I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the middle part of the current block of three articles, spaced fortnightly.
Characters are the single most important thing that a GM can create. Properly-created characters create their own stories through interaction with the environment and the PCs; and, furthermore, since we are all (at least in part) products of our environment, reflections of it, characters also embody that environment. Without characters, it’s all just a pretty still picture in the players’ heads. It’s characters that bring it to life.
If you have the characters, then, you don’t really need anything else.
But where do the characters come from? Ah, that’s the rub.
There are five main sources that I can think of, in general terms:
The most common origin of a character idea is plot – we need someone to do something, be something, tell the PCs something. From this central purpose, we determine those elements of the character that are logically derivative of that purpose – why the character would choose to do this, or how they become that something, or how they know what we want them to pass on to the PCs, and then those elements that derive from those, and so on.
The results are inevitably less than the whole character. So we then have to figure out what to add in order to complete them. The main goal is to ensure that what we add to achieve this does not inexplicably and inextricably contradict anything that we have already established; it’s fine for characters to be conflicted, and to make choices – even to make mistakes.
The elegant approach is to find the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character – that, through its logical consequences and derivatives,
fills in all the holes. The humanistic approach is to start with the earliest piece that we know, and add something to match it – then track that forward. The narrative approach is to find some particular “story” for the character’s history to tell, one that adds context and realism to what has already been decided.
The real truth is this: you can spend so much time and effort on trying to find that elusive “perfect truth” that you can never be completely satisfied in any reasonable time-frame.
When writing a novel, that’s fine; we can rewrite and tinker with characters endlessly until we actually get them close to our vision of “perfection” for their role. When creating for an RPG, there are practical time limits. So we substitute instinct and creativity for planning and go with the best answer that comes to mind – and then move on, to the next whatever-it-is that we have to create.
Both of these approaches are extremes, and they both operate by first denying the existence, and potential value, of a compromise that lands somewhere in the middle. But there is a better way, and it’s not all that difficult. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
Sometimes, the pieces that are missing from a plot-driven creation are all that we do have to go on. That usually means that we have a personality, and that how the character acts within any given story will be a derivation of that personality and how their history and experience leads them to perceive the situation that they are in.
In other words, we come up with a personality, develop a reasonable backstory for how the character came to have that personality, and then drop them into a situation because we expect the reaction to be “interesting” in terms of interaction with the PCs.
Once again, this only gives us part of the story. And, in fact, we have essentially the same set of options available for filling in the missing pieces, plus one more: the mechanical approach is to determine what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in, then determine what capabilities they require in order to attempt or achieve those actions.
We need an environment that is shared by the characters in order to ensure consistency. But sometimes, certain characters are a logical outgrowth of an environment. The difficulty is in determining how far to stray from the stereotype that springs to mind, and how the individual will differ from that stereotype.
It’s very easy to say that we want the character to be different from the stereotype in every way, but not all that practical. Stereotypes are associated with particular settings and situations for a reason; there is always a grain of truth, a commonality between them, at the heart of a stereotype, and denying that singular reality produces a character that is so implausibly removed from their reality that they simply don’t seem real. Instead, we need to embrace and transform that commonality and all that it entails – and only apply the kaleidescope of possibility to everything else.
Guess what that adds up to? Incomplete characters – again.
In some ways, an antagonist seems like the easiest character of them all to construct. We already know that they have to oppose the PCs, and that they have to be able to resist the obvious reactions of the PCs to such opposition, so that the two factions can have an interesting “dance”. That usually means pinpointing a point of vulnerability on the part of the PCs and then constructing a character to take advantage of that weak point.
This is akin to using the PCs as a “negative mold” from which the shape of the Antagonist is formed – and, as such an engineering-related description implies, this is ultimately a mechanical technique, all about what the Antagonist can do. Much – but not all – of the rest of the character should derive logically from that foundation – but that’s not enough.
Once again, the character is incomplete – but if any character needs greater depth and more singular effort, it’s an antagonist, simply because they will be subjected to far greater scrutiny than Joe The Barber or Damien the Waiter or Helen, the Astrophysicist, for that matter.
And, once again, the same solutions are available – and inadequate.
