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Build Characters as a Web

June 28, 2020

There’s a method I’ve been trying to use more and more as a player over the years, and it’s just a good technique overall – build your character tied to, and with motivational ties to, other player characters.

“Unlikely band of heroes” is quite constructed

A common adventure trope is “the unlikely band of heroes” which works amazingly in fiction/tv/movies/etc., and often, not as well in tabletop rpgs.

A key difference is that fiction is created ahead of time and the writers have time to figure out how to engineer all the ways in which the characters will get to know each other or “just happen to” have coinciding interests. In tabletop RPGs, since we don’t have that option, we have to make deliberate effort during character creation and during play to make it work a little better (at least, unless you happen to be able to read minds…)

Starting with connections and an attitude

The easiest way is that you start with “our characters know each other and feel this way about each other”. Games where characters are part of a team, an extended family or something like that makes it easier to work with. However, you get more by giving a little more depth to it than just “we’re on the same team”:

  • I’ve been here a bit longer and helped get you on board. You’re like a younger sibling in a way.
  • We both survived the IS-5081 disaster, when the whole space station came apart. It was 2 weeks in an escape pod together.
  • We just clicked on the team and we’re always playing videogames and competing against each other.

It serves as a prompt. It gives some common grounds and attitude to go with.

Obviously, in some games, the characters might not necessarily be allies, in which case the attitude and situations can be much broader, but do keep in mind whether you’re setting up for friendship, conflict, or betrayal and how that fits in with the game overall.

Aiming motivations and personality towards other characters

Some characters may not have a connection for a variety of reasons – maybe you’re the newest to join the team, or you’re playing some kind of outsider character. You can still make a character who is “aimed” at the other characters in the sense that they have a lot of reason to get to know the other characters and become entangled in their lives.

Specific Goals

Depending on the game and the situation, one of the easiest things to do is look at specific goals for any of the characters and ask how you can tie it together.

I usually find it’s more interesting if the goals are aligned but not identical – “You want to find the lost map to see if you can find your brother who went searching for the mystical city, but I want to find the map because it’s my lifelong dream to decipher the Ancient Language.”

The nice thing is that you can typically come up with two of these, one each to a different player character, and you can have an interesting group dynamic come of it.

Character Concept

Some character types naturally point to the other characters and tend to interact in interesting ways. (This is not a comprehensive list, just some common ones that come to mind)

  • “The New Guy” – the character who is new to the situation/job is a great character to constantly ask the other characters things like “How long have you been doing this?” “Is this how things are supposed to work?” “How do you deal with this (tough situation)?”
  • “The Foreigner” – this character is from a different social context (whether literally a foreigner or maybe just a different enough lifestyle/economic class) – this sort of character is good at both asking questions about how things work or “Help me pick a dish, I don’t know what any of this food is?” and to give interesting stories from where they’re from.
  • “Co-signer” – another character has a dream or a goal and your character has decided “I’m going to help make sure you get this!”. It can tie to their own morals or values, but just as likely can involve things like their own regrets or goals they themselves couldn’t achieve.
  • “Protective Friend” – Your character takes the older sibling role and is trying to help one or two characters stay out of trouble, whether that’s trouble from external sources or their own inexperience/judgement issues.
  • “Everybody’s Friend” – the cheery type who wants to have fun with everyone. They may also end up causing problems through naivete and more eagerness than forethought.
  • “I made a promise” – Your character has made a promise to an NPC to help, protect, or watch over one or more of the other player characters. This is a matter of the promise being emotionally important and not something like an order or trade being made.
  • “Caretaker” – Your character is either actually a healer or counselor, or you’re the unofficial one who is always trying to keep an eye out for the morale of the group. “Hey, how are you holding up?” “Do you think you can keep this up?”

Anyway – make sure your character has some ties to the other characters and you can get to more interesting experiences in play much quicker.

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Keith Burgun’s Strategy Triangle

June 24, 2020

If you’re looking at doing gamist design, this is a pretty excellent framing for understanding the balance of strategies, which are usefully summed up as early/mid/late game wins.

