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RPG Adaptation: Harry Potter

October 5, 2010 2 comments

It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.

The Setting

Geographically speaking, the setting of Harry Potter is basically ideal for a campaign. The main location, Hogwarts, is a giant castle with centuries of history and secrets accrued over time. The main characters don’t have full reign of it, so some parts are off-limits and some are not, leaving plenty of room for hijinks. There is both a center of safety and home (their House common room and dorms) and a center of adversary (the opposing House’s common room) in close proximity and plenty of space for that rivalry to play out in neutral territory. Also, you could make a really killer map of the castle for the players to pore over.

There are a handful of secondary locations shown off at various times which can help break things up in case people are feeling stuck in the giant castle. They can go down to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. The stories generally start at Harry’s relatives’ house and/or the Weasley’s house. I suppose you could argue that the forest surrounding Hogwarts–home to centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns–is another secondary location apart from the school proper. This emphasis on one central location means that players could really get a sense of the place and feel like they know their way around. The fact that a handful of other locations are readily available means that they can still be made to go somewhere that’s not home turf once in a while.

In a less literal sense, the setting of Harry Potter has much to offer. The main thing, of course, is magic. Players, from the get-go, are allowed to play around with a special power that doesn’t exist in real life. Since the main characters are students at Hogwarts, they are watched over by a cadre of professors who are interested enough to keep anyone from killing each other, but distracted and/or trusting enough to let the protagonists get into entertaining trouble. Since everyone’s a magician, you might have trouble differentiating one character’s skill set from another (more on that later) and some players might feel stifled under the constant watch of the drastically more powerful administration.

The Characters

I think it’s pretty clear there are three PCs in the Harry Potter stories. Harry obviously gets some top billing but not so much that I think it ruins everything. As the leader in crime (for the most part), Harry’s character is focused more towards cunning and non-magical skills, but he’s got a few powerful spells he can rely on in a pinch. He’s got solid balance for a PC and, really, the only down side is that he’s so central to the over-arching plot.

Hermione is more focused on magic than Harry, clearly. She knows more spells than he does and, in general, is better at them. It’s possible she knows more spells and better than anyone in her age group at Hogwarts. Basically, she’s a huge book worm and her greatest asset is her knowledge. When asking how Hermoine solves problems (without being specific about the problem), the answer is almost always magic first or else some other kind of book learning. She also has some interesting character traits that can be both an asset and a detriment (like her compulsive need to get good grades).

Ron is a bit of a problem. He’s pretty much balanced like Harry, but worse at everything. He’s the weakest candidate for PCdom of the three, but he’s always around so mere page count tends to counter-act that. It’s almost as if Ron were built by a very inexperienced GM and player together and ended up not using his points (or whatever character creation currency you use) efficiently compared to Harry’s player. One thing Ron brings to the table is his having lived in the magical world his entire life. It’s almost never used to good effect in the stories, but this could potentially let him know things the other players don’t and get to tell them about stuff now and again.

The NPCs are obvious: Dumbledore is, like Gandalf, there to act as a plot device for the most part and reveal Things to the players. Draco Malfoy is a wonderful non-lethal foil for the PCs and comes with Slytherin goons for when someone needs beating up (or whatever the verb is for magically abusing someone). The teachers range in their level of sympathy and depth from Snape and Hagrid to, uh… whoever it is that is head of House Hufflepuff and, you know, the teacher that’s a ghost. In general, the student body is large enough to hide important NPCs in until they become important (like Luna Lovegood or Cho Chang).

The Story

I’m not sure if we should consider one book or the whole series when talking about stories. Aside from the fact that people do less time for manslaughter than it would take to run the whole campaign, the structure of the entire series is nice in that there is a sequence of smaller story arcs that create and work within a much larger arc. Realistically, I can’t see a group of players being able to maintain the time commitment long enough to get through all seven years of campaign time. Luckily, any given single book is pretty self contained and could be a campaign to its self.

The formula is pretty close the typical Dann Campaign formula: The PCs start a semester and go to a few classes. Before too long it becomes clear that Something Odd is going on and they set about figuring out what that thing is, who’s behind if and thwarting it. In the course of things, they generally have plenty of sneaking about to do, learn some new spells, get side-tracked on some interesting red herrings and have a few opportunities to use their magic in cool ways. The one thing I’d be worried about would be the relatively low level of directly adversarial magic in most of the stories. A lot of players will really want to be slinging around those petrificus totaluses.

Alternatively, if you were going to run a Hogwarts campaign without Harry and the gang, that would be doable a few generations before or after them. Unlike The Matrix or Star Wars, by the end of the books Harry hasn’t drastically changed the setting as it is first introduced. In fact, he’s mostly protected a status quo. So if your players all played characters that were too young to really remember Voldemort at all, they could still go to Diagon Alley to buy wands and meet Nearly Headless Nick and narrowly avoid getting in trouble for being out of bed after hours by clever use of the Marauder’s Map.

One of my biggest concerns about this setting is that the PCs would all be kids. It seems like a real challenge for an adult (or someone in their late teens) to play a 12- or 14-year-old. Part of the stories rely on the scope of events and violence being scaled to kids and on the characters making childish, naive or immature decisions. So first off, you have to decide that your players will be able to do that well and then you have to decide that they’ll have fun doing it. Especially as the main characters start to get involved in romance plots, they routinely behave irrationally and immaturely. As well, magic is powerful and somewhat of a responsibility for which most kids aren’t going to be prepared, really. Is that something your players will have fun exploring, or will it get tiring quickly?

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Categories: RPG Adaptation

Character Building: Alsa Corvino

July 13, 2010 2 comments

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.

This is the third character that I’ve built in the Karthasia setting (you can find the others here and here). Karthasia was created with the intent of demonstrating how you can make a fantasy setting feel unique and different by making some minor tweaks to the formula and then considering all of the ramifications of that tweak. My next (and probably final) post using this setting will be to create a character-based campaign using these three player characters.

Our fictional PC this time around is a first-time player, and female. She heard her friends (the two other players) talking about their role-playing experiences, and expressed an interest in trying it out. She is a very bold, outspoken person, and has no interest in playing a damsel-in-distress type, or a romantic foil for one of the other players. In fact, she works in a really sexist environment where she feels continually underestimated, and what she really wants to play is a girl who kicks ass.

Character Criteria

The character creation process is very different for first-time players than it is for experienced ones. With an experienced player, they have a basic sense of what their playing style is, what type of characters they like to play, and what sort of character plays well within the rule system.* The character creation process for experienced players is a very collaborative one, with the GM and the player having roughly equal say in the process. New players, on the other hand, are more dependent on the GM’s assistance to ensure that that they end up with a character that they will enjoy playing. If the GM is well-acquainted with the person out-of-game, it’s easier for them to craft a character that they know the player will enjoy. If the GM doesn’t know them well, then I think that a brief interview of sorts is in order, with most of the questions revolving around how the person prefers to solve problems and deal with conflict.

As a general rule, traditional fighters are the easiest characters for new players to pick up. They are common in fiction and therefore easy to understand. They require fewer skills to be effective than wizard or rogue characters (or their setting-appropriate equivalents), and therefore fewer opportunities for the player to feel like they made a mistake by missing a key skill on their character sheet. Best of all, they are guaranteed to be effective in combat, which is where a rookie mistake is most likely to result in character death. This is not, of course, a hard and fast rule. If your player abhors violence, or strongly prefers trickery to direct action, you should adjust accordingly. Just don’t forget to make sure that they have the skills necessary to survive a fight.

With all of that in mind, what else do we need to know about our player? We already know that she wants to play somebody who kicks ass, which strongly suggests a traditional fighter character. Do they feel any obligation to protect innocents? Will they kill in cold blood? Is fighting something they do as their trade, or does trouble just always seem to find them? Are they wild and risk-taking, or cold-blooded and methodical?

