Prewriting Part 3: Character Sheet

In previous articles I’ve advocated the use of RPG character sheets instead of a less mechanical writers version.  In this article I will actually create a character using one.  Brace yourself folks because this could get ugly.

Overview

First couple things we need to do are 1. introduce the RPG we’re using and most of its notable quirks, and 2. introduce the “team dynamic” of X-Men: Evolution and therefore understand the hole we’re trying to fill.  Only then will we outline the character “Atlas” and what I’m trying to do with him.  Hopefully at which point, any character creation decisions will have a through line of logic so you can understand them.

Second step is breaking down the process of character creation into chunks–which conveniently will follow my usual character creation process.  It boils down to: general gist, bad stuff, good stuff, and filler stuff that makes him “function.”  Once that’s done we’ll have a mechanically viable sheet (albeit one that only a very generous GM would allow)

Third step is generating backstory.  Using the decisions we’ve made with the mechanical sheet, we will write a bit of fluff explaining the character easily enough for anyone who needs to read it to understand the character.  This will include a physical description as well.  And hopefully by that point you’ll understand my process enough to make it your own.

Introduction of Concepts

Legend of the Five Rings

L5R is a fascinating system that tries to create some form of middle ground between gritty hyper-realistic samurai drama, and mystical kung-fu wuxia epic fantasy.  As such there are rules for conjuring the elements, martial arts, and resisting the eldritch horror of the shadowlands taint, but despite all that, a normal man with a sword is still a potent force and the artifices of court and the law have more power yet.

The system at its core runs on a fairly intuitive “roll and keep” system.  You have traits which represent your innate capabilities (how strong/smart/cunning/tough etc. you are) and skill which are things you deliberately train (sword skills, etiquette, lore: tropical fish etc).  You roll d10s equal to trait+skill, and keep the trait’s worth, if the number on the dice beats the target number (or TN) you succeed.  Interestingly the system allows for raises, increasing the risk for greater effect if you succeed anyway.  What sets the system apart is a focus on the “balance” of physical and mental traits.  Each physical trait is paired with a mental trait to make up your “ring”.  The four classical elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) are represented, with Void representing the fifth ring of the title.  Most of the powerful techniques and spells key off the “Ring” rather than the individual trait.  So while you can be “all physical all the time” it makes more sense to spend points by ring so that your insight gain (basically experience, but not quite) is as quick as possible.  Also unlike most systems, L5R does not just grant you new abilities with the rising of your insight–technically you’re supposed to travel back to your homeland, and get your sensei to teach you the next portion of your technique (although I have yet to play with a GM who strictly enforced this).

Confused yet?

What this all boils down to is that L5R can run the gamut in terms of character creation.  Once you understand the system, you know what an “average joe” looks like, what a highly trained operative looks like, and what “the world shudders at my passing” looks like, and can reasonably represent most anything you need with the system.  I will be using the 4th edition since it’s the most recent and it errs on the “gritty” side of the spectrum (as opposed to 3rd which was basically a kung-fu movie all the time) which makes it easier for my “actual freaking superhero” to stand out.  Also since I only have one or two books outside the core of 4th edition…I won’t be tempted to go hunting for the “perfect” version of the character.  Just a version good enough to get by will work for me.

X-Men: Evolution

Created shortly after the first batch of X-men movies, this TV show reimagines the main cast of the X-Men as high school students.  Tackling themes like power and responsibility, interpersonal relationships, and of course the fear of differences being discovered.  The first couple seasons revel in the high school AU they’ve crafted before gradually opening up the world to the broader themes of the X-Men franchise proper (prejudice, proper behavior in the face of oppressors, students becoming teachers etc)  All in all a fairly grounded series with excellent art and good use of character and setting (barring one or two hiccups).

However if you look at their main roster of characters, you will note that most of them fall into “zapper” or “specialist” rolls.  Either they chuck projectiles at the enemy or operate outside normal human parameters to confuse and misdirect.  If this was a RPG party, it would be nothing but archers and mages.  There is no “tank” type character, no melee specialist, no one who can just stand there, say “none shall pass” and have a reasonable expectation of no one being able to.

So there’s a hole in the roster, one I can fill.

The Unstoppable Atlas

The original concept of Atlas comes from a superhero novel I may yet get around to writing.  He’s based on a monster from Greek Mythology; a giant who was unkillable so long as he was touching the ground (Heracles picked him up and strangled him to death in midair).  That translates fairly well to a superpower so I stole it…but I added a twist.  He absorbs this healing through the earth specifically, and the city’s polluted earth and layers of human waste and neglect make a very poor filter.  These toxins have worn at the mind of this superdude even as they healed the body…producing a horribly quirky, Frank Miller style madman who leaps from building to building and eternally monologues of His City as a person.  I was going to use him as a trickster-mentor.  He may be nuts, but his heart is in the right place–and with enough beatings, so too will the protagonists.’

