Information Seminar 4: Application Components - RPG Crossing
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Old Jun 7th, 2014, 06:00 PM
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Aeternis Aeternis is offline
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Seminar 4: Application Components

Application Components

So you've got a concept to fit the advertisement for an enticing game. It's time to start drafting an application. Even if you've got the most perfect character concept in history, if you screw this part up, you're not going to get into the game, because the DM won't be able to see the strengths of your concept.

No, this seminar is not about telling you the exact step-by-step process to creating an un-beatable application format, because there is no such thing. Each application process is different. What this seminar is about is how you should handle different components the DM is asking for. Because of the varied nature of the application requirements each DM sets, this is about the most help I can give in the general sense.

There is, however, a place you can and should always start: reading.

Every DM has their favorite application format, and oftentimes DMs create unique formats for certain games. Where it's provided, you should absolutely read and faithfully follow the application format requested by the DM, right down to the BBCode tags used.

While most DMs will be forgiving if you don't quite match their format as long as all the parts they want are there, just make everyone's life easier. Obey the format provided. No, you won't stand out with your stellar and novel formatting choices, but in this case standing out is absolutely what you don't want to do. You want to prove that you can follow instructions when it comes to application format.

Occasionally, you will see a game which lists no preferred application format. When that happens, my advice is that you first ask the DM if there's a preferred format. If not (or if the advertisement says that application format is up to you), don't go overboard - just include the common elements that most applications contain, and keep everything relevant.

Whether the format is prescribed or up to you, it will often contain many common elements that most DMs find valuable. Let's spend some time to go over the major types of things you'll need to put in applications (even if every application doesn't need all of these).

The first part of just about every application is the "stat block" section. This does not refer to mechanical statistics, for the most part, but simple character statistics such as name, gender, age, character class, party role, and so on. This is the easiest, fastest section to write, as there's almost nothing here besides one-word answers.

Generally, the "stat block" items are distinguished from others in that this is the only place you don't need to provide information in complete sentences, and where complete sentences are actually a hindrance to the DM's comprehension.

Generally, the easiest way of formatting a stat block is with bold category names followed by the information specific to the character. Consider the stat block:
Name: Reed Lestrade
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Character Class: Paladin
Age: 30
It's pretty self evident what that means, right? No explanation needed. It is however quite possible to go overboard with this section:
Name: Reed Lestrade
Race: Human
Gender: Male
Character Class: Paladin
Age: 30
Height: 6'1"
Hair: Brown, but usually bald.
Eyes: Brown
Skin: Fair, lightly tanned
Allegiance: Empire
Quest: Obtain a magical crown for the Emperor
Favorite Color: Goldenrod
This is an extreme and slightly tongue-in-cheek example, to prove a point, of a bloated stat block section. Data points that are probably better situated in other sections of the application have been shoehorned into the stat block format - physical descriptors, allegiance, and of course the obligatory "Quest" and "Favorite Color" options. Be careful, when you've got the freedom to define your own application format, that you don't fall into the trap of putting too much information in the stat block section.

"But Aeternis, but Aeternis, this is the most concise part of the application! Shouldn't I put as much in there as makes sense?" You might ask.

Nope! Absolutely not. While the stat block section is generally the most concise and easy to comprehend of the parts of any application, it is also the part that gives the DM the least information about your writing style and your investment in your character concept. It's a list of clear-cut, cold, dry facts. Some information is better presented in paragraph format, where your sentence structure can give it depth and nuance - information like identifying features, allegiance, and goals. Keep that stuff out of the stat block unless the DM specifically requests that it be there.

You can go overboard in the other direction, too, so exercise moderation. You don't need a paragraph describing most characters' name and gender.

Do you remember "short answer" questions on tests in middle school and high school? The ones where the test form left a wide blank space after the question and you were expected to write a paragraph as your answer? The short answer questions part of an application is a lot like that. Each piece is expected to be a well-formatted paragraph (or two small paragraphs if it makes more sense to break up your answer) rather than a bullet point sentence fragment.

