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The Play's the Thing

Twinking for Fun and Profit: Capability based character creation

by David Goodner
April 23, 2002

Courtesy of Sabledrake Magazine  

Hi. Thanks for coming back. Last time I broke down the keys to making sure your character would fit well into your game. That's all well and good, but now you need to actually make the character. Every character has three aspects, like the legs of a three- legged stool. (You all remember that stupid analogy from US Government class, right?)

First, you have your character's capabilities: attributes, skills, advantages and disadvantages, or whatever else the game calls them. These represent what your character can and can't do. The rules of the game probably have quite a bit to say about your character's capabilities. In fact, you could argue that the main point of character creation is to define them.

Second, you have your character's personality: what he thinks, and how he acts. Most games are pretty thin on rules for personality. If you're not free to make most of your character's personal decisions you're not really role-playing. Your character's personality is at least as important as his capabilities. Even if you're just playing another version of yourself, you need to consider how your character would interact with is world.

Finally, there's background: where your character comes from and what he did before you started playing him. In some games, background isn't all that important. Your character's backstory may not be very related to the greater story of the game you're playing. In the best games I've played, though, character background was woven into the story, which made the Player Characters' involvement much more personal.

Capabilities, personality, and background all blend together in the finished character, and there's not really any way to separate them. If your character knows how to kill people fourteen different ways with a spoon, he probably picked up that interesting talent, and the experience would have had some effect on his psychological makeup. That said, for the purposes of these articles, I'm splitting them up.

I'm going to take one aspect of the character and show you how to extrapolate the other two from the chosen aspect. I doubt that you'll ever make up a character exactly the way I'm going to describe. In fact, the examples I'm going to give you are slightly modified. The idea here is to isolate each element so you can see what effect they have on each other.

And we're going to start with what my friend Chris calls "Twinking for fun and profit," or, in other words . . .

Capability Based Character Creation

About half of the characters I create are based first on their capabilities. I figure out what kind of character I'd like to play: a fighter, a sneak, a healer or whatever. Then I come up with a story to fit what I have in mind. A lot of the time, I only have a vague idea of the kind of character I want to play and the background and personality help me fill in the details.

The process is pretty simple, even if I hardly ever do it in exactly this order:

Step 1: Define Capabilities.

The first step is to figure out what you want your character to do. Depending on what kind of game you're playing, this could be highly detailed, or you might be better off with a rough description. Your primary goal is to come up with exactly the sort character you want to play, but as I discussed in the last article, you should probably leave a little room for maneuvering later on.

Don't just focus on one thing. Very few real people, or literary characters for that matter, only have a single skill. Even the most focused warrior has to know how to get along with a few people, and the most academic and sedentary wizard probably has at least one hobby besides occult lore.

Example: One of my friends decided she wanted to run a Tribe 8 game. (For those of you not familiar with Tribe 8, click here to go to the Dream Pod 9 website on the subject) I'd never played Tribe 8 before, so I poured through the player section of the book to get a feel for the game. I saw lots of stuff that interested me. Too much, really. My character in the last game I played was a physically weak psychic.

I finally decided just to play someone as different from that character as possible. A random doodle during church one morning provided me with a picture of a lean, broad-shouldered warrior with tiger stripe tattoos and a long topknot. I decided he was the character I was going to play. I gave him the name "Ghost" because I thought it sounded cool.

Looking at the picture, I had a big guy with a bigger sword. Obviously he was a swordsman. I gave him a fairly high strength, and a high agility in keeping with his tiger-like physique and appearance. His Melee skill was going to be his highest. My earlier character had been a Psychic, so I decided not to give Ghost any supernatural abilities.

Actually assigning the stats occurred a little later on, but I already knew what I was going for. Ghost was going to be a Fallen, since the game was about a group of Fallen. I decided he'd need a way to make a living, so I gave him metalsmithing and weaponsmithing skills. Then, just for fun, I gave him a little skill in music. It was a nice non-violent touch for a very combat focused character.

Step 2: Extrapolation.

The second step is to extrapolate the background and personality from the ability set. You have to come up with a background that fits your character's stats, and a personality that would logically come from that background.

The background is probably easiest, particularly if your character is based around an unusual ability like psychic powers or magic. Even if you're just playing a normal fighter, he had to learn his skills from somewhere, and that can give you the core of your background.

During this phase, you might find yourself changing your character's abilities a little bit. You might find out that warriors from the culture you choose always have a particular weapon proficiency that you didn't take, or maybe they're forbidden to do something else you wanted your character to be able to do. You can either alter your character's background, or change his abilities. Usually by this stage you have a pretty good idea what you want, so the choice shouldn't be too hard.

