The Interactive Toolkit: Part Three: Character, Character, Character

The rules and wargaming baggage of most roleplaying games lead to a certain kind of story: stories filled with ambitionless mercenaries who wait around in bars for employment; heroes who have no reason to get out of bed in the morning but for the vile plans of a someone they’ve never met; and stories that stop in mid-narrative for lengthy, tactical tactical-laden fights. In contrast to roleplaying, we’re discussing in this series Story Entertainments. These improvised stories are similar in nature to roleplaying games, but are driven by the emotions and personal goals of the characters and make combat a relatively small portion of the story’s content. The tales of a story entertainment are based not on the success of actions, but on the choice of actions; not the manipulation of rules, but the manipulation of narrative tools.

The primary tool is Character. Characters drive the narrative of all stories. However, many people mistake character for characterization.

Characterization is the look of a character, the description of his voice, the quirks of habit. Characterization creates the concrete detail of a character through the use of sensory detail and exposition. By “seeing” how a character looks, how he picks up his wine glass, by knowing he has a love of fine tobacco, the character becomes concrete to our imagination, even while remaining nothing more than black ink upon a white page.

But a person thus described is not a character. A character must do.

Character is action. That’s a rule of thumb for plays and movies, and is valid as well for roleplaying games and story entertainments. This means that the best way to reveal your character is not through on an esoteric monologue about pipe and tobacco delivered by your character, but through your character’s actions.

But what actions? Not every action is true to a character; it is not enough to haphazardly do things in the name of action. Instead, actions must grow from the roots of Goals. A characterization imbued with a Goal that leads to action is a character.

Goals and Objectives

Let’s review the basic plot form of a story: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.

Clearly, every roleplaying session has something the characters want: a treasure, the kidnapped heiress, the destruction of a supply depot. These, in the context of story entertainments, are Objectives. Objectives are interchangeable. At best they are steps toward the goal, at worst they are busy-work, and thus not worth telling a story about.

What is worth telling a story about? Goals. Goals are an integral part of the character; they define who the character is. Without a goal a character has no reason to get out of bed in the morning. Or, should he stumble out of bed in order to get to his job at the toy factory, he still is not worth following. He is not a character. He is living out his life as person, but not the driving force of a story.

When a character overcomes obstacles and achieves an Objective, the story is over, but the character is still going. He is going until he achieves that Goal. For the purposes of roleplaying games, this is good news, because we like to keep our characters around for many stories. Give your character a large enough goal – avenging the death of your brother killed by the King of the Dark Dominion, and you’ll be able to play out several Objectives before your Goal is met.

Here are some characters and Goals from well-known movies:

In Casablanca, Rick is a man trying to remain neutral in the middle of a war.

The obstacles he faces are all the people around him trying to pull him to one side of the conflict or another. At the end of the movie he fails to achieve this goal: he picks a side.

In Star Wars, Han Solo is a mercenary ship’s captain. Like many a roleplaying characters, he works for money, taking jobs at they come along. Solo’s Goal is to be master of his own fate. It is this Goal that elevates him above most roleplaying characters. It is a Goal he’s far from accomplishing. A step he took to be master of his own fate was to buy the Millennium Falcon, and to do that he borrowed money from Jabba the Hutt. As a pawn of Jabba’s he’s a long way to go to attain his goal.

When he accepts the job of carrying Luke and the others to Alderaan he has an Objective that will get him closer to his Goal, by earning money to pay off Jabba. Later he changes his Objective and helps Luke rescue the Princess from the Death Stars’ detention block. Now he has a new Objective, but the same Goal. By rescuing the Princess Han still hopes to get enough money to pay off Jabba, make repairs on the Falcon and so on. In this way he can reach his Goal.

Remember, too, that Han Solo doesn’t kill the old man and the boy and keep their money. His attempt to honor his contract is an action as well, and defines him as much as his efforts to kill agents of the Empire.

Drawing on characters from movies, we find a few more tips on how to build interesting characters for story entertainments.

Characters Should Be Problem Magnets. To begin with, you need to allow your character to get into trouble in the pursuit of his or her Goal. Remember, this Goal matters so much it defines the character. Without it, your character would no longer be himself or herself. Because this Goal is so vital your character can indulge in all sorts of ridiculous, extraordinary, and even dangerous behavior in pursuit of this goal. We’re not looking for the characters who want what is safe and steady, who can rationalize their Goals out of existence because it might mean trouble. We want characters who throw themselves with wild abandon into their desires, dreams and passions!

