Choose Your Character

Choose Your Character

How to figure out who the PCs should be in your game

So you’ve got an idea for a game. Cool! You’ve got a setting, you’ve got some game mechanics, you might even have the beginnings of a flow coming together! But hold on, there’s one vital factor you might not have thought about: who, exactly, are the PCs?

Figuring out who your PCs are is one of the most important (and often overlooked) steps of the gamewriting process. Remember that the PCs are the center of the game, no matter what kind of game you’re running. They’re the ones who should be empowered, who are being entertained, and should get the message the game is trying to express.

So: who are your PCs? Here are three major things to keep in mind when picking your PCs.

1) Stake

Your PCs need to have a stake in the conflict. If the core of your game is about defeating a dragon that’s terrorizing a countryside, and your PCs are a bunch of teenagers with magic from across the sea, those PCs will wind up asking why they’re the ones fighting the dragon. Instead consider having your PCs be the survivors of a village that the dragon burned down. This might seem obvious, but there are plenty of games where this isn’t the case.

In general, the more you can make your PCs emotionally invested in the core narrative of the game, the more active they’ll be. Give them a reason to go on those fetch quests! So when choosing your PCs, look at the conflict of the game, and at the actions of the villain. Who has been affected most by this? Whose lives will be changed the most? Is it the farmers? The local nobles? The schoolchildren? The forest spirits? Make them your PCs.

I remember running into that problem as a player in one of my first games. My PC team’s plotline was all about our conflict with our neighboring tribe (who had maybe stolen our gods?), but as soon as the teens from the magic school down the lane crashed the party, our whole narrative was forgotten in favor of helping them defeat some dark elf queen that we’d never heard of. I came out of the game frustrated and mostly annoyed at the schoolkids–why did we have to help them, anyway? And what about my tribe’s missing gods, huh? If there had been a reason for my tribe to have been invested in the elf queen’s storyline–or if the gamewriter had put more thought into choosing PCs–that could have been avoided.

2) Interest

The PCs also need to be interesting! If you spend your whole world background describing all the sweet werewolves and vampires and anthropomorphic spidermonkeys that exist in your sitting, but then the PCs are the local clergy, they’re gonna be grumpy that they don’t get to be the cool thing. In general, your PCs should one of the most interesting groups around, for whatever reason. That doesn’t mean there can’t be someone MORE interesting (your big SPC Dragoon Knight or whatever), but consider giving that Dragoon Knight an entourage of PC Dragoons-in-Training to be her squires.

An important element of interest is making the different PC teams interesting to each other, and finding the most interesting conflicts between them. If your setting has tensions based on race or societal class or type of magic, you should do your best to make sure that’s reflected in the PC teams. That way, when the PCs have their big meetups at the top and bottom of each Diamond, there’s plenty of opportunity for interesting roleplaying and competition between the PCs.

It is worth remembering, of course, that this is somewhat a question of casting. There are always some players who really would just rather play the everyman farmer trying to survive, caught in the crossfire of godlike warriors. But those players tend to be rarer, especially among our younger set.

3) Agency

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the PCs need to be the ones with agency in a game. Agency doesn’t necessarily mean direct power! Horror games, for instance, generally have almost entirely powerless PCs. But even then, the PCs have the agency to choose where to run to, or how to survive. In your more typical fantasy game, the PCs are the characters who have the agency about who and how to fight.

This also applies to constructing your flow. Make sure your PCs are the characters who are in a position to make the important decisions about where the story is going, especially at the end. It’s perfectly fine to have SPCs telling them where to go to make their decisions a reality, but the PCs should still feel like they were the ones who made those decisions. By the end of the game, the PCs should feel like they were able to make some change on the world, and do something that actually mattered. This ties back into the question of stake–did they successfully accomplish that thing they were emotionally invested in?

So, to recap:
Make sure your PCs have are invested in the conflict of the game
Don’t have the PCs wishing they could play someone more interesting
Put the PCs in the position to have agency within the game world
Choose wisely!

original post 1/8/14