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How to Create Fascinating Characters in Your Board Game (World-building and Player Powers) [Guest Post]

Sarah Shipp is a board game designer who has an amazing blog where she talks about board game design theory from a fine arts perspective. She has written some really interesting articles lately on theme and storytelling, so I asked if she would be interested in writing a guest blog about how to create fascinating characters in your board game, along with her thoughts on world-building.

Fortunately for us, she said yes. So, without further ado, here is her article.

Characters can come alive during gameplay if they are unique in some way. However, just giving a character a special power doesn’t cut it. World-building and mechanics need to be knitted together to create compelling characters who don’t need lore dumps for us to know who they are and what they want. Here are some steps to creating characters for non-narrative games.

0. Story & Gameplay

The story of a game is not the lore you write at the beginning of the rulebook. The story is the series of events that happen to the characters during gameplay. The story begins either during set-up or on the first turn and ends either on the last turn or during scoring. That is the whole extent of the lives of the characters that players are witness to. Anything you write about the characters needs to feel like it could come from the same world as the game experience. But good world building does not need extra lore. We can learn a lot about a world just by playing a game. Actions speak louder than words.

Most games these days are probably designed with some theme in mind. Also, many mechanics have inherent themes, such as worker placement or pick-up-and-deliver. No matter where your game is set in space and time, pick-up-and-deliver mechanics will broadly convey the same theme. That said, when focusing on world-building, we can adjust our mechanics to better express our theme. And we can develop our theme to better fit our mechanics.

1. Goals & Win conditions

Characters need goals, and those goals should closely align to the win condition. Oftentimes, all characters will share the same goal. However, if win conditions vary by character, that means their goals do as well. A character trying to build an engine has different goals than a character trying to dismantle an engine. When a character’s goal is closely tied to the player’s goal, the mechanics become more immersive for the player.

2. Roles & Utility

A character’s role in the game should map to their role in the world. In other words, a character’s title or job description should look like what they do mechanically. A soldier is useful in combat; a mechanic fixes things; etc. What actions do your mechanics represent and what job would encompass those actions? Sometimes more than one role would work to represent a given action. A helicopter pilot can move to any location, but so can a UN ambassador. Which job title you choose depends on your own knowledge of your game world. You shouldn’t call your character “The Flirt” if that characteristic is not present in their mechanics. Since a game is a relatively small window into a world, a role will usually feel like a character’s purpose in life.

3. World views & Powers/skills

Characters’ special powers or skills represent their worldview— what they are willing to do to achieve their goals. Characters’ world views may be in conflict with other characters, even if they share the same goal. A character who kills to achieve their goal has a different perspective and set of values than a character who negotiates. In a competitive game, competing values between characters drives the narrative conflict behind why the characters are in competition. In a cooperative game, the tension of conflicting world views could help create drama and encourage role playing, or it could make the game less immersive, depending on how the tension is handled. Addressing why a character behaves the way they do can lead to immersion, but isn’t necessary for every game. If your characters are unnamed job titles, you may not want to worry about their personal values. However, most people take jobs that fit their value system, unless they are driven to other work through necessity.

If you already have some mechanics, try to identify any personality or values conveyed by the mechanics. How do the characters move? Violently? Gracefully? Stealthily? Does a character rely on strength? How would physical traits translate into personality traits? Much of the time, personality traits are only expressed in the illustrations. However, knowing what your characters value and how they achieve goals is important while you are playtesting and changing mechanisms. When you are faced with multiple valid paths for development, knowing who your characters are can help narrow down which path is the right one.

Knowing who your characters are also helps when coming up with special powers. I can play a perfectly balanced, asymmetrical game and still feel like there was nothing unique about the characters. This is most often the case when the mechanics don’t evoke the theme enough. In this case, I would first try changing the theme around certain mechanics. If a mechanic still didn’t feel thematic, I would look at changing it to better suit my character. Some mechanics, like scoring, will very rarely feel thematic and that’s ok. Pay the most attention to the mechanics that happen on the board (or in the tableau, etc.). The board represents the game world, so the mechanics around it need to feel the most thematic.

4. Factions & Politics

Characters are not always individuals. Sometimes they are factions or groups. How factions relate to one another usually indicates the political landscape of the game world. Why do the factions want to kill each other? What does each stand to gain if they win? I wrote about how Root uses faction goals and powers to create a political landscape on my blog:

Factions are the result of conflicting cultural norms. Factions are more believable if their values and beliefs are in conflict with another faction. Values and beliefs, of course, are expressed by their unique faction mechanics. Root displays this concept beautifully. You don’t need to read the lore for Root to understand the values and friction of the factions, all of that is present in the mechanics. The Eyrie places value on tradition, which is expressed through a programming mechanic. (Programming, like tradition, is slow to change in the face of new information.) Their isolation to one spot on the board shows how their previous power has waned and contracted. Their history and values shine through during set-up and rules explanation, only to be reinforced by gameplay.                                

Root also displays a shining example of faction friction with the Cats and the Alliance. You only need to glance from the sawmills to the faction named the Woodland Alliance to see the conflict brewing. The facts that the sawmills are being built by cats and that the Alliance are small prey creatures only underscores the conflict. So [in the base game] we end up with a faction that prizes industry above the homes and lives of others, a faction bound by tradition, a faction inherently weaker that must rely on coalition building, and a character who works outside of the rule of law, much the same way he operates outside the lines on the map. Any lore only exists to explicitly state and underscore what is shown in gameplay.

Conclusion

Your mechanics will tell a story during gameplay. Your theme and mechanics should be telling similar stories. Give extra attention to win conditions and special powers, because those mechanisms convey a lot of story details. Knowing who your character is means knowing how they feel about the other characters. Characters can have more complex relationships than merely on-my-team and enemy-I-try-to-kill. Thematic game design is world-building.

Sarah Shipp writes about board game design theory most Mondays on her blog: shippboardgames.blogspot.com

I highly recommend checking out her blog. It’s filled with a lot of interesting takes on designing board games from her own unique perspective.

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    These are great tips! And inspirational as well.
    I’m thinking about a story/world building game some time now and this post has many valuable content to actually leave the thinking behind me 🙂

    Looking forward to read more from Sarah.
    Thanks for sharing Joe!

    For sure! Make sure to check out Sarah’s other posts. She’s got a lot of fantastic content. 🙂