My current campaign, Kjemmen, is drawing near completion. As such, I’ve been talking more and more with Stewart about the next one, which will be set in the Firefly universe. One of the players who’s slated to join us for that one has been pretty proactive in wanting to talk about his character, etc. We’d been talking over one detail of his character that just wasn’t fitting right. It has to do with a secret, so I’m going to have to be vague, for which I apologize.
Basically, we were working one angle of this idea over and over and none of us were happy with it at any stage. On a whim, I suggested something else, more as a way to jog us out of what I was worried had become a mental rut. But it turns out that the player had some personal experience related to my idea and felt he could bring that to the table in a creative way. Major win, there. The thing is… I had no idea ahead of time that that idea would be any good. I was just spouting off randomly.
It made me reflect on several things to do with Kjemmen and I realized that a lot of Stewart’s and my best ideas are actually totally accidental. On the one hand, I think it underscores the importance of brainstorming and not worrying if an idea is actually good before you say it (I have a really poor brain-mouth filter, so this is particularly easy for me, personally). On the other hand, I think it implies that there’s a skill to identifying those good ideas when you happen across them, which is something I think you can practice and intentionally improve.
I’ve written before about how your players will create awesome situations and that you should try to identify those and run with them. This recent thought is sort of a super-set of that. As another Kjemmen example, let me tell you about Parchak. When Stewart and I were making up NPCs, we had our work cut out for us: We have 15 noble houses each of which needed a minimum of a paragraph about the head, but 5 of which needed pretty robust NPC lists from advisor to scullery maid. So after getting the most important NPCs down, we got to the point where we just wanted to have one thing that set this NPC apart from any other person in their job.
For Parchak, the advisor of one of the city’s houses, we decided he should be from far away Chementol. Then we realized we’d already used that one. So… what if he were a spy from the church in Chementol (whose god killed the god of the Kjemmic churches)? It seemed reasonable to us and so we moved on entirely expecting that not to ever come up.
Almost a year later, some events occurred in the campaign and the PCs were going to need a Kjemmic priest to do them a favor, which, of course, means he wants them to do something for him first. Parchak came to mind; it seemed reasonable that he knew there was a Chementoli spy in Kjemmen, but not know who he was. He set the PCs on the spy’s trail and told them to kidnap him and bring him back. At this point the PCs were in a pretty rough spot (you know the part of the movie where it seems like everything’s falling apart and the protagonists are doomed) and were looking for pretty much any ally in their goal of stopping the evil Kjemmic god from coming back to life and “bringing death to the world”, but had managed to make enemies of pretty much every powerful person in the city.
When we set them on Parchak’s trail, we never expected that, instead of kidnapping him to curry favor with the priest, they would befriend him. They told him about how they’d been hired to kidnap him and warned him of a plot against him and told him about how his church’s ancient enemy was about to return. They had managed, much to our surprise, to find and befriend the one person in the entire city who had a moral impulse to help them out.
When we started talking through the implications, we realized that Parchak would probably get in touch with the home office and basically call in the cavalry from Chementol. It also made sense for him to put the PCs in touch with some of his local resources for acquiring useful equipment. This drastically changed the situation the PCs were in as well as the path of the campaign as a whole.
None of this would ever have happened if we hadn’t invented this no-one character, Parchak and his throw-away fact for differentiation when we were fleshing out NPCs for the various Houses. There are two key points I want to draw your attention to from this story: It’s okay to spend time on details that will probably not matter. That is only a probability, not a certainty. You never know how players’ actions will change the focus of things. Also, the campaign world feels much more real if apparently throw-away characters have some depth, or a least a seed you can build on if you have to make something up on the fly.
The second is that it’s important to remember you’ve got those characters in your pocket and to keep your eye out for an opportunity to use them. Or, rather, for when circumstances need exactly that thing. Identifying those moments when the current situation would be much more awesome (or even just feel more natural) if you pulled something flagged as “unimportant detail” into the spot light can be tricky, but it can have a significant impact on the feel of your game world and your players’ perception of it’s realness.
