Real Life has caught up with me this week, so this won’t be as extensive an article as I was originally intending. But I’m going to do my best to turn that into an asset. This post was also intended to be Campaign Mastery’s entry into this month’s Blog Carnival, which was going to be all about NPCs (but that has changed at the last minute) – which may leave you wondering why its subtitle includes the phrase “PC Dossiers”. Bear with me, and all will be explained…
What is A Character Dossier?
Character sheets are great for containing the essential information needed for a character to interact with Game Mechanics. But they are often sadly limited when it comes to looking beyond mere nuts and bolts. A Character Dossier is a collection of all the information concerning the character that doesn’t naturally fit on a character sheet.
Completing A Character Dossier
It’s an important principle that players grow more familiar with their characters over time, getting deeper and deeper into their lives and their heads. It follows that worst possible time to complete a character dossier is at the start of a campaign or at the start of a gaming session, while the best possible time is after half-a-dozen game sessions or so), and in a break in the middle or at the end of play.
Those requirements suggest further that character dossiers are best completed piecemeal and not all at once. It might even be preferable, each session, to pose a question but not require an answer to be entered into the dossier until the following session, giving players time to think about it. But there is an “on the other hand” to think about: it’s really easy to over-think these things and select the answer that is intellectually the most representative of the character when a more instinctive choice might be easier to live with and play.
Since the choice must rest with the personalities and creative capacities of the players of a campaign, individual GMs are better-placed to make a decision about which is the better approach. I would tend to incline in the direction of quick response, but that’s the better answer for me and my players – it might not be the right answer for others.
Content Of A Character Dossier
Now we come to the meat of this article – and the area that has received the biggest cuts in response to my shortage of authorial time. I promised that I was going to attempt to turn that shortage into an asset, so this is where that has to happen. Here’s what I propose: I could, if I had time, create a long list of entries to be filled out for each character. But, since I can’t anticipate every type of campaign out there, I would be sure to miss things; no matter how extensive the list was, it would be incomplete, and would contain numerous items of little or no relevance to any given campaign.
Or I can provide a few examples and ideas, and leave each GM to formulate his own entries customised to his personal campaign. And that’s how I’m going to convert the liability (lack of writing time) to an asset.
I’ve identified no less than Seventeen (!) types of content for a Character Dossier. There may be more. Each type can consist of multiple entries, the categories are fairly general and broad (believe it or not). Moreover, the descriptions should not be taken literally – players should interpret them liberally and with a view to satisfying the GM’s objectives for the information, a subject that I’ll cover in “Functionality of A Character Dossier” below.
It’s easy to see from the sheer scale of the list that attempting to provide comprehensive questions for each category would quickly grow beyond anything reasonable. Even an extensive description would blow this article out to something similar in size to the still-incomplete ‘Roles To Play’ series. Necessity therefore forces me to provide nothing more than a single paragraph of description and a couple of suggested entries within each category. There will be more, and the GM should choose what to add for his campaign.
Self-explanatory. You need some means of identifying which PC any given dossier relates to.
1. Residential Content
Contains information about where the character lives at the moment, what type of places he likes to stay, and in general anything about where he or she can be found.
2. Identification Content
NOT a section for description, rather a section for any identifying marks and for anything relating to the way the character identifies himself – titles, memberships, affiliations, etc. Is he good on the phone? Is he skilled at conveying messages without a lot of text? What’s his public speaking experience?
3. Relationship Content
The section that led to this whole article! The character should select an activity that he has in common with each of the other PCs, EXCLUDING adventuring.
4. Habitual Content
What does the character like to do in the morning? What habits and rituals does he have? Early riser, or night owl by preference? In modern eras, which newspapers and magazines does he read and when? What are his other reading habits?
5. Preferential Content
What are the character’s favourite foods? What are his typical meals? What is his favourite drink?
6. Antipathy Content
What doesn’t the character like? A matching category for the content of the previous section, for every like there should be a dislike, and vice-versa.
7. Misgivings Content
In which situations is the character less confident? What activities does he try to avoid? What makes the character uncomfortable – personally, socially, or professionally? Is there anyone who makes the character feel hesitant or unconfident?
