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A Contest-Worthy Character?

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I was sitting at the red light at Five Corners, puzzling over who I wanted to submit to DriveThruRPG’s Tell Us About Your Character Contest. None of my creations immediately leapt out at me, and the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Why was I looking at Solandre, my blood elf paladin from World of Warcraft, or Ragnavar, my Black-jeweled Eyrien Warlord Prince from a Black Jewels Trilogy forum RPG, or even Ealasaid, my Vistani Seeress of Le Morte de Mordred fame.

I shouldn’t have been looking to other’s games at all–not when I had a novel of my own to plumb.

But that says something about my characters, doesn’t it? That’s there’s something not quite right about them. They’re not fully-fledged yet. Not distinctive enough yet. Or lovable. Yet.

It got me to thinking about what kind of character would win that contest, and I wonder if I couldn’t use those traits to try and develop them more completely, if not in time to try and win a tablet, at least for the novel I have half-way outlined.

Here’s what I think I’ve found:

Driven, and Dogged

Nobody cares about the character who doesn’t want something, and bad. But a good goal isn’t enough, either. He needs to meet enough resistance to make it a real challenge. Enough to make it seem nigh-impossible. Maybe it is impossible, but at least the struggle will keep us turning the page. Some have said that if Lord of the Rings is grim, A Song of Ice and Fire is downright bleak. Isn’t that nigh-overwhelming conflict part of why we love it so?

Stands out from the Crowd

The Hound’s no Florian

There’s no such thing as true creativity, but at least we can make original arrangements of the same tired tropes. Better yet, what about turning that cliche around? Isn’t that just what George R. R. Martin does with his characters–takes most of what we’re used to in fantasy and turns it on our head? What convention(s) do(es) your character confront?

Engages the Audience

And what does that character have to say to the audience? What is the fundamental theme–message, maybe even–that our readers take from our hero/ine’s tale? What does it say about our world that the Hound is more honorable than any knight?* Or that love proves folly for Robb? Why should we, at our core, care to see your character succeed? What do we learn about ourselves in the process?

But Wait, There’s More

Yet, those elements alone won’t be enough to sway the judges, not in that contest. It looks to be that form is just as important. How do you relay all three above elements in 400 words or less? You’ll need to mix enough flash fiction into the backstory to make it more narrative (or other creative presentation) than mere encyclopedia entry. And anyone who’s made a conscious effort to write flash knows just how damn hard it really is to pack enough punch into a page or less.

Give me the novel any day. You short story and short shorts writers are the ones who’ve got it rough.

Do I have what it takes to make a winning entry? No, not yet. But I can damn well start to learn.

Your Turn

What other traits befitting a memorable hero/ine would you count here? Do you agree with the ones I’ve chosen? Disagree?

*Note: I’ve only read about one-fourth through Storm of Swords, so forgive me if I like some of the foresight the rest of you may have.

More Contests for your Characters

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Fred Hicks, Eddy Webb, and John Wick are judging DriveThruRPG’s Tell Us About Your Character Contest. Grand prize is a sweet Android tablet. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines please! The Deadline is June 2nd, so jam-pack as much character as you can in 400 words and gooo~

A Double-edged Sword: Making Your Greatest Strengths Your Greatest Weaknesses

May 22, 2011 Leave a comment

For the typical D&D player, the game essentially boils down to “winning.” You slay the monsters, find the treasure, level up. A steady upward climb. Fun, to be sure, but I’d rather just play a board or video game if I wanted that. Tabletop allows for a little something more, that is to say, the unparallelled ability to tell any story, act any part. It’s the stage on a smaller scale, in which the audience are also the actors.

What drives a story more than anything else? Conflict. So the GM twists your arm a little. Hits you where it hurts. But who says the GM is the only one who can introduce conflict? What happens when the players take it into their own hands to make a multi-dimensional, real character, replete with desires, strengths, and weaknesses?

Whoever said they couldn’t be the same thing?

“Okay,” you say. “That’s just fine taking advantage of a character’s disadvantages. That’s no new trick. So what?”

All right, how about using a character’s advantages against him?

John Wick, Play Dirty, 2006


Tag! I’ll use your very strength for my gain.

This is the ideology at work behind the Tag/Invoke/Compel mechanic of the Fate system. You can invoke an Aspect (think of them as formalized backgrounds or personality characteristics) to gain the advantage in a Risk. But so too can your allies and enemies Tag that very Aspect to tip the scales, or even Compel you to do something in keeping with your character, but potentially destroy everything you’ve been working towards.