This is the fifth and final post in a series. In the first post, I created a fantasy setting called Karthasia. Then in the next three posts, I created example PCs for that setting. In this post, I’ll go through the process of creating an outline of a character-focused campaign using those PCs.
Step 1: The Setting
Karthasia is the name of the game world, and Drania is the country in that world where most of our action will take place. Drania is a theocratic kingdom that spans from the swampy lowlands of the south to the great forests of the north. Its capital is a port city in the south called Barotha. It is bordered on the east and west by large mountain ranges. Drania has traditionally been governed by a theocracy run by an order of benevolent priests called the Albanists (who worship a deity named Alba). Albanist priests are able, through their deity, to heal wounds, bless and strengthen others, and to create light. The police force and army of the Albanists are known as Protectors. The Protectors are white knights, complete with horses, plate armor, and blessed weapons. The Albanists, while generally “good,” are intolerant of those of other faiths. If someone does not worship Alba, or performs magics other than those that come from Alba’s blessing, they are considered to be heretics and pariahs.
Among those shunned by the Albanist priests are the Order of Arcane Brothers, a scholarly order of sorcerers who have learned to control the forces of the four classical elements – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Though their magic is effective at any location, being near the presence of great elemental forces improves their study, so their keeps tend to be located in remote and exotic locations, such volcanic islands and cliff faces near waterfalls. The Order is both secular and politically neutral, and requires all of its members to disavow all gods and nations when they join for the sake of the pursuit of pure knowledge.
Though the mountains on the borders mean that Drania has few foreign enemies, the Albanist government has battled for many years against The Nine Tribes, a loosely confederated nation of primitive woodsmen who inhabit the great forests of the north. The Nine Tribes are governed by their shamans, powerful shapeshifters who can call upon the spirits of the forest to control plants and animals. Over the course of several centuries, the Albanists have driven the Nine Tribes further and further into the wilderness while expanding and building new cities.
The last major faction, the Xanx, are a sect of demon-worshipping priests. They can speak to spirits, raise the dead, and place deadly curses on those who oppose them. Although they are ancient enemies of the Albanists, they have been dormant for many years, and were thought defeated. Three years ago, the Xanx performed a surprise coup, slaughtering most of the Albanist priests and protectors, and installing their own government. They coordinated this surprise attack with the Nine Tribes, and promised them that they could reclaim the lands that have been taken from them.
The Xanx installed their own rules and laws, enforced by Enforcers, black knights accompanied by fearsome hellhounds. The few surviving Albanists have been driven into hiding, and have formed an underground resistance. The Nine Tribes slaughtered the inhabitants of the northern cities, and have begun moving further south. Through the power of their shamans, the forest is swiftly regrowing, and the cities and roads of the north are broken and overgrown as though they had been abandoned for centuries.
Step 2: The Cast
- N’Kava Tharak is a warrior of the Nine Tribes who was banished for killing one of his tribesmen in a duel. He may return to his land only if he somehow convinces the government of Drania to recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation, and name N’Kava as its ruler. N’Kava is headstrong and stubborn, and doesn’t like to take orders. He doesn’t go out of his way to find fights, but when he fights, he will not stop until his opponent is dead. N’Kava fights with the traditional spear, bow, and axe of the Nine Tribes, and he is not above sneaking up on someone and killing them when they’re not looking.
- Olcanor Parin is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers who is a devout believer in Alba. He wanted to be a priest, but when forced to choose between his faith and pursuing his talent for sorcery, he chose the latter. Though he swore to renounce Alba and Drania, he was never really able to kill his faith. When he heard that Drania had fallen and the Albanists had been slain, he left the Order to help the resistance, effectively ending his membership in the order. Olcanor is a man of great moral principle. He is honest and forthright, and will only use violence when he is absolutely forced to do so. Through his magic, he is able to control the forces of Fire and Water.
