What Makes a Good PC?
So here’s the set up: you spent months building this terrific setting for a game. You came up with an interesting and orginal story. You built countless NPCs. You really thought about each session, and what was supposed to happen. When confronted with decisions, you chose what would rockmost. But when you actually sat down to play the sessions, everything just fell flat. Why? Because your PCs stink.
This is not to say that your players themselves stink. I’m sure that they’re great. I find, however, that most people don’t really know what the characteristics of a good Player Character. There is a long and unproductive tradition in RPGs of saying “Okay, I’ve got the story figured out, you guys go make characters and we’ll play.” The approach that I would advocate instead is for each player to separately meet with the GM and make their character.
This process takes a lot more time than the classic method, but I find that it generates richer characters and makes for a significantly better overall experience. Uninteresting or ineffective characters make for bad stories. Conversely, a really interesting and fun PC can salvage flawed settings or plots. What are the characteristics of a good PC?
1. They Aren’t Overly Handicapped
It is deceptively easy to create Player Characters that are not actually fun to play. This is because a lot of really cool characters in fiction don’t make good PCs. Professor X is a kickass character. He makes a terrible PC. The idea of a crippled man with telepathy is intriguing. It might seem like an interesting challenge for someone to play. As might playing a mute character. Or a sentient animal. In practice, however, these things aren’t (usually) fun. Playing Professor X seems like a great idea until the first chase scene, and then it just becomes a drag. This is probably why he spends most of his time at the school telling other people to go out and do the things that move the story. Characters with strong disadvantages can be fun; characters that need assistance to do mundane tasks tend to get old fast.
Similarly, it’s often tempting to play the outcast character — the dark elf in a world of men, or the unusually articulate and sophisticated orc. Once again, cool idea. These types of characters even come with some intrinsic personality and conflict, which is good. These make terrific NPCs. The problem is that their whole story becomes about their unusual identity. Much like the wheelchair example above, this makes for cool and interesting moments occasionally, but usually just becomes a drag for both the GM and the player. In narrative fiction, the author can ensure that the moments where hiding or dealing with someone’s unusual identity come up at cool and interesting times. In collaborative fiction, things get messier. Either you just start ignoring or glossing over it (you go in the bar and everyone freaks out because you’re a martian and you patch it up and moving on now) or it becomes a constant problem that the player has to deal with. If your goal is to teach a racist friend how much it sucks to be a minority, this is a great way to do it. If your goal is to provide a fun experience for your players, I’d encourage them to move on to a different idea.
2. They are Good at Things
This is another common trap. The player wants to play a character with a dark and troubled past, or the guy who is down on his luck and looking for his big break. The problem is, that character can’t actually do anything. Every PC should have one thing that they are really, really good at. It’s their default answer to every problem. Legolas is a master marksman. He shoots his way out of problems. Han Solo is a pilot. He flies his way out. MacGuyver is a gadgeteer. He invents his way out. Every player should be able to answer the question “What is your character’s default answer to a problem?”
They should also have a backup plan for when their default answer doesn’t work. Han usually runs. If running doesn’t work, he tries to fast-talk his way through it. And if that doesn’t work, he can use a blaster. If building a bomb out of AAA batteries and a matchstick doesn’t work, MacGuyver can punch a guy. Legolas can do ridiculous agility tricks and state the obvious. The old adage “when the only tool that you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail” applies here. If your PCs’ only skills are combat skills, every encounter looks like a fight. This becomes unsatisfying after a while.
Your player wants to play a homeless alcoholic who has lost everything? No problem. What was he before that? What are his skills? What is his default solution to problems? Maybe he’s a war veteran and a crack shot. Maybe he’s a practiced pickpocket. Maybe he’s good at talking his way out of situations. Perhaps even all three.
The other thing to point out here is that it’s important that they are good at things that matter in the setting. A smuggler with quick wits and a winning smile is good at things. But when the story is Attack of the Killer Space Aliens, he may be a tad underequipped. If you know that the critical skills that your characters need are the ability to climb walls and defuse tense political situations, don’t let them build brainless tanks.
3. They Have Personalities
Your player just watched a bunch of John Woo movies, and now he wants to play an ambidextrous pistol-wielding assassin. That’s a fine place to start. So what is this assassin like? Are they a by-the-book, one shot, one kill type? Are they the leap into a room full of bad guys with guns blazing type? Do they take any job, or do they have standards? Are they jokey or grim? When done correctly, the character becomes much more than just the stats on the page. They develop their own identity, their own tendencies. The best characters are the ones that you refer to years later as if they were real people. “You remember that time when Blakthar spat in the Dwarf ambassador’s face because of that thing that he said about his beard? Man, that sucked. Classic Blakthar though.”
