It’s throwback-time, where we revisit an awesome article from years ago…
I don’t think I’m being overly presumptuous when I say that most, if not all gamers want to play a great character. I’m not necessarily talking about playing some super powerful, mega bad-ass; I’m talking about a character that is something more than just a collection of stats and abilities running around doing stuff. I’m referring to a character brought to life for everyone at the table in some unique, interesting, and memorable ways and whose individual story enhances the unfolding group story. Great because the character inspires and challenges us to become better roleplayers, while simultaneously remaining exciting and fulfilling for the individual player throughout the campaign. We want to play a character that truly has Character.
Having been a gamemaster for decades, I’ve had the good fortune to see a few of these characters at the table. However, I’ve seen a lot more characters fall short of greatness as well as their player’s expectations. When this happens it often causes a player to lose interest in their character, the story, and by extension the campaign. They frequently become bored, restless, and dissatisfied with the gaming experience. Worst case, I’ve seen it lead to disruptive players blaming the GM, the other players, even the game itself for the player’s own lack of gaming fulfillment.
I’m not criticizing any player who finds themselves in this position. No one wants to be disappointed in their character or the game. I think we all want to, and strive for, enjoying the gaming experience. It’s just that oftentimes our characters fail to manifest themselves in an exciting, meaningful, and engaging way. So what causes this to happen? More importantly, how can we avoid being let down by our characters? What can players do to keep themselves interested in their characters and engaged in the campaign?
From my days in high school and college, to my service in the military and on through my adult life, I’ve been fortunate to have gamed with a considerable number of people and played dozens of different games. When it comes to the great characters I’ve seen at the table, one of the most important elements they all share is Connection. Specifically, great characters are those that have developed a strong sense of connection in three critical areas:
- Connection to the group.
- Connection to the setting.
- Connection to the story.
Connection is the element that gives a character context and definition within the campaign. Connection keeps the player engaged with both story and group. Connection is the vehicle in which good characters may become great characters.
So what exactly do I mean by Connection? I’m referring to aspects of the character that tie him or her directly to the story that the group is telling, often referred to as character “hooks.” Some of these connections are assumed by the game itself; for example, in the Dark Heresy RPG characters are acolytes employed by an Inquisitor in service to the Imperium. That assumption instantly begins to tie the character to all three areas; the group (they all work for the same person), the setting (each character is an acolyte serving the Inquisition), and the story (the Inquisition investigates threats to mankind). Of course these assumptions are extremely broad, mere starting points for the characters, but they serve the same purpose; connecting the character to the three primary elements of the campaign, the group, the setting, and the story.
In my experience players find it more rewarding to roleplay a character when they’ve developed connection to these three elements, because it is these connections that define who the character is. In other words, it is easier to play a role when the role is clearly defined. Some of the benefits of connecting the character to these elements include the following:
Connection to Group
- Connection defines the character’s role within the group.
- Connection establishes why the character is in the group and equally as important why the character stays with the group.
- Players who feel connected to the group tend to get a higher degree of satisfaction from the game even when the spotlight isn’t on them.
- Connection helps reinforce the idea of teamwork keeping the GM from being forced to run a campaign for six different individuals, instead he can focus on running a campaign for one unique group.
Connection to Setting
- Connection to setting defines the character’s role in society.
- Creates identity in terms race, nationality, profession, or even species.
- Encourages player understanding and involvement with the setting and allows the player to more fully participate in bringing it to life.
- Connection strengthens immersion helping the player experience the setting as an active participant, instead of being a passive element simply getting lectured about it.
Connection to Story
- Connection defines the character’s role within the specific circumstances, themes, and elements of the campaign’s plotlines and story-arcs.
- Solid character connections allow the GM to focus on the group’s story without having to spend quite so much time on each individual’s story (potentially neglecting the rest of the group).
- Connection to story keeps the player interested, focused, and involved with what is going on while strengthening that feeling of active story-telling participant.
A character that fails to connect to any of the above elements becomes severely weakened. Regardless of how interesting or exciting the character’s hooks may be on their own, if they don’t connect to any of these elements in a meaningful way they become irrelevant details at best, story derailing distractions at worst. They fail to hook (connect) the character to the campaign and, by extension, the player to the character. Once a player begins losing their connection to the character, interest, enthusiasm, and motivation are all going to break down as well.
Having established the importance of the connection, the obvious question becomes, “How does the player connect his character to these elements (group, setting, and story)?” There are potentially hundreds of ways to do this, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on using good connection-building character hooks. There are three critical questions to ask about the character – the answers to which are hooks and form connection. The questions are:
- Why is the character a member of the party? Connects the character to the group.
- Why did the character choose his career? Connects the character to the setting.
- Why will the character continue to stay with the party? Connects the character to the story.
Notice that all three questions ask “why” and not “how”. The how, though perhaps interesting, is less important than the why. Why is an active element. Why is dynamic. Why sets things in motion and propels story, how merely fills in background details. Not to say that various other background elements and hooks aren’t important, but complex back-stories aren’t every player’s area of expertise.
Answering these questions builds connection. A more connected character is a more defined character. A more clearly defined character is in turn both easier and more satisfying to roleplay. A well-played character, portrayed by an enthusiastic player, is a great character. And in my experience a table full of players who are truly enjoying the gaming experience, while portraying great characters, leads to a fantastic game.