The final source of characters is the high concept, where we have some idea that just sounds cool, or interesting. An elf who has lived 10,000 years and still worships the “old gods”. An AI that has been “corrupted” in the human sense of the term, not the computer sense. A character whose entire body has been replaced with nanotechnology and who can consciously direct them to alter that body as he sees fit (I have a villain who will eventually appear in the Zenith-3 campaign who meets that description).
These are all “concept” characters, and they all have obvious holes. Answering the “why” and “how” will usually fill in some of those holes, but rarely all.
Take that Elf, for example: how did he live this long (he might not know himself)? Did anything happen to him to cause his extreme (in D&D terms) longevity? To what does he attribute his longevity? How has this lifespan altered his viewpoint on a range of contemporary issues? What is his personality? What are his goals? Who or what does he care about? What are his skills and physical attributes? What can he do? Who knows of his age? What are his current circumstances? Who are the people around him? What’s his story? What happened to the “old gods” and why is worship of them notable?
Lots of holes. The logical inferences of his concept may fill some of them completely, satisfy others only partially – and contribute nothing at all to the rest. Much depends on who “the old gods” were, and what that means that you can deduce about someone who worships them.
For the rest, you will need to alloy the concept with something else – and once again you have the same inadequate options.
A better recipe
The primary idea, and logical inferences relating to it, can fill anywhere from 20% to 90% of a character. The better the original concept, the higher that percentage will be. But what about the rest?
Earlier I listed a number of different approaches. As soon as I have filled out as much of the character as I can, based on the source of inspiration and a reasonable internal logic, my next move is to decide which of them is going to be the most useful in producing character elements that will contrast and compliment with whatever I have already determined.
There is no consistency as to which of the approaches is the best one to choose; no universal correlation that I have been able to find. Instead, I use a process that enables me to try each of them quickly and contemplate the combination that results. Quite often I will find something that fills most of the empty spots in my character architecture, but that still leaves a few gaps for another idea. As a result, I end up with a character that is primarily exactly what I need, with most of the remainder made up of something that adds depth to the character, and just a hint of something more divergent:
That’s my recipe: Essentials, something Complimentary, and a Contrasting Highlight. Of course, most characters won’t be this complex – I may have gotten a little carried away in trying to illustrate the principle!
There’s something else that’s important to note about the Contrasting Highlight: it should be complimentary to the Secondary, but can be a complete contrast to the Primary.
What do I mean by “Complimentary” and “Contrasting”?
These have been used in the artistic sense. A compliment adds to something without contradicting what’s already there; a contrast is a contradiction that applies in limited circumstances.
A criminal who visits his elderly mother once a week is a contrast, because it undermines the stereotype. A criminal who steals medicine every week for his elderly mother is complimentary, because it adds to this example of the stereotype. You can have as much “complimentary” material in a character concept or background as you like (so long as your primary needs of the character have been met); contrast, on the other hand, needs to be sparingly applied.
There are articles out there which advise to make everything a contrast (using different terms, perhaps) in order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, ie flat stereotypes. I’ve even written a few of them myself, many years ago. What the above very brief example shows is that contrasts provide interesting characters – but compliments make even more interesting characters, and ones that don’t require so much effort to rationalize and roleplay.
I realize that all this might not mean very much without a substantial example, so I’ll offer one shortly. But first, to that technique that I mentioned:
- Complete The Primary
- Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
- Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
- Test each for comprehensiveness
- Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
- Select the secondary from the ideas
- Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
- Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
- Select the tertiary from the ideas
- Complete the character
Those steps sound very complicated, but they aren’t, they are very quick in practice. What’s more, once you’ve done one or two characters this way, you won’t even need to write those one-line sentences down; you will be able to formulate a line of description in your mind and assess its value immediately.
Let’s break it down, step by step:
1. Complete The Primary
Every character has a function, described earlier. Creating a character that fits that function leaves gaps that need to be filled, but the nature and size of those gaps depends on the function. The possible game functions are:
- Plot Need
- Personality concept
- Environmental Inevitability/Local
- Concept Fulfillment or Expression
2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
Thinking about everything you don’t know about the character, what’s the one term that clearly applies to most of the empty slots? Is is background, early history, current circumstances, plotline, personality, abilities?
