This entry is part 12 in the series Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced)

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

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 offering completes the second-last batch of three in the series.

It has been suggested on a a number of occasions that one of the hallmarks of the beginner’s campaign are the lack of depth in the characters. It’s a view that I can certainly understand and even agree with to some extent.

GMs often resort to stealing characters from elsewhere and ‘reskinning’ them in order to combat this tendency, fielding NPCs who are thinly-veiled homages to the GMs favorite characters from fiction and media. But it’s hard to be unbiased when an NPC is an ‘interpretation’ of a favorite character, and even if the beginner pulls that off, they leave themselves open to allegations of favoritism if the source is recognized – and it usually is.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and this article will show you how even a first-time GM can create characters like a pro. They can even be used by players to create the base personalities of a new PC (such will always evolve with play and interaction with the game environment)!

I’ve recommended various books on characterization here and there over the years here at Campaign Mastery. Such books proceed from personality type to the traits that are exhibited by that personality type. When two character traits from different characters interact, the result is a definable relationship.

What’s In A Profile

A characterization profile generally consists of several elements. You have a summary or synopsis that defines the central attribute of the personality type; you have a list of traits, often divided into two subcategories – internal and external.

Internal traits deal with the feelings and ideography that develops as an expression of the characterization profile. (“Ideography” is is a more liberal application of the political concept of an ideograph: ‘An ideograph or ‘virtue word’ is a word frequently used in political discourse that uses an abstract concept to develop support for political positions. Such words are usually terms that do not have a clear definition but are used to give the impression of a clear meaning.’ I have broadened the concept to ‘an abstraction that idealizes, simplifies, or typifies a general reaction associated with a particular trait identified as characteristic of a personality type’.

External traits deal with the relationships that the personality type tends to assume in its interactions with other personality types.

Most such traits are socially acceptable, and even socially productive. But most of them also have a darker side in which, carried to extremes, they become unacceptable or induce unacceptable behavior. Such discussions form the final definition section of a personality profile; what follows are examples, or famous figures who exemplify the profile, or application of the profile in some respect, depending on the source.

Single-profile characters

Applying such theory comes in two forms: Single-profile characters and complex characters. Single-profile characters, without incorporating the depth of profile books such as The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits, can also be defined as stock or cliché characters. The benefit of such a reference book is that they provide depth beyond this cliché level right at your fingertips. Each personality profile has 3,4,5, even 6 traits in both the internal and external categories; simply pick one as dominant and the others as minor traits and quick characters assume depth and viability immediately. They aren’t fully rounded, complex characters, but for single-adventure roles, they are all you need.

Complex Characterization

Complex characters consist of layers of profiles. I generally operate on the three-profile basis, because it is consistent enough to be robust and not too confusing to the GM to referee, but packs sufficient richness and complexity of characterization to be subtle and believable and to stand up to repeated encounters at length.

Three-profile defines, unsurprisingly, three profiles as the character. Traits are this compiled within the personality that are sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory.

I simplify the integration of the three profiles by defining one as Primary, one as Secondary, and one as Tertiary.

A Primary Profile is dominant most of the time. In particular, traits that are complimented in some way by the Secondary profile are strengthened, while traits that are contradicted can either neutralize each other or can be a source of internal conflict for the character. Even when neutralized, such traits will still persist as an inclination when no more powerful drive is in play.

The Secondary The secondary profile augments, contrasts, and compliments the primary. It influences most of the time but rarely controls the character; only in circumstances where the primary profile is neutral or apathetic as an influence, times when the single-profile character simply wouldn’t care.

The Tertiary The tertiary profile rarely manifests, even as an influence over the character except to reinforce a secondary trait to the point of making it equal in dominance to a trait of the primary, or when both primary and secondary profiles are neutral or apathetic. However, in one or two specific areas of activity, phases of the character’s life, periods in their history, or types of activity, the tertiary profile exerts itself above even the primary traits. Thus you can have a warm, generous, lovable person who becomes, by instinct, an absolutely ruthless shark when it comes to business, for example. It is important to tightly confine the tertiary profile’s applicability at the time of character definition so that it becomes instantly clear to the GM whether or not it overrides the Primary in any given situation.

Application of Complex Characterization

It is vital for there to be intent to have the character participate in many different types of activity with the PCs if the effort and richness of a complex characterization is not to be wasted. You need their relationship with the PCs to be such that all these different traits and influences have an opportunity to play out.

One of the great benefits of these approaches is that it is easy to add depth to an existing single-profile character – you simply define the “single profile” as the Primary and restrict the Tertiary Profile to a situation that wasn’t relevant to their characters’ first appearance.

Alien/Non-Human Characters

Human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries of recorded history. We can still connect with, and relate to, the story of an Egyptian King despite a separation of thousands of years, or an early Chinese Bureaucrat from 1,000 years ago, for example. Social progress has been more profound, as have economic and scientific progress – often by virtue of the interrelationship between the fields – but the characters of Shakespeare still ring true.

Two reasons render a lot of alien/non-human characters as humans in different clothes: first, a failure of either imagination or technique on the part of the GM; and second the need for human players to relate to the stories of those characters. I’ve long felt that this isn’t good enough. One of the most popular articles here at Campaign Mastery at the time it was published, Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans addressed the first reason in a way that is still better than anything else that I’ve seen. The foundation principles of that article and of the “Create A Character Clinic” are Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, a theory of psychology that continues to evolve and which has come under some justifiable criticism in various respects, as you can read in this Wikipedia Page.

Applying the principles of characterization described in earlier sections of this article to alien characters is something that is hinted at in “Creating Alien Characters” but not overtly described. Even in the context of this article, it is both too complex to describe comprehensively in a short space and too far off-topic to justify a larger space. Nevertheless, some indication of the process is warranted.

There are two approaches that I have come up with: the Iterative Profile Technique and the Profile Modification Technique. I’m going to look at these processes in as brief a manner as I can manage.

The Profile Modification Technique

This takes a character that has been constructed to be human using the simple or complex profiling methods described above and alters the profile to fit the revised racial thought/emotional processes generated with the “Creating Alien Characters” article. You first define the character using human profiles, then for each profile, define the needs of a character who would exhibit the dominant traits that you have selected. This identifies the interplay between the profile and the human hierarchy of needs that connects character with circumstances. Once you know that, you can examine the consequences of removing any needs that no longer apply and altering any that have changed, as well as the consequences of any changes in the hierarchy’s sequence. This enables you to ‘rewrite’ the profile to define the equivalent profile within the alien culture/society/race. Once all the relevant profiles have been updated accordingly, you can then apply the principles described above to harmonize the modified Primary, Secondary and Tertiary profiles in the case of a complex character or simply apply the altered profile if using simple characterization by making suitable amendments to the traits associated with the profile.

In other words, to make the character properly ‘alien’, you need to first subtract the human influence on the personality profile and then apply the non-human in its place.

The Iterative Profile Technique

Profile Modification works well if you only have one representative of the race to create. Where you have multiple representatives and want them to manifest individuality, the Iterative Profile Technique is the better alternative.

The principle is simple: do a rough-and-ready conversion of ALL the different profiles (there are 25 in the writer’s guide to character traits) and then cherry-pick the ones that you will actually need to undergo full Profile Modification. This enables you to achieve two things: First, you get a very broad overview of the way in which the changes that define the alien manifest in terms of personalities from the rough-and-ready conversions; and second, it enables you to choose character types who will interact and interrelate in interesting ways while still achieving your plot objectives for the individual representatives.

Cart Before The Horse

These techniques work perfectly well when constructing a character built around a defined, chosen, character profile or niche. They work very poorly when dealing with the vast majority of incidental NPCs who only appear once, or who appear multiple times in the course of a single adventure in exactly the same role.

That defines a character who exists to further a specific plot point, rather than one who is intended to experience a number of plot developments to which the GM wants them to react – since those plot developments are at least partially the outcome of PC decisions, you can’t fully predict exactly what they will be confronted with, and need a broader characterization to be “ready for anything”.

Starting with the characterization when what is needed is a profile that will achieve a specific plot function is putting the cart before the horse.

Solving this problem for beginner GMs is the purpose of this article. And it’s not as easy as it sounds. I have two solutions – one general, and one specific, but only the time to deliver on the first of them in the course of this article; the other one can get described in brief, but the tables involved will take too long to construct and assemble, and will therefore have to wait for a subsequent article outside this series. I’ll present that article in late March or early April – it’s currently scheduled for March 27th but a lot depends on how much time other articles chew up between now and then.

The Specific Solution

A list of character traits that the GM rolls on. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But usage requires some explanation, and the number of tables involved, make this too lengthy for this article: My system has almost 400 traits (with space to write more in). An initial d% roll defines the number of dominant traits, a d20 is then used to select which tables the traits are drawn from, and another d20 roll is then used on each of those tables to select the actual traits. The process is quick enough that if the results do not achieve the GM’s plot needs, another can be rolled. There are more than 16 million combinations possible, more than any one GM is likely to require in the course of his lifetime. I developed the system for my TORG campaign.

