Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chronicle 006: What Makes a Character Pt 2


In my attempt to put a series of posts together, I'm here today to continue on that road as I discuss: What Makes a Character. This time I'll look at Backgrounds' those wonderful life stories that may never see the light of day.

During my many years of roleplaying I don't believe I have ever been in a game that played off of any background story I created for my character. Granted Dresden Files sort of delves into that, but in those games I played the actual background had no effect on the game. However, that's not to say that a good background story isn't important. In large part it is, it's what makes your character unique.

The great debate about background is just that: is it important? As I said above in most cases background didn't mean anything and so it was omitted from character creation. It was always something we glossed over, as the majority of us were more interested in the here and now; our character's past was irrelevant. On the rare occasion that a background was required it was just a short blurb that was used as a plot hook to get the character engaged in the story. After that it was never of any further use.

But, background IS important. Even if it never gets used, it helps define your character. On those rare occasions in which it is explored it will help develop your character even further. For instance, in an play-by-post game that I am in I have slowly been divulging my character's background story. Though I had not written one out ahead of time, I knew one was needed immediately after writing my first post.

In many of the D&D games I have been involved in, my character's background was maybe a couple sentences to help bring the character concept together.  It was always for my personal use and was never explored in character, until this game. When the GM had set the initial scene my immediate thoughts were to bash the 'holy day.' It wasn't something I usually would do, but for some reason my character was becoming an atheist. But I couldn't just leave it at that so I had to figure out a backstory to help explain his attitude. And since this was a PbP game, I knew I'd have an opportunity to tell my story for once.

As it came out, my character was once a devout follower of Bahamut, but when his eldest brother died he cursed the god and set out on his own forgetting his previous life in hopes of starting anew, or dying. When he returned home his family was missing and it had been said that they left town. Which is what had brought my character to the town that the game is currently set in. The background story has since been developed further, and I hope to have the opportunity to tell it in its entirety.

I hadn't intended for his background to be so rich, but given the chance to express it has made me believe that backgrounds, no matter how short (referring to both the shortness of the game, and the length of the backstory) is worth having. Had I not given my character's reaction to the church service any further thought I probably would have just let things slide and moved on with the game. But now that I've laid out some points of interest, I want to make sure to eventually explore those plot points. Even if it means having a couple of lengthy posts of flashbacks.

Even for short games it is important to know where your character came from.  This is especially helpful in one-shots, so you don't have to spend precious game time determining group cohesion. Here is where Dresden Files comes in and does an excellent job of bringing a group together.  The author of each pre-gen game has a little questionnaire that is conducted at the beginning of each game, which basically asks how each person is tied to the NPCs and PCs. Though its not a descriptive background, it's enough to give players a sense of motivation.

I did something similar for the con game I ran last year at AnimeUSA. But rather than ask questions, I wrote a short paragraph on each of the preg-gen characters which tied everyone together. In that case, everyone was linked to the Imperial Officer PC -- which made his character somewhat vital to making the adventure go forward. Yet, he was their motivation.

And that's what it all really boils down to, motivation. You could have a three page backstory about where your character has been. Where they're going. What they've been through. Who or what they're looking for. and how they're going to do it all. But it don't mean squat without some motivation. What drives the character to do what they're doing. Is it gold? Is it power? Sex? Drugs? Rock-n-roll? Whatever it is, it defines your character.

Background makes a character because it helps drive the character through the campaign/adventure. You don't have to be a Stephen King or Tolkien to figure out what's going to motivate your character to go out and risk their life for fame and glory. Writing a lengthy novel of a backstory isn't required here, all you need is: Motivation. Put that motivation into a sentence and you've got a background story.

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Next time on Dice Harder: What Makes a Character Pt 3 - Skills and Ability Scores

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chronicle 005: What Makes a Character Pt 1

Over the years I have come to see character creation as something more than just a random grouping of numbers and letters on a page. It has grown into something more of an art form. With each stroke of a pencil a new life is born on paper. And as each new life takes breathe their personality, their uniqueness unfolds. What I would like to explore over the next few posts is: what makes a character.