That may not be the biggest hole. There is a secondary factor to take into consideration, which is the likelihood that you will need that information in order to run the character. You don’t need to know about a character’s childhood, for example, except in terms of what it says about the character now. If the character is not supposed to engage in battle, you don’t need his physical attributes – and if you intend to use a more cinematic style for any such battle, may not need the specifics even if he is to engage in battle.
Take that long-lived Elf, again – either he’s unbelievably fit for his age, or he’s unfit for physical combat due to age – and both are completely plausible. Or another example from the same character: Will he be an enemy, an ally, or enjoy a more complex relationship with the PCs? I can see that going in any of the three directions, and producing very different interpretations of the same basic concept.
The biggest “hole” to be filled is the term that the things you will need to know have in common.
3. Using each of the methods listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
This is fairly straightforward. I’ve implied written answers, but you won’t need those for very long, if at all; the primary goals of writing the answers are (1) to keep the answer concise; and (2) so that by the time you’ve gotten to idea #5 you haven’t forgotten idea #1.
The methods, just to refresh your recollection, were:
- The elegant approach, finding the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character.
- The humanistic approach, adding to the earliest backstory and forward-tracking the consequences.
- The narrative approach, finding some particular “story” for the character to be living.
- The mechanical approach, determining what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in and the capabilities they need to have or be acquiring in order to attempt or achieve those actions.
There is also a fifth option which didn’t come up earlier:
- The personality approach, taking a role model from another source and fitting this character to that expression of character.
4. Test each for comprehensiveness
This barely takes a thought, for me at least; others might struggle with it a little more. How many of the empty “boxes” do you think this idea will allow you to tick? A general sense of “most”, “lots”, “some”, “a few”, or “none” is all you need.
I usually conduct this step and the next simultaneously.
5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
How well does the idea fit with what you’ve already decided? Is it complimentary, or contrasting – or wishy-washy?
6. Select the secondary from the ideas
Picking the most comprehensive idea from amongst those that are complimentary to what you’ve already decided is very simple after the two assessments – unless you have two distinctly different candidates of equal value. That doesn’t happen often, but does happen occasionally. When it does, you have three choices: Pick one of the two by some arbitrary standard and go with it; Develop the character both ways and then pick between the two options; or try to incorporate both into the character simultaneously. My first instinct is to try the last option; either it will work, or I will reach a point of contradiction somewhere in the character, giving me more information on which to make an informed judgment between the two.
As a general rule of thumb, the idea that spawns the most ideas in your imagination, or that gives you the strongest sense of the character as an individual, is usually the right choice, and the choice that you will end up making.
7, Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
You might think that you have already done so, but the goalposts have moved – comprehensiveness in this case means “filling all the holes that the combination of primary and secondary choices have left.”
But it still only takes a moment. Once again, I usually implement this step and step 8 simultaneously.
8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
This is a little trickier. You want something that’s complimentary to the secondary idea that you are going to incorporate, and that contrasts, at least a little, with the primary. You want a choice, in other words, that is both plausible and that makes the character a more rounded individual.
9. Select the tertiary from the ideas
Once the two assessments have been made, it’s time to make your choice. It’s more often that you will get multiple answers of equal probity in this assessment; deciding between them is sometimes a difficult. If the character is plot-based, I will generally choose the option that interferes least with the primary; otherwise, I will go with the one that I think will be most fun for me to play.
10. Complete The Character
Using the selected source material, create a complete description of the character (complete in that it has everything that you think you are going to need) and then use that to construct any game mechanics that are required. Use the shortcuts given below for the latter!
Where do the ideas come from?
It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that this article has leaned heavily on generalization and general principles. Where are the brass tacks? Where do the ideas come from? Almost at the end of it, those questions have not been answered.
That’s because I have already done so, elsewhere. I direct your attention to the following (partially excerpted from the BlogDex) VERY long list of relevant articles on Character Creation:
- The Characterization Puzzle – A five-part series in which I look at different techniques for generating the right personality for your NPCs. These approaches also work for players generating PCs.
