On Character Concepts

In recent days, I’ve been re-reading the GURPS Basic Set: Characters book in preparation for running a new science-fiction campaign. While I am a big fan of the game system, I have always found it quite hard to sit down and just create a character out of whole cloth. Don’t mistake my meaning here: I can pretty comfortably take any character idea a player throws at me and stat it up using GURPS Character Points; my problem is coming up with the concept in the first place.

Coming up with a character concept and shaping that idea into a persona you can roleplay in a game is not a question of rules but rather of methodology. Some games – most notably to my mind, Traveller – offer a methodology as part of the rules system – in Traveller‘s case it’s a “life path” methodology. But most games assume a very simplistic pair of options: either you randomly “discover” your character through a process of random rolls and broad choices, or you are left dangling with the instruction to come up with a “character concept” and then build it with the rules.

I found re-reading GURPS Basic Set: Characters helpful because, while accepting that there are many methods that might be employed, the core advice is very practical:

The two most important things to know about your character are who he is and what role you want him to play in his adventures.

GURPS Basic Set, page B11

I think that most roleplayers forget about this element of play – the idea that you have a role to play in the adventures ahead – and instead tend to conjure up images from fiction… from which, most commonly, they end up conjuring the kinds of solitary heroes that make action films and novels exciting.

Here’s where a comment from “How To Be A GURPS GM” resonated with me:

It might not be realistic, but “adventuring party = trained unit” is the most practical assumption when playing, running, or writing for an RPG. I strongly believe that this is necessarily the unstated, default premise of any roleplaying campaign, and that players who do not assume this – with a room full of other players sitting right there – are at a disadvantage… I find it disturbing when I meet gamers who assume “solitary loner, unless the GM demands team” when it’s clear from the way games are written and the way the vast majority of gaming groups meet and interact that “team, unless the GM allows loner” is the unspoken Golden Rule of the entire hobby.

How To Be A GURPS GM, page 16

To unpack that a little further, I think that two pieces of advice have stuck with me over the years:

  • When you are creating a character, make sure that they are basically likeable.
  • Take the time to imagine at least six situations in which you can see your character making a significant contribution to the game.

One of those is about making sure that the other players (including the GM) will like your PC. Failure to do this leads to a recent disaster I had as a player in which my character – leaning in hard on the idea of him being curious – basically dicked over the rest of the team to serve his own selfish ends. That game is no more and I can’t help but wonder if having a character who wasn’t really a team player was a big part of that failure.

The other element avoids a situation I have seen many times over the years: the really cool character concept who turns out to be basically useless in 99% of situations that arise in the game. One example, again from my own palette of failures, is the highly intelligent computer programmer/hacker who, in a modern-day supernatural investigation campaign was basically useless at investigating offline, knew basically nothing about the supernatural, and was certainly awful in a fight with a monster.

These are roleplaying games. You are meant to be playing a role. But a role is not the same as a job, or a profession, or a goal. Our roles are the responsibilities we have in the social groups we inhabit. If you’re part of an adventuring team then it is highly important to know one’s role in that team. It may be that you have more than one such role, depending on the situations you are facing.

To improve on my hacker idea, I could have asked myself some questions about what role they would have in various different imagined situations that would reasonably come up in play. What would he do when investigating a haunted house? What about when facing down a rabid werewolf? How about when trying to get information about an underground cabal? Thinking around the needs of the team would have led me to a broader character concept… but wouldn’t have stopped me from making them a cool computer nerd too.

Where does this leave us? I am coming to believe that you need to ask yourself what kinds of situations you might reasonably see yourself involved in. I think you need to consider your character as part of the wider team that is the practical default of almost all roleplaying games. Once you can see the situations and the kind of team you need to fit into, you can begin to invent a character who has a definite range of roles within that group.

Yeah, I know that’s why D&D has character classes. I understand that “niche protection” is hard-wired into the most popular games and, as a consequence, gamers with systems like that don’t need to think about this stuff quite so much. But the downside of all that prescriptive pre-designed role-making and niche creation is a simple one: you lose the freedom to invent something unique. You also find yourself locked into the same old patterns of play that we’ve all seen a hundred times before.

I’m ready to build campaigns for players who want to design their very own characters. But with that freedom to choose any hero, any concept, and any role comes the requirement to think about what your new character offers to the wider group. Telling the GM the role you envision for your character – even outlining the kinds of situations you imagine them excelling at supporting – is a great way to invest them in your ideas and get to play them out at the table.

Game on!

2 comments

  1. Thank you

    I’ve not thought of character roles in specific scenarios before at character creation, rather just the broad concept and I usually end up with a useless specialist or a Jack of all trades, master of none…. Neither end up being that fun to play.
    Often it’s in knowing ur limitations n finding creative ways to circumvent those with ur specialisms or just good on the spot roleplay that makes games fun.

    Now thinking about roles for my Traveller concept n who he’ll be in given situations.
    It requires some imagination to dream up what we might encounter in a setting I haven’t experienced before, but I can give it a go. It should at least prep me to get a better idea of who he really is, beyond the tagline.

    Like

  2. The rogue archetype and its variations suffers from this problem, and in my experience, almost half of players want to play a skulky rogue off doing sneaky things. D&D makes it work in the same way it makes bards work–it gnores the reality (or the fiction) and gives the classes meta-powers that abstractly symbolize what the classes do in stories. The only way rogues work is when the entire party agrees to play rogueish characters and everyone’s goal is to sneak into the mansion and steal something.

    Liked by 1 person

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