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Hello narrative friends.
With Pyke’s imminent release into the watery wild, Scathlocke and I thought it’d be a good time to dive into a question narrative gets pinged on a lot—champion bios. As this is one of our primary tools for communicating the backstory of a champion, we thought it might be useful to dig into what they are, why we make them, and then run through the process with our favorite Titan of the Depths, Nautilus.
Let’s start with the shortest version and the one most players are familiar with, the client description, or what we call it in-house—the “short bio.”
The Short Bio
This is a brief paragraph of information that describes the champion, and because it’s the only narrative description that lives in the client, it should also reinforce why you’d want to play that champion in game, from a fantasy archetype perspective.
Up until recently, the information in the client was all over the place in terms of length and subject matter. Some were not actually bios, but flash fiction. Some were extremely short and some were so long, the gist of the champion was lost. Overall the experience was wildly unpredictable, and that left some champions feeling neglected and under-served. This is why we decided to standardize the in-client champion bios last November.
In their intended form, these biographical appetizers are meant to be read quickly, in about the time it might take to queue for a game. To do that, we aim to keep them short—ideally 80 to 100 words. That works out to about four sentences. A strong short bio should cover who the champion is in the world of Runeterra, where they came from, and their personality, all while trying to avoid direct repetition of the words in the champion’s title.
Some of you with mains that once had an overflowing cornucopia of biographical information might be making an angry face right about now. When we put the new standardized short bios in client last fall, we heard complaints that we had erased information from a champion’s history. In most cases, these details weren’t cut from a champion’s story, they just lived more appropriately on their page on Universe. Thankfully last February, we were able to get a Learn More button in the client, which makes connecting to this information a lot easier, and brings us to the next incarnation of a champion’s life story…
The Full Bio
This narrative text should summarize a champion’s backstory and current place in the world of Runeterra. Though longer than a short bio, we still like to keep it on the brief side, ideally no more than 600 words. When a champion’s history is a little complicated, we might bump that up another hundred words or so.
You might be wondering, “Why have a word count restriction at all?” (Or as I like to refer to them, a strongly suggested creative goalpost.) It might seem like having an unlimited word count would be awesome and let us share more about a champion, but there are two major reasons we like to keep the bios concise.
First, the full bio aims to highlight significant events in a champion’s life. The keyword there is highlight. We’re a big fan of story being told through… well, story, and not biographical text. To me, it’s the difference between a history textbook and historical fiction: The textbook is informative and interesting in small doses, but I would much rather immerse myself in a story where a character can live and breathe. Any events mentioned in a champion’s full bio should be ones that proved influential to the person they are today, and any relationships to other champions or regions that are noted should be significant. How they are depicted should make the reader want to know more, preferably in the form of a story.
The second reason we stick to a word count restriction, and perhaps why I personally enjoy writing full bios, is that the small space forces a writer to be exact with their craft. When you have to count every word, every word must count. Putting together a champion’s bio is a good exercise in figuring out what really matters to who that champion is, and finding the right words to communicate that effectively to a reader.
We want the full bio to be accurate to the whole experience of a character’s life. To do that, we may update a bio with additional information after telling a significant story, like we recently did with both Yasuo and Riven after “Confessions of a Broken Blade” finished. Both of them are now on different parts of their continuing journey, and we believe it is important to reflect that in their bio.
So what does all of this look like in action? Let’s take a closer look on a champion who presented an interesting challenge.
The Nautilus Dilemma
Before November, Nautilus was a character we’d largely left alone, narratively speaking. As an older champion, the information in the client wasn’t outright contradictory to the world of Runeterra, or other champions, but it wasn’t terribly deep either. This put Nautilus in the lore triage category of “not an immediate emergency, but we’ll revisit if that changes.”
