Who Your Character Is
The first step in creating a character is defining who that character is. Characters are not just collections of stats on a piece of paper. They are the representations of people, with all the mental and emotional parts required for that in addition to the physical. This first half of the character creation process is focused on those psychological elements that make a character tick. Don't worry though, its not as difficult as it seems.
The Character Concept is the most basic seed of the character. It is a plain English description of that character that tells you what that character is like. Think of it like the blurb on the back of a book. The concept should tell you who they are, what the they do, how they behave, why they would risk their lives to go on adventures away from the safety of hearth and home.
For example, the character concept for Albert Battle-blooded, a character for a dark-ages inspired fantasy game would sound something like this:
“The second son of a famous clan, Albert is both stout-hearted and level-headed. Living most of his life in his brother’s shadow, he has recently found himself the only thing that stands between his clan and the jaws of history. Now each night he says a prayer to the god of protection and stands in vigil over what’s left of his family, knowing he has little chance to see the break of day.”
From this we can gather several important things about the character: firstly, that while he was not the original heir, Albert still takes his duties to his clan seriously. He seems to have devoted his life to protecting them from something. Secondly, we also know he is calm in stressful situations and rarely lets his emotions run away with him. We also know that there is some danger that stalks his family in the night and that has possibly already claimed his elder brother. However, we can also see that Albert does not back down from the challenge but instead he takes his place as the only guardian that can protect his family and its legacy. We can also see that his is pious, looking to the gods for strength, and that instead of a god of glory, he seeks aid from a much humbler deity in the god of protection and duty. In just a few sentences Albert’s player paints a portrait of a character that tells us a lot, details that will help to build him as well as play him.
Hero is a term that is often used incorrectly, at least from the prospective of its Greek origins. A hero is not necessarily the good guy, but the person who drives the action forward. Hercules is a great example of this, in that he often does things that we, as modern readers, are horrified by. The players in an RPG perfectly reflect this definition. Whether they are the revolutionaries fighting an evil empire, the tyrants who enslave the population, or the bandits that profit from the chaos, they are the stars of the story who push the action forward and which the story at the table revolves around.
So, heroes are made of more than the average person, and the pinnacle of their excellence is their ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; a tenacity to see their vision made real. This Momentum carries them past obstacles that would leave the average person battered and defeated. Momentum is a pool of points that a character can draw on in times of need to succeed where they may otherwise fail.
The primary use of Momentum allows the player to retry a roll and keep the best result. It can also be used to gain an additional action in combat, or gain a recovery action regardless of when the next one is due. Momentum can be enhanced when used in service of the character's Talent, or when focused on a character's Anchor. When enhanced, spent Momentum points will grant automatic success on a roll with 3 Degrees of Success, move the character to the front of the combat order (starting the next Turn), or remove the highest level condition of one type.
Characters have a number of Momentum points equal to twice their Power Level. Momentum can only be regained by acting in accordance with a character's Motivations and Flaws. One point is regained each time a character is put into a difficult spot because the character is roleplaying these weaknesses. Only one point of momentum can be spent per character per turn, and that point only applies to the single roll it was invoked for.
Each character has one thing that they are better at than anyone else. This is the thing they most pride themselves on. They could be the strongest, or toughest, or bravest, the best swimmer, or the chess master. Just about anything could his or her talent, the only limit is that it must be unique among the players.
Talents are like a statement of what the character feels most confident with, or what they understand as their strength. This does not have to actually correspond to their best Attributes or Skills, but instead their perceptions of themselves. Depending on the character's background and experiences they may be completely wrong about their talents, and that's ok. What matters is breathing life into the character, not maximizing their effectiveness. To this end a character can change their talent as the game progresses and they learn more about themselves. This change cannot be made during a game session, but must be between episodes.
When facing a challenge on which the player is spending a point of momentum, the player can choose to invoke their talent to enhance their momentum's effect. This must be explained by the player, such as: "As I force myself to calm down, I realize that the bomb's timer is actually just another type of electronics. I think I can defuse it. I've been repairing and building electronic devices since I was a kid!" This explanation is subject to GM discretion and what is dramatically appropriate for the game's tone and setting.
Below is a small list of example Talents.
