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Character Design


In previous articles I’ve talked a lot about plot, the use of realism, and started some discussion on the use of puzzles in games (which I intend to come back to with a synthesis of the discussion) but let’s get to the front of writing an RPG – characters.

Characters drive a role-playing game. They are the force starting it and the force ending it. Now, of course, there are always exceptions, but let’s talk in general terms here. Characters include the PC, the companions or henchmen, the villains, the townspeople, the innkeeper, and that floozy waitress.

Crafting characters is that place where many RPG’s go hideously, hideously wrong. Characters that are flat, with no personality, that are stereotypes (more on that in a bit), or just inane can ruin the ideal immersive experience of an RPG quicker than just about anything. Obviously not everyone needs to have character and there are metagame reasons to handle certain characters certain ways. For instance, you don’t want your cities to be a ghost town, but you don’t want to write dialogue for every person walking down the street – and you shouldn’t, it’d break the tension and there really shouldn’t be any dialogue that doesn’t help build the tension or the characters in a meaningful way. You can give him a typical “I don’t have time to talk to you right now,” randomize it a bit, and I think that’s fair. People play enough games where that is done that they’ll forgive that – it tells the player that this character is essentially scenery, and can give you nothing.

But what about real characters? Our henchmen, our PC, our villain? This is where the most trouble comes in. People are generally willing to forgive the stereotypical innkeeper or barmaid (though, I think, that’s no excuse to do it) but not anyone important. I mean, let’s take some typical fantasy examples: the gruff dwarf, the aloof elf, the sly rogue, the holier-than-thou paladin, ad nauseam… These are all stereotypes. Can you use them, sure. Should you use them, maybe.

The thing with stereotypes is they are often based on something. We imagine dwarves to be rather surly – that’s the main of our experienced with them, that or acting like drunken Scotsmen. And that’s fine, but you have to get beyond that. That can’t be all they are; why are the surly? The trick is making that the entry, that character the player is comfortable with, and expanding it (if you insist on using it.)

Now, using stereotypes, particularly in the beginning of development isn’t such a bad idea. I often do. I have a core concept that might be stereotypical, knowing he won’t stay that way. For instance, in my upcoming module the ‘companion’ Jexel was going to be rather dissolute – the typical shifty, suspicious rogue. I knew that would change, and that wasn’t all I had planned for him, but for now it’d work. I tend to do a lot of thinking in the background as I do other things, and let the answer comes when it does.

A few days ago I was writing a cutscene and when Jexel spoke – that shifty, suspicious rogue wasn’t the character that came out. He wasn’t the upbeat halfing stereotype; he was an older, more jaded explorer. He was a man of the world, full of experience and wisdom, and a MacGuyver like propensity for gadgets. Who knew? Well, Jexel did. And a few days later he’s no longer even a Halfling – the character demanded a change and now we find him a gnome with a new name. And sure, I had to change a few plot points – but now instead of a two-dimensional image of a character that I had in Jexel, I have a three dimensional character with a history and life behind him. When you get to that point, I find, dialogue isn’t so hard. You channel that character, so to speak, and he’ll say what he needs to say. Other characters, however, spring forth fully formed – such as my mage companion, Iagos. I knew from the beginning exactly who he was and what he was up to.

Characters need to be organic – and while that doesn’t mean they necessarily have to change throughout the module, they need to have a purpose in where they are and what they’re doing. Why are they on the deserted island with you? Why are they helping the PC? What do they think about the situation?

The trick here, and something that happens at times, is you cannot let the henchmen overshadow the player. The player is still the main character. The PC is the star. So there’s a fine balance between making your characters real and memorable, and making sure the PC stays the focus of the game. Think of Planescape: Torment; this game had some of the best companions I’ve ever seen in a game. I will remember Morte and Dak’kon, Ignus and Annah forever. But, as colorful and interesting as these characters are – they never overshadow the Nameless One and his quest. And they shouldn’t. The player of a game doesn’t want to watch someone else being the star.

So, how can you help yourself work out who a character is? I generally just wait till it happens, but a more concrete way is to “interview the character.” Ask him some questions, what would he say? What’s he think about elves? How does he feel about druids? What’s he like to eat? What was his childhood like? Would he watch Lost? Obviously, these are not things that necessarily pertain to the game – but what they do is force you to think about the character outside of the parameters of the game, hopefully giving him (and you!) the seeds of his life. And when you read, think about the characters you’re reading about – how are you finding out about his life, how does he become real for you?

Now, essentially, this is just a general overview of characterization. I’ll tackle more particular issues as time goes by. Thanks for reading, and feel free to post your thoughts or criticisms here.

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