About Characters: Purpose

Gunfire erupted all around them driving the pair back into the erstwhile cover of the stacked and piled luggage belonging to other travellers on the train. Chill air whipped around them setting Ilse’s pale blonde hair to tossing erratically. Bullets had already shattered the luggage car’s few windows and even at the speeds the train was travelling through the Alps snow whipped through the windows. Blake pulled another magazine from his pocket, the British made pistol barking twice as he returned fire at the Nazi thugs driving them under cover as well.

“If we don’t move now,” his voice was hard to hear over the roar of wind even though he shouted, “we won’t be moving at all.” Behind him he could feel Ilse nod and tighten her grip on her own pistol. Firing twice more Blake bolted from the cover of the luggage to a narrow gap between two racks further on in the car and just as the nazis opened fire again he felt Ilse duck into place behind him and fire twice herself narrowly missing the German soldiers.

Two more times the pair raced from cover to move forward in the car towards their ultimate goal, the safe containing the Nazi plans for the super airplane that would make them invincible conquerors of Europe if not the world.

Blake rounded the last rack of luggage ready to open fire on the nazis when he felt a sharp pain blossom in the small of his back. How had one of the nazi’s gotten behind him he wondered feeling the blade of the knife probe more deeply into his back.

“I’m sorry darling,” Blake’s storm grey eyes widened at Ilse’s whispered voice in his ear her warm breath even now sending his mind to reeling, “we couldn’t allow you to succeed, the Fuhrer simply wouldn’t understand.”

Making characters for a convention game or a one shot where we (the gm) are providing the characters is quite a bit different from creating a character that we will play as part of a campaign, or even from a character that we make for someone else to play in a campaign that we’re running. The purpose of this open ended series of articles is to discuss aspects of creating characters for convention games and to illustrate how I address those aspects with characters that I create. As this series progresses we will create a group of six characters for a convention game. It is worth noting that this process is entirely system agnostic. Where system specifics are used they are for descriptive purposes and we will make note of the system and how the same aspect can be expressed in other game systems as well.

The Game

If we’re going to discuss the characters we need to have some idea of what the game is. For our example we’ll use a pulp spy thriller set in pre-WWII Europe so here’s a description of our game.

The treaty forced on the Germans by the allies at the end of WWI left a bitter and defeated people in Germany. The world wide catastrophe that history will call, “The Great Depression,” did nothing to make things easier for the German people. Adolf Hitler preaches unity to a people who very much need something to believe in, and National Socialism is born. Wary of the growing power of the Nazi party the allies have assembled a group to infiltrate and keep a watchful eye on the Germans and the Germany that they fear will grow from the ashes of WWI.

So, the pc’s will be spies from any allied country who can somehow fit into German society and go (hopefully) unnoticed. They will need to have a broad range of skills and some of the skills should probably overlap.

We could start throwing characters together and giving them attributes and skills, but that doesn’t really help us to make sure that each character actually gets their highlight moment(s). So, we’re going to save that for later and focus on some different aspects of the characters. By doing this it may very well inform choices we make later for things like abilities and disadvantages.

The Characters

The first thing we want to know about each character is, “What is their purpose to the story?” This is not a matter of what is their character class. Even if we are using a game system that has character classes, that is a question we will answer later. What we want to know right now is why are they part of this story? What is it that we expect them to do in the story?

There are lots of roles that a character may take in the story and lots of ways to express them. To give us some commonality and structure to what we’re doing we’re going to use literary terms for our example. In his article, “Eight Character Roles,” [“Eight Character Roles”; http://timstout.wordpress.com/graphic-novel-writing/eight-character-roles/, Tim Stout] Tim Stout lists (you guessed it) eight character roles. For our purposes we will use his roles, but provide more game related descriptions.

  1. Protagonist – The protagonist drives the story. Their purpose is to get things moving and keep them moving.

  2. Antagonist – The antagonist also drives the story but they do so in some opposition to the protagonist. They might have their own agenda, or they might just have some reason to do so. (One way this can realize is a character who has some sort of rivalry with the protagonist.)

  3. Mentor – The mentor is a source of wisdom or guidance for the protagonist. They may not drive the story, but they might have the knowledge that allows the protagonist to do so.

  4. Tempter – This is primarily an npc role though not exclusively. The tempter embodies something that might keep the protagonist from driving the story forward.

  5. Sidekick – The sidekick is the helpful person who takes care of the grunt work so the protagonist can shine.

  6. Skeptic – The skeptic doesn’t believe in what’s going on or doesn’t think it’s real. Perhaps they’re along to prove this whole business is wrong, or perhaps they get dragged into it.

  7. Emotional – This character has some emotional tie to the protagonist. They might be a significant other or it might be someone dependant on the protagonist. In any case the emotional character matters to the protagonist somehow.

  8. Logical – The logical character thinks and plans and wants to make sense of everything. Similar to the mentor and the sidekick they are actually here to help the protagonist drive the story forward.

In literature most characters will be very heavily one or another of these roles, but in a game they can be blended together to make things more interesting. There are many different ways to express a character’s purpose in a particular game. What the terms are is not as important as understanding what purpose the character fills in the particular game that we are making.

Consider a character who is the advisor to the protagonist might be both a mentor and an antagonist. All manner of combinations can be used to make characters more interesting.

So let’s come up with some character purposes and see what we get.

We’ll definitely need a protagonist, so we’ll add “him”.

Protagonist – The “leader” of the group he is the one who is contacted directly by the “home office.”

Someone has to be the brains of the outfit so we’ll add a Mentor, but we’ll make him more interesting than just that.

Mentor-Skeptic – The leader’s long time mentor and advisor but he doesn’t believe that the Nazi’s are a threat. (Why does he think there is no threat?)

What sort of pulp game would it be if we didn’t have a love interest?

Emotional-Antagonist – The protagonist’s lover is also trying to undermine the mission without getting caught doing so.

Every pulp hero needs a sidekick.

Sidekick – We could make him more interesting but we’ll leave it for now and see how things progress.

We have to be able to get around so we’ll need someone to handle transportation.

Logical – This guy is pretty simple, just a pilot who’s been assigned to the group. We’ll possibly give him more as we go along.

Logical – Another one who on the surface is pretty simple, she is a weapons expert and demolitions person. She has no particular emotional attachment that we know of yet but she’s been assigned to help the protagonist.

There we go, six characters with six purposes to the story. (Ok, really five because we used one twice.) We also have some idea of who they are already starting to form. No idea what they look like in game terms but we are starting to plant the seeds of ideas. The last three look a little flat so far, but we have opportunities to change that as we move forward.

It is not a bad idea to include principal bad guys at this point because how they figure into the story is really the reason that they exist. Unimportant characters and stuffed shirts can be ignored for now because they will entirely be subject to one of the principals anyway.

By identifying the purpose that each character serves in the story the characters already have greater depth and interest than they would if we threw some stats onto a character sheet and tried to make a story from that.

Final Thoughts and Parting Shots

There are many ways to make characters, and all of them are the right answer in some situations. Working from the standpoint of how the character fits into the story is not always the right answer. Also, just because we used these roles and descriptions for this game does not mean we might not use totally different ones in a different situation.

Hopefully this will give the reader some food for thought and possibly an alternate approach to writing characters for their games.

Next we will begin to give them some relationships to one another and even more of the shape of the game will begin to reveal itself.