Tell Me About Your Character: A Simple Question

8

June 28, 2010 by gamefiend

You can spend a lot of time creating the details around your character.  Where is he or she is from? What is it like there?  Next, you create a list personality traits and perks: manners of speech, gestures, habits, dress.  You determine your character’s strengths and weaknesses. You create the particulars of how he or she came to be in this place at this time.  You may delve into the circumstances of the character’s birth, or even further back to her lineage, her genealogy.  Possibly you have detailed her gods and the details of past adventures.

But you don’t know your character one bit. Not yet.  I certainly didn’t know who Umalli was. Not until I branded a kobold after a fight.

Umalli the Mad is a half-orc wizard and acolyte of the half-forgotten and half-dead orc god Fermesh.  Fermesh is an orcish demi-god of arcane might and will (hence the half-forgotten) who was battered and broken as Gruumsh ascended the orcish pantheon (hence the half-dead). Umalli discovered Fermesh in the old knowledge scrolls of his master and father, Regare.  Regare kept his son and his son’s mother as slaves.  Umalli rifled through the warlock’s material whenever the warlock left his quarters.  Soon Umalli learned of Fermesh; over time Umalli learned magic of his own.  On his sixteenth birthday Umalli harnessed his secrets and gifts. He constructed, with an eldritch ritual, a lightning bolt that stuck Regare in the chest, killing his father instantly.  Now free, Umalli freed all of Regare’s other slaves.  Soon, the orc chieftain Regare served provided Umalli a chance to serve as well.  Umalli had served enough for a lifetime, however; he was not ready to bow to anyone ever again, and he would certainly bow to no orc who worshiped Gruumsh, hated enemy of Umalli’s broken god.

The chieftain laughed.  Where would Umalli find a place friendly to one such as he?  How would this half-breed hope to make his way?  If the half-orc lasted a week, he’d be lucky.  As it stood, the warlock’s progeny was clearly mad and bereft of good sense.  Umalli claimed his madness as a gift.  He now wanders in search of knowledge and power.

I knew all this going in to my game. Can you believe I never actually knew anything real about this character until a few sessions ago? It’s true.  I could write and re-write the above information a million times in a million different ways with no change to the essential issue:  Umalli was never real until I had made some more decisions with him. Sometimes the game offers you these decisions; sometimes you create those moments where you make some real decision about what your character should do.  It isn’t always pretty.

So…about that branding.

We won the fight and the remaining enemies fled the battlefield.  The party initially chose to let them flee and  I asked myself: “Is Umalli OK with this happening?”  The answer came back, and it was a little surprising: “No”. So we then chased and caught the kobold.  The mad half-orc’s hand ignited, and he then seared the imprint of his hand on the kobold’s face. As the kobold writhed in pain, he warned: “You take this back to your superiors and you show them what happens to our enemies.”

I had thought Umalli was a nice guy up until all of that!  A little loud, yes, a little crazy, sure.  But mostly within bounds of “civilized behavior”. But I asked that question and everything spilled out.  I learned that Umalli can’t just win; he must dominate.  When Umalli beats you, it is forever; he wants you to know that.

That question — “Is my character OK with that?” — puts you on a road to some interesting in-game moments.  What happens first is you get that simple yes or no for feedback.  If yes, why is you character fine with this occurring?  What is the character willing to do to keep it this way? If your character is not OK with the current situation, what is he willing to do about it?  The power of the question means that you don’t have to ask during every game situation.  If you only use that tool once every few sessions, you still build a real foundation of your character’s behavior.  The answers aren’t always going to be the same, nor should they be.  The answers won’t always be safe, but really: do you want to live forever? Remember, good characters cover ranges of behaviors and beliefs.

Umalli, the same character who would brand a kobold after a fight, found himself in a position where he and the other players assisted a town negotiating a contract with the fey entities that controlled the area.  The fey forces offered unlimited use of a very limited area around the town in exchange for protection from forces attacking the town.  Not the world’s worst deal, but I had to ask the question:  Is Umalli OK with this?

