Character Creation - Background
Your high concept is a phrase that sums up what your character is about—what and who he is. It’s an aspect, one of the first and most important ones for your character. Think of this aspect like your job, your role in life, or your calling—it’s what you’re good at, but it’s also a duty you have to deal with, and it’s constantly filled with problems of its own. That is to say, it comes with some good and some bad.
These aren’t the only ways to play with your high concept, but they’ll get you started. As long as it gives you a good idea about how the core of your character can be a boon and a hindrance, you’re on your way to a satisfying, succinct high concept for your character. But don’t stress out over it—the worst thing you can do is overcomplicate this by trying to make it into too big of a deal. You’ll be coming up with six other aspects over the course of character creation— you don’t have to get it all nailed in one.
High concepts can have overlap among the characters. As long as you have something to distinguish how your character is different from the others, you should be okay. If a high concept must be similar among all the characters (such as if the GM pitches an idea for an all-Warden campaign), it’s crucial that their troubles differ. Otherwise, you may have characters that feel too similar to each other. (If you’re having a problem here, read over the next section on troubles. That part might unlock some ideas for you.)
In addition to a high concept, every character has some sort of trouble (which is also an aspect) that’s a part of his life and his story. If your high concept is what or who your character is, your trouble is the answer to a simple question: what complicates your high concept?
Trouble has many forms, though it can generally be broken up into two types: internal conflicts/personal struggles, and external problems. Both threaten the character or are difficult to contain. Whatever form the trouble takes, it drives the character to take action, voluntarily or not. A character that does not have some sort of recurring issue is going to have a much harder time finding motivation, and that sort of character doesn’t tend to have many reasons to go out and do the crazy things that make for adventure. Without adventure, things would just be boring!
Most characters have several troubles they have to deal with, often reflected by the rest of their aspects (which you’ll select as you create your character), but there is usually one core trouble that shapes the character. This aspect will probably be the one most thoroughly exercised during play (at least in terms of compels).
Trouble is a potent hook for the GM and players to draw on for ideas. As you think about your character, try to figure out what kinds of problems you want your character to continually deal with. Try to pick one that has no easy solutions—many may not have solutions at all!
Also, troubles are one of the major ways that characters get compelled, which is important for getting fate points back. So it’s to your advantage to play to your character’s troubles in the adventure as much as you possibly can. (Troubles are like giant red flags to the GM saying “Hey, pick me!”)
Since your trouble is an aspect, it’s something you should also be able to invoke, right? Because we’ve been so focused on how this complicates your character’s life, it’s easy to miss how a trouble also helps your character.
In short, your experience with your trouble makes you a stronger person in that regard. Dealing with personal struggles leaves you vulnerable to being tempted or cajoled, but it can also give you a sense of inner strength, because you know the sort of person you want to be. External problems often cause trouble, but people do learn hard lessons from the troubles they deal with. They especially learn how to maneuver around many of the smaller issues their troubles present.
When you’re setting up a trouble, it should be the sort of issue that’s not going to paralyze the character completely. If the trouble is constantly interfering with the character’s day-today life, he’s going to spend all his time dealing with it rather than other matters at hand (like, perhaps, the current adventure). There has to be some wiggle room between “continually” and “constantly.” You shouldn’t have to deal with your inner conflict or external pressure at every turn—unless that’s the core of what that particular adventure is about. Before you go and further, talk with your GM about your character’s trouble. At this point, make sure you’re both on the same page in terms of what it means. Both of you may want to look at how this aspect might be invoked or compelled as one way to make sure you’re both seeing the same things—or to give each other ideas. Plus, the GM will come away from this conversation knowing what you want out of your trouble, better equipped to make it an important part of the game.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to give your character a name. You can name your character whatever you want, but often character names have a certain poetry to them. Think about other characters that are similar to the high concept you have in mind, and how their names say a little something about who they are.
Important: Before moving on to this step, you need to have figured out your race, class, high concept, trouble, and name.
Each phase is a section of your character’s background—the key events in his past that form who he is. There are five in total, and each gives you an opportunity to define a new aspect for your character.
The first two (“Where Did You Come From?” and “What Shaped You?”) can be done in either order. It’s the third (“What Was Your First Story?”) that really supercharges this process, defining the initial adventure your character “starred” in and anchoring relationships with the other characters in play. The last two phases (“Whose Story Has Crossed Your Path?” and “Who Else’s Path Have You Crossed?”) represent your character’s participation in other characters’ stories, showing how his overall story collided with the events of their stories and got him involved.
Each phase will ask you to write down two things on the phase worksheet:
- First, a summary of the general details of what happened in that phase of your character’s life, known as the phase’s summary. A paragraph should suffice, but you can write more if you’re inspired. Each phase will suggest different ideas for the summary.
- Second, an aspect that reflects some part of that phase. The aspect can cover the general vibe from the summary, or it can focus on some piece of it that still resonates with your character in the present day. Some phases will suggest specific directions for their aspects.
If you’re stalled on developing an aspect from the summary you’ve written, take a look at Aspects. And as with aspects, if you later come up with new ideas for a summary that you’ve already written down, you can always come back and change it. Nothing is ever written in stone.
Where Did You Come From? (Background)
This phase covers the character’s youth; if your character is older than 20 to 30 at the time the game starts, this phase expands to cover much of his young adulthood.
Youth is a time of adventure and excitement, as well as the time when we are most shaped by our family and environment. This phase is a chance to talk about your character’s family and upbringing.
When writing the summary of this phase, consider answers to the following questions:
- What nation is your character from?
- What region? What culture?
