Birthing Pains: High Concepts, Templates, and Troubles

So, I’ve talked about picking the power level for a DFRPG campaign, about choosing the setting, and starting to flesh it out. At this point, if you’re following the recommended sequence in the book, it’s time to start creating characters.

Now, in the previous step, I mentioned that you create faces for the various locations and themes you’ve built for your city, but I sort of glossed over that step, saying I’d deal with it in detail when we got to creating characters. The reason I did it that way is that there’s a fundamental idea that you need to understand to make good characters using this system, whether you’re building PCs or NPCs: the High Concept.

Most RPGs have something analagous to the High Concept, whether its the Race/Class combination, or the Profession, or the Archetype, or Template, or whatever they call it. DFRPG lets you make up your own, but that is, in some ways, tougher than choosing off a list. And the fact that it becomes the first and most central Aspect of your character means that it’s an important choice that you need to think about.

The system also uses templates to define characters, showing what powers you need to buy to play a Changeling or Wizard, for example, and picking one is usually the first step in building a PC. I personally have found that it’s most helpful to think about the two things at the same time: while you’re picking through the templates, think about what the High Concept for your character will be, and let the cool ideas you come up with for your High Concept influence the choice of template.

That bit of preamble is mainly to explain why I’m breaking this post up into the categories I am. I’m going to deal with High Concepts first, mainly because they are important both for PC and NPC creation, then I’m going to move on to Templates, and close with a discussion about Troubles. I’ll follow this up with a post on the rest of the character creation process.

Sound good? Good. Here we go.

High Concept

There’s a nice discussion in Your Story about picking a High Concept, with lots of examples to illustrate the ideas. The important points to make sure you hit are that the High Concept should distil the basics of your character into a short phrase, and that it should describe what you want your character’s role and flavour to be in the game. The first part can be simple; the second tends to be somewhat more difficult.

Let’s look at some examples. Harry’s High Concept is Wizard Private Eye. Now, that three-word phrase is loaded with information about who Harry is, what he’s like, and what he’s good at. See, he’s not a Private Eye Wizard, for one thing. Wizard comes first for Harry – that’s how he defines himself. It’s the most important thing for him. But the Private Eye bit is also important: it tells us that Harry pokes into things, that he has investigative skills, and that he helps people. If you want to stretch things a little farther, based on what you know about the White Council, it also implies that he’s not fully on board with their secrecy and their non-involvement, that he’s something of an outsider among them, associating more with the mundane world than many of them.

Now, I’m going to use an example from Fearful Symmetries. Emric Sordason has the High Concept of Rebellious Son of Surtr. From that we have the information that he is half-fire giant and that he and his dad don’t get along. If we extrapolate a little, based on how the fire giants appear in Norse legend, we see that he is probably much more pro-mortal than Surtr is, and not all that keen on Ragnarok.

What you want, in short, is something that’s both definitive and evocative.

Definitive is easy. Simple High Concepts like Cop, Wizard, Changeling, Hit Man, whatever. They give you the information that you want, but they don’t give you any of the feeling. That’s where evocative comes in. When I create characters in this system, I use a simple test to see if my High Concept is both evocative and definitive. I imagine one character in the setting telling another character about my character: “Him? Yeah, he’s…” and I insert my High Concept in to finish the sentence.

“Him? Yeah, he’s the rebellious son of Surtr.”

“Him? Yeah, he’s an outcast trickster spirit.”

“Him? Yeah, he’s a Wizard private eye.”

If I can imagine the other character reacting the right way, then the High Concept works. If I can’t (“He’s a cop? So what?”), then I need to rethink it. the reaction I’m looking for will vary from character to character, but we all have an idea of how we want our characters to be seen by the others in the setting. That’s the reaction that should be inherent in your High Concept.

It’s important that you get the High Concept right, both for aesthetic and mechanical reasons. Aesthetically, you want the High Concept to capture the cool of your character – when you trot it out in play, you want to feel proud of it, not apologetic. It should make you glad to be playing this character, not just sit there as a compromise that you use as a tool.

