Series Info...Pleasures of the Flesh #4:

Developing Characters in One-Shot Games, Part 2: Density and Details

by Heather Logas

So we know what sort of game we are running, the genre, how many characters, and the over-arching storyline. Now its time to get to the nitty gritty details: the characters themselves.

How long should the character background be? How much information is necessary? What is the anatomy of a character background? I have played in many, many one-shots, and have seen many, many pre-made characters drawn up in many, many different ways. ďMyĒ way is not necessarily the ďrightĒ way, but it is definitely what seems to work best for me as both a player and ST.

I have twice been in a LARP where the STs handed out booklets for each character. Several pages worth of reading material. We have about a half hour before the game started, and I did what all the other players did: scanned the book for the juicy parts, then put it somewhere where I forgot about it for the rest of the night.

You donít want to overwhelm the players with too much information. The goal to making characters is to write just enough that the player can take the information you have given them and run with it. They should have hooks into the story and connections with other characters to get them involved in the game, but they can flesh out other details of the character themselves. At a convention one-shot, players donít want to sit down and read a book. They want a snap-shot of their character so they know what they are doing, and then they want to jump into the game. A stage game may be able to get away with providing a bit more background, because players get to read their character information well in advance of the actual game. Even so, a player is not going to want to feel burdened with the responsibility of remembering a bunch of details during the game. Trying to keep all that stuff in oneís head is just distracting from the flow of the role-playing itself.

I am a big stickler for the character background to fit on a one sheet of paper. Better yet, about 2/3 of a sheet of paper. Providing flavor is good, it gets the player in the mood, but you still want to try to keep things fairly concise.

What I will include in a character background:

  • A short paragraph detailing the characterís personality, any strong associations with other particular characters, what their current occupation is, possible goals, and what brings them into the scenario.
  • A list of other characters that this character knows, along with one or two lines on opinions towards those other characters.
  • Bulleted goals: One or two major ones, and two to four minor ones.

And thatís it.

The paragraph and list of characters give you a chance to project as much of the character as possible onto the player, while introducing possible sub-plots to the game. The player is going to play the character their way of course, but here you have a chance to give the player a clear idea of how you have in mind for the character to be played. Iíve found it really helpful to write the paragraph and character list from the characterís point of view, conveying a sense of the character through language. Hereís an example of a background paragraph:

Todd Jones, Photographer
Once you were an eager young photographer with a glitter in his eye. But that was three years ago, and all this time youíve been working for the Daily Globe, and still havenít had a decent break. Scrambling and scrabbling for the best assignments you could get, you still havenít been able to make your way past Junior Photographer, and its getting on your nerves. You are sick of these stupid assignments you keep getting, and it has caused you to become somewhat bitter and sarcastic about the whole deal. Case in point is this dumb assignment youíve just been handed, probably because no one else wanted it. Fly out to Egypt and cover the unearthing of some dusty tomb? Kidís stuff. To make it worse, you hear that this whole expedition is being funded by Julia Rhein, that snobby rich girl you went to high school who you always had the hots for but would never even look at you. Guess sheís some sort of big shot now. Why canít you get to cover something decent? Youíd give anything for that big break.

This does several things. It establishes the personality of the character: once eager (may come out again under the right circumstances), now bitter, jaded and sarcastic. It establishes why the character is in the scenario and how they feel about it: sent on assignment, would rather be anywhere else. It sets up a possible sub-plot: friction between Todd and Julia. And it establishes a main goal: want a big break. Everything is written in a tone that reinforces the bitterness of the character. As an ST, you can probably already imagine how this character might react when the tomb is opened and the mummy comes alive.

Hereís an example of Toddís character list:

  • Benjamin Fenlin: The reporter that is coming with you. You havenít worked much with him before, but heís an ok guy. Sometimes you wish he would just shut up though, and quit his never-ending diatribe.
  • Julia Rhein: Snobby rich girl from high school. You had the hots for her but she never even looked at you. Havenít seen her for years.
  • Angela Pickett: Sheís the archaeologist who discovered the tomb. You havenít met her before, but rumor has it sheís a bit nuts.

There may be twenty characters in the game, but these are the only ones Todd knows so these are the only ones he needs any information about. You can see how in just a few sentences, you can convey quite a bit of emotion and pre-conceived ideas he may have towards the other characters.

Now here are Toddís goals:

  • This may have started as a dead-end assignment, but it doesnít have to stay that way. Maybe you can find a way to stack the deck in your favor, and turn this into a real story.
  • Find a way to embarrass Julia like she embarrassed you in High School. You may not get another chance.
  • Try to stay far away from Benjamin for the entire night. Let him babble at someone else for a change.

The first would be Toddís major goal, the second two minor goals. You donít have to spell it out for the player which are which. It should be fairly clear.

A note on goals: all things being equal, the set-up of the game should allow goals to be attained. Obviously, players may do sneaky things to thwart someone elseís goals, but the goals should have been potentially attainable. I recently heard of a game where one groupís goals were to find some particular group that didnít actually exist in the game. There was nothing interesting to discover about the missing group, it was just an ST red herring. The goal was a dead-end, and after the game was over and the players discovered this, quite a bit of grumbling occurred. This is not as satisfying to the players as if the group HAD existed, and the players simply didnít follow the right clues to find it. Especially if the players had spent all night trying to accomplish this one goal.

So here is a character background. Now all you have to do as the ST is to weave the goals of the different characters together in such a way that they will create sub-plots. For example, suppose Julia feels really bad about how she treated Todd in High School, but is too embarrassed to apologize. Now you have her being sympathetic to Todd while heís out to get her. As an ST, you should only have to set up and run the large-scale plot. Creating rich character backgrounds will generate sub-plots and intrigue a plenty on their own.

I am not going to go into providing stats/abilities, etc. for characters, except to say that these should be reflective of their background. If a player sees that their character has a certain ability, it does well to explain or at least hint at that ability somewhere in the background. You donít need to explicitly spell everything out, but the player should be able to make the causal jump in their heads. A fighter pilot who is described as out-going, for example, would obviously have a high score in flying their craft, but might also have a high carousing score. The player doesnít have to make a huge jump to understand what the pilot likes to do in their off hours. Generally when I am running a one-shot LARP, I will create the character backgrounds first, and then fill out the character sheets with abilities and stats that make sense with the background.

[ <— #3: Developing Characters in One-Shot Games, Part 1: Introduction and Numbers | #5: The Taoist Storyteller —> ]

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