The character creation rules are loosely based on those from the game system Dust Devil's Revenged, with some changes to accommodate the troupe nature of a ship based game. The character creation rules can be downloaded in PDF format here, but are reproduced below in their entirety. You can also download a character sheet to fill out here.
In Into the Black, characters are defined by their Scores, a pair of Traits, a Past, a Present, and a Devil. This chapter explains how to assign each of these items and utilize them to detail a character for play. A character’s Devil is his most defining aspect, but many players choose to create their Devil last.
Four Scores measure the character’s inborn capabilities. Each of these four Scores is also represented by a particular card suit, and is rated from 1 to 5 for normal humans; the Scores have an absolute maximum of 10.
Hand represents physical action — anything a character does with his hands or body. A player might use Hand to have his character kick down the door to the whorehouse or rope and wrestle a steer in the dirt. Hand corresponds to the suit of Spades.
Eye measures a character’s wits and intellect. Eye might test a character’s ability to sense a canyon ambush or test his knowledge of independent pirate stations. Eye is associated with the suit of Diamonds.
Guts reflects a character’s vigor and health as well as his courage and cool. It takes Guts to take run out under fire of an angel to commandeer a gun position, and it might take a lot of Guts to keep your shooting hand steady with a .45 round in your thigh. Guts is associated with the suit of Clubs.
Heart gauges a character’s social competence as well as his heroic (or villainous) nature. Heart makes the ladies swoon, and it sure comes in handy when you’re trying to convince the town to fight the magistrate’s thugs. Naturally, Heart is associated with the suit of Hearts.
Step 1: Assign 13 points among your character’s Scores. No Score can be higher than 5.
“All right. Fine. I'll go. Just... stop describing me.” – Simon Tamm, “Jaynestown”
Characters also have two figurative descriptors to highlight the character’s most obvious qualities called Traits. Traits are usually written as similes, to make them easy to remember, and thereby make the character easier to identify with. “Tough as nails” or “Dumb as a post” are two examples of well defined, but very focused traits. A player can emphasize his character’s Trait in a scene to earn more cards, or he can earn a chip by having the character act contrary to his character’s Trait.
Often, character Traits will help explain, or even inspire what kind of person the character is. For most, the Traits should tie into the character’s Devil as well. For example, “Meaner than a Mustang” and “Cold as a Stone” are good Traits for a character whose Devil is Cruelty.
Step 2: Create two traits for your character.
Past and Present
“You all are Browncoats, eh? Fought for independence? Petty thieving ain't exactly soldiers' work.”
Into the Black is very much about reckoning with the past. To emphasize this, each character has a Past and a Present. These are roles the character excels at in some way, and they should offer a useful range of abilities the character can use in various situations. For example, Avenger isn’t a very good Present role because the character doesn’t really do anything in particular other than seek out those he’d avenge. A much more workable role might be Gunfighter, Engineer, or Pilot.
Past and Present roles are often, but not always, occupational. For example, Marshal and Heiress are suitable Past or Present roles. Players should feel free to create any variety of such roles.
There are many ways to think about Past and Present. For example, a player may want his character’s Past to represent his role back on a Core World, and his Present to indicate his current situation out in the Fringe. Or, maybe his Past was his character’s involvement in the Reunification War and his Present his character’s new life in the Alliance’s frontier.
The Past and Present can represent great upheaval in a character’s life. For example, a character could have past: Outlaw and present: Sheriff. What could have happened to make that change from lawless to lawful? Alternatively, the transition between Past and Present could be more natural. A character could easily go from past: Cowboy to present: Cattle baron. But, even then there remain interesting questions. How did this character acquire his wealth, and did he trample over anyone to get it?
The trick is making a Past and Present that says something interesting about the character. It works best to tie the two with the character’s Devil in some way. Often, the difference between Past and Present can help a player figure out a fitting Devil. For example, a character with past: Outlaw and present: Sheriff could have a Devil related to the law, like Lawless, Criminal or Killer.
Step 3: Choose a past and present. Assign four points between the two roles.
“I'm not going to live there. There's no place for me there... any more than there is for you. Malcolm... I'm a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.” – The Operative, “Serenity”
Finally, every character’s got a Devil. It’s that ugly side a person doesn’t want his Shepherd to know about. Devil is that element of his soul he’s trying to fight, the dark, personal history that he just can’t shake no matter how far he flies, how much he drinks, or how many men he kills.
Players can write their characters’ Devils as a single word or short phrase. They should also write down a sentence or two explaining the Devil and how it came to his character.
A good Devil for this game stays with a character, no matter how hard he or she tries to solve the problem. It’s often some ugly aspect of one’s personality, like greed, hatred, or an excuse for violence. A badly designed Devil is one that can be straightforwardly resolved before the character’s story is told through play.
