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Old Jun 2nd, 2014, 02:21 PM
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Seminar 2: Character Concepts

Character Concepts

Okay, so let’s suppose you’re looking at an advertisement you want to make an application for.

You may not be literally doing that right now, but at some point you will be. When it comes to that, you need to start thinking about what kind of character you want to play.

You’ll find that this has very little to do with mechanics. In fact, I would posit that mechanics are an active hindrance to the process at this stage.

“But Aeternis, but Aeternis!” I can hear the argument already forming. “Won’t the DM be impressed by how well I’ve thought out these mechanics? Shouldn’t I show them how well I know the rules of the game system?”

Let me stop that argument right there with a simple response: Hell no. Keep out of those mechanics-optimization weeds, at least for now. The rulebooks and SRDs should remain securely shut until you know what approach you want to take with this character. As a DM, let me break some bad news to you over-eager optimizers: When I look at applications, I don’t want to see dice rolls, I don’t want to see finished character sheets, I don’t want to see progression plans all the way out to 20. I want to see a well-thought-out concept. I want to see a dynamic, deep character with room for growth, which provides me interesting group dynamics options.

I would say that it is acceptable to start with a desired class (in systems with class progressions, such as D&D), but don’t hold yourself to it. Let me provide a little anecdote to explain why. I started writing an application for a nobleman with monk training for a Pathfinder game a few months ago. I figured I had a pretty strong concept - the character left his home city of Westcrown to travel abroad, and learned from masters of the martial arts in a foreign land. My plan was that he would provide a unique perspective, having just returned home, on local troubles, and that he would be always at odds with his noble family, who had funded his travels but didn’t really like the result when he returned.

What I eventually posted as an application was this very character - but he was a cleric when I finished, not a monk. A traveller to a foreign land, converted to their religion, returning to his home, where that religion is not only unpopular, but its few faithful are persecuted by the authorities, and even a noble is not totally immune to oppression for his beliefs. The concept had evolved so completely in my mind that the Cleric class was a better fit for the finished product than Monk.

The point of this anecdote is simple: If you do feel compelled to start your creative process by naming a class, don’t hold yourself to that! There are even decent reasons to pick a class first, if you need to - most notably, if there is already a crowded field of applications and you notice one or more of your favorite classes is not represented. Just don’t lock yourself into that at an early stage.

NOTE: Every creative process is different. This is a tried-and-true process I like, which is easy to explain and adapt. If you have a successful process that’s different than this, that’s fine! The purpose of this seminar is to help people who struggle with character concepts.

Whether you’re starting with a class/archetype or no, you’ll need to establish a framework onto which you can flesh out your character. I find the easiest way to do this is to define a one-sentence summary of your character’s persona or background details. A few examples:
  • Nathanael is a bright but slightly socially inept professor who tends to overthink everything and come up with wild theories, then to talk too much about them.
  • Tiranne is a cold, standoffish bounty hunter who was kicked out of a Paladin academy after she avenged the rape of her best friend by one of the instructors.
  • Ketaras was a guide in the dangerous warrens beneath the city in his youth, but he and his intelligent spider friend Twie have been retired from full-time adventuring for years.
  • Reed was a blacksmith’s son drafted to fight in a war for the Empire, and his heroism as a foot soldier in battle earned him both a near-fatal head wound and the favor of his emperor.

You’ll note that none of these use class descriptions for the character. In point of fact, these characters ended up being a Wizard, an Inquisitor, a Ranger, and a Paladin in that order, but at this stage that doesn’t matter.

Coming up with a sentence like this out of the blue is difficult - but you don’t have to come up with one out of the blue! You have a whole advertisement’s worth of text and flavor to use as a jumping off point. Which leads me to an interesting piece of advice: Don’t build a bunch of characters beforehand and throw them into advertisements as you see ones you like.

Generally speaking, when you're starting out, you should go into every application expecting to create a new character.

Here we go again. “But Aeternis, but Aeternis! I have this amazing character concept that I want to use if I can just find the right game for it! It’ll be great!”