The General Solution

This doesn’t so much define one or more specific traits as guide the GM’s thought processes through a series of steps that enable them to create their own defining trait while still leaving room to inspire and yield the occasional surprising character.

This process has to fulfill a couple of important criteria. It has to be simple enough for a beginner to apply, and quick enough for them to apply it on-the-fly. That means that we’re talking about decisions that can be made in seconds. Secondly, it has to be capable of sophistication and depth of characterization, although that might require taking a little more time to generate the personality. Thirdly, it should be capable of at least indicating some characteristic values. Finally, it should integrate with the slower processes described earlier – just in case a walk-on walk-off character suddenly becomes a recurring NPC.

The process that I have devised hopefully ticks all those boxes. The need for decisions that can be made quickly does mean that there have to be more of these decisions, but GMs are free to skip ahead as soon as they develop a satisfactory characterization solution; I actually expect it to be fairly rare that the entire process has to be followed. The complete list of steps are:

  1. Observed Critical Relationship
  2. Categorization of Relationship Traits
  3. Intensity
  4. Force Of Control
  5. Power Of Self-Control
  6. The Opportunism Factor
  7. The Reciprocity Factor
  8. Response
  9. Trait Definition
  10. Generalization
  11. Optional: Profile Selection
  12. Optional: Profile Depth
    1. Observed Critical Relationship

    The general technique starts with a defined relationship to which you want the NPC to be a party to. This could be with a PC, with his deity, with a member of his family, or even with an abstract quality like “the truth” or “loyalty”. This is quite literally the defining relationship of the character; the GM should select one that would naturally prompt the character to fulfill the plot objective.

    The mere fact of selecting a foundation relationship that fulfills the plot needs (if any) that the GM has for the character starts you thinking about the personality that exhibits traits that would lead to that relationship, so while the remaining list of questions may be lengthy, they should also be capable of snap-decision resolution. If you spend more than 5 seconds, absolute maximum, on any of them, you are over-thinking the character.

    With that being understood, some characters have complex plot functions or need to integrate specific campaign background; these complicating factors take the character out of the category of one that can reasonably be generated on the spur of the moment and define it as one that should be created during game prep, and therefore justify investing more thought into each of these questions, or even generating the character “quick and dirty” and then going back over your first-instinct answers to refine them.

    2. Categorization of Relationship Traits

    The first question is to classify the relationship in one of three categories:

    • Positive-Positive;
    • Negative-Negative;
    • One-sided.

    A positive-positive relationship is one in which both parties gain something from the relationship that outweighs any costs or burdens involved. A negative-negative relationship implies that both the character being created and the other party in the relationship are trapped in the relationship, or are being forced into it by circumstance. The costs or burdens outweigh any positive benefits, harming both parties (not necessarily equally). A one-sided relationship is one in which one of the parties gets a positive benefit from the relationship at the expense of the other party; it defines a parasitic relationship or a domineering one.

    These characterizations can be very subjective; they are always how the character being generated views the relationship, and may bear little resemblance to the reality. For example, a character with a sensitive conscience, who feels frustrated by his resulting inability to relax and take it easy, might perceive his relationship with honesty or morality to be one-sided, unable to see the benefits that this characteristic provides him. But the time is not yet right for such specifics; rather than rationalizing and justifying the perceived nature of the relationship at this point, and then characterizing the result, the idea is to choose a category and narrow the options available to explain it in subsequent questions.

    Another way to look at this question is to decide whether or not the character sees himself as a victim of the relationship, and how he thinks the other party perceives it (or would, if it were a sentient being and not an abstract principle).

    From that description, you can see also that this choice hints at whether or not the character is the dominant, equal, or submissive within the relationship.

    3. Intensity

    To what extent is the character’s life / emotional state driven by the traits that are the cornerstone of this relationship – whatever they may be, we haven’t decided that yet?

    Once again, the principle is to choose a category and later select traits that fit, rather than choosing traits and classifying them.

    I usually use a numeric rating out of five, but you can answer this question in any form that is convenient for you; it’s purpose is to shape and direct your thoughts, and if you tend to think in literary terms, a descriptive answer might be more useful to you than a number that has to be translated before you can interpret it.

    4. Force Of Control

    A related but subtly-different question – to what extent does the driving trait control the character, and to what extent does the character control and exploit the drive?

