The Three-Sentence Character
I’ve spent many years of my career expanding characters into prose-length works, establishing elaborate backgrounds for them and giving them extensive histories. Heck, I’m working on just such a book right now. The trick there, though, is that those characters are designed to have broad appeal. Somewhere in those 2,500-4,000 words is a hook almost anyone can use in a chronicle. Whether your storyline is about Sabbat depredations in the Old World or a Camarilla coup in Chicago, you should be able, as Storyteller, to grab one of those character hooks and fit it into your chronicle. It might require a little fine-tuning, but that’s okay – fine-tuning is less cumbersome than whole-cloth world- and character-building, and that’s what published source material is all about. You trade a couple bucks and save several hours of campaign engineering.* As well, Vampire draws on a very loquacious literary tradition, so it’s often appropriate to the genre to run off a bit at the pen and engage the florid.
When you’re a player in a specific gamemaster’s campaign, though, you want gameplay and your GM wants a way to engage you. As fulfilling as it can be to write an 8,000-word biography of your character, that’s an endeavor entirely separate from playing the game. Instead, give your GM three sentences. They can be whatever you want, but a) seriously, keep it to three sentences and b) present them in terms of the game’s subject matter. You’ll find them most fruitful, too, if c) they’re related to a character’s goals or history. These can be ambitions or dreams, or they can be biographical elements that add color and resonance to an encounter. They can be tragic, comic, or dramatic – whatever you want. Just create them with the intent to be used in the game, and set them up so that there’s creative wiggle room for the GM to do something interesting with them.
When you do this, what you’re really doing is giving your GM a short list of things you’d like to see happen to or involve your character, so keep that in mind if it helps. These background sentence are like skills in that mechanical regard. You’re telling your gamemaster, “I’d like to do this.” Your three background sentences also convey the added benefit of shaping the character’s personality or history. Eventually, you’ll accomplish by starting with those three sentences and involving the other players what the 8,000-word bio attempts to do by itself, telling the story of the character. Only you’ll be doing it as the core activity of the game rather than the metagame activity that lies on top of it.
Check out some examples:
“My character comes from a merchant family that traveled the three kingdoms and never settled.” Great. Check it out: You recognize the brooch in the treasure hoard as valuable. Your family used to deal in jewelry like this occasionally. But this isn’t three kingdoms workmanship, it’s from the city-states past the Golden Peaks. How did this brooch make it all the way down here and end up among the refuse in this particular troll cave?
“My character wants to join the Friends of the Night.” Marvelous. You’ve actually come to the attention of the Amici Noctis, and they’d like to have someone of your caliber as well, but they want to test your mettle first. How committed are you? Committed enough to risk the favor of your sire, who it turns out betrayed the Amici Noctis long ago? Committed enough to trust the Friends of the Night over your sire’s sire and Mentor? Committed enough to endanger your coterie? Committed enough to risk your Humanity? All you have to do is deliver this mortal vessel — this bound, gagged, and blindfolded mortal vessel — into the cellars beneath your Mentor’s estate. If you’re capable enough, your Mentor never even has to know….
“My character has a dark secret.” Really? You’re giving me carte blanche to summon that skeleton from your closet whenever I find it most appropriate? Fantastic. Over here in my chronicle notes, I have a betrayer/ diablerist/ chaos cultist who needs a compelling way to enter the story. Years ago, you heard a knock at your door and a scream in the darkness….
“My character occasionally doesn’t know that what she’s doing really matters, and she’s looking for a sign.” Swell. Since the town’s only temple to the Redeemer burned and the burghers have denied all new construction, the folk have been seeking one who could hold a candle against the darkness encroaching from the Frozen Wastes. The handwritten journals your party found beneath the temple’s ruin spoke of just such a bleak time before the coming of the Redeemer, and how He brought solace to a wicked folk.
“My character is a lone badass. His family was killed and he’s practiced with his katana relentlessly for every waking hour since their death.” Okay, fine. Tonight, though, the party is digging up dirt on the Nosferatu union boss and — what’s that on the Sewer Rat’s desk? It’s the title to the house your parents were living in the year you were Embraced. What the hell does it have to do with him, and why does it look like he’s doing something with it now?
Away from the game table, go ahead and indulge that 8,000-word character vignette. Just don’t expect to be able to use it in the game. Manage your expectations and respect your GM’s time. If he wants to read that bio because of its entertainment value alone, that’s great. Just remember that reading is separate from playing, and the GM’s job is to prepare a game to play.
* (A separate topic, certainly, but money-for-time is the Zynga model in action.)