As the Champion Team began working on the idea that would become Pyke, we saw the need to take a closer look at the Titan of the Depths. Pyke was shaping up to be a Bilgewater champion that had been pushed onto his character journey by betrayal, and then touched by some eerie power. The player-facing information on Nautilus that had been alright a few months earlier was looking less so. We knew that, narratively, we’d have to revisit and deepen Nautilus as a function of developing Pyke.
Writers and editors love questions, and one we endlessly debate is, “Why?” For Nautilus, the questions were, “Why is he the way he is? What was the power that touched him? Where did it come from? And why does it still push him ever forward?”
In our desire to find a place that made more sense for [Nautilus] in the lore, we had undermined something that players had previously loved about him.
Like most people who love story and character development, the folks who work within the narrative discipline have a lot of personal headcanon about League’s cast, and we do a lot of theorycrafting around what “could be.” That healthy internal debate helps us poke holes in our own logic before it becomes public. There were a number of possible explanations for the questions surrounding Nautilus, and we took the opportunity to hint at a connection to Nagakabouros that had been pitched. This would not only put some more character distance between him and Pyke, but could elaborate on Nautilus’ in-game support persona.
Unfortunately, of the nearly 140 bios we updated at that time, the change to Nautilus was one that players took major exception to. Specifically, Nautilus working for Illaoi’s god made him feel like less of champion in his own right. In our desire to find a place that made more sense for him in the lore, we had undermined something that players had previously loved about him.
Looking at the Nautilus challenge, Scathlocke and I were teetering on the precipice of a particularly deep chasm of self-doubt. Nautilus was a champion created long before either of us started working at Riot. As much as we narrative folk are excited by the prospect of creating characters and worlds from the stuff of raw imagination, the craft of writing is often an exercise in humility. Each edit a draft goes through reveals what you didn’t know about your story, or what you did a poor job in communicating the last time around.
Nautilus was much more than his armored bulk. He was a lost soul, dragged down by darkness, but one that persevered no matter what.
So, we started there. What else did we not know about the armored goliath? After considering a couple of options on how to get to the bottom of this, we contacted as many Nautilus players as we could and pointed them to this question on the boards, hoping to find some answers. (While this instance of feedback was sourced in one particular channel, we’re always looking for better ways to understand player feels from all over the world. If you want to tell us what you think about our decisions, please feel free to reach out to us in the comment section of this article.)
At first the posts trickled in, but it soon became a torrent. In over a thousand posts, covering fifty pages on the boards, Nautilus mains delivered a masterclass in what this champion meant to them. One of the many things that makes me excited to write for League is how deeply player passion runs for these characters and their world. (It also gives me a crazy set of nerves whenever writing of mine is in placed front of that passion!)
So I read the posts. All of them. And they were amazing.
Nautilus was much more than his armored bulk. He was a lost soul, dragged down by darkness, but one that persevered no matter what. He was the embodiment of inescapable dread, of burdens that cannot be put down, and the will to survive even the most intense pressures. In his anchor and his lonely trudge across the bottom of the sea, there were beautiful metaphors for dealing with depression. Through all of this, even his betrayal, Nautilus was not evil. Inside the diving suit was still the soul of a man.
We’ve taken a new crack at Nautilus’ short bio (up now on PBE). And since you’ve gotten this far on an article that’s nerding out about League champion bios, here’s a sneak peek at where we landed for the full bio for Nautilus, Titan of the Depths.
To understand the legend of Nautilus, one must first know the man—for even the tallest of tavern tales agree, he was indeed a man.
Though the waves have washed away the name he was born with, most remember Nautilus as no mere sailor, but as a salvage diver. Just beyond the southernmost reach of the Blue Flame Isles lies a graveyard of ships, rumored lost while searching for a blessed land, looking to trade wealth for immortality. On a fair day, their glittering holds beckon from beneath the surface. Many crews sought divers to collect the lost fortune, and none could match the skill of the quick-sinking hulk of solid muscle that was Nautilus.