Some players see their character's as just a piece of paper with stats on it. But for others, like myself, creating a character is like telling a story. You come up with a concept, or plot, and use the various stats to drive your plot, like a name. Which is where I would like to begin this series. The name of your character is what I believe to be the vital part of your character.Without a name your character is nothing.

For some people coming up with a name for their character is as easy as pointing a figure at some random name. But for me, it's more about finding meaning. Sometimes finding that meaning doesn't come until the end of character creation.  For example, when I played The Dresden Files I knew I wanted to play a Quixotic Jedi. While it probably wasn't a concept the creatures originally had in mind, it was do-able. I built the character around the concept, but knew that in the end his name had to have meaning. Something that would drive home the point that he was a quack pretending to be a "Jedi". So I chose the name Lucas Andador (translated Luke Walker -- as in Skywalker). This sealed it, and during the course of gameplay Lucas became a memorable character.

Other times it's the name that will be the catalyst for the created character. Like, Vigo the Butcher, is probably not going to be a Lawful Good Paladin. He might be an anti-Paladin, but more than likely he's a vicious fighter type. Or perhaps you took a literal meaning, as in he's a butcher, in which case creation possibilities increase. If I gave you the name Drizzt, your mind may automatically create a Drow who duel-wields scimitars. Or Harry Potter, and you create a young boy wizard who's scarred by a curse that backfired.

You see, names have meaning. They define who the character is, and maybe what they will become. Regardless if the game we're playing will be short lived, I like to make sure the name fits the character I've created.

Let's take a recent example from one game I was in. If anyone watches WWE you may have heard of Mr. Kennedy (now Mr. Anderson in TNA). Kennedy used to come down to the ring and call out his name: "Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisteeeeeeeeeeeeer Ken-ne-dy! Kennedy!" emphasizing each syllable of his name. I took that single aspect, and name, and made a character from it: a charismatic swashbuckler named Kennedy. Though more youthful than the person he was portraying, Kennedy became the "problem child" of the group. Despite his Chaotic Neutral alignment, he had good intentions -- intentions to the point that many thought he was destined to be a Paladin. But to do that would take an act of God, in which case it was Bahamut. However, getting there was another thing. As having already established Kennedy as a free spirit, this required a major shift in character interaction, which was nigh impossible in-game. And so Kennedy was soon written out of the game. But now, anytime I mention the name Kennedy to my GM, he cringes. Knowing the chaotic, uncontrollable nature that Kennedy was, he now fears it being unleashed once more.

The point is is that the name, and the personality, left a lasting impression upon the GM and the other players. When Kennedy was written out of the game I was disappointed, but yet determined to find a game in which I could bring him back to life (as of yet this hasn't happened). His replacement in that game, though short-lived, was a half-orc named Ode. I searched through hundreds of names before finding this one in a list of African names. Ode, meaning 'born on the road' was appropriate in this setting as half-orcs were rare, and orcs were a nomadic tribe. So there again, the name has meaning, and helped define who Ode was.

I find that searching through baby names is very helpful, as meanings are provided with each name. Sometimes I find myself looking at the meaning more than the name itself. As I want my character's name to mean something. The name can then help shape who the character is as I go through character creation. Or at least help me shape the character's backstory. But that's for a different post.

In closing. While picking a random name can sometimes land you a memorable character, I have had better luck finding a name that has meaning.  It helps me keep the character's identity during gameplay, but also serves a constant reminder for others who you are playing. If the name "The Marvel" pops up in conversation, we all know who that is. "Kennedy" is also a popular frame of reference. But perhaps it's more than the name that made this character memorable, but it's a start.