This is a bit long of a video, and rambley, but you can check out the chart and a short PDF with the basic ideas from his itch.io site at the cost of “pay what you want”.

What I find particularly useful is that this sums up one of the key problems that often hits us in bad gamist mechanics for RPGS – where players are locked into a single strategy, there’s no meaningful choice in play.

D&D and many of it’s descendant games have this problem. In older D&D, when you move from having a group of characters per player, and a host of options on any given round, to only having one character, your options are rather thin. People have noted that “attack/heal/retreat” is not that interesting as an individual choice, but when you have 5-10 characters the question of how many do you pull back to heal, how many should be trying to get the damn door open and how many should watch the side corridor is much more interesting, even if each individual character has “one action” – the point is the player has many.

In the video, he talks about you don’t want to have a whole faction, or a character in a fighting game, locked into one strategy, though you might have a unit in a wargame do so (bc the faction provides other options). Again, the player has choice, even if a unit is narrow in capacity.

Feats and power-tree build games suffered from a different issue – you may have a few viable options, but the nature of the build locks you into doing one thing, almost all the time. So the amount of meaningful choice in play simply disappears.

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Drawing the Players Deeper

June 22, 2020

A link to an article with a ton of good points about both GM dynamics and systems supporting specific play with D&D and “Adversarial GMing”. (I sadly recall having a lot of those arguments back in 2005-2006…)

Anyway, I wanted to talk about specifically the sorts of advice around “adversarial GMing” and… I guess just give better options?

If we put aside the worst stuff of GM fiat and player deprotagonization and railroading and think simply about the goals of “create tension and suspense”, the tools one has are a lot better than cheap emotional tricks and mind games of either “rolling dice threateningly” or “haha! Ambush!” or (ugh) “The sketchy NPC turns out to be evil! You’ve been working for the bad guys!”.

Player input foremost

Be clear from the start what kind of input the players have and always protect it. You know how a videogame with bad controls is infuriating? A roleplaying game where your input is hampered or removed by GM fiat is infuriating.

When the players know what their options are, even if the option is very traditional “I control my character” – they can play the game and be invested in making things happen. That investment is where the emotional connection happens because the players know that their hands are involved in creating the events in play.

As the GM, the choices the players make are often unpredictable as a whole, which then makes the outcomes and events surprising and interesting to everyone playing – and you didn’t have to over engineer any of it. (Note that “unpredictable” here is not the same as “not fitting for the game/genre expectations” – which is an important thing to lay out at the beginning of play.)

Have stakes that matter

You can’t MAKE the players care about one thing or another, but you can hone in on what they care about as you play, and establish stakes around that. Ideally you have some mechanics to make it very clear what they care about, but even then, you usually spend a few sessions testing those waters and calibrating to be more spot on.

The usual things I find make best stakes:

  • A big goal for the character – usually something to acheive or protect
  • A personal line of loyalty, friendship, honor or morals
  • What happens to an NPC or how an NPC feels about a character

Note for the last one – just kidnapping or threatening characters is a narrow range, and often feels weak unless you’ve built up something around the character. Aim for lower stakes and over the course of play, the relationship gains weight and import over time. Think more along the lines of a Telltale videogame (“So and so will remember that.”).

Good stakes gets players invested in “Can I do this?” “HOW can I do this?” “Ah, I did it, mostly, but damn, there’s more complications.” etc.

Reveal motivations and causes

Humans like to make sense of things – cause and effect, motivation.

I like to give players insight into most NPCs early and, anytime an NPC does something dramatic, there needs to be an explanation either before or not long after. When players realize the NPCs are reacting to their actions, now players become more proactive but also more deliberate and creative in how they interact with NPCs. (Also, my NPCs are rarely set in stone about their goals and plans – the right circumstances can change their goals or methods, which makes them surprising over time.)

Sometimes I do “cutaway scenes” where I reveal a small event or mini-scene happening away from the characters. Of course the characters don’t know this is happening, but the players, as an audience, have a better idea of the stakes and that the world is cohesive.

