Chatting with a fellow GM on twitter recently, I was reminded of a technique that I use from time to time to generate backstories, that I thought I would share, in somewhat fuller and more developed form than I was able to convey in a handful of 140-character tweets! There are two ways to use it, and this article will deal with both. (It might look familiar to long-term readers of Campaign Mastery, because a variation on the technique was presented way back when as an NPC generator, in The Thumbnail Method).
At the heart of the process is a method of free association that is especially capable of direction and stepwise refinement. In effect, you shake ideas loose and then shape them into useful constructions.
To use this technique, you need some sheets of blank paper, a writing pad (which can supply the sheets of blank paper in a pinch), something to write with, a few paper-clips, and an egg timer that makes a noise when the time is up. If you don’t have such a timer, use a CD of popular music that you know well, each of which is one turn of the “timer” (Classical music doesn’t work for this, I’m afraid – you need something that’s more radio-optimized, ie about 3 1/2 minutes to a track, and each track clearly distinguishable from the last). If you’re using the musical approach, it’s so much the better if the tone can suit the subject matter, but don’t get too hung up on that.
A packet of colored pencils can also be very useful, but aren’t strictly necessary.
For the blank paper, I find that a cheap artist’s A3 sketch-pad works best, but if you have to, use two smaller sheets of paper. You don’t have to physically join these together, though I find that to be helpful as well.
Take one page and divide it into 4 rows and 4 columns. Label this the “Abstracts Page”. It is important for this to be a single physical sheet, even if that means that it’s smaller in size:
Two Layouts – one optimum, one more practical
Take another page and divide it into four rows and 8 columns along the long side of the page. The size of the resulting spaces DOES matter for this page, so use two smaller pages if you have to. Note that if you do use two pages, your divisions should be along the two shorter sides of the pages! Label this/these “Working Pages”.
That’s it – prep done! Take a quick break to clear your mind and refresh yourself – things are about to get manic!
Technique 1: Expanding existing content
The first way of using the process is the one for which the technique was first developed. It proved so successful that I have applied it in many different ways since then, something that I’ll get into toward the end of the article. Since this is the version of the process that is easiest to understand and apply, this is the one that I’m going to use to explain the whole process.
Technique one is all about expanding or refurbishing existing content. You have something – a character, an organization, whatever – that has reached the end of its useful life and needs some new ideas to make it fresh again. Perhaps you created it some time ago and it no longer fits the style of your game, or it seems simplistic, or over-complicated, or it might be suffering from “Mud”.
“Mud” is the term my art teacher used to describe what happens when you have too many colors painted on top of each other before they are dry – everything turns into this dirty brown. It doesn’t matter what you are painting when this happens – it all turns to “mud”. I’ve found the term, and the abstract notion it represents, to be useful in all sorts of other areas, from adventures to characters to writing – if there’s too much diversity happening at the same time, it all bleeds into each other and blends into “mud,” it doesn’t matter what you are doing.
The Abstracts Page
We start with the “abstracts page”. This is a page for raw creativity, for the spontaneous expression of ideas with the most minimal of direction. Start the timer – whatever it is – and spend about 1/3 of the time available just thinking of the thing that you are working on, its past, its present, its appearance, its reputation. Let your thoughts roam freely within that context. If you have to refresh your recollection of the subject, do that before starting the timer.
Abstracts Rows 1 and 3
With the time remaining before your timer runs out, fill the boxes on rows 1 and 3 with the first things that come to mind, one to a panel. This could be a word, it could be a color, it could be a symbol, it could be something abstract. Don’t waste time trying to capture whatever’s in your head with any precision, speed is more important, and don’t spend any time trying to understand what the thought means – move on, as quickly as possible. I use only the top part of the space in each row; if I get to the end of the page and there is time remaining, I can start populating the bottom half of each row with a second idea.
This can be very difficult the first time that you try it; it does get easier with more practice.