One of the most common short answer categories I see is "Personality," so we'll use that as an example. Once again diving into my roster of old characters, we find:
Personality: Alexander is a man who takes pains to improve his appearance, but who is careful not to slip into vanity, a fault he’s fallen into in the past. He forces himself to laugh at his own failures, and though he may slip at times, he works hard to be approachable and easygoing. He won’t be the one cracking jokes often, but he has no trouble laughing at them.
This is one of the briefer examples I could find that was for one of my accepted characters (It is brief because it is supplemented by later sections, not because the application was itself brief). It contains the meat of what a DM wants out of a personality section, even if it is a little bit vaguer than I preferred it to be. It describes both flaws and positive traits of the persona of Alexander DeMarsien: He is often at risk of slipping into vanity and pride, but easygoing and good-natured. At the same time, this would be considered a weak answer to the personality category in absence of the supplementary information later in the advertisement, that describes that Alexander is a calm sort, not easily riled and slow to worry. That information should have been in this section as well, and I was wrong to omit it.

This is about the most brief a short answer section can be without being too brief, but it is possible to make them too long as well. Generally, if you are using more than about 10 average sentences, you're probably making your answers to these points too long. A better personality section for Alexander DeMarsien would be as follows:
Personality: Alexander is calm and slow to worry, easygoing and confident in himself. He struggles with vanity and pride at times, but recognizes that they are failings and consciously avoids them where possible. He's perfectly at ease being the center of attention, but doesn't seek attention out for its own sake, and is more likely to be laughing at the jokes and humor of others than initiating the humor himself. Alexander tries to be approachable and easy to talk to, and can often be found attempting to soothe what he sees as unreasonable worry and concern in others, even when the situation is desperate. After all, he's gotten through plenty of desperate situations in the past, and worry didn't help anyone during any of those.
Note the addition of details (they were squirreled away in other parts of the application) and the reorganization of the existing ones, placing the more relevant ones at the forefront (calm, slow to worry, easygoing) over the less important ones I'd originally put first (appearance-focused, bordering on vanity, self-awareness that vanity is a failing). While the original did get accepted, it was on the back of the later parts of the application, given my weak responses to the short-answer questions. If I'd skimped on all the categories like I skimped on this one, I'd have never made it into that game.

There's another potentially problematic bit of trouble with certain applications that can manifest at the personality level, which I should mention here. A character who is a prickly, quiet, independent loner may sound like a dynamic and interesting character at the concept stage, but you'll find unexpected trouble actually writing out their role-play content day to day interestingly unless someone else, playing exactly the opposite sort of character, takes pity on your poor foresight in character design and spends their own RP time helping you out of the inevitable stagnation. Consider this character personality, provided helpfully by one of your friendly moderators, which exemplifies this problem:
Personality: Lyss is shy, almost to the point of fear, with regards to strangers and large crowds. She is strong-willed and tenacious in defense of herself, however, and very capable of survival on her own. Quiet and reserved, she tends to stay at the edges, of both civilization and personal interactions. Mankind rarely trusts her, and she extends that lack of trust back to most of mankind. She has found freedom from the oppressive slave of the Fiends, and has no intention of falling prey to it again, and going back. Lyss prefers a life quietly in the shadows of both society and architecture, however, her calling to ensure freedom for others does not often allow her the luxury of peace. She does not trust easily, and mistrusts men almost as much as she mistrusts clergy of any type. Lyss has difficulty in being open with her emotions, and prefers to not have any deep friendships, or to own many possessions that can be taken from her.
An independent loner who doesn't trust and doesn't really even invest in material loot from adventures is a difficult character to motivate, from a DM perspective. Without some other player with a character who would naturally attempt to draw Lyss out of her solitude "in the shadows", this character, if accepted, would have gone on to be reasonably interesting in-game at first, before becoming slowly less and less relevant, because every attempt to make them relevant would have been responded to by a perfectly in-character chewing-out. I wouldn't accept this character without at least one irrepressibly type-A personality character (a cheerful and charismatic people person) who would be likely to interact positively with Lyss. And my first thought for the mechanical role that such a character would take - the healer/cleric - is precluded by Lyss's hatred of clergy!

