Gamemaster’s Guidepost: What Makes a Worthy Character

In my continuing ramblings on what makes something worthy in gaming today I’m talking about one of the things that all RPGs have: characters. This might be a player character or a non-player character, but whatever it is it should have “character.” Here’s what I feel make up a worthy character.

A Worthy Character Should Have “Handles”

Characters should have “handles” on them starting out. What does that mean? They are the reverse of “hooks” – a way to get PCs involved in a particular story arc or adventure. Handles are how the GM gets PCs into a scenario fast. Handles can often be found by examining the traits, history, etc. of the character and then discussing it with the player. Or discussing it from the beginning (which is better). Handles are not bad things, they help drop characters into situations that are at once familiar and different. A good example of handles might be a particular disadvantage or element of a player’s backstory.

A Worthy Character Should Have Ambitions

A character without ambition is just a pile of points. Ambitions give a character lift and thrust at the same time. It makes them “buoyant” to player and gives direction. You don’t need to start out with an ambition for your character, but you should pick one at some point and the sooner the better.  An ambition combined with a handle on a character allows a GM that could throw said character into multiple scenarios with little effort.

A Worthy Character Should Be in Harmony

Building a character in GURPS allows for players to design their toon from the top down. They can pick and choose the traits (Advantages, Disadvantages, etc.) that are inherent to the character’s backstory allowing for a mechanical representation of a roleplaying note. This is one of the things I feel is strongly in the corner of the system. You really can design a character in as little or much detail as you like and it’ll make sense. This is not fairly well represented in other systems as much as it is in GURPS (and to a degree FATE).

A Worthy Character Should Have Backstory

Characters should have a backstory. I know, I know, that’s heresy in some parts of the hobby, but seriously. You need to know where you are going by knowing where you’ve been. And to a lesser degree you need to know where you’ve been to know where you are. I’m not saying you should have a deep 20-page backstory for every character. Some GMs don’t like backstory because, well past is prologue. But the prologue sets up the rest of the book – sometimes in really important ways. All that said, a 300-500 word backstory that jives with the world is a godsend for most GMs.

A Worthy Character Should Be Flexible

Characters should be flexible. I know, I’ve mentioned that a lot too, but it’s important. Gaming with a flexible character run by a flexible player in a flexible world by a flexible GM is just *chef’s kiss*. There needs to be give in how the character is portrayed and written up. I’m not saying you can’t play a stubborn or taciturn character, but build a “pressure relief valve” into the concept so you get to play that way, but you also have the ability to quietly go along with things the rest of the players want to do. Roleplaying is a cooperative hobby – constantly going against the grain can be exhausting for players and GMs alike. That said, if the players and GM have signed up such characters it can increase dramatic tension.

A Worthy Character Should Be a Team Player

Characters should be team players. Again, the hobby is a “team sport” and it should be treated as such. Create characters who can work together or at least not against each other (unless the game itself calls for such shenanigans). Whenever you can, work with other PCs or NPCs. The GM will be happy as can be with such a character.

A Worthy Character Should Not Need to Be Defended

“It’s in character!” Those words are the last defense of a player seeking to undermine the game. Maybe it’s different for some of you, but I’ve rarely heard those words uttered in a defense by players running characters who are anything but a mess. A character shouldn’t require defending constantly. It just shouldn’t. Don’t do it. If you find you have a player who is constantly doing this with their characters you might have a problem PC. Talk with your other players and get them to be as honest as possible.

Picking Over the Bones

This one is necessarily colored by my personal past experiences more than the previous three posts. This is what I look for in characters (especially player characters) and when I make NPCs I try to make sure I have at least 3-4 of the above incorporated into them. I especially try to make sure characters have both an ambition or motivation I can easily pair with their handles since even I don’t always have a perfect scenario for the game every week. Sometimes you just need to plunk a PC down into a situation and see what happens. I’ve personally found that is some of the most fun you can have in roleplaying.

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