- Alsa Corvino is an Enforcer in the Black Guard of the Xanx government. Before that, she was a Protector for the Alabanists, but she had become disillusioned with the Albanists, and was persuaded to betray them. Since the Xanx have taken over, she has definitely noticed a difference in how things are run, and has begun to regret her role in the coup. Alsa is tough, competent, and a skilled soldier. She is very direct (perhaps even tactless), and dislikes subterfuge. She fights in the heavy black armor of the Dark Knights with a broadsword and a shield, accompanied by her hellhound Kimo.
- Dranis Io, head of the Xanx government, and the mastermind behind the coup. This guy is most likely The Big Bad for the campaign, and consequently the most important NPC. It would be easy to just paint him as being purely evil, a pastiche of every corny villain. But it’s far more interesting if he has at least a slight degree of sophistication. So, let’s say that our villain is a former Albanist priest that saw all of the small evils and impurities that come along with trying to run a government and though he struggled to remain pure and virtuous, the realities of the world forced him to make tough, gray-area choices. Eventually he decided that being purely virtuous was impossible, and that he might as well be selfish and evil. He devoted his life to overthrowing the Albanists, so that others would not have to toil under the expectations of morality.
- Ravello Gormas, Chief Enforcer. In this case, we can use an NPC that we created when we were making Alsa Corvino – Ravello, the protector that persuaded her to betray the Albanists. Ravello is an opportunist and a mercenary who is only working for the Xanx because they are willing to pay more.
- Yavik Aresto, leader of the Albanist resistance. One of the few remaining priests, who led up some obscure branch of the church/government. He’s now considered to be the Theocrat of the Albanist church/state in exile. The equivalent of the Secretary of Education becoming the president. He’s resilient and unyielding in his faith and confidence and provides a good example for the resistance, but he’s overly cautious and afraid to take risks. He knows that if he makes a bad decision, the last traces of the Albanists could be destroyed. He was one of Olcanor’s teachers before he joined the Brothers.
- Gravin Nor, white knight. The most highly ranked of the surviving protectors. Gravin has a fiery temper and a fierce desire to take the battle to the enemy, but is kept in check by Yavik. He was Alsa’s commander before the coup, and would/will have a hard time trusting her again.
- Silas Calinathari, crime boss. Barotha doesn’t have a mafia per se, but Silas has managed to put himself into a situation where he gets a piece off of most of the action. Silas is a violent cutthroat opportunist, but he always comes through on his end of a deal.
Step 3: The Big Story
Now that we’ve established where we’re doing things, and who shall be doing them, we can finally address the question of what they shall do. The setting has one obvious story hook, the evil Xanx government that overthrew the benevolent Albanists, and consequently all of the characters have stories that relate to it in some way. N’Kava needs to get some government to appoint him lawful ruler of the Nine Tribes, Olcanor seeks to restore the Albanists to power, and Alsa seeks atonement for her role in the coup. The Big Story for this campaign is almost definitely going to be the PCs working to overthrow the government, although each will do it for their own reasons.
The most important question, when crafting a character-focused campaign, is how to get the PCs to work together in the first place. Since they don’t start as a unified party, and each has different goals for their character, this can be a bit tricky. When I’m working on a four-player campaign, I usually try to have two threads to the story at the beginning, and have two of the PCs be interested in each thread. Then later, when the two threads turn out to be related, all four PCs are working together. In the case of a three-player campaign, there are often still two threads to the plot, but one character bridges both. If you get really clever, you can create three threads, with each PC having ties to two of them. This makes them extremely likely to encounter one another naturally, but can seem a bit contrived.
I develop these plot threads by knowing my endpoint (the PCs working to overthrow the Xanx government) and my begin points (the PCs initial goals and situations) and then creating a story that leads them naturally from one point to another. In this case, the characters’ motivations are already skewed a bit towards overthrowing the Xanx*, so few machinations are required.