8. Confidence Content
And for every source of misgivings, there should be an achievement that the character can point to which gives him more confidence whenever he calls it to mind. Acing a difficult test, winning a bold gamble, clinching a tricky deal? Is there anyone whose memory inspires the character?
9. Pessimism Content
What subject or subjects bring out a pessimistic streak in the character – the weather, politics, religion, gambling, romance, bureaucracy? How does the character react to expressions of confidence in an area where he is pessimistic? How does the character react if his pessimism proves warranted? How does the character react if his pessimism proves unfounded?
10. Optimism Content
What subject or subjects bring out optimism in the character (refer the previous section for suggestions). How does the character react to expressions of pessimism in an area where he is confident? How does the character react if his optimism proves to be deserved? How does the character react if his optimism proves misplaced?
11. Regrets Content
Everyone has something they failed to do, or that they stuffed up, in their past. What does the character regret? How does the character cope with regret when they foul up now?
12. Satisfaction Content
Similarly, everyone has achievements of which they are especially personally proud. These are often personal or athletic successes (not professional or scholastic) and are usually not the same items as confidence or optimism content, and it is rarely a shared achievement, though that is a little more common. Excluding adventuring and its consequences and outcomes, what has the character achieved that he or she is especially satisfied by, personally?
13. Trepidation Content
There’s a difference between a lack of confidence and an outright fear. Everyone is scared of something (with the possible exception of Green Lantern) – what gives the character the willies? When and where has he or she encountered it in the past? For players of GURPS, or the Hero System, these should be fears that the character does NOT have listed as Psychological Limitations. Trepidations indicate a fear that can be overcome, but that may cause momentary hesitation; not strong enough to be a phobia or a neurosis, which can cause the character to act inappropriately (and would be considered a Character Disadvantage), just a nervousness that requires them to stop and brace themselves before they can continue.
14. Calming Content
Once more, we have a matched pair. For everything that generates fear in a character, there will be something that calms them and makes them feel mellow and calm. For me, it’s sunsets, cigarettes, a deep breath, and roleplaying. For other people it might be a cold shower, a walk in the park, classical music, a cup of tea, gardening, or a shot of whiskey. Some people drive as fast they possibly can to leave their problems behind them, others slow down to let life pass them by for a while.
15. Friends & Resources
Whom (besides other PCs, Party Members, Employees, etc) does the character hang out with? Who can he call on for favours? Who can call on him for help? Does he have any unusual resources – safe houses, hangouts, rented garage spaces?
16. Enemies, Debts, and Obligations
This one is fairly self-evident – until you remember that the idea of a character dossier is to contain information NOT listed on the character sheet. Then, in the cases of GURPS and the Hero System, it gets a lot more interesting.
17. Servants & Employees
Who does the character rely on? Does he have a preferred tailor? Does he routinely use a particular newsstand – and who runs it? Who is the Maitre D’ at his favourite restaurant, the bartender and waitress(es) at his favourite bar? Who does the character rely on to turn his labours into wealth?
Functionality Of A Character Dossier
The benefits of compiling a character dossier in terms of a player understanding his character are obvious. What may not be quite so obvious is that these Dossiers are just as useful – if not more so – to the GM.
Functionality In Adventure Development
Correlating the dossiers for different PCs can provide valuable clues as to interactions that can be exploited within an adventure. For example, in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Blair and I have used the newspapers each character reads to convey briefing material to the PCs a number of times. And because it is coming indirectly, through the NPC writers and editors of the newspapers, we can be as contradictory and biased as we want. The only consistency is that there is always either more or less to any given story!
But there’s more: knowing what a character fears, that can be built into adventures where it’s appropriate. Where a character has a given emotional connection to a particular character, an NPC who reminds them of that character can be used to prompt behavior – sometimes to the PCs benefit and sometimes his detriment, but always to give the character greater depth of involvement to the plot. In other words, the player is a winner, either way. And so is the game.
Functionality In Plot Generation
Frequently, an entry in a character’s dossier can be used as the launchpad for an entire adventure.
- The character hates Chicken, so he avoids it at a company dinner – and thereby falls under suspicion when his boss is poisoned in front of the entire company.
