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The Play's the Thing

Character Creation Part 3

by David Goodner
Jun 12,2002


Character Creation: Part 3

Personality Based Character Creation

Last time I showed you how to create a character starting with his capabilities. This time around we're going to start with his personality. I use a lot of these techniques in all my characters, since with a few exceptions I have a pretty firm idea of the personality I want to play right at the beginning. There's also a lot of crossover to capabilities, since what you can do is a big factor in how you act.

Before I go much further, I'd better explain that I've never made a character based on a deep psychological profile, and that's not what I'm proposing now. A Personality based character starts with more of a character sketch. Many of the specific details won't be available until you get the character's background and capabilities nailed down. The first step of building a Personality based character is less work than either of the other two types. At the beginning you're just going to build a thin framework, which you will be filling in as you go along.

Step 1: The Personality

OK, this part is pretty obvious. Figure out what kind of character you want to play. Some people will say that no matter what you decide, your character is going to be pretty much like yourself. I don't think that's completely true, but I know from experience that it's hard to play someone a lot different. You don't need to make a lot of decisions right now, but there are a few things you need to know.

What's your character's general outlook? Is the glass half empty or half full, or are you just going to drink whatever's left to forestall the argument? Are you going to play a trusting character, or a suspicious cynic? Very little of this aspect will make it onto your character sheet in most games, but in some ways it's the most important aspect. Your character's general outlook should be played out in almost everything he does.

Since I love to throw in personal stories, I'll elaborate. In a VLARP I played some time ago, my character was Tybalt St. Croix, a Ventrue who should have really been a Brujah. His Nature was Martyr, and his Demeanor was Bravo. He acted tough and violent, but it was really an expression of his desire to protect his friends.

A perfect bit of roleplaying came up about near the end of a really climactic arc. Some powerful force was messing with all the Kindred of the city by opening magical portals, kidnapping Vampires and torturing them for information. In the session in question, Tybalt saw an open portal. Before this session, the gates were always too far away for him to reach.

This time, I grabbed a Storyteller and said "I jump through the portal." I had to tell him three times before he believed me.

I only figured out later how much of that came from Tybalt's personality. On the surface he was murderously angry at whoever had been kidnapping other Kindred. They'd killed the Prince recently, and Tybalt was very loyal to the Prince. On a deeper level, he knew eventually one of the PC's would have to go through one of the gates, and he wanted to be the one - so that nobody else would have to face the danger.

How honorable is your character? Does he live by a strict code, or the law of the jungle? Does he strive for justice, or just for himself? Maybe he tries to be honorable, but doesn't have a lot of willpower. Maybe he pretends to be cynical and cruel, but really has a heart of gold. Like his general outlook, your character's moral outlook will come out more in play than in statistics, but a lot of games do have rules to cover things like codes of honor. Besides, you can use this information to help point you to your character's chosen career. A deeply honorable, honest man is more likely to be a cop than a con artist.

What's his thought process like? Is he deep and philosophical? Brooding? Shallow and irresponsible? Is he very patient, or rash and impulsive? These decisions will help you decide how to flesh out his capabilities. If he's an intellectual, he probably doesn't spend a lot of time at the gym. If he doesn't have much focus, he probably hasn't spent much time at anything, but might have a lot of skills at a fairly low level, gained as he studied until he got bored.

Example: My Personality Based character is Max. Max is short for "Maximum." He was a teenaged superhero for a Champions game. His real name was Patrick Stevens, but he'll be eternally known as Max. Most of my characters are brooding, melancholic types who are deeply concerned with honor and responsibility, so just for a change I wanted to try somebody who didn't care about any of that. Max was the perfect choice. He's was typical "popular" kid, convinced that he's the center of the universe, and totally invulnerable. He was egotistical, irresponsible, and overconfident. He tended to go through girlfriends like tissues, since he was attractive and popular, but so shallow that most of them wouldn't want to hang around long.