Our player decides that she wants to play someone who is a warrior by trade. She won’t start a fight unless she’s being paid to do so, but she doesn’t run away from conflict, and she’s not afraid to kill someone for crossing her. She’s not interested in playing someone who’s too moral and good, but she doesn’t really want to be an out-and-out psychopath either.

From a GM perspective, the trickiest thing about this character concept is going to be giving it some sort of emotional center. It would be a relatively straightforward exercise to create a generic knight or mercenary. The real trick here is to create a character for a novice player that has a unique personality and some hook that allows the GM to introduce moral dilemmas. One technique that I’ve used with new players with good success is to give them a family, particularly a child, that they have to take care of. In this case, however, I really want to stay away from that path. A child or a husband (unfairly) puts a female character in the role of mother or wife in a way that it wouldn’t with a male character. It seems then, that our best bet is to play with the moral limitations that she has set. If she wants to play a warrior that is violent but not monstrous, then we will have to put her in situations where being monstrous is the easiest path and let her choose not to be it.

Character Possibilities

With these constraints in mind, what are some possibilities for morally-flexible warriors in the setting? The first thing occurs to me is a Dark Knight working for the Xanx, like the one that I was considering when I created N’Kava Tharak. Perhaps she joined up with the Xanx because the more traditional military outfits were prejudiced against women? Now that the Xanx are in charge, her job has changed from shock trooper and revolutionary to storm trooper and policewoman. The Xanx were intended to be classically evil, complete with Black Priests raising the dead and making arcane deals with dark spirits, so it’s likely that they would be a bit… harsh in their police actions.

The story arc for this character is relatively straightforward; they start out as a cop enforcing the laws of an evil government, you put them through a short series of encounters where they are ordered to do things that they disapprove of, and the character eventually quits and switches sides. The same pros and cons apply in this case as before: it’s cool to have pitch black armor and weapons, it’s fun to play a bad guy, it’s fun to quit your job and then kill your boss. On the negative side, the story is somewhat trite, and once the character decides to switch sides (which would probably occur early in the campaign), there aren’t a lot of meaty choices left to be made. It’s a fine option, but not an inspired one.

The second obvious idea that meets our criteria is a mercenary. By virtue of being a sword for hire, the character is inherently a bit edgy, and we could easily put her in situations where she disagrees with her orders. The trick here is adding some additional layer that makes her more than just a sellsword with a conscience. Some sort of dark past, or a gambling debt, or… something. I’m kind of coming up empty here.

So what else can we do? She could be a soldier from a foreign land, sent here to assist in overthrowing the Xanx. She could be a boxer or a gladiator who fights for the entertainment of others. She could be a bouncer or an enforcer for the mob. She could just be a thief or a brigand who made her living by stealing from those weaker than her. My biggest reservation with these character concepts is that they lack inherent ties to the setting and/or story. There are some character concepts for which the only reasonable answer to a big problem is to cut and run. As a GM, you have to ensure that when your players play those kinds of characters they have some sort of reason why they won’t just shrug and get out of town. As I mentioned above, dependents and duties are usually good ways to give a heartless rogue both a soft side and a reason to stick around – but I really would prefer avoiding the cliché of putting a female character in the caregiver role.

So what about the Albanists? The stereotypical white knight archetype doesn’t fit this character very well, but there might be a twist that we could put on it to make it work. What if our character joined the Albanists because she wanted to be a cop/warrior type, and they were the only (legal) game in town? She’s not a pure, lily-white hero type, so it would be an awkward fit for her. And then, when things went south for the Albanists, she switched sides and joined the Xanx. I feel like there’s some interesting territory to explore here.

Fleshing Out the Character

So let’s say that she always wanted to be a soldier/warrior/cop (this job will need some sort of specific name in the setting. Protector, perhaps?). She signs up with the Albanists as an entry level Protector. The general path is that people start as foot soldiers, fighting as infantry in border wars, or acting as beat cops in the cities. As they demonstrate their worth, they move up the chain into positions of command and greater specialization. Some people get to start further along in the process, depending on their education and connections, but she came from a poor family so she started at the bottom. While she resented some of the people who got an unfair start, she didn’t mind working hard to demonstrate her worth. She excelled at the martial aspects of the job, but never really bought in to the morality of it all. A few of the other cops were really big on the religious aspects, and they tended to get promoted and rewarded more quickly. Most of the people, like her, who weren’t big believers pretended that they were so that they could get ahead. She watched as one person after another that was less qualified than her passed her on the ladder. This left her discontented and disillusioned.

Now we get to the most important decision in this character’s backstory. Exactly what was her role when the Albanists fell? One way to handle would be that she fought valiantly against the insurrection but was still subdued. Since she was of low rank, she was allowed to sign on with the Xanx as an Enforcer (their new core of Protector equivalents). This establishes her as a loyal soldier who fights for her employer, but knows when it’s time to switch sides. It also has some delicious irony, in that her lack of rank means that she is allowed to live and re-enlist.

Another way would be for her to abandon her post and simply stand aside during the revolution, and then sign up with the Xanx when it’s done. This paints a picture of a truly mercenary personality, probably more than we really want. It’s also a very passive choice, unbecoming of a lead character.

Yet another way would be for her to play an unwitting role in the insurrection. She was stationed on guard duty at a key post, and one of her friends asks her to switch shifts, or convinces her to come out early for a drink. When it’s all over, she realizes that she is partially responsible for what happened. I like this a little more, in that it makes the conflict more personal for the character, and gives her a reason to feel invested in the outcome. Once again, though, it’s a very passive role – she was tricked instead of making a choice.

The fourth way is for her to actively betray the Albanists. One of her fellow Protectors detects her discontentment with the Albanists, and tells her things would be better if someone else were in charge. After a few more conversations to that effect, she agrees to take an active role in the Xanx insurrection in exchange for a position of power in their new order. This is the choice that has her taking the most active role in what happens, but also the option that is the least honorable.

This is the tricky spot. Because you, the GM, are helping a new player build their character, you have to take a more active authorial role in that character. Once you’ve started making decisions for them, however, it’s difficult to remember to stop and let them make the non-essential choices. We’ve established that any of these four choices will work, now is the time to let our player decide which one resonates the most with them. To simulate this when writing this post, I asked someone else to read the options that I’d laid out and choose which one they liked the best. They chose option number four, where she knowingly betrays the Albanists.

Now we decide exactly what the betrayal was, and why she chose to do it. I think that when she worked as a Protector, she saw all of the flaws in the Albanist government. She saw that faith was rewarded more than ability. As a result, many of the people in power were incompetent. She saw the way that the system encouraged people to pretend to be pious even if they were not, and thus encouraged deception. She saw how members of the theocracy got so wrapped up in their status that they lost sight of their stated goals. She saw the way that people who did not belong to their religion were subdued or killed. In short, she became disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Albanists and their government.

Then when her fellow Protector, Ravello, approached her with an offer to be a captain in the new regime if she would kill two fellow protectors and unlock the rear gate to the palace, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t. She was a soldier, who was paid to fight and to kill. She had been deployed to kill savages from the Nine Tribes when they raided towns in the north; she knew how people who didn’t believe in the faith were treated. Why should she feel any loyalty to them? Besides, how much worse could the Xanx be? It would just be trading one theocracy for another. They change the paintings and the statues and then life goes on the same way as ever, except she would finally have the job that she deserved. After a few days of hard thinking, she talked herself into it. Time to give this character a name.  Alsa Corvino.  There now, isn’t that better?