"But Aeternis, but Aeternis, isn't that a concept failure?" The clever student in the front row taking the best notes is already asking. "Why did we not see this example in the last seminar?"

Nope. It's a failure of detail in the personality section! Being the prickly loner is absolutely 100% fine, but the DM needs to know what sorts of things can get the character interested and motivated as well. No, "defending oneself" does not count. If you're playing a character who's naturally introverted or not very talkative, discuss in the personality section what sorts of things would cause them to emerge from that shell a little bit. Give the DM hints as to how to make the character relevant to the role-play dynamic, and they will pick other characters likely to bail you out. If there are no such bail-out handles available, only then is it a concept-level failure, but that's rare. Generally, one designs this sort of character with the aim of evolving them out of their trust issues and insecurities, rather than expecting to preserve these quirks for all eternity.

When writing short answer portions of an application, don't skip over the grammar and spelling. The DM will be less likely to accept applications which are careless with the English language. Go the extra mile - proofread, spellcheck, and compose multiple drafts. I'll go over some common fallacies of grammar and sentence structure in applications in a later seminar, but be aware that for this and all other parts of an application where you're expected to answer with complete sentences, proofreading and spellchecking is a must.

Generally, each application format will have one long-answer question, a question where multiple well-formatted paragraphs are expected. The most common example of a long-answer question, indeed, the example that covers the vast majority of long-answer questions, is the background category, where you describe the history of your character up to the advertised start of the game.

In interests of not making this seminar unreadably long, I'm not going to copy an example long answer question into this post. Instead, I will say this - as long as you keep the answer interesting and relevant to the game you're applying to, there is no maximum length to a long answer question.

Note how I said that. As long as you keep the answer interesting is the key phrase there, and the consideration which can easily become the bulk of the work on such a section. A long answer response becomes "too long" the moment it ceases to be interesting to the reader. It also becomes too long the moment you ramble and cease to refer to relevant material, but more on the sin of excessive, irrelevant length will appear in a later seminar.

For a category like "background", I would also suggest breaking up your answer into several sections if it grows in length. This will keep your text focused and chronological, in addition to reducing how imposing it appears to a reader (psychologically, several smaller blocks look shorter to a reading eye than one monstrous wall of text). It's the same logic behind breaking text up into paragraphs - it gives the eye milestones on which to judge reading progress. Breaking the text up into sections like this is not an excuse for forgetting proper paragraph breaks, of course.

For other long-answer categories, which you'll run into from time to time, find other ways to break up the text if you think it's growing imposingly long.

A semi-common, but not ubiquitous, part that appears in some application processes is the addition of example in-character content. That's just what it sounds like - you are writing text formatted as if it were to appear in an in-game post, and placing it in your application. These sections, when they appear, should be completed with extreme care and detail, because DMs that request these will look at them in great detail.

You can also use in-character blocks to supplement or even, in some cases, completely replace, long answer sections. If you do this well, your application becomes stellar, but if you do it poorly, you lose more points in the DM's book than you gain.

Going back to the Alexander DeMarsien application, I pulled an in-character block as an example. That application's merits were in the in-character blocks, of which there were two, used to supplement the "background" long-answer block.

Note in this example the use of the common convention of bolded speech and italicized thoughts - that's practically a requirement of every in-character block in an application, just as it's a common requirement of in-game posts.


Generally, it's okay when composing these sections to highlight your character's competencies, and barely touch on or avoid their failings. But be careful not to make them out to be more powerful than their expected capabilities - don't create a section like this where your first level wizard destroys a dracolich single-handedly, for example. Err on the side of reasonableness.

When you're writing these sections, you need to pick scenes to describe. Generally, combat scenes are not good ones for this purpose - scenes that let the character's personality traits shine while touching on their probable capabilities as a mechanical entity are where you want to focus your attention. Alexander was concepted as calm and confident, so I put him (and his guide Vance) in a dangerous situation encountered while exploring ruins. If your character is brash and short-tempered, describing them starting a brawl might be a good way to go. The ideal situation to use for an in-character block varies from character to character, and you should use your judgement, informed by your concept, to pick a valuable one. Sometimes, if a DM explicitly asks for a section like this, they will suggest a situation.

