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So you’ve got your character and you’ve showed up to game with a 15 page story written about your character’s background. You know where they’re from, why they left, what tragedy befell them in the past. You can tick off this person’s most influential people and what music they would listen to if the game only took place in the modern day.
And you bring this lovingly crafter character who….
Why is this not an uncommon problem?
We’re using the wrong tools.
A lot of tools that are used to build characters in RPGs come from acting or writing. These art forms, while sharing some similarities with RPGs, work very differently.
A writer is blazing a path into their story and they get multiple drafts. The background they come up with to help propel the character and story change at will. Is it better if this character is from Illinois instead of North Dakota? You can do it quickly and move on.
An actor has a full script in front of them. They have all the lines and the plot and they know where their character begins and ends in the story they’ll be telling. An actor may come to the 1st rehearsal filled with ideas about the background and past of the character but these are all able to be dropped in an instant if a better idea is found or if how they approach the character isn’t going to work.
Actors and writers can abandon the work that they did if what they wrote no longer works. A player comes in and has often solidified a foundation in their head that can be hard to deviate from. If I’m not from the Village of Seafoam and my parents weren’t Priests of the Sunken God, I wouldn’t have done thing X and Y before this but, since I am, going with the party on thing Z makes no sense!
You’re basically showing up to play LEGO with your friends. They’ve got a Harry Potter playset they want to use and you slam a Tie-Fighter you made at home right in there.
The wrong tools can have you doing a ton of work but the right ones can actually make the work you do more useful.
Thankfully, and I may be biased, improvisational theatre has good tools for you.
In an improv scene, you can’t stop and create everything you need for a character so you make a few decisions quickly and then add on what’s important for the scene as it continues. If you come in with uncommunicated ideas, it’s very likely that those will be overwritten by something another person in the scene says. When this happens, you let it go.
The actual amount of information you need to create a foundation that can be used to justify later character choices is surprisingly small. You’ll have time to dig for specifics later in the game but, at first, general ideas are often better.
Where are they from? How do they feel about it? What brought them adventuring? How do they view the world? Etc. Answering 5-6 questions like this will give you plenty to take someone into a game who can show you who they are.
When I’m working with new actors who are having a hard time coming up with character, I do the following:
- Ask a simple, binary question. Choosing 1 of 2 things is easy.
- Once they’ve done that, I ask a more open ended question specifically about that 1st answer.
- Rinse and repeat until they’re good to go. Doesn’t usually take long.
Me: “What kind of character are you thinking?”
Them: “Maybe a barbarian.”
Me: “A lot of the game takes place in the city. Did you leave your village or town for good or bad reasons?”
Me: “So if you left for something positive, what is it that you wanted that your home couldn’t give you?”
Them: “I wanted to see the rest of the world and meet new people.”
Me: “So you were always excited to meet people from different places?
Me: “What sparked that?”
Them: “We lived on a trading route. I got to meet a lot of merchants travelling through our lands and loved the stories they told.”
Me: “Did you have a good experience when you reached your first big city?”
Them: “No. I was looked down on by people who thought I was an idiot because I wasn’t from there and didn’t speak as well as they did.”
Me: “Has this soured you on cities?”
Them: “No. I knew idiots back home. Cities are bound to have a bunch of them.”
This is honestly all you need to get started. This feel for who the character is will let them grow as they play instead of trying to carve a perfect character out of what you hope the game will be like. Maybe add in how they met the other players and you’ve got more than enough to grow.
Discovery is one of the wonders of the game.
Go. Discover. Play.