Character Building: N’Kava Tharak
This is one of a series of articles where we’re walk through the process of building what we think of as a good PC. The goal is to reveal the process and help GMs and players when they are making PCs of their own.
For my first endeavor in this series, I thought that I would try building a character in a fantasy setting. I’m using Karthasia, the setting I generated in a previous post. For a quick review, Karthasia is a setting where a sect of death priests (the Xanx) overthrew the existing benevolent theocracy (run by the Albanists) and replaced it. They did so with the aid of the nature-magic wielding Nine Tribes in the woods to the north, who have since become uncontrollable and overrun many cities. There are a few of the Albanists still alive, and they have formed an underground resistance. Lastly, there is an order of scholarly mages, the Order of Arcane Brothers, utilizing the magic of the four classic elements, earth, air, fire, and water who study in secluded towers. They have remained neutral and undisturbed in the conflict thus far.
I created the setting by focusing on the magic, so I think that it would be interesting to build a non-magic-using PC for this exercise. So let’s imagine that we’re working with a player who wants to play somebody who is mostly a fighter, but also kind of stealthy. Also, our imaginary player hates their boss and needs to blow off some steam, so they want to play someone with a rebellious streak and a short temper. What we will usually do at this point is brainstorm and eliminate possibilities until we find two or three that we like. Then we’ll pick the one of the three that seems best, and flesh them out.
Where to start? There are four primary factions (though we’re not limited to them for potential characters), so let’s see if we can devise a combat-oriented option for each one.
For the Xanx, the obvious combat-oriented option is one of the Dark Knights, with their accompanying hellhound. On the plus side, having a pet can be fun, especially when it’s an asset in a fight (and hellhounds are cool). Also, the “evil” shock troop for the empire would have plenty of opportunities to exhibit a short temper. The problem here would be the rebellious streak, seeing as how they would work for the government in power. We could play it where he signed on with the Xanx when they were still a small cult, the underdog as it were, and he directed his vile at the people in charge. Maybe he believed that they were oppressive and controlling and the Xanx would be better, maybe he just doesn’t like authority. Now that he’s working for The Man, he’s chafing a bit and is tired of taking orders.
There are two angles to take on this character – either he’s still working for the Xanx, but is getting sick of being bossed around, or he’s already quit. Both approaches have some advantages. The first option has a built-in character arc, as it’s somewhat obvious that he’ll be looking for some excuse to quit. For the player, this could give them the cathartic experience of telling their in-game bosses to shove it. As a GM, you’d have to give the character some sort of mission that both brought them into contact with the other PCs and gave them a reasonable excuse to quit. The second option also has some cool aspects, especially if the Xanx execute deserters. Maybe he took his armor and his hellhound and quit, but now he’s on the run from the law. From a story perspective, he could hook up with the Albanist underground and (ironically) fight for the new resistance to take down his old masters. If you had enough time, you could do both.
Speaking of the Albanist resistance, what about a former paladin fighting for the underground? It would give them an easy way to exercise the rebellious aspect, railing against the evil empire that oppresses them. The short temper would be slightly more problematic. Perhaps the paladin was once known for his patience and calm, but he snapped when the Albanists fell and now he’s filled with rage? Meh. I’m not really feeling this one.
Staying with the rebellion idea, the PC could be someone who wasn’t affiliated with the Albanists before the fall, but now works with them to assist in the resistance. Maybe they’re just a freedom fighter type who ventures from place to place overthrowing governments. Like the dark knight idea above, they could have worked against the Albanists before switching sides and working for them. This leads in two different directions – an anarchist who hates all governments and just likes making them fall or a mercenary type who specializes in insurrections and finds that there’s more money to be made in politically unstable environments. We could also hybridize these two, and go with a person who appears to be the mercenary type who’s just in it for the money, but is the idealist anarchist at heart. That seems pretty cool. Not sure how well it meshes with the rebellious nature and short temper. Maybe the PC has a “you might be paying for my services, but we do this my way or we don’t do it at all” kind of vibe. This also seems like a character that is slightly more cerebral and strategy oriented than the fighter we were originally envisioning.
What about the other two factions? The Order of Arcane Brothers probably hire on extra muscle to guard their keeps and fetch supplies. This doesn’t really seem to gel with the rebelliousness though. I could imagine a character who hates and resents his wizard bosses, but the money is too good to quit – it just seems both off-point and lacking in win.
