This entry is part 3 in the series The Characterisation Puzzle

The second technique of character development that I call apon when stumped for ideas is something that I call The Inversion Principle. Some parts of this I had worked out many years ago, but it was when I read an interview with John deLancie (“Q” in Star Trek The Next Generation) that the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. That interview was so enlightening that I even excerpted part of it and sent it to Roleplaying Tips as a Reader’s Tip – you can read it in the archived issue here.

The basic concept relies heavily on a knack that I have for reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable in character concepts. This is a skill that I have taught to many others who have picked it up readily, so I hope to be able to impart the technique in the course of the article. In essence, the idea is “Play Against Expectations”, Justify required positions, Reconcile the resulting character traits into a coherant concept, and Fill the character background with Bridging Elements that unify the concept with the character’s circumstances.

This method works exceptionally well when developing recurring antagonists or NPCs that will be part of the campaign “furniture” for some time to come. I also use it occasionally when generating new PCs for an existing campaign (when I’m a player), if the GM is someone who I expect will give me the roleplaying “elbow room” to explore the concept – though I have to admit that I’ve been dissappointed more often than not in that respect.

On one occasion, I generated a 101-page character background and history, replete with interesting villains, allies both trustworthy and deceptive, and the origin of the universe. The campaign lasted about 9 months, at the end of which the GM admitted to never having read it. As a result, the character remains a source of frustration and unrealised expectations. I would have imported the character into my own superhero campaign, but the backgrounds don’t match.

But that’s getting off-topic, so let’s return to the focus of this article – the methodology that I used to design this particular character.

Inversion Principle1

1. Prep

This technique requires a sheet of paper divided into two equal rows along the long axis, into (4) equal columns along the short axis, which are labelled “Relationship”, “Type”, “Expectations” and “Connections” across the top, like this:

You’ll also need a pencil or pen and possibly an erasor.

2. Playing Against Relationships

The first column requires you to pick the one character (usually a PC) on the other side of the GM-screen with whom the new character will predominantly interact. In the bottom row, list as many adjectives as you can think of that are appropriate to describe that character, then rank them in order of prominance. Once that’s done, in order of prominance, you write the exact opposite term in the upper panel.

Example: Let’s work on the same NPC that was used to illustrate the technique in the previous installment of this series. I’ll further assume that the character with whom he will most strongly interact will be the leader of the PCs party, Tajik. Tajik is pious, messy, loyal, of average intelligence, relatively free of prejudice, honest, honourable, respectful, driven, and unambitious. He is also insecure, and resentful or fretful at times. He is an Orcish Priest, after all – which also makes him a respected figure within his culture. He is also male, young, and experienced a “childhood” that was both sheltered and abusive. (Yes, all those traits, however contradictory, do make sense in light of the character’s background). Listing those in the lower panel and ranking them by prominance gives:

  1. pious,
  2. loyal,
  3. unprejudiced,
  4. honourable,
  5. abusive childhood,
  6. insecure,
  7. unambitious,
  8. respectful,
  9. honest,
  10. fretful at times,
  11. sheltered childhood,
  12. messy,
  13. driven,
  14. male,
  15. of average intelligence,
  16. resentful at times,
  17. respected;

and that, in turn, gives us “opposites” in the top panel of “1. impious/aethiestic, 2. disloyal, 3. prejudiced, 4. dishonourable, 5. spoilt as a child, 6. self-confident/self-reliant, 7. ambitious, 8. disrespectful, 9. dishonest, 10. imperturbable, 11. adventurous childhood, 12. organised, 13. lazy/casual, 14. female, 15. intelligent or dumb, 16. cool, and 17. disrespected”.

These are the brew of ingredients that might go into constructing our NPC. Already a picture emerges, when dealing with them in isolation, of a coldly calculating person who believes in nothing but themselves and would set out to conquer the world with complete confidence in her ability to do so – if she weren’t too lazy to look beyond her own comforts.

While that’s a perfectly viable character concept, it’s not one to use for this particular role. While some of the listed ingredients will make their way into the design of the NPC, this represents the perfect “foil” or arch-enemy of Tajik; drawing all the ingredients from this one source effectively wastes all our ammunition on a one-shot non-recurring NPC. Furthermore, introducing new material means that the characterisation of this NPC can and will be different from the characterisation of the next NPC who is designed primarily to interact with Tajik.

Since I would not expect to use all the elements in actual usage of this system, I would not have been as exhaustive in listing Tajik’s traits; the top half-dozen or so would have been more than enough, and the resulting list of potential NPC traits would have been reduced to “1. impious/aethiestic, 2. disloyal, 3. prejudiced, 4. dishonourable, 5. spoilt as a child, 6. self-confident/self-reliant” – a far less defined and focussed characterisation.

That’s where the other columns come into play.