- In the first part, When personalities are hard to find, I examine the problem.
- In part 2, I describe ‘ The Thumbnail Method‘.
- In part 3 I demonstrate ‘ The Inversion Principle‘, with a real-life example from one of my campaigns. Both techniques have been go-to solutions of mine for years.
- Part 4 offers ‘ The Window Shopping Technique‘, which was a new one that I developed in early 2010.
- Finally, the last part, The First Decision, discusses how to choose between the three techniques. The comments to the last part also contain some extra uses and considerations concerning the Inversion Principle.
- Inversions Attract: Another Quick NPC Generator – this method generates NPCs that have one specific trait when I need it for plot purposes.
- The Backstory Boxes – Directed Creativity – An evolution of The Thumbnail Method that can be applied to all sorts of needs, not just NPCs.
- Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans – I extend Holly Lisle’s e-book course in character creation, the Create A Character Clinic, to cover the creation of Alien Races, twisting the central concepts of Dwarves in entirely new directions as an example. And touch on some others.
- Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species – The three techniques that I use to create original alien species. They work for both fantasy and sci-fi and anything in-between.
- The Ubercharacter Wimp: Plotting within your PCs limitations – TUW, or ‘The Ubercharacter Wimp’, is a tool that I devised for the generation of quick and easy NPCs. This was a really hastily-written article to cover my obligations to the Blog while I was moving house.
- Look beyond the box: a looser concept for NPCs – I develop a simple (and universal) system for defining complex aspects of NPCs. Try it, it works!
- By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC – I break an NPC into smaller pieces: three general framing decisions, the eight most important details, a list of secondary items that aren’t needed for every character, and a pair of optional extras that may be needed for some campaigns – and show how to employ the structure to generate an NPC in less time than it takes to hard-boil an egg. Even experienced GMs get something out of this article, I’ve been told. It’s a perennial favorite amongst my readers.
- Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep – Offers a shortcut for implementation of your ideas. Should be considered a sequel to this article, which is all about designing the characters in the first place.
- The Flunkie Equation – quick and easy Hors d’Combat – a sequel to the previous article, showing how speed the NPC creation process even more.
- The Anatomy Of Evil: What Makes a Good Villain? – It seems a simple question, but those are often the most difficult. Some great discussion in the comments expands on the subject.
- Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind – A hero is only as good as the villains they fight – but what makes a villain great? This mini-series of articles offers a different answer for each of three different types of villains.
- Making a Great Villain Part 2 of 3 – The Combat Monster – The second article in this trilogy considers how to make this most obvious type of villain, interesting.
- Making a Great Villain Part 3 of 3 – the Character Villain – The third in this article trilogy focuses on villains who oppose the heroes ideologically or for personality reasons.
- The Scariest Villain – a very concept-driven character archetype is the mirror, but too many creators are too literal when it comes to making them.
- Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population – using NPC relationship networks to create new NPCs (and bring a city to life). Clearly a variation on the environmental approach!
- The recent “Great Character Giveaway” which not only provides real NPCs from my campaigns but some lessons in character construction along the way:
- Pieces Of Creation: Lon Than, Kalika, and the Prison Of Jade – one of the most interesting NPCs I (and my co-GM) have come up with in recent years, plus a Divine variant on a well-known and feared Deity.
- Pieces of Creation: Mortus – This homage to Marvel Comics’ Thanos can be an even nastier villain than the death-loving original.
- Pieces of Creation: Énorme Force – Another homage, this time to Colossus, is a character who will hit any PC with moral scruples right where it hurts the most.
- Pieces Of Creation: Maxima and Minima – Created to exploit the concept of Force Multiplication, this duo show how to make your foes a far more potent combination than either could possibly be on their own.
- Pieces of Creation: Mictlan-tecuhtli – The last of the Great Character Giveaway of 2016 is this very evil creation. Better suited to sci-fi and superhero games than fantasy, but with the appropriate conversion could be a unique and nightmarish Flesh Golem for your PCs to go up against.
Also of value, in this context, may be the following articles:
- Part Three of the series on Writer’s block addresses Action (Combat) and Personality Blocks (Characterization).
