Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bringing Your Character to Life

Slightly more than 2 weeks active (if you go by the Jan 6 start date for the livejournal version, may it rest in peace) and I feel we've already covered a fair amount of Game Mastering as well as World, Game, and Campaign building stuff, so let's take today to look at the other side of the GM screen. Yes, at you, the players.

Now, generally speaking by comparison the Player has a fairly sweet deal compared to the GM. You aren't responsible for the whole world, you don't have to play dozens of NPCs, you don't need to make the story hooks, all you need to do is focus on one person and the mechanics for that person. Pretty sweet huh?

Well, all that is of course, only "generally speaking" I honestly disagree with the above assessment. While the Player has a duty to the world, and they may not do as much work as the GM, they still have more responsibility to the game than just playing one person. It is your job as a player to help bring the GMs world to life by interacting with it, it is your job to provide the GM with possible side plots to make the world feel more alive and active with your backstory and the NPCs that helped your character grow to be who they are. It is your job to focus on one person, but all that means is that you have a lot less leeway for leaving that person undefined than the GM does for any of his particular players. So let's talk about ways to bring your character to life, to make them more than just some numbers on a sheet.

Beliefs and Goals
Some systems require that you use these, even if they're not part of the system they're something you want to explore for your character.

Give yourself a list of goals, make some of them short term, some mid-sized, and some long term. Talk to your GM about them, they may not all come up in game, but telling the GM what you want to do with the character is definitely going to increase the chances that you'll get the opportunity to do some of them at least. These goals can be incredibly simple, something as small as "Become a better sword fighter", easy to achieve mechanically sure, but it also gives you something about your character and what you want from them. Essentially, that your character wishes to become a better fighter. Personal improvement in combat is important to him/her.

Beliefs are a bit trickier, but because of that they're all the more important. You generally want to list 2-5 things that your character believes. Be it about the world, about life, about their job, whatever, but 2-5 beliefs is a good starting point. These aren't rigid structured walls you need to stick to, but they do give you a place to go back to if you find yourself way off base with your character suddenly, or in a strange place that you aren't sure how the character should react.

Between Beliefs and Goals, even if you only do 2 of each, you'll actually have a good starting mental frame work of how your character works and operates. Thus making them significantly easier to get into and play, and more alive for other players to react to as well.

Other Alignment Systems
Lots of RPGs have alignment systems, they're there to help you with guiding your character and making them. Make sure you understand the game you are playing and how it uses alignment, but by all means you also want to read how the systems work for other systems. Why? because a lot of times they'll help you think of other things to help you with defining your character.

New World of Darkness (do I still call it new?) has a Virtue/Vice system for this, where you choose your characters primary virtue and their primary vice. Now while you don't have to do this for your character, looking over the virtue/vices and how they work gives you something to think about. Generally speaking people do favor a virtue and vice over the others, so having it in mind if a good thing.

Old World of Darkness has Nature and Demeanor. Essentially, Nature was who you truly were on the inside (I think). Demeanor was how you presented yourself to the world. The different qualities described within also covered many of the basic types of people you can meet in the real world. Even better, this also gets you thinking about the "this is who I am when the chips are down and it's all or nothing" vs. "This is who I want others to think I am".

As a final example, the old Palladium system Heroes Unlimited had a series of 'codes of conduct' for it's alignment. Rather than doing the standard D&D Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, they did Principled/Scrupulous to Aberrant/Diabolic. The different codes in between showed the kinds of actions people subscribing to different belief systems could have. Essentially, they put the alignments into perspective with examples that were more likely to come up in a game such as "will not attack an unarmed opponent, but may take advantage of one".

Character History
In short, your history should communicate to the GM (and other players if you share it) who your character is. You want to explain things like any strange skills, your advantages and disadvantages, and where your character was trained. These are all important things, but now look at your own life? There is more to what makes you you than just those facts right?

I went to the University of Massachusetts where I learned my skills in foreign languages, and other academia along with how to shoot guns by regular trips to a local shooting range

Now, that isn't very interesting now is it? But I just explained a high level in foreign languages, and justified some combat skills on a character for a modern game. That may even be the two most interesting facets about me in my opinion, but it isn't what makes me alive. So lets touch it up just a little bit shall we?

At the University of Massachusetts, under the tutelage of Professor Eriko Takahashi I learned Japanese alongside my girlfriend Sheryl. Participation in a local science fiction club led to regular gaming as well as trips to a local shooting range where proper handgun treatment and accuracy was learned.

That really isn't much better by and large, but we have added a lot with a few simple facts. One, we added connections, the GM now has the name of someone who was important to my character's life (no real names given btw ;) ) and that person's area of expertise. I've also established that my character was sociable enough to get and keep a girlfriend, and that they enjoyed Science Fiction. Being part of the club that brought them shooting also implies friends and more potential hooks for the GM on things.

This is all really basic information, but just by going a bit more into things we've told a lot more about the character. So don't just sum up and pass in a justification for how you got some skills with your history, but actually make it a summary of the character's life as a living person. You don't need to make it a 20 page document to get across these details, with a bit of practice you'd be amazed at what you can get into 1-2 easily readable pages, while still leaving yourself room for the character to grow and develop in the course of the game.

Character Journals
Just because the game has started doesn't mean your options for helping to bring the character to life are limited to what you do at the table. In fact, some of the best expression of your character that you can do is actually done out of session. I'm talking about keeping a character journal. By this I don't mean a log of the events of the game, but rather a summarized telling of the events of the game from your character's perspective. The IC portion of this is what is truly important, as it lets you reflect on the events of the game from your character's perspective. What were their first impressions of the port city? How did they feel when they were told to stay and guard the room while someone else scouted the Lord's castle? What are they hoping to get out of this?

The writing of these things will let you develop your character further in your head, and will help bring them to life. Share the journal with your GM and, if you trust your friends to not meta-game and/or are not putting truly important secrets and twists into it, rest of the game as well. It will let them see more of your character, put your actions at the table into new light, and help them with their understanding and thus their responses to your character.

Even more helpful, is writing these journals will help you remember the events of the previous session, give you something to check if you need to remember what has been happening and a session or two was missed, and finally, it helps the GM with including your character by giving them feedback about what the character enjoys and doesn't enjoy, as well as more insight into their aspirations and fears. Not to mention it helps with justifying future XP, and sometimes the GM will award bonus XP since you're putting more work into the game - something a lot of GMs like to encourage in my experience.

Final Notes
In conclusion, there are a lot of things you can do to bring your character to life, and most of them can be done out of game. Those things will help with the portrayal of the character in game as well. Also, by going with these and making your character a person you help the GM and also every other player by giving them something to work off of and with. You may even start a trend and be the instigator of a movement that makes your game truly unique and epic as it goes from a game of cardboard cut out heroes, to actual living breathing people with hopes, dreams, fears, and personal demons to work out.

Happy Gaming.

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