Dynamic Character Design

Copyright (C) 1996 By Joseph Teller & Kiralee McCauley

Originally Published in 'Interregnum APA'

The creation of characters that are truly dynamic is actually one of the great challenges for both player and GM. Beyond the basic mechanics used within a game system, and the problem of fitting into the setting and genre, the creation of an active, interesting, and dynamic character will bring pleasure to both players and Gm. In the beer and pretzels crowd a dynamic character can bring an extra sparkle to the game. For more intense players it adds a greater level of reality, understanding and growth to the character once in play.

The application of four basic principles during character creation and backgrounding is the key to dynamic characters. These basic principles can be summed up as : Goals, Motivation, Personal Needs, and Internal Conflicts. Each of these are intrigal to character concept and should be applied when possible. We shall take these and apply them to an example character, an advesary for the players to deal with.

Reznick, the advesary in question, began as a plot goal. He would be involved in a plot to kill the Prince of Wales. The player characters, of course, were involved in trying to stop him from accomplishing his goal. Since the scenario was primarily a detective one, much of the story line dealt with discovering what the character of Reznick was up to and why. The story began with a murder, one that appeared to have no reason for occuring. The victim was a friend of one the PC's contacts, giving the characters a reason to become involved.

Reznick's goal, killing the Prince of Wales, is pretty obvious. It makes him an active character, able to go about his business and do something, even if the characters sit on their tail ends. Thus, he immediately commands the character's attention. They have to react to him, or face the consequences of his actions. Additionally, his actions are neither random nor without reason. Each is a step towards his goal. For example, the first victim was an employee of the immigrations department who had discovered that Reznick was in the country illegally, and why. He was killed to insure his silence. However, goals alone don't make a dynamic character. They are inflexible, and lack depth. And they give the character no reason to act once they are accomplished.

Beneath the plot goal of Reznick lay a motivation - he was commiting the goal in order to gain personal power from members of an organization he belonged to. If he finds a more efficent or less risky way of gaining that power, he can change his immediate goals to take advantage of his new ideas. Or, if the situation changes and his immediate goals become unteniable he can abandon them (as long as it's O.K. with the organization).

Of all the aspects of a dynamic character, motivation is the most important. It gives a reason for action, and a basis from which to generate goals. It gives the character's actions, and thus personality, both flexibility and consistency. Another example of this is Halwulf, one the NPCs Rich Staats has written about. As a henchman of the major villian, Halwulf's goals were determined by the villian's orders. But his motivation was to save his sister, who the villian held captive. Information from the PCs (presumably about his sister) eventually convinced him to change sides. Because he had a well thought out motivation, he had the flexibility to change his allegiance while remaining in character.

Deeper than Reznick's motivation was what he really cared about. In this case, power was just a means to another end. Reznick was a sociopath, a mentally unstable individual who enjoyed sadistically torturing and killing people for the emotional rush he felt. By gaining power in the organization he belonged to, he could increase his ability to satisfy his need for sadistic action, and decrease the restrictions and risks of doing so. Once he had sufficent status within the organization, it would keep him supplied with terrified disposable 'playmates;' a prize for his loyalty and the risk he took in attempting the assasination.

Knowing what your character really cares about is most important in 'realistic,' or intense games. However, if you expect to explore the character's personality, to watch the character face ethical challenges, or to participate in the character's personal growth, it is essential for the character to care about something. It adds depth to the character, and provides the ultimate basis for their actions and personality, as well as for any changes or growth in that personality.

Thus a good character is like an onion, when you peel away the topmost layers (the immediate goals) you find the motivation, and when you peel these away you find the personal needs or deep emotional reasons for the motivation. You can even take this a step further, by providing a background in line with the character's emotional make-up. In Reznicks case he had been abused as a child by relatives, and followed the pattern by becoming an abuser himself, as well as mentally unstable.

Internal conflicts are those things that can change how a character reacts to their goals, motivation etc. In the case of Reznick his desire to cause pain interfered with his immediate goal. A woman and her young daughter observed his murder of the immigration agent. Instead of killing them to hide his tracks he took them hostage, keeping them at bay and in suspence for quite some time, so that he could enjoy their fear. When the PCs found them, it provided vital clues to the murder's identity. Although he would eventually succeed in torturing, molesting and killing the daughter, and later the mother, in order to feed his need for sadistic pleasure, the clues revealed allowed the PCs to track him down and stop the assasination. The Internal conflict, in this case, eventually became his undoing.

Internal conflicts are different from the other layers of the onion. Goals, motivation, and emotional needs are all seeds for action. They provide reasons for the character to do something. Internal conflicts may do nothing more than change how a character feels about their actions. So, Reznick may regret taking hostages even while he enjoys their pain. But they can also provide the character with choices. Kill the neighbors now, or terrorize them for a few days? With internal conflicts, you can never be quite certain what a character is going to do. Instead of becoming boring and predictable, characters remain fresh and interesting, no matter how well known.

There is another reason for creating PCs with internal conflicts. Like plays and stories, role-playing is a form of fiction. All fiction is driven by conflict. If a player produces a character with an internal conflict, it creates a hook for the GM. By taking advantage of the internal conflict, the GM may be able to produce a plot of particular signifigance to the PC, one that has a good chance of engaging the player as well. A dynamic character, with an internal conflict, is an interesting prospect for both player and GM to entwine within the game and to experience in actual play.

A character can have many kinds of internal conflicts when desires oppose ethical, honorable, or religious values. Some examples are: a pacifist choosing between using violence themselves and watching the violent death of a loved one; a police officer choosing between the spirit and the letter of the law; or any character choosing between self preservation and their loved one's death. Many of the most interesting internal conflicts occur when the various onion-like layers of the character are brought into opposition. Reznick is a good example of this, as his personal needs overrode his motivation and goal (and even his logic) making him act on emotional needs rather than the reality of the world he lived in.

The heirarchy of the layers does not always end in the same results. Emotions, or personal needs, do not always overide motivation or goals, for example. The same is true of values - when push comes to shove the pious character might commit a mortal sin in order to accomplish a goal, believing that the ends justicfies the means.

A large part of the fun of a roleplaying game, beyond the combats, conflicts, challenges and puzzles is to assume the role of a multi-faceted character and to interact with other characters; to explore other possibilities and to understand other points of view, and the human condition in general. A dynamic character helps bring these other possibilities to life, and yet does so with a level of simplicity that most players and GMs can abide to.

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