For the typical D&D player, the game essentially boils down to “winning.” You slay the monsters, find the treasure, level up. A steady upward climb. Fun, to be sure, but I’d rather just play a board or video game if I wanted that. Tabletop allows for a little something more, that is to say, the unparallelled ability to tell any story, act any part. It’s the stage on a smaller scale, in which the audience are also the actors.
What drives a story more than anything else? Conflict. So the GM twists your arm a little. Hits you where it hurts. But who says the GM is the only one who can introduce conflict? What happens when the players take it into their own hands to make a multi-dimensional, real character, replete with desires, strengths, and weaknesses?
Whoever said they couldn’t be the same thing?
“Okay,” you say. “That’s just fine taking advantage of a character’s disadvantages. That’s no new trick. So what?”
All right, how about using a character’s advantages against him?
John Wick, Play Dirty, 2006
Tag! I’ll use your very strength for my gain.
This is the ideology at work behind the Tag/Invoke/Compel mechanic of the Fate system. You can invoke an Aspect (think of them as formalized backgrounds or personality characteristics) to gain the advantage in a Risk. But so too can your allies and enemies Tag that very Aspect to tip the scales, or even Compel you to do something in keeping with your character, but potentially destroy everything you’ve been working towards.
It’s what makes Houses of the Blooded, which uses the Aspect system from Fate, a fundamentally tragic game. You are your own undoing. You’re doomed to fall, but when that fall is spectacular, we enjoy it just as much as “winning.”
You can do this in other systems as well, it just requires a little more work on your part.
- Identify three to four primary traits that you would qualify as your character’s cookies–those signature traits that set him or her above the rest, that really define the character. In Dungeons & Dragons you’d look to your Background, your Feats, your Class and Race features. In Savage World they’re your edges. Don’t forget the setting as well, the time, place, and flavor, which will give you a whole slew of considerations. Write them down if they’re a little more abstract and independent of the game mechanics, like, “pure-hearted,” or “long-lost prince.” Consider both internal and external conflicts, since all one without the other make for either pure pulp or too “literary” feeling characters. It may help to denote some as major and other minor. Finally, the traits needn’t be as fine-tuned as, say, Aspects are in Houses of the Blooded, because they confer no in-game benefit. This is pure role-play and story fodder, here, so don’t torment yourself.
- List the benefits of each trait. Sure, you already know this, but it doesn’t hurt to write it down to really see it, make sure it crystallizes into thought properly. Too many things we just take for granted as knowledge because it’s swimming up in our minds, but won’t come out straightforwardly on paper. This is the time to really define what it means to be a woman warrior, or half-breed bastard.
- Now comes the tricky part. You have to figure out how those very traits can also be a Very Bad Thing. Our pure-hearted one, for instance, becomes too trusting, easily taken advantage of. She can’t even conceive of stealing, or lying, or using others for her own gain. So it’s bound to happen to her. Or another character might have claimed to have divine bloodlines. Depending on the nature of the cult (I use the term in its theological, not pop-culture context), he could be named a heretic and even hunted down. Sure wish he didn’t have those extra powers now, huh?
- Consider developing these as story arcs to address over the course of the campaign, each with a beginning, middle, and end.
- Start with the spark, the instigating act that serves as a departure point from the status quo. What could happen to bring the strength and weakness into relief? Is it an NPC from the character’s past? A quest set before the adventurers? One of the player characters themselves (bonus points)? You should work with your GM to find a launch pad you can both agree on.
- Try not to plan the middle, instead, letting it develop organically over the course of the campaign. You want to leave room to be flexible, to adapt to the moment, and perhaps allow the campaign the guide the progression of the issues. Just think of the ups and downs of narrative structure. Build the tension, throw in more obstacles, and build us back up again until we hit the climax, which may or may not be the same as the ending.
- Finally, however, you can think about the ending. What do you want to see happen to your character? Would you rather use the weakness and conflict as a hurdle that makes victory all the sweeter? Or would you rather play your character’s downfall, falling further and further from grace into their own self-made hell? There’s also the possibility of a mix of success and failure, including self-sacrifice to achieve their ultimate goal, or giving in to their desires and winning true love over their allegiances or ideals. Just don’t feel like the climax has to be set in stone. You may find as you go that you want to change things up, that the other option makes more sense now. Just be sure to communicate these to your GM, who is there to help you realize your characters, whether it’s for good or ill.
