Character Concept: The Unreliable Narrator

Late one night recently, I woke up with a fully fleshed out character concept in mind. The character would be a perfect fit in a modern, cyberpunk or Shadowrun setting, but the core idea could be adapted to a lot of other settings as well. There is a lot of room for the GM to work within the character’s back story and to play with character perceptions and knowledge.

The set up for the character is that, at some point in their past, they’ve gone through a tragic set of events. The details of this aren’t important, but the more open and unresolved it is, the better. For example, the character could have been the caretaker / bodyguard for a beloved employer’s child for many years until a failure on the character’s part caused the death of the child during a kidnapping gone awry. The kidnappers are still unidentified and on the loose and the family is still around (and presumably influential). Perhaps there’s even more than one event building up the character’s past. Max Payne would be an excellent example of just such a character.

After those events, and a sufficiently morose time period, the character attempts to end it all by committing suicide. The specifics of the method are, again, unimportant and based more on the setting than anything else. A gun shot wound to the head, jumping off a cliff, or overdosing on an exotic substance could all do the trick. The important bit is that the attempt (presumably) fails and the character is left alive, but also with brain damage causing a skewed perception of the outside world and of themselves.

Following the suicide attempt, the character believes they have actually succeeded. They believe, and their perceptions support, that they have died and been sent to Pergotory / Hell for their sins, for which they must atone. On a “good” day they simply believe that the world around them is just some sort of re-creation of the world they left, penance for trying to escape it before their time. On a “bad” day, the world is perceived as a hellish landscape they must brave. The people of the world are perceived either as demons sent to challenge or stop the character, or as fellow tortured souls.

Another side effect of the injury is partial amnesia, a spotty memory of past events. What they do remember is in all likelihood incorrect or even fabricated memories. What’s true is largely up to the GM, the facts the character believes are true are just as malleable and potentially false as the character’s perception of the world. The character can roll with a lot of contradicting memories and experiences due to their broken mind, just like a dreamer can consider the strangest dream logical in the moment.

The character is not alone, however. An “angel” speaks to them, providing advice and guidance. This manifests in the real world as limited precognitive abilities. Whether the source of those abilities are truly precognitive powers, a highly tuned sixth sense, even small bits and pieces of their lost memory, or whether their abilities even have good motives at all is up the the GM.

Despite their maladies, the character’s actions are grounded in reality, even if their perceptions of what is happening and what they think they are doing is not. This allows them to function within a group of other players without becoming a “chaotic neutral loose cannon”.

There’s a lot of material there for a player or a GM to dig into. Uncovering the character’s true story could be the central plot of a campaign, or incidental to the overall campaign. The very nature of the character’s fate, the origin of their “power” and their perception of the world could inform the game world or provide an opportunity for an interesting twist. Maybe the characters really are in hell and only this character has realized it. Maybe their powers truly are divine and they have not been allowed to pass over until their task has been completed. Maybe the character really is just bat shit crazy and all of the other player characters are really just hallucinations, projected extensions of the characters own fractured psyche and his actions.

Either way, the player would have plenty of ways to develop their character and act in interesting ways. If played well, it could be a novel take on the typical “hero adventurer tale”.


2 Responses to “Character Concept: The Unreliable Narrator”

  1. 18 February 2013 at 19:00

    My absolute favorite thing about magic in Shadowrun, is the way that world view/perception/belief focuses how it expresses. I love this idea and it completely takes that to the next level!


    • 19 February 2013 at 23:24

      Thanks! I admit, I was absolutely thinking of Shadowrun when I wrote it, but hopefully its a character concept that could be used in any number of systems. 🙂


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