Still stumped on what you should do with an in-character block? Here's an idea: tell the story of the aftermath of a failed adventure. Telling the story of the heist gone bad is more interesting than the story of the heist that went perfectly. Mix and match if you please - a good "the heist went pear-shaped but the character managed to just barely escape with his life and a small part of the loot" is still more interesting than "the heist went perfectly." You'll note that in my Alexander DeMarsien in-character block, his overconfidence causes both his own life and that of his guide to become imperiled. I would perhaps have been better served creating another block describing Alexander standing over Vance's dead body after the fight, overconfidence shaken - after all, the guide Vance only exists for the purpose of this story segment, so I could have killed him off at my leisure.

Some applications will request an image, or allow one as a substitute for or supplement to a text block. While you'd think it's hard to do an image wrong, there are some things you should be careful of.

Not all DMs put much stock in an image. As a general rule, if one is not requested explicitly, you should not use an image as a replacement for any amount of text. It's still often okay to have one in most cases where it's not explicitly requested, but DM opinions of image use in applications do vary widely. The following are general rules of thumb that apply no matter what the DM thinks about images in applications.

Keep your images tasteful. Given the site rules, that should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway. Most characters will wear shirts, for example. As a DM, I generally shy away from stereotype images, whichever gender they represent. Don't use a full-length pin-up in a chainmail bikini for your female character portrait, or a he-man muscle mountain in a loincloth for your male portrait. If the character can only be described like that, it's my opinion that your concept is weak, but there are occasions where such characters can work. Crop images tastefully if you can (bust size is not an important thing for your character image to communicate), and at the very least, spoilerbutton anything you think might be problematic if viewed from a work computer.

Try to get an image that shows a recognizable face. You should, where possible, avoid images of characters wearing face-concealing helmets or whose face is otherwise mostly concealed. Showing a picture of a suit of spiky armor with glowing eyes behind the helmet visor is generally considered worthless, except to show the character's battle-gear (which is better described in a sentence later in the application if you think it's that critical). The character's face and demeanor are generally the important aspects to a character image, so you should try to make sure the image you pick communicates these things.

Don't use images of popular characters in widely distributed media. A character whose provided image is a screenshot of Johnny Depp from "Pirates of the Caribbean" will almost never get accepted. Find something that's not likely to have a pre-existing association in the DM's mind.

When it comes to large images, you should usually try to scale them down. The ideal image size is 125 pixels wide and 193 pixels tall. This is oddly specific for a reason - that's the size of the image space allotted on character sheets in the profiler, and that's a good width for left- and right-aligned images.

Obviously, you can't always shrink an image to that size without losing important detail. If you don't like how your image of choice scales and crops to that size, it's okay to use a larger one, but again, try to keep your images relatively limited. 400 pixels by 400 pixels is about the largest an image can be before you should embed it in a spoilerbutton, and generally you should never use an image larger than 750 pixels, as the forum's various skins (especially Parchment) can misbehave trying to format around anything bigger. Under no circumstances should you use a left or right aligned image bigger than 250-300 pixels wide - no-one likes reading the few words squeezed off to the left of the post by a monstrous right-aligned portrait.

Additionally, I advise that you avoid adding more images to a character application than you need to. It's okay to have two or three images for some applications - to describe an animal companion, alternate form, or common guise perhaps - but try to keep these images as relevant and on-topic as possible. Don't bother creating header, footer, or margin images for your application - I don't know a single serious GM who wants to see that sort of formatting bloat. For a similar reason, I don't advise using images to allow you to format application text more deeply - the GM might want to copy that text, and an image prevents that. The cool font you can use in Word and screenshot isn't worth the DM's annoyance at not being able to copy and paste sections.