Flash forward three years. The Albanists were overthrown and their priests slaughtered. The Xanx have lost the northern cities to the Nine Tribes, and are barely retaining order in their own cities. Alsa is now a Captain in the Enforcers, a dark knight serving under her old friend Ravello, and is forced to keep the peace through brutal measures. She spends half of her time dealing with a network of informers and dragging people out of their beds at night. She has definitely noticed some differences between life under the Albanists and life under the Xanx.

Alsa wears the pitch black armor of the dark knights, and is accompanied by her trusted hellhound, Kimo. She has experience with most of the common medieval melee weapons, but is particularly skilled at fighting with a stabbing broadsword and a shield. Her law enforcement experience has made her skilled in subduing people without killing them, interrogation, shadowing suspects, detecting lies, and breaking into buildings. In addition to having a high tolerance for pain and quick reflexes, she has significant legal enforcement powers anywhere in Xanx territory. With that power comes an obligation to follow the orders of the Xanx, however brutal. Her role in the fall of the Albanists was widely publicized, so she is not well-loved by those who preferred the old government. She is particularly reviled among the few surviving Protectors and Albanist priests.

Our character story leads us to a few other obvious personality-related disadvantages for our heroine. She dislikes deception and subterfuge, and is reluctant to lie. She is very sensitive to situations where others are rewarded and she is passed over. Alsa’s violent and treacherous backstory leaves her with very few honorable disadvantages. She doesn’t have a sense of duty or loyalty to her employers or her fellow soldiers. She is willing to kill others, and has no problem starting the fight if those are her orders. I do think, however, that she could have a personal code to not harm innocents (with an extremely narrow definition of what qualifies as innocent), or at least a code to not kill children. This, of course, gives us our way to push her to the breaking point during the course of the campain.

Alsa’s story arc is a somewhat obvious one. She (almost definitely) will decide that she made a mistake in helping the Xanx, and will quit and try to join the Albanist insurrection to atone for her betrayal. She’ll first have to find them, which will be no mean feat. Then she will have to regain their trust and convince them that she’s not just a spy for the Xanx. Lastly, she participates in restoring the Albanists (or some other, better government) and redeems herself. It’s obvious, and a little trite, but it’s a rewarding story and it makes for meaty choices throughout.

On the whole, I’m quite pleased with this as a character for a new player. She has obvious strengths and weaknesses, and some subtlety that comes along with the backstory. Most NPCs will have strong reactions to her, forcing her to react to them and therefore be an active roleplayer (many new players are passive and take a backseat to the more experienced players). Best of all, her probable story arc is one that requires the player to make active choices (leaving the Xanx, joining the Albanists) while still presenting a clear path.


*This is more important than I wish it were. Ineffective characters are universally un-fun, and they are doubly so when the player expected them to be good. Let’s say, for instance, that your player was interested in playing a character that used whips or a scythe as their primary weapon. Being good at those weapons doesn’t cost any fewer points than being good with a sword or a bow, but the character will still be considerably less effective than someone that put their points in a more conventional weapon. This is actually quite realistic. If scythes and whips were as effective as swords, there would have been a lot more armies that used them.

Categories: Character Building

Character Building: Olcanor Parin

June 9, 2010 3 comments

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.

Like the post from a few weeks ago, this character will be set in the Karthasia setting that I fabricated 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.

Character Criteria

We avoided Magic last time around, so let’s focus on it this time. Our imaginary player, when hearing about the setting, was really excited about both the prospect of the scholarly Order of Arcane Brothers and the shapeshifting shamans of the Nine Tribes. He’s not really sure what sort of personality he wants his character to have, he just wants to play somebody that does cool things. While this flexibility may seem like a good thing on the surface, restrictions breed creativity; I find that characters created without some sort of emotional center end up feeling hollow and boring. If our player doesn’t have a strong opinion about their character’s personality, we can try to sculpt a personality that suits their playing style. Our imaginary player is a person with a strict moral code, and he has trouble relaxing that in-game. In past campaigns, he has struggled to believably play characters that didn’t share his morals, and tends to vocally censure other characters when they don’t act according to those beliefs. It has occasionally damaged the fun of his fellow players, but not so much that they won’t play with him. With that in mind, whatever character we create should be somebody that has a strong sense of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to speak their mind.

From a GM perspective, the fact that our player is interested in playing a shaman creates an interesting dilemma. We know that one of our other players has already created a PC from the Nine Tribes. We’re only expecting to have three players in this campaign, and if two of them are tribesman, it will significantly affect what we had in mind. If our fictitious third player was also interested in playing a Tribesman, then perhaps we should take the hint that they are where the cool stuff is, and adjust accordingly. If, however, playing a tribesman doesn’t appeal to them, then we will probably want to dissuade this player from playing a shaman. Although I’ll be presenting the character-creation process for these characters serially for the sake of simplicity, it is for exactly this reason that I like to talk to all of the players about the sorts of characters that they might be interested in before I sit down with anyone to finalize their character.

Character Possibilities

Since the shaman is our problem child, let’s start with that idea and see if it’s even viable. The shamans call upon nature spirits to talk to plants and animals, and to transform themselves into the forms of all manner of beasts. My vision was of fluid, dynamic transformations, performed mid-combat, shifting from wolf to snake to bear to eagle as required. This is significantly faster and more flexible than the default shapeshifting rules in my system of choice (GURPS), so it would need to be adjusted accordingly to cost more so that it is fair relative to other options. All of which is to say that a significant portion of a shapeshifter’s points would be allocated to their namesake ability, and they would not have much left over for other advantages or skills. Additionally, the mystical and cerebral nature of being a shaman means that the character would need both a fairly high intelligence score and a lot of points allocated to skills like Herbalism and First Aid. If the shaman was not in an animal form, his physical attributes and skills will be, by necessity, rather poor.

In the case of an NPC, this is probably a small issue. If our protagonists encounter a shaman, they would most likely do so in his territory and on his terms. He might have warriors to protect him, and he would have little need for skills outside of nature lore and shapeshifting. Player Characters, on the other hand, are faced with a much wider variety of situations, and they seldom get to set the terms of an encounter. For a certain type of experienced player, this can make for a fun challenge as it forces them to maximize their advantages and solve problems creatively. For most players, however, it can be very frustrating when you have a character that constantly feels ill-equipped for situations. Our shaman is also limited simply by virtue of being a member of the nine tribes. Like N’Kava Tharak, the previous PC that we’ve created in the setting, they would be unfamiliar with the culture where much of the campaign would take place, and they would have have foreign customs and beliefs.

With all of that said, there are some strong matches between this character and our mythical player’s preferences. He wants to do cool things that use magic, and the shapeshifting definitely qualifies. He requires both a strong moral code and and a moral justification to share that code. A respected wise man from a foreign land would most likely have a strong formalized value system, and would feel empowered to tell others that they should adhere to it. If the GM and the player were able to work out a moral code for this character that was somewhat mystical and harmonious (more Yoda, less Fire & Brimstone) then his shared wisdom could even seem diplomatic and endearing instead of preachy and condescending. At the end of the day, I don’t think that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are some ideas here that could be informative for evaluating other characters. Namely, that if the player can’t help himself from telling people how they should behave, then we should provide him with a character where that behavior is appropriate, and a philosophy to extoll that is as non-disruptive as possible.

Straying a bit from our player’s initial preferences, if we focus on the moral and evangelical aspects of the character, an Albanist priest seems like a logical choice. They represent the archetypical “good” deity for the setting, and would have an entirely justifiable reason to encourage others to behave in a moral manner. Of course, the few remaining Albanist priests are refugees from the law, and the character would therefore have to be a little bit subtle about their teachings. Depending on how you look at it, that could be an advantage, giving the GM a convenient way to curtail ethical discussions if they get out of hand (“Two Dark Knights enter the tavern. You guys may want to table this conversation for later.”).