3. Playing Against Type

This column can only have an impact on the character design when you already have some notion of the role that the character is going to occupy within the game. That will be true more often than not, but there will be exceptions – which I’ll address at the end of the article.

In this case, we know that the character is supposed to be a merchant, in an empire ruled by undead, in which the living lead lives of luxury which are “paid for” after their deaths – and in which social rank post-death is determined by the level of civil or public service performed voluntarily while living. We also have the image of a middle-eastern bazaar as the manner of trade. At the top of the lower row, in the second column, I summarise these points as succinctly as possible. Underneath these, I then list the most obvious characteristics that are usually associated with this “type” of character – “life of luxury”, “works for the afterlife”, “haggler”, “greedy”, “sharp trader”, “shady” – all the cliches – and rank them in order of how cliched they are, taking into account how often that type of character has actually appeared within the campaign.

This last is an important point to note. A cliche earns that categorization through overuse – if there was no allowance for how often a cliche had appeared in the campaign, all the characters of a given type would be the exact opposite of the normal expectation, and become just as dull and predictable as the original cliches. You need some greedy merchants just so that the generous ones stand out!

Example continued:
In this case, the last merchants that the party dealt with were generous, selfless, and eager to please (because the PCs were national heroes to them), but very sharp traders, missing no opportunity to offer the PCs a product that might be useful – so many of the “usual” cliches are weakened in terms of predictability. Instead of

4. life of luxury,
5. works for the afterlife,
1. haggler,
2. greedy,
6. sharp trader,
3. shady

I would assess the ranking as

2. life of luxury,
3. works for the afterlife,
4. haggler,
5. greedy,
1. sharp trader,
6. shady.

In the top half of the column, where we are collecting personal traits for our actual NPC, I will copy in the summary of the “type” and follow this with the opposites for the most cliched half of the characteristics listed below. The other half would be copied in as they are.

This populates the characteristics of our NPC as “Merchant (bazaare)”, “1. poor trader”, “2. life of poverty”, “3. works for the here and now”, “4. haggler”, “5. greedy”, “6. shady”.

Once again, not all of these might be used in the final concept, so the “cliches” of the campaign will constantly be evolving.

4. Playing against Expectations

If ‘playing against type’ was all about the character’s role in the game setting, this section is all about the character’s expected role in events. What is he there to do, and what are the top four-to-six characteristics that would normally be associated with that sort of action? I summarise the first as succinctly as possible, then list the characteristics, ranking them by strength of association.

In the upper section, I copy the summary and then list the inversions of the most-strongly-associated characteristics, followed by the unchanged second half of that list unchanged – the same technique as used in “playing against type”.

Example continued:
So, the bottom half of this column might read “Get two PCs captured”, “4. observant”, “5. deductive”, “1. loyal to Empire”, “2. upstanding citizen”, “3. wants reward”.

“Observant”, because he has to recognise that the PCs are not Imperial Citizens, “Deductive” because he has to associate them with the ‘Wanted’ signs that have been erected throughout the Empire, and the other characteristics which describe motivations for capturing the party members and turning them over to the authorities.

The upper half of this column would then read, “Get two PCs captured”, “1. disloyalty to Empire”, “2. disreputable citizen”, “3. wants reward”, “4. observant”, “5. deductive”.

5. Connections

With the three primary columns now filled, it’s time to turn our attention to the last one, “connections”. The content of this column stems from three sources: the relationships between items in the other columns, especially any intermediate links that tie them together; any implications from the combination of items; and any other ideas suggested by the other answers that are novel or interesting or shed light on some aspect of the setting or background that hasn’t otherwise come out. In other words, it’s for inspiration and filling in the blanks with Bridging Elements!

The best approach to filling this box is to answer five questions:

  1. What do the characteristics in the “Relationship” box suggest or imply about the other two boxes (the character’s intended role within the setting, and within the campaign, respectively)?
  2. What do the characteristics in the “Type” box suggest or imply about the other two boxes (the character’s primary relationship with the PCs and their intended story function, respectively)?
  3. What do the characteristics in the “Expectations” box suggest or implu about the other two boxes (the character’s primary relationship with the PCs and their intended role within the campaign setting, respectively?
  4. Are there any other interesting ideas suggested by any of the other answers (even the rejected ones in the bottom row)?
  5. Are there any contradictory entries in any of the upper boxes, and if so, what can be done to resolve the contradiction?

Example, continued:
So, let’s look at those five questions for our example merchant. The first question is from the “Relationship box”, where we have the attributes “1. impious/aethiestic, 2. disloyal, 3. prejudiced, 4. dishonourable, 5. spoilt as a child, 6. self-confident/self-reliant”. What do these say about the character’s position as a merchant? What do they say about the character’s actions in causing two members of the party to be captured? Well, #1, plus #2 and #4, all suggest that he may have once held a more responsible position, but has fallen from grace – and #6 suggests that he has landed on his feet. So we have an implication of a social or political failure of some sort.