Be surprising! Let your character’s passions and Goals drive him to actions that calmer men would not commit. In Le Morte D’Arthur Sir Balin kills an enemy of his family, the Lady of the Lake, in the middle of King Arthur’s Court. This is a terrible crime, not just for the murder, but because the laws of Hospitality require Arthur keep all guests within his castle walls safe. Balin brings terrible shame upon Arthur. In punishment, a punishment he could have anticipated had he considered his actions beforehand, the High King banishes Balin.

Now, in most roleplaying game sessions, the encounter would usually go something like this:

“You enter the Great Hall of King Arthur. There rests the Round Table; a few knights are gathered around it, telling tales of deeds done in recent months. Servants carry platters laden with pheasant and roast pig back and forth. Arthur sits on his throne, speaking with a woman. You move toward the Round Table to take your place and see the woman is none other than the Lady of the Lake, your family’s sworn enemy, upon whom you have sworn an oath to kill. What do you do?”

“I glare at her, biding my time for the proper moment of revenge.”


“If I do it now, I’ll get in trouble.”

NO! Go up and lob her head off! Or don’t. But it should always be an option to get carried away. Too often in our games we mock other players for doing the “wrong” thing, when in fact these actions are the most interesting things going on in the game. Driven by character Goals, spontaneous and dangerous, these actions are the cornerstone of the spontaneity possible within roleplaying games. In Le Morte D’Arthur, after Balin is banished, he takes part in many adventures to win back a place of affection in Arthur’s heart. Thus, the story continues, unfolding in ways unexpected, in a manner no one could have predicted had Balin “played it safe.”

Look for problems! In the Prisoner of Zenda, while Rudolph Rassendyl tries to save a nation by impersonating the country’s king he falls in love with Princess Flavia, the king’s fiancé. Oops. That wasn’t part of the plan. It complicates things. He’s given a choice because of this lovely problem. He could side with Rupert von Hentzau, the bad guy, kill the king, get the Princess and the Kingdom and live happily ever after-a dream come true. Or he could refuse von Hentzau’s offer of a dark alliance and get nothing. He refuses, of course, and leaves the princess and the kingdom after saving the day. But the fact that he had to make the choice, the fact that he was tempted-made his refusal of the offer richer. He became a much nobler and interesting man than if he never had any affections for the Princess at all. And in a roleplaying game the decision made when a choice is offered is always uncertain. The character might accept the offer, what then? What will happen next?

As the designer of the character you shouldn’t simply depend on the Fifth Business (the “gamemaster” of a story entertainment) to provide you with trouble. You should look for trouble for your character. For example, if you were playing the Lead character in the Prisoner of Zenda, choose to fall in love with Princess Flavia don’t make the Fifth Business force it on you. Look for problems in your character’s background as well. Han Solo had Jabba the Hutt on his back before Star Wars started. Luke was the son of the Dark Lord of the Sith, and didn’t even know it. You have to think: “What problems can I load my characters with?” Problems provide obstacles, and obstacles mean unexpected action must be taken. This is always more interesting than saying “We draw our swords and kill it,” for fifth time that night.

Moreover, you know best of all what kind of problems you want for your character. You might tell Fifth Business, “‘I want my character to be torn by the legacy of his father,” and leave it up to him to decide who your father is. Or maybe you’ll create the equivalent of a Darth Vader and say, “This is dad.” Filling in some of the blanks yourself or leaving it all a mystery – that’s not the part that matters. What does matter is that in a story entertainment you’re not the passive passenger in the gamemaster’s roller coaster. You are a co-creator with the Fifth Business and the other players of a story.

In the Hero System, there are all sorts of Disadvantages players can choose from. This is a step in the right direction, but all those numbers….

Why should problems built into a character be balanced against a proportional advantage? The implication is that you only take bad stuff to be more powerful. Not in a story entertainment. In a story entertainment you build problems into your character’s background and decisions because they’re entertaining. This isn’t about being fair. Stories aren’t fair. Rassendyl doesn’t get the girl in Prisoner of Zenda. It’s a great ending.

The Characters Can Come Out Empty Handed. Even Die. All of the above implies that characters could make one mistake too many and end up with nothing. Or even become a crumpled up piece of paper by the night’s end.

Yes. And you might want it to end that way. If you follow through the logic of story over game, it’s clear that survival of the characters is not the primary goal. Building a solid tale is.

Some people don’t get Call of Cthulhu. Why play a game where you’re doomed to death or insanity? You can’t win! Well, the point of the game is to create a story where you are doomed to death or insanity. It’s a HORROR story, fer cryin’ out loud. In a Conan adventure you kill all the monster, not Cthulhu.