You have roughly 120 seconds, maybe a little longer – so if you are going to fill each panel, you can’t spend more than about 15 seconds on the content of any one panel. I try to keep it down to 5-10 seconds so that I have a little time “in my pocket” for anything that takes a little longer to execute – and that’s how it sometimes happens that I have enough time left over to start a second run.
The results might resemble a child’s drawing, due to the speed; that’s fine, no-one ever need see your work. A splotch of green and a yellow disk with lines around it is enough to express an idea, as shown to the right. In fact, the less polished and precise your expression of the thought, the better, as you’ll see in a moment.
Abstracts Row 2 and 4
Take a minute or so to catch your metaphoric breath and clear your mind again. Then, in the empty panels of rows 2 and 4, and taking no longer than 30 seconds to a panel, list everything that the panel above suggests or symbolizes or expresses. If you run out of time, that’s all right – just move on to the next panel.
Take that quick two-color sketch: the list might read: “field, sun, warmth, nice, happy, countryside, peace, isolation, birdsong” – you are simply free associating with the image. You don’t have time to express anything too complicated, so keep it simple. Now, that quick thumbnail might have meant one thing when you drew it, but because of the simplicity of the execution, it can be interpreted as a whole raft of different things.
This exercise has a two-fold purpose: first, it serves as a warm-up to the imagination, and second, underlying most (if not all) of the ideas is some (possibly abstract) subconscious relationship or association with the subject that you are actually trying to redefine or rediscover, and that relationship will become clearer in the next phase.
When you’ve finished, fold the paper so that you can’t see rows 1 and 3 any more, only rows 2 and 4. Use a paper-clip to hold your folds in place.
Working Page, Row 1: Existing/Known Concepts/Symbolism/Traits/History
Take a minute to clear your mind, re-read the list of interpretations on the abstracts page, then start the timer. It’s time to tackle row 1 of the real thing.
This row is for you to express in a simple, abstract, or symbolic way everything you already know about the specific subject that you are exploring. Again, you have 8 boxes to fill, but you have a little more time to play with – 25-30 seconds a panel. However, it WILL get harder to fill the final panels, so try to spend less time on the first ones.
The rules are simple: no subsequent panel can contain anything already covered by another panel.
In panel one: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the subject? In panel two: what’s the second thing? and so on. DON’T focus on whatever is wrong with the subject, or any emotional reaction you might have to the problems you have with them. There is also a specific process to follow:
- Think about the subject. What’s the next thing that comes to mind?
- Look at the panels you’ve already filled in this row. Is what you have thought of already described? If so, go back to step 1.
- If your thought passes the “already covered” test, skim the Abstracts page, looking for anything that catches your eye and seems related to the thought. You are looking for terminology that relates to the thought, for ways of expressing it.
- Express the thought in the panel. It might be a word, a phrase, an image, a symbol; once again, speed benefits you later in the process.
- When time’s up for this panel – a total of 25-30 seconds maximum – move to the next panel and start again with step 1.
See what I meant when I said it would become harder with later panels? In theory, panel 1 captures the most important concept at the heart of the subject, panel 2 captures the next most important thing from amongst the rest, and so on. You might not get all eight panels filled, spending all the time allocated to later panels trying to capture a thought that isn’t suggested by what you’ve already done. At the same time, this trims away a lot of excess and complexity and focuses in on the concepts that matter most.
I often find it helpful at the end of step 3 to draw a circle around any keywords in the abstract panel that I’m about to use, so that I don’t use it again. This forces me to dig a little deeper and get a little more creative. If you do this, use a black-lead pencil so that you can erase your circles before starting row two.
Working Page, Row 2: Causes and Consequences
This process is very similar to that used to fill the first row, but what you are trying to express here are the causes and/or consequences of whatever you’ve put in the panel immediately above the one you are working on.
It’s actually important NOT to take a break before working on this row, beyond any time spent erasing the circles you may have drawn around items on the abstracts page. This is most effective when your subconscious is still focused on the thoughts you expressed in row 1.
