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The Play's the Thing

So You Wanna' Be a Hero?

by David Goodner
March 28, 2002

Courtesy of Sabledrake Magazine  

Welcome to my first article. I'd like to thank you in advance for reading. "The Play's the Thing" is an interesting project for me. I started it over a year ago on Sabledrake Magazine. If you're really impatient, you can go over there and read ahead. You won't get everything, though, since I'm writing some columns exclusively for, and I'm editing these a little. While you're there, go read my serial novel, Changeling Seed. It's in the first year archives.

But that's not why we're here, so let's get back to business. The Play's the Thing is about the player's job in an RPG. There are hordes of GM advice columns, but I haven't run across a lot of advice aimed at the players. Of course the GM has a lot more to do than any single player, so maybe that's fair, but I still think there's room for some player advice.

I'm not egotistical enough to say I can make you a better gamer, but I hope my ideas can help you, or maybe just show you an interesting way of looking at things. What I plan to do is take a single aspect of playing RPGs and look at it in different ways. The first four columns are about character creation. I have ideas for columns on group dynamics, character development, and possibly on playing in different genres, but that's a long way off.

Before we begin though, I'll tell you a little about myself. I've been gaming for over 20 years. My first game was Dungeons & Dragons. I played all through junior high and high school, moving gradually into science fiction, superheroes, cyberpunk, and horror.

Most of the ideas I'm going to talk about in this column emerged during a very long Shadow Run game that I started GM-ing in 1991 and played all through 92. In that time our group moved through two GM's and started on a second generation of characters. All of us were in college, with sufficient control over our own lives that if we wanted to spend all weekend gaming nobody could really stop us. Naturally, we played a lot. It was fun, possibly the most fun I've ever had gaming.

I'm more of a writer than an actor, so I spend a lot of time defining things, working out their details, and describing them. I tend to write tons of things that the other players never see, just to get into character. When I'm the GM, I try to integrate all the elements of the game the same way I put together all the elements of a story when I'm writing. Then, if I'm lucky, the rest is pretty easy. All the pieces fit together so well that the game just runs itself.

I also believe the most important thing in any game is the Player Characters. If the game was a movie, they should be the first people to get their names in the credits. Otherwise, the game should be focusing on the people who would. So, what better place to start than...

Character Creation

The theme for next four columns is character creation. Part 1 will cover how to integrate a character into the game. Parts 2, 3, and 4 will describe different philosophies of character creation.

To create a character as an integrated part of the story, you need to keep three sets of people in mind. First, you need to work within the GM's guidelines. Second, you need to create a character who works well with the other characters. Finally, you need to create a character who you will enjoy playing. ("Well, duh," you say, but you'll see what I mean later.)

The GM

I begin with the GM because he is, arguably, the most important person in the game. He creates the whole world and comes up with most of the events in it. Obviously if your character is made up contrary to his requirements, you're going to have problems.

Most GM's don't sit around making up restrictions on character creation just to annoy their players. Players are so easy to annoy that it's not worth the effort. When the GM limits character choices, he usually has a reason.


Sometimes the GM will limit character choices so that all the PC's will fit into the story he intends to run. For example, take a Star Wars game. Star Wars is a nearly limitless setting, with potential for a wide variety of characters. However, if the GM is running a game about Imperial Military cadets who realize the Empire is wrong and defect, all the PC's will have to be human, mostly male, and of military background. None of them should have much Force training, either. Lots of other people exist in the Star Wars universe, but none of those characters would be appropriate to that specific game.

The plot doesn't have to be quite that restrictive, but most games that have a more coherent basis than "you all meet in a tavern" will have some limits on acceptable character types. Here's an example from my sordid gaming past.

About a year ago I tried to set up a Changeling game. My Chronicle concerned the fictional city of Scarborough, which was a Duchy in the Kingdom of Pacifica. The plot was going to be about the sudden disappearance of all the Grump Nobles, which would cast the city into chaos. I told the players they were supposed to play young nobles, mostly Knights & Squires, but some more powerful nobles would be fine. I asked them for concepts.

A little over a week later, I had a collection of concepts for several people who would logically hang out with some Faerie nobles, but nobody was playing a noble. Not one character had the Title or Freehold advantages.

I could have still run the game, but it would have looked a lot different. Commoners would get a different reception from local nobles, and would have different standards of behavior. Without Freeholds to protect, there was nothing to keep the Company in one place, which was something I wanted. In some ways, not having at least one noble would have made the game a lot harder. Commoners wouldn't be able to issue orders or command troops, which meant I'd have to work around those parts of the plot.

