Good Character: My Character Background Checklist

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There are a lot of different types of role playing games. They all have a few things in common, however. Primary among these are characters. You’ve got to role play something; it’s in the name, after all.

Good Characters

How we each define a good character is dependent on our individual preferences. One gamer’s definition may depend entirely on how much damage the character can do. I don’t especially want to play in his game, but he’s welcome to it.

Personally, here are the guidelines I’ve settled on after years of role playing. The character must…

  1. fit the game.
  2. take part in the story.
  3. be believable.
  4. have an interesting background.
  5. have room for growth.

Fit the Game

I’ve written before about how I almost always make my character last. I use this opportunity to tie my character in with the setting, and fill roles (both mechanical and story-oriented) that have been left vacant. My larger purpose in this is to make my character fit the game.

The other great way to accomplish this is to plug your character into the location. Even when I’m not the last one to make a character, I certainly never make one before the GM describes the game. This way, I can root my PC in the setting.

If there’s a town around which the game will center, my character will be from that town. Even if he’s left and come back, he’s background will be inextricably tied to the community. If there’s not a specific location, I would ground the character in what areas and groups are available.

Our recent Dresden Files game was based in Victorian London. While my character had spent the past several years abroad, I made him the best damn Victorian Englishman I could manage. If anything, his travels only served to accentuate his origins.

Take Part in the Story

Being a PC usually means that you have some role in the game’s plot. Some characters, however, play more central parts than others. There are no guarantees, of course, and you can’t expect to always have the spotlight.

You can, however, increase your chances of playing more than a bit part. One of the best ways to do this is to place your character in the story’s path. Integrate pieces of the GM’s game description into your character’s background. Integrate the antagonist into your character’s past somehow.

Next, give the GM plenty of ways to use your character. Leave gaps in his background where the GM can add something plot-related. Give your character goals and vulnerabilities that can be used to pull or push him onward.

To stick with the same example character, Matt had mentioned both Black and White Court vampires in his game concept. The Black Court seemed like the greater threat, and an Englishman hunting Black Court vampires sounded like something right out of Bram Stoker. So, I made Jon’s central motivation a quest to rescue his lost love from a vampire. Though the game couldn’t revolve around that subplot, of course, it allowed Jon to have his moment in the spotlight, and gave Matt both a hook into a PC’s background and a guaranteed lever he could use to move Jon.

Be Believable

As fantastic as the surroundings might be, I do my best to make characters somewhat realistic. Even if she’s got frightening mystical powers, the sorceress is still a person. If she doesn’t behave like one, she won’t seem real.

A character should have likes, dislikes, hopes, and fears. She should have a past, explaining how she came to be the way she is, and plans for the future. If she’s a talented magician, she should also have faults that round out her personality.

Jon was a boy raised on the Romantics’ stories of knights and heroes, a son of privilege who tried to live by “noblesse oblige”. This led him to do crazy things, like joining the French Foreign Legion in a fit of depression, and constantly trying to protect his supernatural friends, who were probably less in danger than he was. He was great with a gun, and at making friends. However, he was also a sappy fool, easily manipulated when people appealed to his image of himself as the hero.

Have an Interesting Background

Characters should have done something interesting in their past.  Just about everybody has an interesting story, once you start talking, so it really only makes them more realistic. Having an interesting background will also often introduce conflict that the GM can use to get you into the story.

The next step is to figure out how the character’s interesting background has made them the person they are. We’re all affected by our past, and people who do extraordinary things often seem to have been prepared for those feats by their previous experiences. Kit Carson was prepared for his later work as a scout by running away, and spending years making a living off the land. Genghis Khan was forged by years of keeping his family alive while being hunted by his father’s assassins.

Finally, I’ve found it immensely helpful to include as many of the PCs as possible in my characters’ stories. For one thing, this greatly increases group cohesion. In addition, it makes your character’s story easier to work into the game, because it will involve everybody.

Jon’s combination of social and combat skills were formed by growing up in high society, and running away to the army. I was greatly helped with working everybody else into Jon’s story by the DFRPG/Fate Guest Star mechanic, which accomplishes exactly that. The upshot, however, was that he was tied into several of the other characters.

Have Room for Growth

If you’ve ever read old pulp stories, you know what the absence of character growth feels like. You could put them in about any order, since the main character is just as much a bad-ass in each one, and is rarely changed by the events that unfold. While fun for a while, they end up feeling insubstantial when put together.

All characters should have faults and weaknesses, if only to give them dimension. However, they also give the character areas to improve. Ignorance can be learned away, prejudices can be corrected, and confidence can be gained. In the end, you’re left with a real story.

Sometimes it’s fun to play a bad-ass. When a game is over, though, I rarely remember how impressively we won in a particular conflict. When my character grows from a slave to a sultan, or a hapless Victorian adventurer to a man on a mission, that sticks with me.

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