Step 2: Definition

There are two ways you can go here. If, by now, you have a pretty good idea of the attributes you'd like, you can just skip to the capabilities, then write a background that fits them. On the other hand, you might want to work on the character's past for a while. As you figure out what experiences shaped your character, you'll know what he's had a chance to learn.

A dark, brooding avenger has probably been deeply wronged in the past. Figure out when that happened. Were his parents killed in a mugging on the way home from the movies? Maybe his whole family got caught in a mob shoot-out in the park. What if his father was a great sword maker, and an evil duelist killed him in a dispute over the price of an exquisite sword?

Your character's personality won't tell you what all the details of his background should be. Try to make logical decisions, but don't worry too much yet. People from all walks of life have all sorts of personalities. Two different people may have a very similar experience and come away with very different results.

With some ideas about the character's past, you can start filling in concrete details. You'll know where he came from, where he went, what he did, what he learned. Always try to remain true to your initial concept, but if you find it changing don't worry too much. My last Amber PbeM character, Miranda, is a great case in point. I started with a sketch of her background and a general personality. By the time I was done, her background bore almost no resemblance to my original ideas. If the Miranda I ended up playing had ever met the Miranda I thought up in the first place, she would have thought the "original" Miranda was a terrible wimp. She would have probably stole the original version's stuff, too, just to keep in practice.

Choose abilities in keeping with your concept. A brooding warrior had probably better be able to fight. A happy-go-lucky thief had better be good at running, and probably hasn't studied the art of poisoning. A quiet intellectual probably has a lot of knowledge, but maybe not a lot of charisma.

Example: My typical characters have fairly exotic backgrounds. Ghost, from the previous column, was a member of his tribe's most important clan. Often my characters have fairly convoluted backstories. In keeping with my attempt to go against type with Max, I gave him the most whitebread background I could think of. He grew up in the suburbs of the campaign city to a pair of yuppie parents. He had a little sister, but no other close family. He went to public school, and wasn't part of the Honors program - much to his parents' disappointment.

I knew he was going to be in good shape. In fact, I was starting to get an idea of his powers, and he was going to be in REALLY good shape. I decided he played football. He was also in a garage band. Given his age and training (or lack there of) it didn't make sense for him to have a lot of specialized knowledge or special skills. On a whim I decided he'd know American Sign Language. (Retroactively, his little sister became deaf) Other than that, he knew what just about any other teenager would know.

Since Max was going to be a superhero, I gave some thought to his powers. He was no great thinker, so I rejected Mentalist and Gadgeteer. Martial Artist was also not a good choice, because that would have involved a very different background, and a somewhat different personality than I had in mind. Belief in his own invulnerability was a big part of Max's personality, so I decided I wanted to make that as true as possible. I figured Max was going to be a Brick or an Energy Projector. Super Speedster might have been a good choice, but I personally don't think Super Speedsters work very well as RPG characters. It's hard to adapt a speedster into turn based combat.

Step 3: Putting it all together

The last big step is to weld all your ideas into a coherent character. Right now you have a bunch of loosely connected facts and concepts that you need to transform into a finished character. How you do that will all depend on your game's character creation process. You can probably have just about any attributes you want, within the limits of the game. Obviously if you wanted your character to be really clever, it wouldn't make sense to give him a lower than game average intelligence. Similarly, if you were planning to make a grim warrior, you'd be ill served by giving your character low physical attributes.

Skills also have a lot of leeway. Unless there's something just screaming against it in your background, you can probably do just about whatever you want. The background you built to go with your personality will give you a lot more guidance than the personality will. Choose abilities based on what makes sense for your character. As much as you might want the Occult skill, your hard nosed, atheist cop who doesn't believe in anything he can't see and touch probably doesn't have it. Of course, if he's a Scully like skeptic, he might have studied the Occult so he could debunk it, but that's a little different.