The actual process is exactly the same as it was for row 1, but the rules against repetition are relaxed. If you didn’t get every panel in row 1 filled, you may have more time to spend on each panel in row 1, but the comprehensiveness of the results will suffer.
It’s also important to focus on the most important or significant cause or consequence first.
Again, this stage of the process works best if your mind is still chewing over what you’ve just done. This stage converts the panels of the working page into succinct statements that synopsize and encapsulate the contents of rows one and two. These statements might be vague or definitively concrete; either is fine. There is no time limit. Leave half-a-dozen blank lines at the top of the page.
These statements are placed in a list as they are written; you aren’t trying to wrest any coherence from them yet. Process panel 1 of row 1, then panel 1 of row 2, then move to the second panels in each row, and so on.
You should get at least two and preferably three or more statements from each pair of panels (feel free to rephrase):
- [Subject] is/has [interpretation of panel in row 1].
- This is because [interpretation of panel in row 2].
- This [has/will] cause [interpretation of panel in row 2].
This may be the very minimum; quite often, you will derive multiple statements from the one key item, each statement stimulating the creation of another. If this happens, go with the flow!
Erase any circles around items on your abstracts page. Now go through the page (still concealing rows 1 and 3) panel by panel, correlating with the statements that you’ve listed; if any statement clearly relates to a panel, place a tick in that panel. The objective is to find those panels that have NOT been referenced by any of the statements on your list already.
The challenge is to relate those panels to the subject in some reasonable, rational way, then express that as an additional statement on your list, followed (if possible) by a cause, and then by the impact that this has on the subject. It might be that there is no discernible cause, that this is simply the way the subject is.
The complete list forms an ordered hierarchy; they are in the sequence of most significant to least significant. That becomes important in the next phase of the process.
Once you have finished this phase of the process, take a longer break – at least five minutes and preferably ten.
Working Page, Row 3: Part 1: Expansion & Refinement
At the commencement of each stage of the process, you have built up an additional source of material to read and digest before you begin. After the abstracts page, it was the list of interpretations; after the first row of the working page, it was the causes and consequences; after those, it was the list of statements about the subject. The effect of these is to direct and focus your free associations and creative impulses in a productive direction, honing in on the central truths about, and central concepts of, the subject, through the power of iteration and stepwise refinement.
Iteration is one of the most powerful tools any creative person can have in their arsenal – so much so that I dedicated an entire article to exploring this significance (Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation). Stepwise Refinement is another; to quote from New Beginnings Phase 6,
Stepwise Refinement is the process of taking a general answer or task and dividing it into more specific elements, often called modules, each of which is then further designed.
I also listed it as one of the secrets to success in Phase X of that series:
Get the basics in place for everything, then refine and polish each element. The basics give strength, making the overall result robust enough to survive actual play; the refinement and polishing makes everything pretty.
We started this particular process with a broad, general concept of what “the subject” was all about, conceptually – nothing articulated, it was all in the head – and then applied ,em>directed free association in an iterative procedure to achieve stepwise refinement of the original idea. Now it’s time to start filling in the blanks and polishing the concept.
The way to do so is as follows:
- Read through everything that’s been built up so far.
- Start your timer.
- Go through the list of statements from the top, stopping (and marking) the first one that needs further expansion or explanation, or that seems incompatible with something higher up the list.
- In the first empty panel of row 3 of the working page, and taking no more than ten seconds for each, thumbnail as many different solutions or expansions as you can think of. Again, these could be a word, a phrase, an image, a symbol, whatever comes to mind. Stop when you run out of room in that panel.
- If there is still time remaining on the timer, and still have empty panels in row 3, resume step 3, starting with the item below the one you’ve marked.
Some specific questions to help:
Statements Of Fact:
- If a statement could describe many different similar examples of [subject], what makes this one different from all of them?
- Would a fact about the subject make someone an enemy? Who? Are they actually enemies – and if not, why not?
