Game Master Diaries #2: Building Character(s)
Now that we have the setting figured out, it is time to tackle the most important part of any story: the characters. In an RPG, unlike most other forms of storytelling, the characters are not controlled by one person. That is the challenge and beauty of this collaborative way to tell stories. Each person brings a unique voice to the story and each character will be different, depending on who the player controlling that character is. Getting a good balance between interesting, dynamic player characters who have their own needs, wants, and dreams, colorful, engaging NPCs who are fun to interact with, but don’t steal the spotlight from the players too much, and a satisfying story that doesn’t feel like it’s dragging, derailing, or forcing the players along can be quite a challenge. When you do manage to strike that balance, though, it is one of the most fun and fulfilling ways to tell a story with your friends. The key to finding that balance all comes down to the way you go about creating the characters and how you involve your players in the game.
The best way to start off making a well-rounded, fun to play character is to envision a character concept. This can be anything, from a full fledged backstory to a fictional character you want to emulate, or even something as simple as a fun combination of traits that you want to explore. Whatever it is, the character concept needs to inform the creation and roleplaying of the character at every step, and it will probably grow along the way. Experienced players will most likely have some ideas for character concepts coming into a game, but less exerienced or brand new players may not. Whatever the case, it is the game master’s job to help the players develop concepts and characters that fit with the story’s setting and the other characters.
One of the best ways to get everyone on the same page is to hold an introductory session in which you don’t actually play the game. Rather, in this session, you will introduce the players to the world you have created for them to explore, talk about what types of characters they would like to play in this world and what sorts of roles they would like to fill in the party. Once this preliminary discussion is complete and everyone has an idea of what their characters will be, the players will create those characters using whatever system you are playing with. You as the GM should be available to answer questions as they come up, and make sure to actively help newer players as they work on building their characters. When all the characters are finished and have been approved by you, your group is ready to start playing in earnest at the next session.
Introductory sessions can go a long way toward helping start your game off on the right foot, but sometimes it is not possible to have one. Perhaps you, like I am doing with the examples in this series, are running a one-shot. If that is the case it falls to you as the GM (or if you have an experienced player whose judgement you trust, you can delegate) to make the player characters as well as the NPCs. Regardless of how you are making your characters and who is making them, there are a few guidelines that will help ensure that your characters are a valuable part of the story, not a detriment.
Guideline #1: Make sure all the characters’ concepts are appropriate for the story, group, and tone of your adventure.
Sometimes a player will have a brilliant idea for a character that will just completely bypass or otherwise negate an important part of the story you are trying to tell. Maybe they want to make someone who can fly, but you designed your story to require a lot of exploration that a flying character would render unnecessary. Maybe someone want to play a mage in a modern spy setting, and you know that the existence of magic would render all of the other characters woefully obsolete. Other times a player will want to play a type of character that is just grossly out of tone with the rest of your party and/or world. Maybe they really want to play a dark, brooding loner with a troubled past, but the rest of your game is designed as an ensemble comedy yukfest. Sometimes this type of dissonance can lead to good roleplaying and fun interactions, but other times it will lead to only frustration and headaches for GM and players alike. Whatever the case may be, you as the GM have the final say, and if the players want to do something that will just not work with the story at hand, help them find ways to make their concept more suitable for your campaign, or come up with an entirely new concept altogether. When all the characters are well suited to the story, it will be a much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Guideline #2: Make sure that your party will work as a party.
Something that can tend to happen a lot when making characters is to follow the singleplayer videogame RPG trope of the “Lone Wolf” protagonist. This works in videogames, and it can occasionally work in a group RPG if the loner character has some hurt or shame that they are trying to overcome and the rest of the group slowly helps them learn to trust again, but it is impossible to run a game with an entire party of lone wolves. If a character wants to make a lone wolf character, make sure that they handle it in such a way that they can still contribute to the group and work as a team, and make sure that they communicate their intentions to the rest of the group so that you don’t end up with a group of all brusque, world-weary, anti-social people who prefer to work alone, because that is a recipe for disaster. One way to prevent this is to tell the players up front that their characters are on some sort of team in the story, and that the character concepts must be appropriate to this setting. This will also prevent a second problem that can arise from a party that isn’t cohesive, namely player characters that hate each other. Players like to give their characters tragic backstories, which isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes bringing up the memory of a lost loved one or confronting the player with a hated foe from their past can be a powerful storytelling moment. The trouble arises when a player makes a character that for one reason or another hates an entire group of people, and one of the other characters is a member of that group. It can be fascinating for players to explore the complexities of a character with this type of prejudice, but it can also just make for a bad time if it leads to two of the players never agreeing on anything, and even getting into fights. Animosity should be reserved for the party’s foes, not for fellow party members. So if your paladin’s player wants to say that her hometown was destroyed by goblins and now she hates all goblins and has vowed to slay every goblin she meets, make sure that one of your other players isn’t working on a fun goblin alchemist, blissfully unaware of the firestorm of hate and destruction that will rain down on him once the game starts. Maybe suggest to the paladin that she alter her backstory a bit and say that it was actually dwarves or pixies that destroyed her home. You don’t have to straight up deny them what they want, just find a way for it to work and not tear your party apart from the get-go.
That leads us to Guideline #3: Be flexible and have fun.
As much as possible, don’t tell your players no. If you have specific characters that you want them to play, and specific ways that you want them to play those characters, then maybe you should just write a book instead of playing a game. The fun of roleplaying is to see what your friends come up with, so as much as possible allow your players to try things out, even if the ideas they have are unconventional and a little insane. Unless it will break the game and/or the party, it is always more fun to say “yes,” or my personal favorite “you can try,” than it is to say “no, you can’t do that.” Remember that this is a roleplaying game, and that everyone is there to have fun. The players won’t always do what you expected them to do, and this includes during character creation, but that is part of the fun of being a game master: it gives you a chance to be flexible and use your creativity to figure out what happens next when your players take the carefully scripted adventure you had planned, rip it to shreds, and run the other way.
I want to give you some examples of character creation from concept to completion, but this post is already long enough, so it looks like I will once again be giving you one or more bonus posts. For my adventure I decided to make all of the characters since most of my players are brand new. I got some feedback from them on the types of characters they would like to play and got to work, so stay tuned for some more in-depth examples of character creation and maybe even some backstories. See you all next time.