- Sophisticated Links: Degrees Of Separation in RPGs – We’ve all heard of the “Six Degrees Of Separation” game. I apply the concept to RPG Characters and come up with ways to take advantage of it within the game. This article only scratches the surface of what can be done with this tool.
- The “A Good Name Is Hard To Find” series:
- A Good Name Is Hard To Find – The first article in the series discusses why good character names are important and offers a bucket-load of advice on what to do and what not to do when choosing one.
- The Wellspring of Euonyms – The second part of the series A Good Name Is Hard To Find introduces the concept of Name Seeds, a symbolic distillation of a character that can form the foundations of a name, and shows how to generate a name seed.
- Sugar, Spice, and a touch of Rhubarb: That’s what little names are made of – Article three in the A Good Name Is Hard To Find series discusses simple name structures and how to create a name using a name seed, and as a bonus, shows how to generate a monosyllabic language.
- With The Right Seasoning: Beyond Simple Names – The fourth article in the series A Good Name Is Hard To Find extends the approach detailed in part three to cover complicated name structures, and explores byways such as non-human languages, and Superhero & Villain naming.
The rest of the series deals with naming places, adventures, campaigns, and other things that aren’t immediately relevant here.
- Who Are You? – An original character naming approach – A system for uniquely naming characters. Will only work for the particular society that adopts it.
- Dr Who and the secrets of complex characterization – uses the famous British time-traveler as an example to show how to create more complicated characterization.
- From The Orcs and Elves series:
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 2 – Part two continues sketching in the background to the Orcs and Elves plotline and begins describing the key characters, along the way giving the backgrounds and histories of their races within the campaign, covering Elves, Drow, Ogres, Dwarves, and Halflings. I give away lots of freebies from the campaign in the process.
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3 – Taking up where the previous article left off, this article describes Orcs, a new race (Dwarvlings), a new character class (The Fated, a reinvention from the ground up of an idea from The Planar Handbook [D&D 3.0]), another new race (The Verdonne), Humans in Fumanor, and a new variant character class (The Paladins Of Thumâin).
- Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 5 – The final preparatory piece of the series points out that each of the PCs has a personal quest in the campaign (and lists them) – something that the players themselves would only peripherally have been aware of.
- Ergonomics and the Non-human – Using the physical properties of a non-human race to customize their environment appropriately and vice-versa. This example is all about Elves, but also spells out the basic principles.
- By Popular Demand: The Ergonomics Of Dwarves – I got a huge response to the article on Elves, much of it demanding that I follow it up with an article on Dwarves. So I did.
- Ask The GM: Seasoning The Stew (making races feel distinctive) – Why and how should Drow be different from Elves and what are the general lessons that can be taken from the answers?
Time is starting to get away from me, so this might not be quite as comprehensive an example as I originally intended, but we’ll see how I get on. To start with, I don’t have any characters on tap with their workings so this will have to be a new creation. Since I don’t want to tip my/our hand in any of the campaigns I run, this will be for a generic D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy campaign.
Because it was the first thing that came to mind, I am going to use the Concept approach (besides, I don’t have a plot on tap, and so can’t use the ‘plot needs’ approach; don’t have a specific campaign environment to build from, so I can’t use the Environment approach; most of the character examples I’ve given lately have been of the Antagonist variety and think a change of pace would be a good thing, so I don’t want to use the Antagonist approach; and don’t have any PCs to tailor an interaction with, so I can’t really use the Personality approach. This is what’s left.
Step 1: Primary Creation
My idea is this: a Demon Hunter, sort of a Van Helsing character, but who is part Demon himself.
So, the usual questions: Who is he? Why is he a Demon Hunter? How did he become part-Demon, How did he become a Demon-Hunter – and which came first?, How do these two statuses affect him now and how have they affected his past? Where is he from (in general terms)? What is his personality? and What can he do that ordinary people can’t? Oh, and – What does he do to the Demons he hunts when he catches one? What is his relationship with the PCs going to be like?
