Building Characters #3: Goals

One of the challenges I face writing my murder mystery (besides my old computer hard drive crashing with it) was trying to give the characters varied motives to murder the victim or motives and goals outside of the deed itself. One of the RPG campaigns I am involved with more or less died over the holidays as one player decided to tear up his character sheet. He lost interest as the game master is very poor at planning his schedule and so we had long periods between sessions. The rest of the group had a discussion on the topic of the future of the campaign. This in turn spun into a discussion on what we were looking for in the game from both a player and character perspective.

One thing that struck me was one of the players, who I had been playing with for almost 20 years, expressed criticism for how we create our groups of characters. Often times, when someone starts a campaign the game master (GM) gives a brief context of the setting and everyone creates their character on their own. However, without giving the details of the story or plot the game master would follow, the player ends up with very bland characters or those who are not involved actively in the game. Rather, he spends most of his time flipping through rulebooks and thinking about creating a new character. This certainly explains how in the past, he often would go through dozens of characters in some campaigns. We interpreted this as indecisiveness or fickleness. Instead, his comment was he felt his character didn’t “fit in”. Rather, he wanted to create a new character who would fit into the narrative. Now, the fault can be spread to the GM and other players not integrating him more, but in the end he also has to be pro-active. In this case, he is purely a passive observer.

The other player, who I referred to in the previous post, was purely a tourist. I use the term tourist as the character’s only goal was to meet new people and see new things. Now, there is something to be said about wanderlust or the desire for adventure. This character was just touring the setting and had no intention of creating ties to the area beyond acquaintances and being an attention whore at social gatherings. He further explained what he looks for in a RPG experience is for the world, story, characters to influence his character. Essentially, his character is more or less a blank slate with some basic characteristics: usually a slutty hedonist, with a bit of an innocent streak. However, the player is quite perceptive and pragmatic. He projects these traits onto the character which makes the innocence come off as fake.

Now, both of these approaches are fine. However, these put the responsibility on others to pull them in and get them to invested. These are somewhat passive approaches which works fine for say a story on rails. However, the sand box nature of the campaign itself left them hanging in the wind, waiting for something to happen while I was going about exploring what could be done. The fourth player who tore up his sheet was more or less involved but he had a shared goal with me.

Step 1: Identifying the game

Now, my character creation process is dependent on what type of game we are playing and who is running the game. I adapt to the circumstances ahead of time. I’ll probe and ask questions to better suit the narrative and gameplay. The more complex the game setting or plot, the more likely I try to make a more complex character. Or if it is a game I dislike but play for the benefit of the group, I’ll play something I find interesting for myself. RPGs, unlike many other types of games, possess a more social aspect. Everyone contributes in one way or another be it through the social interaction, the gaming, or just bringing snacks to the table. So the first step is asking:

  • What type of campaign or story will it be?
  • Is this something I want to explore or take part in?
  • How can I (including the character-proxy) contribute or advance the story?

The answers will be different in each case but also mean different things to different individuals. A hack and slash dungeon crawl might mean a tactical challenge to someone while to another it is an opportunity to show off their mastery of game mechanics through power-gaming. Both are perfectly valid styles. These interpretations should then inform the players what role they will play and what type of character could best represent it with their view of the game.

In the example above, the player viewing it as a tactical challenge would likely make a tactical and intelligent character. One who relies on his or her wits to overcome challenges. What factored into this characters’ development to be this way? How will it inform her future actions? What drives her to do so?

Step 2: Group Cohesion

A major pitfall is conflicting interests within a group. This creates conflict between the players and is likely to bog down or slow the game down. In more extreme cases, this can hurt personal relationships between the players. Now, conflicting interests and competing interests are not the same thing. The former are in direct opposition while the others can be compromised upon. The former has to be handled very deftly by the players and the game master.

I find many groups go through different phases of maturity in gaming. The first, often formed through more “simplistic” games like D&D involves a very basic principle. You are a team and need to work together to accomplish the goals as given to you. The GM can steer the group as a whole without too much concern for motivating every single member.

