Expressing the Essence of Character

I’ve talked about the idea that Fate’s a setting and character expression system as much as it’s a game system (though perhaps not directly so on this blog). The Fate framework does this partly by explicitly asking for character “high concepts” and “troubles,” giving everyone an idea of what a character is doing in a given scene or might have to contend with in a given moment.

But the reason Fate does that is because those are mechanically relevant. Doesn’t mean we can’t use that idea in games that doesn’t mechanically care directly about such things! Likewise, Primetime Adventures makes mechanically relevant the most likely place we as the audience would see your character: your “home set.” If we’re at a loss for where to find your character or need to know a place for your character to be at rest or recuperating after a setback, bam, home set.

Take the tools from these games, and use them everywhere to express essential elements of your player and non-player characters.

  • High Concept: A phrase that sums up what your character is about—who they are and what they do. Think of this element like a job, a role in life, or a calling—it’s what they’re good at, but it’s also a duty they have to deal with, and it’s constantly filled with problems of its own. More on high concepts at the Fate SRD site.
  • Trouble: If your high concept is what or who your character is, your trouble is the answer to a simple question: what complicates the character’s life? Troubles tend to take the form of personal struggles or problematic relationships. More on troubles at the Fate SRD site.
  • Home Set: What location is tied to or iconic of the character? Could be a character’s office, home, favorite hangout, or something obscure if your setting allows for sets like “in a dream.” It could be specific (“in our den”) or general (“in a library”). Primetime Adventures goes into detail specific to that game and TV genre on page 48.
  • As Played By: If you had to say what actor you have in mind as you play the character, who is it? Having an answer to this can dramatically shift a character concept. Take a high concept of “Killer for hire” and trouble of “Want to get out of the life.” There’s quite a difference when that character concept is portrayed by Chow Yun-fat than if by John Cusack. This answer could get a little more complex, such as “looks like Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel from the Constantine movie and acts Matt Ryan from the Constantine TV show.” Whatever helps you know how you want to speak and describe things, and perhaps with whatever visuals help others get a picture in their minds.

There are many other components of a character that can hang off of those four elements, like core competencies, iconic items, and so on. But if you know nothing else about an NPC you’re going to play for more than a single scene, or get stumped on playing your PC, come to these essentials. Maybe they’re not all answered, or maybe you’re not as happy with the answers once play hits the table.


Image: Killer for hire, want to get out of the life, John Cusack