Flourishing in a Cage

Boundaries make better characters.

I figured I should start with the premise right up front after a somewhat poetic title. But it’s true. In my experience, setting limits makes for richer explorations of a setting’s themes or a campaign’s promise. If you’re someone who suffers from fear of the blank page but pours out a thousand words off a specific writing prompt, you’ve already experienced this phenomenon, but everyone else can buckle in as we explore how limits lead to better-developed characters in games.

Diversity In Conformity

When you imagine a character described as a “knight” or a “detective” or a “cyborg”, there’s a solid chance you summoned up the platonic ideal of that thing first, the picture that goes at the top of the Wikipedia article. A dude (almost always a dude) in armor with a sword, maybe a shield, probably a helmet. Trenchcoat, fedora, maybe a little notebook, probably a tragic backstory, and a hip flask. A human-esque robot, probably with unusual eyes or skin color, and a curiosity/animosity about the humanity it can never achieve. Decent images, but not exactly ground-breaking. And when push comes to shove in your anything-goes blank-page multiverse world-making, what does this surface-level character DO? If there’s not a plot pushing them, what’s their deal? None of these stock types come packaged with a lot of momentum. They’re just the label on the tin.

But if your campaign is set up to explore these types exclusively, suddenly there’s a burst of creativity as we begin to set our characters apart from each other. If we’re a questing order of knights, is one of us faithful but inflexible? Is another a reluctant pacifist born to their station? Is one a brutish bully who loves lording their power over others? By trying to figure out what niche our character fills among a roster of their peers, we have to break new ground.

Think about shows or books that have a homogenous group of heroes. Each spacer is different, each fantasy adventurer, each cop. These characters shine in situations where we can contrast their specific responses compared to their reputations, our expectations, and the actions of their peers.

The Power of AND

Sure, your base type is defined for you when we know everyone’s a robot in this campaign. But what else are you? A navigational unit AND a poet? A protocol droid handy with a blaster? An android built for medicine but disgusted by organics?

By combining what we know (android) with something less typical (military officer), we now have a character who still fits the pattern of “everyone’s a _____” but surprises us with the specific addition. Be cautious about how many “and” end up in your main type or you might find yourself spread too thin with “actor AND boxer AND detective AND bad roommate.” But mixing up the standard template is great way to fill in the margins and defy expectations. Plus, it gives you a unique angle to explore when the main plotline doesn’t fully engage with your base type: your noblewoman may have a different approach to getting through a fancy party to steal the governor’s treasures than her ragged cutthroat peers.

The Dangerous Allure of BUT

Coming from an improv background, I’ll caution you about relying on denying parts of the base template when you’re exploring your character’s type. In the improv world, “blocking” is when someone gives you new info in the scene and you reject it: “That’s not my toothbrush.” “No, you aren’t the Pope.” “I’m not late for work because I’m unemployed.” Someone tried to pass you the baton and you dropped it because, ew, baton.

When you know where the campaign is supposed to go (“We’re all cyberpunk spies on Mars!”) and you decide to set yourself apart by rejecting the premise, that complicates the premise in ways that you and your GM need to acknowledge upfront. If everyone else has a spy security clearance and you are a maintenance android, it means some part of every mission now needs to address how you keep tagging along. And if your programming won’t let you fight or lie, you’re going to be a weight around the neck of this particular plot arc constantly dragging things to a halt as everyone has to shift your spotlight again to get you into the scene.

Drawing the next example from real life, I was running 50 Fathoms and everyone was going to be a pirate. When we finished character creation, each of them had decided to be the odd one out who was not a full member of the crew: a travelling acrobat in the brig, a nobleman’s ten-year-old daughter stowing away, a disgraced doctor with a drinking problem, and a tween powder monkey the rest of the crew barely tolerated. When it came to sailing the vessel or crewing the weapons, they couldn’t do it. NPCs had to run all shipboard events including navigation and major decisions about their cargo. Yes, I could’ve assigned some backup pirates as Extras in those scenes and let them run the ship by proxy, but we ended up in a tight spot because each player heard “You’re all pirates!” and said “No, I don’t think I will.”

Beyond the Themed Campaign

This is all well and good for fleshing out a party in a tightly-defined setting. We know our individual Nice Marines need to stand out from each other. But even outside of games where everyone’s the same kind of thing, this approach will yield a more-rounded core concept that gives you a couple of elements to explore in play. There are games that push this sort of Column A/Column B character design (looking at you, City of Mist), but even then consider how you can flip the script on what defines Medusa or a space wizard. When you stop with your first instinct on a character or type, that’s where everyone else has already been.