The other problem with an Albanist priest is that their powers, as written, aren’t cool enough to get our player excited about playing one. Healing wounds, buffing allies, and producing blinding light are all powerful abilities, but they aren’t necessarily viscerally thrilling the way that throwing a fireball would be. If you, as a GM, really want this player (or any player) to play a priest, you would probably need to tweak their abilities to see what would make them cool enough. Holy Fire? A magic sword? Light concentrated into holy beams of power? In this case, I don’t feel that sort of change is merited – it is possible to tell a story about the Albanists regaining their kingdom without any of the players being members of their order. If there were other aspects of the priests in this setting that appealed to our player, such as wanting to play an oppressed minority or a person struggling with maintaing their faith against impossible odds, then I would reconsider.

So at this point we can rule out three of our four groups of magic-users, the shamans are too narrow, the good priests are too bland, and the bad priests are too evil. This leaves us with the Arcane Order of Brothers. If we can’t make something work there, it’s time to start over and re-evaluate our initial concept.

The Brothers are predominantly scholars, secluded away in remote keeps near the sort of unusual land formations that attract powerful elementals. Locations that are attractive to more than one type of elemental provide them with more options, so their keeps tend to be built on remote and exotic locations such cliffs next to waterfalls, or windy canyons next to an active volcano. These sorts of locations make the Brothers well-suited as a quest for the PCs (“Traverse the Blackstone Jungle, then cross the Deathwater River at the You’ve-Gotta-Be-Kidding-Me rope bridge, then climb up Certaindeath mountain to get to the keep.”) but it also means that any Player Character that is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers needs a good reason to have left their ivory tower and involved themselves in the mundane world.

Additionally, we need some sort of moral code for our player to espouse, and the Brothers are the faction least-suited to preaching about morality. As constructed, they are the scientists of the setting, conducting experiments to tap the power of elemental spirits. Politically, they are Switzerland, refusing to take sides. This means that our character would be somewhat of an oddity amongst his brethren. This suggests to me that whatever morality we construct for him would also be the reason that he would leave the cloister to interact with the world. Otherwise, we have a character that has two unusual characteristics given their background with no tie between them. I think that it’s fine for a character to have a diverse set of personality traits, and sometimes it’s even interesting to create characters with failings that are in opposition to each other, such as the noble knight with a pure heart, righteous beliefs, and a weakness for coin. In that example, however, the conflict between their characteristics is what is at the heart of the character. It feels natural. What we want to avoid is the pyromaniac hemophiliac pariah with one leg and bad vision. You want all of the pieces to fit together into a coherent whole.

So then, what is the morality of our Arcane Brother? The first thing that comes to mind is a moral philosopher, educating others in the teachings of the setting’s equivalents of Kant and Mills, and debating the right course of action. This is problematic for the actual player we have in mind, however, as he tends to see things in black & white terms, and a philosopher would be most interested in the ethical gray areas. Of course, we could say that he adheres to one philosophy and apply it mercilessly, trusting that it is right even when it seems wrong (such as the Kantian example of telling the truth and thereby letting a innocent child die). That could be an interesting character indeed – but it still doesn’t quite fit what we are looking for, as our player has had trouble in the past when the morality of their character differed from what they felt to be right.

So we require a scholarly wizard with a somewhat traditional moral code. What if they are a devout believer in a religion, and only see the Order as their vocation? There’s a rich tradition of this style of hero in Western media, such as the cop who is a father first, or the soldier who’s loyalty lies with his country and not his army. If this is the case, then what religion does he adhere to? The Albanist faith, being a generic “good” religion in the Judeo-Christian/Tolkien traditions, seems like an obvious fit. This also provides an easy reason for him to leave the cloister – he left to help restore his church/nation. We could also create a new faith for him to believe in, but it seems unnecessary in this case.

If he’s a devout Albanist who feels compelled to guide others, and is inclined towards scholarship and magic, then why isn’t he an Albanist priest? Perhaps he was, but he was expelled. Or perhaps he wanted to be one, but was not allowed. Hmmm… that’s interesting. Let’s suppose that the Albanists viewed all of the other forms of magic as heresy. This would fit with their relationships with the other established factions – they persecuted the Xanx, and were unwilling to make peace with The Nine Tribes. It would then follow that they would also be opposed to the Order of Arcane Brothers and anyone who shows a penchant for Elemental magic. Our character wished to enter the priesthood, but his magical gifts leaned towards Fire and Water magic instead of Healing and Light. So he went out and joined the Brothers, still considering himself to be an Albanist despite their rejection (much like homosexual Christians in the modern Catholic church). The Order’s keeps are cut off from the outside world, so the revolution had been over for two years before he received the news that the Albanists had been overthrown. Once he heard, however, he could no longer remain in seclusion – he felt compelled to leave the cloister, rejoin the world, and help the Albanists regain power. This seems like it has a lot of win for me (and we don’t have any other choices). I hereby dub this character Olcanor Parin.

Fleshing Out the Character

We’ve already established Olcanor’s basic story – he wanted to be a priest but he couldn’t, so he joined the Order while maintaining his faith. Let’s expand upon it somewhat. Olcanor’s family was very religious, and he had a long history of Albanist priests in his lineage, although not his direct ancestors, as Albanist priests are required to remain celibate as part of their vows. When Olcanor was sixteen he applied for admission to the priesthood, and with his obvious intellect, dedication, and piety, he was accepted. During his first two years of study he was the star pupil, demonstrating a firm grasp of the finer points of theology and a love for research and scholarship. He was greatly praised by his teachers, and resented by his fellow students. As such, he had few friends, but found solace in his studies.

When basic magic was introduced to the curriculum Olcanor began to struggle. He understood the theory of magic, how he could open himself to Alba, and through it’s light perform miracles. He would try for hours, meditating and clearing his mind of all impurities, but Alba’s light never poured through him. He began to fall behind in his studies. During one of his lengthy attempts to perform a basic Light spell, he stayed up after the other students had gone to sleep, reading by the light of a small candle. His reading uncovered that some priests focused their power by focusing on sources of light, and feeling a kindred light, Alba’s light, burning within them. He stared at the candle flame, focusing on its light, and tried to find it’s reflection within himself. He did indeed feel… something, although it was not the awesome glow that he was anticipating. He found that if he focused on the flame, he could bend and shape it to his will. He was unsure of what this meant. Unfortunately for Olcanor, one of his fellow students was watching him instead of sleeping, and reported to the priests that he was performing sorcery. When he was confronted with this allegation, he considered lying, but knew that it would be wrong. He spoke the truth, and was branded as an outcast and a witch, and excommunicated from the priesthood.

Olcanor was devastated. He returned to his family, and they provided him with food and shelter, but no companionship. His gift had made him a pariah. What made it even worse was that he could not stop himself from practicing with his newfound talents, and he was drawn to study and manipulate the flames. In time, he found that he had an equal gift to manipulate water, and he would absentmindedly make small whirlpools in his glass during meals. The summer after Olcanor returned to his family was a dry one, and some of the less educated farmers were grumbling that they were being punished by Alba because they were sheltering a sorceror. Olcanor’s father came to him and told him that he must leave, for his own safety and the safety of his family.

