7 Questions for Character Building
I'm getting ready to launch a sci-fi campaign set in the Star Wars universe within the next few weeks, and in preparation for that I've thought a lot about how people build a character for a campaign, and what kinds of questions they should be asking to help build the best characters for a roleplay campaign.
Over the next few weeks we'll be delving into what I think are the seven most important questions a person can ask when building their characters, both to give them a competitive edge in gameplay (i.e., when you roll your dice) and to make the characters more interesting and fun in group play (i.e., when you interact with party members, how you contribute to party cohesion, etc.). We will handle two questions in every post, helping you to flesh out your characters by asking the overarching questions and then drilling down deeper to make them more engaging.
Several months ago we did a series talking about the seven critical roles that party members should fill, and I'll link back to that discussion as those are also important questions to you should ask. So know that, before we start asking the seven questions, we assume that there's an eighth question of, "What critical role do you fill in the group" that we are not asking, because we've already devoted a lot of posts to that question. So pick a party role (or roles) after you flesh out your character.
What we are discussing here, though, has more to do with how you flesh out the high concept of the character to make them more helpful to the group and attractive to the other players, stimulating and cementing party cohesion because you've built a character that they can't imagine leaving behind.
To help grasp the intricacies of the question, we'll give an example of one of our players, Chris, building out a character for an upcoming Star Wars campaign (as our audience is likely familiar with the lore and workings of Star Wars, at least in part). We will also be assuming that the campaign is taking place during the reign of the Galactic Empire, as there's an even better chance that the player is aware of the lore and workings of that era of the Star Wars universe.
So with no further ado, the first question you should ask...
Question 1: What Does the Character Want?
You need to ask what does your character want in life? Are you just out for money (like Han, who is trying to pay back a debt to Jabba the Hutt when we meet him)? Are you looking for a place of belonging (like Luke after Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru die)? Are you toppling a powerful villain (like Leia as a leader of the Rebel Alliance)? Are you working off a life debt to another player character or NPC (like Chewbacca)?
Thinking through what your character wants will give your game master ideas for potential jobs and encounters, ideas for NPCs to throw at you (either allied, neutral, or hostile to build tension), and help you decide how you'd act in a given moment. It takes the guesswork out of potential crises, as you have a goal that your character is working toward.
More than that, though, it keeps you from being a person who just says, "Oh yeah, whatever you guys want to do - that's fine by me," which can bog down and slow down the game. So you're also contributing to party energy by thinking through what your character wants in life.
In most games, this is more of a background element that may or may not come up, but in the Zurn system it actually helps with character creation as well. What your character wants can play into your selection of adjectives (as people often train for what they want), and if your game master is open to it, it could play into a game master awarded description.
So ask yourself, "What does my character want, and why does he/she want this?" As you think this through, it brings out thoughts for the next question...
Question 2: Where do you come from?
This is not just your nation, though that is also useful in building out the character. Thinking through where your character came from is thinking about what made the character the way they are. Put another way: how did your upbringing forge you into the person you are today?
What jobs did you do (giving you ideas for what skills you are proficient in, or what adjectives you might take)? Darth Vader was born and raised as a mechanic and a pilot and then was trained as a Jedi, so being a deadly killer and a good pilot is natural when he gets older (and thus we are not surprised when he is good at these skills).
What traumatic things happened in your life? This doesn't need to be your parents dying, though they could die without it being cliche - the death of the Lars Family is one of the defining elements of Luke's decision to pursue the Force, and his desire to redeem Anakin stems from having never known his father.
But they don't have to be earth-shattering traumatic events. I had a friend whose house had a ladybug infestation when she was young - we're talking thousands of them everywhere. Result: even though she knows that ladybugs are not dangerous and are good for the environment, she is terrified of them. And rightly so - she had a traumatic experience.
Adding phobias to your character, especially random or weird phobias, can be really good for building out a character because it makes them deep. So think through what traumatic things - big or small - might have happened in your character's past.
This also includes what you look like, what you wear, what you carry with you, and why you carry those things. It doesn't take long to realize that Han loves the Falcon. But if the game master were to ask the player controlling Han, "Why do you care so much about being the captain of this ship? It's a piece of junk," the player adds a lot more stakes to the game when he says, "The Falcon is everything to him. This ship is his ship, and while it may not look like much it's got heart and he loves that. And if it means having to do crazy repairs mid-combat, he's gonna do them." And now we have a ballgame: the player has staked himself to something and won't leave without it, and that gives us tension that we can use to make better stories. We will return to this question in the next post, but suffice it to say for now, think through what your character carries with them right now - be that baggage, experience, or literally what they carry in their hands or at their hip - from their past.
So to reask the question: "What forged you into who you are today, and what marks did the hammer leave that we can pick up on as we game?" Answer that, and you'll go from having a cliche character to having a dynamic, deep character.
These questions probe the past and future of the character: who are you, where are you from, and where are you going. With this framework laid we have a grounding for going deep into introspection, probing the heart and desires of the character. But more on that in our next post.
Until next time,