: the act of describing the character or qualities of someone or something
: the way a writer makes a person in a story, book, play, movie, or television show seem like a real person
– Merriam-Webster dictionary
Characterization is a writing term (well, a narrative creation term). Characterization is what sets fictional people apart from each other. Sherlock Holmes is tall and eccentric, Dr. Watson is short and down to earth. Brer Rabbit is fast, Brer Turtle is slow. Zombies like brains, Superman doesn’t like kryptonite.
Characterization, together with plotting and world building, is a central aspect of narrative fiction and narrative non-fiction. It exists in games and the stronger the narrative aspect of a game the more characterization it generally has. Pathfinder the RPG has more characterization than Pathfinder the board game which has more characterization than Mr. Jack the board game which has more characterization than No Thanks!. But what happens if a game has no narrative structure?
Here’s the interesting thing: you can still use characterization in non-narrative games, but it must then work on game mechanics rather than theme.
Normally characterization is part of the theme, the images projected by the game/movie/novel/story. It doesn’t matter for the game mechanics if the fighter is a good hearted former mercenary whose longing for adventure convinced him to flee an arranged betrothal to a farmer’s daughter. It is enough for the fighter to be good with weapons and able to soak a lot of damage. But being good with weapons is also a form of characterization. Valeros the fighter may be on the run from marriage but he still needs to conform to the function of fighter. If he’d had drunk a potion that turned him into a frog he’d have escaped marriage – but the character would be broken.
Here’s the big difference between Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: in the RPG it would be quite OK to turn Valeros into a frog. It would make a great story, one that players would enjoy to tell. In the board (ok, card) game it wouldn’t. Valeros the frog would get stomped by the first goblin he encountered and it would be zero fun for the player. The characterization has to move closer to the mechanics since the board game is a lot less narratively driven than the RPG.
Characterization through powers
This leads to the next step: what if we want characterization but we have no story? What if I’d want characterization in No Thanks!? Couldn’t be done, right?
In case you haven’t played No Thanks!, it’s a simple game of psychological messing with your opponents: you have a card in the middle and on your turn you have to either pay a token (from your limited supply) or take the card and all the tokens on it. Tokens are bonus points, cards are negative points. Not much to characterize there, right?
Why not? Let’s say that we add special powers. If you’ve got the Odd power you add a point for every odd numbered card you’ve taken. If you’ve got the Even power you add a point for each even card. Not much influence on the game – a common outcome is to have 5-15 cards, worth anything between 30-150 negative points. If half of your cards were odd then that would influence the outcome of the game by a few percentage points, rather less than the huge swings it has now.
But I bet it would affect the way you’d play the game.
And that’s where the characterization comes into play: when we’re give a power that in some way describes or changes the way we as players interact with the game we become, in effect, different players. It’s very hard to resist that influence, possibly (although this is merely my opinion, I don’t have any scientific references for this) because we form a mental image of what is good in a specific situation and we have a hard time changing that image.
So we accept the roles our special powers give us. We play a certain way based on our new abilities. And thus the game had differentiated between us. The very powers, small though they might be, have created a playing style. They’ve described how we should act and we, as players, follow the script. Live actions characterization.
This works even if there are no “powers” or similar thematic add-ons, merely by using asymmetric setup or asymmetric goals. 1830: Railways And Robber Barons does this brilliantly. You play differently if you start out with Baltimore & Ohio or with Mohawk & Hudson (or no minor company). By making the sides uneven 1830 suggests a path for players to follow. Sure, they don’t have to follow it, they could choose to take M&H and then start Chesapeake on the other side of the board but they aren’t likely to do that – it would probably lead to an ignominious defeat (but not necessarily, the player may have cunning plan). So no powers, no characters, no narrative and yet: characterization. The very concept of asymmetry differentiates between players. It is like a cliff in the middle of a river. By splitting the waters it creates different flows far, far downstream.
And that’s what characterization is all about.