Designing A Character For Someone Else To Play
For one-off LARP events it’s often the case that the event organisers have a hand in creating the characters. We see this as critical, because when the players step into the game and start playing their characters, they need to have context, history and connections to other characters otherwise they are either blank slates, or they’ve arrived with their own set of context that doesn’t gel with anyone else’s. After all, drama comes from character relationships, so you need those relationships to exist.
We found ourselves, in the early days of our events, writing longer and longer character descriptions as we attempted to make characters deeper and more interesting. It wasn’t until one event (run by a different organisation) where I was handed 43 pages of A4 to learn before I started playing that I realised that I really wasn’t happy with this as a direction. To me, it runs the risk of player paralysis; the player is worried about ‘getting it wrong’. It also leaves very little space for the player to bring their own concepts to the character. It feels more like a play; like the player is trying to act out a role that the writer has written.
This felt wrong, for something which is supposed to be roleplaying, and something which is supposed to be a game. So for GRYM we went in a different direction; something we’d started with Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph but which we took to a new level with this event.
The first thing we did was to ask the players, on their booking form, to answer the following questions:
- How physical do you want your character to be? (1-5, where 1=layabout, 5=roustabout)
- How sociable do you want your character to be? (1-5, where 1=aloof, 5=society’s darling)
- How intellectual do you want your character to be? (1-5, where 1=philistine, 5=studious)
- Is there any character concept that you’re desperate to play?
So that gave us the first seeds for our characters. Only one or two people suggested concepts, and those were mostly in broad strokes – the rest trusted us to come up with something that would suit them, so long as they roughly fell within those range of numbers.
We then set about roughly outlining characters, basing that on concepts that we thought would fit with our overall story. The important thing to us here was character relationships. We were designing a family who were all to be together at Christmas; alongside that we were designing other invited guests – neighbours and hangers-on.
We sent back one-or-two-liners to the players to get their sign off that these were concepts they were happy with. For example:
The local vicar, once an army chaplain, with a past of cowardice and fraud.
Then players responded to us with any changes to that headline concept. I think only two players requested changes.
So given all that, we set about designing the characters in depth.
Building A Family
Given our basic premise about the event theme – Reconciliation – and that we wanted the ghost stories to have an emotional resolution, we did our best to mirror the ghosts’ stories in the stories of the player characters. The idea here was that the players could lay the ghosts to rest by resolving their own emotional situations, by reaching a catharsis. So we assigned a ghost – or in some cases more than one – to each character. Then we gave each character at least one problem, and at least one secret.
Using this framework we reasonably quickly got some depth into these characters. For example, the vicar mentioned above… his problem was that the love of his life was attending the family gathering. From her perspective, he had abandoned her (pregnant, despite him not knowing that). From his perspective, her father had packed him off to the Foreign Legion. His secret was that he wasn’t a real vicar; he’d got out of front-line service in the Legion by pretending to be a chaplain, and after the chaos of WW2 the church records had all got a bit confused and he came back to the local area as a vicar. His ghost was the Burned Man, who failed to save his lover due to his own cowardice.
As soon as we’d put family relationships into the mix and started drawing up the family tree, it all started to take shape.
The Family & The Local Area
We knew there was a great deal of work to do to get the characters designed and to communicate all the relevant information to the players. So for the time being, we made sure every player had an in character invite sent to them via email. This confirmed their character name, established their relationship to the main character – Godfrey Northmoor, who had invited them to Christmas – gave them some context and also introduced them to the idea of ‘secret santa’. What would Christmas be without presents? We asked each character (and therefore player) to buy a present for one of the other characters, but didn’t give away who the presents were for.
Each gift suggestion had a purpose: to cause inter-character friction. As an example, the vicar’s invitation suggests he buy a present for ‘Ms S – a lady who collects dolls’. This was a pointed reference to the fact that Ms S – actually Gloria Northmoor – had given up her baby for adoption when she was very young. As it happened, we sent out these invitations before we’d fully defined all the characters, so some of the gift messages turned out a little odd.
Getting The Character Across To The Player
And now the big one. Given our basic premise, that we were trying to get away from presenting a player with reams of A4 briefing documents saying ‘Your character is so-and-so. They do this, this and this, and they like this.‘ and to leave space for them to breathe, how were we going to communicate a complicated web of relationships, secrets and problems? How could we get away from a dry out-of-character character brief?
Simple. We didn’t send them any out-of-character briefing documents. Instead, a few weeks before the event, every player received a package. This contained a hard copy of the invitations above, and a wealth of entirely in character materials. Letters, diaries, photographs, newspaper clippings, magazines, railway tickets, telegrams, books; all sorts. The players had to piece together their character’s history purely from those documents. You can see some of the documents, and read about them in more depth, here.