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Innovations In Character: Personalizing RPGs, Retaining Players
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Innovations In Character: Personalizing RPGs, Retaining Players

June 26, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

Deconstructing Player Characters

Player character can be designed in different ways and with different properties, depending on the specific requirements of the game in question. The RPG character can vary in its constructional complexity across a range of elements, covering the various facets a game character can have, e.g. stats, personality and integration, as is seen in the table.

Within each of these facets, more or less depth can be applied to the character functionality. For example, the character JC Dent in Deus Ex featured a relatively simple character development and item-based upgrading system, but had a relatively well-developed integration into the game world, with e.g. a NPC brother.

In the typical Dungeons & Dragons-based RPG, such as Neverwinter Nights, the characters are usually devoid of personality elements, feature superficial explanations for why they are where they are.

But a varied, deep and flexible character development and item-based upgrading system forms one of the main drivers for rewards and player motivation in the game. When playtesting characters in RPGs during production, it is therefore important to tune the tests to the way the various facets are designed, integrated and operated.

Overview of the core RPG player character component builds (the list is not exhaustive). Not all may be present with all player characters, and the level of development for each aspect varies from game to game as required by the design in question.



The psyche basically defines the core of the character, covering all aspects of the character psychology, including motivations and emotions. This aspect of the character can be non-existent, providing a blank slate for the player to project onto, or relatively complex, aiming at providing an interesting template for the player to relate to and possibly even learn from.


Goals are the primary tool for engaging the players first hand, and the principle is known from quest systems. Goals can be mechanical or personal, simple or complex: Kill 10 centaurs; gain control of the guild of thieves; maintain a close relationship with a sister, not letting a phobia control one's life. Goals targeting the character psyche are generally harder to code, therefore comparably rarer in RPGs as compared to mechanical and simple goals.


Skills, Traits,


The stats provide the mathematical numbers associated with the character, e.g. strength and other physical or mental attributes, abilities and skills (e.g. farming, sword-fighting) and unique powers (i.e. spell casting). The stats directly affect the effect of the PC interacting with the virtual environment.



Characters will likely know some other characters of the game world, whether NPCs or other player characters in a multi-player RPG or MMORPG, and throughout the game will get in contact with even more. Associations can be more or less detailed, from a random quest provider to a long-term associate or companion.

Most characters start out with associations formed by their background, and build up increased contact networks during the running of a RPG. In RPGs with multiple players, some players like to develop stories for the relationships between their characters, while others chose not to.

An important subtype of associations is the contact, characterized by being a quest giver, mission provider or similar entity that progresses the game story. Contacts are the NPCs that initiate the adventures of the player character(s). They exist in all forms of RPGs (e.g. City of Heroes, Neverwinter Nights), and are one of the primary means of propelling the players forward in the game.


The term category should here be interpreted in a broad sense, to indicate the overall typecasting popular in RPGs. The classical way of handling the categorization of different types of characters is via a set of classes or occupations, e.g. warrior, wizard, private eye, biologist.

This is however not the only way to approach categorization -  games such as Morrowind develop stats/skills based on character actions. Categorizations - in whatever form they take - can be used to help develop the vision of the character and anchor it in a specific context, but at the same time can be restrictive. Occupations and classifications are generally developed via a rules system, but need not be so.


The physical location of the character and reasoning as to why. The player needs to have enough information to provide a solid hook into the game world in the beginning of a game.


Background details where the character comes from, the events that have it to the specific point in its life where the game begins. This includes the history of the character developed during game time.


The character will have an appearance, and in good game design this complements the integration of the character in the world, anchoring the character in the overall theme and style of the game world. Appearance is modifiable at least in terms of clothing/weapons in most RPGs such as (World of Warcraft), or  can be more static (The Longest Journey). Irrespective, appearance is a vital visual link between the player and the character.

Physical behavior

Game characters have since the earliest console days been associated with specific physical behaviors, e.g. special attacks in Tekken and Mortal Kombat. The physical behavior of a character can greatly assist enhancing the character theme, and project its moods and feelings. Emotes with associated animations are a typical way of providing RPG players some control over the physical behavior of their characters. As with appearance, physical behavior should serve to strengthen the ties between the character and his/her/its place within it.

It should be noted that the list in the table is technically incomplete when it comes to listing all the potential elements of RPG player characters that can impact on the gaming experience.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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