Influences on Character

In both of my proposed campaigns, Icons and Mechwarrior, I have a lot of lead time to prepare and I have clear themes in mind. Really, this is the second best of all possible situations. It could only be made better by having clear start dates, and known players with clear character ideas.

As I begin setting design, I find it very helpful to consider each of my themes and how they will influence and be influenced by that setting. As characters are created, I will need to reassess both the setting and the themes and see how each will be affected by these characters and how, in turn, they will come to affect the characters. This is a step that in my experience is given short shrift by a lot of inexperienced or overly-busy GMs. I think it is important to determine how the existence of that character might have altered the background and setting you are envisioning for the campaign, and equally important to discuss with the player what sort of limits might be placed on the character. That discussion will lead to some form of compromise between the design of the setting, and the design of the character, so that both the players and the GM can have a good time. In my view, it is essential to be aware of those influencing factors, and how they contribute to and shape character design, and as a result, setting design.

In Hair of the Dog, one of the core elements of the setting will be a resistance movement. Until there are players, I do not want to focus on elements of exactly how that movement will be represented in the game, but as I mentioned in Part 2 of that series of posts, I will be reluctant to run the campaign if the players are not interested in running mechwarriors or aerospace pilots. My reason is simply that my goal for the campaign is smooth integration of roleplay with the wargame. If the players choose to run spies and politicians, the game may very well be exciting and fulfilling, but it is not the game I am looking to run. I am open to persuasion, however, and if the character concepts are strong, I will revise the entire campaign to work with those characters. Until/unless that stage is reached, however, I will plan setting elements that will prepare me to run with whatever PC mechwarriors might devise as a course of action. As a core conceit of the Battletech Universe is this sort of war scenario, I will not alter it, however. If the prospect of running characters in a resistance movement does not appeal to the players, we will obviously play something else.

In the Iconic Heroes campaign, whose working title is currently ‘Waters of Casablanca,’ the core elements of the setting will be the world in which we live, albeit with some minor modifications based on the existence of people with abilities who may or may not have gotten out of the tabloid news, and the pre-existing or resultant research. Unlike the Mechwarrior campaign where I have a personal goal to achieve as a GM in addition to helping to tell a good story, this one has no additional concerns or conditions. While that is good in terms of allowing for free-flowing creativity, it does have the side-effect of requiring fully-generated characters prior to significant setting design. I have chosen the location, which will certainly influence character design, but not dramatically. For my initial planning prior to chargen, I will need to focus on sweeping events which affect large swathes of the city’s population as a whole. Once characters have been created, I can focus on fine tuning those generic events and conditions to speak to the characters on a personal level.

Thematically, these two campaigns are related, but have the potential to be complete opposites. In Hair of the Dog, the campaign presupposes that characters will rise to the challenge put before them. Waters of Casablanca does not assume anything, and is in fact intended as a means to explore what normal people would do in an extraordinary situation – even if that means running and hiding in a hole, or opening a café and looking bitter. Hair of the Dog will therefore have set themes which can be felt on a personal level, and will build throughout the campaign, but Waters of Casablanca will have themes of a more abstract nature. As they are about change and choice, they will ironically remain essentially static, despite the wider latitude for character growth and development in that campaign.

Now at this point, it should be abundantly obvious that the two campaigns also differ in another significant way. One has a clearly defined set of circumstances, an inherent expectation of character allegiance and motivation, a preferred occupation for characters, and a fairly predictable arc. The other has none of these. While this may make the mechwarrior campaign seem too restrictive, I feel it will have every chance to have as much individual creativity and characterization as the Icons game… if not more. In many cases, truly open settings where you can ‘do anything’ can end up with no one ‘doing anything,’ and in effect, doing nothing. The clear setting, character goals and orientation, and the preferred method of attaining those goals, will allow people to focus on making their characters, focus on their tactics, navigate the perils of each escalating situation, solving the problems they face, and roleplay through an elegant arc of their own devising. What will make it exciting is seeing how the characters stand out from each other and their peers, and seeing each player’s personal interpretation of heroism brought to life in the actions of their character. Waters of Casablanca, however, will – by virtue of its freedom – have characters as vaguely aware of themselves and as ill-defined as ‘main characters’ by circumstance as most actual people are. What will make it exciting is running those characters through their choices and experiencing the development of those traits and characteristics which will come to define them. Will they become heroes, villains, grocery store clerks, con men, dead men, or something else? The journey is the thing.

These differences lie at both ends of the normal spectrum of game choices. Games like D&D, Vampire, and specific genre or IP simulations often go the route of my mechwarrior campaign as outlined above. Others have a less-refined focus. As we settle down to make characters for these two very different settings, despite the differences the process will be quite similar for each game:

I will first give them the pitch for the campaign in detail and provide an appropriate amount of setting information. This might include a written background of the location and era, a short scene from a relevant movie, a chance to look through the core book, and a clear statement of what I would like to explore with the game.

Next I will walk the players through the steps of character creation, letting them roam free through the character choices, and fielding questions about game play effects of certain choices. Obviously Icons will be much easier in this regard. In a perfect scenario, I would be able to give players a week or so to generate a character and communicate back and forth about them before having to have a semi-final version ready for the first session.

The last step will be to run the introductory session which will have two functions. The first is to set the tone of the campaign, and the second is to challenge the characters on emotional and physical levels to help the players find their voices and discover any elements of their design choices which do not work they way the expected or wanted. Between the first session and the second, characters should be altered to better fit player and campaign expectations.

2 Responses to “Influences on Character”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    To some degree these games are asking if great characters make great events, or if great events make great characters. Intentional perhaps? 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      Your insight serves you well~

      I have been thinking about the role of destiny in literature lately. I figure it is best to pump the waters of the subconscious to the surface rather than to wait for signs of mildew in the foundations of other things I try to design.

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