Olcanor is actively seeking to restore the Albanists, so his earliest actions are most likely going to relate to finding the underground resistance. As the resistance is underground, that should be no easy feat, especially since he, as an Arcane Brother, is persona non grata in their religion. There is no way to know exactly how a player might approach this problem, but there are a few obvious lines of inquiry. The first would simply be to walk into town and openly tell people in taverns and the like that you are looking for the resistance and want to help them. Another way would be to seek out people who are likely to know about things that go on outside the law and ask them. This could be a place where Silas, the crime lord would come into play. There could be some fun tension between Olcanor’s morals and the tasks that Silas would ask of him for payment. Either path has the potential to get him in trouble with local law enforcement, and consequently put him in contact with Alsa.
N’Kavak’s first goal when he gets into town is going to be to contact someone in the Xanx government to try to get them to name him as the leader of the sovereign nation of the Nine Tribes. There are a lot of different ways that he might go about that task. He could walk into the temple/government offices and demand to speak to someone, or he might ask around in taverns and try to arrange a meeting with someone. Either way is likely to attract attention, especially since he’s probably the only Tribesman in the whole city. If he causes a ruckus, I would be inclined to have the cops come to get him, and finagle a way to make sure that Alsa is part of the group that comes to pick him up. If he is particularly tactful and/or clever, I actually think that it would rockmost for him to be allowed to speak to Dranis Io, the head priest of the Xanx government. He could plead his case in person to Dranis (with guards, including Alsa, present) and be told that there is no way that the Xanx will ever recognize the Nine Tribes as a nation. In either case, it shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange a circumstance where he will realize that the Xanx will not negotiate with him. The real question is what happens after that?
In order for his story to progress, he would need to find and join the rebellion, but his character lacks the sort of social skills that will make that task a reasonable one to rely upon. So I think that we have the rebellion find him instead. Since he’s a savage in the city, and the savages have been, well, savaging other cities in the north, he is likely to be attacked. As he’s not the type to walk away from a fight, and has a disadvantage that requires him to fight to the death, he’s likely to have more than one scuffle that others will see. Additionally, he is well-suited to escaping a small number of guards – he wears no armor, carries light weapons, and is very quick and agile. Evading a few armored men carrying heavy swords and shields long enough to climb up on a building should be a reasonable task. All of which is to say that his presence in the city is likely to cause a stir, and he would probably come to the attention of the rebellion.
This way, it doesn’t really matter how N’Kavak proceeds through the story; if he causes a commotion but escapes the cops, the rebellion can approach him with a promise of safety and a place to hide. If he ends up captured and locked up in prison, then they could arrange a jailbreak, or a covert operation to have him freed. Why would they want him? Well, maybe they have a need for a stealthy warrior to lead a strike in the capitol. Or perhaps they need someone to go to one of the captured and overgrown cities in Tribesman territory to obtain a powerful item, and they need a guide. I like that last one, as it could make for a good setpiece.
Now let’s look at Alsa. My intended story arc is to have her be forced to do and see things that make her decide to turn against the Xanx and work for the resistance. We’ve also established above that she will probably be the “glue” character that ties the PCs together, so she’ll have run-ins with both Olcanor and N’Kava before she is given an incentive to quit. All of this poses a tricky timing problem. Without our characters feeling railroaded, we want all of them to join the rebellion at more or less the same time. Olcanor is on a direct line to find and join them, N’Kava has a little bit of legwork to do first, and Alsa has a fair amount of things to do beforehand. We’ll need to add some buffer for the other two.
There’s also the problem, for Olcanor and Alsa, of convincing the rebellion to accept their help. Olcanor is a heretic and a pariah in the eyes of their church-in-exile, and Alsa was(or still is, depending on how she chooses to play it) a high-ranking Enforcer. If this were a video game, she would be required to go on a quest to bring back an item and prove her worth. But since this isn’t a video game, we have more subtle options at our disposal, and I think that we can do better than that. What if she captured a high-ranking member of the rebellion, or freed one who had already been captured? That seems like it would go a long way towards getting them to trust her.
In fact, depending on how N’Kava’s story came out, the same jailbreak that freed him might be the one that released one of the alliance leaders. In this case, he’s probably not the target of the jailbreak, just a lucky beneficiary that they pick up since they’re already there. We could bring Olcanor into it by creating some task as part of the jailbreak that requires his unique gifts.
