Archive for the ‘Play Aids’ Category


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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The Monsters in your Worlds

March 4, 2015

There’s an interesting thing about “monsters” (aliens, robots, spirits, whatever) in your setting – how do people in the world react to them?  This doesn’t just define the tone of the setting, but it also affects whether people have any means to dealing with them, how well they can plan/work around the beings and so on.

Here’s four ways to set that dial:


Familiar monsters are ones the world knows well.  If it’s controllable, the creatures are used towards society’s benefit – griffons as mounts for knights, sandworms that make psychic power drugs, etc.  Uncontrollable monsters, or threats, are fought, warded off, using whatever means are available – maybe that’s just big walls, garlic hung over doorways, forcefields, magic talismans.  Your entire society or setting might be shaped around these creatures.

Effectively the monsters are like tigers or wild animals in our world – we know of them, if they’re dangerous we have sense to respect that, but it’s not the wild fear of something completely unknown.

If the monsters are intelligent, they’re effectively another culture to deal with.

Familiar Monsters have the benefit of making your world very different than reality, though the monsters themselves become mundane.  Notice that this doesn’t mean society is necessarily in power OVER the creatures – you might have a world where a horde of rampaging robots follows a never-ending storm seasonally – no one can stop the horde, but they can close the gates and wait out the annual Sweep.

– How do they impact the world? Has the culture or mythology changed because of them?

– Does society make use of them?  Does society need to avoid them? Obey them?

– What are practical changes that come out of this? Trade? Survival? War? Business?


Unfamiliar Monsters are either rare overall, or just happen to be rare in the area you’re in.  Unlike familiar monsters, society is poorly equipped to deal with them – they have rumors or only partial information at best, and none of the necessary tools or organization to deal with them effectively.

Unfamiliar monsters work pretty easily for creating the classic “monster” – a threat that people cannot deal with well and it requires heroes to even resist them.  The flipside of it is that you have to have a good reason why people haven’t figured out how to deal with them yet.  If the same monsters keep showing up, then they’re not going to be unfamiliar for long.

– What kinds of things can the monster(s) do that people aren’t ready to deal with?

– Why is the monster unfamiliar?  What needs to happen to change that?

– What sort of myths, rumors, or straight up projections are people applying to the monster?

Unheard of

Monsters that society simply has never heard of before.  No one even has rumors or stories about them.   Whereas people might be able to figure out which rumors about vampires work or don’t work because they have those rumors, an unheard of monster is simply an enigma you have to learn as you go.

This could be the ancient evil that has been locked away for thousands of years with no surviving records about it (or, usually, the heiroglyphs on the temple that seals it away that you just opened…), or it could be something that is kept unknown by some kind of conspiracy or cosmological reason – such as invisible death gods that each are waiting for our time to come up and so on.

– Why is the monster unheard of? Has it been hidden? Is there some kind of magic involved?

– If the monsters are not trapped, what have they been doing? How have they affected the world, or history?

– Is there any projections people might throw upon the monster, mistakenly? (“It’s really an angel, see…”)


Unprecedented monsters are absolutely new to the setting.  They haven’t existed previously.   This might be a sentient AI you create, or some kind of horrific reanimation experiment or a magical construct.

Society not only lacks means of dealing with these things and whatever they can do, there’s the strong possibility that they may break our understanding of the rules of the world or physics.   There’s a good number of horror movie killer/monsters that effectively do this – it’s not like everytime you burn someone to death they come back as a dream-hopping murderer, it’s a random, new thing and no one totally knows what the rules are and how it works.

– What happened to bring this thing (or things, plural) into existence?

– Do they break the physics or “rules” of the setting in some way?

– What do they want? Are they driven by a primal need, a misunderstanding of how the world should be, or perhaps some kind of violent twisted idea?

What’s it mean for your game?

I’ve seen a lot of games turn weird when the expectations of what the monsters are, or should be, aren’t aligned at the table.  Sometimes this comes down to people complaining about “bad roleplaying” or “metagaming” but a lot of it is “What SHOULD be the expectation of how we treat things in our game world?”

The other part of it, too, is that a lot of game settings don’t ask the next step of what are the implications of some monsters existing or doing what they do in the world?  The common parallel is magic – “If we have easy access to magical healing, how does anyone die of disease anymore?”

Consider how the monsters shape your society and world, and make sure the players know what to expect out of it.

Also – what if different creatures occupy different categories? How do you respond and what does that mean?  You might have a sci-fi game full of aliens and robots and that’s all Familiar, but space zombies would be Unprecendented… and what does that mean for your setting?

You don’t have to slot every creature into these categories (especially if you’re playing a game with a giant book of monsters) but you should take some time to consider what role monsters play in your game, and if there’s any key ones around which the game revolves as a whole.

