Making Interesting Characters for Tabletop Games

In the final entry of this week’s “Making Interesting Stuff for Tabletop Games” series, we’re going to talk through the process of what makes a character interesting. I’m going to continue to reference stuff from the past few posts, so read up about Interesting Worlds, Interesting Events, and What Makes Stuff Interesting if any part of today’s post is confusing (or, you know, if you’re interested in that stuff). If that’s too much for you to read, the main thing I’ll be referencing are the difference betweening knowing (being able to recite facts you have established) and understanding (being able to make decisions and answer questions for things you never anticipated). There’s a bunch of world building that I reference throughout the series, building further as I go through the posts, but most of it is fairly basic and shouldn’t be difficult to run with.

If you’ve followed the GM Suggestions from the past three posts, you have an interesting world with interesting events and a decent idea of what it means to make those things interesting and engaging for your hypothetical players. All that remains is to make interecting characters to inhabit those worlds and events. Unfortunately for everyone everywhere, it is incredibly difficult to properly anticipate what any random player will consider interesting at any given time. There are jokes all over the internet on how players seem to seize on supposedly boring or drab characters despite the loving attention the GM gave to the central character in the scene, but I think there are a few principles these jokes rely on that people overlook.

If you have a character wearing some amazing fantasy armor, surrounded in living shadow that flickers toward the various torches and candles rather than away from it, the chances are good that all important NPCs your players have encountered are similarly High Fantasy. So when you expand on the occupants of the room a bit and reference a character that seems almost absurdly plain, the players will frequently seize on that character for seeming to be out of place compared to the general High Fantasy tone of the rest of the characters they encounter. They might wind up being only Joblin the Goblin who has a business meeting you’re preventing them from attending, but that could be a really fun character if your players are fresh out of a tense adventure. Most of the time, a character sticks out when they appear different from the established tone the characters have been dealing with. Tone shifts are a great way to lend interest and attention to a character, even if they’re a one-dimensional pun meant to give the players a chance to reset the tone of the game. ANYTHING will seem interesting if it seems different, but seeming interesting isn’t the same as being interesting, and such characters frequently get relegated to “pet” status (kept around for occasional fun and mood-lightening) or eventually ignored.

One of the most important rules to keep in mind when making an interesting character is that people are just people. They might be out of touch with reality, they might have more money than god, they might understand the universe in a way no one else has managed, but they’re still just people. No matter what, they’re just people. Wealthy assholes have poeple they love and dote on. Reality-warping mages have pets they’d literally fight death for. Even those the most divorced from reality just want to feel safe and in control of themselves. None of this redeems a villain, but it humanizes them (even if they aren’t Human). Sometimes a mustache-twirling villain can be fun and provide the exact lack of moral complexity your players want as an escape from reality, but the memorable ones always have a humanizing factor. Even your literally cold and unfeeling necromancer lich intent on conquering the infernal wastelands as the base from which to eventually conquer the world has a reason they went down this path or someone/something they’re willing to drop everything for. It might be the triple-skulled bone demon dog they assembled to replace the pet they lost as a child that started them on the unfortunate path towards unbridled necromantic supremecy, but everyone cares about something. Even undead would-be rulers of the world.

Playing into that rule is one of my core principles. Every character must have something that seems incongruous with the way they represent themselves to the world at large. For example, I created a powerful werebear warrior who ruled a village of lycanthropes that had hidden itself away in the woods for fear of persecution by those who assumed all lycanthropes were monsters seeking to spread their curse. This woman could bench-press a tree, transform into a nigh-unstoppable force of nature in battle, and ruled with the steady patience of a leader who has learned the power of listening rather than speaking, but she preffered to let those around her shine in battle rather than dominate it by herself. She desired neither fame nor glory, content to let anyone claim her deeds as her own since her only ambition in life was to live a peaceful, quiet life. Her great strength was born from a desire to protect her people and her peaceful way of life rather than the glory and great deeds associated with the powerful bear-like warrior trope. Few characters with the power to shut someone up will choose to walk away instead. That combination of great power and a desire to never use it is frequently presented as a barrier that must be overcome in order to gain the character’s assistance against some great evil, but many players will find it interesting to explore a situation where it is presented as a neutral fact for them to explore on their own.

Which brings me to my second core principle. Not every character needs an arc to be interesting. Sometimes, players will enjoy having a character whose personal journey is done so they can examine the results and make their own decisions about how something similar might play out in their own lives. Sometimes, dealing with a character who has chosen isolation and a policy of noninvolvement in response to god-like power coupled with near immortality can prompt players to examine what path their own character is on well ahead of the time that such questions might occur to them on their own. Sometimes encountering a character who displays actual trauma after watching everyone they’ve ever loved die in battle or due to the slow erosion of time can present the characters with a platform to explore what it means to live a long time or how isolating power can be even over a short period of time. Characters don’t need an arc to make them relevant to the players, sometimes they just need to be a platform the players can build their own hypotheticals on. After all, some people have already figured out the answers to the questions of their lives and are content with them, even if that can be difficult for the players to understand (given that being a player in a tabletop roleplaying game is frequently about change and action) without really digging into it.

I have probably a dozen little rules that I follow, mostly having to do with working against prejuides, avoiding stereotypes, keeping myself grounded in general interest rather than my specific interests, and things to help me catch any rules I haven’t concretely worked out, but most of them boil down to a few simple expressions I’ve learned from media consumption. “People are the real monsters,” a lesson taught by so many shows now, but that I learned first from Scooby-Doo, and the corallary that Scooby-Doo explicitly points out: “those with the most privilege tend to be the true villains.” “Aragorn is interesting not because he’s dark and gloomy when introduced, but because it is clear there is so much we don’t know about him” is my personal favorite. I don’t know if you’ve noticed from my examples, but I have a tendency to make up just enough detail to make something feel real without actually fleshing it out so I can take cues from my players and deliver something that gives them what they want while still meeting my needs as the primary storyteller. It’s a reminder to rely on the one thing that catches almost everyone’s interest: unknowns.

It’s a lot of work, creating characters that your players will find interesting enough to seek out repeatedly, but sometimes all you need to is flirt with a player character on occasion and then they’ll decide to go on a quest to the heart of a volcano in order to bring that character back to life after they were killed fighting an evil necromancer. I mean, poor Taylor had it rough, dying two boss fights in a row (and failing the resurrection check after the second one), but they were really there to provide a little extra damage in the early days and to make sure the party had access to someone who could open locks given that none of them had picked up that ability. And don’t sweat it if you create a character you really love that no one seems to care about despite a narrative reason to engage with them. You can always find a reason that they aren’t actually an important NPC and then introducing a new character that will hopefully be interesting enough for the party to talk to more than was strictly necessary to complete the mission at hand.

Honestly, that’s probably the most important rule for creating anything for tabletop games: don’t be precious with your creations. Put them out there, let your players break them or remake them, and then make some new stuff. No one expects you to get it perfectly right the first time and everyone is there to have fun. Focus on making that happen and you’ll do alright, no matter what.

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