sinful characters [g+ backpost]

Hi gaming peeps

(I’ve just added back a bunch of people into my gaming circle – if you aren’t into that, please let me know.)

I’m toying around with a little technique to develop interesting characters that I’d love to get feedback on. I haven’t formally tested it yet, though it grew out of things I do semi-consciously on occasion. Also, I’m particularly interested in this as a stage technique for improvisation shows, and it may feel less useful/needed in some rpg contexts. But I reckon it may be relevant for any on-the-fly character generation.

This is intended to mitigate 1-D characters by dipping into charged and easily accessible human qualities, or as these are typically termed, sins.

The seven sins – wrath, pride, gluttony, lust, greed, envy and sloth – are fairly accessible in Western J-C culture. So what happens when we mindfully use them as a palette to paint our characters in, together with a set of guidelines for the kinds of results you are likely to get? I think fun happens! Here are the guidelines:

1. Different combinations encourage different roles

You want someone who performs a social role in the story/situation, but with a bit of definition:

A flawed paragon is markedly prone to a single sin

Examples: the priest who is pious but lazy, the artist who is selfless but obsessed with the greatness of their sacrifices.

You want someone who is pretty horrible – a real heel – but want to accent their self-indulgence with some iron discipline

A disciplined badass has several sins but is totally immune to one or more.

Examples: the greedy, wrathful priest who can never be tempted by sex, the artist harping on and undermining the success of others, too lazy to achieve it on his own merit, but cannot be bought off by any amount of coin.

You want someone who is colourful, you kind of hate them but just when you make your mind up you love them again.

A big-hearted scoundrel has several sins but also exhibits the polar opposite of one sin, to the extent that it kind of redeems them.

Examples: the lustful, lazy priest who desires the best for others at the end of the day, the artist perpetually drunk, full of pride, and wallops anyone who doesn’t appreciate expressionism, but is respectful, diligent, even courteous to the opposite sex.

(This is my favourite and the reason I started making this stuff explicit, after reading John Berger on Rembrandt: ‘no saint’, indeed)

2. Different specific sins have a different emphasis on plot vs immediacy

Firstly let’s unpack the sins a bit more. To my mind,

 –   Wrath can include irritation at small things, and great roaring enjoyable anger cf Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, a bellowing Falstaff.

 –   Pride can involve suffering when other people see the world other than how you do – eg how Roger Ebert probably feels about McG’s success.

 –   Gluttony includes boozing, drugs, all vices of consumption.

 –   Lust isn’t merely desiring sex but any example of objectification of other people.

 –   Greed involves any material advancement, including ambition/getting status. The ‘lawyer sin’, reptilian, whereas pride is more peacock, where you really believe it and can easily be wounded.

 –   Envy includes any wishing-ill on others, general grumpiness and zero-sum attitudes towards life (those immigrants get all the social housing!)

 –   Sloth encompasses laziness, unhelpfulness, and demandingness to others (clean my teeth for me!) – a classic nasty Master sin, for those familiar with the Keith Johnstone improv set-up.

So what’s this about emphasis?

The first two are energetic and egoistic. They make the character grow out and show themselves, their sensitivities and buttons to push.

The next two involve approach and physicality. They make characters approach immediate components of the world and grab things (or people) within reach.

The next two are more tactical and scheming. They might involve grabbing things within reach but can be a little more abstract, and execution is often a bit more considered. Think Iago.

To my mind, the first two are great, and the third can be tricky, risking putting players in their heads for the ‘right’ way to get their goals. Compare with Be Angry Now/Get My Mack On.

What about Sloth? To me, it’s a bit of a wild-card. On a stage, played well, inactivity can heighten immediacy and perversely, make stuff happen. This is trivially true if the character has a high status – the king that requires the retinue to carry him to his horse, or delegates all the important decisions to his page – but also for ordinarily low-status roles: the stable-girl who never carries out the orders of the (highly-strung) head of household. No surprise, really, who can care less is status, after all…

But! I think this may play very differently at a game table, where an inactive character can be genuinely forgotten about.

3. How it works

For me, the notion is simply to walk on stage, find reasons to exhibit a sin or two, and then elaborate on these in the context of your role in the story (find a reversal to show your scoundrel’s heart, for instance).

That’s it as it stands. I’d love to hear your thoughts, both from a tabletop and Larp perspective.

Nov 2012

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