All month long, Germany’s RPG-bloggers have been discussing the topic of how to get into roleplaying games in the first place. Well, “getting into a game” can mean a lot of things – getting into it from scratch when you have never gamed before, getting into a group with new people, getting into a system, a setting, a campaign that’s new to you … practically all of those involve one thing, though: Getting into a new character. Which can be hard enough all of its own.
There’s a plethora of good advice around how to overcome that particular challenge. Still, I’d like to take the chance and add my own: A variation of a time honoured technique, the questionnaire.
Now, the way I see it, questionnaires have two potentially big problems associated with them: They have a tendency to get overburdened with lots and lots of items (yes, 20 is a lot, really) and all of these items dilute the actual information load.
Because of this, I settled on a version that strifes to jumpstart a character with just 3 short questions:
1) The first names of the character’s parents.
2) Which hand does the character use to hold his coffee cup at breakfast?
3) The most beautiful dream or the most terrible nightmare of the character.
But why these three questions, exactly?
Because they are eyecatching. They are at least somewhat unusual (more so the first time around, obviously) and as such should help to heighten the player’s alertness. Alertness being the key to our goal of “getting into” the character in the first place.
But there is a bit more to it than that.
The second basic idea is, that the answers are really secondary here. It’s the process – the train of thoughts – necessary to arrive at the answers we are most interested in. The questions, being unusual, hopefully help with getting the (alert) player to think a lot.
As for the first question, the purpose behind it is pretty obvious: We want to get the character out of the vacuum. And we are asking for the parents’ names (instead of “who are they?”) to provoke the player into thinking about them as persons first, instead of as functions (in the game world). More than that, names provoke images in turn. By naming them, we are creating these characters in our minds and here we get three (the character and his parents) along with their relations and all of the associated images and ideas for the price of one measly question. A maximum of (implied) information in a minimum of space, figurative, tangible – perfect.
The cup of coffee forces us to imagine the character in an entirely mundane situation. Who, what, how is he when he’s not slaying dragons, commanding space battles or compiling tomes of mind-shattering lore. Again we are using the extremely specific question (not “what does the character do after getting up?”, not even “what does he have for breakfast?”, but “in which hand does he hold his cup of coffee during breakfast?”) to pull (push!) the player right into the fray. He is meant to have a clear mental image of the scene to answer the question – whether by carefully constructing it in his head or by having a flash of inspiration does not matter.
The final question is a classic on the other hand. It does add the additional dimension of having to decide between dream or nightmare, however. Which of the two is more important for this character? Do you imagine him as a person who is driven by his good experiences or his bad ones? And of course the two previous questions (yes, the order they appear in is deliberate) should hopefully have already primed the player to answer this question from “within” the character – having already completed the initial steps of “getting into him”.
And that’s it for real.