When you are building a house, doing so requires many disciplines. It is a different skill to frame a house, than it is to plumb it, than it is to wire the electricity. Additionally, you do not use the same tools to do so. It is as difficult to imagine framing a house with pipe wrenches or wire cutters as it is to imagine wiring the electricity with a hammer and saw. In a similar manner, the idea of building a character should be multidisciplinary. Too often, however, I have personally found that players hyper-focus on the numbers of the character sheet, making sure that damage from abilities is maximized or that pools (in Cypher) are optimized and completely miss the other angles of character creation.
Please do not misunderstand me. This post is not an attempt to suggest that the numbers of a character are not important. Nobody likes to play a game where combat is prevalent and they do only one damage on a successful hit, or go down with a single blow (Although, one of the more fun characters I ever played was, essentially, combat-ineffective. The amount of creativity forced out of me by Phinneas, the Calm Nano who Doesn’t Do Much quite frankly caught me by surprise). Nobody enjoys playing a game where stealth is emphasized and their character constantly seems to be walking around with bells on their feet announcing their presence. There is a place for thinking about numbers, and it is certainly part of the game. But it is not all of the game of character creation, and in this post, I’d like to cover some of the other considerations.
Character Creation as Part of the Greater Story Context
When I personally begin creating characters, I start out thinking about the kind of story that I know is going to be told. Usually, this involves a conversation with the GM with me asking questions like, “Talk to me about the feeling you’re trying to evoke in this game/genre, etc…” or “What kind of play style are you looking to focus on (combat, diplomacy, stealth, etc…)?” I try and get as much information as I can with regards to the type of story I’m going to be participating in. If I am able, I will also often talk to the other players and find out what direction they are thinking in with regards to their characters.
“Show up at the table with a character who’s eager to be part of the story.Your Best Game Ever, page 39 (Emphasis Added)
“That’s the most important takeaway from this. Game-specific terminology aside, it’s wrong to think of the GM as the storyteller because RPGs are a group storytelling experience. Let me say that again. RPGs are a group storytelling experience. That means as a player, you’re one of the storytellers too. Your voice in the story is as important as anyone else’s, and at the same time, no one has a greater responsibility to the story than you do. You can’t show up to the table with a PC who refuses to go on adventures and insists on staying home where it’s safe, forcing the GM to come up with some impetus to get your character involved. Oh, you can have a character who needs some kind of push to get them involved in the story, but that push is your responsibility, not anyone else’s. No one should have to drag you into the story, kicking and screaming.”
Character Creation as a Personal Challenge
Another thing I am fond of doing is pushing myself. There are, indeed, limits to the types of characters I will play, but I enjoy stretching myself with concepts. As an example, I’ll share a story about a Dungeons & Dragons character I played once. Joann was running a game for my son and a bunch of his teenage friends. Several of their fathers were playing (to spend some time with their sons) and I did as well. Most of the characters were very stereotypical, and as is often the case, several of the young teenagers created characters that were self-centered and not as interested in the well being of the party. As the most experienced roleplayer at the table by many years, I felt it something of a duty to show them the possibilities of what could be done.
I racked my brain trying to come up with a character concept I had never played before because doing so often forces me to rely more on roleplaying. Finally, it occurred to me that I had never seen a Barbarian played who wasn’t a “bruiser”. I decided that I wanted to figure out if I could build an interesting Barbarian as a Dexterity-based build as opposed to the typical Strength-based one. Once I was done with the numbers, I had a halfling Barbarian. I wasn’t done yet, though.
Personality and Backstory and Why they Matter
In working with Joann, we decided that this halfling had been found by Bearfolk as an infant when the caravan his parents were in had been attacked. They had driven off the attackers, but not before the caravan had been wiped out. They took the child to their camp and raised him… as a bear. Akto grew up believing that he was, in fact, a bear, with all the bluster and attitude to go with it, but none of the strength. He learned how to use his dexterity to his advantage, however, and the skills, weapons, and abilities I used were all tailored to that concept. It was one of the single most hilarious characters I have ever played and the good-natured fun we had at the table because of it sticks in the memories of those boys and their fathers, and mine, to this day. The mental image of this halfling getting insulted because of a reference to his size or statue and puffing himself up and pointing at himself to shout “AKTO, BEAR!” puts a smile on our face even now.
Beyond the numbers, which were “mechanically viable”, Akto was an example of the importance of Personality and Backstory in a character. That character just doesn’t work in a typical party from a numbers standpoint. If you think about it, the Barbarian is a front-line character. Relying on a halfling with high-dexterity to cause large amounts of damage is silly. But when you add the image of a tiny halfling climbing an opponent’s back to get to a vulnerable spot because that is how he has to attack, or one whose attitude is much, much larger than his body and for whom it bleeds into everything he does and is, you have the beginnings of a powerful story to tell. Much like Mowgli from the Jungle Book, Akto was one who had to learn to live in a world that did not accept him for what he was. The interactions that grew from that idea were incredible storytelling opportunities for the whole group.
Quirks and Flaws: Why You Should Develop Them in Session Zero
Remaining on the subject of character builds, one of the things that I have long espoused is the idea of real character weakness. One of the things that makes humans interesting is that they are different, with strengths and flaws that run the entire spectrum of the human experience. As a GM, I like to foster this in my games. When I ran Dungeons and Dragons, one of the ways I did so was that I required that at least one ability score had to be 15+ and at least one had to be 9 or less (giving a negative modifier). At times, the later simply became what is commonly referred to as a “dump stat”, but occasionally (and this really got me excited) someone embraced the idea and put it somewhere interesting, using it to tell a good story.
In Cypher, much of this is narrative rather than mechanical in nature, but the equivalent is that one sits down with the GM (and preferably the other players as well) and discusses meaningful quirks and flaws that your character will have. These can then be introduced both in player-player interactions, player-NPC interactions, or as narrative fodder for the GM to include in the story to give it interesting twists and turns in much the same way as is done in fiction writing (there’s a reason Joann and I have enjoyed using Cypher to help in our fiction writing…). Personally, I have found when doing so that both my characters are more interesting to play, and the stories I help facilitate as a GM are more personal and relatable and therefore, more powerful.
Character Arcs and Bonds
We have talked about Character Arcs and Character Bonds in other posts, so I’m not going to say much about them here. What I will say is that I have, in my personal games that I run, begun to require that these be used. Why you might ask? Because in my experience, concepts like these create so many more opportunities for player-driven storytelling and party cohesion and roleplaying interaction. For me, telling stories is so much more fun if the stories MEAN something to my players and the characters they have spent time dreaming up. Playing a roleplaying game is so much easier for me if players have already bought into an incentive to work together as a team. The entire experience seems to go much smoother and everyone seems to have more fun over the course of the game.
In summary, there are so many more things to consider when building a character in a role-playing game, and particularly one as far toward the narrative side of the scale as the Cypher System (and Cypher-adjacent games like Numenera or Invisible Sun). In my opinion, the biggest thrill of such games are the shared stories we tell as players and GMs. Stories that keep us talking about them with fond memories for many years and remind us of the friendships we make and the sparks of creativity in each one of us. That, for me, is what keeps me coming back to the table, and when all is said and done, the players, and their characters, are the ones who truly drive that effort. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles