Planning for the Nationals: Character Design

I’ve a handful of games at conventions in the last few years and during that time I’ve slowly built up a set of guidelines that I attempt to follow when designing the player characters. What I’ve never done though is sit down and formalise that list, so I thought I’d do it here to aid in prepping for Nationals 2013.

  1. Character gender should be optional: I’ve been lucky during my gaming career to have avoided the stereotyped all male groups so having a mix of male and female characters is something I’ve come to expect. A lot of convention games achieve this by having a simple mix of male and female characters. The problem I have with this approach is that it still limits player choice, as the gender is then automatically associated with that particular skill set. Getting around this is simple, each character sheet has two names, one male and one female from which the player can then choose.
  2. Each character should have a unique specialisation: This is the guideline most commonly followed by GMs. Simply put each character should have a unique specialisation around which their abilities and skills are centred and which should come up during the game. This provides the opportunity for every character to shine, keeping the player involved and interested.
  3. Characters should have personality and background: During a convention game players are coming in blind so having a written background for each PC provides an immediate jumping point as to how to play that character. This is particularly important in games such as Cortex and Savage Worlds where playing to the background / personality defined through their advantages and disadvantages can have mechanical effects (such as earning plot points / bennies).
  4. The group should have a clear reason to be working together: Whether they’ve worked together in the past or are all breaking out of the same prison the PCs should have a clear reason as to why they’re together and more importantly why they would stay together for the duration of the adventure.
  5. Characters should be balanced: This is partially a personal ‘how I run’ aspect but is also an important factor to take into consideration when choosing advantages / disadvantages, feats, spells etc. Essentially this boils down to each character having an equal role to play within the adventure, with no one character being able to mechanically dominate the game. This is particularly important when considering abilities designed for campaign play. The Vampire advantage in Demon Hunters is a prime example of this. This advantage provides significant bonuses to strength, agility and toughness which are balanced out by the high chance of the character loosing control of their hunger and turning evil. In a campaign this ends up working out as the GM can frequently tempt the PC by placing them in situations where their willpower is challenged. A convention game, however, is a different story. Either the hunger is ignored during the game, leaving the vampire overpowered compared to the rest of the party or the temptation is introduced, risking the PC turning on the rest of the group part way through the session (likely ending in multiple PC deaths).
  6. Everybody should have combat options: This is going to be dependent upon the system but as a general rule every PC should have something they can be effective at during combat. A player with nothing to do during combat is likely to become disengaged and bored, each time this happens it will be harder to get them back on board once you drop out of combat. An important note here is that I don’t necessarily mean attack options, just an ability or skill that allows them to act and affect the flow of the action.

I’ll probably add to this list at a later date and as I become more experienced with convention games but I think the above is a good starting point to work from.

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