Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Character: The Characterization of Denar

Denar is a character I’m playing in an Eberron campaign. The character has a low intelligence score. So, the shtick is to make the occasional obvious observation, or to gaze silently at NPCs who speak in complex phrasings, or use big words.  It’s a little bit like Homer Simpson. Trouble is I’d like to play a more diversified role in the game than comic relief. So, I’m looking at strategies to expand my vocabulary of characterization. (Yesterday it was all about expanding my rules vocabulary as a GM, today I’m looking at it from the player’s angle.)

Denar also has a high charisma. I could play her as a classic low-intelligence, tough-guy stereotype in an alternative package. But, what I’ve chosen to emphasize is force of personality. This is the sort of character who radiates an intimidating vibe. (It helps that the character is a drow, a dark elf. Granted, it’s not a particularly original characterization, but that’s why I’m interested in ways to make it more sophisticated.) I’m working on a sort of a Dirty Harry vibe:

The Killer: [pleading] Please. Stop. No more! Can't you see I'm hurt?
Harry Callahan: The girl, where is she?
The Killer: [crying with reason] You tried to kill me.
Harry Callahan: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field.
Dirty Harry [1971]

So, how do I combine Homer Simpson and Dirty Harry?

Like Harry Callahan, my character is a loose cannon. She has been effectively exiled to the surface for not submitting to the drow authorities, who had determined she was too small to fight, and too stupid to create or steal the weapons they needed for their war against the aberrations invading the Underdark.

Like Homer Simpson my character is a survivor, and impulsive. 4e D&D has many avenues for dramatic recovery from equally dramatic damage. The character class I’ve chosen, the Blackguard from Heroes of Shadow, has multiple functions for generating temporary hit points, increasing survivability. The Blackguard may also use hit points as a resource, expending them to do more damage to foes. The image of a hero savaged by the circumstances of an encounter, like Mel Gibson’s Road Warrior Max, is a good approximation.

Homer is launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him.
— Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons

Denar doesn’t spend a lot of mental energy analyzing situations. What mental energy there is is reserved for action. Like Homer, who is described by director David Silverman as "creatively brilliant in his stupidity", Denar operates with complete disregard for safety, either her own or those around her, dabbling in mixing alchemical substances, and creating explosive devices. Like Scarlet the squirrel from Philip Jackson’s webcomic Sequential Art, Denar can accidentally create mechanisms and compounds of a deadly nature.

From Sequential Art by Philip Jackso

I’m looking for ways to play this without going all Leeroy Jenkins on the other players. I’ll try to play the accidentally deadly creations to the benefit of the team, presented by Denar as sort of an afterthought, representing her casual disregard for their potential for mayhem.
In the end, through all the mayhem, I hope that Denar will be able to save her people and the other members of the party. Despite her background and the common perceptions of the drow in RPGs, I'd like it to play out that her actions end up with a "good" result. She'll end up as a personification of the weapons she reveres, capable of destruction, yet without much intent.

I've heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. You stole your father's armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed my palace, and... you have saved us all.
— Emperor, Mulan [1998]

That's not to say she herself would have no intent. She's intent on proving the drow authorities wrong in their judgment of her. Proving herself both as a warrior, and an operative clever enough to secure the weapons the dark elves need to defeat the aberrant horde. And she's well aware (obsessively so) of a sense of mission in that regard.

I’d love to hear what you draw from when imagining your characters, and how you express those ideas in the game. If you have any suggestions on further development for Denar, I’d love to hear those as well.


  1. Unfortunately, I think it’s hard to provide suggestions for someone else’s character development without seeing it in action. From my perspective, whether it’s a tabletop or a LARP, you have an ensemble piece going on with role-playing. Really, the success of a character depends on how it fits in with the other players and their characters. This doesn’t mean harmony necessarily, but do they play well off each other? What’s the dynamic of the group both in game and out of game? And, even more importantly, are the other players even role-playing in the first place? It’s awkward when you might be the only person who’s actually in character while everyone else is playing their sheets. So, I guess without knowing more about her party and her actual relationships, I’m a bit stumped.

    For me, I start with character concept and go from there. Who do I want to pretend to be and then I see what makes sense in terms of the character sheet, strengths, abilities, etc. I tend to play characters that reflect some part of myself and they are very internalized in terms of what’s going on inside themselves. There’s a lot going on that others don’t see. I always need a “microplot” too to differentiate the character from the main plot and the rest of the characters. What make my Sin-Eater different than yours….why is my Mage different? I like to make them “human” as well. Sometimes that means working with other players individually to see what we can do, but typically the STs do not get bothered by these “microplots.” That’s when I feel ownership and like I’ve “created” something of my own. You allude to Frankenrules, but creating a character is a bit like playing Dr. Frankenstein too. For me at least.

    A question I would ask you is when does role-playing end and acting begin? Are they the same?

  2. Good points, Anna. Thanks for commenting. I feel fortunate that the Eberron group is willing to invest more time in role-playing, and so I'm thinking more about Denar's personality and motivations. Looking for ways to make the character deeper. (And, as you suggest, role-playing with the other members of the party is a great opportunity to explore that.)

    Denar's "microplot" was partially provided by the GM, but I've been allowed leeway to interpret that. Cool term, I'll keep that in mind for games that I GM, and encourage players to identify their own microplots.

    Great question about the boundary between role-playing and acting! I'll throw out the "first pitch": I define role-playing much as I sense you do, combining character concept, the elements of my character sheet, and elements of my self. Acting is what happens when I take that role information and begin to interact with other PCs and NPCs.

    Eager to hear how others interpret the differences, or if they perceive differences there.

  3. Actually, I do have one thing to contribute about Denar. What are Denar’s vulnerabilities? Not her weaknesses, but her vulnerabilities. You can be a powerful character, but is there a “chink in the armor?” Is it shame at being exiled to the surface? Is it guilt at leaving her family? Is it a precious relic that a family member left her and she can’t lose in any way? Is it a lost love (if such things exist for drow!) Is it anger at a particular memory? Is she embarrassed at her stupidity in some way? Is she afraid of the dark? What makes her think twice? What makes her afraid and uncertain?

    I was thinking some more about this when it came to my characters. My characters all start with, or end up revolving around, a vulnerability. And, if you think about it, it’s the vulnerability that makes a character “human” and allows someone to connect with them. Otherwise, why would anyone like Tony Soprano?

    For example:

    A) Isabelle the witch’s vulnerability (in 4e d&d) was her relationship with her father and his confusing push-pull actions;
    B) Lucia the Sin-Eater’s vulnerability (in Geist – she’s the one who committed suicide,) was a background of vicious domestic abuse and trauma;
    C) Elizabeth the mage is a soccer mom with 5 kids. She’s a powerful time and fate mage, but she cannot always protect her children. They are her vulnerability.

    (btw, i have to give credit for the term ‘microplots’ to a friend who used to work on rpg designing. I just stole his phrase!)

  4. Great question! And thanks for the examples. Off the cuff, I'd have to say that given the aspersions cast upon her by her people, Denar would fear failing her adopted "team" in any way. She would see it as a validation of the opinions of the drow authorities.

    Maybe that's too general, but it gives me food for thought. I think you're right to suggest that vulnerabilities make for more interesting characters (and provide more opportunities for role-playing.)