Character Building: Alsa Corvino
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.