Don’t Be a Red Shirt!: Making Characters Built to Last
I’ve been speaking to the GMs out there for a handful of days, but today I’m going to talk to the players. If you play as well as GM, you can hang around; if not, help yourself to some eggnog or something.
Okay, our digital space has been cleared, so now we can speak conspiratorially, so lean in close to the screen and imagine we’re in a shadowy alley and I’m whispering this to you.
Here’s the skinny. No matter the mechanics underneath the skin, in a roleplaying game you’re playing a persona, a role. We all get this. Further than that, the GM needs you. He may want to wear the hat of the adversary from time to time, but the day of GM as enemy is largely over (though you can still find pockets of it in some parts), leastwise around here. Get this: he wants you to succeed. You’re the protagonists. You’re the good guys (or “the shades of grey” movers and shakers of the world). You are the catalyst for change, and without you the GM has no one to experience the sweat of his labors or gaze in awe and wonder at the the creativity which emerges full-blown from his titanesque-skull like a Greek god.
Be that as it may, if you do something stupid, he will kill you. Now, remember, he has nothing against you personally. He is just is being true to his art, and though tears run down his cheeks, he will cut you no slack if you set off the bomb in the bedroom and send yourself and your friends into a shrapnel laden afterlife. Or will he?
There is a secret here with sharing. Depending upon your GM (and your group), you can increase your odds in your favor just a wee bit with one trick. You want to know how, don’t you? Here’s the secret to a longer life in five simple words:
Don’t be a red shirt.
For those of you unfamiliar with this reference, I direct your attention to the old Star Trek episodes, but I’ll explicate further, and contextualize things a tad (within an RPG paradigm). I don’t mind. In Star Trek, the main characters are the officers–the captain, the doctor, the science officer, security officer, and some others. You’re exploring stuff–other cultures, planets, whatever. You form a scout team (called an away) team, and you beam down to the planet and do your thing. Basically, each planet is the setting for your adventure. Sometimes, however, you need more people to go down with you, because the doctor is doing research, the science officer is in the throes of some weird alien disease, or whatever–that’s where the red shirts come in. These are akin to the guys who don’t attend the sessions regularly, and are most likely to die. That’s what red shirts do. They die. In the show, they were used to show the audience “gee, the world is dangerous” and the red shirts were often inexperienced walk ons never seen before (or again). In other words, they don’t resonate emotionally with the audience. It’s like hearing about someone else’s pet parakeet, Taffy, dying. You can empathize on an intellectual level, but unless you had some personal interaction with Taffy prior (like Taffy saved your life or something), it’s not going to crush you emotionally like it would Peg, Taffy’s owner, who had the bird since college.
You want your character to resonate. Whether the GM needs it or not, give your character a backstory. It doesn’t have to be War & Peace or Catcher in the Rye, but it should run between 300 – 500 words. A good bit of something to encapsulate who you are in a nutshell. Maybe what you’ve done in your past, and your hopes for the future. You can then use these bits to craft your character or, if you’re working from your created character first, you can incorporate mechanical elements within your story–for example, if Phillip is afraid of crowds, why? Every phobia has a little vignette. Remember when we learned why Indy was afraid of snakes? A revelatory moment for audience.
Characters are made up of their foibles. Why we expect heroes to be competent, what makes them truly memorable are their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Zorro had to put Z’s on everything. Indy had to keep up with his hat and had that whole fear of snakes (especially at odds with his pulp hero status). Monk has a whole litany of things from the little hand wipes he used after shaking someone’s hands to his fear of milk. These are the things which distinguish our heroes from another swordsman, another pulp hero, and another brilliant detective. Go watch Leverage or The Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai or True Blood and you’ll see we have some interesting folks who really shine who also carry around a lot of baggage and their own personal demons.
Memorable characters live on. Allow me to wax maudlin for a moment and enter the realm of the cliché. Whether your character lives for 2 sessions or 20, if you lavish some attention on your character, give them a history, give them some quirkiness, they are going to be more fun to play, not despite their quirks, but because of them. You can play plain and ordinary in real life, if that’s really what you want to do, but every character should have a little bit of something which elevates them from archetype to awesome.
The GM likes to be entertained. If you pour some attention onto your character, the GM is going to respect you going the extra mile. Your character is going to be more interesting. He’ll have more depth and be more fun to interact with for the other characters as well as the GM himself. Net result? You’re either going to earn more protective currency (bennies, FATE points, karma) for your character, enabling you to do more fantastic things (or at least save himself, as the situation requires) or the GM is going to give your character the most intangible currency of all–the benefit of the doubt; with all other things being equal, the character as CHARACTER is going to rouse our sympathy, we’ll be rooting for him, and the GM wants him to succeed. Remember? We said that to begin with. Who is better and more deserving for the GM’s lovingly crafted game than a character lovingly crafted himself?
So remember, if you want to give yourself an edge in any system with any GM, lavish attention upon your character, and it will return to you tenfold. I now leave you to reflect upon your neglected characters–I think you have some catching up to do–and bid you, dear reader, adieu!