Characterization: Ignore the System and the Group

Mar 14, 2011

Defining who a character is has absolutely nothing do do with system mechanics or other members of a group. If you believe it does, stop reading now. Agree to disagree and move on.

The top two characterization killers are trying to fit a concept to a system and trying to balance a new character to help a group. Forget both and formulate the idea as a personality, a history, and as an actual living, breathing person with a desire for a future. If your game master completely ignores character history, extract yourself and find a different game.

A character is complex by nature. Individuals have goals, desires, and historic events that influence who she is. Before you even begin to roll dice, apply point pools or consider skills, you should have a good basis or creating the persona. Step back look at the concept in your mind. What happened in the past? What drives the character today? Where does she want to be? Who in her past were influential? Were those people role models or adversaries? How about her family or upbringing? How did family influence what the person is today?

No game system can comprehensively cover those questions. Few even try. The few that do consolidate it into a random table to determine a couple of aspects. All far short of allowing a player to actually create the individual they want to play. Players must want to make an effort to create unique, complete characters. If they do not, by all means, whip out the scissors, apply some stats, and cut out the stick figure. Afterwards, hope a personality evolves. Chances are it will not.

Start a character by writing down elements that define him. Family. Education. Historic events. Goals. If you get stuck, resources like the The Ten-Minute Background can help. Or if you want to peruse options of personalities, Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality & Background is useful. Both are useful just to look at it and balance against the idea lingering in your head. Fiction writers hit the same block when creating characters. It’s not abnormal. Searching for fiction characterization will result in thousands of other sites to get you over the hump.

Thinking in a vacuum doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need inspiration from others in the room. Gamers have great imaginations and are very useful for defining people. Keep it completely system neutral when you ask for help. “I want to play X but am stuck on why he’s motivated to do so.” Tweak the game master as well. Ask how your concept can fit into the campaign he has in mind. Explaining your history and thoughts will inspire her to tweak his campaign to fit. Creatively, they want people to enjoy what they present so tweaking just happens unconsciously. If he’s stuck on defining the stats, keep the concept for another game. Keep plugging at the concept until you are happy with the persona you have defined.

At that point, give the game master the complete characterization. Lay it out verbally, defining exactly what you want to play. Then ask, “Can you help me stat this character within the system so it matches my concept? ” Doing so forces them to buy in to the decisions you have made. If the system doesn’t fit, push to get a house rule to allow you the benefits (and repercussions) you have presented. Most game masters will be ecstatic you took the time to define someone they can engage and entertain.

While the rest of the group is deciding if they are a mage, fighter, solo, netrunner or some other blank archetype, you will be prepared to be what you created. And then let the fun begin.

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1 Comment

  • Yep, I love the post, but you knew I would. It’s weird, but as I grow older it’s not the perks in the character history that really draw me into the game, but the ways the GM uses the faults. I tend to grow annoyed when the positives are all that are played upon. Give me an enemy from my past that makes me tremble in fear that the rest of the group hasn’t a clue about or put me in a position where my disadvantages come back to bite me any day! Guess I’m jst growing comfortable with my usual run of bad luck or something. Have I mentined dice frickin hate me? hehe Laterz!