Creating Dramatic Characters

Previously we talked about creating character backgrounds, and we even tried our hand at focusing on secondary attributes to create multi-dimensional characters. In today's blog entry I want to go more in-depth, looking at the mechanics of a dramatic character.
When I think of dramatic characters, I image intense interaction and the ability to do things outside the routine adventure. These characters should be built to handle sensational emotional conflicts and carry powerful scenes. A lot of the material to support this style of play will be drawn from your characters' background, and thus a particular sort of attention must be paid to the background story when creating a character suited to the dramatic playstyle.

Since we're talking about RPGs here, we know that a good percentage of the characters’ makeup is combat-focused. I don’t want to take that away completely―we don't want our characters to be easily killed― but a dramatic game focuses less on combat and more on the characters' interaction with the world around them, usually through various types of social interaction. We must stop thinking that sub-optimized characters are necessarily better characters―this simply isn’t true―but if you want a character who isn't combat-focused, you need to plan for it. Both ideas bring us back to the concept of secondary attributes.

When I first talked about secondary attributes we used D&D as an example, but of course that game is truly limited when it comes to creating dramatic characters. If we look through a wider variety of games, we find that the most dramatic systems generate characters who have lots social skills. Blue Rose and Burning Wheel meet the challenge by creating relationship mechanics and even argument mechanics, but these mechanics are separate from the act of character creation. I'm looking for something more chargen-based. Of the games I am most experienced with, the World of Darkness series comes closest to supporting this idea.

Unlike most RPGs, World of Darkness not only has many social skills, but it uses three specific traits to describe social attributes: Manipulation, Charisma and Appearance. It also features about a dozen socially-focused abilities and skills. This type of setup gives you many ways to interact with others.

There are other places to look for dramatic character potentials outside of the roleplaying genre. For instance, I am addicted to British Police Dramas and Korean films. Both genres tend to be highly dramatic in style, leading naturally to the creation of dramatic characters.

Let's think about the latest British Police Drama I watched: DCI Banks, and its lead character, Inspector Banks. He isn’t combat-focused―indeed he refused firearms training―but he is good in a brawl and can take a punch. His key dramatic aspects are his belief in his own intuition and a self-righteous idea of justice. In World of Darkness terms, he would be highly manipulative and somewhat charismatic.

Another way to identify a good system for dramatic play is to look at the skill system, with an eye toward skills that encourage interpersonal interaction. Some games have dedicated mechanics for such things, like Burning Wheel’s “circles,” which allow the PCs to create NPCs on the fly to interact with.

When creating your character's background you should work together with the GMs and Players to describe how your character will interact with the world. Session 0 in a dramatic game should really root you in the present, and your character's background should examine things that are important to their view of the world. This means you must think about how your character views the world, and decide on your character's idea of what would represent growth in that world. The background you create should expand on your character's experience in the form of skills and attributes. In addition, it should provide some examples of your character's unique strengths and weaknesses; these will serve as fuel for meaningful drama as the game progresses.

By the time you're done, you should see your character “from the inside out” and be able to explain their most important abilities as they are reflected in the world. Taken all together, your character's background should provide clear motivations, indicating how your character will approach the world.

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