Back to our regular schedule! We’re on the home stretch. As August draws to a close, #RPG a Day 2016 is near its end for this year, and I’m in the midst of getting ready for something important. I hinted at it yesterday, but today’s not the day I’m telling you about it. Instead today the topic is all about characters, specifically…
August 25: What makes for a good character?
This question can be answered from three different perspectives, as a game master, as player a, and as a fellow player. Allow me to get a little philosophical and tackle the subject in that order.
The answer as a GM may be a little trite, as it’s usually this, a good backstory! To a certain degree that’s true, as GMs we weave stories together from the character’s backgrounds, motivations, goals and the campaign elements such as the history, the NPCs, conflicts, etc.). An uninteresting, or worse nonexistent, character background really limits the tools you have in your toolbox. Not all GMs integrate a character’s backstory into the game, but for me that’s an integral part of what makes a campaign significant for the players and interesting for me. Of course, there can be such a thing as too much story!
If a player comes to the table with a backstory that seems like the biography for a seasoned warrior, a veteran of many battles for his 1st level fighter, there may be a problem. Or a player whose backstory resembles a novel, where future events are mapped out and he or she expects you as a GM simply to narrate the story they’ve written back to them, this can also be a problem, specifically when you alter the story they wrote. But both examples are workable. Rather than ban the character’s background outright, or simply ignoring it, reach out to the player; explain your misgivings in a clear calm fashion. The interaction between a player and GM is a two way street, and both should have some input on the outcome.
As a player a backstory is important, after all I create it so that through the game I experience some elements of it, resolving some conflicts and achieve some of the stated goals. But most of my backstory work is front loaded; it comes before the game begins. Another important element for a good character is the options the game presents to me. I enjoy developing a character, access to new abilities and new opportunities, new ways to play, it’s not about increasing in power (although many game make it about that), but about different game experiences. After all there is a game element in role playing games, and I enjoy that just as much as the role-playing.
To fellow players a good character is a character that plays well with others, who doesn’t hog the spotlight, whose player recognizes other people in the group are also part of the plot. A character created to play along with their characters and whose skills and abilities mesh well with theirs and compliment one another. Whenever I see a player wanting to play an evil character in a party of paladins, when the campaign was conceived as a fight against evil, or a Punisher loner type anti-hero rolled up in a high power JLA or Avengers supers game, I feel that character is not a good character. It may have an exquisite background, but it makes the game less fun for other players. I’m not saying don’t play against type, I once played a non-super powered detective in a supers game, but give your character a motivation to be in the game, don’t just pass on the burden to the GM or other player’s, that’s just bad form.
RPGs are a collaborative experience where everyone is meant to have fun, and everybody should collaborate towards that end, a good character should help achieve that goal.
Agree? Disagree? Have another idea? Let us know in the comments and share the link to your RPG a Day 2016 entries. Thank you everyone for coming around. See you Friday.
One would hope that ‘plays well with others’ is taken as read but we all know that is not always the case.
For me as a player I need a character to be one I really want to play, almost someone I would want to get to know. I often create the seed of their personality by taking two seemingly contradictory traits and then seeing how those internal conflicts resolve themselves. As a player I honestly have no idea before hand what their outward personality will be. I have played a ‘disobediently obedient’ healer, He always did as he was supposed to but normally twisting or intentionally misinterpreting orders and running the parties agenda alongside what he was ‘supposed’ to be doing.
I also had a thief who was an innocent man accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and therefore forced into a life of crime just to survive who was desperate for respectability and the respect of the fellow party members. The game world was very caste based so that respect from the knights and mages in the party and those they met would never be forthcoming. The thief often masqueraded as a ranger as rangers were not looked down upon as scouts were.
The two contradictory traits idea is excellent. I don’t play enough as a player to have a method. I usually play outwardly confident characters with tortured pasts and conflicted motivations. Thanks for reading and for the comment.
I enjoy reading your blog so the pleasure is all mine. I GM and play so I get to see both sides. I run a face to face game as well as run and play in a PBP game to get a daily dose of roleplaying.
Thank you… I prefer being a GM and while I’ve played in PBP games before I’m rather busy these days…
You know what they say about busy people… “If you want something done, give it to someone who is busy!”.
GMing s PBP game is interesting as you have enouh time to really hone your responses and check your facts. I make less rule misinterreptations as a PBP GM than when I have to make a fast choice in a face to face game. As a player in a PBP game you have the bonus of perfect recall as you can read back what has happened before so in political or sleuth type adventures you do not have to rely on remembering every clue.
My PBP game takes no more than 10minutes a day to run but I only get to play face to face three or four times a year because we all live in different parts of the country, are married with kids or cats and have busy lives.
Oh I understand. I’m lucky that I have a weekly face to face game with 8 playes.
8 Players! My Face to Face has 5 players plus myself but we have been playing for together for 32 years through many campaigns and in many different worlds.
I’ve been playing 30 years, the homebrew was created 29 years ago, but no players from back then… 🙁
My weekly face-to-face games on alternating Mondays also have eight role-players, but my telecom groups (on Sundays/Thursdays) have had challenges with attendance lately. It doesn’t get easier as we get older, but it’s still worthwhile!
Some backstory and plot hooks are good, but so are shared party goals, room for character development, and motivation to be involved in the larger setting.