And then my girlfriend mentioned that he’d make a better main hero…

So, long story short, here we are.  A power meant for a side character and mentor grafted onto an idealized “me” and told to be the hero.  Swell.

So what makes up that power?

Well first there’s the healing factor–it’s the most obvious power and the most dynamic.  It has to be conceivable that he’d survive the nastiest shot the game could generate and maybe keeping fighting afterward.

Second there’s the raw strength/endurance.  Since he heals as he touches the ground it’s conceivable that he’d almost never get tired.  Since he almost never gets tired he could literally do a “training from hell” montage nightly and only see improvements.  True this only puts him up to “max human potential” but Captain America proves that to be of little concern.  Besides, protagonists have ways of breaking base limits.

Finally there’s the “Earth Sense.”  The original character was conceived to answer a question; how the hell do street-level superguys catch criminals red-handed more often than not?  Atlas’ answer is he has a field of perception stretching out from his person in such a way to give him a rudimentary map and general position of all persons, creatures and other in a radius around him also touching the ground.  This allows him to sense crime when he’s a mile off and (through powers one and two) arrive there in the nick of time, and dispatch said criminal before anything terribly ugly can occur.  The name “Atlas” came from this power–being both the name of a Titan, and the name of a map.

So, now we have a mechanics set, a team to work with, and some design goals.  Let’s get to work.

Character Creation Proper

General Gist

When someone asks about your RPG character, the general gist is what you tell them first.  A level 3 Elf Ranger, a Twilight Caste Sorcerer , a Rank 3 Hida Bushi, a level 27 Night Elf Mohawk…that kind of thing.  So…what sort of character shall we make?

L5R characters come in five varieties: Bushi (Warriors), Shugenja (Mages), Courtiers (Talky characters), Ninja (obvious) and Monks (also obvious).  Given the needs of the party for a “Tank,” the rather squishy Shugenja, Courtiers, and Ninja are out so that leaves Bushi and Monks.  Standard bushi doctrine requires armor and a weapon…which probably won’t work for a highschooler.  So monk it is.  But now which school specifically?  Monks come in two varieties: the standard monk–common-born students of the tao or specific fortunes or ancestors, capable of feats of wonder known as Kiho (think supernatural martial arts), and clan-based monks–noble born scions initiated into sects of higher power and purpose.  Of those, the Togashi tattooed men fit the vehicle of Atlas’ power the closest–these monks are marked with supernatural blood, augmenting their abilities beyond the capabilities of mortals, which mirrors whatever nonsense Mojo inflicted on our Protagonist to give him superpowers.

Of course there is another wrinkle.  Despite all the rigor of the dojo and the supernatural influences, a Togashi Tattooed Man is “just a man” the same as any other in the setting.  An exceptional man, to be sure, but this makes him about the same level as a trained soldier or a professional athlete–that doesn’t feel very “superhero”-y now does it?

So what would?  Well, looking over the kihos a number of them fit with the powers Atlas is supposed to have.  Perhaps then, we “Gesalt” (a term drawn from DnD that allows two classes to be run at once) the Togashi school with one of the traditional monk schools, and presume the kihos gained from this fusion are “Always On.”  This is grand scale cheating by any reasonable measure and would get me kicked out of any game not of my own design.  But since this is my own design, we can just assume that every other mutant runs with a similar combination of schools.

So we’re going with Togashi Order/Order of Heroes (neat little school that lets you spend your void points on other people’s rolls…helping them without their knowledge) and we’re going with a budget of 80 xp.

Yes, I know I said “start with character creation” but that doesn’t always work.  A character created using the base budget in L5R is the equivalent of someone who just had their bar mitzvah, which is a little too young physically for what I want.  So we’re cheating again, and not apologizing either.  This should get us to rank 2…maybe a little more with all the free stuff I’m tacking on (two sets of bonuses and skills add up…still not apologizing)

Bad Stuff

Naturally the first thing you do once you know about where you’re going for the character is to sort out flaws.  Your characters (even ones based on yourself) are not perfect.  They can’t be.  The have to be beaten or tricked, they have to rely on other people to handle jobs they just cannot, they have to have room to grow.  Yes even the superheroes with a bazillion free points.  So, how do you give your character flaws without crippling them into uselessness?

