A Sad Tale to Tell

Someone in a gaming group that I was part of once asked me (with some frustration) “why do all of your characters have to be sad?” At first I simply laughed, but upon reviewing the short history of my character (expertly written in bullet points on the back of a cocktail napkin from the prior evening) I realized that he had a point: For someone who strives to inject levity into all conversations, I tend to create characters who generally do not have a whole lot to laugh about. So why is that?
It stems from my belief that every good story is about conflict, both internal and external, and role-playing is no different. While the storyteller provides the conflict your character will have around him/her (external), it’s your character’s history and what they’ve been through that will provide their drives and desires (internal). This is an important balance, since it provides goals on two levels for the character, making it easier for you, the player, to present the character as a vibrant participant in the story. (Example:.I need to get by the security of the bank to rob the vault, and I need to rob the vault to prove to myself that I’m a better thief than my father ever was.)

This is where a sad story comes in. Simply put, people (and compelling characters) are more often defined by the struggles and pains that they have endured than their successes. An academic who graduates at the top of her class may have achieved her goal, but it is the trials that she went through to get there that has shaped who she is.

Take for example one of my favorite plays, Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In it, the titular Richard is deformed, raised in a noble house but told since his birth that he was misshapen because he was a devil child. From the very first scene, Richard explains that he is disfigured and shunned (both external struggles like woah) but he’s devised a plan to get beyond all of that: Kill every person that stands between him and the throne (I imagine Richard’s iPod consists mostly of gangster rap, most prominently Jay Z’s “99 Problems”). His internal struggle is presented through monologue and, at one point, the crushing weight of his conscience giving him a horrific nightmare that he describes to a guard.
These struggles, and the drives that motivate Richard to endure them, all lead to a sympathetic (if not psychotic) character. Granted, invoking Shakespeare in a discussion about character creation may seem extreme, but it’s Richard III’s struggles that make him compelling and, for me, help guide me in the creation of a character.

Othello from Homer’s The Odyssey is another good example. For a man revered throughout the tale as being such an unmitigated bad ass, he spends a lot of time in the throws of uncontrollable weeping.

And then he talks shit to a cyclops. I digress.

When I was first introduced to roleplaying the concept of weakness or failings being an integral part of my character was anathema to me. I wanted the most powerful, capable icons my imagination could dream up to be my avatar in the story. I played characters that claimed to have already achieved perfection and walked a charmed road of effortless success. Looking back, I couldn’t possibly tell you their names.

The stories we tell through our characters are important additions to the overall narrative of the game, making the tale not just a creation of one but a creation of all. Memorable, sympathetic characters carrying the weight of their history are often the deciding factor between a good game and a great one. We have all played good games, but we can all remember the great ones. And we all remember the characters involved.

So consider this when building that person who you will be in the game. Imagine their trials and errors and the means with which they’ve overcome their obstacles. Then imagine where they have triumphed, but in a way that it hasn’t solved all of their problems. Imagine what they want and why they haven’t gotten it yet. In other words, have your character tell a tale.

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About the Author
David is a human, standing at average human size with human features. He is not an android, that would be ridiculous. He is fond of horror movies, so-bad-it’s-good movies, stand-up comedy and humor sometimes inappropriate for a given setting but within the accepted parameters of average human interaction. David reads H.P. Lovecraft with human eyes, speaks about Cyberpunk with his human mouth (using vocal chords, not embedded speakers) listens to podcasts with his human ears and typed this from an undisclosed location with his human hands. He was created in New England.

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