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Player Characters: Emerging Complexity is A-OK

As a GM, I used to struggle with player backgrounds and PC complexity. I thought that every PC needed to be extensively plotted out down to the tiniest detail, and ignored the fact that many players don’t enjoy doing this.

Once I took off my blinders and looked at things from a different perspective — and once I’d seen for myself how enjoyable PCs who start off simple could be — this hangup fell by the wayside.

Because just as pressuring your players to write lengthy backstories [1] doesn’t tend to end well, forcing them to start a campaign with a complex character isn’t the right approach either.

Sometimes, the most enjoyable player characters are those who start out as light sketches — little more than a handful of ideas and a dash of personality that someone thought would be fun to explore during play — and then become more and more complex and nuanced as the game progresses.

In other words: When it comes to player characters, emerging complexity is a fine approach.

The next time one of your players shows up for the first session of a new campaign with a simple PC concept and little to no backstory, make sure that they did so by choice (and not out of frustration, or because of writer’s block), and then just roll with it.

If there are specific things you need to know, ask for them (just don’t ask for too much at this stage) — but apart from that, let sketched-out characters like this evolve during play. Offering to help your players hone their PCs before the game [2] is always a good idea; just don’t be offended if they don’t need help.

You’ll find that quite often these characters end up being more interesting — and even more complex — than those who started off fully developed, complete with massive backstories. It’s easy to paint yourself into a corner with an over-developed starting PC; one of the nice things about starting with less is that it leaves lots of room for more.

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14 Comments To "Player Characters: Emerging Complexity is A-OK"

#1 Comment By JohnnFour On February 28, 2009 @ 11:15 am

Great advice, Martin. In many games my players have successfully fleshed out their characters due to events that happen in-game or good roleplaying. A GM can stop and ask a player why his PC made this deciision or that choice, and it sometimes scopes out to include great character backstory and complexity.

#2 Comment By Alnakar On February 28, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

That’s some excellent advice, I must say. I’ve definitely noticed that neither extreme is particularly positive, though.

While I’ve definitely noticed that trying to get players to nail down exactly who their character is, where they’ve come from, and what their belief sysem is in great detail at level 1 can be extremely stifling for players, letting them (or encouraging them) to put off solidifying those details in their character for too long can have some unpleasant consequences as well. Bear in mind as I say this, the group that I run a game for tends to be pretty light on the role-play side of things to begin with, so this may not apply to most gaming groups. I’ve found that if I take too long getting around to pinning somebody down on who their character is, they may never actually figure it out for themselves, and will just continually go back and forth on their character concept. If somebody does manage to figure out who their character is from first level, however, it gives them a platform to role-play from, and most importantly it gives them a starting point from which to allow their character to evolve.

I guess it boils down to what kind of player it is, because I know some of the people around my gaming table can’t help but have some concept of who their character is after a few sessions of gaming, even if they haven’t taken the time to consciously figure it out. Other players, however, will be lost if they’re not pressured (ideally in a somewhat subtle way) to come up with a concept.

I do wonder about people’s opinions about helping players to come up with concepts for their characters, though. I’ve never been quite sure what the best way of handling the situation is. I’m always concerned that if I give a player too much input on who their character could (or should, if I don’t catch myself before I make that mistake) be, then I run the risk of having that player lose the feeling of the character really “belonging” to them. On the other hand, some people have more difficulty coming up with ideas for characters than others, and just expecting everybody to be able to come up with character concepts on their own is obviously not going to work very well either (see rant in previous paragraph).

Any suggestions?

#3 Comment By greywulf On February 28, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

Absolutely. I’m also a fan of the Flashback approach from 3:16 where the players can “remember” a scene from the past that helps them in their current situation. This adds depth to the character in-game and drives the action forward at the same time. I’ve encouraged that in my Mutants & Masterminds campaign (rewarding them with a Hero Point, which they can immediately spend) to good effect.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On February 28, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

A great deal of GMs do is reactive. Players do X, GM scrambles to find Y.

One of the reasons you see GMs push for backgrounds and character development before a game begins is to at least be a little bit (and I how do I hate this word, but here it goes …) pro-active. That is, stop a problem before it gets started. Or at least identify those things that potentially derail a game …

But so much of enjoying being in a roleplaying game is the spontaneity, especially from the players themselves.

In my experience from convention play, nothing spurs spontaneity more than dropping four nameless characters in front of a dungeon entrance and see what develops, see how the adventure plays out, and see the interaction between the players themselves.

No backgrounds, no pre-conceived notions. Just a fighter, a wizard, a thief and a cleric and a tomb of horrors to face down. And that’s exactly THE PLACE where character development really begins.

I don’t know if “emerging complexity” is the best term for this. But, boy do I appreciate when players find the voice of their character during play and develop it further.

