Who is the who?

What is a story (or an adventure) without characters?  In last weeks post we talked about writing up an adventure, and how the conflict is Man VS., But remember that MAN can be any protagonist, whether male, female, protoplasmic asexual, or super-intelligent shade of the color blue.  Depending on the game system and the setting, you may have all or none of these in your character group.  Characters, both PCs and NPCs, are a distinct and important part of making your adventure, and I will talk about each of them in this weeks post.

We will start with NPCs, or anyone not played by a player character (hence: Non-Player Character)  These range from major players, both heroes and villains, to walk ons.  They are a shorter discussion in general,but that does not mean they should be relegated to forgettable status..  The more important they are to your story-line, the more thought out they have to be.  While a chandler who sells the players waxed cotton line may need little more than a name (if even that), the big bad of the game needs quite a bit more!

Lets start small and go big.  A simple walk-on NPC needs little thought.In many cases, a name, a quirk and a voice are over thought.  Most NPCs of this type are stage dressing, shop keepers and villain fodder.  They represent Joe average.  They are OK in anything they need to do.  The more important an NPC, or the bigger role they play, they need more consideration. Hirelings of PCs should all have names, and at least one characteristic like  quick, Brave, giggles at inopportune times, cunning, untrustworthy, yawns all the time, etc…  For names, there are lots of resources, from a phone book (if you remember those) for a modern game, to various random name generators such as those found at Seventh Sanctum or Behind the Name.  At least keep a note card or page with a list of names, where you can write a couple of words about who they are, so if your players want to go back to them.  If they are important enough, make a note about how they talk.  If you are a 1st person player, imitate that when being the character.  If your more 3rd person, remind the players that this mousey little bartender talks like John Wayne!

  • Simply put: The more important the NPC, the more details you will need on them! Most major NPCS (based primarily on amount of “Screen time” they get) will need near complete character sheets with appropriate GM notes.

Before I even start on Player Characters, let me say this:  PCs should not be created in a vacuum!  PCs are informed as much by a setting as they are by other characters and/or story-line.


As the heart of your story, there are several things to consider when thinking about PCs.

  • What type of character(s) fits the story?
  • What character class, archetype or skill set is needed to meet the various challenges?
    • In general, the 5-man band trope will cover most requirements.  The RPG version is usually: Fighter (Heavy/Tank);Mage (Scientist); Rogue(mechanic,scrounge); Healer (medic);  Shooter (sniper, Archer)
  • What is the minimum and maximum number of players you need/are willing to run?
  • How can you hook your characters into the plot, or with each other?
    • The “you meet in a bar, and a mysterious stranger approaches” gives the player little connection to the plot or the other characters, but is a direct intro to the plot.
    • If each character has a personal stake in the outcome, then they want to get a good outcome.
    • If the players have at least some connection to the other players, then they will typical want to work together better.  This can range from family, to same school or hometown.  you can also connect each player with two other characters, and that way they web together.
  •  How tightly do the characters need to be tied to the story?  Drinking in a tavern and being hired by the mysterious patron is so easy to get them involved, but it does not really give them any reason beyond, something to do other than drink.  It is a great way to get a disparate group of unknown together.  On the other hand, the easiest way to get them all directly involved is having them all be part of an extended group that must resolve the issue.

You could provide pre-generated characters to your players.  This saves time during your first game, and allows you to control all the aspects of the characters.  This makes building hooks easy!  When building pre-gens, a couple of things to keep in mind:


  • Most of the time it doesn’t matter if the character is male or female.  So if you name the character either give them a name that is gender neutral, or a male OR female name.  Often you can just leave the name to the player.
  • Make them at least somewhat interesting.  The background they have would not normally be “you work in a garage,”but should be they “worked in Uncle Vito’s garage since they could follow instructions, but when Uncle Vito was gunned down, you escaped by hiding behind a barrel of oil…”
  • Build hooks so they can relate to the story!  And conversely, make sure they have the skills to shine at least once during the game
    • This can be hard if you don’t know how many players to create for.  If you have two players and you had planned for 6, what do you do with the missing skills?
    • You may need to build yourself a table that shows you how to modify each of your characters if you don’t have enough, or make not of which skills are shy and consider how to get around them in the game

The middle ground of PC is character outlines.  Depending on your system, you may outline that you need at least a warrior, and a mage of a particular discipline; or you might say everybody needs at least one weapon skill at moderate proficiency, but you also need someone to be a divine worshiper of the god of black water.  With these basic outlines, you can get with your players and put all of the requirements on a white board or on note cards or whatever, and then draw straws to see who gets to choose what untill all of your requirements are taken care of, then let them build what ever else they want.