It’s what makes Houses of the Blooded, which uses the Aspect system from Fate, a fundamentally tragic game. You are your own undoing. You’re doomed to fall, but when that fall is spectacular, we enjoy it just as much as “winning.”

You can do this in other systems as well, it just requires a little more work on your part.

Exercises

  1. Identify three to four primary traits that you would qualify as your character’s cookies–those signature traits that set him or her above the rest, that really define the character. In Dungeons & Dragons you’d look to your Background, your Feats, your Class and Race features. In Savage World they’re your edges. Don’t forget the setting as well, the time, place, and flavor, which will give you a whole slew of considerations. Write them down if they’re a little more abstract and independent of the game mechanics, like, “pure-hearted,” or “long-lost prince.” Consider both internal and external conflicts, since all one without the other make for either pure pulp or too “literary” feeling characters. It may help to denote some as major and other minor. Finally, the traits needn’t be as fine-tuned as, say, Aspects are in Houses of the Blooded, because they confer no in-game benefit. This is pure role-play and story fodder, here, so don’t torment yourself.
  2. List the benefits of each trait. Sure, you already know this, but it doesn’t hurt to write it down to really see it, make sure it crystallizes into thought properly. Too many things we just take for granted as knowledge because it’s swimming up in our minds, but won’t come out straightforwardly on paper. This is the time to really define what it means to be a woman warrior, or half-breed bastard.
  3. Now comes the tricky part. You have to figure out how those very traits can also be a Very Bad Thing. Our pure-hearted one, for instance, becomes too trusting, easily taken advantage of. She can’t even conceive of stealing, or lying, or using others for her own gain. So it’s bound to happen to her. Or another character might have claimed to have divine bloodlines. Depending on the nature of the cult (I use the term in its theological, not pop-culture context), he could be named a heretic and even hunted down. Sure wish he didn’t have those extra powers now, huh?
  4. Consider developing these as story arcs to address over the course of the campaign, each with a beginning, middle, and end.
    1. Start with the spark, the instigating act that serves as a departure point from the status quo. What could happen to bring the strength and weakness into relief? Is it an NPC from the character’s past? A quest set before the adventurers? One of the player characters themselves (bonus points)? You should work with your GM to find a launch pad you can both agree on.
    2. Try not to plan the middle, instead, letting it develop organically over the course of the campaign. You want to leave room to be flexible, to adapt to the moment, and perhaps allow the campaign the guide the progression of the issues. Just think of the ups and downs of narrative structure. Build the tension, throw in more obstacles, and build us back up again until we hit the climax, which may or may not be the same as the ending.
    3. Finally, however, you can think about the ending. What do you want to see happen to your character? Would you rather use the weakness and conflict as a hurdle that makes victory all the sweeter? Or would you rather play your character’s downfall, falling further and further from grace into their own self-made hell? There’s also the possibility of a mix of success and failure, including self-sacrifice to achieve their ultimate goal, or giving in to their desires and winning true love over their allegiances or ideals. Just don’t feel like the climax has to be set in stone. You may find as you go that you want to change things up, that the other option makes more sense now. Just be sure to communicate these to your GM, who is there to help you realize your characters, whether it’s for good or ill.

So you think you can use this as you plan your novel, too? Sure can. You’ll just want to develop the middle as well, seeing as you have complete control over the plot and don’t have to worry about those other pesky players at your table…

A Character Study

To illustrate what I mean I’ll be using Ealasaid NicRuraich, my red-headed Vistani Hybrid Sorcerer-Thief for my friend’s upcoming campaign, Le Morte de Mordred. In this case, the setting provides the primary context for her struggles, though some are internal as well. Let’s take a step-by-step look at how I go from flat, fantasy female to a gutsy girl who brings her own struggles to the table, without the GM having to lift a finger.