They also suggest that the characters may have gotten them impression that he would be sympathetic because he is atypical of Imperial Citizens in many ways – and that they were dissappointed for some reason.

“1. Fall from grace/authority”
“2. Past Social or Political failure”
“3. Trusted by characters? Betrayal?”

Question Two deals with the traits “Merchant (bazaare)”, “1. poor trader”, “2. life of poverty”, “3. works for the here and now”, “4. haggler”, “5. greedy”, “6. shady”. What do these imply about the character, and what do they have to say about his capture of the PCs? #1 and #2 suggest that the character is living in poverty and isn’t all that good at his occupation, but #3, #4, and #5 all suggest that this isn’t true – he may appear unsuccessful, but that’s because he’s spending his money on something else – something immediate that is not obviously aparrant from these character traits.

It was while typing that last sentence that I realised that I was once again referring to the merchant as “he”, despite the indication that I noted earlier that the character was female.

In part, that may have been because the trait “female” would have been number 14 of the “relationship inversions” panel (upper left), and only the first six items on that list were retained, but in large part this was also a subconscious decision on my part – that I was thinking of the merchant character as a male and not a female.

You can ignore subconscious cues like this one, but the characters never seem to ring quite as true when roleplayed if you do. When that happens, it’s time to change the attribute in question – in this case, from female to male. But it’s also important to retain the inverted characteristic as an important element in the character concept, because it is part of what was intended to make the character unique, even if that inverted concept was culled from the source list, as it was in this case.

So, by adding the term “male” to the answers in the “Connections” panel, we also have to add “significant female(s)” to the list, even though we don’t know how they will relate to the final concept yet.

“4. Appears unprosperous”
“5. Spends earnings in unusual way”
“6. Male”
“7. Significant Females”

Question Three gave us the character traits “1. disloyalty to Empire”, “2. disreputable citizen”, “3. wants reward”, “4. observant”, “5. deductive”. How do these play into the personality of the character? The implications are that the person is smart, unscrupulous, and has their own goals or agenda. So we can add those traits to the connections panel.

“8. Smart”
“9. Unscrupulous”
“10. Own goals or agenda”

Finally, Question Four is all about inspiration – ideas that may have been suggested or implied by earlier responses that present an opportunity to help bring the society or campaign world or something to the attention of the players. Characters who (in passing) shed new light on a hidden facet of a campaign are hugely beneficial in keeping the campaign ‘tangible’ for the players, just as subtexts are in a novel, or sidebars can be, in a rulebook.

One idea leapt out at me while listing the (unused) characteristics in “playing against relationships” – that there has never been any mention of how the Golden Empire treats its children. This idea was strongly reinforced by the addition of “Significant Females,” number seven on the “Connections” list, because my immediate reaction to the entry was an interpretation of “daughters”.

Furthermore, the PCs have all had very different childhoods, ranging from being the equivalent backwoods royalty all the way through to abusive, with both bullies and the victims of bullying represented. Since these facets of the characters have rarely been touched on, never mind explored, making the treatment of children significant to the campaign’s development also gives the PCs the chance to make these elements of their own characters relevant.

And so, trait #7 is amended, and item 11 is added as the concluding element on our list:

“7. Significant Females Daughters”

“11. How are children treated in the Golden Empire?”


That leaves blank only the panel on the bottom right. The function of this box is to render a coherant concept for the character, by describing in three short paragraphs, the character. The first describes the personality and history of the character; the second is for the circumstances of the character at the time of the encounter; and the third contains a summary of what the character is going to do, and why.

Note that the nature of the relationship with the primary NPC is NOT spelt out. Using the traits suggested under “Relationship” ensures that there will be areas in which the character will engage their primary relationship – things they agree on, and things they vehemently disagree apon – but it’s not up to the GM to decide how the PC will react to these points of difference, and without knowing those reactions, the direction in which the relationship will evolve can’t be forecast (and GMs shouldn’t try). Define the NPC and his actions, and let the relationship of that NPC to the PCs take care of itself.

The idea is to design a character with something interesting to say or do or that will further advance the overall plotline in some way. Once he’s “in play”, he becomes simply another campaign element to act and react according to events and circumstances. Well, that’s the theory, anyway: Create circumstances, not plot trains!

Example, continued:
Which brings us back to our merchant. We have identified 28 traits as the ideas to be built into our concept, but before we can begin, we need an answer to the final question in the “Connections” box; it’s not a question that I had pondered, previously.

Children In The Golden Empire

The philosophy and religious beliefs of the Golden Empire are known as “Beneck Wu”, which translates to “The Way”. One of the central tenets of Beneck Wu is that a life of luxury is earned after the fact by an undeath of service to the state. The greater the civil contribution of the individual during his or her lifetime (when they need to make none at all if they don’t want to), the higher the rank they are given in undeath – from military command through to civil administration.