If you know your players, or are confident in your ability to guide players you don’t know, then you can go straight to character creation.  This gives your players the most freedom, but can put the greatest strain on your game, so lets look at some details:

Character Creation at the table

If you give your players complete freedom to create what they want (which is what I usually do), you have opened yourself up to the biggest headache.  You now need to make sure that the adventure fits the characters, and that you have appropriate hooks for them.

  • I recommend that you guide the character creation.  Kind of like the middle ground, you know what you need to have.  You know the setting and the scope.  (Creating characters for a single adventure may allow some rule breaking to fit what you need.  For a campaign…not really allowed!)
    • Keep in mind your story.  All of the next points assume you have a fairly solid grasp of the story you want to tell.  If you are telling a story about Victorian monster hunters, who incorporate part of the monster into themselves to make better hunters, you may not want a holier than thou brimstone preacher, but a preacher who fight the stain against God might work, but do you have the requirements of skills and abilities to meet the challenges of your story?
    • Talk with the characters about your setting.  Depending on the genre, you may even give them basics of the plot.  This might not work in a murder mystery, but in a” get the macguffin” (macguffin? you ask…the thing thqt MUST be gotten) dungeon crawl, you can probably tell them that.
    • In that discussion, they will need to know what type of characters you expect, and perhaps more importantly, what won’t fit.  In a witch hunting game, it is probably inappropriate for one of the characters to be a demon worshipper!
    • However, if they want to play that character, find out why.  Perhaps you can fit their desires into a character idea.  They want to play a demonologist to cast black magic?  What about White magic?  More limited perhaps,but the holy priest may fit in much better!
    • Feel free to have the players provide you hooks, but if your scope is a single game, help them change that hook to one that fits your setting.Let other players make suggestion about the character…get the ideas flowing.  If you need the characters to know each other, work out how.  do they each know all of the others, or is everyone connected to only one or two of the others?
    • Once concepts are made, work through character creation.  Try to make the build fit the idea, but make sure you get the skills covered that need to be.

Lets go to the example:

Continuing our example from before, lets touch on each of the ways you could create characters. We have come up with a story, so now consider the types of characters that you might need or want.  NPCs we need, are the spider alien,and its brood, the proconsul and a couple of servants.  That might do for a minimum.  The way the story is written, we may only need to completely stat out the big bad. The rest can get by with a few notes.but we may create some of the stats to deal with things we don’t expect.  Of course all of the bit players will need names, so I’ll have a random name generator (or a book on roman history) to create roman sounding names, with maybe space-opera monikers (Space runner, Star child, Voidmann).

If you are setting this game up for a convention, or just to try out a system or something, you may consider pre-gens.For the game you decide that all of your characters will have basic military training, so that defines part of their background.  Perhaps in your game, they have been together since they were out of the crèche as they were destined to form this cadre.  So now the players are connected.  Using that, the mission becomes important because one of their creche mothers has gone to this frontier planet, and they haven’t heard from her since she left.Like that, you have given them a reason to be together, to work together and a want to undertake the mission. (Maybe mother is in one of the villas that has been attacked…she is OK, but wants the master avenged).  You have soldiers; you also need perhaps a doctor, maybe with a xeno-disease specialty.  One of the characters is a research specialist.  You need a long-range fighter and a couple of close in fighters.  How about a diplomatic face type.  And then, as a final character, an insectoid non-citizen trying to earn its citizenship by serving the emperor.  Its motivation is different, but it adds a bit of party conflict, so you only make it available if all of the other characters are taken.  If you want, you can add character specific connections, but most single shot adventures don’t see a whole lot of use of them.  You can make it a point of play, exploiting it during one of your beats!  Otherwise, you are ready to play!

In the next situation, you may not know your players, but you are not limited by time, you may have a couple of session to cover the story, so you decide to have them create characters, but you will control the process.

