Impractical Applications (Character Damage Sampler)

When I wrote my riff on why people don’t trust fear, self-loathing, and similarly negative emotions as mainstays of a character concept, particularly not in RPGs, two of my awesome regulars, Michael and Shakespeare, pointed out ways in which those sorts of emotions could make a character better rather than making her impossible to deal with. I actually agree with that; as I pointed out in the same comment thread, “I’ve noticed that in my primary game, the closer a character gets to the PCs, the likelier it is that he or she has some serious emotional damage somewhere, with differing levels of impact on the game’s plot.” And yet, I rarely if ever get complaints of the type that tend to accompany “This concept won’t work/isn’t working in this game” or “Ooooh, I can’t stand this character, she’s such an angst-tool!”. So I figured I’d show a few samples of what seems to work.

Pale, dark-haired, beautiful as a painting and generally ghostlike, Lirit looks like the kind of person you’d expect to be whinging about the darkness in her soul. The fact that she was a former devotee of a bunch of mad undead god-things whose grumbling she can still hear doesn’t help any, and then you add on her having doomed an innocent girl to a similar fate during the point when she still believed that it was the right thing to do, and the end result is one massive guilt complex. Though she may be the type to let the past affect the present, she’s not the type to let the past destroy it; she spends a lot of her time attempting to if not reverse the changes she made then at least make different, less soul-tainting changes, and she’s made it very clear that she will seek no redemption that the girl she changed can’t have first. And on top of that, when things are going drastically wrong with someone else’s life, she listens, waits until they’re finished, and then offers either sympathy or a solution depending on what she reads them as needing.

The girl in question, Ruby, probably has every reason to be run over by despair. Imagine being granted one of the world’s greatest gifts, but exchanging it for something with nine kinds of price just because you don’t understand what the original gift meant—and then realizing that you can never take it back. It’s not clear whether the meaning never sunk in, whether she’s in massive denial, whether she’s bipolar or whether she’s just a really good fake, but most people don’t see Ruby reflecting on the enormity of her situation, and even when she does the dark words come with a sunny smile.

When it comes to direct, visceral fear, it’s hard to beat Kestrel. Leaving aside trust issues a mile wide (she’s been betrayed by lovers, put under the bus by coworkers, and sworn into a pact that she doesn’t understand but will likely destroy her if she breaks her word by one of her closest friends), she’s also got something a little more pressing on her plate—once upon a time, a person whom she technically sort of is was killed in an unpleasant, lingering manner by demons. Seven lives later, she’s used to the idea of being killed by demons and thus the drive to hunt them in return, but being asked to repeat the trick that got her original self noticed and slated for just such an unpleasant fate? “Undesirable” is an understatement. Kes doesn’t stay scared for long though; she gets angry. And fortunately, it’s not usually angry at the PCs unless they’re the ones who provoke her.

It’s hard to pinpoint one specific emotion Kiara could be running from; there are quite a few to choose from. Most of a year of imprisonment by a master of mind-games consumed her with fear and self-doubt, particularly in a set of environments she had an annoying tendency to end up in; her tendency (often through little to no fault of her own) to end up in situations from which she needed to be bailed out led to at least some of her friends treating her as if she was made of glass and got her put on what was essentially house arrest in paradise; and now she’s discovering that the abduction which started it all was orchestrated with the help of a fellow member of an organization in which the first rule is “bring no harm to your fellows”, and as far as she could tell she’d done nothing to provoke a rule-breaking level of hatred in anyone—and did I mention she does not forget things? At times, her damage was obvious verging on inconvenient; in triggery environments she tended to freeze up entirely, she’d throw up most of her defenses when startled, and for a while she tried to keep her mind from idling by working herself into exhaustion and then falling asleep on her feet. But on the other hand, she worked with her coping mechanisms, she actively tried to retrain her reflexes, and if someone was hearing her complain about her lot in life, it was either because they’d been pushing her too hard on something relating to it or (somewhat more often) because they’d asked her to.

The lessons here, for a character trying to balance negativity with story-tolerability? Actively work to reverse the damage. Manifest it as something other than complaining. Recognize that other people have worse problems (or at least, equally bad ones) and take a little time to help them out. Display a backbone. Save foisting it off on other people for times of unusual stress or times when they’ve given you permission to do so. It hasn’t failed me yet!

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