- I'm the best at (insert type of game)
- I'm the best at (insert type of sports)
- I know all about (insert subject here)
- I'm the best at (school subject)
- I'm not afraid of anything
- My family is famous/important/powerful
- Everyone likes me
- I know all the gossip
- I play guitar
- I stand up for others
- I am the most wanted person in the country
Much like every great hero has a talent that sets them apart from other, every hero also has something that keeps them grounded and ties them to the world and society in some way. Maybe that is a family member, a friend, a memento from a special trip, or even just that clearing in the woods that the character always loved to play in as a kid. This is an anchor, and it is the reminder of what is at stake and why the character pushes forward.
To be clear, Anchors are a type of a motivating force, but are distinct from Motivations. Anchors are like the picture of his wife that the fighter pilot has taped to the wall of his plane's cockpit. They are a reminder of what a character stands to lose. Anchors are more personal and usually hinge around a person, place, or thing, whereas Motivations, in the VERS sense, are more idealogical.
When facing a challenge in which the player is spending a point of momentum, the player can invoke their character's anchor to enhance their momentum's effect. This must be explained by the player, such as: "He touches his dead wife's ring that hangs on a chain around his neck and knows that he has to succeed!" This explanation is ultimately subject to GM discretion and the dramatic appropriateness of the action.
Below is a small list of example anchors.
- Picture of someone important
- A memento from a special trip or experience
- An item that once belonged to a loved one
- The home that the character grew up in
- The character's mother or father
- A sibling or best friend
- The name tag of the character's first pet
- The character's current pet
- The character's coach or commanding officer
Very few people in the real world would ever do the things great heroes do by choice. The life of a hero is dirty, dangerous, and emotionally taxing on every level. To be willing to put oneself through that takes a very special type of person, driven by something extra. Sometimes this extra factor comes from within, such as a sense of justice or compassion, whereas sometimes they are external, like money and fame. That special something is called Motivation and are the ideals and goals that push a character forward.
Whenever a character finds themselves in a situation that challenges these motivations, they have an opportunity to dive deep into their character's psyche. Examples of such a situation would be a knight character having to confront the legally enforced suffering of innocents, such as slavery, or a samurai who is caught between his honor and his duty to his master who has ordered him to lie on his behalf. What will they do? How will they resolve it? What will be the consequences, emotionally, mentally, and physically? When a character is put into such a situation then they regain a point of spent momentum, so long as they stay in character and actively seek to solve the issue in game. This is ultimately up to the GM and the dramatic appropriateness of the tone and setting of the game.
In most games a character will only have one motivation. Some genres, however, like high fantasy, may work better with two (allowing for a paladin with Justice and Altruism, for example). This is ultimately up to the GM and the conventions of the genre.
The following chart shows some example motivations, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
Internal Motivation Examples
Internal motivation is a motivation that comes from within the character, usually a belief or a goal. The character seeks out or follows this motivation because they want to, even if they may feel that they do not have a choice: "I can't help it! I just have to find out if I am the greatest martial artist in the world." There is nothing forcing the character, though, but their own desires, including the expectations of others. If the character is not motivated by themselves but instead by what others see or think then it is an external motivation instead.
- Altruism: The belief that the good of others is more important than the good of the self. Includes ideas of charity and kindness, and often manifests as a desire to help others regardless of the hassle to the individual.
- Curiosity: The drive to explore, find, and discover. What is beyond the horizon? What is behind that door marked "Employees Only"? A character with this motivation just wants to know, regardless of if the knowledge itself is useful.
- Faith: The belief that there is a greater power and that it is worth upholding and striving to serve. Not always religious is the traditional sense, some types of faith can involve the proverbial Crown and Country or some other philosophy like stoicism that is short of a religion but which one can live their life by or in service of.
- Fame: The search for recognition, to become a household name, and by extension the riches and power that usually comes with it. Typically fame is achieved through artistic or athletic pursuits, although famous scientists, politicians, and many other occupations obviously exist.
- Glory: Similar in some ways to Fame, Glory has the added connotation of history, often in the notion of deeds being remembered for all time as opposed to being well known within her lifetime. Many times this is in relation to military pursuits but can also be in relation to other aspects of life. Glory fits more with a fantasy or historical games, but is not restricted to them.