When I play Call of Cthulhu, I have a simple goal as a player. By the end of the session my character will be dead or insane. That’s what the story is asking for, and I figure it’s my job to deliver. I have a great time doing this, because I’m not holding back; I’m not trying to be clever for my character in the face of the unstoppable Old Gods to keep him alive and sane. Nor am I playing the character as stupid. My character is simply a person caught up in a situation too big for him, whose Goals drive him toward a terrible end. In one adventure run by Mike Nystul (game master par excellence and Maestro Horror game master) I played a dock worker, Bill, whose daughter had died under terrible circumstances. My character was driven to find out what had done this to his child. With a goal like this he could be both cautious and determined. But when it came down to a choice, he had to learn more, and insanity crept slowly into his mind as he drove deeper into the truth of his daughter’s death. Did I find out what happened to my daughter? No. Did I win? Yeah, I helped make up a horror story.

We protect our characters too much. We view death as the terrible end and as a failure. But Obi Wan died. Spock died. The two British adventurers from John Huston’s film version of The Man Who Would Be King died. Vasquez, Hudson, Gorman and others die in Aliens. Engaging stories all.

It doesn’t have to be a matter of death. The fact that Rassendyl doesn’t get the girl, that Jones doesn’t get the Ark of the Covenant, that Louise isn’t able to save Claudia, all of these incomplete ends to the characters’ objectives don’t make the characters failures. The characters sought their Objectives and Goals as best they could-they were interesting because of their efforts, not the success.

Let your character screw up, make the wrong choice, end up dead. A character who dies well is more beloved than a character who starts shying away from his Goal simply to stay alive.

This is in sharp contrast to most roleplaying characters. They’re not valued for what they unexpectedly overcome, but how well they’re set up to avoid trouble in the first place. Artifacts of magic and technology bristle on their body. They are consummate professionals, avoiding emotional entanglements for fear they’ll have to do more than shoot stuff. They seek out what they know they can attain, rather than thrust themselves into positions of terrible consequence. (Remember, Ripley goes back to face more aliens in Aliens. She can guess how bad things will be this time around. She goes though, not because she’s acquired enough “experience” or whatnot to handle the situation comfortably, but because only by helping the colonists can she accomplish her Goal, to exorcise her nightmares.)

The Group

Movies usually focus on one character at a time. Story Entertainments involve several Leads. With everyone pursuing Goals there is the potential for a narrative train crash. How to keep everyone in the same story?

First, the character creation process should be a group effort. This way everyone can bounce ideas off one another to create shared backgrounds, relationships, and Goals. A story entertainment is not about five strangers who happen to work together. It’s about five characters who are bound together in some way. The characters might only spend one adventure together, or might be bonded so deeply as to almost be a family. What matters is that everyone have a stake in the group for the purposes of the story.

For example, the characters might be related. Or they might have a relationship based on business: a bodyguard and his employer, a Lord and his faithful servant. (Notice that they are all not bodyguards hired by NPCS; some of the Lead’s characters are guarding other Lead’s characters.) They might all be after the same Objective or Goal: The Holy Grail, the Death of a Despot, or to escape their hellish lives on mining colony on Mars.

What you are looking for are threads that tie the characters together when choices of actions might tear them apart. Of course, the threads may not be strong enough in a dramatic situation and the group might tear itself apart. That’s part of the story. But at least a decision was made, and the decision has narrative weight because of the now broken ties.

These threads will also keep the group together when one character’s Goal is given more weight in a session one night. If Jim’s character wants to be Pope, but the night’s session is about Jenny’s character’s attempt to secure enough money to get off planet, he’s got a reason to help her out because they’re brother and sister.

Multiple characters will be of help as well. The goal, remember, is story, not character advancement. Characters can walk off stage for a session or two, and return when it’s more appropriate. By building the equivalent of a Soap Opera cast, varied, but connected, you’ll be able to keep all the Leads involved, even if the characters change around. It’s even possible for different Leads to share the same characters, passing them around as needed.

Leads can even play some of Fifth Business’s characters. Some of my most enjoyable roleplaying was done when the gamemaster let me pick up the “bit parts” in scenes where my primary character wasn’t involved. Such rotation of roles allows everyone to stay involved, gives Fifth Business a break in crowd scenes, and is wildly entertaining.

So stay focused on Goals, actions, and creating obstacles. Be generous to the story, not selfish with your character. Be outlandish. The chance to roleplay doesn’t have to be a chance to win. It could be seen as a chance to portray the extraordinary.

Next Time

How does the Fifth Business deal with making the adventure up off the top of his head? And what about the rules?



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