Shallow Characters? Just Add Depth

Once in a while I get a player whose character doesn’t really have much in terms of anything else beyond a concept.  No real notable history, no obvious hooks.  Just a concept like:  Grizzled Mercenary, or perhaps Carefree Treasure Hunter.

Is this a bad thing?  Well, no, not really.  If anything it gives you a blank canvas to work with.  Sure their motivations might seem a tad on the shallow side, like money or power, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t spin it off to something interesting.

One way to think of it is that for characters like these, this is your chance to build their connections in-game.  Don’t be a lazy GM.  Start putting together some memorable NPCs, the kind that really grow on your players.  I think videogames are a good source of inspiration in handling this.  In PC and console rpgs, your character is technically a blank slate most of the time.  The stories that begin to matter to you come from the experiences you go through “in-game.”

An excellent example of this would be Mass Effect.  The Protagonist, Commander Shepard is introduced in the game as a pretty generic guy.  Sure he might have a few prior achievements before the game starts, but it’s not really all that significant (yet.)  As the game progresses, your actions, words and achievements stack on top of each other, creating a greater whole.  By the time the game ends, Commander Shepard isn’t “just” a soldier anymore.

For something like this to work, your players have to trust you.  I’ve run a HERO game for a once-reluctant significant other, who resigned herself to making a shallow concept character just to get it done and over with.  She didn’t necessarily like the idea of a HERO game, but she gave me a chance and gave it a fair shake.  Thanks to that, we were able to grow the character, taking what was a shallow concept, and evolve it into a story where the character grew, and discovered more about herself, pushing beyond her initial concept and into one of her favorite characters in her gaming career.

If a player doesn’t have the trust, or motivation to go after any of the hooks, then it might be a good idea to talk to them and encourage them.  I’ve written up a post before about how Character Development Happens In-Game, and that’s something that perhaps everyone should recognize.

In the end, I believe that everyone who plays wants their characters to be memorable.  Even those who adhere to the Old School Gaming mentality remember certain characters fondly because of the things that they went through in game.  As GMs, it’s technically one of our many responsibilities to make sure that every character becomes memorable even when the campaign is over.

5 thoughts on “Shallow Characters? Just Add Depth

  1. I actually really like your comparison to Shepherd, as going into the game Shepherd has a very shallow character. A couple choices, and that is it. You have your class, what kind of soldier you were, and who your parents were. Basically, a 3 line history. “Parents were spacers so he traveled around a lot, joined the military as a soldier, and was the sole survivor of a thresher maw on akuze”. By the end though you have friends, you have defined how the character feels about things, and if you get into stories you /care/ about your shepherd.

    They then grow on this in 2 by loading all those choices over, hinting at it, just little pokes that go “hey, you matter”. Then, by the end of the game you are on the edge of your seat wondering if you are dooming a character you care about with a bad choice.

    I do like it, I also agree with the sentiment. You want to help them grow, you need to put them over the fire to see how they react.

    1. Mass Effect is way up there in my favorite games lists specifically for this reason. Lot’s of character development across all the characters, even those who join you experience life-changing moments.

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