There is a reason people love playing role-playing games - we get to be the heroes in the story! The woman who saves the kingdom, the man who finds the answers he is looking for, the dragon who eats that nasty little Duke that has been polluting the river and killing the fish - these people make a difference in the game world the way most of us are incapable of in the real world.
That being said, infallible heroes are not good characters *coughSupermancough*. In the writing world, there’s a nasty term for them: Mary Sue’s/Marty Stu’s. In addition, characters that are mere accretions of statistics are not memorable characters either - usually quite the opposite.
“Hey, remember that human paladin with like +5 to his STR and -2 to his WIS?” doesn’t sound as appealing as “Remember that meathead priest-in-a-can who tried to solve a sphinx’s riddle by punching it in the snoot?”
In a similar vein to my previous article about good villains, I now present a short list of characteristics crucial to well-built and memorable heroic characters.
Coherent of and to Concept - Is This Feasible?
I don’t mean can he/she/it speak, I mean that the concept itself needs to stick together, and it needs to function well in the setting - or it needs to be so clean and so slick that it can fit into a not-quite-right setting fairly seamlessly.
In a “modern” setting, you can certainly allow for magic users, but an undead lich who literally looks like an animated rotting corpse isn’t really coherent to the concept of a game in a modern setting. An undead lich who can rock some Armani, though... that’s doable. Just like a mad chemist concept (like Walter White) can easily be turned into a mad alchemist in a fantasy setting. Protip: oil of vitriol is the ancient name for sulfuric acid.
Don’t try to put a Jedi on Arrakis - it doesn’t end well. A Sith in Vegas, though? That could be a lot of fun.
Capability - Can You Pull It Off?
This point is something that a GM/DM needs to consider when approving a concept: can the character requesting the concept pull it off, or is she going to fall back to reciting blank numbers when put in a position that challenges her character? When a player is designing a tough character, they need to keep their own capabilities in mind.
The worlds of Exalted and Iron Kingdoms RPGs specifically encourage “stunting,” or being very descriptive when describing a character’s actions, and I don’t know a single DM worth their caffeine who doesn’t enjoy enthusiastic players. A good “stunt” can add extra dice to a tough roll and increases the incentive for players to think more about their characters rather than just statistics on a page.
Nothing hamstrings a game more than someone leading up to something truly epic, and them saying “I rolled a 19” without explaining what in the nine hells they actually did - and I don’t mean that they rolled their subterfuge plus “use the force” stats. It is the responsibility of everyone at the table, both players and the DM, to encourage reticent players to try to level up their roleplay experience by contributing to the tapestry of descriptive narrative. People will surprise you, given the opportunity, and those surprises are what memories are made of.
Compelling - Do You Live, Or Do You Exist?
Do you care about your character? Why should I care about your character? Make me want to know what they are doing. Maybe your character saves my character’s life, or buys her a meal, or otherwise interacts in a way that brings them to life - and this doesn’t always have to be in a positive light!
I once played in a Star Wars game where another character was such a uniformly unpleasant creature that the entire group banded together to deal with him. It took a bunch of scruffy mercs and united us in our hatred for one nasty little furball that didn’t respect physics or privacy. It made the character compelling. We showed up every week wondering how he was going to mess with our plans.
This is the little snot. Kushibah Sith Alchemist. We LOVED to hate him. I don’t remember his actual name, but we called him Darth Foamy. Ask me about the hamster ball sometime.
Caring - The Ultimate Motive Force
Does your character care about anything? Does she lose her mind when animals are mistreated? Does he fly off the handle if he sees injustice? Can she stand seeing people impugn her deity of choice? What is his reaction to seeing party members in peril?
If your character doesn’t care about anything, they are incomplete. Why did they join the party if all they are going to do is sit around and say “nah, pass” to everything? Even if their motive behind joining is to “get out of this podunk town before my brain leaks out of my ears,” that’s still caring about something.
It is okay, and even encouraged, for what they care about to evolve over the course of the story. Maybe our teenage rogue who was dying of boredom decides that that dwarven blacksmith is a pretty chill chick, and he’d like to get to know her better because she can drink anyone under the table and still split a bullseye with her axes. Or the paladin realizes that the druid might be a heretic under her order’s rules, but damn it, he’s *her* heretic and she will protect him, because he’s proven to her that not all heretics are immediately and inherently damned.
Caring about something...anything...is the most important facet of a character, and determines what they can bring to a campaign. That caring can be the nexus of so much growth - it is impossible to overstate the importance of your character giving a damn about something.
And now for the tough part: the P.
Plausible - Does Your Character Make Sense?
I know, I know, I’m the one forever beating the drum of story-over-mechanics, but follow with me here.
Say someone chooses a race for a Star Wars Saga Edition game (for the sake of example: a Wookiee), and that race has a large and deep body of details and lore about the cultures of those beings.
Now let’s say that a player decides they want to play a Wookiee, but they want to play a Force-sensitive one. Leaving edition and canon wars out of this, there’s nowhere in Saga Edition that says there cannot be Force-sensitive Wookiees, but in the canon of the universe there is no record of them being Sith or Jedi. That’s okay, there’s Force Adepts in the book, and it’s made for situations like this. DM approves the Force-sensitive Wookiee, and there’s little to no fuss.
But then the Force-sensitive Wookiee decides that he also wants to wear power armor (something completely against the Wookiee lore) and takes levels in Soldier to be able to wear it. There’s nothing in the book that says they can’t do this - because game designers, out of an abundance of enthusiasm, are loath to say “no” to something unless there’s a damn good reason - but it really doesn’t make sense.
So now our power-armor-wearing Force Adept Wookiee decides that he wants to take a further departure from reason, and adds a lightsaber to his arsenal including a special type of lightsaber crystal that is only mentioned in one place that adds splash damage, and has the lightsaber mastercrafted to where it can be used two-handed as a great weapon. Again, all technically possible, but entirely not plausible.
The DM approves this because the player invokes the logical argument that “there’s nowhere that says I can’t do this.” This kind of build skews the entire game, as the other players scramble to maintain the power curve; narrative and story get lost in the internal arms race.
On the other extreme, let’s say someone is playing a human soldier. He has absolutely average stats, absolutely average skills, and absolutely average pretty much everything, even after several game sessions and XP expenditures. This is approaching implausible from the other end of the spectrum, although again, entirely within the realm of possibility. Everyone has something that they are good at, even if only marginally better than average.
A completely out-of-whack character like the Wookiee is bad for the game, but an entirely average character is bad for the player, because they have no direction to progress. I recommend that each time a player comes up with a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea, they run it past their DM and the other players. A DM shouldn’t be pressured to approve something that is technically possible if it doesn’t fit with their story - but they should always be open to ideas.
You can always ask the Universe anything. Sometimes the answer is no. Everyone has something that they are good at, and you don’t get to have ALL the things just for the asking.
Come to think of it, that’s a solid lesson that all of us - gamers and not - could stand to
remember from time to time.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as a courier and personal cook while her plans for world domination slowly come together. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.