Tell Me A Story: Character Creation Phases in DFRPG

Last time, I talked about the three initial decisions that you need to make for creating a DFRPG character. This time, I’m going to walk through the five phases of character, talking about how to use these to really bring your character to life.

First thing we need to do is talk about the phased approach and collaborative character building. I’ve come out before in favour of collaborative character building, and I think it’s pretty much vital in this game. It ties in strongly to the phased approach, and really helps you come up with a group of characters that work together to make great games.

By moving through the process in a phased approach, you get the chance to build on what you’ve done before with the character in a reasonable, natural way. It lets you grow your character, rather than assembling it out of the stats you come up with. It also keeps everyone on the same track for the collaborative process, so that you’re all working on the same part of the character at the same time. This is vitally important for the collaborative aspect. At least, it is if you want to get the benefit out of it.

For the collaborative approach to work well, you need to do a few things:

  1. Be enthusiastic. Get excited about your character, and about everyone else’s character. Get pumped about the group.
  2. Talk about your character. Don’t keep your ideas to yourself. Make sure you share your thoughts with each other, so that you can get excited about all the characters.
  3. Talk about the other characters. If someone is stuck, brainstorm. Pitch ideas for Aspects or events or connections. Talk to each other about how your characters would get along, or how they would fit together.
  4. Listen to each other. If someone is asking for help, listen to them. If someone makes a suggestion, listen to it. If someone voices a concern, listen to it.
  5. Be respectful. This is the big one. Don’t shoot down ideas you don’t like. Don’t try and pressure someone into changing their character to be something they don’t want. Do offer constructive advice, or elaborations, or concerns, but remember that, in the end, only you get to decide about your character, and you only get to decide about your character.

By following the phased approach, as I mentioned above, the discussions you have as a group during character creation will be focused on the current phase, and will tend to be more productive. To help keep the conversations going and keep everyone on the same phase, when I run character creation sessions, when everyone has completed a phase, we go around in a circle and read what we’ve come up with. That lets everyone know what the other characters are, and gives people another chance to ask for help or offer suggestions.

So, let’s get moving on the phases.

1. Where did you come from?

This phase and the next one tend to kind of blend into each other in a lot of ways. This one deals with your “early history,” whatever that means to your character, and the next deals with your “middle history.” Where one stops and the other starts is open to interpretation, and will change from character to character. For example, if you’re playing a fifteen-year-old changeling, this first phase might last from birth until the month before play starts, while if you’re playing a two-hundred-year-old wizard, this phase might last until your mid-seventies.

What it depends on is having a defining moment transform you from what your were all your life to what you are now. That defining moment is the next phase. This phase is your life up until that moment.

Now, if you’ve started with a solid character concept, you probably have some strong ideas about this part of your character’s life already. Here’s where you get it down on paper, and choose an Aspect. Aspects are a big enough deal that I’m going to talk about them in detail in their own post, so let’s focus on just getting the story straight for now.

And that’s what you want here: the first bit of a story about your character. The rulebook suggests looking at things like nationality, ethnicity, family life, schooling, friends, and an explanation of your supernatural origin, if you have one starting out. What I like to do with my characters is look at the High Concept, Template, and Trouble, and think, “Where should I have started from so that these things make sense, and so that the journey is an interesting story?” And then I start from there.

I’m going to use the running example of the NPC I created during the Fearful Symmetries character creation session. Now, he’s not a PC, so I made some choices that are somewhat less playable along the way, but it still illustrates the process fairly well.

The character is a 17th-century version of Amadan, but he doesn’t match the modern version very much, except in basic character. I decided to make him full-fey rather than a changeling, for one thing. For another, I tied him into the whole story of the Faerie Courts closing their gates on the mortal world. So, here’s where we started:

High Concept: Dissolute Faerie Trickster

Trouble: Too Clever By Half

Template: Fey

Now, the idea I had is that he’s too close to the mortals, and so gets left behind by the Faerie Courts. We already have his “nationality,” in that he’s a faerie, so we just need to flesh out the idea and lay the groundwork for the nest stages. I like to keep the stuff I write at this stage fairly short, giving me room to elaborate and expand later, filling in details during play or whenever appropriate. So, I came up with the following bit of story for this section:

Fox-like faerie trickster of the Summer Court who prefers to spend his time among mortals, enjoying their passionate nature and gullibility.

There, I’ve got the foundation for the rest of the story, which hints at a lot of interesting things about the character, but still leaves room for growth and change and revelation. It’s got a couple of good questions hanging from it, as well, like why Amadan chooses to spend time with the mortals, and what the reaction of the rest of the court is to that.