If we go to the Nine Tribes, it’s not hard to envision a savage warrior, fighting with bow, axe, and spear. It’s also not difficult to see how a character like that might be both rebellious and quick-tempered. The trick would be figuring out how to make them interesting, and how to tie them into a story with characters that were not from the tribes. The easiest way to make them interact with others is to make them an outcast from their people. Perhaps they sassed one of the elders when they shouldn’t have, or broke some tribal taboo. The default in that case might be to just have them roaming around as a mercenary, forced into a fish out of water role in the southern cities. Another way to go would be to have some sort of quest laid out for them by one of the shamans (perhaps the one they slighted) that they must fulfill before they can be allowed to rejoin the tribe. This quest could the central quest to the story (restore the Albanists to power, retrieve the holy chalice from the sacred temple, assassinate the High Priest of Xanx), or it could interact with the story in some more subtle way such that the PC has their own reasons for helping the PCs. For instance, the other PCs might be on a quest to topple the Xanx and restore the Albanists, while this character is only using their cause to gain access to the central sanctum and steal some precious artifact.
Lastly, we could consider a character unaffiliated with any of the factions. Perhaps a criminal or a small-time gang leader in one of the southern cities who once dodged the paladins of the Albanists, and now evades the dark knights of the Xanx. “They all look like cops to me.” Of the ideas thus far, this is the easiest one to envision as being totally acrimonious to authority figures. On top of that, playing a totally amoral, selfish character is fun from time to time. The problem is figuring out how you could work him into a story. A character like this one would need some serious loyalties (mom, little sister) or obligations (gambling debt to bigger crime boss) to motivate him. Or perhaps the Xanx, with their secret informers and hellhounds, are more effective cops than their predecessors, and that’s bad for business. With the right kind of player, that could be sufficient motivation.
Choosing a Character
I think that we have three potentials: the dark knight who decides to quit, the outcast tribesman on a quest for redemption, and the gang leader who doesn’t care about anything but his own well-being. The next step is to look a little more closely at each of these options, think about what the final character would look like, and then decide which one we like best. It’s worth pointing out that when I’m spec-ing out the characters, I’m assuming a point-based character system that incorporates advantages and disadvantages of some flavor. I’ll use the GURPS names here, but the basic ideas could be ported to any system (even ones that don’t give points for taking disadvantages).
So what does our ex-Dark Knight look like? Tall, menacing, with dark hair and a perpetual two-day beard. Hard eyes that look like he can do bad things and then forget about them. His back-story lends him a few obvious disadvantages. In addition to the Enemy who is hunting him (the Xanx government), he’d probably want one or two more “bad man” disadvantages, maybe Bully, or Bloodlust. His status as an ex-cop would make for interesting relationships with criminals. It would be hard to convince people that he actually quit and wasn’t an undercover cop. And if people believed that he was actually a deserter, they could always turn him in for a reward. In fact, the character might have to take on a new identity entirely so that people didn’t sell him out (giving him a Secret instead of an Enemy). He would probably have some reasonable social skills (Fast-Talk, Intimidation) and some interesting law enforcement-specific skills like Interrogation, Forced Entry, Search, and perhaps Tactics. He’d have the standard combat skills for the setting (sword and shield), and high Strength. He would have some high quality equipment from his Dark Knight days, as well as a hellhound, though he’d need to find ways to disguise them. His primary way of solving problems would probably be to punch/hack his way out of trouble, with a backup plan of bullying/bluffing people he couldn’t kill. Plotwise, he has obvious ties to any story that involves the Xanx, and he couldn’t afford to be picky about what jobs he took to make money.
My mental picture of the exiled tribesman looks like a cross between Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and Conan the Barbarian, with long blondish-red hair in braids. He wears leather clothes that he made himself, and has a combat style that relies heavily on athleticism and range. He’s armed with a bow, a spear, and a hand axe for when close combat is required. Fierce, agile, clever. I don’t know yet what the story of this ficticious campaign would be, but it would probably involve the Albanist resistance and the Xanx government in some way, which suggests that it would mostly be set in the cities of the south. This creates some very obvious disadvantages for a member of the Nine Tribes, who’s people have slaughtered and pillaged the cities in the north. For starters, he would have an obvious Social Stigma as a savage, and a Conspicuous Feature that made it hard for him to blend in. His level of technology might actually be considered primitive by local standards. I think it would be cool if the Nine Tribesmen were unable/unwilling to use metal weapons. Perhaps some sort of religious belief or a learned fear of soldiers from the cities. He would almost definitely be illiterate, and would probably speak the local tongue with a strong accent. On the plus side, being the stranger in a strange land can have a lot of advantages. If the local soldiers are used to fighting straightforward battles in heavy armor, an agile warrior who can maintain distance with a spear, ambush them with a bow, or sneak up behind them with an axe could be very effective. Additionally, he would have skills that other characters in the setting are unlikely to possess, like Tracking, Poisons, Herbalism, and Wrestling.
