Character Backstory: Description vs Discovery

My favorite thing to do in all of gaming is to make new characters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tabletop rpg, a video game, or even a board game that allows different builds, rolling up a fresh character is my ultimate feel-good moment. 

Sometimes those characters really stick with me on a deep personal level. It’s not always just my characters, either. Characters created by those in my gaming group sometimes come to life and affect me in ways that I never expected. So what is that special element that takes a half-giant cleric and turns them into my favorite comic book hero of all-time? What makes a standard npc become an integral part of a campaign when they were originally supposed to just be background dressing for a village inn? 

The initial response might be “description”: Build a fully living, breathing, fleshed-out character with an elaborate background, personality quirks, desires, goals, and countless other minutiae. Make a finite being. Make it real. 

But I think many experienced gamers can recount stories of “the time they tried to make an awesome character and it just didn’t take.” What was missing? Why wasn’t Golliban the Sellsword a memorable character? 

I have a working theory on this. It wasn’t that the character had too little; It was that the character had too much. 

If a character is completely developed, and you try to embody that character, you are essentially limiting yourself. You are stuck inside the borders of that character description, saying to yourself “well my instinct is to do this, but my bio says I have to do this.” You better be a hell of a good actor to take on that role. And even if you are a really good actor, a character is still only as good as it was written. It is still limited. It’s still finite. 

Real people grow, and explore, and change, and shift. THAT’S what makes a character in a book or movie come to life. You discover new things about them, they surprise you, they encounter things that aren’t covered in their bio. Discovery beats Description every time in the connection department. 

So does that mean you should just start off with a nebulous, undefined blob and see where it takes you? Eh, probably not. You still need a road map to cross the expanse, or at least a signal flare in case you get lost. 

Try this as an experiment: Give your character a “thing” that they like. Maybe they love to gamble, or they go crazy for strawberries, or they can’t sleep without their mother’s locket. You don’t have to know why yet. You can discover that as you play. Now give them a thing that they don’t like. Maybe they are afraid of rapid moving water, or they can’t stand vegetables, or goats just make them angry for some reason. Again, there doesn’t have to be an elaborate reason why set in ink. Make up a general backstory without too many specifics. Let those specifics fall into place as the game develops. 

A job, a physical description, and some family history will help set the framework, but don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’ll discover new things about this identity as you play–IN THE MOMENT. Those are the things that should stick and become bio. 

Spend less time trying to figure out how your character would act, and instead just experience their reactions as they happen. Leave them enough air to grow and change. Learn about them at the same time your teammates are learning about them. Don’t focus so much on sticking to a plan or following a bio, just play. They’ll become the character they are meant to be if you get out of the way and just let them breathe. 

The Long-Swinging Pendulum Of Race Selection in RPGs

I’ve never been very fond of those blog posts–or often more accurately, those clickbait articles–that try to tell you that there are X types of people, and you should load this page and grant a hit to our advertisers to find out which kind you are. BUT, there is something to be said about identifying different personality traits and patterns and preparing for those in your gameworlds. For the sake of this very unscientific and non-exhaustive post I’ve going to describe three different gamer types when it comes to race selection, because its worth examining play-styles. If nothing else, figuring out which one you identify closest with might grant you the opportunity to purposely try out another play-style (which really is the very definition of gaming in my small personal sphere of experience.) WARNING: This probably seems pretty biased, but I’m making fun of all of us equally, even me.


The Maximizer:

You already have an idea of the kind of character you want to create. The mechanics and documentation of the game you’re playing will dictate which race you’ll choose, depending on which benefits your character the most.  If your character is a big brute that hits stuff hard with a large thingy, you immediately find the racial bonuses that grant the largest Strength modifiers. Any other bonuses or penalties don’t matter. Why does a master swordsman need history knowledge or communication skills? We’ll just carve up anyone that opposes us. Maximizing the preconceived abilities of your character is paramount; it would be STUPID to do anything else. Your roleplay will just have to fit into this character, which is probably going to be pretty one-sided. But by-gods, you’ll get the results you are looking for, and you will rarely fail. You have gamed the game.


The Whimsyist:

You flip through the pages until you find something that makes you say “Oh, that’s cool!” This becomes the foundation for your character. Mostly, you just compile things that seem cool to you, with no consideration to whether there is any synergy between the powers, traits, and bonuses. As long as it seems fun to do, you’ll do it. Win or lose, fun is all that matters. Sure, your Priest doesn’t have any Wisdom because you wanted to be “really super fast,” but that’s not the point. The point is you have a crazy-fast Priest. That’s fun.