Then, after the three PCs have joined the resistance, they get sent to a city in the north to retrieve the powerful McGuffin of McGregor or somesuch. They return to the city, McGuffin in tow, and then plan and execute a raid on the palace to overthrow the heads of the Xanx government (for the sake of cinematic story, we can assume that the common folk hate the government enough that they will rise up in other cities once the central power has been removed). Sounds like a campaign to me.
Step 4: The Small Story
As we decided above, we’re going to have to come up with some stuff for Olcanor and N’Kava to do so that the timing with Alsa’s story coincides correctly. So first let’s lay out Alsa’s story to see how much time we need to pad for them.
The first couple of sessions in a campaign are really critical, and I have specific goals that for them. Firstly, we need to give the player a chance to get the hang of their character, and to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. We probably want to create some sort of minor combat for them, and a situation where they have to use some of their other key skills. Basically, it’s a chance for them to find their feet before the stakes go up. The tricky part here is giving them something to do where they can afford to fail, but what they are doing still matters to the story somehow.
For Alsa, her occupation makes it easy for us to craft a scenario where she gets into a winnable fight early on. Her boss, Rovello, tells her that they have a tip about a rebellion hideout. She’s to take a handful of Enforcers and go capture or kill them. The battle can last just long enough for her to take out a couple of people, and then the rebels surrender. During the fight, she sees a tall, young guy with snow-white hair sneak out through a secret passage. One of the captured rebels is a big deal leader-type. She takes him back to the palace and delivers him to the dungeons. As she’s leaving, she can hear him being tortured for information.
The next morning, she gets sent to collect taxes from a family that hasn’t paid. The family is very poor, and she ends up having to take one of the oldest brothers into state slavery to pay the debt. That afternoon, she runs into one of her informants, who tells her that there is some foreigner in robes asking after the resistance. She goes and has her encounter with Olcanor – either fighting him** or just telling him to lay off.
The day after that, she ends up having to deal with N’Kava in some fashion, depending on how he handles things. On her way back to her quarters, she sees Ravello, along with a whole bunch of Enforcers. He orders her to accompany him. They go to a cellar where some rebels are hiding, mostly women and children. They fight off some guards, then board up the cellar and set fire to the building. She can hear the screams from inside and smell flesh burning. This (hopefully) will be the trigger that makes her decide to join the resistance instead. From there on out, we can’t really script what will happen.
So, she encounters Olcanor on day 2, and N’Kavak on day 3. That means that we need to give Olcanor something to do before he gets into the city. He’s coming from a volcanic island by ship, so how about pirates? Everybody loves pirates. For a character with Fire and Water magic, a wooden boat at sea should be a fun place to test out his abilities. To tie it in to the story, we can have the ship captain mention that the pirates are actually paid by the Xanx to collect “taxes” for the government.
N’Kava needs two days worth of lead time before he hits town. Since we know that we’re going to be sending the players to one of the ruined cities in the north, we could have him start near there. He’s traveling on his way to the city and gets hired on by some merchants for protection. They are looking for a specific item from the city, and have a map to the temple where it is supposed to be found. A minor dungeon crawl ensues, with some battles with beasties. For his second session, they are ambushed by Tribesman as they camp in the city. He can choose to fight for either side. Then, in his third session he gets to town, (almost definitely) gets into trouble, and runs into the law.
And that’s about it. As the GM, we’d need to polish off some of the details. First we’d flesh out some of the NPCs mentioned above (the merchants, the informant, the captured rebel leader, etc). We’d also need draw a rough map of the northern city (which needs a name) and the temple within it. Once those things are done, we’re ready to get started.
*As I mentioned above, this is because I really only provided one interesting hook for the setting – the evil government in charge. If I wanted a more complicated campaign, there would probably be a handful of other interesting forces and things going on (all of which would end up being related at the end) for the players to latch on to.
**I think that it’s totally fine for the PC’s first interactions to be confrontational, and to even result in combat. Players enjoy fighting against players when given the opportunity, and they will usually find a way to end the confrontation non-lethally.