Olcanor expected to feel sadness at this, but all he felt was relief, and shame at his relief. He found a visceral joy in the small craftings that he was able to perform, and he desperately wanted to learn more. He had been disowned by both his church and his family, removing all of his ties and freeing him to join the Order of Arcane Brothers. He set out for the nearest cloister, a tower high atop the Ironspine mountains. Though he was older than the average student, he was able to persuade the First Brother to admit him. But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). The Order of Arcane Brothers was committed to complete secular neutrality; when one became a member, they were required to foreswear their allegiance to all nations – and religions.* Olcanor was deeply torn about this. He desperately wanted to join the Brothers and learn more about his gifts, but he was unwilling to lie about his beliefs. His church had rejected him, and with it his family and his country. Why should he continue to be loyal to them? He decided that he would renounce his beliefs, and live as the Brothers lived. He took his vow to renounce all nations and religions, honestly and with good intentions – and immediately regretted it. He knew, as soon as he said the words, that he could not stop believing in Alba simply by saying the words. But if he revealed that he was still a believer, he would be expelled from the Order. Though it pained him, he chose to keep his beliefs to himself and live with his secret.

After he finished his initial studies at the Ironspine Cloister, Olcanor traveled to the Mordak Island Cloister as his permanent home. Mordak island is an active volcano, and the cloister is constructed at it’s base, near the sea. Olcanor lived there for 25 years, and became a skilled and respected sorcerer. He would have lived there for the rest of his days, had the Xanx Insurrection not occurred and overthrown the Albanists.** Travelers to the island are few, and news travels slowly, so when he heard about the revolution, it had already been two years past. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, that his life was in the Cloister, where he was liked and respected. In the end, however, he was still an Albanist first and an Arcane Brother second. He went to the First Brother, and asked for an indefinite leave of absence to travel to the mainland. When the First Brother asked him why he required it, he had a difficult choice to make. Did he lie, and thus preserve his place among the brothers, or tell the truth and, in so doing, cause his own banishment? Though it was difficult, he had to be true to himself. He said that he was going to use his powers to overthrow the Xanx and restore the Albanist nation.

Now Olcanor is back in the Southern Cities. As a sorcerer he is a pariah among the Albanists. As a believer, he is an outcast among the Brothers. And as a revolutionary, he is a criminal among the Xanx. He is searching for the Albanist resistance, to help them restore the nation that has no place for him.

There are a lot of implicit character traits in this backstory. Olcanor is honest to a fault, and deeply moral. He is remarkably resilient and strong-willed. He would probably have some form of Pacifism, most likely using his powers only in the cause of self-defense. Along with these classic “good” disadvantages, he has a couple of less noble traits. He is intensely curious, and has an incurable desire to learn. This can lead him to make decisions that he otherwise would not. His story also has some hints of a martyr complex, as he is willing to sacrifice his life’s work for a cause (a cause that would probably feel more comfortable without his help).

Once those things are in place, the character pretty much builds itself. High intelligence, moderate to low physical attributes. Some points in Theology and Philosophy. Some social skills, probably Diplomacy rather than Fast-Talk. The rest of it goes into his magic. His primary solution to problems is going to be talking his way out of a problem, either through reason or demonstrations of his power, with violence only as a last resort. As written, he’s got a strong conflict between his Fire Magic and his non-confrontational nature. Fire is a difficult weapon to use to subdue, and has a tendency to inflict unintended harm. Water is slightly less damage-oriented, but is still difficult to use for subduing enemies. I think that’s a fun conflict, but if the player felt differently you could easily change the character to have Air and Earth magic instead with some accompanying edits to the backstory.


*This wasn’t originally part of my conception of the Brothers, but it isn’t much of a stretch, and it makes the character significantly more interesting, so why not?

**When I originally came up with the names for the factions in this setting, I wasn’t expecting to visit it again. As such, I didn’t put a lot of thought into them, I just wanted things that were easy to remember and identify. Now that I’ve decided to explore this world a little more and use it as a backdrop to demonstrate character creation, I really regret the names. The name “Albanists,” literally “The Whitists,” with it’s connotations of purity and generic Good, seemed like a good idea at the time. The more I have to use it, the less that I like it. I mean, seriously, Albanists? Okay, so their deity is named Alba. That’s a little weird and trite, but not terrible. What is their nation called? Albania? Ugh. But since I’ve already used it in the previous posts, I’m stuck with it. There’s a lesson here about the importance of taking the time to come up with good names.

Categories: Character Building

Character Building: N’Kava Tharak

May 11, 2010 2 comments

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.

Character Criteria

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.

Character Possibilities

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.

Recap

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.

Categories: Character Building

RPG Adaptation: The Matrix

May 4, 2010 4 comments

It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.

[Spoiler Warning: I use some plot points from the movie to illustrate some ideas. If you haven’t seen this one, you should really go do that.]

Your players recently rewatched The Matrix and have been lobbying you to put together a Matix campaign. What, given the movie, are the cool bits you should pick out?

I know kung fu!

Well, one obvious place to start is the high-action wire fu aspect. This plays right into the common power fantasy meme that most players harbor. The first thing you do is you pull out all the cinematic optional combat rules for your system. Knock-back for punches? Yes. Tic-tacing off foes during a fight? Yes. Running on walls to flip and kick a dude in the face? Yes! Understand that your PCs are going to be very high powered. They should have enough skill with their martial art of choice to accept hefty penalties for doing something insane and still have a decent chance of succeeding.

Speaking of insane things, these crazy kung fu tricks are enabled by the character’s ability to deny the false reality around them. How you model this will have, I think, a great impact on how your game plays. It would not be unfaithful to the source material, I think, if you simply had a single skill called Matrix Manipulation which you rolled against to, well, manipulate the Matrix. However, there’s no reason not to just dump points into this skill. Then every character is essentially the same. I think a more balanced, variety-encouraging solution would be to divide the various ways the Matrix can be manipulated into different skills. So one guy might be really good at making himself stronger and another might be good at making himself faster. You could get as granular as you want with it (does making yourself stronger increase your jumping distance, or is that a separate skill?) and still retain balance, I think.

There are a few more things you could do, I think, in order to mechanically facilitate the wire fu stuff. Get familiar with your system’s rules for health of and damage with random inanimate objects based on weight. How else will your PCs be able to Jackie Chan some guy’s legs out from under him with an ottoman or use a stop sign as a weapon? Also, if your system has rules that cover crazy gun fu, all the better. If you do all that, those combats are going to be complex, but epic. It looks like this is territory best covered by groups who are all very familiar with their rule system.

One thing to consider, here, is that the ridiculous lethality of Agents offsets the ridiculous power of the PCs. How you model them could vary, but a good start would be to take what seems like a reasonable “average” amped up stat from your PCs and multiply it by 1.5 or 2. They’ll be twice as fast, twice as strong, etc. as average, but not quite that much better than your specialists in their forte. You might have to play-test some combats with those stats to see how they go. You want your PCs to be able to get away, but you also want them to want to run, rather than try to fight. Another way I could see modeling Agents would be to bust out rules concerning people who can see the future for purposes of dodging only, give them ridiculous strength and very high weapons skills, but don’t give them so much speed that no PC can run away for more than a turn of combat before being caught. Basically, the second approach would take more time and tinkering, but specifically targeting each ability might offer better balance.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

One cannot deny that the picture of the real world that The Matrix presents is evocative: the hover-ships making covert connections to the Matrix with monotonous meals and submarine-like interiors, the blackened sky over a frozen wasteland of destroyed buildings and highways, towers of people in pods tended by insectoid robots with creepy claws and syringes at the end of each appendage.

That’s all great and flavorful, but I think you actually want to downplay this aspect of your campaign. You certainly don’t want to spend more time out of the Matrix than in it, I think, if the action of The Matrix is what spurred this idea to begin with. I think the PCs’ ship should be a relatively safe place, if a bit boring. I’d use threats to the ship to mix things up, not as a regular feature. Have them need to leave it to scavenge a part for repairs or get in an exciting chase once, but I think those are best used to emphasize that the danger is very close to home than as normal level threats. You can also use it to highlight how powerful the PCs are inside the Matrix. They can’t jump several stories or use kung fu or any of their awesome stuff. Mostly, they’ll run from scary stuff or suffer terribly.

And she knows what? Everything?

The Oracle features pretty predominantly in The Matrix. I suppose you could leave her out if you wanted, but the way the characters act about her, it seems like most everyone goes to see her. But because this is roleplaying and not a movie or a book, how are you supposed to write dialog for an NPC that can see the future? This is a real quandry and we could probably brainstorm several possible solutions, but I think you have two basic tactics you could use: Be vague or be spoilerey.

The vague thing is pretty easy to do (sham psychics use it all the time). You can say ominous things like, “You will witness a great threat to human kind,” or, “You will experience a great change in your life.” The downside is that you have to work pretty hard to make sure it doesn’t just sound like a well translated fortune cookie and evoke a sarcastic “Oooooo” from your players. The spoilerey one is less easy and can lead you close to railroading (which is a third option I don’t think we should discuss). If you were using the plot of the movie for your campaign, you could allude to Cypher’s betrayal with something like, “You will be betrayed by someone very close to you.”

I think the best bet would probably be a fusion of the two: Give the player in question a little bit of a spoiler about what’s coming up, but keep it vague enough that it might be able to come true in several ways. Note the above. If she said, “Cypher will betray you,” then they just shiv Cypher and call it done, right? But then the prophecy didn’t come true. So there’s some consistency protection that’s going on, there. There doesn’t seem to be discussion in the movie about changing something the Oracle has foretold; she’s saying things that will come true, not that might come true. Another thing about this, though, is that if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Oracle lies. She may know the future for certain, but she doesn’t always say it, or say it in a way that’s obvious or say all of it.

All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead.

If you examine the characters in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear who the PCs are. Trinity is the clearest cut. Morpheus wouldn’t make a terrible PC, except he’s got a bit of the Wise Old Wizard thing going, which doesn’t play that well in a PC. Neo, especially end-of-the-movie Neo, is sort of a travesty. If you had a game with three players and ran the plot of the movie, you’d obviously be side-lining the other two players. I’d rather talk about potential kinds of players in a game not modeled exactly after the plot of the movie.

First off, I think you don’t let anyone play the Operator. They’re great NPCs, but they don’t get to do all the awesome actioney stuff, so they’re poor PCs. I think it would pay to work up some mechanic (maybe just a few specialty skills to roll against) for their ability to help the crew members that are in the Matrix at the time so that they don’t just become fonts of GM knowledge and can mess up on occasion. It also lets you use them to deliver witty, endearing dialog about how awesome the PCs looked just now doing whatever they were doing.

So if all of your PCs are going to be the crew folk that go into the Matrix, you run the risk of them all feeling very similar. To a certain extent, I think you just have to live with a certain amount of similarity. How different can three black-leather-and-spandex clad super-human martial artists in wrap-around shades really be? One mitigator, which I mentioned above, is to break up the Matrix manipulation abilities into distinct mechanical entities (each is a skill or whatever) so that players have to balance what they invest in. From an in-game perspective, this might be rationalized that, for instance, one guy has an easier time believing that he could out run a car than lift it, which, if he’s always been scrawny, is not so hard to imagine. Beyond that, I think you encourage the players to have specialties like you might if you were running a Special Forces campaign. Someone likes super high range weapons, someone’s the pistol fu expert, another guy loves him some melee weapons, explosives, breaking-and-entering, etc.

Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

So what kinds of stories can you tell in the universe of The Matrix? This one is somewhat hard mostly because Neo exists in the canon. The story of the movie is so very clearly the story of how Neo saves everything forever. If you want to aspire to any kind of similarly epic scope, it’s hard to avoid running into Neo in one way or another and then looking small time compared to him (because by definition you sort of have to). One way to dodge that bullet (you see what I did there? I’m very funny, I know) is to make the campaign purposefully smaller scale. Some kind of internally-based political in-fighting is going on in Zion and the PCs have to run around and kick guys in the face to get a thing so their candidate (or whatever) can win.

The other would be to figure out a way to have the PCs touch the Neo plot line without getting so involved that their awesome powers look paltry next to Neo’s. One suggestion, and I have to give credit to Stewart for this one, would be that the crew is part of the faction of Zionites that agree with Morpheus’s beliefs about The One. They could go the entire campaign working towards finding something that the Machines seem to be very excited about and are spending a lot of energy to secretly investigate. The finale is the discovery that the hidden thing is some guy no one’s ever heard of named Thomas Anderson. That’s a pretty cool reveal and since it predates the movie, there’s no chance of being shown up by Neo’s crazy powers.

The first idea that popped into my head was to take the idea presented in the later movies by the Architect that the Matrix has had several iterations, each with a One that is crazy powerful and set the campaign in an entirely different (and earlier) iteration. Then, the players won’t know anything about the One and you could have one of them end up filling that role if you wanted. The danger, there, is that that player gets the spot light a lot of the time and gets all the cool powers, so I like Stewart’s idea better.

Categories: RPG Adaptation

World Building: Karthasia

April 13, 2010 6 comments

This is part of an ongoing series where we’ll build role-playing settings that we think are good from the ground up.  The goal is to pull back the curtain and reveal the gears and thought processes behind world-building.

Though I intend to create some exotic and unusual role-playing settings in later installments of this series, I thought it may be best to start with a relatively standard fantasy setting. The goal is to create a setting where all of the standard fantasy tropes are viable – warriors, thieves, clerics and wizards fighting monsters and plundering dungeons, with a few interesting wrinkles to keep it from venturing into complete boilerplate territory.

Magic

The first question to confront when starting from scratch on a fantasy world is that of magic. Does it exist, how commonplace is it, and how does it work? Since I want wizards to be viable PCs, it clearly exists. Once the PCs have magic, it’s more fun to have enemies that have it as well, so we’ll say that it’s relatively commonplace. The standard fantasy tropes call for wizards being actively involved in combat, so I’ll stick with the standard GURPS magic rules.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with GURPS, users of magic learn each spell as a separate skill, and casting spells uses fatigue. There is no limitation on how often they may cast a given spell, aside from the fact that they have a finite pool of fatigue to draw from.  Casting times tend to be 1-3 seconds/turns. The spells are broken up into colleges (air, animal, fire, healing, light & dark, mind control, movement, etc) and more powerful spells require the character to be proficient in the lower-level spells that constitute them. So, for instance, if a character wanted to learn Fireball, they must first learn Ignite Fire, Create Fire, and Shape Fire.

There is nothing in the rules that prevents characters from learning spells from a wide variety of colleges, but in practice, characters that specialize tend to be more effective and fun to play. So I’m going to break up the magic-users in the setting into groups, and let each group only have access to certain spells.  This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to make a setting feel unique.

The first group that we’ll define will be the woodsy guys, limited to casting spells that effect plants and animals, and maybe some nature-specific searching spells. In my experience, the biggest problem with druid-style characters tend to be that their abilities aren’t as cool as the other guys. Zoltar is throwing fireballs, and Draquan is raising the undead, while Estheriel the druid asks the birds what’s going on. I want a way to make druids more badass and combat-y. I just read a book where one of the characters was a shapeshifter, and that seemed cool. So I’ll reduce the cost of shapeshifting spells to make them more competitive compared to other options. A bunch of woodsy hunter types that change into bears and mountain lions when it’s time to fight seem cool.

So that covers the druids. If it’s a standard fantasy setting, you’ve gotta have the scholarly guy in long robes with a staff throwing fireballs. With that in mind, the second group will be Elementalists, with spells that affect Air, Earth,  Fire, and Water.  Why?  Because I think it’s cool.  It’s critically important for the GM to be excited by the setting.  The problem with elementalists as a character archetype is that the four elements are not equal in usefulness. Everybody takes Fire and Air spells, maybe a couple Water. Earth? Why would you do that? To that end, we should come up with some sort of limitation on which spells an individual Elementalist might know, something to give them variety.