Anyway, we negotiated for quite a while. In the meantime, someone else ran a pretty rocking Pendragon game, and eventually my Changeling Chronicle turned into a Vampire game, which was a lot of fun, but totally different.

Play Balance

A lot of times, the GM will restrict access to some types of characters because they unbalance the game. A World of Darkness game might be open to Vampires, Wraiths, and Changelings, but not to Garou and Mages. Both of the latter have the ability to span worlds in ways that the three former do not. Besides, at low levels a Garou is a lot stronger than any other starting level character, and from mid to high levels, a Mage is vastly superior to any other character. With a little work the Kindred, Wraiths, and Changelings fit together. (It sounds like a weird game to me, though.)

Superhero games have a lot of balance issues. In the comics Superman and Batman can team up because the writers can manipulate things so that both characters get a chance to shine. In a game, the GM has it a little harder. While Batman is The Detective, one of the smartest guys alive, the guy playing him in your game didn't have the luxury of watching his incredibly wealthy parents get gunned down in a mugging. He's probably not much smarter than the guy playing Superman, and Superman is built on five zillion points.


Sometimes the GM won't let you play something just because he doesn't like it. While this is arbitrary and somewhat unfair, it is not wise to fight too much over these issues. If the GM doesn't like your character type, he's probably going to be harder on you than he would otherwise be. Besides, sometimes his opinions have good reasoning behind them.

When I ran Shadow Run, I never allowed any PC Deckers. The reason was simple. The Matrix rules were slow and clunky, so for the Decker to get to do his thing, I had to leave the rest of the players hanging for long periods of time. On the other side of the coin, the Decker wasn't good for much in social situations, or in combat, so his player would be bored whenever the other players were doing their things.

Eventually, my players started getting interested in the Matrix, so I compromised. I wrote set of quickie Matrix rules to handle things like trying to override the security on a door and so-forth, and allowed "split-class" Deckers. A couple of the interested players had their characters take up Decking as a sideline to their usual activities. If they wanted to do dedicated Matrix runs, we handled them as one-on-one sessions. Otherwise I just used a simple skill check system.

Several other GM's I've talked to use the same general guidelines. A PC who's designed not to interact with the rest of the group is kind of annoying.

As a side note, I don't mind Netrunners in Cyberpunk. The Cyberpunk Net rules are a little more flexible, and the Decker can practically go on the run with the rest of the team. SR3 may have gotten past most of my objections, too. I haven't had the chance to play it yet.

The Other Players

The fact that you need to get along with the other players is just as obvious as the fact that you need to stay on the GM's good side. There are two big issues you need to consider about the other players. The first is Character Ability. The second is Personality.

Character Ability

Ideally, every character in your party will have a specialty. The group will need a wide range of abilities in order to be successful, and no single character is likely to be powerful enough to possess them all. Specialization is the key. In D&D this is spelled out for you. The Fighter fights. The Thief steals. The Wizard casts spells, etc...

There's some overlapping, but in general every character class has a role. So long as the Players pick different classes, there's not likely to be any problems. In games without a class system, it's more confusing.

When you're designing your character, it's a good idea to talk to the other players. Each of you should pick a role to fill. If two of you want to play the "Magician," you should try to come up with sufficiently different Magicians that they're not just carbon copies of each other.


This is the one that's going to get me into trouble. Most gamers I know get a little hostile when someone suggests that they should play their characters differently than they are. I do it myself. Nevertheless, it's a sad truth that sometimes a character who's being roleplayed really, really well is still disruptive to the game.

The primary example is the crazy character. Dragonlance Kinder, Vampire: the masquerade Malkavians, and similar characters have some degree of insanity built into them. Too many players portray these characters as utter clowns.

When you're playing a weird character, try to find a way to portray his weirdness so that it enhances the game rather than disrupting it. If you get the choice, pick personality quirk that makes your character more dramatic. I briefly played a Malkavian named Piper in a LARP. Piper dressed in a ragged jacket covered in buttons with cute sayings on them like "Maybe I'll become an evil genius and destroy the world, and then I'll feel better." He played a bamboo flute, and never spoke. He pantomimed everything and looked really pathetic.

If that was all there was to Piper he'd have been cute, but ultimately annoying, and he wouldn't have really added anything to the game. But there was more. Piper was a Sabbat infiltrator. His real derangement was Regression. Whenever he was in serious danger he would curl up into a little ball and cry, and couldn't really remember what had happened if he survived it. His whole silent clown persona was an act designed to get people to underestimate him. Everybody thought he was harmless. I overheard all sorts of juicy gossip while sitting in the corner playing the flute. Beyond that, I managed to win the protection of one of the city's Primogen, and I got to vote in a Conclave. Nobody ever thought to ask me where I came from or who my sire was.

