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Orienting Your Character

September 9, 2014

My friend Quinn has posted a pretty awesome article on characters and culture which highlights a key point to a lot of the games I enjoy – the idea that meaning comes out of context, and the context is very often cultural.

A Templar crusader, a samurai and a mafia hit man might all be “warriors” as far as game mechanics might be concerned, but their goals, the places they hold in societies they operate in, and the meaning when they engage in violence is very different.  Literally that context determines what kind of stories we can make in play and what conflicts make sense to even engage with.

The short to the point way of orienting characters, I pretty much summed up with the One Sentence Character Concept Generator and the Extended version as well.  The rest of this post will pretty much go into the theory side for folks who want to think about it a bit more for design or play.

Potential Conflict and 3 Questions

I’ve seen several games advocate “21 questions” style character generation, with such things like “What’s your character’s favorite color?”… needless to say, a lot of this ends up being pontificating without giving you something that is likely to come into play in a meaningful way.  Instead, I look at 3 questions with an eye to how they give you conflicts.

What is your role/place in society?

So that example I had of Templar vs. samurai vs. mafia?  That’s a key example of the differences you get – how respected is your general role, how do people treat you, what responsibilities or authority you have, and so on.

Your responsibilities and roles are key points of conflict – for example, if you’re playing a pirate, you already have trouble because you’re an outlaw.  If you’re playing a knight, you have expectations to serve a liege, you are a warrior expected to defend territory, etc.

Also notice this changes if you go to a different country or culture.  Being a respected authority in one culture might only make you more of an outsider in another culture.

What is your standing?

Even within your role, you might be doing very well in terms of influence and power, or doing terribly.   If you’re doing well, you will have rivals and enemies looking to take your influence, power and resources.  If you’re doing poorly, people take what they want from you, treat you terribly and laugh about it.

This sets up a lot of fun conflict space – within this role to other people in the same role, whether you have the power to do your job properly, whether you have too many people trying to screw you over so you can’t do your job properly, what you’re trying to do to improve your position or solidify it.

What are your feelings about it?

With both of those above, what does your character feel about this whole situation?  Are they determined to succeed?  To change their lot in life?  Are they despondent and desperate?  What are their motivations and what are they likely to do with it?

The above three questions give us context to a character and their role.  Even if the conflict is primarily external (“I am a knight, I want to stop the dragon from destroying the city I want to protect”) we have some idea of what kind of character position you have to various NPCs, the other PCs and some ideas on what motivates or drives you.

Some games pre-establish much of these ideas for you.  Some put a bit of the answers into things like political splats with vampire clans or such.   But most games leave this as a thing without any procedure and skipping this can often leave you with this weird disjunction in play between players and the fiction and how these things interact back and forth.

Further Character Building from Orienting

There’s a couple other key ideas that often get overlooked.  Part of this is that games either leave it up to the GM to make the call and most GM’s simply forget these things could matter, or else they make it a thing of splitting up skill points and players find these things much less reliable than better defined combat skills in terms of usefulness.

Regardless, if you’re going to orient your character to the fiction, it’s a good idea to also think of these as well:

Connections

Who does your character know?  Who can you give commands or orders to?  Who can you ask help from?  Who gives you commands or orders?  Who might you be friends with?  Who might you be enemies or rivals with?

Connections are often left underutilized in games for the simple reason that a lot of games are still jumping the hurdle of dungeoncrawling – where access to help “short circuits” the challenge of the hoops you’re supposed to jump through to solve the puzzles/scenario.

In games where the conflict is not set up in a series of pre-set problems, you can use these to much effect – you build relationships, you can solve some problems but have those characters also introduce problems as well.  This is actually part of the reason your character’s standing is important – within this world, who can you call on for help?  Who is out to get you? etc.

Knowledge and Outlook

What kinds of information is your character familiar with? What kinds of rumors or things should they simply just know?  “Sure, the Northerners always come through the city, but never in the fall.  I’m wondering if it’s someone simply dressing up as one in some kind of disguise because he’s got the colors all wrong.”

Knowledge and outlook about how you see the world can matter a lot.  The hardened soldier and the elite noble see the same room very differently – about how it’s laid out, who is important for what reasons, and what kinds of attitudes people have.

Tying it all together

The key to all of the above is that it can fit into a short paragraph about your character – it shouldn’t need to be a huge backstory or anything.  You just need enough to give a good idea of who your character is and where they stand with the setting and their motivations.

In doing so, you can also build something the other players can play off of very well in relation to your character and vice versa.

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