- Would a fact about the subject make someone a potential ally? Who? Are they allied with them – and if not, why not?
- How else might a stated trait express itself?
- What other consequences might there be as a result of the cause of a description or status identified in a statement?
- Reverse Domino Theory: Why did a causal event happen, in the opinion of the subject? If the subject views the causal event unfavorably, what similar contemporary events might they oppose? If they view the event favorably, how does the event manifest itself in their trappings and surroundings?
- If a consequence is contradictory to a statement elsewhere on the list, what is the subject doing about it?
- What other consequences might occur as a result of a consequence?
- Would a consequence, or behavior resulting from a consequence, make someone an enemy? Who? Are they actually enemies – and if not, why not?
- Would a consequence, or behavior resulting from a consequence, make someone a potential ally? Who? Are they allied with them – and if not, why not?
You won’t be able to work through the entire list, with so many open questions to answer; that’s fine. You will have expanded on the most significant details concerning the subject.
Working Page, Row 3: Part 2: New Abstractions
You’ve either run out of space in row 3, or run out of time with some panels empty. The latter is far more likely! Which means that you probably still have empty boxes in Row 3 to fill. So let’s fill them. (If you don’t have any, skip down to the next phase of the process).
By now, you should have a much clearer idea of the subject, and what matters most about them, than you did. That means that some more free associating in the manner of the abstract sheet might well shake loose recalcitrant concepts from the deeper recesses of your subconscious.
- Restart the timer. How long you will have to spend on each panel will be a question of how many panels you have to fill, but be aware of the time limits for each panel.
- Try to encapsulate everything you know about the subject in a single abstract image, phrase, or whatever, in the middle of the panel. Keep it a little small in size.
- Surround this with as many related symbols or terms as you can think of. You should have room for at least four in the panel, though you may not be able to think of that many in the time available.
- Move on to the next empty panel. Repeat the process from step 2 on, focusing on anything not covered by the previous panels filled during this phase of the process, until you run out of time or empty panels.
Working Page, Row 4: Interpretations
Row four is for interpreting the contents of row 3 into key words and descriptive phrases using the methods already described. The expansion items are treated as though they were in Row 1 of the working page, and the new abstractions are treated (unsurprisingly) as though they were on the initial abstracts page that we did.
List: Additional Statements
Next, you need to turn the contents of the row 4 panels into statements in the same manner as you did the row 2 contents. Start by numbering each of the marked entries on the list; because the expansion items are directly related to them, this shows where they should be inserted into the list. Of course, if you are producing your list of statements on a computer, you can simply insert lines at the relevant points, but I have found that even if that is your preferred mode of writing, there are benefits to having a physically-separate list. There is something psychologically different about the words being on paper in a physical form, as distinct from the mutability inherent in an electronic document. These numbers are then be used to index the inserts at the bottom of your existing list.
Any additional abstracts are treated a little differently. Because of the supposition that these are statements that get to the heart of the subject, the statements that you generate from them – and they will need a little more interpretation than most – get placed in the space at the top of the list that I had you leave blank.
Each of the statements that you have compiled is something that has:
- been revealed in the past (assuming that the subject has appeared in your game before), or,
- forms part of the backstory of the subject that is to be revealed in-game, or,
- provides the foundation for a future plotline/revelation about or featuring the subject.
The final part of the process is to separate the statements into these three categories – the ‘revealed’, the ‘to be revealed’, and the ‘plot elements’. Once you’ve done that, you know what you’re doing with each of them.
Each statement can provide the foundation for an anecdote, story of the past, or future plotline. Expand on them, combine them in different ways, rewrite what you have on the list as a narrative, reorder them into sequential form – these are the “fundamental truths” of the subject, the concepts that are at the heart of the subject. They may bear little or no resemblance to the original manifestation, but that’s the point – they open new territory for you to explore, and may even require reinterpretations of past events or occurrences.
It’s usually worth trying to expand each doublet or triplet of statements into a narrative paragraph or two; saying A caused B might be clear to you now, but six months later, it might not be so self-explanatory.