This is the sort of idea you want. A story that tells you something interesting about where your character started from, with good fodder for further character development. Leave yourself room for growth, and a couple of good questions to explore during play.

2. What shaped you?

This section builds the bridge between the previous phase and your High Concept. It is a pivotal change in your character, either a single event or a slow, gradual change, that sets him or her on the path that you will walk during play. It should tie solidly into your Trouble, too; either produced by, or producing, that Trouble.

If we’re talking in terms of the Hero’s Journey, this is when the Hero leaves the village.

This change can be internal or external. For example, it may not be dramatic, but the decision to go out into the world and seek one’s fortune because of boredom is a solid internal change. It could be more profound, like the realization that you’re walking an evil path, and you need to make restitution for what you’ve done – still internal change, but more dramatic. On the external side of things, maybe having your home destroyed to put you on your way, or being given a quest and sent off to accomplish it.

The important thing to look at with this stage is that it should make sense to you that change would come. It can’t be forced, and there must be change, otherwise you’re short-changing the character. The change should grow out of the previous stage, incorporate your Trouble, and lead naturally to the High Concept.

This isn’t as tough as it sounds. We all know stories. We know how stories work, and what this sort of change is like. We know when something rings true, and when it doesn’t.

So, for Amadan, I want something that leads from the basic idea of the first phase to the Dissolute Faerie Trickster High Concept. Particularly, I want a reason for him to be dissolute. I’ve already determined that he’s been left behind when the Courts withdrew (otherwise he wouldn’t be here to be an NPC, right?), so it’s easy to see that the dissolute quality comes about because of being kicked out of his Court. Why did that happen? Well, his Trouble is Too Clever By Half, so it makes sense that he caused his own problem. Here’s what I came up with:

After an elaborate prank embarrasses the Summer Knight and, by extension, the Summer Lady and the whole Summer Court, Amadan is shunned by his fellows, and not informed of the decision of the Courts to withdraw from the mortal world. His first inkling is when he tries to return to Court and finds all the Ways barred, and he is trapped in the mortal world.

I thought of having him formally cast out of the Summer Court, but decided that I wanted the feel to be less formal, more junior high school. So, the cool kids stop talking to him, and don’t let him know when they change the address of the big party. That leaves him alone, bereft, and probably steeped in both spite and self-pity.

If this were a PC rather than an NPC, I might go a different way with this, making it more of an official exile, so that the result is more of an active character, seeking to redeem himself (or avenge himself), rather than just wallowing as a 17th-century emo kid. But as an NPC, having a more passive character is not always a bad thing.

The point is, I looked at where I was starting from, where I wanted to get, and incorporated the Trouble to make a solid progression in the story from first phase to High Concept.

In many ways, this ends the definition of the character – the next three phases are elaborations of the character. You have formed the core and shaping influences for the character; next, you show how those element interact.

3. What was your first adventure?

The next three stages are one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve come across in gaming. Like all the best ideas, when you look at it, you smack yourself in the head and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It not only develops the character, but it develops the relationships between the characters, allowing you to avoid the standard you-all-meet-in-a-tavern-and-decide-to-go-adventuring start to a campaign. With these three phases, the group has a history, and the characters have relationships with each other, and attitudes about each other.

The first two phases deal with what made your character the way he or she is; these next three deal with what your character does.

The conceit is simple: you write a short blurb describing a story about your character, and what your character does in that story. Then, you pass the story to one of the other players so that they can add their character to it, and then it goes on to a third character, building a shared story with three characters involved. There’s the history and relationships built right in.

Now, in my group, we’re pretty much all word-whores. It’s easy for us to fill up a page with a brief (for us) story about the character. The problem with that is that it usually doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for other characters to fit in, or at least it limits what they can do, which restricts their character development. The solution that I came up with is limiting the story you write in this phase to two sentences: one to set up the situation, the other to say what your character does. It’s not a hard and fast rule, of course; sometimes we go over, and we always seem to come up with lengthy complex sentences. But it’s a good guideline to make sure that there’s enough room in the story for future elaboration, either by other characters adding in their bits or later during play.

When you write your story, you want to look for ways to illuminate facets of your character that have not been covered by the previous phases – things that are important to your concept, but not necessarily as central as the first four Aspects and the Template you’ve picked for your character. Maybe you need one more step to get you past the formative story you completed in the first two phases, or maybe you want to show another opportunity for change and what impact it has on your character. Or maybe you just really want to make sure you cover a certain relationship or character trait you have in mind.

The important thing is that it should grow out of the character you’ve already defined, and toward the character that you want to play. It should fill in some blanks, move the character closer to the ideal, and generally just make him or her more cool.