It’s OK to play to type or against type or to maximize a certain build or role, but it’s ultimately more important to let a character grow a distinct personality and to have a party that gets along. Accomplishments and shared storytelling are what people enjoy and remember.
Agree on party goals, any tools or advice how you go about getting that to gel?
I think that can depend on whether the intention is to run a long running open ended campaign or one with a definite goal in mind. If you are playing a fixed adventure path type of game then the players should be approaching the game with ‘this the goal we need to achieve’ type of attitude and those goals are preset. In a more open ended sort of game it become much more difficult.
In those cases the different characters back stories can actually become a problem rather than a benefit if those stories set the characters on divergent paths or sets some of the characters attitudes. I have two characters who have estranged mothers or parents but from different parts of the world, one from the east and the other in the west. For the party to try and resolve those threads to move towards one means moving away from the other or to put one character before another. It is not a problem right now and the party have their hands full for the foreseeable future but it could become a problem if the party is left to drift or doesn’t know where to go next.
My players are usually pretty good at merging their disparate backstories and finding motivation to work together. Ont he current campaign I asked for each player to have two connections to other characters and not to repeat the connections and it’s worked out fine!
There are a number of ways to encourage an adventuring party to develop shared goals.
The first is to have a shared origin — everyone is an escaped slave, has signed onto the same ship, is part of a traveling musical band or carnival. The characters could be veterans from the same military unit, or they could be collected from more disparate origins by a mysterious Non-Player Character. This gives the group a reason to start together, a shared supporting cast, and an initial direction.
Another is to have the Player Characters discover connections based on their backstories. For instance, the former sidekick of one superhero could be the rival of another, or the musketeer is assigned to investigate the possible treason of the girlfriend of one of his colleagues.
The third, and most obvious, is to give the group a common enemy. Undead pirates, a scheming dragon (that they’re not aware of), alien invaders, or the thief who always manages to stay one step ahead of the group. This is best for long-term goals, so you’d have to make sure that there are story forks on the way to allow for free will and surprises (for both the G.M. and the role-players).
To be fair, most parties have a finite lifespan, with the initial discovery of the world, building of relationships and quests, and eventually reaching a point where interests may diverge.
I’ve been lucky enough to be running for about 34 years, with occasional cameos by heroes from past games! While a particular group or campaign will change over time, the out-of-character goal of shared fun never ends!
All good ideas, I’ve been playing for 30 years, but there’s been a lot of turnover in the group. Getting them to share a goal can be a challenge sometimes. I’ve tried many. I’ve had all of them share a traumatic event early int he campaign that unites them in a common goal, all of them be the crew of a ship, childhood friends. It all works, with the occasional wrench of a character dying or a new character joining the group. If the core group is too tight, the new character may feel like the odd person out.
It’s pretty normal for a group to hit midlevel and have difficulties. Each combination of players and characters is different, and some gamer turnover is inevitable.
Still, you can address some of these challenges. Out of character, work with newer folks to find things they’re interested in that would connect them to the group’s missions. As party motivations grow beyond any shared origin, be candid in asking for the group to welcome new people and to help find a new unifying purpose. This can be hard in sandbox-style games, but it’s worth it.
In character, bring newer party members in as equals, but perhaps as outsiders with new information to reflect that they don’t have a shared history. Offer incentives for old and new characters to work together — promotions, extra treasure, clues to their quests.
It’s perfectly fine for each higher-level character to have his or her own goal — building a castle, acquiring a ship, etc. — but the Game Master should also offer some shared objectives appropriate to the power level — unifying to defeat larger bands of marauders, solve a mystery involving multiple factions, or stop an eldritch horror from being summoned….
I can’t say that I’ve been successful with all my groups, but the challenge is to juggle individual and group preferences for as long as possible! Good luck….
The biggest issue I have to deal with is personality clashes. We have all been friends for years but there are too many alpha males in the group for its own good sometimes.
It all depends on who is GM and who are the players. Take out one Alpha and put him behind the screen and everything works fine. Put all the alphas in the party and they cannot help themselves but try and make themselves the leader. There are sessions where there is no trace of their PC’s personality, they are all playing themselves.
Nothing is ever going to change them and once they get their act together they are fine but these clashes have brought more games to an end than all the dragons or demonic dark lords put together.
Sorry to hear that. Yeah, I’ve had to deal with personality conflicts more often than I’d like.
It’s worth reminding your role-players that the game is a social contract in which each person agrees to share the spotlight in return for (hopefully enjoyable for all) collaborative storytelling. If anybody loses sight of that, they should take a break from the table.
In most adventuring parties, each character specializes around an occupational class or archetype, so they should take turns taking the lead, depending on the situation. Is your Cleric a chatty socialite? Then she shouldn’t be stepping on the toes of the stealthy Rogue or antisocial Ranger.
Is your gadgeteer also good at magic, investigation, and martial arts? Unless he’s Batman or Doctor Doom and surrounded by equally capable superheroes or supervillains, he’s hogging the G.M.’s attention.
Factions can sometimes form when there are longtime pals, spouses, or classmates. But you don’t want a cooperative game to devolve into PvP situations. The moment a game stops being fun or becomes a dreaded weekly chore, it’s time to call a time out.
If you have recurring clashes and people who refuse to alter their behavior or who try to justify it as “my character would do this…” then show them the door. There are enough people out there looking for interesting campaigns that you shouldn’t waste time and energy on the difficult ones, even if they’re friends outside your game.