Archive for the ‘Play Aids’ Category


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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Customizing your Genre Rules

March 25, 2020

I’m looking at running Apocalypse World in the near future, and the game has a very good way of giving the GM high level Directive Rules – Agenda, Principles, etc.

Anyway, for Apocalypse World, one of the directions is “Barf Apocalyptica” – basically infuse the world with all the things that make it post-apocalyptic – the weird mesh of our current world, ruined, with weird and strange and broken things.  It serves to remind the GM to constantly push the agenda of the game’s genre.

A bit more focused, for you

So, as I’m prepping, I’m writing down some inspiration ideas that I can refer to for my game to make sure I have the kind of apocalyptica I want:

  • The verge of falling apart
  • Junk survives
  • Danger is around the corner
  • A junkyard solution, but once in a while something pristine
  • Critters are dangerous but never quiet

Mind you, these are basically cues to myself that I know I can use to inspire immediate ideas in narration and description – a different game, different group of players, and of course, each GM would come up with their own.

Any Genre

However, there’s no reason you couldn’t make a short list like this for a superhero game, or Star Wars, or whatever kind of game you’re looking to play.  Whether they need to be something the players share in or just as reminders for you as a GM, that’s up to you.

Sometimes as GM’s we end up with a lot to juggle and the genre description can suffer a bit – between math, many NPCs, and players with lots of questions or actions all happening at once, it can be useful to have a reminder for yourself.

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NPCs based on Flags

June 13, 2019

I’m gearing up to run a game that will have an element of politics and intrigue.  The game uses a multiple set of flag mechanics which naturally suggests ways in which you can make a host of characters that can play off of those mechanics.

I realized there’s a sort of list you can go down to figure out things to build the NPCs off of, based on those Flags.  (Consider this a parallel idea to my Seven Types of Antagonists that can combine as you like.)  It lets you make sure you have some well rounded set of issues for the player characters and a good amount of NPCs with motivations to play with so you can improvise during play.

NPCs at “starting points”

The NPCs you create using this are at a “starting point” of the idea and the situation.  They may change their minds, attitudes, alliances, etc. just like any other character – your initial idea may not be how they stay.  They may also turn out to be much more complicated and nuanced than your starting point, so don’t assume this first part is all you have to them.

You play the NPCs like you would any character – look at their motivations, look at what would be dramatically interesting, and go from there.

Alliance/Opposition Roles

Make a list for each player character of these four roles: Solid Ally, Grudging Ally, Opposition, True Enemy.  You can think of this as a cardinal direction set giving you a well rounded situation for politics.

Each player may have a couple of NPCs in each category, but the main thing is you want to make sure you have at least 1 in each of these to start.  As play progresses, these might move around or players might happen to have none in one category for a while.  It’s fine, again, this is about setting up starting points for play.

The same NPC might be in more than one player’s list, and might not even have the same role between those players.  For example, the Vampire Queen might be a Grudging Ally to one PC but fill the Opposition of another PC, depending on their roles and situations.

Solid Ally

The Solid Ally is someone who is strongly in the character’s corner, and willing to take risks and utilize their resources to help.  They may be limited by not have much power, by being far away/busy, or politically tied up and unable to help as much as they like.  The Solid Ally strongly agrees with one of the PC’s values which is probably one of the Flags in the game.

The Solid Ally creates risks/conflict by potentially suffering for being around and aiding the PC, if they are powerful or influential, they risk the opposition escalating and calling in their bigger allies as well.

Grudging Ally

The Grudging Ally doesn’t like you, might be suspicious, or looking for a reason to take you down a notch.  They have decided they WILL work with you, so they’re not going to sabotage you, but they’re also not going to handhold you.  You’re going to have to carry your weight and live up to the cause they’ve decided to work with you on.

The Grudging Ally creates problems by making demands, by working around you when they don’t trust you to do the job (right or at all), they may have methods you don’t like, they might leave you in the lurch after they get what they want or see you aren’t useful to their goals.  They’re also vocal about how they feel, which leads to interpersonal drama.

The Opposition

This is someone who generally works against you but isn’t going to take big risks for it and while they may want to see you suffer or out of the situation, they’re not trying to kill you or see your complete ruin.   These people might just trash talk you, they might lie and gossip, or they might try to sabotage your reputation, career, or goals.  The fact is, beyond a normal person who dislikes you, they’re willing to take some actions.  If it’s a violent situation, they’ll fight you, but they’re not invested in your death – running you off, degrading you, is enough.

