Playing a Character

We were playtesting Catalyst last night. My character is a 22-year old male named Johnny Danger. From a game mechanics perspective, Johnny is a skilled marksman, talented force mage, and decent acrobat. He’s inhumanly perceptive, but has below average charisma and intelligence. But none of that really describes Johnny. Johnny is an under-educated kid whose background of small-town isolation and video game escapism has manifested as a hero-complex. He expects everyone to treat him as their savior, an attitude further enforced by his considerable combat skill. His general entitlement and disrespect of authority lead to numerous conflicts with human military figures and his oversimplification of the world into internet slang forces scientists to consider him an idiotic fool. Johnny’s detractors are subject to arrogant dismissal, verbal abuse, and physical violence.

Is Mr. Danger a good character? Hard to say, particularly since he’s my creation for this story. I’d like to think so; that our GM enjoys his “dangerous plans”. Creating a character for a story, particularly an interactive story like Catalyst, is a challenge. With the current playtest drawing to an end soon and another about to begin, this seemed like a fitting time to discuss role-playing a player character.

There’s a video coming soon about how to make a character for the game. Choosing stats, backgrounds, and magical disciplines is fun and a fundamental part of your character’s identity, but that’s not what we’re going to discuss in depth. This post is about making a character that’s fun to role play and will have interesting interactions with the GM’s world.

When creating a character, you select backgrounds, one for every age group you’ve lived through. These include childhood experiences like “Army Brat” or “Class Clown” and more vocational qualities like “Beat Cop” or “Fashionista”. Backgrounds are intended to be templates. So your character was a “Vandal” as a child, why did they do that and how does that affect their current personality? Magic is another place to explore personality traits: in lore, the vein your character tends to is based on their mental framework. Force mages are impulsive, transmuters are detail-oriented, etc. The intention is not to pigeon-hole characters by defining them with a class or role, but to blend different aspects of a person to create a three-dimensional person.

Now, there is a problem with trying to make a realistic, normal human being: it can be rather dull. The two character archetypes new role players gravitate towards are self-inserts or one-dimensional gag characters. I certainly don’t want to imply you, as a person, are dull (or that all RP characters aren’t in some way their creator.) The problem is a disconnect between the you playing the game and the you in the game. Without a separation of character and self, your character will make choices that are correct on the meta-level, but not necessarily interesting for play. This is a hard topic to discuss abstractly, so I’ll provide an example from Johnny Danger’s life.

Johnny and friends were in a military research facility when a system malfunction caused a powerful demon test subject to be released. After flinging Johnny into a computer console, the beast proceeded to attack said console. Johnny force-jumped onto a catwalk and readied his next move. Personally, I understood the importance of the computer and surmised that if the demon wanted to destroy it, I should prevent such an action. Johnny didn’t agree. He primarily wanted vengeance for the damage inflicted, but also recognized he could deal the most harm by using force magic to slam the demon into the computer. I chose to cast rank 4 Throw; depleting my vigor entirely and leaving me vulnerable to the other demons in the room (again, not the smartest choice, but the most “Dangerous” one.) The demon’s body caused the console to explode, killing it and nearly killing everything else in the room (Johnny would have died if a single subsequent attack landed on him.) The scientists were furious with the outcome and Johnny’s engineering-inclined party members resented the move, but it was fun for us as players.

When you think as your character, the story becomes more dynamic and intriguing. When a choice arises, you have to figure out what your character would do, which is not always obvious, and you must detach personal morals from the decisions. The more extreme your character’s personality is, the easier this becomes. However, there is an obvious pitfall: characters defined by a single, overwhelming trait are, at best, boring and, at worst, frustrating to other players. Characters that try to solve every social situation with sex or characters so psychopathic they try to murder everything aren’t fun. They get a laugh at first, but the humor quickly wears off.

One of our playtesters gave the advice to a new gamer “start with a stereotype conflicting with your own personality and combine the two.” His character for that campaign was Booty Slamma’, a multi-platinum hip hop superstar with a pampered life. After the apocalypse, he had to adapt to not having his status solve all his problems. I liked this character for several reasons, one of which is it forced the EDM-loving software engineer into a notably different persona. I also appreciated how he handled choices. Slamma would try to flaunt status constantly early on, but realized people preferred dealing with his comrades who were capable of solving problems. He learned to fight and master his blood magic, loving how he finally lived up to his faux-gangsta childhood the record label had invented. Slamma also had to reconcile has traditional religious upbringing with the various churches using God and priestly figures as propaganda tools. This was something our playtester didn’t anticipate when creating Booty Slamma’ but evolved over the game. The player’s skepticism and the character’s belief at first conflicted, but slowly melded. As a game master, there’s palpable emotion over watching a character slowly lose his faith over the campaign.

Catalyst usually refers to game campaigns as stories. The base is a story laid forth by the GM, but it is only completed by the contributions of the players. They tell their own stories. Whether those tales are worth adding is up to the player. A well thought-out character that goes through some form of transformative arc will always be remembered. Players will tell others about their experiences; my hope is my party will spread the legend of Johnny Danger.