Demonstrating repeatedly that the characters and the fictional setting makes sense and has consequences lets players see the effects of their actions and get more invested. Deeper than that, it helps them understand you, as a GM, and trust that when things happen, it’s not weird happenstance.

Summary

In short, weird mind games of rolling dice, insinuating things, threatening characters, pulling out the rug from under the players and so on just doesn’t actually have the fun that most advice around it tends to suggest.

Create compelling drama and conflicts and challenges appropriate to the game you’re running. Make cool setting and NPCs. Spotlight things the players care about.

That’s where the fun is at.

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Mystery Flags

June 10, 2020

I’ve spoken in the past of Flag mechanics – games that include some way of telling the GM and the group the things you want to focus on for the story and conflict for your character.

Flags are designed to help create scenes and situations where conflict leads to an arc of resolution and character development – your moral lines are tested or redrawn, goals are met or abandoned, ideals strengthened or grow and change.

Characters and Mysteries

In most of the games I’ve played in last year, I realized one of my favorite things to do with a character is to have a thing in their background that is extremely relevant, but also not necessarily apparent to the group at the beginning of play.

Now, this only works and is interesting if you have time to get your fellow players invested in your character and you can foreshadow and pace out bits of info until you get to the big reveal. And, depending on the game and the group, it may turn out that events and focus go far away and getting this to work would be a problem.

A special kind of Flag

Then it hit me that it would be as simple as simply having a Mystery Flag for the group, so they know the general area to poke around, but also it tells them to not necessarily expect a resolution or full answer right away.

If your character has a brother who is working for the opposing side, it might be more fun for that to be a surprise than to state it up front. You could have some kind of flag like “Seems uneasy in battle for a mysterious reason”, “Seems to be compensating in zealousness” etc. The players know to come around and ask questions or set up situations, but not to press super hard because part of the fun is the reveals as you go.

Why?

One, when I GM games, I like cool surprises, and a player telling me they have something planned lets me know to set up scenes for them to do stuff with it. Two, flags help players differentiate between “That’s just how your character is” vs. “There’s something going on there, something interesting.”

Finally, when you’re playing a character whose motivations and situation isn’t fully clear up front, you can consistently portray their choices, but only when the reveal happens does it click for the rest of the group what has been going on and it puts past games in a new light.

Pitfalls

The two pitfalls to avoid are the same for any other character background; don’t get TOO complex, and don’t make your character the secretly most important character in the campaign.

Keeping the mystery a bit simple means you can adapt a bit or come up with details over the course of the campaign to better tie into other things. It also means you don’t have to do so many revealing bits that the rest of the group can’t keep track of it.

An Example

I played in a game of Lacuna last year and played one of these characters with a reveal arc. Lacuna doesn’t naturally have a Flag system, but playing this character really played towards this idea.

I was playing a character whose past was an EMT. That part was straight forward. The first foreshadowing I dropped is that he has a terrible burn scar on one hand. He reacts really strongly when he thinks a group has killed a child, and very strongly to being imprisoned. The group finds out while he doesn’t carry weapons, he’s got a lot of creative ways to handle a fight using improvised objects, and has a good eye for criminal activity.

By the end of the arc, they find out he spent time as a relief medic in a DMZ city, forced to work under the approval of a warlord – trying to save those he could, but never with enough supplies, always with too much danger and senseless death.

Now, because my group was all writers and such, we all know that when we do stuff like this, the characterizations and reveals are deliberate and that something is there.

But for new groups, or people who don’t have that background, a Flag mechanic might be the way to help everyone coordinate and make sure the character backstories get a chance to be relevant and immediate.

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Black AF Roundtable of TTRPG Creators

June 5, 2020

I remember in GenCon 2004 someone asked me “Why SHOULD we care about people of color?” not realizing the default admission is that… you don’t – while the same circles were asking how to grow the hobby.

I’ve spent about the last 20 years promoting RPGs but always with a disclaimer; a great hobby but sometimes hasn’t taken down the “whites only” signs of the mind. “Limited only by your imagination” indeed.