Refinements: Additional Direction
Sometimes – all right, most of the time – I will employ a refinement of the original process to focus and narrow the direction into specific areas. This variation puts a label at the top of each column of row 1, and instead of discerning aspects of the subject from most fundamental to least important, each panel illuminates a different aspect of the subject. I virtually always use the same aspect labels because it facilitates usage of the results. What you want to do is fill each panel with symbology and ideas relating to that aspect of the subject.
Each column has multiple possible interpretations. It’s my goal to fill the panel with at least 4 ideas so that I can pick and choose, more than that is better. Because of that, I spend more time on each panel and take breaks between each.
Rows 1-2, Column 1: Profession
Everyone does something. This is what the subject does, either to earn money or fulfillment of some sort. Or perhaps what they want to do, or what they used to do.
Rows 1-2, Column 2: Personality
Everyone creates an impression of themselves. This describes that impression – either the one that the subject wants to project, or the one that they really show, or even how they feel inside despite outward appearances.
Rows 1-2, Column 3: Family/Relationships
Everyone has someone or something that they are close to. This panel is used to summarize all of those relationships. In addition to the most obvious and literal interpretation relating to the actual relationships that the subject has at the moment, some of the contents may reflect the desires or attitudes of the subject, or the opinions of those with relationships with the subject, or what the subject thinks those opinions are.
Rows 1-2, Column 4: Faith
Everyone has something they believe in, a purpose or principle that shapes their approach to everything else in their lives – whether it’s theological, a way of thinking, an emotion, or whatever. This panel contains representations of those beliefs, or of the beliefs that they want to have, or that they no longer want to have, or that they oppose. The content could be anything from conspiracies to a belief that good guys always win, to a religious doctrine, to even “nothing matters”.
Rows 1-2, Column 5: Abilities
Everyone can do things, or wants to do be able to do things, or regrets missed opportunities to learn to do things, or was expected or desired by others to be able to do things. All these belong in the abilities column.
Rows 1-2, Column 6: Ambition
Everyone has ambitions, goals and desires. Some of these, they have yet to have the opportunity to fulfill. Some have already passed them by. Some they tried to achieve and failed. And a few, they have actually achieved. On top of all that, there are ambitions that the character is currently working on fulfilling. There’s lots that can go into this column.
Rows 1-2, Column 7: Desire
Everyone wants something – and make no mistake, this is quite different from an ambition. This category relates to the things that the subject desires, has desired in the past, the things they are trying to get now, and the things they wanted that they gave away – or had taken away from them. This column is also all about the people who stand in their way, or who have done so in the past, and about how the subject feels about that.
Rows 1-2, Column 8: Weaknesses/Flaws
There’s no one who can honestly say that they are perfect. We all have flaws that we recognize, flaws that we don’t recognize, flaws that other people assume or think that we have when we are simply misunderstood, and flaws in others that we dislike or hate. And we’ve all been affected by other people’s flaws. As if that weren’t enough, we all have things that hold us back, things that we can’t resist, and things that we don’t think we can live without (rightly or wrongly). This column is easy to populate; the hard part is trying to fit enough into the panel.
The subconscious is not great at following the rules. If something looks out of place after populating the rows, it’s probably because it belongs in another column. Realizing this fact was a great step forward in the sophistication of this tool because it sparked a sub-technique that is not all that obvious and can be extremely enlightening.
After you’ve finished populating and interpreting, but before generating statements, take the contents of panel 8 and try each of them as an answer to the questions posed regarding panel 7, then panel 6, and so on. Then repeat with panel 7, etc.
Sometimes you will find unexpected correlations and cross-links. Every one of these that you find is sheer gold, tying the different aspects of the subject into a unified and cohesive whole.
It all comes back to domino theory: E happens because D happened because C happened because B happened because A happened. A might be a childhood experience, B might be what that experience did to someone else, C might be what that someone else did because of that experience, D is what that did to the subject’s family or professional life or whatever, and E is what that experience has now done to the subject, linking his choice of career, personal problems, and ambitions.