It’s a good idea as a GM to think as to why these characters dislike the PC, and as play progresses, whether they might grow to respect the character, or go deeper into their hate of them.

True Enemies

The True Enemy wants you ruined, destroyed, and/or dead.  They are willing to take risks, and will see you ended.  If you are lucky, they have a sense of honor and won’t go after your friends and family, but usually people who are this driven don’t care anymore.

This is not an enemy of opportunity – this is someone who knows of you (by face, name, or at least description) and will gladly shank you, roll a boulder on you, or watch you burn slowly if given the chance.  You may not be their entire life’s aim, but they will need very pressing reasons to not destroy you if given the chance.

Although one would think that True Enemies must have good reasons to go this far (“You killed my brother!”), sometimes the reasons are just pettiness, bias, and/or narcissism  (“How dare she say no TO ME” etc.).    As a GM, it’s really worth thinking about what motivates this character, since, it will dictate both how they go about it – straightforward violence, political angling, manipulation, etc.   Rarely, but sometimes, these characters can be moved from hating the PC into a different attitude, but it usually requires a pretty hefty deed, or occasionally they find out they were mistaken (“Then that means… you weren’t the one who killed my father?!?”).

Authority Chain NPCs

Now, tied in with the above, there’s NPCs that naturally fit given a genre or situation that form a chain of authority – people with the power to give a PC orders, or at least, heavily encourage/discourage certain actions, and people whom the character might have authority over as well.

These types may fit into those four roles in many ways, however since they’re in the same chain of authority as the PC, so there’s usually an assumption of being allied – the types of stories you have when your own “side” is crooked or against you is very different than when at least everyone is nominally working towards similar ends.

Greater Authority – Commander, Mentor, Boss, Liege, Powerful Family members

Characters who have more authority than the PC tend to set up complications just by the fact they have both more power and their own desires.  They may end up giving the PC orders or restrictions they do not like, or make decisions on their behalf without checking in first.  This is even if they are Solid Allies, which is why even under the best of conditions, many people find points of friction with their parents, for example.

As a GM, these characters require some thought, since you don’t want them to make all the choices for the PCs and order them around like a videogame handing out a quest checklist.  You also don’t want them stepping on too many boundaries or the players (rightfully) get resentful and see the NPC as an enemy.

These characters work best when they provide some complications, and sometimes provide support, but not when they’re always around or in the way.

Less Authority – Protege, Assistant, Student, Ward, Charge, Apprentice, Less influential family members

There’s a character who you are responsible for, and you can often make many decisions for them.  How much this character supports you vs. has their own ideas can be a big deal.

As a GM, the easiest version of this character is the assistant or sidekick who is basically a Solid Ally and mostly does what the PC wants, and is generally good at it.  The player doesn’t face much conflict, and the character is pretty helpful.  However, it is worth considering the NPC’s values and goals, and at least letting them be vocal about what they want/feel about various situations, so they’re not just a convenient sidekick.

The characters who are less capable, or less cooperative, are, again, difficult because you don’t want them to be so much trouble the player decides it’s not worth dragging them along on adventures, action and intrigue.

You need to make them at least interesting enough as characters that the player wants to keep them around (Note: interesting doesn’t necessarily mean likable, and also, the player’s desire to have the NPC is not the same as their character’s desire to see the NPC around.)

Equal Authority – Coworkers, Friends, Rivals, etc.

Some NPCs are of equal authority as your character, and sometimes placed in the same role as yours.  Neither of you have the right to issue commands, so you have to cut deals and interact more.  These NPCs also can compete with your in the eyes of greater authorities, and you can argue with each other more easily without rank getting in the way.

This sort of character is easier to come up with and play as a GM, it’s just important to be mindful of what social/genre positions for the characters make sense to have “equal authority”.  If it’s tied to a common role – “We’re all knights” then it’s easy enough.  If it’s a game with unique and strange PCs – “I’m the Wizard who raised Atlantis”, you might have to think hard about what kind of characters are “Equal authority” and what that looks like.

Family Members, Lovers, Close Friends

Of course, onto any of the characters or roles, you can slap one of these categories onto and instantly make things more complicated.

These characters tend to be the most skipped or left underdeveloped.  Mostly because a lot of games are terrible about intrigue and politics and these characters naturally set up chains of obligation and relationship that complicate things.  (Also, just about everyone has personal histories and drama around these roles, which can also complicate the feelings for the actual people playing at the table.)