Mechanically, this is your primary go-to Aspect. This is the one that guarantees you have an Aspect to call on when you’re doing the things you most want your character to do, and the one that guarantees you’re getting the compels for the behaviours you want to be central to your character. For example, the Rebellious Son of Surtr has all the half-giant, mighty magical warrior stuff inherent in the Norse fire-giant mythology to draw on, and also a nice source of Fate points whenever he defies his role as  the mortal-hating, Ragnarok-bringing monster his father wants him to be.

In short, I recommend you spend a little time working the High Concept to get it just right. To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, the difference between the right High Concept and the almost right High Concept is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

High Concepts for NPCs

The above is mainly aimed at creating PCs, but a lot of it is relevant to creating the NPCs – the faces in your game – as well. You need High Concepts that are both definitive and evocative. Instead of White Court Aristocrat, you want something like White Court Eminence Gris. Instead of Jewish Kabbalist, you want Heir to the Wisdom of Rabbi Loew. Instead of Pious Man of God, you want Saint Hiding in Plain Sight.

Because you’re probably not going to flesh all of your NPCs out in detail, it becomes even more vital that they have a solid, interesting High Concept. Charity Carpenter, for example, is not just Michael’s Wife. Her High Concept is Tower of Faith. Corpsetaker isn’t just a Necromancer, she’s a Body-Jumping Necromancer. With these High Concepts, you don’t need to put a whole lot of extra work into making the character unique and special – you can, but you don’t need to. You can focus on filling out the ones that get the most use in your setting.

So don’t stint on the High Concepts for NPCs, either.

Templates

This is the other big choice at the start of character creation – while the High Concept tells you who your character is, the Template outlines what your character can do. One important thing to keep in mind as you look at the Templates is that they are not exhaustive; they’re mainly a starting point, helping you to flesh out some of the character types we see in the novels.

You don’t need to use a Template to create your character, but the game does a lot of the up-front work for you if you want to play something like a Wizard, Werewolf, or Changeling. It shows you the mix of powers that will make a character feel like the character type in the books. That said, it’s easy enough to mix and match your own version of the various character types.

It’s also easy to tweak the Templates to fit what you imagine your character should be, and the book encourages this. There’s a nice little section on how to build new Templates, as well as a specific discussion on how to use the Changeling Template to reflect other half-human, half-supernatural creatures.

Whether you’re using a Template, tweaking a Template, or building your own character concept, this is a good time to start looking at the Supernatural Powers you want to buy. You’ve got your Starting Refresh set by the Power Level, so you know your budget. Start looking through the Supernatural Powers chapter, either looking at what your Template recomends for you or making a shopping list.

I pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to afford everything you want, but the picking and choosing is part of the fun of creating a character. And if you got everything you wanted up front, character advancement wouldn’t mean all that much, would it?

In my experience, there are two main approaches to this part of character creation. If you have a good, solid character concept, you look for the Template or powers that will most reflect the concept. If you don’t have that solid a concept, you look for stuff you like, and then ask yourself what kind of person would have these abilities. Either way works fine – two different roads to the same destination, where you character has powers that reinforce and are supported by the concept and behaviour.

You may find yourself wanting to do some fine-tuning of your High Concept at this stage, as well, as different powers and abilities may suggest different things for your character. Go with it, is my advice; just remember to keep it both descriptive and evocative.

Troubles

Troubles are the third of the three main pillars of your character. In some ways, it can seem like the second-string Aspect compared to your High Concept, but really it’s the engine that powers your character, both mechanically and dramatically.

See, all good characters, whether in games or in fiction, have some sort of problem that they have to deal with. It helps to lend depth to the character, to show that they aren’t one-dimensional cut-outs. Hercules has a terrible temper. King Arthur has that whole love-triangle thing going on. Sherlock Holmes has problems with both boredom and addiction. Spenser has a code of conduct that makes his life difficult. Harry’s got the dark past that keeps calling to him.