Well L5R gives you a max budget of 10 bonus points that can be earned by taking disadvantages.  These “bad things” generally impose penalties in specific circumstances (e.g. missing a leg means you can’t run so good) and run the gamut from physical deformities to problems of character to literal spiritual imbalances that meddle in the character’s life.  Even if you get the maximum amount of disadvantages (I always do…free stuff is worth it) you can spread out the hate among various categories so that no one problem becomes insurmountable. (or not…one of my favorite characters ever had all his disadvantages put into things like “disturbing countenance” and “disfigurement” making him the ugliest sonnovagun to ever stride through the desert like pestilence incarnate).

But the real trick is this: Your characters’ flaws should drive them to do things you want them to do anyway.

When you get down to it, a story is about a person stepping outside of his comfort zone, and interacting with the strange.  In the process of dealing with these things, he learns of himself, where his weaknesses are and how to deal with them too.  In short, the disadvantages help make the story arc.

In other words, the purpose of disadvantages is not to detract from fun.  But rather they are a goad to push your character toward fun.

So what would be fun?

Well as a person knowledgeable (but not perfectly so) of the marvel universe, it would be “fun” if he couldn’t reveal he had this knowledge (a reasonably standard trope–one Mojo would be keen to enforce).  It would also be fun to watch the various telepaths of the X-men universe discover this information on their own.  So “Dark Secret” would be fun indeed.

You know what else is fun?  Suddenly being a teenager again.  Watching Atlas deal with hormones and urges and oh dear, they’re all staring at me like I’m a steak aren’t they?  So we give him “Lechery” to simulate this new and amusing experience, and hope no one catches onto this easily exploitable weakness (spoiler: of course they do)

Well, that’s more than half the points gone.  What else could we use?  Well one of the plot points I hope to cover is the treatment of the “bad guy mutants.”  Because even though they’re more sympathetic in this show than any other iteration, they’re still teenagers who need more help than the ostensible good guys are willing to give.  But not Atlas.  Atlas sees this problem and tries to help–which causes conflict with his team.  That should be enough for the “Soft-Hearted” disadvantage to be justified.

Two points to go.  Well, Atlas’ ultimate goal should probably be to get home again, but barring that, to somehow remove Mojo from influence over this world/universe/thing.  This is not going to be an easy process, and it’s going to take far longer than this season will allow.  So “Driven” an excellent “disadvantage” for any heroic determinator.  Which gives us the maximum ten points of disadvantages without forcing the character to do anything we don’t want him to.  Sweet!

Good Stuff

Once you have the flaws down the next trick is to figure out the virtues.  Virtues are actually a little trickier as instead of having one goal, you have two.  The first goal is to pick things that augment your “general gist” choices.  Mechanically this makes the character more effective, but thematically it’s the other way around–the character was good at these things already, so he took a career path that made the best use of them.

The second, however, is to help establish nuances of personality…quirks if you will.  It’s usually a certain kind of psychopath who is so focused on their craft or profession that it leaves no room for other ideas or concepts–which can make for compelling characters, true, but very few characters actually do that.  Usually there is some uncertainty in choosing life paths, and a number of things one is good at.  Jean-Luc Picard maybe a consummate ship captain and diplomat–so good at his job he might as well be married to it–but he also has a passion for archaeology, and that informs a number of his decisions and helps him solve several conundrums, which he could not have done if he was just “all captain, all the time.”  There has to be room on the sheet for those quirks, otherwise you get psychopaths and boring protagonists (which is worse).

Thankfully L5R has a pile of Advantages to go with its disadvantages.  These range from natural physicality, to innate charm, to literal blessings from the gods, and they are awesome.  Now what to pick?

Making our choices somewhat easier in-story is the negative influence of Mojo.  As the central conceit of the story is that a normal person was turned into a mutant teenager to interact with a High School X-Men Alternate Universe (yes, fanfiction is weird), we can also assume that several Advantage choices were handled by Mojo to maximize character appeal and effectiveness as a hero…without caring a fig for the personal quirks that make up his victim.  This lack of insight will eventually be his undoing (somehow) but for right now it means we have more Advantages than normally would be comfortable on a character.  I like to run about 10 points worth on a normal character (to counteract the Disadvantages) so let’s double that to twenty and see what we can com up with.

First is Mojo’s contributions.  He wants a strong, tough, and terrific hero to sell the show and make him money.  So he chooses: Hands of Stone (extra damage for unarmed attacks), Strength of the Earth (Reduced penalties for getting injured) and Benten’s Blessing (Goddess of Romantic Love makes me more appealing)  That costs 12 points in total, but bad guys cheat so we’re going to roll with it.