The Empathizer:

You look closely at the “person.”  It doesn’t matter what the bonuses and penalties of a specific race are, you just want to make a connection with them on a personal level. This type of creature has dealt with something that you relate to, so you can instantly jump into roleplaying them. You are more equipped to play this character than anyone else, because you understand them. The Laroon were created to serve the High Elves, but they fought for their independence, and you can relate. You don’t have to be an actor: you just act. The abilities and powers of the character don’t matter, because you are just here to bring them to life, and you’ll deal with whatever they must deal with.


Do you find any of this to ring true? Have you ever examined your choices in character creation before? What brought you to your decisions? Would actively going AGAINST those tendencies make for a more interesting experience? I’d love to hear your feedback.




Progress Report 

Lots of little things have been added or updated to Shattered Empire this last week as I continue the slow crawl towards a proper 2.0 release package. Here’s the list:

  • Added heights and weights for all player races in the PHB
  • Revised Bard Songs and added a couple of additional powers 
  • Created an exhaustive list of Bard Instruments and Magical Implements for the Treasury 
  • Updated the Class Point section and visual charts in the PHB to reflect recent changes and remove redundancies 
  • Updated the Character Sheet with sections for Class Point tracking and combat action quick reference 
  • Made some village and regional maps 

This probably means nothing to anyone, except maybe the six people that have actually played Shattered Empire. That’s okay. Making lists is fun!

The Book Of Powers

After much writing, editing, revising, and tweaking, I’ve finally finished the Shattered Empire Book Of Powers. This booklet holds every spell, weapon ability, and special power currently in the game.  Feel free to use it in your own campaign. Works with any BASE12 game (with some very minor conversion) and could be implemented into another system (with some more time-consuming conversion).  Next up will be the Equipment Catalogue, a handbook for choosing and purchasing weapons, armor, shields, packs, and all other mundane adventuring gear.


Revisiting Rogue One: A Star Wars Post

Yes, I spent the evening of May the Fourth watching a Star Wars movie, like so many other people across the world. To be fair, I had planned on watching Rogue One last night BEFORE I looked at a calendar and realized what pretend holiday it was.

I watched Rogue One in the theatre; not opening day or anything, but I made sure to have the theatre experience for this one. I don’t go out to the movies very often. I much prefer watching them at home, where I can drink some whiskey, eat popcorn that doesn’t cost $12 and hit pause to use the bathroom when I need to. Being in a crowded theatre with 100 other people doesn’t add to the cinematic experience for me. In fact, it usually takes away from it. I have a hard time getting lost in the moment or allowing the mood to overtake me when I can hear people chewing and coughing and shifting in their seats. No, give me a dark, empty living room with nobody around, not even my closest friends. I want to disappear from the physical world and become the camera lens, capturing the story and the vistas and the horrors and the budding romances and the heartbreaks and the triumphant victories.

Even so, Rogue One immediately became my favorite Star Wars movie. Even after watching it in the *gasp* theatre.

Now, before you get all defensive about your precious galaxy far far away, let me explain: I don’t think Rogue One is the BEST Star Wars movie. It’s just my favorite.

There were two main reasons that I felt this way after watching the movie on the big screen.


First, it tells a story that has been churning, building, and desperately waiting to be told for forty years now. FORTY. How did the Rebel Alliance get the plans to the Death Star? How did they know to look for a weakness in its construction? WHY was there a weakness in its construction in the first place? These questions have been asked and speculated upon for two generations, and finally we know the answers.

Second, it didn’t have a happy ending. War is brutal, and heroes often die. There was no escape for these protagonists, it didn’t candy-coat or white-wash it. They fulfilled their mission, yes, but they would never be the ones to reap the rewards of their success. There was no celebration. It just told the story, the way the story was supposed to be told.

Rewatching last night, a couple new things stood out to me, and it forced me to add to this list.

Third: There is no romance or sexual tension in this movie. That’s huge. Romance is the easiest writing crutch there is, and although it is so prevalent in all media–and cinema especially–because of its mirrored prevalence in our real lives, I find it tiresome and cheap when a writer uses it for tension, plot advancement, or character building. Doubly so in a war film. Some people may try to link Jyn and Cassian romantically, based on a single extended look and a climactic embrace, but this would be cheapening the real emotions of these scenes. They were not finding love within one another, they were finding Hope.

Which brings me to my fourth bullet: Hope.

Hope is the Antagonist in this film. Let that sink in. To repeat, the antagonist in Rogue One is not Krennic. It’s not Grand Moff Tarkin, or Darth Vader, either. It’s not even the Empire itself. It’s Hope. Finding it, fighting it, believing in it, surrendering to it. Hope is what must be conquered. It’s what stands in the way of the protagonists. They must discover hope within themselves, define it in others around them, and release their personal notions of morality, survival, and cooperation to be overcome by it. The Hope they must conquer in Rogue One is a hope that there is enough balance in the universe that the Rebellion can even exist in the first place. The rebels are torn apart, of different minds. Some fight because they WANT to change the universe, but not because they think they CAN. Some fight because they are angry. Some have no other reason to live. And some would rather die and fail TRYING to achieve something unattainable because they find it right, not because they find it possible. These people all have a different type of Hope. What they need is One Hope. What they need is A New Hope.