What if they have to spend most of their time, or at least their time spent studying magic, in the vicinity of some natural place that emphasizes their element? Like air mages study at the top of mountains or in canyons with blowing winds, and water mages study in oceans or near raging rivers. That would mean that fire mages would have to study near volcanoes and geysers, which are a little harder to find, whereas it’s easy to build schools near lakes or caves.  It would also mean that places where two or more elements are found in force would be good places to study, and hence build schools. This leads to things like wizard towers built on the edge of cliffs next to waterfalls. That paints a good mental picture. It also makes it easy to include Earth as one of the common elements to study, as mountains and canyons and the like could represent it.

If the Elementalists are using the four elements to power their spells, and have to be near places that embody that element, maybe they are actually drawing on elementals, spritual embodiments of the element, to fuel their magic.  We could also extend this idea to our forest folk, and say that they are calling upon ancient spirits of the forest, or totem animals like Bear and Wolf to fuel their magic.  I like the spirit-fueled magic.  It seems like a cool and flavorful reason for mages to have to specialize. Let’s keep that in our pocket and see if we can do something cool with it.

So we’ve crossed Plant, Animal, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water off of the list of available colleges. What does that leave? Healing, Protection, Body Control, Mind Control, Movement, Necromancy, Light & Dark, Sound, Illusion, a few others. Hmmm… we could have a bunch of ninja-assassin-wizards that use Illusion, Light & Dark, and Sound. That would be kind of cool, but it doesn’t really get me excited. Besides, it doesn’t fit well with the whole spirit-driven magic idea. Hmmm… so what would work well with spirt-driven magic? We’ve already accounted for nature spirits and elementals. The other common magic-bearing spirits tend to be demons (or demon-like objects) and angels/abstract good deities.

If we play with that a bit, we get a fairly standard good/bad split. The white side gets Healing, Protection, the Light half of Light & Dark, and the Body Control spells that buff people. The black side gets Necromancy, Mind Control, the dark half of Light & Dark, and the curse-flavored Body Control spells. This is… okay. My problem here isn’t the bad guys. It’s always easy to make cool characters with evil powers, and it’s especially fun to make a morally good character that only has “evil” powers at his or her disposal. The problem is the good guys. Clerics and Paladins just tend to be bland and boring. Also, Healing magic is problematic. If it’s too easy for characters to get healed, then it makes it hard for the GM to balance combat. Every fight is either a joke because they know they’ll survive and get restored, or terrifying because they’re just barely surviving. I think it’s more fun and realistic when players avoid fights because they don’t want to amass injuries. The best way to do that is to make Healing super expensive or just remove it from a setting completely.

Huh. So that’s an idea. What if the healers are all dead? What if there was a huge war between the good wizards and the bad ones, and the bad guys won? The good wizards haven’t been eliminated completely, of course, but they’re in hiding and being hunted. Now this I like. It automatically makes a priest or a paladin more interesting when they can’t reveal their identities for fear of being turned in.

Politics/History

So we have four factions so far. The Druids, the Elementalists, the White Priests, and the Black Priests.   Those names are fine and descriptive, but not really suitable for use in a setting.  So, lets call the Elementalists the Arcane Order of Brothers, usually just referred to as “The Brothers” (even though they allow female members).  We’ll call our Druids, along with the rank and file ranger/archer types that accompany them The Nine Tribes.  Maybe each tribe has its own totem animal.  We’ll call the White Priests (and their Paladin warriors) the Albanists, and the Black Priests and their armies the Xanx.

The Brothers tend to be scholarly and isolated, studying arcane magics in remote towers. They refrain from intervening in worldly affairs, but are a mighty power once their wrath is incurred. The loose federation that constitutes the Nine Tribes rule the woods and wild places. They don’t care much about worldly affairs, but are angered when civilization intrudes upon nature. Then we have the Albanists, a good and holy order that once ruled most of the civilized lands. They built grand cities of alabaster stone, and their holy knights maintained order with the aid of enchanted weapons and armor. Lastly, we have the Xanx, who have hidden in the shadows for generations, performing savage rituals to gain strength and scheming, just waiting for the right moment to strike.

The Xanx successfully overthrow the Albanists with the aid of The Nine Tribes, promising them free run over lands that had been taken from them. Their army combined the shapeshifting druids, hellish beasts summoned from below, and mercenaries from the savage west. They assassinated the Albanist priests, burned their temples, and established themselves as the new government. But the chaos that they began quickly escaped their control. The mercenaries found that they could make more money plundering than they could being paid for their work. The Nine Tribes were not content with the lands that were promised, and overran the cities of the north. Great forests reappeared in lands that had long been cleared, with roots breaking through the cities of stone. What is left of civilization is in the cities of the south, where the Xanx maintain order with their Dark Knights (accompanied by three-headed hellhounds) and secret police.

Some of the Albanists survived, and they have gone into hiding. They are divided on how to proceed. The people that they would help will turn them in for coin, and they have no army to seize power, nor the money to acquire one. They find themselves in the position of the Xanx of old, scheming in the corners. The Xanx have also had something of a role-reversal, as they are now forced to maintain peace in order in their ill-gotten kingdom, and must fight off the invaders that they invited.

Potential Characters

This is really what I’m looking to maximize when I craft a setting, and there are plenty of them here. In addition to the obvious PC options of the mages of the various orders, one could be a ranger/warrior of The Nine Tribes fighting with spear, bow, and poisoned arrows. They could be a treasure hunter, plundering the overgrown cities of the north for enchanted weapons. They could be a mercenary from the west, or a common thief. The most obvious option is to play a cleric or paladin, on the run from the law and looking for revenge.

Depending on the tone of the campaign, the Xanx could make interesting PCs as well. It could be fun to play a Dark Knight charged with hunting down the last of the Albanists, especially if he believed he was doing the morally just thing.  It’s worth noting that I never touched on the topic of different races in this setting. The setting doesn’t seem to call for them, so I’m leaving them out. I like having different races, but only when they make a qualitative impact.

Possible Stories

The obvious story that presents itself in this setting is a band of good-aligned adventurers trying to overthrow the evil Xanx. Perhaps they’ve heard rumors of a great artifact of power, kept safe (by many traps) in a grand temple to the north, now buried in deep forest. Or maybe they decide to enlist the Brothers to their cause, and become the errand boys of a great and powerful wizard. The most interesting stories in this setting, I think, would emphasize the Xanx. They could be forced to be the good guys, maintaining order and driving away invaders. Or maybe some small sect has seen the error of their ways, and are seeking out the Albanists so that they may join them and work together to overthrow the kingdom. It would depend a lot on the players, and what characters interested them.

Analysis

The thing that I like the most about this setting is that it has a lot of potential player characters.  I can easily come up with 5 off the top of my head, and probably another dozen PC-worthy characters with some effort.  The place where this setting would struggle, in my mind, is that it’s a bit too simple.  There are a few obvious story hooks, as I laid out above, but it would be very difficult to run a Dann Campaign in this setting without introducing several more factions.  Lastly, while I really like the flavor of the Arcane Order of Brothers, there’s very little reason for them to involve themselves in the events of the rest of the world.  Going along with the adage that if you introduce a gun in Act I, somebody has to get shot in Act II, the GM can’t introduce something as obviously cool and powerful as The Brothers and not use them somewhere in the story.

Categories: World Building

RPG Adaptation: Firefly

March 30, 2010 2 comments

It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.

