Creating a Skeletal Character for a Roleplaying Game

Creating a Three-Dimensional Skeleton

We’ve talked a lot in previous articles about creating three-dimensional characters with depth and background. There are a number of advantages to this sort of character creation, but there is also one potential drawback. If you’re playing in a high-death game, where there’s every chance that your character will get killed off after just a few weeks of play, you might not want to put so much effort into your characters.

Why put all that time and effort into details that you’ll never get to explore? Why get interested in and attached to the character if he’s just going to get himself shot in a few days?

Does this mean that you have to create boring, one-dimensional characters for high-death games? That you can’t create interesting character background for these characters? That you can’t have all the benefits you get out of in-depth character creation?

Not at all. It just means you have to do things a little differently. Instead of creating a full, flesh-and-blood character, you create a three-dimensional skeleton instead – something you can hang a few scraps of flesh on now, and fill out later if he manages to survive.

Bones

First you need the very basic stuff, the kind of things you really can’t have a character without:

  • All the statistics appropriate to your game, of course.
  • A name really does help too.
  • A brief explanation (at least one line) of any unusual quirks, flaws, merits, advantages, disadvantages, etc. that you might have taken.
  • The names and/or occupations of any contacts or allies you might have.

This is the kind of stuff you can write down in about 15 minutes of quick thinking (except perhaps for the statistics – how long that takes depends on your game’s character creation system).

Cartilage and ligaments

Next you need a few things to hold those bones together. Consider writing maybe one page (or at least a few paragraphs) of character background. This is the minimum of details that explain your character:

  • Who is your character?
  • What does she do for a living and why?
  • What training has she had?
  • Who and what is important to her?
  • If you have a specific character “concept,” what is it?

No need to go into reams of detail here. Just the basic facts will suffice (and perhaps a few plot hooks).

Scraps of flesh

This is the important part, if you’re interested in making use of the benefits you get out of a three-dimensional character. While you don’t want to fully fill out your character, you do need a few scraps of flesh to hang on the bones and expand on later – assuming your character lives for a while. I’ve described this method once before when discussing ways to make non-player characters (NPCs) interesting with just a few details. I called it the Bright Spots of Detail method of character-building.

The basic idea is this: pick a few bold, bright, interesting, exciting details to give your character. These are quick things that you can describe in a sentence or a short paragraph, but they should be interesting enough that they obviously have potential to them. In other words, it’s easy for you to see how you might expand on these things later. They have a certain energy or excitement to them. They inspire you and give you ideas. They provide plot hooks that the game master (GM) can choose to make use of.

If you need a little help coming up with these details, then consider answering a couple of questions from our character questionnaire.

Knitting flesh

The real trick is this: the longer your character lives, the more you can flesh out these details and expand on your character concept and background. Thus the amount of effort that you put into the character ends up being directly related to the length of time that the character gets to exist within the game. The longer the character lives, the more complete and full a character you have. If the character dies after a couple of sessions, you didn’t have too much effort invested in him.

Pick out a portion of your character background now and then – probably after every one to three game sessions. Think about it a bit. Come up with some of the details you left out before and expand on it a bit. Think about how it affects your character’s life. Flesh out a contact your character has, or a friend. Detail some past event that had a strong effect on your character’s life.

If you don’t feel like expanding on something you’ve already written, then come up with something new. Go back to those questionnaires and answer another question. Come up with a childhood friend for your character. Detail a hobby your character has.

Obviously you don’t want to use this to slip things past your GM once the game has started, and it helps to have his permission and/or assistance in this process if there’s any chance that what you’re doing could affect the game. Show anything you write up to your GM and make sure he’s okay with it.

This can be a great way to create interesting characters for high-combat games. It doesn’t require you to waste lots of effort on a character that won’t last, or to invest time and interest in a character you’ll never get to explore. But it does allow you to create characters that will have some depth and complexity to them, bringing you all (or at least most) of the benefits of a traditional three-dimensional character.

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