Build Characters as a Web

June 28, 2020

There’s a method I’ve been trying to use more and more as a player over the years, and it’s just a good technique overall – build your character tied to, and with motivational ties to, other player characters.

“Unlikely band of heroes” is quite constructed

A common adventure trope is “the unlikely band of heroes” which works amazingly in fiction/tv/movies/etc., and often, not as well in tabletop rpgs.

A key difference is that fiction is created ahead of time and the writers have time to figure out how to engineer all the ways in which the characters will get to know each other or “just happen to” have coinciding interests. In tabletop RPGs, since we don’t have that option, we have to make deliberate effort during character creation and during play to make it work a little better (at least, unless you happen to be able to read minds…)

Starting with connections and an attitude

The easiest way is that you start with “our characters know each other and feel this way about each other”. Games where characters are part of a team, an extended family or something like that makes it easier to work with. However, you get more by giving a little more depth to it than just “we’re on the same team”:

  • I’ve been here a bit longer and helped get you on board. You’re like a younger sibling in a way.
  • We both survived the IS-5081 disaster, when the whole space station came apart. It was 2 weeks in an escape pod together.
  • We just clicked on the team and we’re always playing videogames and competing against each other.

It serves as a prompt. It gives some common grounds and attitude to go with.

Obviously, in some games, the characters might not necessarily be allies, in which case the attitude and situations can be much broader, but do keep in mind whether you’re setting up for friendship, conflict, or betrayal and how that fits in with the game overall.

Aiming motivations and personality towards other characters

Some characters may not have a connection for a variety of reasons – maybe you’re the newest to join the team, or you’re playing some kind of outsider character. You can still make a character who is “aimed” at the other characters in the sense that they have a lot of reason to get to know the other characters and become entangled in their lives.

Specific Goals

Depending on the game and the situation, one of the easiest things to do is look at specific goals for any of the characters and ask how you can tie it together.

I usually find it’s more interesting if the goals are aligned but not identical – “You want to find the lost map to see if you can find your brother who went searching for the mystical city, but I want to find the map because it’s my lifelong dream to decipher the Ancient Language.”

The nice thing is that you can typically come up with two of these, one each to a different player character, and you can have an interesting group dynamic come of it.

Character Concept

Some character types naturally point to the other characters and tend to interact in interesting ways. (This is not a comprehensive list, just some common ones that come to mind)

  • “The New Guy” – the character who is new to the situation/job is a great character to constantly ask the other characters things like “How long have you been doing this?” “Is this how things are supposed to work?” “How do you deal with this (tough situation)?”
  • “The Foreigner” – this character is from a different social context (whether literally a foreigner or maybe just a different enough lifestyle/economic class) – this sort of character is good at both asking questions about how things work or “Help me pick a dish, I don’t know what any of this food is?” and to give interesting stories from where they’re from.
  • “Co-signer” – another character has a dream or a goal and your character has decided “I’m going to help make sure you get this!”. It can tie to their own morals or values, but just as likely can involve things like their own regrets or goals they themselves couldn’t achieve.
  • “Protective Friend” – Your character takes the older sibling role and is trying to help one or two characters stay out of trouble, whether that’s trouble from external sources or their own inexperience/judgement issues.
  • “Everybody’s Friend” – the cheery type who wants to have fun with everyone. They may also end up causing problems through naivete and more eagerness than forethought.
  • “I made a promise” – Your character has made a promise to an NPC to help, protect, or watch over one or more of the other player characters. This is a matter of the promise being emotionally important and not something like an order or trade being made.
  • “Caretaker” – Your character is either actually a healer or counselor, or you’re the unofficial one who is always trying to keep an eye out for the morale of the group. “Hey, how are you holding up?” “Do you think you can keep this up?”

Anyway – make sure your character has some ties to the other characters and you can get to more interesting experiences in play much quicker.

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