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Lessons from the Aether: RPGs and Character Creation

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Roleplaying games are all about playing a role of a character in a giving space. Many, if not all RPGs, are based or influence by various speculative fiction genres such as sword and sandal, space opera, and cyberpunk to name a few. While a significant amount of the rules in any game (except for the purely, “narrative,” ones) are numbers base, today we are going to explore the narrative side of the game and how they can be applied to writing.


The first paragraph or chapter of a RPG rulebook will be dedicated to a description of the setting. While not part of the character construction rules per say, the impact of the setting upon the characters can not be underestimated. Characters are a product of their setting even as they are outliers within it.  For our purposes we will be playing a game called Void House, a sci-fi RPG based on the universe of the Ruins of Empire (NOTE: NOT ACTUAL PRODUCT) a distant future space opera set in the Milky Way. The action is set two thousand years in the future. Mankind has explored most of the galaxy and rules it under the banner of a unified empire. Aliens races exist, but they tend to be the minority in galactic affairs. The heart of imperial territory falls under the purview of the Great Houses, each controlling an arm of the galaxy. But our heroes hail from the edges of galactic civilization, a place called The Void. The Void encompasses the outer geography of the galaxy, the spaces between galactic arms as well as all territory in and around the galactic poles. It is a place of distant stars and chaotic politics, festooned with criminals, exiled nobles, and grasping entrepreneurs.

Enter our hero: Hakan Tempest. Hakan is a human male in his early thirties that hails from the world of Media, one five earth-size moons that orbit the ringed gas giant Taurus. His home town is the sprawling city of Derin, a sprawling urban complex of over twenty million inhabitants. Derin is the capital of Media and the heart of the trade and politics for the Taurus Collectorate. The city is divided by a combination of rings and levels. The richest members live in the outer rind suburbs and commute directly to the upper business levels in the inner most ring of the city. The second most inner ring is the industrial area that doubles as a massive slum. A lot of folks searching for their fortune never get out of the so called The Choke, a place with a reputation for extreme poverty, vile crimes, and generational poverty. The next ring is home to the middle class. The working class lives at ground level a street or block away from the worst of the Choke. The better of classes live and work in the levels above them. The city center is the business and governmental core of the city, with government employees at or near ground level while the higher level house corporate headquarters with planetary and collectorate wide reach. Hakan Tempest comes from the Level 3 of the middle class ring (Working Class) at the edge a block away from the Choke and works at the bottom level City Center.

Character Class

Now that we gave our character a name and a place of birth, lets look at his character class. In gaming terms the character class defines the role and abilities of the character within the adventuring party (a common name for the group of characters in most RPGs). Most RPGs, regardless of their particular setting have three general classes: Fighter/Warrior, Rogue/Thief, and Mage/Wizard. Your Fighters are masters of weapons whether it maybe a crude bronze gladius in the local arena or a high tech plasma rifle that can destroy a enemy tank at five kilometers. The Rogue is your indirect action class, someone who relies on stealth, guile, and diplomacy to win the day. Not as tough as the Fighter, but able to either bypass most obstacles or place a poison blade between their ribs. The Mage is your magic type. In sci-fi settings they may use the power of the mind to bend reality or tap into unknown knowledge from ancient sources, they tend to be a combination of scholar and artillery type. They can be the most versatile of classes but also the weakest physically. Many RPGs add a healer class of sorts and one or more sub-classes to allow for greater player choice.

Hakan is a member of the Planetary Militia, a sub-set of Fighter Class with Detective as his sub-class/specialization. He is physically fit and is as good in a fist fight as in a firefight.  His class also determines his skill set and certain advantages/bonuses. Again, without going into the mathematics of the rules, we can say that Hakan knows basic hand-to-hand combat, how to use infantry firearms and because the Planetary Militia is a mix of military and police, his skills include basic fist aid, survival training, and skill in criminal investigations. He has the Observant advantage, which allows him to perceive minute details in the environment, great for investigating a crime scene or reacting to an ambush.

Quirks and Flaws

Some RPGs allow for further character customization through a series of quirks and flaws. Quirks are habits that are unique to the character and help to make him stand out. Flaws are things that can get him into trouble and are often used to balance any advantages the character may posses. Hakan quirk is that he loves his Turkish coffee and will go out of his way to drink at least on cup a day. His flaw is that he is as stubborn as a mule. Once something pique his interest, he won’t rest until he finds out what it is.

Background and Motivation

This is where the player gets to fill in the details of the character, either by using a set of rules or by creating it themselves. Void House provides a series of tables that include such details as family, friends, romantic relations (if any), a major incident in his past, and any contacts he may have in the militia or elsewhere. But even these tables only provide hints to the player on his character background and are entirely optional. He rolled a working class background, so he decides that Hakan as a large extended working class family with parents, grandparents, three siblings and quite a few cousins. The major incident involves an accident at the Academy which earned Hakan both a life long friend and a bitter rival in the force. And he has a collection of contacts from his years working in street patrol and enforcement. Living so close to the Choke motivated him to fight against the crime encroaching on his community after a family member died in a shootout between criminal gangs.

That is a basic round down of a typical RPG character creation session. You may have noticed that the process answers some crucial questions about the character: Who is he? Where does he come from? What is his occupation? Why did he join the Militia? The very same questions that come up whenever a writer creates a character in fiction. It just so happens that RPGs have turned character creation into an art.

The video below provides a great example of the character creation process during a typical RPG session. Even if you don’t get some of the lingo, you should be able to understand the process based on the description above:


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