#5 Comment By Dove On February 28, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

It’s better than a-ok; it’s natural and ideal.

People have a bandwidth limit when it comes to ideas. I can only come up with a really cool idea once or twice per night. I can only fill in a handful of details at a time, and most of them will be lame and simplistic at first. So if I only spend one evening working on something–a character, an encounter, an NPC, a culture, whatever . . . it might be cool, but it’s only going to be cool in one way, and it’s going to otherwise be pretty sketchy and one-dimensional. It just won’t have that many interesting and counterintuitive bits because I don’t have the bandwidth to write them!

The magic happens in the rewriting, in taking time to chew on it and interact with it and cross-pollinate it with other ideas and think about the consequences and figure out what philosophical point my subconscious is trying to make. Basically, roleplaying. The natural character dev cycle is write, roleplay, repeat. Don’t be afraid to repeat. And don’t try too hard to write more than you have the inspiration to support. I mean, you don’t want lame stuff ending up in the canon . . .

The two processes bring different things to the story. The creative writing side comes up with cool ideas in total freedom–perhaps you decide the character is a dishonored ninja seeking revenge for his dead wife. The roleplaying side adds information, explores consequences, sifts out the ideas that are cool from those that are not — you see how he pursues revenge, you visit his homeland, you meet the man who stole his honor, you develop an accent and a code of dress and an NPC friend. And then you return to the creative writing, and take the themes of honor and vengeance you’ve wound up playing and put them back into the backstory, and weave them back over the quest you’re on.

You need both. You need creative inspiration, and you need roleplaying reflection. Write little, but write often. The best stories are the ones that go through the most dev cycles. The player writes it; I rewrite it; the player changes some things and rewrites it; I write some related worldgen; we have a quest related to it, the player makes some big decisions and reveals some things, etc.

The story becomes seamless that way. And awesome.

#6 Comment By deadlytoque On March 2, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

Yeah, this is a great approach. I like it when I get emails from players after two sessions saying “I think I did X last night because my character had Y experience in his past…”

It can cause a little bit of strangeness. I played a character in D&D once who (it eventually emerged) thought of all sentient races as people (including goblins and kobolds) and refused to fight or kill them without necessity, and tried to stop the other PCs from being excessively violent towards them… of course, in the first session, he participated in a goblin beat-down wherein we pulled some “firm interrogation techniques” on one of the survivors for torture…

The best way to deal with little continuity errors like these, though, is just to ignore them. They happen in TV shows _all_ the time, and we just deal, because the other way lies madness.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On March 2, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

This is one of my favorite ways to develop a character. I’ve often created a character whose story looked good on paper, but fell apart as soon as the adventure started. [Often by writing the PC as competent then having the dice betray him right away…]

I like the method, but agree with Alnakar that if you don’t go back and think about expanding the character, you’ll often end up with a character that’s good for events but doesn’t develop much depth. A little prompting from the GM [like a two or three character quiz every few sessions] might be the prompt that keeps the player looking into the character’s depths– not just new powers.

#8 Comment By csb On March 2, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

Do you have any advice for encouraging this development to emerge?

#9 Comment By graylion On March 5, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

I am running a 4th Edition D&D game and our charcaters are now 8th level. Each has a basic concept of their character but not much complexity.

2 weeks ago I handed out a one page Character Description Contest Sheet. I listed the date all characters are due. Must include a pic, can be freehand, google image, comic book, cutout etc. The rest is a visual character description. Then we will do a round table vote. Last week I only had one turned in, so I brought in the prices to urge them on.

1st Place
2nd Place

Choice of 1 of 3 items:
01. Deck of Magic the Gather – Grixis
02. CrossGen – Scion Issues 1-5
03. A PC Gaming USB Z-Pad

All very low value but desired items. There was a flurry of responses with only a few descriptions to go.

We vote on Tuesday.

Next contest will be on background, family/siblings, enemies, etc.

Yes loot and treasure work!

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On March 7, 2009 @ 11:55 am

[3] – I’m a strong proponent of helping players come of up with — and flesh out — character concepts. I also like getting that help from my GM when I’m a player.

[4] – Good question! And sure thing:

1. Sow some seeds when you create the character, even if you don’t sow very many.

2. When sowing those seeds, listen to your gut. We played a one-off of Keep on the Shadowfell when 4e came out, and my hastily-noted catchphrase — “Taste my hammer!” — grew into a basic idea of what my dwarven fighter was like.

3. Watch for opportunities for organic growth. Sometimes they’ll take place without any help from you, but it definitely works better if you recognize them when they crop up — that little nudge helps.

4. Listen to everyone else at the table, especially as they react in character to your character (or when they talk about your character OOC). You’ll learn things about your PC you didn’t even know.