That said, this is kind of where we see a great deal of who your character is and how they operate in life.  These tend to also be the sorts of roles that a given society (real or fictional) has a lot of values, expectations, and rules around, which makes these relationships ripe for good play around Flag mechanics.

However, if the authority chain roles were a tough balancing act between “complicated character” and “fuck I hate this NPC”, these characters tend to be moreso.

Tying Roles to Flags

This is easy; allied NPCs support the player character in one of their Flags, opposed NPCs work against or challenge the player character in one of their Flags.

Complicated characters might support one Flag and oppose the other Flag, despite the Role you start them in.  For example a character’s father might be a Solid Ally, totally support their career goals, but disapprove of their fiance.  Your rival Knight might be Opposition and want to see your name ruined but will support you in protecting the King from assassins.

Then you can get into NPCs who support one PC, but oppose another, and so on.  Having ties to more than one PC allows an NPC to be multifaceted but if you do too much, it becomes less of a relationship grid and more like 8 dimension hypercube logistics – too much to track.

The One Red Flag

If you can’t come up with an NPC to tie into a Flag in a meaningful way, that’s a sign it’s probably not a good Flag and the player needs to rethink it or reword it better.

Same thing if you can think up an NPC but you don’t feel a little excitement about the conflict or complication it brings.  The whole point is to help people create interesting conflict which is exciting and emotional, so you should at least feel some initial spark to know you’re in the correct direction.

Focus and Calibration 

Generally, gameplay will narrow down the focus on NPCs – maybe only 2-3 get real spotlight in a session, or even over a story arc.  This is fine.  Let the players guide you by which characters create the most interesting interactions.  Also be willing to accept sometimes secondary or tertiary NPCs might become more important than the ones you started thinking would be important.

You may want to rewrite the list in a few sessions to see where the real focus sits, much in the same way I usually find that what people initially write as Flags (goals, issues, conflicts, etc.) usually is NEAR but not quite what really gets them hyped in play – and those first few sessions let you see what the real thing is they’re interested in.

When you hit the good point of conflict and interaction between PC choices and actions and NPC choices and actions feeding off of each other, the initial list of roles falls away – it’s more like a rocket booster to start things in a direction, but you let it drop away once you have got the speed you want.

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“What am I supposed to do with that?”

August 25, 2015

There’s a nice technique I’ve pinned down for play – although it seems to focus on the NPCs acting, it really ends up getting the player characters to respond, and you learn more about them instead.

Funny enough, I got this from a videogame – the Walking Dead game. In the game, there’s a point when a 10 year old girl you’re helping escape the zombie apocalypse, Clementine, asks you, “Did those men have to die?” It’s an emotional gut punch where there’s no right answer.

In terms of tabletop games, the technique is to have NPCs explain what they’re going through emotionally and use the PCs as a sounding board. Aside from making the NPCs more human and interesting, it also causes the players to reveal more about their characters as well – do they give good advice? Are they supportive? Manipulative? Are they too emotionally scared or inept to help? Do they say absolutely the wrong thing to say?

All of this then feeds back into the NPC’s motivations and actions after that – again, improvising is easy because all you have to do is play out on those motivations, and players can see how the impacts they’ve had have been for good or for ill.

It’s a very different play on the idea that NPCs always need something from the PCs – most people think in terms of side quest type things: “Fetch this” “Kill that” “Find out X” but instead, “I’m going through this, and I don’t know how to feel about it” is just as much a request, it’s just one where there’s not necessarily a single good answer and a skill roll won’t solve it.

It also brings up a great way to cross with the player characters’ motivations as well – do they take the time for the NPCs to help them, attempt to convert them to their own causes, do they decide to change their own principles and values after hearing how others are doing?

The way I’m using this is to simply make sure at least every few scenes there’s an NPC talking about what’s going on and what they’re dealing with and how they feel about things – and see what happens from there.


Starting Angles

March 19, 2015

As much as I love Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix… it suffers from the fact that some of the entries are really vague and a lot of it is geared towards a specific type of shonen anime story genre.  I wanted to make a different set of starting angle charts, for general use in high drama/action games, that’s more precise and a little easier to swap around.

Decide if the characters have a history or not, and if they are friendly or unfriendly. How do you decide?  You can use player’s choice, what makes fictional sense, or randomly assign it.  I figure you’ll find a method appropriate to your game and situation.  Roll two dice, and pick the one that appeals to you.  If neither appeal, use one of the results on the Weird chart.