The other day, I read a post entitled Show vs. Tell: Why “Visual” is Not Optional by Aaron Diaz. I encourage you to go read the whole thing, but for those that don’t want to, or don’t want to right now, he talks about how the writing and the art in a comic cannot be separated and produce a good comic. He is basically asserting that the co-existence of the two is the hallmark of the medium and that if they don’t feed back into each other, then you’re not playing to the medium’s strength. He then shows a lot of examples of framing leading the eye and building up the information conveyed in words in a sort of symbiotic way, rather than just illustrating the action dispassionately. In another post, he talks about creating focal points and drawing the eye from place to place within a frame and how that can be used to make a comic awesome.
The thing that got me thinking, and inspired this post was that in those two posts (and several others), he refers to established understandings from academia about things like painting and writing. And he examines how their pairing in comics differs or augments the usual rules for those two things. It reminded me strongly of the whole RPGs as a Medium category we have on MR.
And it made me realize how little we have to fall back on that’s akin to painting and writing. We can look to acting a bit, but improvisational acting is the closest to roleplaying and it’s mostly used for comedy, so not all lessons there are relevant. We can also look to story-telling or oratory… whatever you want to call the art of telling a story aloud. But it seems to me that academia hasn’t spent nearly as much time talking about storytellers as it has about painters.
So I think that makes a stronger call for me (at any rate. I certainly welcome help) to pay closer attention to the things that are absolutely central to the rpg medium. I posted about the Circular 4th Wall before, which is certainly something unique to roleplaying. It seems like it’s more of a pitfall to be aware of, though, than a technique to hone.
So I’m officially starting out on a journey to identify the things that are not optional in good GMing. Especially the tactical things that really happen at the table, not in planning ahead of time. One very fruitful avenue that I feel I’ve ignored up to now is the oral storytelling aspect. I don’t know where this will lead, or if it’ll bear anything fruitful, but I’m going to find out and I’ll let you know when I come across something interesting. If you have any ideas you want me to investigate, let me know and I’ll plan a detour in that direction. Once I feel like I’ve identified the words-and-pictures-must-synergize of roleplaying, the next step is, of course, to figure out how to become good at that.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a post in the Character Building series where I made a character for a female player in a fantasy setting. As I was writing it, I found myself really having to work to avoid a lot of the stereotypes that traditionally accompany female characters in the sort of action-driven fictional settings that serve as the template for role-playing games. Here are a few of the problems that I encountered:
Female Character == Love Interest
Think of every action movie you’ve ever seen. Did it have a female protagonist? Did she end up in a romantic relationship with one of the male characters? I thought so. This pattern especially holds true in fantasy fiction, an unfortunate tradition begun by Saint Tolkien and maintained by all who followed him.
This is not to say that romantic relationships in role-playing are a bad thing. If you as a GM are comfortable with it, and it will increase the fun for the player or players involved, that’s terrific. The problem is that there is frequently an assumption that if there is a female player, there must be some sort of romance. The same phenomenon occurs, incidentally, with homosexual players. As soon as the sexual identity of the player (and in most cases, the character that they choose to play) differs from the default, it is unfortunately easy for the GM and fellow players to define them by this characteristic.
This is partially the result of unconscious sexism, a problem that pervades society. But there’s also an aspect of RPGs that aggravates and amplifies it. Unlike “real” people, characters in role-playing games have an explicit list of characteristics intended to define them. If your character has a fear of heights, then it’s expected that the GM will work to create a situation where you find yourself on top of a high building. If they have a hatred of Orcs, then Orcs are likely to make an appearance. If the GM doesn’t create a situation where this characteristic matters, then it might as well not be on the character sheet. Similarly, if your character is an unusually pacifistic member of a race of flesh-eating monsters, they can expect to be treated with hostility by strangers. When a character has a sexual orientation that differs from the default, that feels like a character trait, and most GMs will reflexively make it matter somehow in the story.