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Aliens – building concepts for action-adventure

November 16, 2014

Sci-fi is full of aliens.  But there’s a pretty big divide between hard sci-fi aliens (“We found a fungus on a rock.  It apparently can count to 2.”) and action-adventure aliens, which are basically people, with a few things different.  I’m going to lay out a formula for action adventure aliens, and why the tropes work and what they do.

1. Humanoid

This one is pretty obvious.  The reasons are varied – that traditionally sci-fi shows only had budget for facepaint and head ridges on actors, that no one wants to make out with a weird inhuman thing (the Knights of Sidonia manga is a fun exception), and so on.

I think though, what’s relevant especially to action-adventure is that combat has to be easy to understand in short order – we know what fistfights and gunfights look like between humanoids, we have a much harder time picking up what that looks like when someone is a floating set of intersecting energy fields containing 7 hiveminds against a kung-fu centipede cyborg.

Mind you, humanoid has a fair range of options within it – you can usually add wings, extra arms, have bipedal animals, etc. and still get a lot of visual variation.  Star Wars typically gets away with this a lot – you have a lot of visual variation.

2. One Major Biological Difference

Choose one thing the aliens have that is very different about their biology than humans.   This is important if you want the aliens to be more than simply people with a slightly different culture, which happens a lot too.

Consider this: humans take a long time to mature to independence – we’re talking 12-16 years, at least.  Our societies around the world build their family structures around ways to care for children until they achieve decent self-sufficiency for survival.   Now imagine what happens if you have an alien species that clones themselves, bodies full grown, and only need to take a few years to get their offspring up to full mental/social speed?  What does their families look like?  What does their society?

When you pick one thing, it gives you enough to springboard off of to see a really different way to look at the world.

3. Culture and Values

So, you have one biological fact that shapes the aliens, right?  Now you can start thinking about what values make sense around that, and start kicking together some history/politics to go with it.  And from that?  You get a culture to define characters and you can pop together some values for their culture and if you’re already looking to make a character, where their character supports or deviates from those values.

Taking the idea of the self-cloning species above – I’m thinking maybe they are actually pretty competitive – their history is actually a record of their total clone-lineage, so each clone is actually trying their best to make a big mark, to basically become well known and favored amongst their own lineage and against other clone lines.  Maybe the ones who can’t cut it in this hyper-competitive space end up drifting out to live with other species where they can have more freedom to “be themselves” in all kinds of ways.  (And then, are there splinter societies of outcast clones? Do they basically build their own, new way to live?).

4. Tech and Resources

Now that you’ve got the biological issue and a culture bit down, you can consider what this means for their technology and resources.  They will probably advance certain types of technology ahead of others, based on bias and values alone, and they will probably strain certain resources based on that as well.  Or, if they’re left without sufficient resources to meet culture (or biological!) needs, then they will be in a serious situation in short order.  (Consider our own planet and resource use for say, advertising coupons mailed to you every week…)

Although many people like to build environment-first to build culture (such as the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s Dune), the point here is action-adventure alien cultures, which don’t need to be quite as detailed or deep – so you can go the other way around, building from the most prominent points that will show up in play and fill in the rest as you go.

So, my example Clone Aliens will obviously have very advanced cloning technology and probably some serious knowledge of brains – the maturation of a brain isn’t just size and shape – you rewrite your neural connections as you learn, so skipping over a decade of wiggling around as a baby, learning how to separate sounds into language, voluntarily controlling muscles and so on, is actually a big jump.

I’m also guessing they probably have to regulate who can make clones and how often.  They’re probably pretty good about resources since they have a perfect control over birth ratios and their offspring become productive members rather quickly.

5. Specific History

Give at least one major event tied to your setting the aliens are involved in, or had happen relatively recently (within a few generations, for example).   This provides some nice ties and context for what’s going on.   It’s also great if this event directly ties to other species or has some kind of outgrowth effect based on it.

So, I’m thinking the Clone Aliens lost a major planet to a giant disaster – sudden stellar destabilization – something like 60% of their entire population died, so now they’re desperately trying to repopulate, and even looking to simply give clones out to adoption to be raised with mixed species groups.  They’re also on the hunt for land and territory to live in.

6. Bringing it to play

So, this doesn’t need to be a 10 page write up of any alien species. You can knock it out in short order, put together a paragraph or short list, and you’ve got something nice to reference.  You can put a bunch of these on a single page and it’s easy to refer to in play.


Orienting Your Character

September 9, 2014

My friend Quinn has posted a pretty awesome article on characters and culture which highlights a key point to a lot of the games I enjoy – the idea that meaning comes out of context, and the context is very often cultural.

