Storyboard: Mistakes at the creation level

Can't help but feel that I've done this before.
A lot of character mistakes come down to experimentation, essentially. You have what seems like a good idea, but it turns out in play that it's messy or annoying or unfun or whatever. There's nothing in the world wrong with that; you try something out and it either does or doesn't work. While good concept work does a lot to help you catch these things, sometimes good ideas won't work.

But then there are problems that come up time and again based on a fundamentally bad assumption. Something goes wrong right from the point that you click "New Character" because you're making an assumption that can immediately be recognized as a bad idea. So I'm going to go ahead and list a handful of these problems that are bad ways to start off so that hopefully we can all stop making these mistakes in the future and make some exciting new ones.

Yes, even if you play one of these freaky bastards.I'll play a dwarf!

A race is not a character.

The best characters -- in gaming and in fiction -- don't have a species. There's one in the story, of course, but that's more of a character trait than a fundamental aspect of the character. Turn the characters from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic into twentysomething human city-dwellers, and you've still got an interesting mix of personalities and issues. Firefly would work just as well if half of the crew were aliens. You get the idea.

In MMORPGs, we all have a bad tendency to start conceptualizing a character from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with character traits, we start with broad categories, like "dwarf fighter" or "elven bard." Then we try to construct a character around that idea. It's an interesting exercise for intentionally limiting yourself into being more creative, but that's not what most people use it for. It's certainly not what I've used it for in the past.

A better option is to start with a character concept and then fit class, race, gender, and whatever around that core ideal. This is one of the assets of playing familiar characters, as I mentioned last week. If I know that I'm playing an honorable character with a strong belief in doing what must be done, that suggests races and abilities. It also suggests that the character has depth beyond simply what looked cool at the character creation screen.

I'll do X with this character; that'll define her personality!

Not if she's a good character.

In my day-to-day life, I'm a writer. That lends some definition to who I am as a person, but it hardly encompasses me as a whole. Just from reading these articles, you could probably guess that I'm a cat owner and an avid reader. You probably couldn't guess that I have a deep love for Chinese and Arab history or that I think Joe Versus the Volcano is one of the greatest films ever made or that I love to cook.

What we do is only a part of our personality. If this character is your PvP character, saying "well, she loves battle and hates faction X" is not actually fleshing anything out. Why does she love battle? Why does she hate the other faction(s)? Defining her solely by one activity, even if it's her main activity from day to day, is intensely limiting.

If all you want her to be is a punching bag against other players, fine, but you're missing a lot of possibilities by doing so. A far better option is explaining why this is so important to her and then creating a personality to match. Maybe she doesn't care about dying any longer and just wants to go out with a rush? Maybe she's young and thinks herself immortal? Maybe she's just not smart enough to conceptualize that she might get herself killed?

There's also a question of when the roleplaying stops and you're still acting like a tool.My character is supposed to seem like a jerk!

This is not a defense.

This one gets tossed around for any character whose concept centers around being abrasive, confrontational, or otherwise disruptive. Sure, Sigmund acts like a jerk, but that's just the surface level of the character! If you get to know him, you find out that he's not actually all that bad of a guy!

Unfortunately, this has two problems. The first is one of the few lessons as useful in real life as it is in roleplaying: If you seem like a jerk to everyone around you, you probably are, in fact, a jerk. Maybe you're not as much of a jerk as you seem, maybe you have good reasons for being a jerk, maybe you were brought up in an environment where this wasn't as much a matter of being a jerk, but none of that changes the central truth. Seeming like a jerk on a regular basis means you are one. You can either change how you act or accept that fact about yourself.

The second is that roleplaying is not a matter of trying to make other players work to crack the mysteries of basic interaction with your character. If your character gives my character no reason to care about his deeper issues, then my character will leave with the knowledge that Sigmund is a jerk and won't put any more thought into him. You're trying to create a mystery to be teased out, but from an in-character perspective there's no reason to pursue that mystery. Instead, you're relying on players being fascinated by your portrayal of... a jerk.

I've watched people rebuff all criticism about a character with the defense of "well, she's supposed to be caustic" and then wonder why no one wants to roleplay with that character any longer. Your character can definitely be a jerk, but you still need to have some reason why anyone would spend time around him or her. Some redeeming features, some desirable qualities, something. There's a character I know in Guild Wars 2 who's a complete jerk on the subject of Charr... but he's also kind, generous, and loyal. Hit other notes.

As you can probably guess if you obsessively count words, that's all for this week, but feel free to leave feedback down below or send it along to eliot@massively.com. Next week, let's go back to teenage levels and talk about why no one understands your character.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.