As a consequence, actually working for a living is something that is done only by undead, and by those who wish to advance beyond menial work in undeath. Such menial work is undertaken by mindless forms of undead – Zombies and Skeletons – while authority is given to more aware undead types – mummies and liches. Vampires are rare because there is nothing for them to feed apon.

It follows that most children, like our merchant, were spoilt rotten as children, their every need and desire satisfied. Only in one area would there be any imposition of responsibility – religious education and participation would be manditory from an early age.

As a child grew older, and became capable of working if they wanted to, additional opportunities for service would have been made available, first in the form of activities and hobbies and state-sponsored education, and later in voluntary apprenticeships.

Perhaps there would also be organisations that are the equivalent of the boy and girl scouts which teach practical skills that prepare children to care for themselves to whatever extent they wish to relieve society of that burdon.

In summary, then, children would be spoilt; despite this, childhood would be relatively “normal” in many respects, to a perhaps surprising extent. As a child matures, they would be presented with greater opportunities to “opt out” of working life, until the day adulthood is officially reached and the only responsibilities which remain are those which are voluntarily undertaken.

The closest analagy that I can think of is that of the children of famous and wealthy parents in the modern world. An army of servants see to their every need and comfort, they want for nothing, and can have anything that they want merely by expressing the desire.

This insight offers a new subtext for the entire concept of the Golden Empire, one that is even (unintentionally) reflected in the name of the society. “90210” and “Melrose Place” grown to comsume an entire society.

Example, Continued:
With this information at hand, our list of Bridging Elements is complete. To remind you, they are: “1. Fall from grace/authority, 2. Past Social or Political failure, 3. Trusted by characters? Betrayal?, 4. Appears unprosperous, 5. Spends earnings in unusual way, 6. Male, 7. Significant Daughters, 8. Smart, 9. Unscrupulous, 10. Own goals or agenda, and 11. How are children treated in the Golden Empire?”

To start with, it’s clear that our merchant has gone beyond merely working for a future prominance when he enters the ranks of the undead; #4 states that he is actively avoiding the conspicuous life of consumptive luxury that is his for the asking. #8 suggests that this is smart of him; #1, #2, and #9 all suggest that what he is actually doing is considered subversive by the Empire (but no so much that he has been obviously punished, so it’s immoral, not illegal); and #7 hints that this is for the benefit of his daughters, somehow.

The key to achieving a moment of inspiration is often as simple as making the correct association between two seemingly-unrelated facts. In this case, the facts in are the #1-2-9 combination and the answer to #11 (the treatment of children in the Golden Empire, given above). He is raising his daughters in an unsual way, and that is the reason for his aparrant lack of prosperity. Instead of raising them to be conspicuous consumers, they are being turned into – well, ‘misers’ is probably too strong a term. Let’s say that he’s teaching them to be frugal.

This is so contrary to the fundamental assumptions of the Empire that he would be massively unpopular within the community and within society in general; he is undermining the philosophical foundations of their entire society.

He not only has his ‘income’ from his trade, he is also accumulating ‘unspent birthright’, both his own and that of his daughters, which he can convert into additional goods for sale, further boosting both his success as a merchant, and increasing the civic value of his service when he is eventually Judged.

There are two ways to assess the impact of these actions: fear of death – he might even not have a debt to be repayed through service under the tenets of Beneck Wu, in which case he would be left to rest in peace; or power-hungry – when he is Judged, his service will so massively outstrip his debt to the Empire that he will be elevated several social ranks, perhaps even becoming governer of a province. For doing all the ‘wrong things’, and manipulating the tenets of society for his own ends. It’s easy to see why these activities would be unpopular with the authorities!

Looking over the answers given in the other categories, the second is clearly the correct answer in this case. We have ‘impious’ and ‘working for the afterlife’ and ‘dishonourable’ in the Relationship traits, and this certainly fits those personality traits. At the same time, it would be easy for the party members to misinterpret the frugality as an attempt to give his daughters a more balanced childhood (a positive thing), especially given their own childhoods. They might easily have thought he was someone on the outs with Imperial society, and therefore a potential ally – which ties this concept back into Connection #3.

The picture that is emerging of the NPC is consistant with the initial ‘antithesis of Tajik’ character, but the character is far more subtle and less comic-bookish. The plan is positively sinister from Tajik’s perspective – potentially placing him in the uncomfortable position of empathising with the position of his mortal enemies, who he’s here to destroy!

From this point, writing the three paragraphs that define the character will be easy.


The example shows the advantages of this system. Rich and complex characters result, which are designed to interact with the campaign in a number of ways, and who can shed fresh light on aspects of the campaign world that have not previously been noticed. They extend and enhance the campaign with their presence – and that’s a nice side-benefit.

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