Girls Can’t Be _________
The most common variation on this one is “Girls can’t be tanks.” Your female player wants to play a fighter? So she uses poisoned knives, right? Or perhaps whips, or a lasso? I don’t have too much more to add here – just be on the lookout for this one. When working with a female player to make a character, always ask yourself “Would I give the same suggestion to a male player?”
Gentle Healers or Vicious Assassins
This is kind of the roleplaying equivalent of the Madonna/Whore complex. So let’s imagine that there is a spectrum of “goodness” for role-playing characters. On one end there are the lily white heroes and on the other end are the dastardly villains. When most people envision a female protagonist, they assume that that person is less likely to be violent and more likely to be compassionate towards others, especially children. On the spectrum of role-playing characters, this places them pretty far on the heroic end. If the player strays from this archetype, deciding for instance that their character doesn’t like children, then it clashes with peoples’ expectations. Because this decision rejects one aspect of the female hero archetype, people assume that the character rejects all of the aspects and assign them to the other most common female archetype in fiction – the coldhearted, manipulative villain.
People naturally compare and categorize. When we meet a person, we automatically compare them with other people that we’ve known and react accordingly. This is especially true when we are consumers of fiction. You see the cop who works around the rules, and you immediately know without being shown what that character is like. He’s going to be a tough guy with a soft side. If you then see that character kick a puppy, you immediately reassign him to a new category – he’s a dirty cop and a brute. With male characters, there are a wide variety of male archetypes to choose from, so any character choice is likely to be a variation on one of them.
With female characters, there are really only three archetypes. There’s the femme fatale villain type, with an optional soft spot for the male hero. Morgana LaFey, Catwoman, Cruella DeVille, the blonde in every noir film. We have the gentle caring love interest who brings out the soft side of our male hero and gives him someone to rescue. Maid Marion, Mary Jane Watson, Gwenivere. In more recent years, we have a third archetype: the woman who kicks ass. Ripley, GI Jane, Angelina Jolie in any action movie. It’s important to make sure that your players feel like they can play someone who is more than a just a stock version of one of these archetypes.
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.
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.
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.
I was walking down the hall at work the other day and entered a room. Someone entered right after me, but I didn’t remember seeing him in the hall or hearing him behind me (it’s a very echoey hall). I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention at all. The other guy was probably walking down the hall toward me and I just didn’t see him. Somewhat randomly, I reflected that this never occurs in a video game. If you’re walking down a hallways in an FPS, you will see the person walking towards you. If you don’t pay attention to things, you get eaten by zombies.
But it’s not like you’re straining your abilities of attention. The world of a video game is crafted around the player; you are its center. So everything that you see matters in some way (otherwise it was a “waste” of art assets and programming time before release) and, for the most part, you see everything that matters. As with all things, this got me started thinking about roleplaying.
It Was There The Whole Time
There are tons of good stories out there that include elements early in a subtle way which, later, are revealed to be a big deal. In video media, this is especially easy, since you can put something in a scene, but not draw attention to it merely by ignoring it. For instance, two characters are discussing up-coming events while one does maintenance on a firearm at the kitchen table. Later, when the presence of that gun saves the protagonist’s life, it doesn’t surprise the viewers.
This is something that doesn’t seem possible in roleplaying. If you mention that there’s a shopping cart, then the players see it as a Shopping Cart. Suddenly they’re in this room with greyish, blurry details and there’s this gleaming, technicolor, high-definition shopping cart sitting there. It’s like a 3 second shot in a movie of nothing but a shopping cart. The importance imbued into anything explicitly mentioned by the GM is immense. However, if you don’t mention the shopping cart because when they walk in it’s not important, then they can’t use it to awesome effect on the spur of the moment later.
It Happened While You Were Out
You sort of run into the Circular 4th Wall, here, too. In a movie, the viewer sees everything that’s important, but the protagonists don’t have to. So it’s possible to show the audience that something exists in some subtle way, or that something happened, etc. and have the protagonists learn it later and react quickly to the information in some cool way. However, because players are both audience and actors, if they didn’t see something happen, then it sort of didn’t.