Picking a Trouble for your character is a big decision, because you’re telling the GM, “This is how I want you to mess with my character.” It’s got to be something that is going to complicate your character’s life, but it also has to be something that you, as a player, find fun to explore. If it doesn’t do both things, you’ve got the wrong Trouble.

So, what makes a good trouble? Well, like the High Concept, it’s got to be both descriptive and evocative. The GM has to be able to see how it fits into the world and how to use it (that’s the descriptive part), and it has to illuminate aspects of your character and his/her story that you want to come across (the evocative part). It’s got to be something that will persist in the game world, as well – this is an issue that’s central to the character. If it can be easily resolved, then it’s no good beyond that time. If your Trouble is something simple like I Hate My Roommate, and the first thing you do in the game is move out (or kick your roommate out), then you’ve missed the point.

You want the Trouble to stick around and mess with you all through play, because every time it does, you get a Fate Point. Whenever your Nemesis shows up to make your life difficult, you get a Fate Point. Whenever you lose your Hair-Trigger Temper and scare off a contact, you get a Fate Point. Whenever you decide to do a job the hard way so as not to violate your Code Against Killing, you get a Fate Point. Yeah, it’s going to cause you problems, but you get a reward. And you decided what sort of problems you wanted when you took the Trouble, right?

Of course, as with all Aspects, you want to be able to do more than just get compelled by your Trouble, so you’ve got to pay attention to the wording at least as carefully as you did with the High Concept. Invoke your Code Against Killing to gain the trust of the cops, or your Hair-Trigger Temper to go berserk in combat.

It’s easy to think of the Trouble as a disadvantage, but it’s really not – no Aspects are, even ones that sound negative. All Aspects are tools for you to use to bring your character to life, and to make the stories you’re playing be the ones you want to tell. The way you reveal character is through choices made under pressure, right? Your Trouble is one of the main sources of pressure for your character. How he/she deals with it will go a long way to defining who he/she is.

As with the High Concept, take the time to make your Trouble right. Make sure the wording works for you, and strengthens your concept.

These three pieces give you the skeleton of your character. By this time, the concept should be pretty clear in your mind. Next time, I’m going to talk about the rest of the character creation process, and how it helps fill out the structure you’ve built with these three decisions.

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10 Responses to Birthing Pains: High Concepts, Templates, and Troubles

  1. Zooroos says:

    Great advice Neal! I’m about to run a DFRPG game myself and I’m finding this post really useful.

    Keep your great work!

    Regards,

    ZOOROOS

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  7. Groggarioth says:

    So my idea for a character was an Emissary of power (Tied to a fairly powerful wind spirit/messenger spirit) and his high concept was “Messenger of the Wind”, with his trouble being “can’t stay still” but I don’t have too many ideas for how to compel it beyond certain stealth sections or just ignoring plans,it would tie in with phase aspects like, “Won’t Join, Hide or Die”, “Music doesn’t sooth” “Nerves of Steel” but I’m having trouble coming up with compels for those.

  8. Rick Neal says:

    @Groggarioth:
    I’d take a look at the Fate Core section for ideas about compels. Basically, they advise using the following structures to work out compels:

    You have _____ aspect and are in _____ situation, so it makes sense that, unfortunately, _____ would happen to you. Damn your luck.

    You have _____ aspect in _____ situation, so it makes sense that you’d decide to _____. This goes wrong when _____ happens.

    These two structures should give you lots of ideas. The important thing to remember is that compels happen when an aspect interacts with a situation, so look for situations that let the aspect become a problem for you. Delicate negotiations with a crime boss? Your trouble knocks over a priceless vase, angering your host. Everyone meeting at a certain time to launch an attack? You got there early, got tired of waiting, and went for a walk. “On three, everyone. One -” ZOOOOOOM! Stuff like that.

    On the other hand, you may find that you still can’t come up with good compels. That’s cool. It just means that your trouble aspect isn’t enough of a trouble. Talk to your GM about changing it to something that works better in your head.

    Hope that helps.

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