There would be two really significant challenges for any player playing this character. Firstly, the fish out of water problem. It can be fun to play the outsider, but somewhere around the twentieth time that the player hears “and what do you know, savage?” it starts to get old. As a GM, it’s important for you to think ahead to these sorts of situations and make sure that the player is aware that it will come up. Secondly, this isn’t a character with particularly robust social skills, at least not in an urban setting. The savage from the north woods should be able to intimidate some people, but the player would have to be careful that fighting and bullying weren’t their only options. To this end, it’s probably very important that their stealth skills be as good as their combat skills. For an example, imagine that the character needs to talk to a local mob leader to arrange some sort of deal. The mob boss works in a tavern, and has goons/bouncers at the doors to keep out unsavory customers. The character could try to bluster and threaten his way in, but that’s not likely to work. He could try to fight his way in, but he’s definitely outnumbered and it probably wouldn’t leave the best impression on the mob boss. So he climbs up on the roof, finds a loose window, and walks up to the boss without anybody seeing him. It’s really crucial for PCs to have skills that provide them with a backup plan; for most PCs the tools are either talking or fighting, but there are other alternatives.
Tying the tribesman into the story is easy to do, but hard to do well. We could always just have his quest for acceptance be central to the story that we intend for the PCs to engage in. Ideally, though, it would only be tangentially related to the larger story, giving him some minor but important moments of conflicts with the other PCs.
Lastly, we have our gang leader. I’m envisioning someone who’s scruffy but charismatic. Sandy blonde, longish hair, and Gary Oldman “I will cut you” crazy eyes. His primary skills are probably going to be combat related. Brawling, Knife, Shortsword. He’s also going to have some pretty decent social skills. Streetwise, Fast-Talk, Acting, Detect Lies, Intimidation, and so on. He would know his way around the city, and could operate freely. This is the most versatile of the options so far, which is in keeping with the self-reliance angle. The problem is that he’s not all that interesting. Antiheroes aren’t as novel as they used to be, and while this would make a fine character for an inexperienced role-player, there’s not much for a seasoned player to sink their teeth into.
With that in mind, I feel like it comes down to the Dark Knight and the Tribesman. I let Ben choose, and he said the tribesman, henceforth known as N’Kava Tharak.
Fleshing Out the Character
We have a basic backstory established. N’Kava broke some sort of taboo, and was exiled from the Nine Tribes as punishment. One of the shamans/tribe leaders gave him a quest that he could complete to be re-admitted. So the first question is: what did he do to get banished? This leads us to the zeroth question, what kind of person is he? Was his crime a noble or ignoble one? We’ve already established that he has a Bad Temper and a problem with authority figures, though one or both of those things could be a product of his banishment rather than the reason for it. If we wanted to go with the noble failing angle, we could say that he was ordered to slaughter a family in battle by his incompetent and bloodthirsty commander, and he refused the order. This sets him up as kind of a softie, but a likable one. On the other side of the spectrum, he could have killed his commander because he was sick of his attitude, or wanted his job. This sets a very different tone for the character going forward.
I think that a character like this one is most fun when he seems dangerous and unpredictable, but not flat out psychotic. So let’s shoot for a middle ground. GURPS has a poorly-named disadvantage called Bloodlust that basically means “I don’t show mercy, and I don’t take prisoners.” It doesn’t mean that you’re looking for a fight, but when you do fight you do it for keeps. That, coupled with Stubbornness and our previously established Bat Temper and Intolerance towards authority figures, makes for a character with some meaty issues to play with (and probable run-ins with the law). Now we come up with a backstory that accounts for his banishment and takes these things into account.