  1. For her traits, I’ve gone with a mixture of feats and a background, as well as extra themes that were inspired by songs I explored when trying to find a theme for her.
    • Seeress (Major)
    • Arcane Familiar (Major)
    • Vistani (minor)
    • Falling in Love (minor)
  2. I’ve decided on the following benefits accordingly, though a few are already covered by mechanics.
    • Seeress (Major) Ealasaid’s primary character “cookie,” if you will, is fortune teller. Much of it is putting on airs to fatten her purse, but there are time when she really Sees. She’ll be mastering Divination rituals, and her feat lets her cast one without components per day.
    • Arcane Familiar (Major) What’s cooler than a little Magpie flitting about your shoulder? One who talks, can give you advice, and serves as a second pair of eyes? And pushes you to grow as a magic user?
    • Vistani (minor) There are a good number of perks to being part of a caravan. You learn all sorts of trades, see more of the world, meet all sorts of people. You also get their nifty little abilities, and an extended family to reach out to when need be.
    • Falling in Love (minor) Not so much a benefit to her, but it allows me as a player to indulge in my favorite bit of role-playing: romance.
  3. Some of these came easily, others were assisted by the setting. If you need help, reach out to your GM or fellow players.
    • Seeress (Major) Given the Arthurian setting, being a magic-user can be a very, very dangerous livelihood. Christianity is the dominant religion of the nobles (if not the pagan masses), so that “witchnose” of hers is like to get her killed.
    • Arcane Familiar (Major) Magpies are perhaps one of the smartest animals in the world. A magical one is even moreso. But in English folklore, a single Magpie is a sign of bad luck. What starts to happen when Pica joins Ealasaid? You guessed it. Then he starts to nitpick at your decisions. Questioning their wisdom. Having altogether too much to say. And seems to have been sent by someone to sharpen Ealasaid’s abilities… but why? Only my GM knows.
    • Vistani (minor) Insta-outcast, go. People assume she’s a cut-purse, and for good reason. The same charm that endears most to her is a liability when she’s dealing with the lawmen of the villages.
    • Falling in Love (minor) Finally, the very boy she feels drawn to may be the wolf who consumes her in her dreams. The Betrayer. So think again, Ealasaid. What did Grandmama say about the dreams you dream about yourself? And is he worth it?
  4. Now let’s take a look at the beginning, middle, and end for these. Right now I’m painting with broad strokes, since I have yet to really play with her or talk with my GM at length.
    1. The spark is her leaving the caravan with her sister because of the dreams she’s been having,meeting Shane MacGreggor, embarking on whatever journey our DM has planned, and later, once she’s reached level two, meeting her familiar, Pica the Magpie.
    2. I don’t have much idea of how the campaign is going to develop, but I do have a sense of how I’d like to see things go. I’d like Pica to be an antagonistic force, pushing Ealasaid past her own boundaries. Shane will also be a source of torment, and her sister/the Vistani may prove a hurdle as well. Finally, she’ll have to hide her magic as best she can, while simultaneously trying to master it.
    3. Ultimately I don’t know if she’ll fall or rise to the occasion. I’ll let the game decide. My characters usually fall somewhere in the gray zone, succeeding in some respects and failing miserably at others. What she decides to make a priority is up to her.

And there you have it. It’s a touch more of a sketch right now than a fully-fledged character biography, but it doesn’t need to be. Her strengths and weaknesses will find different applications when the game is played. And we’ll see which of the two win out.

Further Reading

Six Degrees

March 14, 2011 3 comments

No doubt you’ve heard of the Six Degrees by which everyone is purported separated. But in role-playing, you can use that idea to create more complex relationships and increase your investment in the character. At the table, it makes for some pretty hilarious or moving scenes, while in “massive” contexts, it’s essentially required in order to get more than random RP. Here are some tips for tying your characters to others in both platforms, and even some “homework” for you to make your characters more connected to their world.

At the Table

When players create characters for my campaigns I usually hand them The “Ten-Minute” Background sheet, which seems to always end up taking the better part of an hour. A bit of a misnomer, that. What I like about it, though, is it gets them to think about just enough to make for an interesting character background. Traits, goals, secrets, oh, and that sneaky thing called connections.

Because I house-rule it a little and tell them they need at least one of the following:

  1. An NPC Ally of their devising
  2. An NPC Enemy of their devising
  3. A PC Ally from the rest of the group

The third bit is by far the most essential, in my view. It makes for a more cohesive party and sets up role-play antics. It works best if you don’t double-up on each other, but sometimes that’s unavoidable. In those cases, you may want to opt for–gasp–two, count ’em, two connections!

I know a friend who knows a friend…

For instance, in my Marrakesh game, the Tiefling Assassin (who now can transform into a powerful devil when he enrages, fun fun) and Halfling rogue have tied themselves together, not just because they’ll compete to see who can cut the most purses in a night at the tavern, but “because they’re the two shortest people in the Party.” Praise players for going beyond the obvious, with more “huh, I wouldn’t have thought of that immediately,” connections that go beyond simple race/class similarities.