Next comes the backstabbing phase. Often times this expresses itself with players wanting to play an “evil group” or playing more political games like Vampire: the Masquerade. The players want to break out of the initial good vs evil trope of medieval fantasy inspired by Lord of the Rings. This is when several players will begin creating their own goals, even if it is to fuck over their comrades over perceived slights. The challenge is to channel these interests towards the same objective without breaking the group. In my experience, the “evil group” games tend to have a very short shelf-life. The Vampire the Masquerade games tend to have more staying power but often devolve into solo scenes held in secret rather than involve everyone.

Now, our current group failed at the final phase of gaming maturity. This phase has players and their surrogate characters develop goals and work in tandem instead of at cross-purposes. We had little group cohesion not because of character conflicts but we had little to do with one another. In the end, there has to be a unifying quality to the goal(s), even if it is something very personal. You need the help of others to accomplish it as you cannot do it alone suffices. This must be established both in game and out of character to work. I and another player explicitly stated and established what dynamic, goals and roles we would play. The other two players ignored us to varying degrees. The first didn’t take into account the other characters whatsoever, the second played what he wanted and gave only a bit of effort to try to establish a working relationship. Thus, our group never meshed.

Step 3: Goals

Now that we’ve settled the framework, we need to establish what we would like to accomplish within. Simplistic stories of “you must save the world from destruction” are fairly straightforward. You live in said world. It would kind of suck for it to be destroyed while you are still on it. You have a built in investment towards the overarching goal.

You need to establish the motivation your character has towards the overall theme. Taking the example of the group, if you are someone looking to be influenced by the events of the world, this requires for you to get involved in them. Interact with others and the plot and not just sit idly around.

I attended an improv workshop two weekends ago. We had an exercise where we had to enumerate 5 desires a person might have. A one line description of the person was provided to us by someone else. So for example, I was given an office worker assigned to a very small cubicle. The five desires I chose were:

  1. To get an actual office.
  2. Tell off his boss.
  3. Make it to Friday’s “5@7”
  4. Go out on a date with the cute girl in accounting.
  5. His favourite sports team winning the championship.

The first four are very much in line with the person’s occupation. The last one adds depth to the character by showing he isn’t defined solely by his profession. This is often a “trap” we fall when we view our characters as a role or class. Certainly, in a more “adventuring” type game, the primary goal or ambition of the character could be steered towards that path. Adding unrelated or tangential goals adds depth.

4. Motivations

Now that you have defined what your character wishes to accomplish, you need to decide the “why” or motivation behind it. Why does your character want to kill the evil wizard? Fame, fortune, revenge, doing the right thing, etc? The follow-up to that is determine why this is important. If you want revenge; revenge for what? Why does this wrong need to be avenged? You can go quite in depth about a motivation or desire as you peel more and more layers. It’s up to the player or performer to figure out how deep in this process he is willing to go.

A similar exercise we had this past Wednesday in improv class was to play word associations with ourselves in the form of rants. We had to rant about a topic chosen by the audience for as long as we could. We were then asked to define why this was important to us and finally what would happen if the topic was no longer a problem. I’m not a whiner or complainer by nature but rather someone who tries to figure out the root cause and eventually find a solution. Therefore, this exercise was difficult for me to string a rant longer than a few seconds on mundane topics. I often found myself frustrated by the solutions being overlooked or ignored more than the “problem” itself. Nevertheless, it was a fun exercise to discover how far we can go down this line of thought and perhaps find what is at the core of a character. Once found, it helped flesh out how he or she might feel towards other things.

5. Action!

The last part is to act upon these goals but also determine the stakes. What are you prepared to do to accomplish your goals?

Singing is on the to do list though.

How much does the character or person value this goal? What are you willing to risk? What is your personal stake? These can certainly change over time. A character might become more passionate or come to the realization the goal was superficial or fleeting. However, character development is another topic for another day. What is important is the individual act upon these rather than wait for them to be handed over. Something we can apply to our own lives.




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