With precious few exceptions, the greatest heroes from fiction can be summed up in a single line, and often they’re tied to a single schtick or special ability. For example, what made the original series of the Heroes TV series (here in the UK we’re about 700 episodes behind, so can’t comment beyond that) was that the characters were pretty ordinary people, each with just a single power. We could sum up enough about each one of them with a short line of text – cheerleader who can regenerate, senator who can fly, etc – and it gives us enough information to understand much of the character’s motivations, motives and personality. As the characters grew our perception of them developed too, but that original One Line Hero core remained the same, giving a sense of consistency to the series’ premise.
It’s not hard to find examples. There’s Will Smith’s character from I, Robot – technophobe cop, Robin Hood – noble leader of an outlaw band, or even Doctor Who – Time Travelling problem solver. Of course, all of the characters are much more complex than a single line can convey, but once you’ve identified the core, everything else falls naturally into place.
We can use this in our role-playing games too. Next time you’re generating a fresh character, find space on the sheet for a one line description, and where possible, write that first (ok, second, if you’ve got a name). This will help define the character in your mind, show what makes them different, and serve as a reminder how to play the character at the start of each session.
Once you’ve got the one line concept there’ll be plenty of questions that need anwsering. Some of these questions will be simple, but others are best answered as a part of the plot development in game.
For example, Bomb Girl is one of my favourite characters from our Mutants & Masterminds campaign. She can blow things up with her mind. That’s her one-line concept, but from that comes the questions “How?”, “When did she get this power?”, “Does it work in a vacuum?”, “How does this make her a hero?”, and “Doesn’t that make her very dangerous to have around?”. There’s plenty more questions, but that’ll do for now. Incidentally, the answers are “Technopsionics. The more complex something is, the bigger the bang”, “From birth. Her childhood consisted of wooden blocks in a very plain room”, “No”, “She was an anti-terrorist agent for Department 19. Now she works as part of a hero team and trusts no-one” and “Yes, very”.
In the world of D&D, a one line concept is the difference between your Elven Rogue and all the rest; it’s what makes your character stand out from the crowd. Perhaps she’s a Church Orphan with no concept of personal belongings, obsessively compulsive about how things work, or is seeking for The God Mark which could be engraved anywhere.
Here’s a few example one-line heroes for D&D just to get the juices flowing:
- Frustrated ex-Cleric who wants a more active role in purging evil
- Mercenary who fights and drinks to forget a recent horror
- Ex-cultist trying to atone for his sins
- Wife of an enslaved nobleman who only wants enough gold to purchase his release
- Exiled from the Feywild for breaking an unspoken taboo
- Lost the King’s Message and fears every soldier’s footstep
- Ex-apprentice of a vanquished evil Wizard
- Monkey given human form
- Time traveller from an ancient Empire now stranded in an unfamiliar land
While I haven’t suggested a Race or Class for these sample one-line heroes there’s usually an obvious choice, but sometimes it’s fun to choose the path less travelled. For example, the “Ex-apprentice of a vanquished evil Wizard” is most likely to also be a Wizard, but what if they’ve abandoned their spell-casting ways to take up the mantle of a Fighter, allbeit one (if you’re playing 4e) with the Arcane Initiate Feat to reflect their incomplete training and dark, dirty secret.
I’m sure you can think of more. There’s a one line hero in all of us, after all.