Now, the Halfling tends to stick around the Elven Ranger, perhaps because of OOC reasons, but IC’ly it comes off as the him being drawn by her remarkable beauty and grace. More complicated is that the Elf herself flirts with the Tiefling, who is perhaps the most “handsome” of the group at least in terms of behavior–he’s protective of the elf, charming and flirtatious, but this may yet complicate the Rogue and Assassin’s relationship. And I oh-so look forward to that time bomb going off.

See how we’ve already got a triangle going? Add in the Tiefling’s antagonistic relationship with the Dragonborn Paladin, that by default makes him also somewhat at odds with the Paladin’s cousin, a Warlord. Now we’ve a pentagon at least, and still two other party members to account for…

And that’s just from one character’s perspective.

Not Just In-Character’ly…

Sure, these relationships might have sprung up over time, but most of my gaming group didn’t know each other well before they started playing together. Forcing them to reach out broke the ice and gave them game-related reason to be buddying up with someone, when us introverts would be otherwise uncomfortable.

If and when character deaths do occur, I’ll be asking them to make a bond with a different player, so they get to know someone else and tangle the relationship webs further.

Massively and Multi-Player

Role-playing guilds and forum games, though, are another story. Due to the sheer size of them, you have to zoom out a little bit, making Affiliations by Country, Caste, House, College, Company, Division, et cetera the primary method of association. Giving your character a place to belong is important, even necessary, to establishing contexts for role-playing.

But in smaller guilds or forums, these entities might be sparsely populated, requiring you to go the interpersonal route. Even in larger situations, you’ll want a smaller group of RP buddies. Regardless, I recommend at least three connections, mostly to be determined at character creation/incorporation, but secret/unknown possibilities exist for older characters as well. Potential relationships include:

  • Family: Spouse, Parent, Child, Sibling, Cousin, In-law
  • Business: Boss, Client, Coworker, Competitor
  • Education: Mentor, Student, Peer
  • Military: Knight, Squire, Captain, Recruit, Comrade
  • Government: Representative, Constituent, Lobbyist, Staff
Think Sideways

Certainly, Affiliations might cover some of these, but I invite you to go further and define the specifics of the relationship. Some guilds aren’t that organized as to have subdivisions and groups, instead having only general member ranks, or are already especially distinguished (e.g. Trading Companies, Military Orders).

This makes the Priest’s relationship with the Warrior’s all the more important. Who knew they were childhood playmates? But that bond is strained by the healer’s pacifistic, only-in-self-defense attitude, while the Warrior has learned she has to be ruthless in order to survive. Here you have a dual relationship–they were effectively siblings growing up, but now they’re comrades-in-arms with opposing views.

Moreover, just because you’re in one group doesn’t exclude you from having relationships related to the others. If you’re in a Military Order, you likely still have familiar and educational connections, and maybe even business, too, if you’re not a professional soldier, or had a life before you joined the organization.

Your Turn

  1. If you’re in a tabletop group, work with another player who you haven’t partnered up with before. Find a common thread between your characters, and agree on the relationship. If you’re already in a long-established campaign, consider the possibility that the connection was previously unknown. Talk to your GM about your ideas, and see if you can work something into the adventure to bring the relationship to life. Bonus points if you’re forcing antagonistic characters to have to play nice with each other, or causing a rift between friends.
  2. If you role-play in an online game or forum post a wanted or classified ad looking for connections. There should already be a location for this kind of thing–if not, contact an officer or admin to suggest one. Give a basic outline of your character’s concept and ask if anyone has characters who might have associations with him. “I have a rugged, retired pirate who is looking for family, friends, or enemies.” Or, if your plot calls for it, fish for participants to join in. “My characters has three older brothers, and I’d like players to save them from NPC in for me. In the near future, we’ll be doing…”

    Make sure that you don’t get over-specific in your requests/parameters. This turns others off and stifles creativity. Sure you might have thought that having a bastard brother would be fun, but don’t discount the other player’s suggestion for an undead one! Try to get three relationships from the above list to start. I guarantee your role-playing will be the richer for it.

Further Reading

Writers and Gamemasters can also implement the Six Degrees concept in their stories and plots. For a look at this in depth, I recommend Campaign Mastery’s “Sophisticated Links: Degrees of Separation in RPGs.”