This is a starting point, not set in stone.  Characters can start off liking each other or hating each other, and come around to the other point during play.


Having a history may mean you both know each other personally, or you may have only seen each other a few times at a events but know of each other.  You definitely have some basic idea of the history about them, and if your game uses some kind of knowledge roll, you can get even more info about them or talk to other NPCs to dig deeper.  Of course, depending on how you’ve been carrying yourself as well, who you are has probably already reached their ears as well.

Friendly History

1  They helped someone you care about.

2  They’re closely connected to someone you care about – you feel an obligation towards them.

3  You both struggled for the same cause.

4  They did something difficult that you admire or respect.

5  They hold an ideal or belief that you respect deeply

6  You were good friends or romantic in the past and haven’t seen each other in some time.

Unfriendly History

1  They harmed or hurt someone you care about deeply.

2  You were on opposite sides of an ugly conflict

3  You were close… once.  And now you’ve split ways.  Why?

4  They committed a crime or betrayal you cannot abide by.

5  You’ve wronged them, whether you meant to or not.

6  You’ve harmed someone they care about…for right or wrong reasons.


You’ve neither really interacted or heard of each other, beyond maybe a distant fact (“Lord Vanu has a nephew…”). Beginnings are pretty much what you see of them when you meet them and a gut feeling.

What you get out of this roll kind of points the direction for the scene itself in terms of how to roleplay and interact with each other.  As always, the roll you get here doesn’t mean that’s going to be the only way you can feel or think about them – it may turn out very quickly that a nice seeming person is terrible, or someone you thought was suspicious is actually a great person.

What becomes mostly interesting with this, is that until there’s more concrete evidence one way or another, this kind of gut feeling will often dictate which direction the NPCs will lean in terms of supporting factions or goals.

Friendly Beginning

1  You seem to get along well – easy smiles, good jokes, they seem like a good person to be around.

2  Name an admirable quality which they display that you find appealing

3  They’re reliable in some way – professional, honest, straightforward, emotionally open – what is it?

4  There’s some way they handle themselves you yourself don’t feel strong at – what is it?

5  What’s the thing that makes you feel a kinship or parallel with them?

6 They notice something about you that few people pick up on – what is it?

Unfriendly Beginning

1  They seem like they have an angle or want to use you for something

2   They seem unreliable and like the kind of person who will leave you when trouble strikes

3   They seem aloof and disdainful of you – like they’re tolerating your existance

4   They seem to take everything you say as an attack or threat

5  They’re allied with a person or group who is troublesome or dangerous to you

6  You see some kind of sign or evidence that they are engaged in an activity you despise


The Weird Chart is improbable but common-in-adventure-fiction-and-soap-operas kind of things.  These are good to have once in awhile, but too many of them and it just feels too cartoonish.

Weird Situation

1  This person is using the assumed name of someone you knew.  What’s going on?

2  You know this person did something in secret you feel strongly about (good or bad). What is it?

3  There is a case of misplaced blame or mistaken identity – yours or theirs? Over what?

4  They have changed drastically since you last saw them.  You barely recognize them. Both in appearance & demeanor.

5  This person shouldn’t be here- something drastic must have happened for them to come to this place.

6  They sought you out to beg or demand something of you.  Something important.

Using Starting Angles In Your Games

Any NPC should only be rolled for 1 or 2 of the Player Characters.  More than that and it becomes cartoonish and puts the NPC at the center of the story instead of the PCs.  Don’t do it for every single NPC, do it for the sorts of major characters or supporting cast who might make a difference -when you do this, you’re basically saying, “This character is important enough to have their own opinions and motivations”.

No good with railroaded campaigns

Starting Angles doesn’t work well with pre-planned, railroaded Illusionist play.  The NPCs might have very different personalities, motivations, or goals than what you plan before play begins – so you can’t predict who will ally with or oppose the player characters, or how those attitudes will evolve.

It works best with play that has room for GM Improvisation especially where you have a good idea on the conflicts in the setting and the player’s goals and you improvise by looking where the NPCs motivations collide with the goals of the Player Characters.

No character should be an island

This assumes that characters have a bit of history to them.  If all the player characters are 14 year old kids who lived in an isolated village, and they leave the area, they’re not going to find a lot of NPCs with whom they have a history.  You can certainly have one character who is an “unknown” but these Starting Angles assume at least some if not most of the characters will have had a chance to go out and make friends, enemies, etc.

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