#11 Pingback By 1001 Bobs » The Third Week of April in the Year 2009 – Blogroll On April 26, 2009 @ 1:46 am

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#12 Comment By Lord Inar On May 28, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

I also am all for a “Tabula Rasa” approach. If the characters aren’t completely finished, start the game anyway. If they have points left and want to use a certain skill or feat, let them add it right then and there. You can even let them swap out things they have already taken. The only caveat is that you can’t remove something (skill, edge, feat, whatever) if you’ve ever used it in the game. Most people won’t do this, as they start out “weaker” than others, but there should be no reason not to encourage such behavior if a player is undecided at the beginning.

The backstory can then be added to piecemeal as new features are added.

#13 Comment By Burn_Boy On December 17, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

This has happened to me as a GM and as a player. My experiences as a GM haven’t always been positive. We had this one guy who had the standard fighter, always good in a group, and he had a very detailed history. he was enslaved by Orcs as a child and, as a result will hack away, without question, at Orcs, goblins and any other goblinoid creatures and can only JUST manage seeing a Half-Orc. While I liked the fact that he had a good background, it kind of ruined the story in that, the main enemies were Orcs and he’d just rush headlong into it, ruining any plans the other player’s had. Easy enough problem to fix but not without removing the Orcs from my story and thus changing my entire campaign.

As a player I had a sorcerer who had a penchant for fire spells. He was first met by the PCs after he set off a keg of gunpowder and was covered in soot and burns, earning him the nickname “Burn Boy” and with him always being called that I started always choosing flame or fire spells for my character. This helped the GM make more challenging adventures by giving us adventures with fire immune creatures and even, in the end, had a dragon who we were supposed to kill be an ancestor of mine.

Since then, I’ve always kept my backstory to a minimum and then fleshed it out in game. Makes for a much more personal game and can give the GM material to work with if something in his game gets a bit stale.

#14 Comment By Warthur On October 18, 2011 @ 4:17 am

Wanted to chime in here (long after the fact) and say I’m in complete agreement with the article. The bottom line is that what happens in-session, during the actual campaign, is what’s important – and backstory’s only significant if it ends up making a useful contribution to that.

If you think about it, even a PC with an absolute minimum of backstory will accumulate it at the rate of at least one session’s worth of back story per session the PC appears in – because what happened to your character in previous sessions is just as good backstory material as stuff that happened before the campaign started (if not better, because you actually played through last session so it’ll seem more “real” than stuff you made up on the spot in character gen).

And on top of that, why are we interested in the PCs in the first place? Because of stuff that happened before the campaign began, or because of what’s going on right now? The campaign ought to represent the most significant, exciting, and important events in the PCs’ lives – so why sink energy into creating expansive backstories for the PCs when you don’t really want the campaign to be upstaged by the backstories in the first place?

#15 Comment By Chris McDaniel On July 20, 2013 @ 12:11 am

I’m even later than the last guy, this is actually my first comment ever on this site, and I feel the need to stand up for the backstory. I know most of you aren’t against it entirely, and I agree that too much or too extreme a backstory is worse than no backstory, but there is a reason we create backstories and GM’s tend to like them. They give you a place in the world and a base from which your actions will stem. I find writing backstories very easy, I want to become a professional writer so it would be harder to not come up with them, the hard part is confirming them with the GM. This is the key step I think, run your plan by the GM and be okay with them saying no. I made the mistake of not doing in that in one of my failed campaigns, it was an ugly 2-3 sessions that died quickly, though everyonne said they were sad about it. The character’s backstory made it next to impossible to work with that character, and she was new to the system anyways.

My most recent character though, was initially struck down by the GM, too brutal and complicated for his game, so I came up with a much simpler character, a religious thief. It was a sci-fi world so I decided he came from a planet run by mobs, and quickly built up a story with a love interest, a “flock” of children he felt responsible for, and the kind of attitude I felt matched an orphan growing up on a planet where corruption and crime were common place. All this before the session, and it gave me a strong base to play this guy from, I was constantly thinking “How would he react to this” and I drew upon a past that didn’t even come to light for most of the campaign, and when the GM did pull my backstory in, by destroying piece by piece everything my character cherished, I was fully prepared to react as he would, pulling a gun on the companions I had been willing to lay down my life for, and demanding that they go to save the people he cared about. It was an incredibly tense moment that almost led to a fight, and I think we all enjoyed every moment of it. It also could not have happened if I hadn’t laid out a framework of who this guy was and what was most important to him, and I don’t think that is easily attained by tacking on reasons to actions later, because the entire set-up was predicated on the GM knowing the buttons to push.

Wow, that got way too long, sorry for rambling

#16 Pingback By Dark Sun Campaign Development: PCs, The Stars of the Show | Alphastream On October 7, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

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