No, it won’t. Sorry. You’re running the process backwards. Building a character in a vacuum is not going to produce your best work. If you’re building them for a syndicated setting or adventure path, that’s one thing - and can even be a useful one thing, depending on the popularity of that setting or AP, but the moment you try to pull a character not built for a setting into that setting, things go awry. Even if you do get accepted, you're not going to be able to immerse yourself in the character and situation as much as is optimal - you'll have, in your mind, two very similar characters with only the blurriest of lines between them. This will make it difficult for you to get an intellectual grasp on the character's mindset. Is this a problem that can be dealt with? Yes. But if you're not fairly experienced with play-by-post, your chances of dealing appropriately are grim at best.

There is one path toward successful character adaptation - where the original concept was built for a setting and game that make use of certain themes and tropes, and these themes and tropes also exist in the game you’re adapting to. That happens once in a while - but I’ve been at this since 2008 and I’ve only adapted characters three times, with two of them being what I would term successes. Others have better experiences than that, but until you've got a character roster dozens deep, this situation will be very rare.

If you are absolutely dead-set on re-adapting a character, and you're either winning the game advertisement lottery or you've been here long enough to have a deep roster, if you’re convinced that this time it's a good idea, then consider telling the GM that the character you're applying with is an adaptation. I would advise against going into too much detail, or linking to the original character sheet or application, or anything other than informing the GM that you are adapting a concept and making the adjustments you think necessary for the new game. If you gush about the original version of the character, or insist that they are an exact, perfect fit, then GMs may (and inevitably will sometimes) take this badly. When you do re-use, even though it's okay to re-use characters at the concept level in certain cases, it's never okay to re-use whole applications.

If you have a character created in a vacuum that you want to play, that’s a good use case for “Players Seeking Games” - make the pitch there, and if some DM sees matching themes, they’ll let you know. But don’t expect that to happen often. Most new game formation happens in “DMs Seeking Players” on this site. “Players Seeking Games” is a good place to go if you’re willing to be a replacement for a lost player or if you want solo games, but it’s not going to get you much traction into anything else.

If you can’t think of a concept, the right response is not to just start building an application anyway hoping one will evolve. Your concept informs your application, not the other way around. If you are struggling with concepts, my advice is that you probably need to read some more material - if none more about the game in question is to be found, go to the library or the bookstore and get a novel to read. It is perfectly acceptable to borrow a high level concept in part or whole from related media, provided you manipulate it and make it your own in some way. After all, some of the world’s favorite fictional characters are re-tellings of earlier characters in another era’s fiction.

I would extend this advice to the general idea that you should read fiction regularly to keep your brain primed for character concepts, if you have time. A book or two a month is a good habit.

Worried about being called out on cribbing character ideas? Read some less-circulated books. Consider that I am quite literally cribbing the following character concept almost directly from a book series - I imagine fewer than one percent of the people reading this will recognize it.
  • Lorrain is a pilot who used to be an actor, before an accident in his personal aircraft left his face garishly scarred and forced him into his current profession.

It would be cheap and low of me to create a faithful reproduction of the original character in a PbP game, but to use him as an inspiration to create a similar character with similar motivations is absolutely fair game. After all, what you’re doing with this concept is defining the character’s initial state - who says they have to develop in the same direction as your inspiration?

Every creative process is different. I know many people who are very successful browsing character portraits and picking one that seems like a thematic fit, then building their character around the appearance and mood of the image. Some people start with thinking of how the character fights, or how they talk, or start by building a back-story from childhood forward. The point is, it doesn’t matter what you start with - but do yourself a favor and focus it into a high level concept before you spread out and start filling in the details.

It is of course fairly easy to do the high level concept stage terribly wrong. Consider:
  • Corin is a fugitive noble with lots of secrets.

Full disclosure: this is the high level description of an early character of mine, from when I was not good at this. This is a terrible place to start. It contains exactly zero specifics, and no characterization points except for “fugitive” which is still pretty vague. What the heck is “lots of secrets” supposed to mean? Everyone has secrets.

Well, eventually I managed to make a character out of that one, but it’s a miracle that I did. A later-stage high level description might have read something like:
  • Corin is a fugitive from forces he doesn’t understand, fleeing the destruction of his noble family’s pocket plane estate with only his familiar and the clothes on his back.