With the background and the capabilities designed, the personality is fairly easy. Unless your background is really constraining, you can probably do just about whatever you want. You have some guidelines, though. Your character comes from a homeland, he has some kind of occupation, and he's learned some things.

Ask yourself what someone from his background might be like. Stereotypes aren't a final goal, but they're a great starting place. Maybe you'll be inspired to play a humorous, light-hearted Dwarf, just because nobody will expect it. Maybe you'll decide to play a French-American Vampire from New Orleans who was embraced by an ancient French nobleman, but who doesn't really mind being an unholy creature of the night. Then again, maybe you'll just go for a fairly typical personality.

Often, I only have a vague idea of my character's personality. As I play, I build a more detailed picture. I also usually leave the exact details of the backstory to the very end to avoid painting myself into a corner, and to give myself the chance to take advantage of any new information that comes my way. It's almost always a good idea to find ways to link your character's backstory to the stories of some of the other players if you can.

Example: I decided Ghost would be a Joanite Jacker, a warrior from a tribe of warriors. One of the themes of Tribe 8 is that the Fatimas (demigods) who all the Tribes worship aren't behaving the way they're supposed to. Since Joan was the Fatima most concerned with honor, I decided Ghost would have fallen over a matter of honor. I ruthlessly plagerized a story from the core rulebook and changed it to fit my purposes.

In the original story, an innocent young Joanite was killed during a ritual combat when Joan caused her sword to break. In my version, Ghost (then named Justin Guy'on) was her opponent. When her blade shattered, he refused to kill her and was exiled for disobedience.

Ghost's personality seemed to be heavily based on Honor. He was trapped in a conundrum. Joan was supposed to be the very definition of honor, yet she ordered him to do something dishonorable. His world was shattered, and he was trying to figure out what he should do, or if he could even exist, without Joan. This gave me a very interesting game goal.

Ghost really wants to find a way to make Joan be honorable again, because that way his world will make sense. The goal is probably beyond him, but even failing at it will make him interesting to play. I'd always intended for him to be a Jacker, so I decided he didn't feel great anger toward Joan. That would have made him more like a Herite.

Step 3: Finishing.

The last step is to make all three parts fit together. You might end up changing a few things, adding some and taking away others. You'll probably want to change your background rather than your capabilities, but don't get too attached to any one aspect. The better made your character is, the more fun he will be to play.

Example: Ghost was almost finished. I decided to give him a Dependant NPC for a few extra points so I could get my skills exactly the way I wanted them. The GM and I worked out Dara, a Fallen Magdelite who took Ghost in when he first Fell. He felt very protective of her (actually, he was in love with her, but he was a big, gruff warrior with little emotional awareness so it took him three months to figure that out).

To make his Fall all the more dramatic, I made him a member of a noble family. I wanted him to use a Bastard Sword, but the basic rules didn't have stats for one. They did have stats for a Katana, so the GM let me have one of those. That wasn't a common weapon for a Tribal warrior to have, so we came up with a neat little story where he found the sword on the body of a dead man while riding a patrol. The fact that he learned how to use it set him apart from his relatives a little, foreshadowing his eventual exile from the Joanites.

The GM and I worked out the final details. Justin Guy'on spared Simone Jacobi'on on the Killing Floor and just walked out of Tribal lands in a state of shock. Everybody was too surprised to stop him. Still in shock, he met Dara and was attacked by a pack of wild dogs. While protecting the girl from the dogs, Justin was wounded. Dara took him back to her home and nursed him back to health, then helped him recover from his Fall (which was a psychic trauma).

Originally, Justin had been wandering with the intent to go into Z'bri lands and fight whatever he found until something killed him. Dara convinced him that there was still something worth living for. He decided he would live for killing the Z'bri, not just one or two, but the entire race. He took the name "Ghost" to symbolize his death to his prior life.

Dara lived in a squalid little hut, and winter was coming on, so when Ghost found work as a blacksmith's assistant, he invited Dara to live with him. That was pretty much it. Ghost worked in the shop and was waiting for an opportunity to strike a true blow against the Z'bri.

All right. There's Ghost. Next time I'll start with character personality and show you how to come up with a story and a set of capabilities that fit whatever sort of personality you want to play. I'd really like to hear from some of you. I post my E-mail address for feedback purposes.

Sabledrake also has a great Discussion Room function. Ya'll should check it out. I'd love to see some public discussion of my ideas (even if you don't agree with them). You can also let me know what other topics you'd like to see covered in "The Play's the Thing." I'll take a stab at just about any subject some of you would like to read about.

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What do you think?

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