That’s why its so important that Jyn and Cassian die in that final non-sexual embrace. Cassian had to learn that he was fighting for Hope itself, not for the Rebellion. Not for victory. Not to win a war. Jyn had to learn that survival was not the ultimate goal, which is a tough lesson to learn for someone that was planted and grown in the soil of Strength. Hope supersedes our will and our desires.  The moralists had to learn that even an imperial pilot was not outside of Hope’s reach. The faithful servants had to learn that Hope was not going to win because of its intrinsic nature; it needed a catalyst. The downtrodden needed to learn that Hope existed at all, even though a shadow covered the galaxy, and they would never see its end.

The Hope they found at the end of Rogue One was the real segue between films. They discovered it, believed in it, chose it. They were not going to win just because they were right. They were not going to lose just because they were weak. And the Force was with them whether they survived or not. In fact, it was with the Empire, too. It was impartial, balanced, and essential. Hope was the force that could unbalance Chance. Hope was the force that could overcome Faith. Hope was the force that could conquer Chaos, win or lose. And now that they’ve found it, it’s time to let that Hope grow into something bigger and better. Something New.

Star Wars IV is aptly named.

Just finished the stat blocks for all of the animals that can be Summoned or called as Animal Companions. It’s a good sized list, and many will double as Natural Beasts that can be encountered in the wild as enemies, etc.

Spellbook is done, Character Creation options are done, weapon list is done.

Getting very close now!

Magical Implements and Consumables {Shattered Empire}

When running a game of Shattered Empire (or any High Fantasy RPG for that matter) there seems to always be some confusion over just how magical implements and such work. What’s the difference between a spellbook and a spellscroll? How is a magic wand different from a magic staff? What the hell is a rod? (And do I want to know?)

So for clarity’s sake–and because I don’t think this information is spelled out in detail all in one collection in any of the game documents–I shall now give a full explanation of what each item is and how it differs from others of the same category.


Spellbooks:  These are books that hold the “recipe” for casting a certain spell, invoking a Deity, etc. They do not have intrinsic magical properties themselves (unless the owner has cast Arcane Lock or something like that on it to keep snooping eyes out.) Meaning, an untrained warrior can’t pick up a spellbook and use it to cast a spell. Someone trained in the proper spell school can study it to learn new spells, and therefore they are sought after by competing wizards and such, but otherwise they are just an interesting–if not valuable–curiosity.

Scrolls:  Scrolls are single-use magical parchments that hold a specific spell. They can either be used to cast the spell they hold, or they can be studied to learn the spell they hold. Either way, the scroll is consumed after once use. Scrolls are unique in the fact that ANYONE can use them, since most of the magic is already imbued within the parchment in a potential state, waiting for activation by the user. This usually means just reading off an activation phrase, giving anyone with literacy an opportunity to cast a magic spell.

Wands: Wands are objects of power that, like scrolls, house one spell. The major difference is that wands usually have multiple uses, and can be “recharged” in order to continue using it to cast the spell. To use a wand you do not need to know the specific spell it holds, but you do have to be trained in the general school of magic to effectively use them. Untrained users may accidentally succeed, but often times there will be devastating results in trying to manipulate a type of magic that you don’t fully understand. A spell cannot be learned from a wand.

Staffs: Staffs function very much in the same manner as wands, however staves never “run out” of magic. They need never be recharged. Additionally, staffs (or staves) can sometimes be re-enchanted with a different spell or prayer. This is something that would normally destroy a wand. A spell cannot be learned from a staff.

Orbs: Orbs do not contain magic spells, though they are charged with pure magic themselves. Orbs are used as a focus for Arcane spellcasters, giving them all kinds of potential boons and boosts to their spellcasting. Orbs are Arcane Implements.

Rods: Rods function in the same way as orbs, only for Nature-benders, such as Druids. These are Nature Implements. They boost Commune with Nature and Commune with Spirits power schools.

Holy Symbols:  Holy Symbols are Divine Implements. They are focuses for all manner of Divine prayer schools.

Psionic Focus: Psionic powers can be amplified by a Psionic Focus. These are Psionic Implements. They augment the powers of Telekinesis and Telepathy.

Bard Instruments:  In the hands of a normal person these are no more than average musical instruments. In the hands of a Bard they become Bardic Implements, augmenting or changing the power of their Bard Songs.


Of course there are many other items that can have spell-effects associated with them. Potions, rings, amulets–these all can hold magical properties that anyone can make use of.  Shrines and Temples may grant blessings.  A circle of trees deep in the forest may grant a boon to those that stand inside.  Exploring the world of Gildeon is the only way to discover them all.