The Essence of Character

It is in the nature of roleplaying games that there will be disputes about what is the most central to such games -- is it the setting, the world in which the game takes place? Is it the plot, the story that the game tells (World of Darkness and many other White Wolf games bill themselves as "storytelling" games rather than roleplaying games)? Is it the challenge, the part that makes it make sense to call it a game? Is it the socializing, the fun of it, that makes us all want to play again next time?

All of those are important, yet what I find the most important, is the character, the "role." Creation and portrayal of characters is, to me, what RPG's are all about.

There are as many ways of creating characters as there are players. For example, players vary tremendously in how much of the creation of the character is done by the player at the outset, versus how much is filled in as they go. This resembles the difference between classical music and jazz -- where a classical piece is written note by note, with the pitch and duration of each specified discretely, and performed precisely as written, a jazz piece is laid out loosely and improvised within those boundaries. A "classical" player might view the sketchy creation of a "jazz" player as hardly even being a character, depthless and unplayable; a "jazz" player might conversely see a "classical" player's details as too confining to allow any enjoyment. Both must try to be understanding and tolerant of the other, especially when they play in the same game; a game-master of one school must especially try to be tolerant when he or she has a player of the other, and trust their player (or at least give them a chance to earn the trust).

A brief list of some other axes along which character creation varies:

  • Normative in the setting vs. unusual in the setting 
    Example: a normative player would play a human fighter, thief, mage or cleric, perhaps an elven figher/mage or gnome illusionist in AD&D; an unusual player would play a ranger/bard or an assassin/amazon or some other fancy kit or multiclass, or want to play an Orc PC or a felinoid or a lycanthrope etc. A normative player would play a werewolf in a Werewolf: the Apocalypse; an unusual player would play a Fomori, or a Naga, or a Rokea...

  • Combat-oriented vs noncombatant 
    I think this is self-explanatory

  • Similar to the player's real self or similar player's previous characters, or widely variant characters
    Some players play the same character over and over, while others play completely different characters each time. I usually find that over a long run, though, even those players who play what seem like widely varying characters, there are some personality traits that never vary. Either the player is not interested in exploring variations of that, or it is something they (perhaps naively) assume is universally true, or it's just so ingrained a part of them that they can't / don't want to play any other way.

  • Internal vs external 
    A player who creates a character internally usually starts with an intuitive feeling of how it would feel to be that character. Then they work their way out to how their character is perceived by others, what they do and say, and their history as it would have happened given their nature. A player who creates a character externally usually starts with an idea of how the character fits into their world and society, how they act, what abilities they have, and works their way down to what the character says and does from there, sometimes but not always going as far as determining how it feels to be the character at the end.

After some contemplation I discovered another thing that I always do when creating a character, though I have not gone so far as to inquire whether others do this as well. I will have to ask around and see whether this is just me, or known but rare, or common, or universal. When I create a character I always make up one or more facets that are sympathetic, that make me bond with the character, and able to put myself in their place well enough to figure them out; and I always make up one or more facets that are unsympathetic, that allow me to detach from the character and consider them dispassionately.

Without the 'good side' I would find the character uninteresting and uninspiring, boring to play, since I couldn't get into their head and really role-play. Without the 'bad side' I'd find the character impossible to disengage from, and probably take things far too hard that were IC, making it hard for me to maintain that vital "firewall" between IC and OOC feelings/knowledge/behavior.

Going through my list of characters mentally, I realized with what clarity I'd been able to do this. In addition to the benefit explained above, having good and bad sides to all my characters makes them feel to me well rounded, lends drama to stories about them, makes them better tragic heroes or villains, and makes them more like real people (who all have good and bad in them).

So, to the many lists of character-creation questionnaires I have seen, I'd add this one: What do you like about your character? What do you dislike about your character? Why?

-Dana Anthony


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