Storium Theory: Play Within the World – Making Characters “Fit In”

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 16th, 2016.

I mentioned in my posts on game and character arcs that the duty of the players is to develop their character arcs while supporting the game arc. In order for players to accomplish that, one major thing that they need to do is establish characters that seem like a real part of the game world.

Characters need to fit in.

It’s easier in some games than others–some games have a very well-defined world, while others have more of an open concept. The former means players have more to work off (but also have firmer boundaries to work within), while the latter means players have more freedom (but also less to use to spur ideas). Either way, though, the player needs to make an effort to make his character fit in with the world as designed.

Some of this is pretty obvious. If the narrator has spelled out certain elements of the game, go along with those elements. If the narrator has said this is a crime drama and you’re all playing regular humans, don’t stick a fantasy wizard in there. If the narrator says all player characters must be superhumans given their powers by Doctor X, don’t gain your powers from Doctor Y. If you’re playing a fantasy story, don’t throw a superhero in there.

But other things can be a bit tougher.

It’s good to give the narrator’s description a good study when you’re building a character for a game.

  • What seems to be the intended tone? Is it lighthearted? Serious? Dark?
    • A character whose tone lines up well with the game is more likely to feel like he fits. A character whose tone differs can fit, but more often will cause jarring tonal shifts.
    • If you’re playing a Dark game, try to avoid throwing in a happy-go-lucky character. If you’re playing a lighthearted game, try to avoid throwing in a depressing, sorrowful character.
    • Unless, of course, you can present them in such a way that you end up supporting the game by that contrast–such as a character that starts out cheerful, but ends up being dragged down by the game’s events or having to struggle to maintain his cheer in the midst of them.
  • Are there any themes the description seems to call out? Is the story about corruption? Betrayal? Hope? Heroism? Cost?
    • If so, it can help to make one of those themes explicit in your character design. Does the game mention political power struggles in which people are commonly betrayed? Maybe your character is a former noble who lost one of those struggles due to a friend’s betrayal.
  • What is the intended power level for the heroes? Are we talking about ordinary people? Low magic? High magic? Epic fantasy? Cosmic-level superheroes?
    • As with tone, it’s generally best to try to keep your character within what seems to be the “intended” power level. There’s some variance here, but generally, if you’re doing street-level stories in Gotham, don’t bring Superman to the party. If you’re doing cosmic-level stories in space, better have Batman bring his good tech.
    • Again as with tone, differences can work…but you and your narrator will have to be prepared for some hard work, writing-wise, to make sure things fit.
  • What about the way powers or technology work in this game? Is magic more about formulas and careful study, or willpower and focus? Is technology sci-fi or near-future or steampunk?

Not all of these questions will be answered by every narrator, but if the answers are there…use them.

And that’s not all! If the narrator has provided some world details…use them too!

  • Are there some kingdoms or countries or crime families mentioned? Maybe your character should be from one of those, rather than a brand new one.
  • Is there a main foe spelled out already? Maybe he killed your family, not those other villains you were thinking of…or maybe they were working for him.

On the inverse, if the narrator hasn’t provided those details, consider building them yourself and tying them in to the world. Rather than saying that your character wandered in from “a kingdom to the East,” name the kingdom, and give a few details.

And finally, if you’re making your own cards, try to align them to the world and game concept. Often the existing cards can be good examples. This is especially important for the Subplot card – you want to pick a subplot that feels like it relates, in some way, to what’s going to happen in the game. That’ll make it easier to play. If the game is about a journey, for instance, don’t make a subplot that’s about you staying in one place (or vice versa)!

This is hardly an exhaustive list of what to consider, but this is less about checking things off a list, and more about getting yourself in the right mindset. You need to make your character fit in to the game’s world and themes–so when you make a character, take a good look at it, compare it to the game, and ask yourself if the two seem to align. If you were watching a film with this theme and this character showed up, would it feel right, or awkward?

One further note: A lot of players (myself included, actually) will come up with characters and then look for a game to put them in, or recycle characters from old games (especially if those games didn’t complete) and put them in new ones. Nothing wrong with this approach…but you still need to make the character fit the game world. Don’t just copy and paste from game to game–take a good look at the new setting and tweak the character to fit it.

All this isn’t to say that you should feel strictly bound to just what’s been laid out in the game description, necessarily, whether you’re making a new character or “importing” one. Storium worlds often benefit from having a fairly open approach to characters, and I find that you can make some pretty varied concepts work all within the same world. It’s just important to make an effort to sync things up. Get creative, but do push yourself to work towards a unified feeling for the game. The story will be stronger, and quite a bit more fun, if you do.