Meanwhile, I was passing along everything I heard to the Sabbat. In one session I got the names of all the Primogen, and cracked the Prince's mortal ID. Later on, acting on my information, the Sabbat nearly killed half the vampires in the city by blowing up one of the Elyssium buildings.

I was one session away from getting the Prince to take me home with her before the game broke up and we shifted to Mind's Eye Theater, Revised. Pity.

The point is, though, that Piper was a very effective part of the game because I made sure he would be. He was originally a "throwaway" character I was just playing for a few sessions until I could work in my serious character, so I could have just played him for laughs. Indeed, a lot of people liked Piper - even after they found out he was the one who tried to blow them up.

After the weirdo, the next really problematic personality is the Loner. The problem with Loners is they're really attractive to play. They have great dramatic potential, and they're well represented in the literature. It's a lot of fun to portray the hard-bitten cynic who wants nothing but to be left alone, and relies on no one but himself. Unfortunately, your character has to work with a group of other characters.

The key to pulling off the Loner is to build certain hooks into his background so that he will be forced to put aside his misanthropic ways and cooperate. In the X-Men movie, Wolverine is a great loner, but he's too good a guy, deep down, to leave Rogue by the side of the road in the snow. Once he's taken responsibility for her, he never lets it go, even when he's seen her safely in Xavier's. He's still a loner, but he'll work with the other X-Men because he knows he needs their help.

You can use several traits to get around your loner's isolationist tendencies without compromising his personality. A Code of Honor is good, as is some sort of obligation. Maybe your character is a Samurai, and his Shogun ordered him to work with the other PC's. He doesn't have to like them, but he does have to stay with them. Possibly shared goals are enough. Maybe in your character's background an evil overlord killed his little sister. If said evil overlord is one of the group's enemies, the loner might join up with them for a better shot at revenge. If one of the PC's happens to remind him of his slain sister, he's almost certain to remain.

There's no reason not to play him as very independent, either. Just keep in mind that when you run off on your own the GM is likely to spend more time with the other players. Try to handle your solo operations one-on-one with the GM outside the regular session if possible.

Finally, purely psychopathic or sociopathic characters are hard to work into a group (except in certain games). If you insist on playing a cold-blooded murderer, and the rest of the group isn't of like mind, don't be surprised if your character ends up being sent to jail or killed by his supposed allies.


It's actually pretty unlikely that you need help with making up a character you enjoy, but there are a couple of things to look out for.

The One Trick Pony

When you're making up a character, you should try to make up a reasonably well-rounded individual. It's perfectly OK to make up the super swordsman for a fantasy game, but if all he's good for is swinging his sword, he's going to be pretty boring most of the time. You should think about what else your swordsman would have learned. If he's a nobleman, he should be reasonably adept at court. If he learned to fight as a bandit, maybe he's had dealings with the underworld. He should probably have a little bit of Healing or First Aid or whatever no matter what.

Fun to Write, No Fun to Play

This has only happened to me a few times. I've had a couple of characters who were really interesting to write, but when it came time to play them I didn't enjoy it. One was too much of a jerk for me to ever get sympathetic about. One was very logically just too boring to do much with. A third one just scares me. I still hear her voice in the dark of the night, and she won't go away...

Anyway, the point is make sure you'll enjoy acting out the actions and thinking the thoughts of your character. If things go well, you'll be hanging around with the guy for a long time.

Closing Remarks

OK, I've said quite a bit about what not to play, and why you shouldn't play it, but now it's time to talk about what you want. You should always get to play a character you enjoy, otherwise, why play at all? Here are a couple of tactics for getting what you want.

First, figure out what you really want. Develop the personality you want to play, a rough idea of the characteristics and abilities, and a background. At the beginning, all three should be somewhat separate. Any of the three might not work out, so you need to be ready to compromise. Generally, if the GM has objections they'll relate to your character's stats or his background. If you don't get too attached to any one aspect of your character in the early stages, you should be able to keep a finished product that looks pretty much like what you had in mind.

Second, offer some choices. When I go into a game these days, I usually outline three or four characters, any one of whom I'd enjoy playing. That way the GM can pick the one he likes best. I can also choose the one that works best with the other players without having to wait until everybody else is done to make up my character. Making several characters also keeps me from getting too attached to any one idea. Of course every so often I end up with three characters I really want to play, and I can only play one.

I hope the guidelines above are useful to you. The next three columns will focus on different aspects of character creation. After that, I'll do four exclusive columns. I don't have topics for those yet. I'm open for suggestions. In fact, what I'd like to do is write the exclusive columns based on your input. Let me know in the forum, or by private e-mail, if there's anything you're particularly interested in.

See you soon.

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg