A couple weeks ago I wrote a post in the Character Building series where I made a character for a female player in a fantasy setting. As I was writing it, I found myself really having to work to avoid a lot of the stereotypes that traditionally accompany female characters in the sort of action-driven fictional settings that serve as the template for role-playing games. Here are a few of the problems that I encountered:
Female Character == Love Interest
Think of every action movie you’ve ever seen. Did it have a female protagonist? Did she end up in a romantic relationship with one of the male characters? I thought so. This pattern especially holds true in fantasy fiction, an unfortunate tradition begun by Saint Tolkien and maintained by all who followed him.
This is not to say that romantic relationships in role-playing are a bad thing. If you as a GM are comfortable with it, and it will increase the fun for the player or players involved, that’s terrific. The problem is that there is frequently an assumption that if there is a female player, there must be some sort of romance. The same phenomenon occurs, incidentally, with homosexual players. As soon as the sexual identity of the player (and in most cases, the character that they choose to play) differs from the default, it is unfortunately easy for the GM and fellow players to define them by this characteristic.
This is partially the result of unconscious sexism, a problem that pervades society. But there’s also an aspect of RPGs that aggravates and amplifies it. Unlike “real” people, characters in role-playing games have an explicit list of characteristics intended to define them. If your character has a fear of heights, then it’s expected that the GM will work to create a situation where you find yourself on top of a high building. If they have a hatred of Orcs, then Orcs are likely to make an appearance. If the GM doesn’t create a situation where this characteristic matters, then it might as well not be on the character sheet. Similarly, if your character is an unusually pacifistic member of a race of flesh-eating monsters, they can expect to be treated with hostility by strangers. When a character has a sexual orientation that differs from the default, that feels like a character trait, and most GMs will reflexively make it matter somehow in the story.
Girls Can’t Be _________
The most common variation on this one is “Girls can’t be tanks.” Your female player wants to play a fighter? So she uses poisoned knives, right? Or perhaps whips, or a lasso? I don’t have too much more to add here – just be on the lookout for this one. When working with a female player to make a character, always ask yourself “Would I give the same suggestion to a male player?”
Gentle Healers or Vicious Assassins
This is kind of the roleplaying equivalent of the Madonna/Whore complex. So let’s imagine that there is a spectrum of “goodness” for role-playing characters. On one end there are the lily white heroes and on the other end are the dastardly villains. When most people envision a female protagonist, they assume that that person is less likely to be violent and more likely to be compassionate towards others, especially children. On the spectrum of role-playing characters, this places them pretty far on the heroic end. If the player strays from this archetype, deciding for instance that their character doesn’t like children, then it clashes with peoples’ expectations. Because this decision rejects one aspect of the female hero archetype, people assume that the character rejects all of the aspects and assign them to the other most common female archetype in fiction – the coldhearted, manipulative villain.
People naturally compare and categorize. When we meet a person, we automatically compare them with other people that we’ve known and react accordingly. This is especially true when we are consumers of fiction. You see the cop who works around the rules, and you immediately know without being shown what that character is like. He’s going to be a tough guy with a soft side. If you then see that character kick a puppy, you immediately reassign him to a new category – he’s a dirty cop and a brute. With male characters, there are a wide variety of male archetypes to choose from, so any character choice is likely to be a variation on one of them.
With female characters, there are really only three archetypes. There’s the femme fatale villain type, with an optional soft spot for the male hero. Morgana LaFey, Catwoman, Cruella DeVille, the blonde in every noir film. We have the gentle caring love interest who brings out the soft side of our male hero and gives him someone to rescue. Maid Marion, Mary Jane Watson, Gwenivere. In more recent years, we have a third archetype: the woman who kicks ass. Ripley, GI Jane, Angelina Jolie in any action movie. It’s important to make sure that your players feel like they can play someone who is more than a just a stock version of one of these archetypes.
This is one of a series of articles where we’re walk through the process of building what we think of as a good PC. The goal is to reveal the process and help GMs and players when they are making PCs of their own.
This is the third character that I’ve built in the Karthasia setting (you can find the others here and here). Karthasia was created with the intent of demonstrating how you can make a fantasy setting feel unique and different by making some minor tweaks to the formula and then considering all of the ramifications of that tweak. My next (and probably final) post using this setting will be to create a character-based campaign using these three player characters.
Our fictional PC this time around is a first-time player, and female. She heard her friends (the two other players) talking about their role-playing experiences, and expressed an interest in trying it out. She is a very bold, outspoken person, and has no interest in playing a damsel-in-distress type, or a romantic foil for one of the other players. In fact, she works in a really sexist environment where she feels continually underestimated, and what she really wants to play is a girl who kicks ass.
The character creation process is very different for first-time players than it is for experienced ones. With an experienced player, they have a basic sense of what their playing style is, what type of characters they like to play, and what sort of character plays well within the rule system.* The character creation process for experienced players is a very collaborative one, with the GM and the player having roughly equal say in the process. New players, on the other hand, are more dependent on the GM’s assistance to ensure that that they end up with a character that they will enjoy playing. If the GM is well-acquainted with the person out-of-game, it’s easier for them to craft a character that they know the player will enjoy. If the GM doesn’t know them well, then I think that a brief interview of sorts is in order, with most of the questions revolving around how the person prefers to solve problems and deal with conflict.
As a general rule, traditional fighters are the easiest characters for new players to pick up. They are common in fiction and therefore easy to understand. They require fewer skills to be effective than wizard or rogue characters (or their setting-appropriate equivalents), and therefore fewer opportunities for the player to feel like they made a mistake by missing a key skill on their character sheet. Best of all, they are guaranteed to be effective in combat, which is where a rookie mistake is most likely to result in character death. This is not, of course, a hard and fast rule. If your player abhors violence, or strongly prefers trickery to direct action, you should adjust accordingly. Just don’t forget to make sure that they have the skills necessary to survive a fight.
With all of that in mind, what else do we need to know about our player? We already know that she wants to play somebody who kicks ass, which strongly suggests a traditional fighter character. Do they feel any obligation to protect innocents? Will they kill in cold blood? Is fighting something they do as their trade, or does trouble just always seem to find them? Are they wild and risk-taking, or cold-blooded and methodical?
Our player decides that she wants to play someone who is a warrior by trade. She won’t start a fight unless she’s being paid to do so, but she doesn’t run away from conflict, and she’s not afraid to kill someone for crossing her. She’s not interested in playing someone who’s too moral and good, but she doesn’t really want to be an out-and-out psychopath either.
From a GM perspective, the trickiest thing about this character concept is going to be giving it some sort of emotional center. It would be a relatively straightforward exercise to create a generic knight or mercenary. The real trick here is to create a character for a novice player that has a unique personality and some hook that allows the GM to introduce moral dilemmas. One technique that I’ve used with new players with good success is to give them a family, particularly a child, that they have to take care of. In this case, however, I really want to stay away from that path. A child or a husband (unfairly) puts a female character in the role of mother or wife in a way that it wouldn’t with a male character. It seems then, that our best bet is to play with the moral limitations that she has set. If she wants to play a warrior that is violent but not monstrous, then we will have to put her in situations where being monstrous is the easiest path and let her choose not to be it.
With these constraints in mind, what are some possibilities for morally-flexible warriors in the setting? The first thing occurs to me is a Dark Knight working for the Xanx, like the one that I was considering when I created N’Kava Tharak. Perhaps she joined up with the Xanx because the more traditional military outfits were prejudiced against women? Now that the Xanx are in charge, her job has changed from shock trooper and revolutionary to storm trooper and policewoman. The Xanx were intended to be classically evil, complete with Black Priests raising the dead and making arcane deals with dark spirits, so it’s likely that they would be a bit… harsh in their police actions.
The story arc for this character is relatively straightforward; they start out as a cop enforcing the laws of an evil government, you put them through a short series of encounters where they are ordered to do things that they disapprove of, and the character eventually quits and switches sides. The same pros and cons apply in this case as before: it’s cool to have pitch black armor and weapons, it’s fun to play a bad guy, it’s fun to quit your job and then kill your boss. On the negative side, the story is somewhat trite, and once the character decides to switch sides (which would probably occur early in the campaign), there aren’t a lot of meaty choices left to be made. It’s a fine option, but not an inspired one.
The second obvious idea that meets our criteria is a mercenary. By virtue of being a sword for hire, the character is inherently a bit edgy, and we could easily put her in situations where she disagrees with her orders. The trick here is adding some additional layer that makes her more than just a sellsword with a conscience. Some sort of dark past, or a gambling debt, or… something. I’m kind of coming up empty here.
So what else can we do? She could be a soldier from a foreign land, sent here to assist in overthrowing the Xanx. She could be a boxer or a gladiator who fights for the entertainment of others. She could be a bouncer or an enforcer for the mob. She could just be a thief or a brigand who made her living by stealing from those weaker than her. My biggest reservation with these character concepts is that they lack inherent ties to the setting and/or story. There are some character concepts for which the only reasonable answer to a big problem is to cut and run. As a GM, you have to ensure that when your players play those kinds of characters they have some sort of reason why they won’t just shrug and get out of town. As I mentioned above, dependents and duties are usually good ways to give a heartless rogue both a soft side and a reason to stick around – but I really would prefer avoiding the cliché of putting a female character in the caregiver role.
So what about the Albanists? The stereotypical white knight archetype doesn’t fit this character very well, but there might be a twist that we could put on it to make it work. What if our character joined the Albanists because she wanted to be a cop/warrior type, and they were the only (legal) game in town? She’s not a pure, lily-white hero type, so it would be an awkward fit for her. And then, when things went south for the Albanists, she switched sides and joined the Xanx. I feel like there’s some interesting territory to explore here.
Fleshing Out the Character
So let’s say that she always wanted to be a soldier/warrior/cop (this job will need some sort of specific name in the setting. Protector, perhaps?). She signs up with the Albanists as an entry level Protector. The general path is that people start as foot soldiers, fighting as infantry in border wars, or acting as beat cops in the cities. As they demonstrate their worth, they move up the chain into positions of command and greater specialization. Some people get to start further along in the process, depending on their education and connections, but she came from a poor family so she started at the bottom. While she resented some of the people who got an unfair start, she didn’t mind working hard to demonstrate her worth. She excelled at the martial aspects of the job, but never really bought in to the morality of it all. A few of the other cops were really big on the religious aspects, and they tended to get promoted and rewarded more quickly. Most of the people, like her, who weren’t big believers pretended that they were so that they could get ahead. She watched as one person after another that was less qualified than her passed her on the ladder. This left her discontented and disillusioned.
Now we get to the most important decision in this character’s backstory. Exactly what was her role when the Albanists fell? One way to handle would be that she fought valiantly against the insurrection but was still subdued. Since she was of low rank, she was allowed to sign on with the Xanx as an Enforcer (their new core of Protector equivalents). This establishes her as a loyal soldier who fights for her employer, but knows when it’s time to switch sides. It also has some delicious irony, in that her lack of rank means that she is allowed to live and re-enlist.
Another way would be for her to abandon her post and simply stand aside during the revolution, and then sign up with the Xanx when it’s done. This paints a picture of a truly mercenary personality, probably more than we really want. It’s also a very passive choice, unbecoming of a lead character.
Yet another way would be for her to play an unwitting role in the insurrection. She was stationed on guard duty at a key post, and one of her friends asks her to switch shifts, or convinces her to come out early for a drink. When it’s all over, she realizes that she is partially responsible for what happened. I like this a little more, in that it makes the conflict more personal for the character, and gives her a reason to feel invested in the outcome. Once again, though, it’s a very passive role – she was tricked instead of making a choice.
The fourth way is for her to actively betray the Albanists. One of her fellow Protectors detects her discontentment with the Albanists, and tells her things would be better if someone else were in charge. After a few more conversations to that effect, she agrees to take an active role in the Xanx insurrection in exchange for a position of power in their new order. This is the choice that has her taking the most active role in what happens, but also the option that is the least honorable.
This is the tricky spot. Because you, the GM, are helping a new player build their character, you have to take a more active authorial role in that character. Once you’ve started making decisions for them, however, it’s difficult to remember to stop and let them make the non-essential choices. We’ve established that any of these four choices will work, now is the time to let our player decide which one resonates the most with them. To simulate this when writing this post, I asked someone else to read the options that I’d laid out and choose which one they liked the best. They chose option number four, where she knowingly betrays the Albanists.
Now we decide exactly what the betrayal was, and why she chose to do it. I think that when she worked as a Protector, she saw all of the flaws in the Albanist government. She saw that faith was rewarded more than ability. As a result, many of the people in power were incompetent. She saw the way that the system encouraged people to pretend to be pious even if they were not, and thus encouraged deception. She saw how members of the theocracy got so wrapped up in their status that they lost sight of their stated goals. She saw the way that people who did not belong to their religion were subdued or killed. In short, she became disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Albanists and their government.
Then when her fellow Protector, Ravello, approached her with an offer to be a captain in the new regime if she would kill two fellow protectors and unlock the rear gate to the palace, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t. She was a soldier, who was paid to fight and to kill. She had been deployed to kill savages from the Nine Tribes when they raided towns in the north; she knew how people who didn’t believe in the faith were treated. Why should she feel any loyalty to them? Besides, how much worse could the Xanx be? It would just be trading one theocracy for another. They change the paintings and the statues and then life goes on the same way as ever, except she would finally have the job that she deserved. After a few days of hard thinking, she talked herself into it. Time to give this character a name. Alsa Corvino. There now, isn’t that better?
Flash forward three years. The Albanists were overthrown and their priests slaughtered. The Xanx have lost the northern cities to the Nine Tribes, and are barely retaining order in their own cities. Alsa is now a Captain in the Enforcers, a dark knight serving under her old friend Ravello, and is forced to keep the peace through brutal measures. She spends half of her time dealing with a network of informers and dragging people out of their beds at night. She has definitely noticed some differences between life under the Albanists and life under the Xanx.
Alsa wears the pitch black armor of the dark knights, and is accompanied by her trusted hellhound, Kimo. She has experience with most of the common medieval melee weapons, but is particularly skilled at fighting with a stabbing broadsword and a shield. Her law enforcement experience has made her skilled in subduing people without killing them, interrogation, shadowing suspects, detecting lies, and breaking into buildings. In addition to having a high tolerance for pain and quick reflexes, she has significant legal enforcement powers anywhere in Xanx territory. With that power comes an obligation to follow the orders of the Xanx, however brutal. Her role in the fall of the Albanists was widely publicized, so she is not well-loved by those who preferred the old government. She is particularly reviled among the few surviving Protectors and Albanist priests.
Our character story leads us to a few other obvious personality-related disadvantages for our heroine. She dislikes deception and subterfuge, and is reluctant to lie. She is very sensitive to situations where others are rewarded and she is passed over. Alsa’s violent and treacherous backstory leaves her with very few honorable disadvantages. She doesn’t have a sense of duty or loyalty to her employers or her fellow soldiers. She is willing to kill others, and has no problem starting the fight if those are her orders. I do think, however, that she could have a personal code to not harm innocents (with an extremely narrow definition of what qualifies as innocent), or at least a code to not kill children. This, of course, gives us our way to push her to the breaking point during the course of the campain.
Alsa’s story arc is a somewhat obvious one. She (almost definitely) will decide that she made a mistake in helping the Xanx, and will quit and try to join the Albanist insurrection to atone for her betrayal. She’ll first have to find them, which will be no mean feat. Then she will have to regain their trust and convince them that she’s not just a spy for the Xanx. Lastly, she participates in restoring the Albanists (or some other, better government) and redeems herself. It’s obvious, and a little trite, but it’s a rewarding story and it makes for meaty choices throughout.
On the whole, I’m quite pleased with this as a character for a new player. She has obvious strengths and weaknesses, and some subtlety that comes along with the backstory. Most NPCs will have strong reactions to her, forcing her to react to them and therefore be an active roleplayer (many new players are passive and take a backseat to the more experienced players). Best of all, her probable story arc is one that requires the player to make active choices (leaving the Xanx, joining the Albanists) while still presenting a clear path.
*This is more important than I wish it were. Ineffective characters are universally un-fun, and they are doubly so when the player expected them to be good. Let’s say, for instance, that your player was interested in playing a character that used whips or a scythe as their primary weapon. Being good at those weapons doesn’t cost any fewer points than being good with a sword or a bow, but the character will still be considerably less effective than someone that put their points in a more conventional weapon. This is actually quite realistic. If scythes and whips were as effective as swords, there would have been a lot more armies that used them.
I was walking down the hall at work the other day and entered a room. Someone entered right after me, but I didn’t remember seeing him in the hall or hearing him behind me (it’s a very echoey hall). I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention at all. The other guy was probably walking down the hall toward me and I just didn’t see him. Somewhat randomly, I reflected that this never occurs in a video game. If you’re walking down a hallways in an FPS, you will see the person walking towards you. If you don’t pay attention to things, you get eaten by zombies.
But it’s not like you’re straining your abilities of attention. The world of a video game is crafted around the player; you are its center. So everything that you see matters in some way (otherwise it was a “waste” of art assets and programming time before release) and, for the most part, you see everything that matters. As with all things, this got me started thinking about roleplaying.
It Was There The Whole Time
There are tons of good stories out there that include elements early in a subtle way which, later, are revealed to be a big deal. In video media, this is especially easy, since you can put something in a scene, but not draw attention to it merely by ignoring it. For instance, two characters are discussing up-coming events while one does maintenance on a firearm at the kitchen table. Later, when the presence of that gun saves the protagonist’s life, it doesn’t surprise the viewers.
This is something that doesn’t seem possible in roleplaying. If you mention that there’s a shopping cart, then the players see it as a Shopping Cart. Suddenly they’re in this room with greyish, blurry details and there’s this gleaming, technicolor, high-definition shopping cart sitting there. It’s like a 3 second shot in a movie of nothing but a shopping cart. The importance imbued into anything explicitly mentioned by the GM is immense. However, if you don’t mention the shopping cart because when they walk in it’s not important, then they can’t use it to awesome effect on the spur of the moment later.
It Happened While You Were Out
You sort of run into the Circular 4th Wall, here, too. In a movie, the viewer sees everything that’s important, but the protagonists don’t have to. So it’s possible to show the audience that something exists in some subtle way, or that something happened, etc. and have the protagonists learn it later and react quickly to the information in some cool way. However, because players are both audience and actors, if they didn’t see something happen, then it sort of didn’t.
There’s a thing that a lot of inexperienced story-tellers use (or stumble into accidentally) frequently that I find really annoying: They lie to me. Often, they’re trying to show off how clever the protagonist is. But if the protagonist’s clever solution relies on information that I didn’t have to begin with, I can’t be impressed at how clever they are. There isn’t that moment of, “Oh man! I didn’t think of that. That’s brilliant!” It wasn’t possible for me to think of it because I was missing the necessary information. The world of the story that the work of fiction was creating in my head didn’t include those facts until, suddenly, there they were.
Anything important that you don’t manage to get in front of the players is a bit like that. If they learn about something right as it becomes useful (or, crushingly, right after), then they don’t have time to mull it over and really digest it. If you’re looking to surprise them, that’s one thing, but the surprises have to be entirely believable and fit snugly into their mental model of the campaign world. I spend not inconsiderable effort to make sure that news of major events going on in the campaign reaches the PCs’ ears, especially if they weren’t there when it happened. It can be a struggle to make sure it doesn’t become contrived, but it’s worth the effort. You know you’re doing it right if your players can tell the difference when they go to ground in some way and stop hearing about stuff that was going on before they went into hiding.
It Doesn’t Really Matter
This is a big one I learned from Stewart (though maybe he doesn’t know it) and it’s the other side of “they see everything that’s important”. Often, when we’re brainstorming ideas for what’s coming up in a campaign, especially when we’re just filling in details for stuff that’s been decided for quite some time, I’ll pitch some idea and he’ll say, “That’s cool, but I feel like if we do something like that, it should matter in some way.” The point is, he’s always trying to make sure that if the players invest time in something (or, more precisely, if we invent something that they’re likely to invest time in), then it shouldn’t just be filler material. This isn’t an MMO and they shouldn’t be grinding mobs just so they can get enough Magic Rat Pelts for what’s-his-name back in Startington for no reason.
This isn’t hard to do at least a decent job of. If you come up with a cool idea, but can’t figure out what it has to do with the main plot, cut it out. I’ve seen over and over that many of the things in this world that rock most are the things that don’t try to do too much or include material just to lengthen the experience. So write down your awesome idea and build your next campaign around it. The real trick with this is keeping it in mind at all times (which has apparently been Stewart’s job between the two of us). If you make up some detail about an NPC that will come up, it’s way better if the fact that the PCs learn that details is at least potentially useful to them later on.
I don’t, I think, really have a thesis, here. Mostly, I just wanted to muse on this idea of the importance of events and how you present them to your players. When I was discussing it some days ago with Stewart, he made some observation that was really astute. However, I’ve forgotten what it was. Maybe he’ll say it again in the comments, or maybe one of you will and make him look slow and foolish.
If the server stats are to be believed, there are literally tens of you that are reading the site each week (tens!). To accommodate this influx of new readers, I thought that I’d write up a brief synopsis of the ways that Ben and I run role-playing campaigns, as they are quite different from the traditional method that most people assume as the default.
Firstly, we run campaigns with a distinct beginning and ending, and a clear story arc. After a campaign is completed, we start over in a new setting with new characters. With discrete campaigns, there is less emphasis placed on character improvement, and more emphasis placed on character development. Since developing the characters is a major component of the stories that we try to tell, we spend a lot of time and effort making sure that the player characters are complex and interesting. We try to build a story that fits the characters, rather than characters that fit the story. The goal is for each character to feel like they are the star of the story, and that their stories just happen to overlap. To that end, we allow and even encourage players to have parts of the story that they participate in separately, and if a player’s character is not in the scene, that player is not in the room.
I’m really interested in settings and characters, and most of my posts tend to lean in that direction. Ben is more interested in the craft and tools of GMing, and writes a lot of posts exploring that space. We both have a compulsive habit of thinking about how you would adapt movies and tv shows and books into role-playing campaigns. We usually put up new posts on Tuesday mornings. We’re enjoying writing for the site, and we hope that you’re enjoying reading it.
I’ve linked to most of the articles listed below in the text above, but for your convenience, here’s a handy list of what I think of as the “foundational” articles for the way we do things.