Back in the dawn of role-playing, when the name of the game was TSR's D&D and there was nothing else to be had, role-playing characters often lacked individuality. Original D&D was a spin-off from Chainmail, a medieval wargames system; D&D was its skirmish-level fantasy variant, a tail that ended up wagging the dog. Characters differed mainly in characteristics and weapons, and anything resembling personality or background history, or even a motive for adventuring, was ignored by the rules and left to the whim of the players. Since D&D didn't have any background to speak of, character descriptions tended to be very vague or extremely pretentious.
Absence of background and a system that awarded points only for killing things and acquiring treasure meant that character advancement and development was largely a matter of improving combat capabilities. It's a bit like a pyramid scheme; kill monsters, and you acquire hit points, improved skills, weapons, and everything else you need... to kill more monsters. But since that's all there was to do in early D&D, it didn't really matter. This emphasis often led to an arms race between players and referees, producing plutonium dragons, antimatter death-traps, cursed artifacts, and paladins who carried golf-bags of magic swords and could survive a nuclear explosion or hard vacuum. In that arms race personality and motives were largely forgotten. "It's evil, kill it!" was about as far as these things went.
Today things are supposed to be different. Most modern RPGs devote more space to background and motives than any other facet of the game. Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean that players take advantage of the opportunity to give their characters more of a personality; a depressing number are still basically combat-orientated ciphers, with little or no back-story.
Perhaps this isn't surprising. Although games are designed with the best of intentions, the actual rules are about doing things; fighting, hacking computers, picking locks, casting spells. Game rules that affect some aspect of a character's behaviour, such as the disadvantages used to offset skills in GURPS and Champions, are often treated as a nuisance: "OK, so my fiancee is dead. She was a useless bimbo anyway, kept getting kidnapped. I suppose I've got to take some other disadvantage now...", downplayed unless they turn out to be useful: "Well, I'm illiterate so the cursed scroll won't affect me, I'll take it to the magic shop and sell it...", or overplayed to a ridiculous extent: "I've got to lead the party through these woods. I wonder if there are any - shudder - spiders around, I wouldn't want to meet any - shudder - spiders. Oh god, there are spiders out there - someone else had better lead the party, I'm having an anxiety attack, we're all going to be webbed..."
Disadvantages sometimes work well, but like any other rules system can be abused. Fortunately most games now put an upper limit on the benefits available from disadvantages; Chaosium's Superworld lacked one, and it was possible to design a deaf-mute paraplegic psychic powerful enough to destroy the Sun.
Another common idea, which avoids some of these problems, is to ask the players to write about their characters' background and experiences, goals, and personality, without any immediate effect on the actual game mechanics. This at least encourages a little thought, although taken to extremes of psychobabble it can get a little silly. In Vampire and its sequels, and in the Amber RPG, it is possible to spend several hours discussing and acting out the history of characters before play even begins.
An interesting approach to this idea was used for the fantasy game Everway, recently remaindered extensively. This game included a large pack of "vision cards" which presented ideas for a character's history, with questions on the back. For example, one has a picture of a group of ragged prisoners in a crowded cell; the questions include "What does the prisoner at the window see?", "Who are these people, and how are they related, if at all?", and "Who is the dog-headed person at the back?". Players each pick a few cards, combining their themes and these questions, to create the character's story. I must admit that I have often wanted to put a few Gary Larsen cartoons into the pack, with similar questions: "Why are the soldiers attacking the castle?", "Why are there goldfish in the moat?", "How does the snake turn the door handle?", and so forth. While the game itself is beautifully produced it's a little "new age" for my tastes, but for much of this year it was available for under a fiver, and at that price is extraordinary value for money; the cards are readily adaptable to any fantasy game, and many are beautiful.
No matter how well a game may handle these concepts, it's unfortunate that many referees and players pay the minimum of lip-service to these intricacies, once play begins, or "forget" anything that is inconvenient. Their characters lurch from one adventure to another, with most of their personality and history ignored in the interests of expediency.
It's a pity, because some of the most effective role playing situations come from conflicts between these aspects of a character and the needs of the adventure; that's one of the reasons why these rules and systems were invented. Most referees find that players who do their utmost to stay in character, even if it means lost opportunities or a risk of death, are far more satisfying than those whose who always follow the most expedient path. Think of it as though you were meeting the character; would you prefer to encounter someone with a strong personality and opinions, or someone who never gave you a straight answer and instantly changed their attitude if it would gain them a tiny advantage? I know who I would be most likely to trust.
Of course there can be snags; keeping track of a character's complex background, or trying to imagine how they will behave in a particular situation, can be difficult for everyone in a game, and sometimes leads to arguments or misunderstandings. I tend to think that these occasional problems are worth it, but as usual opinions can differ.
One way to decide if a character is "real" enough is to go through a check-list of relationships, goals, and attitudes, building up what amounts to a comprehensive CV. Several games offer these lists, sometimes taking things to a ridiculous level of completeness. Another way, a good deal simpler, is to try to sum up the character in a few words and see if he, she, or it still sounds interesting. If a searing in-depth analysis reveals that your character is "A barbarian with a big axe" and little more it's possible that more work is needed.
Maybe it's time for me to put my money where my mouth is, and offer a small prize for the most interesting character description. But, in order to make the competition more challenging (and to avoid wading through 10,000 word entries), there is a small snag. You must describe the character in exactly a hundred words, with up to fifeen additional words for a title. This is a literary form known as the Drabble (see The Drabble Project and later works, sold in aid of charity by Beccon Publications), and is surprisingly difficult to write.
Here's an example, an apparent damsel in distress from one of my more melodramatic Edwardian adventures; this became a piece of blank verse, more or less accidentally, as I wrote it:
A Femme Fatale (inspired by Federation President Servalan)
An aristocratic damsel in distress, pale foreign beauty held in durance vile. Beware this stranger, those who aid her are soon in danger.
Strange plots and stratagems abound, mysterious voyages and cargoes are found, and desperate traps.
How lucky to find such protectors, to clothe her, expensively, as befits her rank, to follow this tangled trail wherever it leads, and earn her thanks.
No surprise if romance is in the air, and rivals for her hand take less than perfect care.
The instigator of it all, she is content to wait. She plans a cunning trap, and is its bait...
The competition is simple. Write a description of a character you have designed as an NPC or adventurer for a role-playing game. It must be EXACTLY a hundred words, with no more than fifteen words in the title. Hyphenated words may be questioned. You are strongly advised to count your words VERY carefully, the editors of the Drabble Project books received a surprising number of entries with an incorrect word count. Most word processors get these things wrong. There are three prizes, chosen on the basis of cheapness and handiness:
Please indicate your first, second, and third choices. Entries must be received by the end of February 1999.
Entries remain the property of their authors, but may be published in Odyssey. There is no guarantee that all three prizes will be awarded, or that entries will be published. If you are under 18 your entry must be signed by a parent or guardian. You can enter by post to Marcus Rowland, 22 Westbourne Park Villas, London W2 5EA, but entries will not be returned unless an SAE is enclosed. Or e-mail entries to email@example.com
Marcus L. Rowland
Needless to say, the competition has long since closed. The winners were Arthur Goodman, Steve Jones, and Nathan Knaack. The winning entries are on my web page, follow the links to Odyssey magazine.