- What were his family’s circumstances like? (Rich? Poor? Scholarly? Isolated? Pious? Political?)
- How big is the family? (Small? Average? Large? Very large?)
- What’s your character’s relationship with his family? (Loving and close? Volatile? Non-existent?)
- How was your character educated?
- What were your character’s friends like? Did your character get into much trouble in his youth?
When coming up with this phase’s aspect, consider one that’s tied either to the most important or significant events of the phase or to the character’s national, cultural, or familial upbringing.
What Shaped You? (Rising Conflict)
This phase represents your character’s “middle history,” when his high concept most strongly comes to the forefront. Think about his high concept and a situation that would call it into sharp relief, forcing him to make a choice or otherwise take decisive action.
This is also the time when your character starts coming into his own, beginning to realize his true potential.
Some questions to consider during this period:
- Who were the prominent people in your character’s life at this point? Does he have enemies? Close and fast friends?
- How did your character’s high concept and trouble aspects shape him and the events around him? (Assuming your character came into his high concept and trouble by this point.)
- What were the most significant choices your character made?
- What lessons did this time period teach your character?
What Was Your First Adventure? (The Story)
The third phase is your character’s first true adventure—his first book, episode, case, movie, whatever—starring him. You’ll need to come up with a title for this adventure. (This can be a lot of fun, but don’t burn too much time on it.) A quick way to do it is to pick an arbitrary rule to guide the selection of the title. The rule could be as simple as “two words, each with the same number of letters”—that gets you Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, and so on. Or it could be thematic, like poker or gambling terms for a character who’s all about luck—Suicide King, Aces High, All In.
Then, you need to think up and write down the basic details of this story for the phase’s summary. The story doesn’t need to have a lot of detail—in fact, a pair of sentences (see below) works pretty well, because your fellow players will add in their own details to this past adventure in the next two phases (as you will to theirs).
If you find yourself stuck, look first to your character’s trouble. Find a dilemma that has a chance of throwing that idea into question or focus again. That said, you needn’t directly address the issue there—just provide an opportunity for it to be a factor. You can also look to a tried and true author’s trick—the “story skeleton” (or “story question”).
A story skeleton fits this format:
When [something happens], [your protagonist] [pursues a goal]. But will [your protagonist] succeed when [antagonist provides opposition]?
Whose Path Have You Crossed? (Guest Starring)
In this phase, you tie the group together by having each character contribute a minor, supporting role in another character’s first adventure.
Your character has a supporting role in another character’s story, which you get to come up with. Briefly discuss the story with the player whose adventure it is and add a sentence or phrase to the summary or story skeleton to reflect your character’s supporting role.
Next, write the title of this story and your character’s contribution down on your phase worksheet. This is important, because your character gets an aspect from the supporting role he plays in the adventure. The person whose story it is should also write down the contribution, if there’s room on his sheet.
Supporting roles come in three forms: they complicate a situation, solve a situation, or both.
- Complicating a situation: Your character has managed to make some part of the story you’re guest starring in uncertain. Of course, since that happened in the past, we know you got out of it all right (or mostly all right, as indicated by the aspect you take). When describing this, don’t worry about how the situation is resolved—leave that for someone else, or leave it open. Descriptions like “Trying to save a girl, Michael starts a giant monster fight” or “Thomas gets captured by the monster” are enough to get some ideas flowing.
- Solving a situation: Your character somehow solves a complication that the main character in the story has to deal with, or your character aides the main character in the central conflict. When describing this, you don’t have to mention how the situation was created, just how your character takes care of it.
- Complicating and solving: Here, your character either solves one situation but creates another, or creates a situation but later solves a different one. Mash up the two ideas, using the word “later” in between them.
Who Else’s Path Have You Crossed? (Guest Starring Redux)
The fifth phase is identical to the fourth phase,with the sole caveat that no character can contribute to the same story twice. Thus, each character should have a starring role in his own story, as well as a supporting role in two others.
Intro to Choosing Aspects
A lot of character creation focuses on coming up with aspects—some are called high concepts, some are called troubles, but they basically all work the same way. Aspects are one of the most important parts of your character, since they define who he is and they provide ways for you to generate fate points and to spend those fate points on bonuses. If you have time, you really might want to read the whole chapter we have dedicated to aspects before you go through the process of character creation.
In case you’re pressed for time, here are some guidelines for choosing aspects.
Aspects which don’t help you tell a good story (by giving you success when you need it and by drawing you into danger and action when the story needs it) aren’t doing their job. Those aspects which push you into conflict—and help you excel once you’re there—will be among your best and most-used.
Aspects need to be both useful and dangerous—allowing you to help shape the story and generating lots of fate points—and they should never be boring. The best aspect suggests both ways to use it and ways it can complicate your situation. Aspects that cannot be used for either of those are likely to be dull indeed. Bottom line: if you want to maximize the power of your aspects, maximize their interest.
When you’re told you need to come up with an aspect, you might experience brain freeze. If you feel stumped for decent ideas for aspects, there’s a big section focusing on several methods for coming up with good aspect ideas in Aspects.
If your character doesn’t have many connections to the other characters, talk with the group about aspects that might tie your character in with theirs. This is the explicit purpose of Phase Four—but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it elsewhere as well.
If you ultimately can’t break the block by any means, don’t force it—leave it completely blank. You can always come back and fill out that aspect later, or let it develop during play—as with the On-the-Fly Character Creation rules. Ultimately, it’s much better to leave an aspect slot blank than to pick one that isn’t inspiring and evocative to play. If you’re picking aspects you’re not invested in, they’ll end up being noticeable drags on your fun.