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Next time on Dice Harder: What Makes a Character Pt 2 - Background

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If you haven't already, check out these great podcasts!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chronicle 004: Sword's Edge Review


On May 6th of this year Rho Pi Gamma interviewed Fraser Ronald of Sword's Edge Publishing. During the interview they discussed the three incarnations that SEP. Sword's Edge was one of these incarnations, and after playing, one of the most enjoyable RPGs I've played to date. (You can click the following link to hear Rho Pi's review from June 10th.)

I think it was a week or so after that initial podcast that the co-host, Liz, ran us in a Serenity version of Sword's Edge. If anyone has played Serenity the RPG you will find that Sword's Edge may actually be a better system for the setting.

Now, as many of you know, I love to create character sheets. Liz had asked me to do the same for this system, even though, frankly, it doesn't need one. This system is designed in such a way that all you really need is a blank piece of paper. However, if I could have an "official" character sheet, I would say that this one -- the first of it's kind, to my knowledge -- can fit on an index card.  I have a friend in my other gaming group that wanted to create/find a game that you could support a character sheet on an index card. And this is it! Sword's Edge needs just enough information about the character, that you could jot down a couple of phrases and be done. there's no Ability scores, no Skill List, it's just a simple Who you are and what makes you 'you'.

Sword's Edge is less about the physical dice rolls and is one of the purest roleplaying games that I've played. Even when compared to Dresden Files/FATE, who share amazing similarities, Sword's Edge still wins the day when it comes down to ease of playing and flexibility.

The similarities start with Aspects: What Does your character do. In Dresden Files Aspects come in the form of background. First you have your career -- in Harry's instance he's a Wizard Private Eye. In Sword's Edge, depending on the setting, you could be a Ex-Browncoat turned Freighter (as if you were Mal from Serenity). Your career kind of defines your class, like Inara would be an Ambassador.

Second you have your Trouble (Fate) or Catch. What's going to keep you in the ball game. What can the GM (or players) use to really fuck up your life. In Fate, Harry's is Chivalry isn't dead damnit. Wash, from Serenity, might have Hopeless Romantic, for his wife Zoe. In Liz's game, I played Wash. She had originally given Wash another catch, but I knew that his love for Zoe might be just as big a hook as anything else -- in Sword's Edge you can have up to three hooks, whereas in Fate you can only have one [not much to go on].

Third you have your background. Who are you? In Fate you have five chances to define yourself. In Sword's Edge you only have three. But this could be anything that you feel defines your character. Mal has Serenity. Wash has 'I am a leaf on the wind'. While Jayne has Vera. These are descriptions or objects that make that character unique.

The best part is that all these aspects can be used to give advantages AND disadvantages in combat and non-combat situations. In both systems you're encouraged to come up with aspects that can be used as bonuses and negatives. So, while Wash may have the negative aspect of Coward, the other aspect Hopeless Romantic may now doubt push him into action, especially if it means saving Zoe's life -- as it did in the adventure Liz ran us in.

But the similarities pretty much stop there. Fate takes off and adds in skills and a complicated system on determining how magic works. Sword's Edge narrows your skills down to three aspects: Physical, Cunning, and Charisma. Mal is a great leader so he has a higher Charisma. Jayne is a brute giving him a higher Physical. Wash on the other had is pretty average in all three respects. And aspects can be tied to the traits as well.

Despite their similarities it is my opinion that Sword's Edge has the, um, edge, on roleplaying. It's only a slight (damnit) edge, because there's less numbers to worry about. I will probably be running a Fate based game at AnimeUSA this year, despite Sword's Edge being an easier game to pick-up and play. But both can be run as 'traditional' rpgs were once run: in the imagination, and not on some board with miniatures.

Well, that's my two cents on Sword's Edge. I hope you enjoyed my review.

