Developing Characters in One-Shot Games, Part 1: Introduction and Numbers
by Heather Logas
Since the question of providing characters for one-shot LARPs/Stage games came up last month, I decided to try and provide some helpful tips for designing storyteller provided characters.
Designing characters may, at first, seem like a minor task. However, characters are the real meat of a well designed one-shot LARP. They are what drive the action and story of the game. The best one-shots I have been in have been those where the storytellers set up a loose scenario which is little more than a starting place. The STs then become facilitators of the story that the players are creating through their characters and their characters’ interactions with other characters.
A very important consideration from the get-go is how large the game is going to be. A different number of players/characters will give the game quite a different feel. This is often dictated by the scenario of the game, but most games I have helped run, we generally knew how many players we wanted before the scenario was even designed. A small LARP I generally consider 13-20 players. This number of players allows for deep characters with many interconnections between them, and is a good number for emphasizing role-playing and intrigue. A large LARP is about 40+ players. These games usually have more energy, with characters able to make larger alliances and running back and forth between many characters wheeling and dealing. Between 20 and 40 players is sort of an odd number. Closer to 20 and it feels more like a small game. Closer to 40 and it feels more like a large game. This is a kind of mushy middle ground which I generally don’t design for, instead focusing on specifically a small or large game.
The number of players will help dictate how detailed the character backgrounds can/should be. Obviously the more players, the more labor intensive creating backgrounds is. In addition, the more characters a player has to interact with, the less guidance the player needs in figuring out what they should be doing in the game. Additional characters mean additional plots and intrigues that each character can potentially become involved in. Giving players too much background in this case is superfluous, as a good portion of this will just get ignored once the player gets involved in all these little threads of plot. In a large game, two or three sentences about who the character is and how they have found themselves in this scenario, plus a couple goals and possibly a couple contacts or a small group for them to start in is plenty to get them rolling and keep them involved.
For a small game, character backgrounds need to be a bit more involved. Players need to have enough information to give them a solid hook into the scenario, to give them some idea of who they are and what they are doing there. At the same time, giving a player too much information can overwhelm them. A player does not need a book on their character; after all, they need room to be able to bring their own unique slant on the character to bear. Although being able to provide players with their characters ahead of time in the case of an online Stage game may allow an ST to give a slightly longer background, the player should not be provided with more information than they really need to play the game. A player cannot be expected to keep another person’s whole life in their head. Especially if they are only going to be playing that person for a miniscule portion of that person’s life. Generally a character for this size game will consist of a short paragraph or two on who the character is (a bit of relevant history) and their reason for being present in the scenario, several goals (perhaps a major goal and a couple minor goals) and a sheet describing the character’s relationships with other characters in the game.
Regardless of the size of the game, it is important to consider the group of characters as a whole before thinking of them as individual units. Each character (or small groups of characters, if a large game) should have a niche that they are filling in the scenario. Especially in the case of a small game, each player should feel as if their character has a special role to play in the shaping of the scenario. Providing two or more characters who fill the same niche in the game will often cause one of the characters to dominate, making the others feel useless (and listless). Note that by “niche” I mean role in the story, not “job”. For example, your game may have two guards to the high regent, but one of them might be actually interested in protecting the regent whereas the other may be trying to sell the regent out to his/her enemies.
It is fine if certain niches in the game are more integral to the running of the scenario than others. In fact, having certain characters that are “optional” characters helps insure that your game can still run even if you have a few too many or too few players. The trick, of course, is to make sure that these characters don’t feel optional to their players. In other words, the game should be able to run without them but having them present should add interesting new intricacies to the scenario. In one horror-style (Cthuluesque) game I ran, two of the characters were a cat burglar and a photographer. The cat burglar was essential to the game; there was an opportunity to break into a certain safe that had important information we wanted the characters to have access to. The photographer was an optional character; he could aid the investigation by taking firm evidence with the camera and he was also the fiancée of another character. He added interest to the game when present, but didn’t break the game if absent.
This is only scratching the surface of character design. Next month we will get into more nitty gritty about making individual characters, and I will provide some nifty sample characters as well.