- The character feels guilty over having failed to save a neighbor who was drowning because he had not yet been taught how to swim – so the GM arranges for the character to come across someone who’s drowning, lets the character rescue them, and thereby infiltrates a spy into the PCs life.
There are many more examples, these are just starters.
Functionality In Adventure Introductions
In many ways, though, the greatest benefit of a set of PC dossiers is as a means of connecting the PC to the initial plotline because they give the character something to be doing when the adventure strikes. This sounds trivial, but the connections it forges between character and campaign over a period of time are astonishingly strong and valuable. Helping the players feel that their characters are part of the game world is never trivial, and often harder than it sounds. Any technique that helps is worth exploring.
Functionality In NPC Development
So where are the NPCs? That’s what this Blog Carnival
iswas supposed to be all about, right?
Correlating PC dossiers can turn up unexpected connections (with a bit of liberal creativity by the GM). One PC’s friend was supposedly shot down and killed in a war? Maybe one of the other PCs saw that friend captured and bears the guilt of escaping and leaving him behind. The possibilities become endless when you introduce an NPC as a degree of separation or two between two PCs – “My friend’s brother is my other friend’s sworn enemy”, for example. The more cross-connections between the PCs you establish within the campaign, the more interesting it becomes for all concerned – the players have more material to play off of, have more opportunity to show emotional depth, and have more interesting relationships to talk about.
Those degrees of separation and cross-connections also give the GM material to use in creating NPCs that the characters have established relationships with, or that are prone to forming such relationships with. They make the NPCs matter – and that’s another trick that can be hard to pull off.
And that’s completely ignoring the possibilities inherent in the GM filling out full or partial Dossiers for the NPCs – if this tool can provide additional depth of character for a PC, it can provide immensely more depth of character to NPCs.
If I were to apply this technique in toto to a campaign, which NPCs would I ‘reward’ with dossiers? There are two criteria that I would apply, and either is sufficient to justify giving that NPC at least a partial dossier.
The first group is anyone who is connected to a PC by a PCs dossier. These are characters with the potential to become recurring cast members within the campaign, but all too frequently they lack the depth that such characters deserve. When working on such characters, I would ensure that in addition to any crosslinks, I included at least one other item that I could exploit to give the character some personality and activity when the NPC became involved in an adventure.
Each time that I added a Dossier entry specifically to connect the NPC with a plotline, I would also add an unrelated entry – so that little by little the dossier would compile until complete, without costing me much prep time, just a minute or two. The result is a cast in which a couple of important facts are known but most are just waiting until the GM needs an additional hook or character interaction. Obviously, the more of these you have, the more likely it is that one of them will be suitable for any given need.
By dressing out the supporting cast in this way, the only characters that the GM has to take significant time on are the Villains and their major flunkies. And that’s where the GM will WANT to focus his attention.
The other category of NPC that I would reward with a dossier is anyone who has the potential to be a recurring character simply by means of proximity. If there’s a news vendor whose usual beat is just outside a PC’s workplace, the odds are that they will get to know one another at least marginally; their relationship will start off being vendor-to-regular-customer, but having the Dossier gives the opportunity to add additional connections between PC and NPC. Perhaps the NPC gets into trouble, or the PC stops some teenaged vandals from spraying graffiti on the booth or prevents it being robbed. Or perhaps the two discover a mutual interest in model trains. Or maybe the vendor’s daughter catches the PC’s eye.
Building up supporting cast members in this way permits a significant roster of NPCs to develop naturally, the way they do in our real lives; over time and repeated walk-on appearances, they will become memorable in their own right.
The NPC Shuffle
Indexing NPC Dossiers by the PCs with whom they have established a connection of some sort enables still more personal focus on each PC in the course of an Adventure, simply by choosing a Dossier relating to that PC at random from those that have been completed. The easiest means of doing so is to shuffle them every now and then, and then to place each Dossier that you actually reference within an adventure at the back of the stack.
Without Even A Character Sheet
In the case of many of these NPC Dossiers, I would not even contemplate completing a character sheet for them – they aren’t that important in an adventuring sense and are unlikely to have much need to interact with the game mechanics. It follows that for most NPCs, a Dossier will be both more important and more useful than a character sheet.
Character Dossiers provide a raft of valuable returns for very limited investment in time and effort. If only all game prep was this efficient…