There’s a thing that a lot of inexperienced story-tellers use (or stumble into accidentally) frequently that I find really annoying: They lie to me. Often, they’re trying to show off how clever the protagonist is. But if the protagonist’s clever solution relies on information that I didn’t have to begin with, I can’t be impressed at how clever they are. There isn’t that moment of, “Oh man! I didn’t think of that. That’s brilliant!” It wasn’t possible for me to think of it because I was missing the necessary information. The world of the story that the work of fiction was creating in my head didn’t include those facts until, suddenly, there they were.
Anything important that you don’t manage to get in front of the players is a bit like that. If they learn about something right as it becomes useful (or, crushingly, right after), then they don’t have time to mull it over and really digest it. If you’re looking to surprise them, that’s one thing, but the surprises have to be entirely believable and fit snugly into their mental model of the campaign world. I spend not inconsiderable effort to make sure that news of major events going on in the campaign reaches the PCs’ ears, especially if they weren’t there when it happened. It can be a struggle to make sure it doesn’t become contrived, but it’s worth the effort. You know you’re doing it right if your players can tell the difference when they go to ground in some way and stop hearing about stuff that was going on before they went into hiding.
It Doesn’t Really Matter
This is a big one I learned from Stewart (though maybe he doesn’t know it) and it’s the other side of “they see everything that’s important”. Often, when we’re brainstorming ideas for what’s coming up in a campaign, especially when we’re just filling in details for stuff that’s been decided for quite some time, I’ll pitch some idea and he’ll say, “That’s cool, but I feel like if we do something like that, it should matter in some way.” The point is, he’s always trying to make sure that if the players invest time in something (or, more precisely, if we invent something that they’re likely to invest time in), then it shouldn’t just be filler material. This isn’t an MMO and they shouldn’t be grinding mobs just so they can get enough Magic Rat Pelts for what’s-his-name back in Startington for no reason.
This isn’t hard to do at least a decent job of. If you come up with a cool idea, but can’t figure out what it has to do with the main plot, cut it out. I’ve seen over and over that many of the things in this world that rock most are the things that don’t try to do too much or include material just to lengthen the experience. So write down your awesome idea and build your next campaign around it. The real trick with this is keeping it in mind at all times (which has apparently been Stewart’s job between the two of us). If you make up some detail about an NPC that will come up, it’s way better if the fact that the PCs learn that details is at least potentially useful to them later on.
I don’t, I think, really have a thesis, here. Mostly, I just wanted to muse on this idea of the importance of events and how you present them to your players. When I was discussing it some days ago with Stewart, he made some observation that was really astute. However, I’ve forgotten what it was. Maybe he’ll say it again in the comments, or maybe one of you will and make him look slow and foolish.
If the server stats are to be believed, there are literally tens of you that are reading the site each week (tens!). To accommodate this influx of new readers, I thought that I’d write up a brief synopsis of the ways that Ben and I run role-playing campaigns, as they are quite different from the traditional method that most people assume as the default.
Firstly, we run campaigns with a distinct beginning and ending, and a clear story arc. After a campaign is completed, we start over in a new setting with new characters. With discrete campaigns, there is less emphasis placed on character improvement, and more emphasis placed on character development. Since developing the characters is a major component of the stories that we try to tell, we spend a lot of time and effort making sure that the player characters are complex and interesting. We try to build a story that fits the characters, rather than characters that fit the story. The goal is for each character to feel like they are the star of the story, and that their stories just happen to overlap. To that end, we allow and even encourage players to have parts of the story that they participate in separately, and if a player’s character is not in the scene, that player is not in the room.
I’m really interested in settings and characters, and most of my posts tend to lean in that direction. Ben is more interested in the craft and tools of GMing, and writes a lot of posts exploring that space. We both have a compulsive habit of thinking about how you would adapt movies and tv shows and books into role-playing campaigns. We usually put up new posts on Tuesday mornings. We’re enjoying writing for the site, and we hope that you’re enjoying reading it.
I’ve linked to most of the articles listed below in the text above, but for your convenience, here’s a handy list of what I think of as the “foundational” articles for the way we do things.