[If you don’t want to see spoilers, don’t read the footnotes.]

The Setting

Firefly has several interesting characteristics from a setting standpoint aside from the novelty of being a Space Western. It’s a medium-future space-faring setting, in a system of stars and planets where things are close enough together that slower-than-light travel is reasonable. This neatly avoids the relativistic time problems introduced by FTL or near-light travel, as well as the logistics of “jumps” as seen in other settings. The ships feel very much like sailing ships, with journeys taking a few days to a few weeks. These are easy, intuitive units for players to understand and work with.

The primary weapons are conventional firearms that look and act much like the weapons of today except that they make a cool future-sounding noise. The tech level of the medicine, however, is much higher than current levels. Practically any wound can be recovered from, albeit after a few days of recovery. This hits a really elegant balance for combat. Players don’t want their characters to get shot, even if they can be healed, because it removes them from potential action. The inherent lethality of guns means that they can’t afford to be reckless, but they also don’t have to be absolutely terrified of getting hit. I really like the “just get them back to the ship alive” feel of it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the setting, and one that can be both a plus and a minus, is the disparate level of wealth and technology between the central alliance worlds and the rim. It’s a plus because it gives the GM a lot of leeway for how high-tech he wants things to be during a particular adventure, and introduces variety when needed. It’s a minus because technology, particularly when it comes to transportation and weaponry, is such a strong trump card. When the Firefly crew are on the rim planets, the simple fact that they have a ship makes them significantly more powerful than most people that they encounter. When they are in the core systems, surrounded by Alliance supercruisers and the like, their ship and weapons are completely outclassed. In the series, these disparities are always used to good effect, either giving the PCs a lot of power and then forcing them to make hard decisions on how to use it, or removing their power completely and forcing them to be cunning and resourceful. In an RPG that sort of fine-tuning is more difficult.  The players aren’t always going to make the cinematically-appropriate choice, and cunning, resourceful solutions can be hard to come up with on the spot.

The Characters

The PCs

Mal, the captain, is the most obvious PC. He’s competent and versatile, and effective in a fight. Most of the episodes boil down to “Mal’s moral dilemma.” Does he deliver the cauldron of kindergartners to the cannibal or turn down the money and do the right thing? In fact, I think that Mal’s role on the ship would be the single biggest challenge to GMing Firefly. With a few notable exceptions, he makes all of the key decisions and the crew is forced to abide by his judgment. In a non-participatory medium, that’s not a problem. We, the audience, can put ourselves in Mal’s shoes, appreciate that it’s a difficult decision, and feel a vicarious warm glow when he does the virtuous thing.

In an RPG, however, each player is (rightfully) wrapped up in their own world. If they’re the character playing Jayne, they should be arguing to give the cannibal his kiddies and get out of there – he’s got a new gun to buy. If that player is constantly being overruled by The Captain, it becomes very difficult for them to stay engaged. It’s important to make sure that each player has the opportunity to make decisions that matter in the story. Speaking of Jayne, he’s also clearly a PC. He’s the best fighter, he has a strong personality, and he dynamically moves the story, often in unexpected or unproductive ways. Also, he would make a terrible NPC. Whenever the PCs have an allied NPC that is a combat monster, the only way for them to make use of them is to throw them into fights. This usually results in either the players sitting around and watching while the GM makes combat rolls for people who aren’t them, or just describing the combat and how awesome the NPC is, making the players feel somewhat useless.

The NPCs

The most obvious of the NPCs is Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. She isn’t versatile, she can’t survive a fight, and she doesn’t move the story. This is not to say that she isn’t valuable, she is a key character in many of the episodes. Most of those episodes revolve around getting her to the right place at the right time, or giving her the right part, or rescuing her from harm. These are all markers of a classic NPC. The same principles apply in the case of Wash, the pilot. He fills a valuable niche on the crew, providing piloting skills and comic relief, but he is largely a reactive character, and not one that can function effectively on his own. The easiest way to mark them as NPCs is that their effectiveness ends when they leave the ship.

Inara, the registered companion, is somewhat less cut and dry. She has obvious social skills and depth of character. She is a dynamic character, driving the action by accepting contracts or questioning decisions. In the few instances where she’s involved in combat, she’s not completely useless. Ultimately, however, Inara suffers from being centered too far from the heart of the story. In most episodes, her role in what’s going on is incidental at best.*  There’s a lesson here – the PCs have to have skills and interests that are relevant to the action in the story.   Inara could be a fine PC in a campaign that wasn’t centered around a spaceship.

In a lot of ways, Firefly is River Tam’s story. But not the kind of ways that would make her an appropriate PC. She has some of the markers of a good PC – she has interesting talents and a strong personality. The problem with River as a Player Character is that she doesn’t actually make decisions. She just reacts to what’s happening around her. Also, she’s got too much crazy going on. It’s okay to have PCs with personality issues that create challenges for the players (see Cobb, Jayne). It’s not okay to have PCs that are so unhinged that they become a constant obstacle.**

The Maybes

On first blush, Zoe, the first mate, feels like a PC. She’s effective in a fight and she’s a central and critical member of the crew. She’s competent and versatile, and she’s always involved in the important part of the story. The problem with Zoe is that she doesn’t move the story. A crucial part of her personality is that she’s the loyal soldier, always obeying orders and rarely speaking up if she disagrees. Also, the stoic, unsmiling killer persona makes her somewhat one-note as a character. I could see her as a PC, but only for an inexperienced or passive player.

A character that I like far more as a PC would be Book, the shepherd. He has several marks against him – he’s not centrally involved in the story, and his moral code forbids him from being involved in the juiciest parts of the plot. There are also several marks in his favor: his mysterious past has provided him both with combat skills and an intriguing backstory. The thing that intrigues me about him as a potential PC is that he, like Mal, is constantly forced to make difficult choices in ethical gray areas. He is often the voice of dissent, using his outsider role to question the crew’s decisions. As a GM, the challenge with Book would be coming up with stories that could feasibly include him.

River isn’t a PC, but what about her brother the doctor? At first blush, Simon seems like he should be lumped in with Kaylee and Wash – he has a narrow skillset that only applies on-ship. Also, he’s mostly useless in a fight, though he sees a surprising amount of combat. The thing that makes Simon interesting as a potential PC is his story – he’s a gifted and wealthy doctor who gave up everything to protect his damaged sister. He has a matrix for decision-making that is bigger than just doing the missions, and this leads him to take actions that move the story. I think that Simon would make an excellent PC for an experienced player who was willing to sit out of most of the combats. It would be difficult to come up with excuses to include him in the action, but not nearly as difficult as Book.

The Story

The typical Firefly adventure revolves around The Job. Most of the jobs find the players, or the action of the players finding the job takes place off-camera. In an RPG, the GM would probably want to play out more of the pre-job negotiations. Each job has a clear objective, and the crew comes up with a plan to accomplish that objective. Then something else happens that either complicates the job, or changes it completely. Usually, that complication requires the crew to make a choice between doing the smart thing and doing the right thing.

It’s a good formula, as it gives the PCs fun things to do, and has built-in problems for them to deal with in their own character-specific ways.  It also gives the players clear objectives to feel like they’ve succeeded.  The drawback to this formula is that it makes it difficult to tell an over-arching story.  Firefly overcame this limitation by setting the Alliance up as the bad guy and then giving one of the characters a slow-revealed backstory involving an Alliance conspiracy, culminating with appropriate levels of epicness.


*Interestingly, in the episode Trash, the writers take advantage of this. Inara is such an afterthought to most of the stories that her involvement in the heist is a surprise to the audience.

**Post-Serenity River, sane and in control of her gifts, is probably still not a PC – she’s too powerful for the setting.

Categories: RPG Adaptation