The six-row variation
I don’t encourage this variation simply because I don’t think it leaves enough space in the individual panels, but there is no other reason not to use both the directed variation and the traditional approach for a still more comprehensive analysis of the subject.
For particularly recalcitrant subjects, I might contemplate this variation anyway, but if I did, I would use the normal 4-rows arrangement and move the traditional rows 3 and 4 onto a separate page using the same layout as the abstracts page.
Technique 2: New creations
As much as the technique is great for reinventing old wheels, it’s perhaps at its best when used for new creations. This is simply a matter of (a) thinking about the role that the new creation is intended to fill, and (b) using the “refinement” variant from technique 1, abstracting as necessary.
Usage 1: What I have used this technique to create or reinvent
I’ve used the term “the subject” as much as possible in the preceding sections. While it made the phraseology tricky at times, it was the only reasonable choice, because of the vast range of game material that I have used this technique to create. It’s only when you see that full list that you begin to appreciate the full power of this technique.
PC: Paulo Lumière
I didn’t start out to GM the adventurer’s club campaign. I started as a player, with a Master Hypnotist. I used this technique to design Paulo Lumière’s background, crafting a tale of spies, deceit, betrayal, and revenge. Each set of statements that were generated using this technique described a key incident in the character’s past, each of which propelled him into becoming the character that he was. There were layers beneath layers that would have been fun revealing and exploring, assuming that the GM gave me the opportunity to do so.
I never finished writing that background. I was forty-something pages into it, and just getting to the betrayal of the Paulo by his arch-enemy and former mentor, when I set the character aside and stepped behind the co-GM screen. By the time I was finished – probably in another 40 pages or so – I would have justified every skill and ability that the character had developed, every character flaw, every vulnerability quirk.
Any time one of them made a difference in a plotline, I would have had an anecdote from the character’s past, or a particular reaction, lined up and ready to go. Any time that the character encountered something, I had a list of triggers to specific reactions that I could run down in less than 3 seconds to define any unusual behavior, and a personal motivation in back of it that could be explained via such an anecdote. This would have enabled me to focus on his dialogue, physical expressiveness, and relationship with the other PCs.
For Graham McDonald’s short-lived superhero campaign, I used this technique to develop Binary, a sentient robot built by a supervillain as a sparring partner, who broke his programming when used as a physical host for a rogue AI built prior to the big bang (in fact, it was an evolved form of an AI built to conduct the experiment that destroyed the preceding universe and triggered the Big Bang). Again, a very complete character, with a background stretching waaaay back and some very dark guilty secrets – like the time emergency protocols that he didn’t know were part of his programming kicked in and he cannibalized his best friend (a more primitive robotic A.I. built by the same villain) for spare parts.
NPC: Former PC, Hellcat
Ian Mackinder, who last appeared in these pages with his two-part article on Vehicles in RPGs (Part 1, Part 2, created Hellcat as a character for my Project: Vanguard superhero campaign, a spin-off from the primary Champions campaign. Project: Vanguard, usually abbreviated P:V, was a team of teenaged trainees being schooled in what they needed to know in order to join the front-line ranks in what was “theoretically” relative safety. When the team graduated (because the campaign was winding up after, I think, 6 or 8 years of play), the players had a choice to make: they could carry the characters into the main campaign, or they could become NPCs and either fade quietly into the campaign background, pursuing private superheroic agendas. Problems arose because some of the players had existing characters in the main campaign that they wanted to keep in preference. So:
- Titan (Ian’s other P:V character) retired to found “Neutral Ground”, based on the game supplement from Hero Games;
- Ramjet (Stephen Tunnicliff‘s Character) retired back to South America to hunt Nazi War Criminals and super-scientists, appearing a couple of times as an NPC in later adventures;
- Psiber (Stephen’s other character) was accused of cheating on his final exams and became a wanted (NPC) super-criminal; later, it was discovered that he had uncovered a conspiracy and gone underground to (a) investigate it and (b) protect his family while he did so. Ultimately the character exposed the conspiracy but was seriously wounded and (seemingly) left physically unable to adventure – but this is a superhero game and no-one “retires” forever, the character’s just waiting for the right plotline to come along. Stephen liked his characters, but he already had one of the Mainstays of the team, Behemoth, who he enjoyed playing even more. So Psiber had to go.
