polar Superpowers due suspicion and prejudice. Thus it is entirely believable, that he would need to be self employed instead to support himself.

Internal consistency depends heavily on game setting and how it is built. The fact is that game setting is built for gaming and excitement, not for sociological studies. Thus it is fair to say that inconsistencies are rule rather than exception. Thus a good GM and players will together design how things run in their universe. Furthermore, few game settings work directly taken from the box. Role players are widely variable group of humans and thus have widely variable tastes and desires. As a golden rule, if something does not seem to fit in, GM should change it to fit individual gaming group. There are really no two same campaigns or settings, which is something that should be remembered when commenting (or more accurately arguing) directions and concepts of game setting.

Game setting sets out several factors that good character design has to take into consideration. These factors can be (at least in my mind) summarized as History, technology and culture. These factors are not separate per se but intermingle and affect each other as well.

History is obviously a major influence. By reading carefully history, one usually gets ideas of big trends and how different major groups in game setting see and treat each other. It also tells who is who and how things end up like they 'now' are. Historical weight is very strong in real life. Thus making sure it has weight as well in game setting is advisable. It is also good to think differences between generations in attitudes. This gives some good ideas for GM as well.

Technology affects a lot as well. Its major impact is what majority of people does for living. For example in Badlands, most work tends to revolve around rural ethos (farming, ranching or prospecting), while urban dwellers in Polar areas have lives not different from denizens of modern day city. Technology impact is that some occupations are fairly rare (blacksmith or leather worker) while others are more common (computer engineers and video artists). Good character design takes this into consideration. Character might have fairly typical work, or have rare, now obsolete work and is forced to relocate or has new, hot field, and is willing to flex ones abilities.

Culture is where people live and how majority of people sees things. It does affect on technology (some forms of technology could be suppressed, like Edicts in Jovian Chronicles's game setting). Its major influence is history (how we got here). Culture and society it supports are difficult to model and usually game designers gloss over it. GMs and players could invent or change game setting to fit their individual tastes. Culture, such as new religions, ideas or political dogmas offers interesting possibilities to make exciting settings. One should be careful, however, as society should also work. Usually the more logic is inserted, the better. Then again another GM would think one GM's logic insanity.

With these considerations we have a set of influences to character and probably already get a good idea what kind of character one is going to get. Heavy Gear rulebook has a set of questions for player to consider before starting to build up character statistics according to game mechanics. However, following set of considerations could be used instead:

PERSONALITY Functional characters give out a perception of real humans. Thus there should be history and past for each character that makes them what they currently (at the start of role playing campaign) are.

BELIEVABILITY Functional characters are believable. Their actions should feel believable, even if they work against their basic nature. Character should react to crises and problems according to character abilities.

BEHAVIOR Character is defined by action, how one speaks and behaves. It is not important to say what one is, but act according to it. Behavior should be used to define character, no matter if is a matter of speaking, vocabulary, manners, dress etc. Characters behavior among each other also tells a lot about characterization.

AMBIGUITY No one matches his or her characterization, not even player characters. Ambiguity leaves room to free action and uncertainty for others. This keeps up excitement among players as no one can be absolutely certain what other will do.

MOTIVATION Character actions must be well motivated. If character actions cannot be foreseen, they lose their interest to others and character becomes distant. On the other hand, if characters actions are totally predictable, they lose their interest as well and character turns out to be simplistic. Usually the more complex the motivations of character are, more interesting one is. Motivation is affected with goals that player sets for character during creation process. These goals (and thus motivations) probably change during campaign.

STEREOTYPES Stereotypes are caricatures of real persons. Caricatures can be brute, simple, and direct or results of old prejudice. Comedic setting usually employs stereotypes but they are usually avoided in more grim settings. Good characters might be stereotypes at first, but there should be something more that makes them differ from mass.

MANNERS Characters should not be stereotypical but there should be some predictability in their behavior, gestures and speech. Familiar reactions are generally considered enjoyable, as long as character still stays variable. For example one might always light a cigarette at the end of 'adventure' and thus signal to other characters (and their players) start of relaxing after exciting moment to wind down.

With these concepts in mind, character history should be built as a monologue. Player should stand on shoes of character and write who she is and what she has done and how she became what she now is. Alternatively one could come out with a list of half a dozen most important events on characters life that have been extremely important in molding character.

Following set of traits have been provided to give players ideas of what kind of things they might consider during character creation. One could build fairly complete character concept around these questions, especially if there is also a monologue of character history.

Physical/Biological Features

Psychological Features

Family Features

Cultural Features

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 8 September, 2000