    Again, an example of the distinction: if a character were driven by a sense of justice, and he answers that the trait controls him, then you have the makings of a law-enforcement officer or a vigilante; if he is driven by a sense of justice, and had defined his relationship with justice as a negative one, you are well on the way to describing an embittered cop who is compelled by his sense of justice but resents wasting his life in protecting an ungrateful public. If the relationship is a positive one, then his pursuit of justice gives him fulfillment and contentment. And if the relationship is one-sided, then the character is either in the process of ruining his life through his inability to look the other way, or has decided that he is entitled to reap the rewards that come from a lifetime commitment to serving justice – and is, or is ready to become, corrupt. Four very different characters, who collectively demonstrate the profound implications of these simple questions.

    5. Power Of Self-Control

    Before you can fully assess the answer to question four, you need to place it in context by comparing the character’s level of self-control with the level of control exerted on or by the driving trait. If the character is relatively weak-willed, being consumed by an ideal that he aspires to but cannot achieve becomes a likely description in the event of a controlling drive, while it is not all that unlikely that a character with iron self-control dominates and harnesses his driving trait; that drive can be quite intense and still only influence the character.

    6. The Opportunism Factor

    To what extent does the character take advantage of any opportunities that the driving trait affords him, and – conversely – to what extent does the driving trait restrict his capacity for seizing opportunities?

    Continuing to explore the variations that are possible to a driving sense of justice by way of example, a character with that trait who is nevertheless opportunistic may see himself as a savior, doing whatever is necessary to gain promotion so that he can “clean up this town”, while the converse could indicate a character who may have sublimated his sense of justice into a need to always drive a fair deal or negotiate a fair treaty. Or it could equally be used to describe a character who has been beggared by his inability to seize reasonable opportunities, even if doing so would be socially, legally, and morally acceptable; he holds himself to a higher standard, and it has ruined, or is ruining, his life. And yet, he might consider that a lesser price than the sacrifice of his ideals.

    7. The Reciprocity Factor

    Clearly, questions 3 through 6 shed a great deal of light on the relationship categorization, so – armed with the answers – it is now appropriate to return to the nature of the relationship in order to answer this question: to what extent does reality reciprocate the character’s personal assessment of the relationship?

    8. Response

    The last of the defining questions looks at the role of self-deception and self-image in the picture that has been built up in subsequent questions. If someone were to describe the character based on the answers you have selected, to what extent would he agree or disagree?

    A hard-nosed businessman might be convinced that he is actually being fair and even-handed in his dealings, perhaps because of a sense of entitlement, or perhaps because his personal definition of “fair” is drastically skewed, or perhaps because he prioritizes being “fair” on the hard-working employees who make his wheeling and dealing possible. A generous, even-handed bargainer might consider himself pragmatic and ruthless, but aware of the parasitic principle: don’t kill the host, keep him alive to bleed him again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that….

    Self-delusion can take many forms, and can be a positive force in a character’s life or a negative one. A character who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause can do despicable things in his pursuit of that cause. If presented with a true picture of the price of his zeal, he would not accept that it was in any way unacceptable. Regrettable, perhaps, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…

    9. Trait Definition

    By now, you’re getting deep inside the character’s head, so it’s time to take a look around. All the while that you’ve been answering the questions posed thus far, your subconscious has been gnawing away at the unanswered question – what is the driving, defining, trait of the character’s personality? Systematically examining the influences that the trait has on the character’s life and has defined the ‘shape’ of that trait; at some point in the preceding list of questions, an answer to this section will probably have suggested itself to you, but if not, now is the time to select one that fits the criteria you have laid out.

    10. Generalization

    And, once you know the defining trait, the defining relationship, the way the two interrelate and the way that the trait has impacted on the character’s personality and circumstances, it should be a quick and easy step to generalize from the decisions made into a thumbnail description of the personality of the character. What matters to him, and how will that compel him to fulfill his plot function?

    11. Optional: Profile Selection

    If you deem it desirable, or if the character’s role in the adventure is to expand (or might do so), you might want to take the next step of winnowing through the character types in a book like “The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits” to identify the profile that best matches the personality you have assigned. Doing so adds a wealth of other ways in which the character’s personality might manifest itself.

    12. Optional: Profile Depth

    And, of course, once you have a primary profile selected, it’s not too difficult to select secondary and tertiary profiles to round out the character in such a way that any idiosyncrasies or elements that don’t quite match up with the profile are explained, turning the character into one with the depth of personality to sustain many appearances within the campaign.

Let’s be realistic and suggest that steps 9 and 10 might take half-a-minute; with the preceding steps taking a few seconds each. That’s still only about 40 seconds to have a ready-to-play personality. You won’t find a better bargain anywhere.

The basics-for-beginners series will now take a short break and return a little later in the year with the 13th installment: Surprises.

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