- Vortex (Peter Hewett’s character) never got to graduate, having been Kidnapped by his adopted father’s arch-enemy when Peter joined the army and never returned to the game when Peter’s tour of duty was up).
- Thistle (Adrian Runchel’s character) also didn’t graduate, giving her life to save the rest of the team when the Kzin invaded during one of the campaign’s big anniversary specials (when the player retired from the campaign) – she was given an honorary graduation, becoming the first to “officially” graduate, but it’s not quite the same thing. But this is a superhero game and no-one dies forever, either; again, it’s a matter of waiting for the right plot to come along. Hmmm, both Psiber and Thistle are Psionics….
- There were a couple of other characters who came and went from the campaign before graduation.
And then, there was Hellcat. She was supposed to join the main team, but Ian wanted to bow out of the campaign at that point, letting the character become an NPC. The problem was that I was completely out of plotlines for the character. I had no ideas, no growth path, no ambitions, no nothing.
So I applied the techniques described in this article as a way of getting underneath the character’s skin and discovering new things about her. Through them, I discovered what the character really wanted, what her ambitions were, how she would go about achieving them, and some of the struggles that she would go through along the way.
The resulting insights completely reinvented the character beneath the skin and the central concept of the character as it manifested to the outside world, without actually changing the superficialities one bit. Hellcat went on to lead the team, become a Pulitzer-prize winning author and photographer, marry, become pregnant, resign & retire when her husband had an affair, reconcile, have children, come out of retirement, and become a part-time member of the team, and her story is far from finished yet.
Organizations: The Paladins of Thumaín
As part of the creation of various game elements for the Fumanor campaign, I created an order of Paladins, one of whom eventually became a temporally-displaced part of the Seeds Of Empire campaign. If you treat an organization as a “person” – an idea nicked from US Law – you can use the same techniques to create one. “Personality” becomes “Corporate Culture” or some other equivalent, for example – but if you simply leave the title as “Personality”, you know how to interpret it. I detail the Paladins of Thumaín in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3. In fact, I created about 6 different Orders of Paladin at the same time, simply so that they would have someone else to interact with.
Deities: The Orcish Gods
I won’t go into too much detail about these here, because I have already discussed them extensively in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Orcish Mythology. The entire pantheon was initially generated using this technique, and so was the Orcish creation myth and backstory. (I can call it a myth because an entirely different origin story was eventually revealed in the Orcs & Elves series. I also used this technique on individual deities within the pantheon when they became important enough to that story to require fleshing out.
Nations & Societies: The nations from the ‘Shards’ campaign
There are many of these that have been detailed (and some that haven’t been done yet) in the On Alien Languages series. Each one was initially developed using a variant on the 2nd technique, in which I identified the different parameters of each nation and filled that empty box labeled “content” from the results. I was also mindful, as I was creating them, that each nation should have at least one and preferably two points of interaction with each other nation – one favorable and one opposed – to make the politics of the campaign more interesting.
The Du’Lan from the Champions campaign (now the Zenith-3 campaign)
These started out as shape-shifters and a variant on the Durlans from The Legion Of Superheroes (before that series was rebooted in what has now become known as the “Five Years Later” era under Keith Giffen and Tom and Mary Bierbaum with assists by Al Gordon), with an original twist or two, but when it came time for the team to visit the Du’Lan home-world, they needed a complete reinvention. Using the techniques described in this article, I linked the concepts of diversity of cell function with a caste system to create something that I think was (and is) fairly novel: a society of shape-shifters whose role in society never changes (ahh, irony), and that models itself along biological lines at a cellular level, viewing the entire society as a single biological super-organism. In the process, their world went from being an arid wasteland (as is Durla, home-world of the Durlans) to being covered in what is effectively a Saline Solution, the role of their “police officers” became radically different (white blood cells), criminals became a literal “cancer upon society”, and their equivalent of “garbage-men” became amongst the most elite of professions because they keep the environment – including the citizens – alive by removing the biological and social waste that would poison them.