But the first question that needs to be answered is whether or not this is part of an existing campaign where Demons have been encountered already (tying the creation more inflexibly to what’s in the sourcebooks) or will this be a new campaign or a first demonic encounter, giving me a much freer hand? I’m going to assume the latter, simply because I think what I come up with will be “more fun” that way.
So, logical inferences:
His being a Demon-hunter has something to do with his being a half-demon, I’m guessing. It could go the other way, but that would be merely an act of will to overcome the demonic influence – for now – and that’s an idea that I’ve done before. So he became half-Demon, or was born that way, and somehow that has led him to hunt his own “half-kind”.
Right away, a story presents itself to me: A bored student – clerical or arcane – and his friends have a go at Demon Summoning. It gets out of hand (that sort of thing always does) and they really get a Demon. It’s on the verge of chowing down on our bored students’ soul (whatever that is), when another Demon Hunter crashes through the door into the basement where all this is happening and slices the Demon in two. The dying demon, in turn, tears his prospective victim in half and uses the matching half of the student to bind his wounds long enough to blast the Demon-Hunter and escape. (In an established setting, with demons already defined, that couldn’t be done). With his last breath, the Demon-Hunter replicates the process to save the student’s life – warning that his existence will always be imperiled until he can get the rest of his body back and finish the job on the Demon who has it.
So, that makes him physically a literal half-Demon instead of Genetically so, and more or less forces him to abandon everything that he had and was – a spoiled student from a wealthy background – in favor of a new career as a Demon-Hunter. How about Morally and Emotionally? To keep him still being ‘him’, the character needs to be mostly human in those departments – but with a Demonic influence slowly tainting his existence. Which implies that the other half of the story is mostly Demonic, but with humanity slowly tainting It’s purity.
That puts some impetus into the story, a ticking clock – the character is a time bomb of unknown delay that has already been triggered. A sense of urgency is always a good thing in a ‘driven’ character.
What does he do with the demons he captures? He kills them, or tries to – the Demon can always flee back to its own realm, but perhaps can’t return for a period of time. Or perhaps demons are immortal, but can be exiled into some nightmare plane from which escape is difficult and existence is tortuous. That idea gives the Demons a much stronger motive for fleeing from a hunter, even a dying one – which helps make sense of that “origin story”.
We can surmise something of his capabilities: he has to be effective at finding and attacking Demons – most humans, even very skilled ones, couldn’t do what this character’s progenitor did with one blow. So we have to assume that he has some sort of enhanced senses, and that his combat capabilities are much higher against Demons than they are against anything else.
That, in turn, raises the prospects of a very interesting variation on the standard cosmology: Demons are more effective against their fellow Demons than they are against the Gods or Celestials or Angels or whatever they are called this day of the week; Celestials are also more effective against their own kind than against Demons or Devils; so, in order to confront each other and play out their philosophic differences, both sides need mortals.
About the only other element that we can get from this concept is that the plotline that brings him into the PCs’ circle is going to have something to do with Demons, or at least that the Demon-hunter will suspect that.
So far, that gets us about 60% of the way to a finished character. We know that the character is a combination of two stereotypes: the tainted soul seeking redemption, and the bored rich kid who got in over his head.
Step Two: Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
Off-hand, I would say that the biggest hole is the character’s relationship with the PCs, which raises a related question of what sort of character we are going to have – a hero, an anti-hero, or a complex character? All we know at the moment is that he isn’t an antagonist, though whatever he’s doing might still put him at cross purposes with the PCs.
Most of the unanswered questions are about the effect that this half-Demonic status has had on the characters’ life. His personality will also hinge on this determination. We have some hints about both of those from the Primary, but don’t as yet have enough information to complete the creation.
Step Three: Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
Plot: The PCs come into possession of a ring of Demon-Summoning (or what the NPC thinks is one) and the NPC wants it. Alternative idea: The PCs have an encounter with a demon or a demon’s mortal subject, and wants to test them to be sure that they have not been tainted. Third alternative: both.
Personality concept: The character is far darker and more villainous than the idea suggests, and his tale of being a bored rich kid is a fabrication; he was an elderly man terrified of death, and the demon summoning was to bargain for eternal youth. His wish was granted – at a price he didn’t expect – and he subsequently learned that he was now equally-vulnerable to Demonic attacks. He hunts demons as a form of pre-emptive strike, and always tries to sucker others into occupying the front lines in these confrontations. That’s what he has in mind for the PCs – as soon as he wins their trust.