There, we've covered the major types of section an application tends to have.
  1. Before writing anything, read the DM's listed application requirements.
  2. The stat block part is easy, but don't overdo it.
  3. Short answer questions ("Personality", "Description") should be no more than about 10 sentences.
    • Be mindful about giving the DM the hints they need to keep difficult characters involved.
  4. Long answer sections ("Background") can be as long as you like, as long as you keep them relevant and interesting, and assuming you spend the time to break them up into logical sections.
  5. In-character blocks are heavily scrutinized by most DMs - do them carefully. They can supplement or replace most long answer sections even when not explicitly asked for.
    • Use bold for text, and italicize thoughts, just like in a real game post.
    • Pick a situation that highlights some trait or traits of the character.
  6. Keep your images tasteful, and avoid putting gigantic ones in your post without resizing them first.
    • Don't use more images than you have to.

Now that we've gone over the basics of what parts of an application you'll be seeing often, let's get into discussing the easiest ways to deep-six your application!

Adjusting to relocation and new job. I appreciate your patience.
--[ A Guide to Applications ]--

Last edited by Aeternis; Mar 13th, 2016 at 05:17 PM.
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Old Jun 5th, 2015, 06:23 PM
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Aeternis Aeternis is offline
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Addendum: Character Interactions and Links

With the increasing popularity of games that encourage more interweaving of character back-stories - games like Monte Cook's Numenera - it's quite possible that your app will not be quite finished without spending some words discussing how your character has or will interact with the other possible characters, should they be accepted.

Even in a game which doesn't encourage such links directly in the sourcebook, you can't always expect your character development to proceed in a creative vacuum. While the "five strangers meet in a tavern" trope is very common, many play-by-post DMs have, in recent years, come to dislike it - there is a perception (which may or may not be accurate; this is a discussion for another forum) that "greeting scenes" can bog down play-by-post games. Thus, even in a standard Pathfinder of 4th Edition game, you may find the DM or system guiding you towards determining possible links and interactions between the other applicants' characters and your own.

Generally speaking, Links are things that tie characters together either on a lore or mechanical level immediately at the beginning of a game, and Interactions are your expectations for how the characters' personalities will interact going forward. For instance, "Reed will feel betrayed when he learns one of his companions is not who he seems to be" is an interaction. "Reed and Garble met once before the adventure, in the court of the Emperor" is a link.

Firstly, and most obviously, I recommend doing so. Whether the DM requested it initially, or someone else started the ball rolling and the DM let it keep rolling by expressing interest in that sort of content, you should generally follow suit. Sometimes, you can just rattle these off without having to puzzle over it too hard, but there will certainly be some for whom the process is a little harder. When in doubt, just ask those participants what they think, or throw out some ideas and go from there. The key here is that you are discussing a detail which will apply to both characters, so both players should be aware of it, and should approve it. If another player tells you they don't think that interaction or link you made with their character is valid, you should remove it or work on it.

Though in a previous seminar I recommended not posting too much in the application thread, I absolve you of any concerns on the matter if you are discussing character interactions and links with other applicants. Sometimes a second thread for this will be provided, but if not, don't worry about talking about it in the application thread. You can take those discussions offline if you like (to a chatroom, PM conversation, etc), but it's usually a good idea to do it where the DM can see.

Your links cannot, unless you have cleared it with the character in question, dictate the opinions or beliefs of another character. Your links are supposed to represent your side of the interaction - if there is back and forth in your intended interaction, you should clear it with the other applicant, or list it as pending the other player's approval. Don't get yourself into a state where you are trying to dictate the actions, thoughts, belief, or history of another player's character without their permission.

As for formatting these sections, you shouldn't devote more than a couple of sentences (or a paragraph if you must) to each interaction or link. A bulletted list or a table is a good bbCode structure to encapsulate character links, but other methods also work if you take the time to make them readable and easy on the eyes.

Don't ignore characters when building links, unless you believe them to be incomplete apps. You're not making the decision as to who gets in, after all - even if you think an app is incompatible with yours or if you think it has no chance, do a brief link or interaction with it if you did one for the others.

Finally, at risk of stating the obvious, hold yourself to those links and interactions if you get accepted, unless you have compelling reasons to do otherwise. Changing that when you get accepted is no less heinous than changing core character details when you get accepted, and will probably annoy the DM.
Adjusting to relocation and new job. I appreciate your patience.
--[ A Guide to Applications ]--

Last edited by Aeternis; Mar 9th, 2016 at 08:40 PM.
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