Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Editorial: Help Me Help You Make A Character That's Fun To Play

That's a Character.
It's a weird, not really a system specific problem for GURPS or anything, but it seems a problem that I have difficulty solving. The problem that I need to solve is that I am having a lot of troubles spontaneously developing the power to read minds. I've talked about something in a similar vein before, but today, I'll try working on this in a subtly different way. Let's talk about how GURPS (but also, probably every RPG?) is not a one man show, and when everyone works together, it makes for a better game.

How Do I Come Up With a Character?

This is a weird question to me, but I guess this is owed to the fact that sometimes people think differently than me, and so they have really silly problems that I don't.
What do I do to think of a character? I think about things I like, and what I think would be fun to do, and I'm basically done. I mean, that might not be a "character" but I have a shell or something to hang my hat on now, a atypical traditional hat-hanging carapace made of coat-hanger chitin, and I can work from there. I have something of an end goal in mind for what aptitudes I want a character to have, and I can think of a few weaknesses; I just need to think of something that ties it all together. I need to think whether my imagined character is at the beginning, the middle, or the end of his or her story, and if she is too close to the end, then that means I probably need to go back a few steps and think what my character would have been like at the end of the story. This isn't even a bad thing because now I have a goal to shoot for and I can structure motivations that'll hopefully lead a character to that end goal.
It's almost actually harder to come up with a character at the beginning of his story than at the end for me. I dunno if that's weird, but if I know what I want my character to be, then filling in the blanks from some Average Joe to Optimus Joe is pretty simple. I can think of the type of foundation that character needs to even begin to think that he can achieve his goal, and think how he approaches it from there. This might be expected aptitudes, stations in life, connections, or what have you. If I understand his foundation and his goal, now I know how the character starts off the game, and to what end the character will progress, or die trying, meaning I have some motivations. I can start thinking of his motivations and start thinking of what kind of personality leads to someone having those motivations, and potentially, how achieving those goals would effect a change in his personality. So now I have a foundation, a motivation, and a personality.
Now that I have the personality and motivation figured out, I can use them to ask questions about how she chooses to pursue her goals. What lines will she cross because the ends justify the means, and what things can she simply not do, and how does she get around that? What kinda external interference can she expect to have? Does society respect her? Does she have personal enemies that want to see her fail? And finally most importantly, of all the weaknesses, are there any challenges that want to give her just because it might be fun to figure them out?
After this, we have our goals and we have our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, or SWOT figured out, and they all have some kinda "traceability" to other components of the character so that we can write some kind of cohesive backstory. I mean, there is a bit of a trick to this part too, because like I said in the post mentioned up top, you are writing a backstory to a GM and your fellow players, so you need to consider their needs when writing the summary for them (The GM needs to build a world and plot that accommodates your character, and players need to know how their characters can mesh with their characters) but if you get a kick out of writing pages and pages of backstory... don't write it yet! We need to collaborate and corroborate with the rest of the group first. Don't invest yourself in something that might need to (potentially, drastically) change.

Wow, That Last Section Has Almost Nothing To Do With Collaboration?

And that header isn't a question, and sentences don't begin with conjunctions. So here's the thing, and let's link what Mailanka said a bit ago. I mean, let's abstract this a bit, and focus on the conversation of agile development applied to planning in games. But rather than the minimally viable session, let's talk about the minimally viable character, and throw in the design pattern of interfaces.
Now, let's explain an interface. An interface is a little shell (the kind we hang hats on) that we can use to describe the functionality of a black box. An interface says "If you give me this thing, I'll do this thing, now don't you worry about how I do it." As a non-programmer analogy, let's take shopping for a board game via amazon.com and your FLGS. Your interface for shopping might be:
  • Find out what games are for sale
  • Find more information about a particular game
  • Buy the game
Now, the way you do that is different in both cases, but the inputs and outputs are probably similar. EG: if you want to find out what games are for sale on amazon, go browse the board game section, the outcome is that you now know of a list of games to buy. At your FLGS, go inside and walk around the board game section and look at the boxes; you now have a list of games to buy. Both ended the same way, but the steps performed were different.
Now what does this have to do with the minimally viable character? A good design pattern is "designing to an interface." What does it mean? It means that you are working on a team with a lot of other intelligent busy people and no one person's part of the project is more important than another persons, but you are also interdependent. You are busy, the people you depend on are busy, and the people that depend on you are busy. However, the people that depend on you might not be able to do anything unless they know what you are going to do, and likewise you might not be able to do anything if the people you depend on don't tell you what they are going to do.
But no one needs to eat that whole elephant at once. Instead, you give them an interface. If you tell a player that your character is a magic gunslinger noblewoman, even though you don't know how everything underneath that culminates in "magic gunslinger noblewoman" it means, accurate or not, they now have some ideas to work off of and build on. The GM can think that your player needs situations where magic can be useful, guns will be cool, and whatever kinda social intrigue and societal implications are necessary for a noblewoman to be interesting. Your fellow players now know have hooks to work off of in developing their own characters. What kinda characters might have interesting interactions and relationships with a "magic gunslinger noblewoman?" What kind of characters might be interesting complements, what kinda characters might step on her toes, what kinda characters might have interesting friction? A bookish thaumatological researcher that isn't super refined, a close to nature ranger that resents the nobility but is a total gun nut, an overly competitive chauvinist duke who wants to show her that gunning is a man's world. These characters pulled out of my b*tt in a matter of seconds all have some common ground with the original character giving them a way to commiserate, but also include grist for roleplaying drama. The researcher can help her get to new heights magically, but embarrass her in a social function; the ranger and her can gush over cool guns, but always have a undercurrent of mistrust when money and class politics come into play; the duke sees eye to eye with her on a social plane, but totally undermines her agency. Each of these different character shells supply more raw material for the noblewoman's characterization in turn, and these relationships give the GM ideas on what kinds of scenarios should be possible or desirable. You get a synergistic effect and everyone can work better to creating a game that's fun for everyone.
The alternative to working together is the anti-pattern of "working in silos."  When no one knows what anyone else wants and no one can plan to work with anyone else, you create a situation where the GM creates her campaign with her ideas, player 1 makes his character based on his ideas of how the world works, and player 2 makes her character that doesn't know anything about the world that her GM has made, or the character that her friend player 1 has made. You get these "silos" then, or reality bubbles because everyone is a blind man trying to suss out the structure of an entire elephant without confirming what anyone else has found. It can be better than that.

The System?

Forget about the system, the mechanics, or anything right now. Forget about point budgets and disadvantage limits, and all of that. Make a character. That's all. A character isn't a collection of attributes, secondary characteristics, advantages, disadvantages, skills, and techniques that debit a point budget. GURPS is Universal, so if you say it, it can be done. If it fits the setting, the GM might allow it, and if it doesn't fit the budget, numbers can be played with. There are lots of tricks to make a character work that might otherwise be too expensive, like limitations or point debts, or just outright changing point budgets if everyone thinks a character is awesome, so don't worry about it and just try to make the character you want first. GURPS will handle it.


  1. I couldn't hit the More Like This button on this post hard enough!

    You got a good point there on how everyone thinks a little bit differently. It's surprising how many people I run into that seem to think everyone thinks like they do.

    When I make a character, for example, I usually don't need to think of the basics. They usually just come to me in a flash. Usually in that flash I see their general appearance, their name, race and some idea of who they are in my minds eye. I almost feels like I'm taking a snap shot of someone in their normal day to day life when it happens. All I have to do at that point is clean things up a bit and hope I don't forget an important detail or two.

    But yeah, this post is some good food for thought over all for those trying to come up for a character so I just linked to it on my facebook to make sure it gets out there.


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