- Greed: The simple desire for wealth above all else. Characters with this motivation will rarely do anything without compensation, and will often try to negotiate higher rates, sometimes in situations where it is distasteful. This is sometimes coupled with a similarly strong hording tendency, but other times the greedy character is also a big spender, always lavishing themselves in luxury.
- Honor: Honor has many different meanings across different cultures, but most versions agree to a concept of disciplined action, honesty, integrity, and upholding tradition. Honor is often held as the measure of a person in societies that value it, and its loss is often seen as a grave issue worthy of severe action to prevent, often including violence.
- Justice: Law above any other concerns. That would be the simplistic way to describe this motivation, but it is usually a little more involved. Characters tend to desire equality and safety and see the law as the best way to achieve this. This is not to say they will not break laws, but if they do they will be doing it knowingly and for a reason, like Rosa Parks did; a philosophy known as Civil Disobedience.
- Nationalism: Nationalism is a belief that one's country or nation is the greatest and that other nations are naturally inferior. Similar to Patriotism, the difference is that Nationalism focuses on negativity, denigrating and disrespecting those from other nations and cultures. This can sometimes lead to hatred and violence, but not always.
- Patriotism: Patriotism is a belief that one's country or nation is great and that they should do everything they can to protect and preserve it. Unlike Nationalism, Patriotism is more focused on what the individuals can do to make the country better and is more positive in its expression, wanting to share the greatness they see with others.
- Responsibility: "With great power comes great responsibility," is the mantra of characters with this motivation, believing that if they have the ability to do something to change or make something better then they have a duty to do something. This does not mean that the think everything is their fault or they believe that they are the only ones who can solve the issue, just that they have to try.
- Revenge: The other side of Justice, Revenge is not fair, nor is it lawful usually. But it comes from the same emotional need to see wrongs righted and bad people punished. The biggest difference is that Revenge is a more purely emotional desire: "They must be made to pay for what they did to me!" as opposed to "They owe a debt to society for their actions."
- Validation: This character not only seeks to accomplish something, but they seek it to prove to themselves that they can, either because they fear they can't or that they don't deserve it. The triggering events that make a character seek validation come from outside the character, but this is an internal motivation because they are making the choice to fight back in spite of those inhibitions.
- Wanderlust: Similar to Curiosity in some ways, Wanderlust describes a character who can't stay in one place for long. Maybe its because they never feel at home, or maybe its just that no one place is able to hold their attention. Regardless, they are the stereotypical vagabond passing through.
External Motivation Examples
Unlike Internal Motivations, External Motivations are imposed on the character from outside. This could be from a person or persons, but as often as not it is the natural world, the environment, or the what
- Duty: This is a feeling of belonging to something greater and owing that person, place, or thing some course of action or behavior. Duty is, unlike Responsibility, something that the character is told they have, possibly even indoctrinated into, while Responsibility is more naturally occurring.
- Family: The idea that blood is thicker than water, that sharing a common genealogy, especially being raised in close proximity is a virtue, and forms unbreakable bonds. This can arise naturally as an internal motivation, but is more often imposed on the character growing up.
- Famine: The lack of food is a great motivator, forcing characters to change where and how they live, and even shake core beliefs and challenge cherished values. Even after the famine is over, these changed personality traits and beliefs will persist and can still drive major decisions in their lives.
- Necessity: A more generalized form of Famine, Necessity is the motivator of the survivor. Making hard choices and engaging in activities that they might have found questionable before they were faced with it, Necessity is, like most other external motivations, very dark and best fits character's in horror or other dark stories.
- Obligation: Similar to Duty, Obligation is often something that was at one time chosen, but is almost always considered negative now. Signed contracts, sworn oaths, and codes of conduct are all great examples of this.
- Plague: Like Famine, Plague is an external motivation that drags out both the best and worst in a character. This can either be a pandemic or a more personal brush with disease that changes or warps the character.
- Religion: Either for good or ill, religion has been the motivation for a large percentage of the actions of humanity over the millennia. Motivations from religion often focus on dogma, but can focus on the perversion of religion by religious leaders, or even struggling to live up to or by religious strictures.
- Revenge: Often confused with Justice, Revenge is more primal, retaliatory, and punishment driven form that invariably stems from an outside source of wrong. On the other hand, Justice can be personal, such as bringing a criminal to justice, or it can be a high ideal.