Environmental Inevitability/Local: Coming up empty on this one. That’s the problem with a generic fantasy environment.
Antagonist: You could argue that the Personality idea qualifies, but the “antagonist” has a different definition – it means a character that is specifically designed to have mechanics and abilities that oppose those of the PCs. Since we have no defined PCs, this is a null item. If I were designing this character for the Zenith-3 campaign, I would be focused on the fact that while the different types of meta-energy in that campaign can’t normally coexist, Resistances to them can – so my focus would be on resistance of all forms. If I were designing the character for the Adventurer’s Club, Father O’Malley would be the center of my attention, and I would reinvent the Lych’s phylactery as a way of making the NPC temporarily immune to the good Father’s spiritual retribution. But I’m not.
Concept Fulfillment or Expression: And we’ve already used this as the primary source of ideas.
Step Four: Test each for comprehensiveness
The plot ideas don’t tell us very much more than we already knew. The Personality ideas add a lot to the character, and its all relevant material – and they even tell us something about the plot usage of the character. Personality wins this test, hands-down.
Step Five: Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
The three plot-based ideas are all more antagonistic than is justified by what has definitely been decided so far – and they are all a little obvious and lame, as a result. There’s only one personality concept, but it produced immediate spin-off ideas – and these are all complimentary to the ideas I already had, adding to them. The personality idea again wins the contest.
Step Six: Select the secondary from the ideas
Which makes the decision pretty much automatic. The personality idea is the secondary, and our character takes a darker turn.
Step Seven: Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
We only have one remaining idea – the plot usage. It doesn’t add much to the character, but it does give us an initial plotline that the character can use for getting close enough to the PCs to tell his (false) sob story, setting them up for the betrayal to come.
Step Eight: Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
What’s more, while the plot ideas may be contradictory to the primary idea, they are definitely more complimentary and plausible once the secondary “darkening” of the character is taken into account.
Step Nine: Select the tertiary from the ideas
Hobson’s choice, perhaps, but the assembled whole works. So the plot ideas are our tertiary component.
Step Ten: Complete the character
The character description is already more-or-less complete; most of it would be a matter of cutting-and-pasting. So, instead, let’s outline the adventure that has derived from that character description:
- The PCs have a demonic encounter and come away from it with a ring.
- The Demon-hunter shows up to “test” the PCs. They may or may not cooperate, but he’s not likely to give them a choice. They come up clean, but the ring is demon-tainted, which causes a brief misunderstanding when it corrupts the “test results”.
- The Demon-hunter demands the ring. He may try to buy it. He seeks to build trust between himself and the PCs by telling his story. He then warns that the Demon they encountered probably escaped and only appeared to be destroyed, and he intends to make sure of it. He invites the PCs to accompany him on this brief quest and insists that they accept.
- The Demon-hunter and PCs track down the Demon (who had simply escaped, because Demons are a lot tougher than the PCs thought), and deal with him once and for all by exiling him to the Plane Of Torment. This gives the NPC the chance to fill the PCs in on more of the background to his existence.
- From time to time, the Hunter will turn up when he comes across a nasty demon and ask for the PCs aid. From time to time, they may come across a Demon and find that he is not far away. (Several encounters). Slowly, they begin to form the impression that he hasn’t been completely honest with them.
- The PCs come across a half-demon – the half-demon who has the NPCs other half. They contact the NPC who willingly joins forces with them – only to betray them rather than destroy and exile the demon. The true story comes out.
Simple technique, powerful process
This is a simple technique that anyone can use, no matter what your level of GMing expertise. Ideas might come more fluidly, more quickly, to GMs with experience, but anyone who can pose a “what if” can use them. What gives them power is the structured process of filtering the results.
I’ve presented multiple ways of generating ideas in the past. This technique provides a framework for integrating them into a character – and, along the way, I’ve tried to salt the article with hints as to what makes for a good one.
The next part of this series – in a fortnight’s time – will focus on Challenges.