With lungs that could steal the air from a galleon’s sails, Nautilus preferred to freedive. Always bringing up plenty of gold or jewels for the crew, the man demanded no special wages—he asked only that the captain toss a coin overboard as they set out, honoring and appeasing the vast ocean. A sailor’s superstition to be sure, but many a sea-fearing crew made such offerings to ensure a safe return.
Years of salvage depleted the easy treasure, each haul becoming less and less, until one day Nautilus’s crew learned that their ship and working papers had been bought out from under them.
The dawn was scarlet the morning the new captain came aboard. Hailing from a foreign port, he brought with him a giant suit of brass and iron. He zeroed in on Nautilus; indeed, he had purchased the command because of Nautilus. It was clear the captain was obsessed with a specific wreck, one shrouded in darkness even on a fair day. The diving armor could withstand the pressures of the ocean floor far longer than any man, long enough to collect what was hidden in the abnormal murk.
The crew agreed working was better than starving, and Nautilus found himself being bolted into the suit, the wooden deck groaning under the load. Panic rose in his throat when he realized that they had nothing to pay the tithe. The foreign captain laughed as Nautilus was lowered into the water. He assured the crew that whatever the Bearded Lady was protecting would make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams. When Nautilus returned to the surface, they would make their silly sacrifice.
As Nautilus sank, the light above dimmed, and all grew quiet, the man’s own breath the only sound echoing in the iron suit. Then something reached out from the depths. He was being pulled down, and for the first time Nautilus felt liquid fear wrap itself around his heart. It was not treasure his captain sought, but some slumbering, eldritch power.
Nautilus grabbed the anchor chain, his last connection to the world above, and hauled himself up even as the thing below sought to drag him down. But the weight was too much. Just as his giant metal fingers were about to breach the surface, the chain snapped. Nautilus screamed within the suit, but none could hear him. He tumbled back into the inky maelstrom, clutching the sinking anchor in desperation. Dark tendrils enveloped him, and he could only watch as the dimming outline of his ship faded away. Then everything went black.
When Nautilus awoke on the ocean floor, he was something… different. The darkness could no longer hurt him. The great metal suit had become a seamless shell around him, concealing the bond that the primordial power had made with his spirit. Trapped in the sunless depths, he could remember only one thing—the new captain’s broken promise.
Nautilus vowed, there and then, that all would pay the ocean’s tithe. He would see to it himself.
Driven ever forward by this thought, he trudged toward the shore. But by the time he reached Bilgewater, years had passed, and he could find no traces of his captain or crew. There was no life to which he could return, no revenge he could take. Instead he returned to the sea, allowing his anger to surface on the greedy, gutting their ships with his mighty anchor.
Sometimes, in the tumble of waves, distant memories of who he was push up above the waterline… but always the man who is Nautilus stays drowned just below the surface.
Weighing in at about 715 words, it’s a little heavier than we’d normally aim for, but with all the big guy’s gone through, we thought we’d err on the side of a little more information. For those of you with a discerning eye, there are a few sentences we could have trimmed out to get us closer to 600 words. But as fans of Easter eggs, Scathlocke and I left them in for… reasons.
When We Get It Wrong
Sometimes, after all this—all the research, all the internal debate, all the editorial—we won’t hit the bullseye with a champion. Our intentions are good, but Scathlocke, myself, and the rest of the narrative staff are still human (well, I am, but sometimes Scathlocke’s logical, editor brain makes me wonder… )
When you think we’ve messed something up, please tell us, and most importantly, please tell us why. Karma’s bio update is a good example of this process. We delivered a bio that didn’t quite land the way we had hoped, and the detailed notes and discussions that followed were insightful and incredibly useful. We may not respond to every post and piece of constructive criticism, but we are listening.
If you’re wondering why we haven’t given your particular champion any love recently, they’re probably on our lists and we’re looking at when we can update them (cough, cough, Soraka!) For updating some champions, it makes the most sense to time these if we’re already planning on visiting a particular faction (and we’re looking at you, Karma…)
Are there more narrative questions, tools, or processes you’re curious about? Let us know in the comments below.