Catalyst’s manual features six sample characters that players can read about and be inspired by. These were sponsored by Kickstarter backers eager to share their ideas. We ended up with an interesting mix: Bonesaw the pro-wrestler, Brad Swagger the action movie star, Chad the illusionist frat bro, Gianna the assassin pizza cook, Rhys the survivalist demon hunter, and Tucker the naïve college student. All six have portraits, biographies, and filled-in character sheets in the game manual to help new players get a feeling for playing Catalyst. These characters all explore different skills, magics, and tactics for Catalyst characters. They would also make a curious party.
There is a lot to consider when making a character. You need to think about their strengths and weaknesses, their history and goals, their temperament and mannerisms, and all the little things making them a compelling “person” instead of a vehicle for rolling dice. Just as important as the character is their role in the group. Role playing games are social and having the right dynamics transforms a session from a game to an experience.
The first thing to focus on (and too often the only thing to be acknowledged) is ensuring the characters have complimentary skills. In the sample party, Bonesaw and Gianna are close-range melee fighters. Rhys and Tucker have firearms skill to add ranged support, and Chad and Swagger have spells to assist in either scenario. Some are charismatic, others intelligent, some just plain strong. Bonesaw is an excellent fighter, but would fail when discretion is required. Gianna and Chad’s stealth skill and illusion magic compensate for their ally’s shortcomings. A party will always have some holes, but figuring out the worst deficiencies and adding characters to compensate is a good start.
Having a cohesive party is not only about mechanics, but personalities as well. Part of this derives from the characters’ attributes: who is smart or charming is mostly determined by stats. Another part is purely story. Why would the hyper-competent Rhys work with the unjustifiably arrogant Brad Swagger? Perhaps Rhys is the only person Brad admits his shortcomings to and is seeking actual training. Or maybe Brad coincidentally saved Rhys’s life and the hero owes the fraud a favor. Not answering such lingering questions leaves a party feeling incomplete at best and damaging to the story at worst.
Finally, it is important to consider the characters in terms of their egos and archetypes. Bonesaw is a larger-than-life figure while Tucker is someone you feel like you would encounter both in reality and in the apocalypse. Either could be played straight or comically. The delivery of the characters is important to consider when designing a party. Having everyone role play as a joke character may be humorous at first, but prove detrimental when trying to advance the plot. Likewise, a group of straight-laced, hyper-serious characters may be dull to play and encourage little drama or adversity. In comedy, the goofy character needs the straightman to be funny. The same applies to role playing: Chad’s bro-antics are less interesting if no one is exasperated by them.
When players create characters with complimentary abilities, personalities, and deliveries, an RPG story flows smoothly. You see players talking to each other and working together, instead of stepping on one another’s toes. The Catalyst sample characters were born from different personalities, desires, and gameplay styles. In a real game, they would go swimmingly together.