Usage 2: Confluences and Confoundings
I still haven’t reached the limits of what can be done using this technique. Consider the potentials for using two of them when developing related characters, groups, whatever. These come down to two very simple and powerful things: Confluences and Confoundings.
Character A wants something or wants to do something. Character B either has the means or also wants to do that something, or something reasonably close. Alliances can be forged on this basis. But it’s even more useful when creating enemies that they have something in common with the characters or organizations or nations that they oppose, some common ground, because that makes them sympathetic and interesting to their opposition. Consider the potential if Character A is a PC, with a set of backstory boxes created by the player in conjunction with the GM and turned over to the GM for use in creating adventures for that character.
Contemplate, for example, a character who wants the same things as the PC does but who uses methods that the PC is unwilling to tolerate in order to achieve them. If these “same things” are ideals or spiritual goals or humanitarian causes or something else that is non-selfish in nature, the relationship between the two can take many forms in many different adventures. And the PC (and the villain) should always be reflecting on the fact that if their lives had been just a little different, “that might have been me”.
Talk of enemies naturally turns attention to the other side of the coin. Having a snapshot of the key facts of a character – what they want to do, what they can do now, what they desire, and what they believe in – makes possible an enemy who blocks, or stands in the way, of one or more of these things. The more they disagree on, the more passionate they will be in opposing one another. Opposing? “Despising” might be a better choice of phrase.
Character A wants desperately to achieve something. Character B is opposed to them for some reason, has always had what character A wants to achieve, and either debases or disregards it as worth having. Now put the two of them into contact with each other.
Or it might be nations, or organizations, or theologies. In fact, anything that you can create using this technique.
Usage 3: Past Events: Backstories
If you know what a character has achieved, and what they are currently trying to achieve; what their strengths and weaknesses and central concepts are, and the circumstances from which they came, you can chart a course from A (the beginning) to B (the now), and that creates that character’s backstory. What turned them into what they are today; what failures and successes they’ve had along the way, how they came to care about the things that currently matter to them, and how their flaws and personality have helped and hindered them. You know what circumstances and weaknesses the opposition that they may have faced have used against them. You know their story.
And, what’s more, you know it in a form that is readily analyzed, cross-referenced, collated, and digested. You can look at the essential details or delve deeply into the mindset. As a tool for character analysis and usage, things don’t get much better than that.
Let me put it another way: think of your list of notes as the “crib sheet” for that character. Won’t that make them easier to play?
Usage 4: Future Directions
Finally, you have all the tools to bring parts of the creation into conflict. Those conflicts are what provide a future direction for the character – the challenges that you will have them face, the trials and tribulations that will be visited upon them. The outcome of these conflicts is never certain, and always interesting. That, after all, is what lies at the heart of drama. And drama makes for compelling narratives – in novels, movies, television, politics, society – and games.
Speaking of Boxes:
Fantasy Coins (whose primary products I reviewed here a little while back have a new product that they are raising funds for – treasure chests.
These are intended to hold the fantasy coins that you buy from them, but could also be used to hold dice, pens, and all sorts of other things.
As usual from Fantasy Coins, they look fantastic.
So, if you’re even possibly interested, do yourself the favor of checking out their kickstarter campaign – they are currently a little less than $9000 short of their target, with 8 days to go.
Current trends say that they will just get there, but remember that with Kickstarter, if the project doesn’t get funded, it costs you nothing. So if you want one, back the project now and help get it over the line!