Back stories help. If the character took up assassination because their family was killed and they want revenge that tells you a lot about what they are probably like. If instead they got into the killing business because it’s fun and pays well, that also tells you a lot. But it doesn’t tell you everything. There’s a common misconception that a character’s backstory is their personality. If the character, for instance, is a knight who has failed in his vows and been expelled from his order, that tells you a fair amount about him. If you say that he is on a quest to redeem himself, that tells you even more. That’s still not a personality though. You could take that same story and play it a dozen different ways. Is he a humble warrior who succumbed to a moment of weakness? Is he an arrogant prick who looks down on other people? Is he a brutal and vicious man who was only restrained by his vows?
4. They Can Survive a Fight
If your setting and/or style is one where combat is not a part of your role-playing experience, feel free to skip this one. For most settings, however, combat is a common occurrence, and something that PCs should be able to deal with. Not every PC needs to be a tank, in fact it’s more fun if they’re not, but they do need some way to be able to defend themselves when needed. One reason for this is that killing players isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) fun for either the GM or the players. The other is that combat is a big time sink. If a player can’t participate in the fights in some capacity, that ends up being a lot of time watching other people make rolls. It’s okay if their involvement is simply evading blows while the other guys do the damage — that’s still exciting and engaging.
A few years ago I GMed a campaign that was set on a primitive polynesian-esque tropical island. There were strict social and religious rules that governed fighting and what weapons were allowed. In short, edged weapons were forbidden. One of my players wanted to play a bard. A fat bard. Who didn’t fight. So how then do we make him survive a combat? Well, in GURPS (my system of choice) 3rd Ed, there were rules that gave fat characters some advantages in melee combat, particularly if they charged their opponent. So we decided that he would avoid fights as much as possible, but if he couldn’t get out of it, he would run and throw himself at people, hoping to use his girth to knock them down. And then he would pull out his knife and stab them in close combat. I made him pay some points for being willing to break the social taboo, and we called it done.
He managed to avoid fighting for the duration of the campaign, until the final climactic battle with the undead priests. Then he unleashed his secret move and tackled one of the priests, stabbing him furiously when he was down. That was a Rockmost moment. It took the other players completely by surprise, it was both dramatic and kind of funny, and it made sure that the player wasn’t punished for trying to play an unorthodox character.
5. They are Playable by the Player
Not all players can play all characters. Some people are just naturally quiet and reserved. You can give them the PC that oozes charisma and charm, but just because it says it on the paper doesn’t mean that they can pull it off. Some people are naturally chaotic and unpredictable; don’t make them the sheriff that is supposed to enforce the law. You can’t make people play against their nature. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t try to stretch themselves from time to time. The problem is that it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of a character without thinking about what it would mean to inhabit them for extended periods.
One of the things that makes tabletop role-playing significantly different, and arguably more rewarding, than computer RPGs is that there is an acting component. The players are players in the Shakespearean sense, asked to play a part. And some people are better actors than others. This isn’t to say that someone has to be a particularly good actor to participate and positively contribute. It is to say that the skills and range of the player should be taken account when making their character.
When I’m working with players during the character creation process, I always encourage them to choose a character that has at least one strong personality trait in common with them, either something that they don’t usually get to exhibit that they want to exercise or something about themselves that they don’t like and wish to exorcise. If the super nice guy has a hidden mean streak and wants to air it out, that’s great. As long as he can understand the character and understand why they do what they do.
6. They Don’t Know Everything
Let’s look at Lord of the Rings. Who are the PCs? Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are definites. Boromir and Faramir are both terrific PCs, albeit ones with limited screentime. The hobbits are debatable. They are all extremely limited in their capabilities. You could even make the argument that the whole story is contrived to find a situation where Frodo could possibly be more effective than Aragorn or Gandalf. What about Gandalf? Is he a PC? He is certainly not handicapped, he has lots of things that he’s good at, he can survive a fight, and he has a definite personality (“Fool of a Took!”). But he doesn’t really resonate as a playable character. There are two reasons for this. One, his powers and capabilities aren’t clearly defined for the audience. We don’t actually know what Gangalf’s limits are, so it’s hard to imagine playing him. Secondly, he knows way more about what’s going on than anyone else. And this makes him an exceptionally poor Player Character.
The old and capable wise man types (Obi-Wan, Merlin, etc) all suffer from this. Part of the concept of the character is that they are extremely, perhaps even supremely, wise and knowledgeable. It’s possible for the GM to bring such a character into the story, as they, by definition, know all there is to know about the setting. It is just just as impossible for the player, who by definition cannot know everything that there is to know, to play such a character. You can create playable characters that know ancient lore and hidden secrets — but it’s a lot of work and requires close communication between the player and the GM, and there need to be places and things of which they are unaware.
Bad PCs Make Good NPCs
It can be difficult to come up with engaging character concepts that meet all of the above criteria. This is one place where setting-as-game systems have a definite advantage — they define the most reasonable set of skills and archetypes, and limit players to them. The good news is that characters that don’t meet the criteria for a PC often make great NPCs. The combat badass with a backstory but no real personality? Makes a fine nemesis or miniboss for the players. The old wise sage that walks with a limp and knows the way through the ancient tunnels? Bad PC, great NPC. The really awesome guy that you and your player came up with but they just don’t feel comfortable playing? Surely that character has a home in the setting somewhere.