Nope.  To be fenced in like this and unable to grow as a town…to Umalli this was slavery.  He spoke strongly and eloquently against the deal.  He fought those in favor of the deal  with fierce and passionate oratory. Ultimately, he didn’t get what he wanted and the contract was made. But I got what I wanted as a player.  I got to inhabit this complex character so different from me (Umalli is the most aggressive, instigating PC I’ve ever played) who offers great surprises whenever I pose to him a simple question.

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy, has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of At-Will in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e.

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8 thoughts on “Tell Me About Your Character: A Simple Question

  1. This is amazing. I’ll be sharing it with my players at our next game session. Thank you.

  2. Ryven Cedrylle says:

    If you’re interested in reading more, you can find the adventures of Umalli and his companions here!

  3. gamefiend says:

    @Anthony thanks! I’m glad you like. I of course would be interested in hearing about their responses and if it affects your game!

    Ryven is the GM for the game, so definitely check out that link! It’s really fun..

  4. Dana says:

    That question will be right in mind the next time I play – thanks for a smart article!

    On a separate note, I’ve recently started playing 4e on Google Wave, and have enjoyed the ways in which a written game encourages role playing. If you’re puzzling over blog article ideas, that theme (how does live vs. PBP gaming impact the flavor and outcomes?) might be worthwhile. Just my two bits. :)

  5. gamefiend says:

    I’m glad you liked! Also, that is a pretty good idea for a blog article. I may have to take care of this here or on At-Will. I’ll let you know. :)

  6. Colmarr says:

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. No matter how much backstory you write (and I’ve written lots in my time – along with side-story and future-story), it’s the in-game events that really define a character.

    I thought my cleric was a “good guy” too until he took part in the torture of a goblin that had killed a fellow cleric. Vengeance has since proven to be a strong motivation for the character.

    And when my co-players executed prisoners, it became a big intra-party issue, right up until I found myself needing to do
    exactly the same thing.

  7. Johnny B says:

    My character learning moment came in the form not of a big climactic scene, but of a long discussion scene between my character and one other. I had a nice little history, and I knew just what his role would be. I was involved elsewhere in a stressful inter-player gaming experience, so he was going to be a light-hearted farce….a character who would have fit into any Bertie Wooster story, other than being a felinoid alien. He was the comic relief. He wouldn’t do anything heroic, would never be anyone important…he was just gonna be a fun joke to bleed away the stress of the other situation.

    But then he met a human woman, flirty on the outside to cover a hard shell within. I don’t even remember how they encountered each other. But they ended up sitting on his starship alone swapping tales of their lives. And the silly creature went and rewrote himself almost entirely in the course of several hours of roleplay. A little half-thought hook thrown in to give him an excuse for being on the space station that was the game setting suddenly exploded into some of the most important parts of his existence, and a silly foppish nobleman turned into an unbowed freedom fighter with a keen insight into others that kept peeling away the layers with targeted questions to unveil far more of the other character’s history than she normally revealed to anyone. He had history, he had joys and sorrows, he had opinions on the state of affairs. He became a mighty paladin, who eventually rose to have his name in the news repeatedly, who stopped some wars with his careful diplomacy and prosecuted others with an obliterating vengeance.

    And good old Bertie stared at him with wide eyes and looked to Jeeves for explanation. “I say, Jeeves, he has rather a lot of weapons, don’t you think? Tarara, British Grenadiers and all that, eh wot?” “Indeed sir, he has a most intimidating bearing, sir.” “Intimidating, that’s the word, Jeeves. Jolly intimidating, eh wot? Nice fellow, you can’t fault him on that. Minds all the Ps and Qs. But I don’t think the dear Aunt would approve of him.” “Indeed, sir, Mrs. Griggson might express some significant reservations about the society of highly armed felines, sir.”

  8. [...] rough wooden table, leaving behind a thin trail of water. He glared across the table to where Umalli was sitting. The half-orc wizard swallowed his shot and slapped the glass onto the table with a [...]

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