Character is Plot and Story is King
Your personal story, the plot of your life, is driven by your decisions. Your decisions are driven by your past experiences and personal history. At the end of your life, you or the people you love will sit around and tell only the most memorable, interesting, and powerful stories of your life, and the kings of those stories will become the true inheritance to the generations that follow you.
The way you roleplay your character, and the decisions you make playing them, is going to be influenced by three things. The first is your own personal life experience, which for most players is the largest influence. The next one is the character stats, which some min-maxers use to decide most of their actions, but not necessarily most of their roleplaying. The last, and possibly the most overlooked is the character’s personal experience and past. In my opinion, this can be the most important factor in deciding if a character will be memorable or not. The reason has much to do with what I talked about earlier. The character’s plot is driven by decisions, the decisions are driven by experience, and at the end of your year long game only the most memorable, the kings of the story, will be remembered.
Like the title says, characters are plot. While this isn’t an accurate philosophy in literature, it applies in a table top RPG because you are playing a character who is most likely seeking to defeat another character. The plot is driven by the actions the PCs and NPCs take, and if you really want to help make the plot personal to your character you need to flesh out the character’s backstory. You need to know who they are and what really drives them. You need to give them reasons to do the actions you have them do, and experiences in their past to explain how they became the person they are when you play them. In a way, you almost need to feel they are real in order to make them major movers of the plot.
Am I suggesting you write a novel about them? Not really. I do suggest you write more then a paragraph backstory. Know where they came from, and not just the city but the side of tracks, their genealogy, and their schooling. Know how they ended up there, what they did with their lives before the adventure, and what they plan to do when it is all over. Figure out who they are, what they were and who they could become. What are their dreams, aspirations, and expectations? What scares them, drives them, and awes them? Who do they follow, who will the stand beside, and who are they willing to lead?
Who are they really? Think about that, taking the time imagine them and create them in your mind. Then write it all down. How much should you write down? I leave that up to you, but aim for at least a page or two.
Once you do that, your roleplay will flow more naturally and you will find that you are really playing your character. You will have an easier time making decisions as your character, and you will find yourself surprised by what makes sense for your PC. You will find more enjoyment, thrill, and excitement in your games. Best of all, you will look forward to playing them week after week and will be disappointed that you can’t play them when you retire them.
“But I like just having a paragraph for a character history and making the rest up as I go.” Actually, things will change and develop as you play even if you had a trilogy of novels about their lives. So having a paragraph or ten pages means nothing in terms of setting things in stone. But, if you truly feel that way, you are missing out on the next part of what I am asking you to do. Remember the second part of the title? Story is king in this game. Even a min-maxing munchkin will stop and sit in shocked silence after an absolutely amazing climax that the story built up to for months of play. I have had sessions with no fights and almost nothing but roleplaying between a couple NPCs and a couple PCs, and everyone was on the edge of their seats with excitement. Those would not be possible if the players hadn’t handed me a detailed backstory that I was able to build upon.
The earliest you can hand your Game Master a well detailed backstory that tells him exactly who your character is, the sooner they can begin working in plot elements that are personal to your character. Your GM will thank you for handing him so many great ideas for challenging your character. If he complains about it, you either have an inexperienced GM or someone who just wants to run fights. However, I haven’t met a GM that wouldn’t love detailed character histories.
What the GM can do with what you hand them is really up to them, their time, and their resources. It isn’t up to you to decide if he can or cannot use what you give him, that is his job. But if you hand him just a paragraph that has little more then a city name, the name of dead parents, and the level of angst your character has, you might as well not give them anything at all. Give them a full tool box, something that they can pull out villains, settings, and sacred moments that are special to your characters. If you do so, you will be handing them all the elements they need to make a game you won’t stop talking about for years to come. If done right, you won’t talk about combats, you will talk about what lead up to the combat and what happened afterwards. You will all talk about how your group sat there in shocked silence when the big twist hit and it hit in a personal way.
Once you have a detailed backstory and the GM has read it, you have a character that can help drive the plot of the game and really make the story truly royal. So, sit down and take the time to really think about your character. If you need help, try looking for questionnaires online that are for character building. Fill a couple of those out, and take the time you need to really understand your character. If you find you just are not creative enough, ask for help from your gaming group, an internet forum, or even here.
Discover who your characters are, share that information, and enjoy yourself. I promise, you wont regret it.