So, then, since this is a self-insert character, what elements of “me” are important enough to spend points on?  Probably Intellect (no one expects the genius bruiser) and Voice (I am very loud in real life).  Thankfully there’s a “Voice” advantage (extra dice for specifically vocal tasks) and Sage (a fake rank in any Lore skill, so you never have to roll it unskilled).  That’s seven points down…one to go.  Unfortunately there are only so many Advantages that are just one point…so we’ll take “Absolute Direction” (always know where north is) and truly break away from “actual me” (I tend to get lost in new areas).

Now all that’s left is to fill out the rest of the sheet.

Connective Tissue

This is mostly the numbers portion of the sheet.  Actually spending points on the bits you roll, so we’re not going to go over it in as much detail as the other sections.  Technically all the work has been done by now.  We understand the character, how he works, where his weaknesses are and what he’s good at beyond the obvious.  At some level this bit is unnecessary, but for completion’s sake (and to help if you’re going from zero to full character) I include it here.

The specific “cheating” earlier gave us a Void of 4, in addition to Perception and Reflexes at 3; as well as several very useful skills at rank 2…which is all very good.  But there is still work to do.  First off we need Health–a tank isn’t going to last very long if he’s frail, so most of our points go into the Earth Ring Traits.  Also I can’t imagine any idealized version of me being less than Intelligence 3 so 12 more points there.  That gives us…two points left.  Two skills….hmmm.  Courtier (general socializing skill) and Sincerity (literally sound Sincere–governs earnestness and lying).  And we’re done with the numbers portion.

This gives Atlas an Insight of 156, putting him barely at Rank 2 (which earns him new techniques, and kiho).  Honestly the sheet is fairly lopsided with emphasis in weird spots and the potential to grow by leaps and bounds given serious (in-story) training…which is kind of perfect actually.

So then, actually choosing Kiho and Tattoos (they wouldn’t be the Tattooed Order without them).  The two tattoos I want are Bamboo (Bonus to Armor TN making me more difficult to hit) and Crab (Base damage reduction if I do get hit).  Kihos are going to be trickier as I get five of them and don’t qualify for everything just yet.  I decide on:

Embrace the Stone (More damage reduction)

Grasp the Earth Dragon (Internal Kiho that reduces wound penalties, and keeps me moving even if almost dead)

Destiny’s Strike (Martial Kiho that grants me counter-attacks)

Ride the Water Dragon (Kharmic Kiho that heals me a small amount every turn)

Eight Directions Awareness (Mystical Kiho that lets me sense everything out to a fairly substantial distance.

Touch the Void Dragon (Internal Kiho that gives you bonuses based on the nearby terrain)

…Yeah, that’s pretty broken, and only going to get more so as things stack on each other.  But, we’re finally done.  Now for the fluff.

The Final Step

 

So now we’re here.  There is a completed character sheet with a lot of numbers on it.  But what do you do with it?  Well, you play with it.  You imagine what the person on that sheet–Atlas in this case–would do in the situations you intend to put him in and write appropriate reactions.  It’s technically that easy.  But there’s still a few things you could do to make it easier.

Backstory

Give yourself a rough history of the character from birth to right before the story proper starts.  It doesn’t have to be long or involved.  Just enough to justify the various choices you made on the sheet (for instance, with Altas, a lot of things are justified by Mojo’s interference–I probably have a Courtier build in real life).  Note things like parents and financial situation but keep it short, maybe a page.  A fun exercise is to see if you can get it down to twenty words or less (note: don’t actually use that version, just see if you can).

Here’s one for Atlas:

Boring amateur author sucked into TV show.  Is now teenage hearththrob for audience’s amusement.  Declares quiet war on Slimeball responsible.

Personal Descriptors

A neat trick from Jim Butcher is to mark each of your characters with a few specific ideas so they pop out to the reader.  It’s really useful over a series of books since those descriptors can remind the audience of who you’re talking about.

Altas’ descriptors are:  Too Young to be That Built, Too Unkempt to be That Pretty, and He’s like a Zen Master or something…

Since he’s the viewpoint character, these won’t come up that often, but it does help for when thinking about how other people see him.  These three specifically refer to his general build, his general facial features (and his attitude about them), and his general mannerisms (old soul in a young body, and a tendency to be cryptic will do that to a person)

 

So yeah.  That’s about everything.  Go try it yourself.  Find a system you like and make a character for your project using it.  Try it out on the character you know the best…then try it out on someone you know very little about.  See what you think.

Until next time, keep writing.

 

 

 

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