Crafting a Compelling Character in a Role-playing game

Printer-friendly version

Role playing games are about playing a character.  Characters with depth are more interesting than a flat character.  The best characters are compelling characters, the one you love to play or love to watch someone else play. 

Most role playing game rule books typically have rules for resolving combat, skill and ability use, and other mechanics.  The rules for character creation usually revolve around the choices or die rolls that will help resolve these game actions.  What is not typical in a set of RPG rules are guidelines to help the player craft a compelling character.  This article will explore ideas and strategies to assist players in crafting a memorable and fun RPG character.

In researching this topic I discovered a wealth of material geared to help writers create compelling characters but I quickly realized that there was a problem with that advice.  While characters in role playing games and those in fiction both take part in a story, the nature of these stories is quite different.  A novel is the effort of one story teller but a role playing game is a cooperative narration.  A novelist can explore and delve into one or multiple characters as per his whim, but a role player must explore his character in turn with others.  Role playing games use the convention of “turns” to break down combat and action to manageable blocks of time.  Even if the current game action is not being resolved in combat turns, the usual convention is that each player takes turns in role playing.

Since the character will only be “on stage” for a fraction of the game time, presenting a long laundry lists of guidelines to players is unsuitable.  I’ve condensed broad advice for the novelist into three points.  Choose one or more of the following suggestions and make a note in your character’s background. 

The Passion

In most role playing games characters fulfill quests or missions that are almost always provided by or assigned by the game master.  These quests or missions are usually fulfilled in one game session or over a whole campaign of game sessions.  They are meant to be resolved and are often the point of the game.  Consider giving your character a player assigned “quest”.  This will be the thing that your character is passionate about.

A character that wants something is interesting.  Thus the first strategy to craft a compelling character is to choose a passion for the character.  This point actually covers such things as a driving need, desire, ambition, obsession, as well as a passion.  Note that this “quest” or need is player assigned with little or no input by the game master.  It is rooted in the character concept the player is choosing to play, and, while it might be accomplished over the career of the character, it equally might not.  For example, if a character’s driving desire is to earn the respect of his dead father then he may never gain a sense of closure simply because the father is dead.  

Needs are conditions or situations in which something is required or wanted.  The best way to give a character a need is to pick one from Maslov’s hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  Physiological needs involve the need for air, food, sex, sleep, etc.  Safety can involve security of body, employment, resources, morality, health, family, and property.  Love and belonging involves friendship, family, and sexual intimacy.  The need for esteem involves self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect by others.  Self-actualization is about morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts.

The Secret

A character with a secret is interesting.  For example which of the following characters draws your interest more: a conservative politician or a conservative politician that cheats on his wife with prostitutes?  Ask yourself which of those two politicians has greater potential for people to talk about?  Role playing games are about playing a larger than life hero in dramatic situations.  A hero with a secret is more interesting than a righteous crusader. 

The secret does not have to be dirty or immoral but it should be something that defines the character in some way.  In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, have a secret magic ring and it is one of, if not the major defining elements of these characters.  In Star Wars and its related sequels and prequels Obi Wan Kenobie’s secret is that Darth Vader was his apprentice and he failed to keep him from going over to the dark side.  This failure is one of the central elements of the Star Wars saga.  In the Bible, King David cheated with the wife of one of his soldiers and had that man killed to cover it up.  The secret is revealed when God sends a prophet to King David seeking a decision concerning a man that was a metaphor for David himself.  After the king pronounces a severe judgment the prophet announces, “Thou art the man!” It’s a powerful scene and this exposed secret becomes the central theme of the rest of his kingship with after effects lasting into the coronation of his son born from the adulterous affair.

I once read a tip in a role playing blog about requiring players to write a secret about their character that only they and the game master knew.  I implemented this in a game and the results were fantastic.  The character secrets at play in that game influenced how players played their character and were potential for plot hooks to involve those characters more deeply in the story. 

The Vulnerability

Characters that are vulnerable or compassionate can be compelling.  It’s also known as “save the cat.” In fiction, an evil character that can show compassion has depth and becomes more interesting.  In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir is the traitor of the Fellowship.  He’s become consumed with desire for Frodo’s magic ring and attempts to take it by force.  He feels guilt over this and attempts to make amends by sacrificing his life for Frodo’s friends against the marauding orcs.  In the end he becomes a tragic hero and his confession to Aragon leads the reader to feel sympathy for him. 

During college I worked full time and went to school full time.  When I was at work I generally focused on just doing my job with half my brain thinking about the next term paper or mid-term exam.  On one occasion while talking with a coworker I let my hair down and shared some of my past with her.  Her immediate reaction was, “Wow! I thought you were a goody two shoes.” By being vulnerable and letting her see a deeper depth of character I became more interesting to her and I was no longer a two dimensional character.   

Give your character a vulnerability or a soft spot.  A soft spot could be for animals.  If a character absolutely detests cruelty to animals he might be unwilling to run over a little fluffy critter even though he’s being chased by an army bent on his destruction.  A vulnerability could be an in ability to risk harm to a person place or thing.  In the Firefly television series Malcolm Reynolds’ vulnerability is his crew and ship.  He’s devoted to them and takes threats against his people personally. 

Wrapping It Up

Choose one or two of the above suggestions for your character.  You don’t have to have one of each and you can also have two of the same.  For example a character could have two secrets.  Once you have done this, ask yourself why your character has these idiosyncrasies.  What events in his background led to this character behaving in this way?  Explain to yourself the why and how your character became who he is.  Finally have fun.