For example, one of the most common Devils people like is Revenge. If the player doesn’t craft that Devil correctly, it will cause problems in play. If the character enacts his revenge before his character leaves the game, what does the player do then? Does he have more vengeance to fulfill? How does his Devil affect him after that point? Is the character “finished” at that point?
The trick is making Revenge a problem with the character’s identity, rather than a problem with another person or group who wronged the character. The problem with Revenge (and similar troublesome Devils like Wanted Man or Loner) is that they must be about the character, and not about the objects of their obsessions. The question is not whether the vengeance can be resolved—it most assuredly can, presumably by gunning down the poor bastard that did the character wrong—but whether the vengeance can be redeemed. Can the character live with his vengeful soul? Will he lose his decency? That’s really the ultimate question that players will answer as they finish the character’s story in play.
The Devil’s Due
Each character’s Devil has a rating from 1 to 3 that the player can choose from session to session. This rating indicates how much the Devil haunts the character.
A rating of 1 means the Devil is subtle, a personal flaw kept mostly under control, and the character is able to go about his business for the most part. A rating of 2 indicates seething tension as the character’s past begins both to enliven and spoil day-to-day issues. Finally, a character with a Devil rating of 3 is a tempest of dramatic activity; the Devil infects nearly every decision he makes, resulting in spectacular success about as often as is does terrible loss.
At the beginning of each session, the player decides what his character’s Devil rating will be. He might take into account the events of a previous session—a particularly devastating encounter with a figure from his criminal past in the previous session might encourage the player to set his Devil rating at 3 as events come back to haunt him. Conversely, someone playing a character for the first time may simply opt to set his new character’s Devil rating at 1 and let the Devil stew quietly until things build up in subsequent sessions.
It really is up to the player and how much he wants to deal with the Devil in play. Just keep in mind that the Devil is a forked-tongue snake—the rating can work for or against a player! The Devil may come into play as part of any given conflict; when it does, the Devil results in a modified number of cards for the Deal for that player.
Step 4: Detail the Devil. Then, set the initial Devil rating at 1, 2 or 3.
There are two more final touches to put to the character before he starts to build his legend: Achievements and Renown.
Achievements are moments in your character’s life when he distinguished himself in one way or another.
The point of the achievements is threefold:
The last one is probably the most important. The characters have been comrades in arms for some time, and they literally owe each other their lives many times over. During the achievements phase, we’ll see exactly how and why.
Each player gets a turn to do achievements. When it’s your turn, you’ll have one contest against each of the other heroes. Pick the first hero you want to challenge and set the stage for the conflict. Then the GM will describe a scene from your past (something during the war is always good) that features the two heroes in a desperate situation and name two Scores. The devil and past (but not present in most cases) can apply as normal, and the players have a contest. The player that wins receives one oath from the loser, but the character doing achievements describes the way that the scene plays out, using the chosen Scores. If your character won the contest, then you can describe how your mastery of those scores saved the day. If your character lost the contest, then you should describe how the other character helped yours in a significant way.
This challenge procedure is repeated against every other character; then the turn is over and the next player gets a turn to challenge every other character. Once each player has taken a turn, the achievements phase is over. At the end, each character should have oaths with everyone else.
“I think many people know the name Malcolm Reynolds. They know he crossed Niska. They must know what happened after that.” – Niska, “War Stories”
As a character does deeds of note- whether good or bad- they build up renown, and their legend grows. This has both a good side to it, and a bad side. Renown can make some people that would foolishly attack the character back down. But some people are too foolish to know who they should or should not face, and will attack the well known character to improve their own reputation.
Renown is a sticky thing to measure, and a statistic that is kept track of in secret by the GM. The only way a player knows that it is building up is by the attention his character gets. However, a player can choose to press his Renown, tossing his name about in a fight or situation. The character merely has to make sure his presence is known, and that the target of his efforts sees him. All checks once this is known will be affected by his renown.
“You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! But since that's a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around, then you got no place here. You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact.” – Malcolm Reynolds, “Ariel”
The ‘Verse bears a resemblance to the Wild West in many ways, both obvious and subtle; but one way that is not usually explored is the fact that while freedom is valued, honor amongst your compatriots is valued above that. A man is only as good as his word to his friends, and the ties between a crew are like family. Oaths are one way to simulate this.
Normally tests are taken individually, and each character’s winning and losing conditions are his own, though the conditions of the crew as a whole may coincide. However, Oaths can be used to make them more personal, and to tie the outcome of the characters’ tests together. At any time, a character may call upon an oath from another character that owes him one, as long as both of them have stakes in that contest. This oath may be in the form of a chip, a card, or even to lose the contest. This is the only way contests can be negotiated between players. In the case of a chip or a card, one oath is negated; in the case of losing the contest, three oaths are negated (which can cause the calling player to now be in debt to the owing player). The owing player can of course choose to honor the debt or not- though not honoring a debt is a huge thing in the ‘Verse, and can have negative repercussions- especially if there’s anyone around to see the person dishonor his obligation.