If the take-no-prisoners attitude is the ultimate reason for him being banished, then we could come up with a situation where showing mercy is the only acceptable response. We could flip the scenario from above, and say that he was ordered to take a helpless family captive and slaughtered them – but that’s a little meaner than I was shooting for. What if he was fighting someone in a ritualized combat, like a duel, and killed them when he wasn’t supposed to? That seems like a crime that would merit being kicked out (instead of executed), with the opportunity to redeem oneself. So now why was he dueling to begin with? He was on a war party and disagreed with the party leader’s orders in front of the other men. After the excursion was over, the war party leader challenges him to a duel. The duel is supposed to be until one party calls for mercy, but N’Kava killed him even after he was down and pleading.
That’s a sufficient story, but it lacks personal characters. Let’s give N’Kava a family, and involve them in the incident. N’Kava was orphaned at a young age, and he and his sister (Thala) were adopted by his uncle (Krin’Thlor), the shaman/leader of their tribe. Krin’Thlor was a good leader and a fair man, but not a loving parent. When N’Kava’s sister was of age, Krin’Thlor arranged a marriage to one of the war leaders of the tribe, a wealthy and proud man named Granak. Granak was significantly older than Thala, and N’Kava disapproved of their marriage. In a skirmish with one of the other tribes, Granak ordered his party to attack a seemingly undefended village. N’Kava thought it was a trap, and said so. Loudly and insistently. The party attacked, and were ambushed. They still won the battle due to superior numbers, but took heavy losses. After the party returned to the village, Granak challenged N’Kava to a duel. N’Kava chose bare hands for the weapons. During the fight, N’Kava kicked Granak in the leg and crippled him. Granak called for mercy, but N’Kava continued to beat him until he is dead, thus widowing his own sister and forcing his uncle to banish him. He may only return if he completes a quest of redemption.
So what should the quest be? Quests can be a bit tricky. In my experience, your players will come up with solutions to problems that you did not anticipate. If the problem that you present them with is a straightforward one (kill this guy, steal this artifact) they tend to come up with solutions that can short circuit your campaign. For example, let’s say that the quest that we laid out for our tribesman was to retrieve a specific artifact from the vaults of the central compound of the Xanx. Our intent, as a GM, is to encourage the player to join the resistance, as a means to penetrating the heavily-guarded palace. Our player, however, might just decide to go to a rich nobleman’s house, kill him, and steal all of his money. Then he finds one of the temple guardsmen and bribes the hell out of him. What do you do as a GM in that situation? If you let it work, the character has no reason to continue in the campaign. If you don’t let it work, you have to have a damn good reason or you’re just railroading the players.
I think that it’s better to give PCs quests that require them to gather more information before they can enact a plan. You can accomplish this through unclear objectives (“obtain the jewel that reveals the hearts of men”) or just giving them something huge and complicated (“bring peace to the realm”). If the story that we are intending the players to experience is one of restoring the Albanist government to power, or at least overthrowing the Xanx, then we want to give a quest that leads N’Kava in that direction. Perhaps the quest could be “return as the lawfully appointed ruler of the northern lands.” The Xanx are set on conquering and have already promised the northern cities to their own generals and lords, so his only way to accomplish this is to overthrow them and make sure that the new government names him ruler of the north. This gives him a reason to involve himself with the central story, and it creates some small conflicts of interest, seeing as how he doesn’t really care who the new government is as long as they recognize his claim.
N’Kava Tharak is a fierce warrior from the Nine Tribes of the north. He has been banished from his people for committing a serious crime, of which he will not speak. He is a fierce warrior, fighting with the traditional weapons of spear, axe, and bow. In spite of his banishment, he believes in the ways of his people and is disdainful of cities and their customs. N’Kava has a quick temper, and has problems taking orders from others. He doesn’t walk around looking for fights, but he won’t back down from one if it’s offered, and won’t stop fighting until his foes are dead. Though he is reluctant to speak of his past, those who know him are aware that he must complete a great and dangerous quest before he will be allowed to rejoin The Nine Tribes.
To wrap up a very long post, the one thing that I’d like to point out about this process is how critical the initial guidance from the player is in creating a character. I think that people tend to dive straight to the stage of brainstorming cool ideas when creating characters. The most satisfying characters to play are the ones that really resonate for the player, and since the goal is to make the game as fun for the players as possible, it’s important to start with the emotional center of the character and work out from there.