Character Defining Actions

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That the choices of actions players make during gameplay define their characters.

Characters under players' control in games give people the possibility to interact with the game world. Doing so does however also provide a means for those players to define those characters by changing their characteristics, or by filling in blank areas of their personalities or changing these. This can either be on a mechanical level by updates through game state variables or be on a social level on the agreement between players.


The choices players make in the Fable II changes their alignments, several independent measures including Good-Evil, Slim-Fat, Pure-Corrupt, and Scary-Funny. Besides influencing how NPCs react to the player characters, changes in these alignments also change the appearance of the avatars. A main part of the storyline in the first installation of the Witcher series revolves around giving advice to a young boy that possesses magical powers - the choice of which advice one gives effects through the narration not only on the boy but also on the player's character.

As weak form of Character Defining Actions can be found in some Tabletop Roleplaying Games, e.g. CORPS and Basic Role-Playing. Here, the successfully use of a skill results in experience in these, and the skills will increase after enough use. A similar system is used in the Elder Scrolls series.

Using the pattern

A trivial requirement of Character Defining Actions is that Characters need some form of Abilities, otherwise they cannot perform any actions that might be character defining. A less trivial choice considering Character Defining Actions is if the gameplay should support defining Characters in the game system or support the social agreement between the players of what constitutes the Characters. It is possible to combine the two but this success of this depends on players' willingness to adjust their perceptions of the Characters to what the game system dictates. Game Masters provide a way of negotiating between the two. Character Defining Actions are typically applied to Player Characters since players may not perceive the events changing Non-Player Characters as being based upon actions, but any type of Characters can be modified by the pattern on a system level.

On a system level Character Defining Actions can be implemented via Skills where the performed actions determine the areas of competence gain. Improved Abilities and New Abilities can function similarly but may also be consequences of choices in relation to advancements in Character Level, if these are diegetically presented are characters choices, e.g. which teacher to study under. Alternatively, actions can change the relations between the PC and NPCs via Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences. A prime example of this is declaring one's Loyalty to a cause, Character, or Faction, or by breaking such a Loyalty. Another example can be how one behaves towards ones' Companions and how one behaves in their presence. An use of Character Development in relation to Character Defining Actions is to make the latter an option of how players' wish Characters' to develop once the fact that they will develop has been established.

For changes in game systems, the actions that define Characters can either do so gradually through incremental modifications or through distinct choices that significantly changes the Characters. The former is typically used in relation Skills and examples of this exists in Basic Roleplaying system and the Elder Scroll series. Games that have moments that radically change Characters or make the difference in outcome between Character Defining Actions great often tie this into Predetermined Story Structures. This can also be achieved through Internal Conflicts or Social Dilemmas, which may or may not be part of Predetermined Story Structures. An intermittent options may be the choices offered when a new Character Level is reached.

It may be difficult to stop players' from building their own perceptions of Characters in a game based upon what actions they let them perform, but players' can be supported to notice Character Defining Actions through encouraging Roleplaying in a game.

The consequences of actions should not easily be possible to undo for them to be seen as defining Characters since a mutable characteristics is a unsuitable starting point for a stable definition. This means that Reversibility is difficult to combine with Character Defining Actions and many of these actions initiate Ultra-Powerful Events, especially when used together with Predetermined Story Structures.

Cutscenes have a dual relationship with Character Defining Actions, they can enforce them as part of narration but may also break players' believability in them if they go counter to their perceptions of them. This may be especially true for Player Characters since players often feel that have an interpretative prerogative for these.

Diegetic Aspects

As the Fable II example shows, changes in the way players' Characters are presenting is one way of providing feedback on Character Defining Actions.

Narrative Aspects

Even if Predetermined Story Structures can help set up Character Defining Actions as noted above, they may also oppose them unless players have an Exaggerated Perception of Influence or Freedom of Choice. Especially Cutscenes may be problematic when used to develop the Characters in this sense since players have no control over these. Sidequests is an example of Predetermined Story Structures that lets players have a Freedom of Choice and where taking on them can be Character Defining Actions.

When it is essential that specific Character Defining Actions take place, the use of Enforced Agent Behavior can ensure this. One way of doing this is to use Cutscenes.


Character Defining Actions result in the creation of Player-Designed Characters during game sessions. In one sense any use of Characters introduces Character Defining Actions, even if the game system does not provide support for changing statistics of the Characters based on players' actions. This since any actions by the Characters influences how players interpret those characters, even if it was the players who initiated the actions! This of course requires that players do some form of interpretation of the Characters, which is not necessarily done in Single-Player Games but can be encouraged through Cutscenes or Third-Person Views. This may also be a problem in Multiplayer Games but there representation of other players' Characters offers additional possibilities for this interpretation. Roleplaying can further support this since it strengthens the differentiation between the players and the Characters.

When Character Defining Actions is used to achieve Character Development, this supports Gain Competence goals and Player-Planned Development if players have some form Freedom of Choice in what way to develop the Character. When players have taken on goals regarding fulfilling Characters roles, Character Defining Actions can give them the experience of Role Fulfillment. In contrast, when Character Defining Actions form Player Characters in ways that the players object to, the pattern can break their Emotional Engrossment.

Given that Character Defining Actions typically are not combined with Reversibility, i.e. they are usually spawn Irreversible Events, these types of actions have an associated Risk/Reward and may require Leaps of Faith if the consequences of the actions have not been presented clearly enough. Further, since a series of this type of actions describe the development of Character and possibly the change in relationship with NPCs, they form a Narration Structure even if none was planned beforehand. All these consequences make Character Defining Actions interesting enough to merit being part of Gameplay Statistics for those games that make use of them.

For games where a Character has an Open Destiny, the actions that decide which destiny will manifest itself are Character Defining Actions. For the games that use Character Alignments, performing actions that force a change in an alignment qualifies as a Character Defining Action (and can be an example of how Characters can have an Open Destiny). While other types of Character Defining Actions (e.g. raising Skill levels) may not qualify as Exceptional Events, these types of actions and events may do so.

As mentioned above, Cutscenes can both instantiate Character Defining Actions and remove the possibilities for them depending on the stance players take towards who has the right to interpret the Characters' personalities.


Can Instantiate

Characters, Exceptional Events, Gain Competence, Gameplay Statistics, Irreversible Events, Leaps of Faith, Narration Structures, Player-Planned Development, Risk/Reward, Role Fulfillment, Ultra-Powerful Events

with Characters

Character Development

Can Modulate

Character Alignments, Characters, Companions, NPCs, Open Destiny, Player Characters

Can Be Instantiated By

Characters together with Abilities, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Character Levels, Companions, Enforced Agent Behavior, Improved Abilities, Internal Conflicts, Loyalty, Predetermined Story Structures, New Abilities, Roleplaying, Sidequests, Skills, or Social Dilemmas

Can Be Modulated By

Cutscenes, Game Masters, Third-Person Views

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Cutscenes, Reversibility

Emotional Engrossment when Character Defining Actions are used together with Player Characters in ways not wanted by the players


An updated version of the pattern Character Defining Actions, first introduced in Lankoski 2010[1].


  1. Lankoski (2010). Character-Driven Game Design - A Design Approach and Its Foundations in Character Engagement. D.A. thesis at Aalto University. Publication Series of the School of Art and Design A 101.


Petri Lankoski