So you think you can use this as you plan your novel, too? Sure can. You’ll just want to develop the middle as well, seeing as you have complete control over the plot and don’t have to worry about those other pesky players at your table…
A Character Study
To illustrate what I mean I’ll be using Ealasaid NicRuraich, my red-headed Vistani Hybrid Sorcerer-Thief for my friend’s upcoming campaign, Le Morte de Mordred. In this case, the setting provides the primary context for her struggles, though some are internal as well. Let’s take a step-by-step look at how I go from flat, fantasy female to a gutsy girl who brings her own struggles to the table, without the GM having to lift a finger.
- For her traits, I’ve gone with a mixture of feats and a background, as well as extra themes that were inspired by songs I explored when trying to find a theme for her.
- Seeress (Major)
- Arcane Familiar (Major)
- Vistani (minor)
- Falling in Love (minor)
- I’ve decided on the following benefits accordingly, though a few are already covered by mechanics.
- Seeress (Major) Ealasaid’s primary character “cookie,” if you will, is fortune teller. Much of it is putting on airs to fatten her purse, but there are time when she really Sees. She’ll be mastering Divination rituals, and her feat lets her cast one without components per day.
- Arcane Familiar (Major) What’s cooler than a little Magpie flitting about your shoulder? One who talks, can give you advice, and serves as a second pair of eyes? And pushes you to grow as a magic user?
- Vistani (minor) There are a good number of perks to being part of a caravan. You learn all sorts of trades, see more of the world, meet all sorts of people. You also get their nifty little abilities, and an extended family to reach out to when need be.
- Falling in Love (minor) Not so much a benefit to her, but it allows me as a player to indulge in my favorite bit of role-playing: romance.
- Some of these came easily, others were assisted by the setting. If you need help, reach out to your GM or fellow players.
- Seeress (Major) Given the Arthurian setting, being a magic-user can be a very, very dangerous livelihood. Christianity is the dominant religion of the nobles (if not the pagan masses), so that “witchnose” of hers is like to get her killed.
- Arcane Familiar (Major) Magpies are perhaps one of the smartest animals in the world. A magical one is even moreso. But in English folklore, a single Magpie is a sign of bad luck. What starts to happen when Pica joins Ealasaid? You guessed it. Then he starts to nitpick at your decisions. Questioning their wisdom. Having altogether too much to say. And seems to have been sent by someone to sharpen Ealasaid’s abilities… but why? Only my GM knows.
- Vistani (minor) Insta-outcast, go. People assume she’s a cut-purse, and for good reason. The same charm that endears most to her is a liability when she’s dealing with the lawmen of the villages.
- Falling in Love (minor) Finally, the very boy she feels drawn to may be the wolf who consumes her in her dreams. The Betrayer. So think again, Ealasaid. What did Grandmama say about the dreams you dream about yourself? And is he worth it?
- Now let’s take a look at the beginning, middle, and end for these. Right now I’m painting with broad strokes, since I have yet to really play with her or talk with my GM at length.
- The spark is her leaving the caravan with her sister because of the dreams she’s been having,meeting Shane MacGreggor, embarking on whatever journey our DM has planned, and later, once she’s reached level two, meeting her familiar, Pica the Magpie.
- I don’t have much idea of how the campaign is going to develop, but I do have a sense of how I’d like to see things go. I’d like Pica to be an antagonistic force, pushing Ealasaid past her own boundaries. Shane will also be a source of torment, and her sister/the Vistani may prove a hurdle as well. Finally, she’ll have to hide her magic as best she can, while simultaneously trying to master it.
- Ultimately I don’t know if she’ll fall or rise to the occasion. I’ll let the game decide. My characters usually fall somewhere in the gray zone, succeeding in some respects and failing miserably at others. What she decides to make a priority is up to her.
And there you have it. It’s a touch more of a sketch right now than a fully-fledged character biography, but it doesn’t need to be. Her strengths and weaknesses will find different applications when the game is played. And we’ll see which of the two win out.