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The Play's the Thing

Character Creation Part 4

by David Goodner
Jul 10,2002


Character Creation: Part 4

Personality Based Character Creation

This column finishes up my original four part series on Character Creation. It also finishes up the first four "reprint" articles from Sabledrake. For the next couple of months, at least, we'll be in entirely new territory.

We've done characters based on a set of abilities, on a type of personality, and now we're going to talk about building a character starting with his history. I've only really done this once, so this is the most artificial of my examples.

Step 1: Choose your Background

Obviously, if you want to build a character from the background up, you start with the background. This is more involved than the character story you might write for an average character. You're going to use this background as the framework for everything else you do. It needs to define your character's life in some pretty serious detail, and to connect him to the rest of the campaign.

If you're building a character by beginning with his background, there's probably some compelling reason to do so. Maybe you're making up a character related to another PC, or one who has to fit into a specific slot in the story. That's your starting place. If your new character is supposed to be the long-lost brother of an existing PC, then you should start by examining the existing PC's background. Figure out where the two characters' backgrounds met, and where they diverged. Maybe you're turning an existing NPC into a PC. This really happened to me once, but it's a long story. In this case you probably have some idea of capabilities and personality, but you need to build a history to fit all the bits together. Anyway, find your starting point and work your way into a full background.

Example: Once in my gaming career (not counting all the characters I made up with Central Casting) I built a character by extrapolating everything from a background story. It was in a multigenerational Pendragon game. Sir Cynnon had been a paragon of virtue (really, it was on his sheet). He died on the Night of the Long Knives, along with most of the other PCs, and the game advanced one generation.

In Pendragon, you usually play your dead character's oldest male offspring. Cynnon had two children who I'd never bothered to name, since the eldest was just 3 years old when Cynnon died, and they'd never come up in the game. I hastily decided the eldest was named Morial, and the youngest was named Gwaid.

My starting point was pretty easy. Morial was born to Sir Cynnon, a wealthy Knight in the court of Salisbury. Cynnon owned twelve manors, and split them between both his sons when he died. I knew a few things right off the bat. Morial was going to be a Knight. It's just not much fun to play anything else in a Pendragon game. Morial's father died when he was very young. He had no other adult relatives either. (That last year had been a tough one) so he was probably raised by Sir Cynnon's friend, Sir Anarin, who happened to be the Steward of Salisbury.

Step 2: Building the Frame

Once you have your starting place, work out the major points. Ideas for personality and capabilities will occur to you as you work, since what you're doing is deciding on the experiences that shaped your character's life. Try to make logical decisions, but don't hold yourself back if you get a couple of wild ideas. It's the GM's job to stifle your creativity.

Figure out where your character was born, and under what circumstances. What was his early life like? Were there any really significant events in his childhood? Children are remarkably resilient, but a child who lived through a really traumatic experience was probably marked by it in some way. Even in childhood look for the chance to connect your character to other characters or major game events. Then try to figure out what your character would have taken away from those experiences. You don't need all the answers now, but you should be asking the questions.

Go through your character's entire life up to date. You don't need to chronicle every moment, or even every year, but you should have a decent biographical outline when you're done. You want a pretty good idea of what happened at each stage of your character's life, and what effect those events would have had. That will help you work out the personality and skills and so forth.

Example: Morial's background looks something like this-

  • Almost every member of his family died by the time he was 3 years old.
  • He was raised by his father's best friend, Sir Anarin, who was also the de facto lord of the land, since the Earl was a child.
  • He grew up knowing he'd be a Lord some day.
  • He was trained as a Knight and a landowner. Growing up at Court mostly, he also learned a lot about what makes the Earldom tick.
  • Nothing really terrible happened after he lost his family. He had a pretty typical lower nobility childhood, except that due to the Roman influence on his lineage he was better educated than most Knights. (He could read Latin)
  • Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with Anarin's daughter Anist.

For spice I threw in one big thing. Back in the last generation the last major battle was a Saxon siege on Salisbury, which was only broken when Areuleus and Uther came to the rescue. In the one major battle where the PCs tried unsuccessfully to break the siege, Sir Anarin failed a crucial Passion roll and spent the whole battle hiding in a ditch pretending to be dead. Sir Cynnon was charismatic enough and strong enough to lead our forces on a controlled retreat, and generally kept things together. Everybody would have died, but we were rescued that same day.

Eventually, Sir Anarin returned with a story about how he got hit on the head and knocked unconscious. Everybody welcomed him back, just glad to see he was alive. He took over running Salisbury all through the siege. Shortly later, all the other PCs died on the Night of the Long Knives. Anarin was spared by pure luck. He left the feast early, and wasn't poisoned when everyone else was.

I decided Morial, who was a very perceptive lad, had eventually found an old, drunken knight to tell him the story. He knew the truth, that Anarin had been a coward, and all the glory he got as the "hero of the realm" rightfully belonged to Cynnon. That's actually fairly illogical - but try telling that to an eight-year old who never got to know his father.

That set up a really interesting dynamic once we started the game, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Step 3: Fill in the Blanks

Now you have a fairly complete story, and probably a decent idea of what the character is like. It's time to fill in all the slots on the character sheet. By now you've made most of the big decisions just as a consequence of writing out the character's past. If you decided he was adopted by a ninja clan, then he'd probably better have the skills of a ninja (even though there's no such thing as ninja). If he's part of a family of wizards, then his life is going to be really miserable if he doesn't know any magic - which might be very fun to play. If he's the adopted son of a Kansas farmer then it's up to you to convince the GM about the dying alien planet and the yellow sun thing. Otherwise, he'd probably better join the Marines when he grows up if you want him to be a big, tough adventurer type.

Make the personality fit the background and abilities. A trained warrior is probably not a total pacifist. A lifelong librarian probably doesn't know Hidden Ultimate Ninja Mantis style Kung Fu, and wouldn't want to hit anybody with Dim Mak if she did. (except for those annoying patrons who download AOL Instant Messenger on the public internet terminals - but maybe that's just me) There aren't really a lot of limitations. The world is full of people who had very similar experiences, but totally different personalities.

Example: Pendragon does a lot of the work for you. A child has the same statistics as his father, and almost the entire starting skill selection is based on your background. The GM let us shuffle Passions around quite a bit, since it can be really hard to play a character who's personality was decided by 3d6 rolls.

Where I had room to maneuver, I tried to keep in mind Morial's basic concept, the "sneaky knight." He could fight, but had learned that you got a lot more done by listening and thinking. I gave him a high Intrigue skill, which is used for finding out secrets, and a high Courtesy, to represent his life at court. His combat skills were good enough to get by, but he was a long way from being an epic hero. I gave him a fairly high Battle skill, though since I decided he'd be good at strategy.

The dice gave me a high Love: Family passion, so I decided Morial had always been protective of his little brother. I had a fairly low Loyalty: Lord passion, which fit my ideas perfectly. Morial had never had much luck trusting people in authority. His Loyalty: Group, which represented his loyalty to the other PCs, came out incredibly high. That made things really interesting, since Sir Anarin's son was one of the PCs. He had an obnoxiously high Love: Anist passion. (In fact, that was retro-fitted into the character story after I rolled the Passion, but it works much better for my story if I tell it the other way around) He had a very high Honor Passion, too - which was a good thing, since it kept him from getting too vicious and pragmatic. One of my earlier Pendragon characters was such a bastard that when he got captured once, the other PCs wouldn't go rescue him.

I had to roll his Personality Traits randomly, but I got to assign the results any way I wanted. I put the highest in Valor. Morial wanted to live up to the idealized vision of his father. I gave him a high Just passion, too. I turned around and gave him a fairly low Honest and Merciful. Morial did not lightly suffer fools. It's kind of a tradition with me that all my Pendragon characters have ridiculously high Energetic scores, and it came in really handy for Morial so he could stay up all night spying and scheming.

The final result was a truly good man, but one willing to compromise his morals when he felt the need. He tended to lurk in the shadows, since he thought taking the spotlight was a good way to get killed. Still, he really wanted to be a hero, and would do whatever he had to do in pursuit of a noble goal - even if what he had to do wasn't very noble. He had a vengeful streak, but his anger ran cold rather than hot.

Step 4: Finish Up

File off all the rough edges, and work out the final connections to the rest of the game, and you're pretty much done. Working from the background doesn't leave you much to do at the end, since it forces you to work so logically at the beginning.

Obviously, the GM will want some input. If he doesn't like your story, you can't really move forward at all. It's a good idea to consult with him every step of the way so as to avoid continuity errors. ("Your ninja can't have trained at the Red Dragon Pagoda when he was sixteen. It was destroyed twenty years ago, and he's only twenty-five now. Do you want to make him over forty? I'd be glad to drag out the aging tables...")

Compare your character's story to the other PCs. If you haven't already found a good connection, try to come up with one now. Since most Background characters come up as a response to past game events, this is usually not too much of a problem.

Once you know where he's been, and have a good idea how he got to wherever he starts the game you're ready to go.

Next month we enter some uncharted waters. I have two articles, and I'm not sure which one I'll give you first. Either we'll do "Even Better than the Real Thing" which is about how to adapt a character from another source or we'll do "How it Really Happens," in which I reveal the sordid truth about how I really make up characters, instead of this sanitized, organized facade that I've been showing you.

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What do you think?

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