You know you need all of your players to have Some fighting skills.  So, depending on your game system, you may require everyone to take a weapon proficiency, or x number of points in combat skills.  If your system is a pure class base, then this part of the decision is basically what sort of classes are needed.  As you can see, this is where a class based system could have significant advantages. Assuming you are playing a skill based or class/skill hybrid system you will need to be a bit more defined. You have access to notecards, so you use them. If you don’t know how many players, you may need to mark the characters.  something like all 1 star characters have to be taken before a two star character can be taken, and so on.  This ensures that the minimum classes/skills are covered.. If you are using a class hybrid system you may put out cards for just the classes , so everyone can pick that first.  Then, put out the skill cards with skill/talents/powers (whatever ) on them.These cards can include skill groups (skills for a thief, for instance) or maybe individual, allowing people to specialize as they see fit.  Once skills and classes are distributed, you might talk about hooks, or you can lay them out for selection as well.  If you lay them out, it might be best to be a little vague so character secrets are not common knowledge.  If you are going to leave the players to work out the character hooks, you might consider the next iteration instead!

Lets now assume you are going to be playing with your usual group of players.  You know the kind of things they play, but maybe this setting will get them to shake it up a bit.  So, you get snax and start talking about characters for the new game.  Everybody agreed to the setting, so you just need to tell them a bit about your story plan.  Everybody is happy with what you need.  So they can dive into character making right?  Yes, but…THey can make their character and then work with you about fitting them into the group, but if everybody talks through the types of character ideas they have, you can guide them in their choices, and other players may have some influence to make better characters!  Cool, eh?  OK…your group is talking about characters, and one of the players really wants to play a dwarven priestess to the God of the Axe.  You explain that this is not really a fantasy game, but they would really like to do this…now what?

Like so many other things at the game table – talk it out!  Maybe after finding out why she wants to play that, you agree that it could be a fun concept, but it doesn’t fit.  But (Later we will talk about the Yes, But.. .and No, and… concepts) how about she is a non-citizen from a high Gee Ice world called Graham Holt.  So, she is short, and hairy, like a dwarf, and she actually has psionic powers that her people have attributed to divine intervention.  You hadn’t planned on any kind of magic, but this minor power might fit well.  So, she gets to play her Dwarven priestess, that is on this operation to work toward her citizenship in the Empire.  Character motivation! She may not be connected to the other players directly…or, maybe she has been assigned to their cohort for a while!  Maybe even the slave of one of the other characters!

Once created, then you need to wrap it up with tie ins.  Once each of your characters is a closely connect with each other and the story that you are comfortable with, you are off to the races! (Not breeds of people, but competitions of speed…but actually mean you are ready to play!)  Well…almost.  Next week, I will discuss setting up for your game.

Let me know if this is of help!

The Burbling Lake

My Creative process

I have been behind posting new blogs, because, as you know if you are a regular reader, I am building a new campaign.   I have actually started another post, but it has stalled, so I figured I’d post about what I are doin’!  Before, I posted about how I build settings…and how I really use kind of a middle out system now.  Well…in this post, I’m going to walk through this creation.  There will probably be a few minor spoilers for my players, but nothing big, and besides, they know my dim view of metagaming! 🙂 

Please Note:  This is me trying to make a coherent and presentable presentation of my most recent creative endeavor…so…read it, then think about it….

First, I need to tell you that I have worlds and worlds of worlds always floating around in the back of my brain.  I kind of view it as a slowly undulating lake with these ideas floating to the top then sinking back down, with the occasional mutation or crossbreeding of the ideas.  And then there are the bubbles of toxic gasses.  Those create some very dark and twisted PC or NPC ideas that may or may not ever see the light of day.  A lot of these are PC ideas, that just Don’t Play Well With Others!  So, whenever somebody wants to change games, I am usually up for a new setting.   I just go sit by the lake a while and see what floats by!

Anyway, this setting has show up a few times.  It has recently been morphing into a Savage Worlds setting, but the desire was put forth for my current favorite Epic Game system, RoleMaster Standard System so I dredged it up and started examining it.  The Earliest iteration of this setting was a Roman trading outpost, near the edge of the empire.  From there, I decided I wanted to have an isolated setting, but I wanted to have places to explore…so…The Schism.  This isolated the city and it’s surroundings…I have a few ideas for what happened, but I haven’t decided exactly, but I do know what will be found beyond the ridge, and I have already worked out how to actually get back, but that is too big a spoiler.