- Rewards: The search for wealth and status can be an internal motivation, see greed above, but when a reward, bounty, or other such boon is used to draw characters it is external. It may be a short lived motivation (until it is earned) or it could be recurring, in that the character is constantly seeking new rewards to challenge them.
- War: War is another societal level motivation, like Famine and Plague. Like those, it can be both a present tense motivator, involving what a character does to survive the war as well as a past tense look at how the war has changed them and their outlook.
The final component to the traditional hero is a weakness, something that holds them back and that they must strive to overcome. This adversity is actually the defining characteristic for many heroes, the thing that people think of first when remembering them, such as their code against killing, a secret identity, or the tragedy that drove them to vengeance.
Like everything else so far, this too is true of RPG characters. A Flaw is a dramatic pathway for the GM to make a story or situation personal, as well as for a player to add some pathos to their character's story. Similarly to the character's Motivation, a Flaw is used in play to enhance a Momentum expenditure. This requires the character to be disadvantaged by the Flaw, to have trouble or conflict arise out of it and the player staying in character and dealing with those consequences.
A classic example of this would be Hercules. The character was actually born as Alcaeus, but later took the name Hercules, as it meant Glory of Hera. Hera hated Heracles as he was one of Zeus's many bastard children, and many of his adventures were had due to him having to overcome the hardships that Hera put in his way which included many attempts on his life and even a confusion that caused him to kill his wife and children. Hercules would not have been a legendary figure had he not had the Flaw of being hated by the queen of the gods.
This also illustrates the fact that not all Flaws are internal or personal. They only need to be a running source of conflict for the character. They do not even need to be a "negative" thing, as most people would consider it. Something like a Code Against Killing, like many superheroes would have, is a Flaw, because any villain that is not more permanently dealt with could be back to harm innocents again.
Whenever a character finds themselves in a situation stemming from their Flaw (directly or indirectly) that challenges them, they have an opportunity to focus on their character and their struggles. What will happen? What are the stakes? What toll will it have on them and their allies? When a character is put into such a situation they regain a point of spent momentum, so long as they stay in character and actively seek to solve the issue in game. This is ultimately up to the GM and the dramatic appropriateness of the tone and setting of the game.
In most games a character will only have one flaw. Some genres, however, like a gritty street-level crime story, may work better with two. This is ultimately up to the GM and the conventions of the genre.
The following list shows some example flaws, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
- Physical handicap
- Code of conduct
- Distinctive features or mannerisms
- Social class
When making characters it is important to define not just who they are and what they can do, but who do they know. Their social situation is very important to how they develop over time. That friend in high school that turned the character onto that obscure heavy metal band may very well have ignited a major part of their personality going forward, for instance.
When making a character, they must define relationships to at least two NPCs (either of their own creation, such as family members, etc, or those that already exist), and to at least half of the adventuring troop. Once the entire troop is done there will be an intricate web of social ties that bind these characters together into a cohesive, although perhaps dysfunctional whole. This will help to ease the characters into their stories, build into them a reason to trust each other (or at least to work together).
If a player wishes to define a familial or friendship connection with another player, both parties must agree. This would count as a connection for both characters. Characters can also share relationships to the same NPCs, each counting for both characters.
Characters who seek aide or advice from their relationships get a +2 bonus on any rolls that the NPC can assist them with. In most cases this benefit will be obvious, such as "My dad has been a car mechanic for 40 years, I bet he can help us figure out what this part comes from." Other such uses are less obvious and may need to be justified, such as "I have been really stressed out, so I hang out with my brother reading comic books all afternoon, can I get a bonus to Morale recovery?" These situations are dependent upon GM discretion and genre appropriateness.
By this point the character should be fairly well defined and have all the basics needed to fulfill the role(s) that relate to the original concept. The next steps will fill in the rest of the character sheet with ranks and other information.
First, however, it is time to give him or her a name, physical description, and history. These are, in many ways, the last details to be decided, although sometimes these details are the first bits of information a player will decide on, and be part of the character concept. For settings that exist or are mostly similar to the real world, baby name books and websites are invaluable for this type of thing. For more fantastical settings the GM should be able to point you to a list of names or other such resource.