This is better, but it’s still a weak concept, even though it’s plenty detailed. I still like the idea of a noble family with arcane talent having its estate in a pocket plane as much as I did when I thought of it, but Corin was always a weak character, because I started with a weak high level concept. He was a weak character because his mysterious foes were impossible to bring into the plot of the game I used him in, and because his most interesting interpersonal dynamic was with his familiar, not with another player’s character.

Let me emphasize the point here. It is possible, even easy, to elaborate a weak high level concept into a better one, but harder to fix a fundamentally failure-prone high level concept the deeper into the process you go. They can fail because they leave no room for character development, or because they leave the character little reason to have interesting dynamics with the rest of the party. They can also fail if their background is not relevant to the game you're applying to. Try not to fall into these traps - if you see yourself falling into one, change your high-level concept until you feel safe from them.

While it’s okay to be somewhat general in a high level concept, you will eventually need to put some details into your character. Don’t be afraid of specifics here. They are your friend, not your enemy. It is common to instinctively shy away from them, expecting specifics to narrow your chances for character development, but the reverse is more often true - and generalities will not make your character concept stand out. Let me be clear, at this point you have not started writing your application, hopefully. Maybe you put in a placeholder. These details will eventually end up in your application, but don’t get ahead of yourself if you can avoid it.

The format of a detailed concept can be whatever suits you best, but I generally find that a paragraph or a bulleted list make the most sense. Use whatever you prefer - this is your notes, and nobody else will ever have to see them. Flesh out proper nouns - places, names of mentors, love interests, names of important relatives, appearance, personality, whatever you think is core to the character. Be specific, and avoid hedged contradictions:
  • “Reed is tall” is a generality. “Reed is just shy of six and a half feet tall” is a specific.
  • “Ketaras is world-weary, but less so than some” is a hedged contradiction. “Ketaras is less world-weary than one would expect, given his age and experiences in the Warrens” is a better, more interesting way of speaking of moderation in his world-weariness.

And here we go again. “But Aeternis, if this is just my notes, why does it matter how I word it? I’m just going to fix it in the application!”

Are you really? Let’s be honest here. At this stage, you’re describing the character to yourself, not to any outside audience. How you describe the character now is going to influence how you think of them going forward into writing an application. If you leave blurry spots in that mental image now, you’re handicapping yourself. Certainly those are correctable later, but trust me when I say that it’s better for everyone if you clear them up now.

Once you’re happy with the result of fleshing out your high level concept, it’s time to think about creating a structured application post.

I wonder how many of you students are tuning everything out and just reading my summaries at the end…
  1. Avoid mechanics at the concept stage
    • If you have to pick a class (and there are good reasons to do so) be willing to change that class plan as the concept evolves.
  2. Avoid creating characters and adapting them to fit interesting games - that’s a bad idea nine times out of ten. Start from scratch!
  3. Construct a one-sentence high level concept to start the process.
    • Your creative process may start with details, and that’s okay, but you should at some point bring everything together with this one sentence concept to keep your focus.
  4. If you are struggling to come up with concepts, read some fiction to jump-start the creative process.
  5. Concepts can fail even if properly thought out. Be careful that your concept is not going to struggle in the PbP context.
    • Make sure the character has reasons to interact interestingly with other PCs and with NPCs.
    • Make sure the character’s main story elements are relevant to the game you’re applying to.
  6. Flesh out the high level concept into a paragraph or list of bulleted details.
    • Avoid generalities - specifics are your friend.
    • Don’t phrase anything as a hedged contradiction.
  7. Now then, it’s time to start putting an application together.

That's all for now, folks. We'll pick up next time and discuss advanced topics in character concepts. If you’d prefer to skip ahead to the fourth seminar on formatting an application, feel free.