So, for Amadan, I wanted to put a little bit of resolution to the story about him being left behind when the Faerie Courts left. I decided that the logical thing for him to have done is to have gone looking for a way back to the Courts – and to fail, so that he’s still here. But I also wanted to make him a little more content with the way things are right now, so that he sticks around and I can use him as a recurring NPC. This is what I came up with:

The Long Journey Home

Left behind when the fey retreat, Amadan finds all the Ways back to the Faerie Courts closed to him. He travels the world, seeking desperately to find a way back, but eventually comes to realize that he prefers life among the mortals.

With this story, I bring his quest for a way home to a close off-screen, satisfying the dramatic imperative of the character to try and find a way back, while still keeping him active for play. And I’ve left plenty of room for other characters to jump in and interact – indeed, with Amadan’s search, it makes perfect sense that he would run into the other characters in the course of his travels. I’ve made it easy for them to add their own touches, which is what happens in the next two phases.

4. Whose path have you crossed?

One of the nice bits about this phase is that you’ve got another player helping you think about your character in a different way. I try not to have any ideas for this phase before I get to it, so that I’m not trying to shoe-horn a preconception into the story I get handed. That way, I can read what the other player has written, think about how my character might contribute, and then come up with something cool.

But not too cool – this is the balancing act of the last two phases. You want to do something cool so that your character gets cooler, but you need to remember that this is not your story. Your character is not the main hero of the tale. He or she is a supporting character. So, you need to find a way to do something that, while it makes your character cool, helps make the main character of that story cooler. Don’t steal their limelight; help shine it on them.

What I like to look for at this phase is inspiration for my character to be a little bit different than I had originally envisioned – affected by the situation, or the other involved character(s), or just struck by a new idea. I like to see if there’s something that the new story suggests to me that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. At the same time, of course, it’s got to build on what I’ve already done with the character, staying true to the original concept.

Again, when I run the character creation sessions, I usually impose a one-sentence limit on this phase. Mostly, people wind up going to two or three sentences, but a limit of one sentence generally means they don’t write more than the original character.

So, here’s the story I got for this phase from Izabela’s character:

The Warlock of Vienna

Sent to infiltrate a suspected Huguenot movement in Vienna, Izabela falls in love with a young rebel and they end up working together to stop a powerful warlock from sacrificing a group of children that he has kidnapped.

Now, I want Amadan to be important to that story, but not central. He’s got to contribute in some definite way, but not steal the show. Here’s what I came up with:

Amadan trades favours with Izabela, using his knowledge of the Mittelmarch to spirit the children out of the city in return for a future favour.

With this addition, we find out how Izabela got the children to safety, but it’s still clear that she’s the one that saved the children. It also establishes a good, solid relationship between Amadan and Izabela, in that now she owes him a favour. And it sets him up as a crafty fellow, willing to barter favours, but never giving anything away for free, which is in keeping with the character up to this point, though not explicitly stated, nor anything I had thought of before.

5. Who else’s path have you crossed?

All of the above concerns pertain to this one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this whole process leaves you with is your character’s story, from origin to start of play, mapped out and linked together, with the Aspects you choose at each phase showing how history has shaped him or her. It gives you a solid background, and understanding of the forces driving the character, as well as some history with the other characters. It’s an incredibly rich way of putting together a character, especially if done as a collaborative exercise.

Give it a try.

Next time, I’m going to tackle the beating heart of the FATE system: Aspects.

Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Tell Me A Story: Character Creation Phases in DFRPG

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    The “guest star” thing is simply the best character creation idea ever. Nothing else so implicitly ties a random group of dudes together like taking a minor part in each others’ big adventures.

    One thing to look out for as with all character backgrounds, whatever game you are playing: never make your back story more interesting than the game you’ll be in. You should work up to your greatest achievements, not have them all be in your past.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Good call. This is a very important point that I missed. Thanks, Rel!

  3. Zooroos says:

    This is pure gold Rick, thanks for sharing! I’m in the process of creating City and characters for a Google wave playtest campaign, so I’m linking this page for all to read and learn.

    Keep up the great work!


  4. Pingback: DFRPG101: Aspects | milezerorpg

  5. R. Mike says:

    The best system I’ve ever seen for creating a party right off the bat that had a coherent history together was Everway.

    I think I’ll hybrdize that system with this one when I start up my campaign.

  6. A. Logan says:

    This is some good info. I’m just starting and this page is really helping me out with creating my character.

  7. Rick Neal says:

    I’m glad you’re finding it useful.

  8. Pingback: Dresden Files RPG Downloads

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *