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Building Characters [Black Box Edition] $5.99
Publisher: Dancing Lights Press
by Jim B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 12/11/2018 20:13:23

Although the subtitle is "for Writers and Roleplayers," I'm reviewing it from the RPG perspective. This is DriveThruRPG, after all.

Take to heart the message from the "How to Use This Book" section: "There are many elements that go into the creation of a great character. All are optional." The book would be WAY overkill if you applied every element to even a few characters. As the old quote goes, "Perfection is achieved not when there's nothing left to add, but when there's nothing left to take away" (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in case you're wondering).

I'll sum up first, and then get to some details. To sum up: The descriptions of 24 different character roles is the best part. A lot of the other sections make up potentially handy checklists, but there's a lot of unnecessary, redundant, or excessive description. Those sections could have been much shorter without a loss of information.

Things to like about the book:

  • It's system-neutral and setting-neutral.
  • The descriptions of 8 protagonist types and 8 antagonist types are very good. For each type, you get a useful one-paragraph overview, examples of the type from popular media, a description of the type's values, and how others perceive the type. Another interesting element is that you get a "supporting cast" for each type - the interactions a given type is likely to have with other types. This is all great material for making an interesting character. This is mainly for a player creating a PC or a GM creating a major NPC.
  • The 8 supporting types are also helpful. For each of these, you get a discussion of how the type interacts with a main character, examples from popular media, and a description of why you might want such a character in the story. This is mostly about secondary NPCs.
  • The good part of the Dimensions chapter is that it's a checklist of things to consider when describing your character's "physiology, sociology, and psychology." It's also a 14-page temptation into overkill. Only include the elements that will help you run the character in an interesting way.

Things I liked less about the book:

  • The subtitle, "for Writers and Roleplayers," sounds like scope creep. There are things that would matter to a fiction writer that generally don't matter in an RPG. For example, a writer might spend many a paragraph throughout a story just on a character's thoughts and feelings, and how they evolve. In an RPG, you spend no time watching a character ponder. Fiction writing and RPG characters aren't the same thing. If there's too much irrelevant stuff to wade through, the whole work becomes harder to use, and therefore less useful.
  • I found the the section on "Stages of Life" to be overkill. Do we really need explanations of how a child is different from a young adult, who's different from a much older person? At 8 pages, it's both too much and too little - too much if you're thinking "Yes, I know the difference between a child and an elderly person," or too little if you want to pursue all the nuances and complexities of a given age level.
  • The "Motivations" chapter also felt like overkill. Now, you may well want to understand a character's motivations. However, if that character fits one of the 24 types described earlier, you've already got a decent idea of the character's motivations. Also, the motivations get excessive description. Take the Stakes element, for example, which is under Goals, which comes under Motivations. If your character has Stakes at the Low Stakes level: "Neither the reward nor the consequence will have much impact on anyone." Maybe that's there for some desire for completeness, but if the stakes are that inconsequential, don't include them! The whole motivation section could have been a lot shorter not by describing all five levels of every motivation, but by listing only the useful descriptions, the ones that show that one motivation or another is compelling, not useless.
  • The "Aptitudes" chapter also felt like overkill. It discusses 10 different aptitudes - body, empathy, language, etc. - but I found most of it unnecessary for RPG purposes. Besides, if a character has "Below Baseline Nature Aptitude," I already get that he doesn't know much about nature. I don't need extra description to explain that.
  • The "Experiences" chapter offers a list of skill categories: Academic, Athletic, Creative, etc. Getting that down to specific skills for your character and your setting is up to you (as it should be, because this work is setting-neutral). Maybe a checklist of skill areas would be helpful to you, but chances are, you already have skill lists in place if you need them, so you wouldn't need this chapter. By the way, this is another chapter that could have been a checklist, but instead it goes into excessive, repetitive description.
  • "Resources," like the other chapters, is over-described. Maybe it's a good checklist of the types of resources a character might have or lack, but each item was overdescribed. Besides, once you've developed a basic concept of the character, most of these resource items are going to be fairly obvious.
  • "Wonders" felt too generic. It brushes by the topic of adding magic, psychic powers, or superpowers to a character, but with no actionable content.

All in all, the book is worthwhile for the character types at least, but it could have been a lot shorter and more tightly written.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
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Building Characters [Black Box Edition]
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