Example: With Champions, you can do just about anything. I always start my Champions characters from the Disadvantages. It's a habit, more than anything. The ones that really stand out were:

  • Overconfident - well duh.
  • Enraged: when losing - Max was very competitive. He tended to fly off the handle when he felt like he was being beaten.
  • Dependent NPC: Girlfriend of the Week - I made it clear to the GM that it would hardly ever be the same girl twice. He loved it.
  • Hunted: Personal Nemesis - I left this undefined initially. The GM chose one of our first enemies, who managed to steal Max's Air Jordans. It was hate at first sight.

He was also Watched by the government, and had a bunch of other campaign specific disadvantages.

For Attributes, I gave Max high physical attributes, a good Presence, and a really high Comeliness. I wanted him to be the ultimate high-school hero type. If Dawson's Creek had superheroes, he could have been on the cast. His Intelligence and Ego were merely average. I didn't make him stupid, just not particularly clever. I also bought up his figured stats a little, giving him more Physical Defense, Stun, and Endurance.

After Attributes, I usually do Powers, which eats the bulk of my points. (Hey, it's a game about super heroes) I wanted Max to be strong, flashy, and nigh invulnerable. The Reign of the Supermen story had just finished in DC comics, which introduced me to the new Superboy. One of my hobbies is trying to figure out how to simulate weird powers in Champions, and Superboy's "Tactile Telekinesis" seemed like the perfect choice.

Max ended up with an Elemental Control with Flight, Force field, and Telekinesis (Touch Only). I decided not to follow Superboy's powers to the extent of making the Force field only vs. Physical attacks, partly because I didn't want to go to the trouble, and partly because I didn't want Max to get roasted alive the first time he ran into an Energy Projector. I also decided a glowing force field would be cool, and that seemed to be more energy based to me.

I also wanted Max to be a little unsure of the limits of his powers. He was just starting to figure this stuff out, so I added a Multipower with a hefty Activation roll to it. (Translation, the powers in the Multipower didn't always work.) The Multipower slots were a little additional Telekinesis, some extra Non-combat Velocity on his flight ("Time for Maximum Speed.") and a big No Range Energy Blast he could add to his telekinetic punch ("Maximum Force.")

I moved away from the Superboy model to turn Max into a more traditional Energy Projector. His powers had been initially awakened by his athletic exertions, so they molded themselves around his body, but what he really had was access to one of those implausible comic book energy sources that does all kinds of neat stuff. Had the game gone on long enough, he might have eventually learned to project his power beyond his body (by buying off the Touch Only limits to his traditionally ranged powers). I was also thinking about something like Life Support or Regeneration.

With whatever paltry points are left I buy skills and advantages. Champions characters don't tend to have a lot of skills, and Max was no exception. I gave him Athletics, and gave him the Professional Skill: Musician at a pathetically low level. Later on, Max decided he wanted to be on TV. I was going to buy the Professional Skill: Acting, but the GM suggested Familiarity: Acting, which has a lower chance of success so he could be an Action star instead. None of the Advantages really fit, except for Luck, which was too expensive to be worth it. He came from a middle-class background, so additional wealth wasn't appropriate. He also wasn't likely to know anybody important enough to take as a contact or to take Favors from. He also didn't have any special equipment except for a new Ford Mustang convertible.

That was pretty much it. Unlike most of my characters, he didn't have a dark past where evil forces had killed everyone he loved. He grew up in a California suburb where his dad was a real-estate agent and his mom was a paralegal or something. Nothing all that exciting had ever happened to him until he figured out that he could bench-press a Volvo and fly. Unlike most people, his first thought wasn't to put on a spandex suit and fight crime. His first thought was that now it would be really easy to get onto the Varsity football team. He was the only sophomore who got to start. He only decided to be a superhero to impress one of his girlfriends when he found out she was a member of some established superhero's fan-club.

I liked Max. I kind of miss him.

So anyway, that's our show for this evening. Tune in next time and I'll show you the most challenging process of all, building your character from the Background out.

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