Then I debated about having a King or ruling noble…or just the old office of the governor, and came up with a compromise that leaves a reasonable  but ineffective government.  The Grand Council was actually going to be rotating seats every year, so over 20 years all 20 seats would be replaced…but that just seemed to long, so I settled on having them all be re-elected at the 10 year point.  Of course, game takes place near the upcoming election…instant plot hooks!  It becomes almost ShadowRun Super Tuesday type setting (if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up, or I’ll gladly discuss in comments).  Of course, at the same time, Something is beginning to harass the outer settlements…and they need someone willing, or desperate enough to go deal with it.  On top of all of this, there is a war brewing between the Head of the local crime family, and one of his rivals.  Why?  Because that gives me three main story lines in the three quite playable settings: Politics, Crime and Exploration (even dungeon crawl…just don’t tell my players:) )  This is one of the main things I have discovered between Epic and Episodic RP: Epic, the world happens whether the players interact with it or not.  In Episodic, the stories revolve around the players.  Because this is epic, the players will get guidance or taskings, but they can always find their own things, or choose a single story-line to track to the end.

In a bottom Up style, I would detail each story line, (at least) the main characters and the point along that the players interact with; the adventures.  In a top down, I would eventually, define the interactions of all of these story lines, the main parties to the stories, which would include goals and desires…In my style, I create a general direction each one is going.  I see where they each link.  People are created as I need to carry the story along.  Specific locations and goals, the same.  I can do this without much trouble.  Whether it would work for you depends on how fast you can come up with fill in.  Also, some refs will find this much to haphazard.  But it works for me.  I still need to create some detail for particular pieces, but I spend time just visualizing the setting and the people, and imagining how things will play out.  For whatever stories the players are not following I generally assign a couple of dice rolls to see how things are progressing…something like:

01 – 40: Papa Delahni and family are stalemated by the upstart

41 – 90: Papa Delahni and family push back the upstarts

91 – 98: no real progress in made on either side

99 – 00: Monkey wrench! (A brassy is killed so the Policia are suddenly against both sides, a politician decides to get involved and starts offering support to one side or the other….

So, for me..that sets the stories up.  Now, I need some unique setting pieces.  SO I brainstorm…what makes this a unique place?  Well, it has two moons.  Yeah!  Good idea!  How does that affect their calendar?  hmmm…starts getting complicated…Wait!  One is stationary, so it has no effect on the dates!  Cool!  Why?  Welllllll…Oh!  It’s not a heliocentric setting!  GEOCENTRIC!!!  classical setting given the original concept, but how can I make it even more obvious without saying…oh…the universe revolves (except for the big moon which doesn’t) around the planet.  The sun!   Yes!  Not only does it revolve around the planet, but it has another axis that it revolves around!  From this point, the cosmology is all just string of consciousness, throwing out things that I don’t like, leaving open some possibilities (Is there a beanstalk to the stationary moon? Why?  is that relevant?  OH, a whole new story line…probably for higher level characters!) but discarding others (The moon is actually a giant observational lens…the world is under a microscope, literally!  no…overdone and i can’t make it not hokey…)

Now, the hard part…I have two players who are quite urban-centric and would easily work into the criminal story line (one of whom may have some exploration potential).  I have one character who could go Politics or exploration route, and I have an exploration character who would work into the criminal and maybe the political…I have ideas where these story lines will all intersect, but they don’t for a while.  So…Throw them together with disparate reasons to arrive at the same place…and then set up several hooks, and let them play.  I half expect them to stay together because they are PCs, but if they don’t…well, I have a few spare rails lying around, and a couple of fairly powerful engines…and I am ready for the train wreck and to deal with the aftermath.  I could have steered the players to create a single story line character type, and it may end up that way, but, RMSS allows for such extensive character detailing, that even if they all choose one story line, after a few levels, they could fit that mold.  And if it ends up that a character won’t fit, then, well…we will probably make a new character…but if many of them don’t work…

Hey!  I have an idea for a campaign!  It starts at an abandon outpost…the characters do not know why they are there….