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--[ A Guide to Applications ]--

Last edited by Aeternis; Sep 18th, 2016 at 03:47 PM.
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Old Jul 21st, 2014, 07:30 PM
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Originally Posted by DAquilina View Post
I thoroughly enjoy mechanics. A big part of creating my character's story is to understand how they will develop to the point where the story begins, which is in part why I prefer mid-to-high-level games over level one games. Do you believe that this manner of character development is an active hindrance to the creative process, or is that dependent on the writer?
It's not at all wrong to develop in that manner, provided you have a firm idea of your concept and character themes before you get to that stage. In fact, though I've since changed to using more narrative strategies, that is very similar to the process I used for a few early characters of mine, including Keryk, my very first character on this site. The caution in about avoiding rules is primarily focused on the concept stage of the process.

Additionally, most GMs don't want mechanics at the application stage - warnings not to roll dice or create a character sheet in the application thread are legion. If it helps your process to flesh all that out before you even know if you're accepted, that's fine, but don't inundate the GM with numbers unless they're asked for (a brief section about your build ideas is okay sometimes, but unless you're applying for a level 1 game, a full description of all build decisions is certainly too cumbersome to provide at application time).

As mentioned above, I am recommending a process to people who lack one - if you have a process which works for you reliably, keep using it! I would only suggest that you try not to present too many mechanical details at application time.
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--[ A Guide to Applications ]--

Last edited by Aeternis; Sep 18th, 2016 at 03:40 PM.
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Old Apr 12th, 2017, 11:03 PM
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But Aeternis, but Aeternis! I have a concept that I really want to try! It's not that detailed!

I have a question about the Create, Don't Adapt, and Brainstorming New Concepts sections. These sections, at least to me, seem like they are referring to finished or nearly finished character concepts that you already know the backstory, what you're playing and what he wants. What about adapting the base of a character concept into a character revolved around the game your are applying to. As an example, I have been wanting to play a scholar of history (probably an arcane spellcaster) that's main motivation and goal in life is to learn as much about the world and historical lore as he can.

The concept, at least to me, seems somewhat basic. He doesn't have a backstory or worked out idea of how I would play him, other than a single motivation and an idea of the style of class. It would be easy to form everything else around him to the campaign setting and theme of the adventure, adding in the details and more about him all for the game itself. Is even walking in with this much of an idea bad, and why? To me, it doesn't seem like the concept is worked out enough to cause any problems with adapting it to the game. I could be wrong though, and I wish to know what you would think about this.
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Last edited by Xalos; Apr 12th, 2017 at 11:23 PM. Reason: But Aeternis, but Aeternis!
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Old Apr 13th, 2017, 04:22 AM
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Originally Posted by Xalos View Post
But Aeternis, but Aeternis! I have a concept that I really want to try! It's not that detailed!

I have a question about the Create, Don't Adapt, and Brainstorming New Concepts sections. These sections, at least to me, seem like they are referring to finished or nearly finished character concepts that you already know the backstory, what you're playing and what he wants. What about adapting the base of a character concept into a character revolved around the game your are applying to. As an example, I have been wanting to play a scholar of history (probably an arcane spellcaster) that's main motivation and goal in life is to learn as much about the world and historical lore as he can.

...Is even walking in with this much of an idea bad, and why? To me, it doesn't seem like the concept is worked out enough to cause any problems with adapting it to the game. I could be wrong though, and I wish to know what you would think about this.
I would say that those details are a bit broad for a concept. In your case, you have more of an archetype - namely, the motivation profile of a scholar. This is not the approach which I am cautioning against - it's more of a middle path. The worst you can do by coming into the process with ideas that vague is try to fit that archetype into a game which doesn't thematically fit it - don't get me wrong, that's not ideal, but it's unlikely to cause anything worse than getting an application rejected now and then.

For example, if you came into a game with the archetype of a naive, free-spirited minstrel, that wouldn't usually be a problem, but if you applied as such to an evil campaign, you might have issues. It would almost certainly cause problems in the game thread if you got in, but most GMs simply wouldn't accept you. Similarly, if you applied to a run of the Pathfinder "We Be Goblins" module with a scholar goblin, I doubt you'd get accepted.

You might run into trouble distinguishing your concepts after you've created several characters based on this archetype and had some of them play in game threads, but that isn't a problem for everybody, and if it does happen to you, that probably just means it's time to change things up.
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--[ A Guide to Applications ]--
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