For One Shot RPG, an effective character design is based around a single defining visual element. This element is integral to the character, demonstrating their personality, motivations, and backstory. Secondary visual elements can also be used to show additional aspects of the character and to tie everything together.
A character’s design should focus around a primary visual element. This element is used to differentiate the character from the rest of the cast. Think of this element as a logo of sorts for the character. When this aspect is presented on its own, a viewer should identify it as belonging to the specific character. When this character is compared to others from different franchises, this element should be what stands out and what makes them recognizable as being from One Shot RPG.
The element should reveal something major about the character’s personality or backstory. It’s a visual shorthand for what the character is thinking or why they are doing what they do. If a character’s defining element is an elaborate shroud, maybe they are trying to cover up something from their past. If they always carry around a creepy doll, then maybe it’s in the likeness of a loved one that became scummed.
When depicting this visual element, it should be exaggerated—ramped up to eleven. Is the character known for their tattoo? Then it covers most of their body and contrasts with the rest of their toned-down clothing. If the character is known for always carrying a unique weapon around, then it should be depicted as larger than usual. An elaborate pair of goggles are always shown to have more detail than the rest of the character and always glow when it’s dark.
Note on Exaggeration
When discussing exaggeration when it comes to character design I have to bring up the issue of a cartoon versus a realistic style. One Shot RPG is part horror, and in order for horror to be effective we have to feel like the situation is happening to us, which lends itself to a more realistic style. Exaggeration of certain elements can work against establishing a more serious and dark tone for the product. I approach this problem by distinguishing what we see in our world from what is role played at the table. A character may be depicted with a larger than life weapon that would be impractical to carry around all the time. When playing, the weapon is more realistically sized. The oversized weapon is how everyone else thinks of them—inside and outside of play. Character design in this context is how others perceive the character (which means it’s part of their brand), not what’s actually true.
After establishing a primary visual element, the character design should define secondary characteristics. While these characteristics aren’t what a player first thinks of when thinking of this character, they are still integral to the design. If they were to be removed or heavily changed, the design would no longer start to feel like the character.
Secondary visual elements—like the primary element—should be used to tell the story of the character. Each one should reveal an aspect or trait. Secondary elements can be objects, designs on clothing, expressions, or even poses or actions the character is always doing.
Characters in One Shot RPG are fighting powerful monsters, so they need to carry around some form of weaponry. A character’s weapon needs to be a part of their class fantasy. If the class fantasy is ranged artillery fire, then the character shouldn’t be wielding a sword. Weapons should also be used to add to the character’s backstory. They aren’t just tools for dealing damage during a game session. Why does the character wield an artillery weapon? Perhaps their town was under siege in a civil war before the events of the story and they had to pick up the weapon to defend themselves. The weapon can also be used to convey personality. Maybe the character also has an explosive temper, which is mimicked in the large explosions produced when firing.
Putting It All Together
The character’s class fantasy is a drone user. This means that they stand away from battle, piloting a drone that does all of the heavy lifting for them. The character is physically weak and is unable to defend themselves, so when they are targeted in combat they have to get out of harm’s way. As a drone user, the character is a good mechanic and is able to build devices when the party needs them.
The character is a thirtysomething human male of Filipino descent. The character and his older sister were always into technology, tinkering in their family’s workshop when they were kids. The siblings became even closer in their early twenties when their parents died in an accident. The two worked through their grief by creating augmented reality goggles that could control drones of their own making. One day his sister went on a space expedition, with plans to use the drone technology to aid with research. The two kept in touch during the trip, with his sister transmitting a live feed of what she was doing to her brother’s goggles. It was that day the cosmic horrors revealed themselves, and they attacked and destroyed the research ship. The brother saw the cosmic horrors through his sister’s eyes, their horrific appearance was her last sight.
Since then, the character has used his inquisitiveness to learn everything he can about the cosmic horrors and Pluto’s purpose. This led him to the discovery of scum, and he found his calling as a scum fighter. In combat he uses his elaborate goggles to pilot combat drones. The goggles also give him information overlays which he relays to the party.
These goggles are his primary visual characteristic. He’s always depicted as wearing them and they feature an elaborate design that viewers will instantly recognize as belonging to him. In world, he always carries them around, but only puts them on when he needs to use them. They represent his inquisitive personality and his backstory with his sister, which is his motivation for being a scum fighter.
In addition to being inquisitive, the character is also very supportive and emotional. He’s been through the deaths of three of his family members, so he knows how hard life can be and how important it is to express your emotions. He’s always there to listen and work through someone’s stress. The character is always depicted as giving the party hugs, and even his drones are shown embracing others.
All of the character’s drones are shown to have a flashlight attachment. This is because the images of the cosmic horrors (and his sister’s last sight) are burned into his thoughts. He suffers from terrible night terrors, where he hallucinates that the horrors are coming to attack him. His drones use their flashlights to light up his room to disperse the hallucinations. Players role play him as waking up screaming in the middle of the night about a threat that isn’t there, which causes the party to be on edge.
The character employs a small army of drones as his weapons. Each drone has a small, built in railgun and also has an electrified baton that can be used to stun an enemy. While the drones could have been the character’s primary visual element, they are often destroyed during combat and have to be repaired or replaced. This makes the goggles a more permanent fixture of the character, which works better as the defining visual characteristic.
With a solid foundation of gameplay, narrative, diversity, and visual goals, the initial cast of characters can be brainstormed.