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Next time on Dice Harder: a series of posts on What Makes a Character

Friday, June 1, 2012

About Me & Player, GM, Collector

Hi, my name is Salow, pronounced Say-low, as in "Say Hi, Say Low." Salow!
I've only been gaming since 1999, so that gives me about 13 years of gaming experience. My first game was WEG (West End Games) Star Wars, I explain my first experience here, in Chronicle 001. We played for an hour each day during the week, and then for most of the day on Saturday or Sunday. Since we were at a boarding school, there wasn't much else to do. If you listen to Rho Pi Gamma: The Gamer's Podcast, you can hear several tales of our experiences in roleplaying.
I really appreciated those in our gaming group, as they were the ones that got me through my two years at the school. Our bond for gaming kept us close, which made life much easier in a militaristic environment. But I never Gm'd for that group. I was always the player. But that was when I started gaining experience as a collector, as my roommate passed down his old WEG SW Gm screen to me when he graduated that year. That summer he coerced me into being a GM in a one-on-one game with him. the following year I still kept my player hat on and gamed with a slightly different crew, before graduating in 2000.
My college years saw minimal gaming the first two and a half years. But when I transferred I got back into gaming on a regular basis, including Miniatures (Warhammer 40k). By this time my gaming experience included AD&D, D&D 3.0/3.5, Star Wars d20, d20 Modern, Dragonlance, Vampire: the Masquerade, CyberPuynk, and one of the Marvel Superhero incarnations.
Then I had to go and get married AND move out of the state. But I was able to find a local gaming store and got introduced to WarMachine and Confrontation. Luckily we moved back to my wife's hometown, and I got back into serious gaming. Picking up Star Wars Saga, Malifaux, Dresden Files, Sword's Edge, Dark Hersey, D&D 4E, Exalted, Mutant & Masterminds, World of Warcraft the Board Game, and Last Unicorn's Star Trek TNG.

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There are three types of roleplayers: the Player, the GM, and the Collector

The Player: this was every gamer in the beginning. There you were just an innocent person, going about your day and then something catches your interest: whether it was someone talking about a topic, or you spotted a group of people huddled around a table, or you just happened to walk into the right store; but you were captivated by this new thing called: Roleplaying. You probably don't have any dice, or if you do it's probably six-siders from old board games.Nor do you have any books. But, what you do have is a piece of paper, a pencil and a imagination. Everyone will always be a player, but you grow from there.

Depending on your group, and the size of your pocketbook, you can become one if not both of these:

The GM: The Game Master, the Dungeon Master, the Narrator, or whatever you call it, you run the game. You spend less time creating random PCs (player characters) in random Games, like the Player does, concentrating on creating NPCs (non-player characters), cities, worlds, obstacles, adventure hooks and maps to make your game that much more enjoyable. Hours turn to days. Days turn to weeks. Weeks turn to months. As you slave over your adventure/campaign. This is fun, right? Of course! And in only a few minutes it'll all be destroyed by players who go in a direction you didn't foresee coming.  But hey, as long as they had fun (you remember having fun as a player, right) that's all that matters.


Collector: You don't have to be a GM to be a collector, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Collectors are the RPG resources for players and gms. Don't have a pdf or book of Game X? I bet you know who does! Collectors buy the latest editions as soon as they hit the shelves. Or the get the "New Game on the Block" [theme song?] because they've read all the reviews and want to explore a new system. They may or may not read the book from  front to back, no, that's the gm's job (know the basics and then run it as soon as possible). Collectors also never get rid of their old books. Remember West End Game's Star Wars? Yep they have all the books, and probably even all their old character sheets too.

It's really a cycle for many of us in the rpg community. Though there are "all-time" players, there's people who are "all-time" gms, because without a gm there's no game, and without players you'd basically be reading a book. We come up with a game, and become the gm, but then we dream of playing in that world, and we yearn to be a player. We search through the pages and pages of source material (provided by the collector) in a hopeless search for that next awesome character or idea. Only to see it slip away when the collector brings forth "The New Game!" We play it, we run it, and it all starts over again.

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Though there's a plethora of bloggers out there that write on RPGs, I figured one more couldn't hurt. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or recommendations, I will try to address anything I receive.

If you're reading this from the beginning, you may also be wondering about the new title ... but that'll be a discussion for a later time.

Long Live the d20!