It's All Fun and Games Until a Character Dies ... and Then It's More Fun
If you recall from a previous article, I wrote how board games gave me insights into life and screenwriting. Now it is time to shift the focus to Role Playing Games (RPGs) and character! Not the “content of your character,” which is more about moral background than … wait, no, that’s pretty much exactly what this will be about. Good characters have a distinct point of view (POV), which is pretty much the exact definition of content of character, right? RPGs and various systems of rules, character, and story.
For the uninitiated, RPGs are part acting, part improv, part communal storytelling, and part fantasy adventure. I’ve been playing RPGs in one form or another since high school. So, for a long time, since I’ve now graduated from multiple universities with way too many useless degrees. Along the way I’ve created dozens (hundreds even?) of characters, played in countless campaigns, used multiple systems, and employed several different styles of mechanics.
The specific systems and settings used in each game are different but share many similarities. There’s almost always a set of numbers representing certain characteristics such as intelligence, strength, wisdom, and charisma (though often by different names based on the system), as well as a basic structure of rules governing everything from in-world transportation to combat to magic. Obviously a fantasy system that has magic will be different from a science-fiction world with advanced technology or something set in modern day.
While the specifics of each system aren’t important here, what is important is to know that they set the rules for the world. Knowing the rules of your own world when writing anything—from a short story to a book to a screenplay—is essential. In terms of screenwriting, it’s important to have your own system, to know which rules of reality you can or can’t break. Can the police get warrants almost at will and move around town at amazing speeds like in every cop show? Can families in comedies somehow manage to have dinner together every night? Do people fly or have the ability to shoot fire from their hands? Is Faster Than Light (FTL) travel through space possible and, if so, who has the technology? These are all important questions to know the answers to—though they don’t all necessarily have to come out—when setting out to write your screenplay.
As best-selling author Brandon Sanderson has said, “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” Knowing the rules of the world, and the ability to explain those rules, are essential in creative storytelling.
Once you have rules in place, the real fun begins.
Something every good story has in common is character. What would the Iliad be without daring Achilles or cunning Odysseus? What would the tale of Gilgamesh be without, you know, Gilgamesh? Just a bunch of words thrown together in probably a not-so-interesting way.
One of the things I love about RPGs is the almost infinite possibilities for characters. Just within the framework of, say Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), there’s a ton of different ways to play an Elf character, or Human character. Not only could they be different classes, they could have different backgrounds, motivations, and even faiths.
Just as no two people in real life are the same, no two characters in your script should be the same.
Think about all the different cop portrayals that have aired throughout the history of media. Even though Dragnet and L.A. Confidential both focused on LAPD officers in the 1950s, Sgt. Joe Friday is a very, very different character than Officer Bud White.
For me, the most fun part of any RPG campaign is the character creation process. Rolling the initial stats, figuring out a background, determining motivations and goals, and choosing skills and (sometimes) spells. It’s almost like I’ve got a blank page on which to write this new entity from scratch. Similar to creating a character for a screenplay. Funny how that works out.
When I was a young, beginning player, I wanted every stat to be the highest it could possibly be, for my character to have no weakness. If my character couldn’t talk their way out of a situation with a high Charisma roll, I wanted to make damn well sure they could fight their way out if it with great Dexterity and Strength stats.
In short, each character was a tank that could do and be everything.
I soon realized this type of character was called a Marty or Mary Sue, or someone without weakness. This character wasn’t fun to play for very long. Because they were relatively powerful all around, there wasn’t a lot they couldn’t do. While that’s great for gathering treasure and defeating monsters, it wasn’t great for character growth and development.
Eventually I realized that giving my character a relatively low, even “below normal” stat somewhere added depth to their character.
Perhaps one of the most famous low-stat characters is Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series of books. He is known for needing special herbs to help contain a debilitating cough, meaning his Constitution is low. This perceived weakness becomes his driving force to become the most powerful wizard in the world.
While having such an extreme perceived weakness isn’t necessary for every character, imbuing them with some flaw does provide a great motivating characteristic as well as potential for development.
As many writing coaches and blogs advocate, good characters have Wants, Needs, Wounds, and Flaws. In short, what does a character desire, what do they actually require, what prevents them from achieving these things, and how is that manifested?
This is the real heart of a character.
It’s the opportunity to breathe life into a random set of stats. The 5th Edition of D&D understands this fundamental aspect of good characters, dedicating a whole chapter to Personality and Background. In this system, each character has a small Personality Trait, an Ideal that drives them, a Bond that connects them to other people or places, and a Flaw that someone might exploit.
Though the specific wording is different, the concept is the same—what drives a character, both in terms of good and ill.
Of course, having a system in place and a character to play is worthless without a story. Characters need to do something, and be challenged along the way. You could create the most complex, layered character in the history of RPGs (or screenwriting), but if all they do is sit around, watching TV or drinking beer, no one will be interested. If they’re unexpectedly thrust into the show they’re watching on TV and have to escape, or if the beer becomes acid, well, then all of a sudden there are problems and the nugget of a story. Not to mention an opportunity to put those lovely stats and character personality so carefully crafted to the test.
During all my years of gaming, I’ve encountered—and sometimes even played—well-rounded, complex characters. People who challenge themselves to do more, be more, try new things, or grow beyond what they thought they were capable of. I’ve also encountered—and, yes, sometimes even played—boring, simple characters whose only impact on the world around them was killing a bunch of “monsters” and acquiring loot. As one friend described such a character, a Murder Hobo—someone with no permanent tie to anything or anyone who goes around killing things. While of course that can be fun to play for a short time, in the long run, it gets boring quickly.
I’ve also encountered and played amazingly well thought out, interesting campaigns that were so complex and fun everyone wanted more all the time. Think of it like your favorite show or movie that constantly has you on the edge of your seat, or that reveals unexpected twists and turns (like, say, the "Red Wedding" in "Game of Thrones." Go watch a Red Wedding Reaction video on YouTube to see what I mean.) On the flip-side, it’s a slog to play through an adventure that isn’t fun because the story is bad.
Pairing everything together, good characters can elevate a bad story. A good story can turn bad characters into decent adventurers. Bad characters and a bad story? Time to reassess the whole thing. But playing a great character in a well-told story as part of a fun RPG system is an amazingly fun way to spend a day—or, if you’re lucky, a few months in an awesome campaign.
Imagine the possibilities if that was a show or movie.
*Feature photo by MART PRODUCTION (Pexels)