A Templar crusader, a samurai and a mafia hit man might all be “warriors” as far as game mechanics might be concerned, but their goals, the places they hold in societies they operate in, and the meaning when they engage in violence is very different.  Literally that context determines what kind of stories we can make in play and what conflicts make sense to even engage with.

The short to the point way of orienting characters, I pretty much summed up with the One Sentence Character Concept Generator and the Extended version as well.  The rest of this post will pretty much go into the theory side for folks who want to think about it a bit more for design or play.

Potential Conflict and 3 Questions

I’ve seen several games advocate “21 questions” style character generation, with such things like “What’s your character’s favorite color?”… needless to say, a lot of this ends up being pontificating without giving you something that is likely to come into play in a meaningful way.  Instead, I look at 3 questions with an eye to how they give you conflicts.

What is your role/place in society?

So that example I had of Templar vs. samurai vs. mafia?  That’s a key example of the differences you get – how respected is your general role, how do people treat you, what responsibilities or authority you have, and so on.

Your responsibilities and roles are key points of conflict – for example, if you’re playing a pirate, you already have trouble because you’re an outlaw.  If you’re playing a knight, you have expectations to serve a liege, you are a warrior expected to defend territory, etc.

Also notice this changes if you go to a different country or culture.  Being a respected authority in one culture might only make you more of an outsider in another culture.

What is your standing?

Even within your role, you might be doing very well in terms of influence and power, or doing terribly.   If you’re doing well, you will have rivals and enemies looking to take your influence, power and resources.  If you’re doing poorly, people take what they want from you, treat you terribly and laugh about it.

This sets up a lot of fun conflict space – within this role to other people in the same role, whether you have the power to do your job properly, whether you have too many people trying to screw you over so you can’t do your job properly, what you’re trying to do to improve your position or solidify it.

What are your feelings about it?

With both of those above, what does your character feel about this whole situation?  Are they determined to succeed?  To change their lot in life?  Are they despondent and desperate?  What are their motivations and what are they likely to do with it?

The above three questions give us context to a character and their role.  Even if the conflict is primarily external (“I am a knight, I want to stop the dragon from destroying the city I want to protect”) we have some idea of what kind of character position you have to various NPCs, the other PCs and some ideas on what motivates or drives you.

Some games pre-establish much of these ideas for you.  Some put a bit of the answers into things like political splats with vampire clans or such.   But most games leave this as a thing without any procedure and skipping this can often leave you with this weird disjunction in play between players and the fiction and how these things interact back and forth.

Further Character Building from Orienting

There’s a couple other key ideas that often get overlooked.  Part of this is that games either leave it up to the GM to make the call and most GM’s simply forget these things could matter, or else they make it a thing of splitting up skill points and players find these things much less reliable than better defined combat skills in terms of usefulness.

Regardless, if you’re going to orient your character to the fiction, it’s a good idea to also think of these as well:


Who does your character know?  Who can you give commands or orders to?  Who can you ask help from?  Who gives you commands or orders?  Who might you be friends with?  Who might you be enemies or rivals with?

Connections are often left underutilized in games for the simple reason that a lot of games are still jumping the hurdle of dungeoncrawling – where access to help “short circuits” the challenge of the hoops you’re supposed to jump through to solve the puzzles/scenario.

In games where the conflict is not set up in a series of pre-set problems, you can use these to much effect – you build relationships, you can solve some problems but have those characters also introduce problems as well.  This is actually part of the reason your character’s standing is important – within this world, who can you call on for help?  Who is out to get you? etc.

Knowledge and Outlook

What kinds of information is your character familiar with? What kinds of rumors or things should they simply just know?  “Sure, the Northerners always come through the city, but never in the fall.  I’m wondering if it’s someone simply dressing up as one in some kind of disguise because he’s got the colors all wrong.”

Knowledge and outlook about how you see the world can matter a lot.  The hardened soldier and the elite noble see the same room very differently – about how it’s laid out, who is important for what reasons, and what kinds of attitudes people have.

Tying it all together

The key to all of the above is that it can fit into a short paragraph about your character – it shouldn’t need to be a huge backstory or anything.  You just need enough to give a good idea of who your character is and where they stand with the setting and their motivations.

In doing so, you can also build something the other players can play off of very well in relation to your character and vice versa.

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The Task Resolution Tool

July 4, 2014

As I’m trying out a bunch of games, I have to remind myself not everything has a good conflict resolution – and I find myself falling back into bad habits and problems with task resolution systems.  Mostly in rolling dice for uninteresting results.  Guh.

Can you think of a fun, entertaining, interesting result for failure?

No, not really

Ok, then:

1) Say Yes.  The character succeeds.  Keep play moving

2) Offer a precondition: “You can try but first you’ll need to…”

3) Offer at a cost: “You can do it, but it will cost you this…”

4) Impossible: “It’s too hard, but maybe you can…(offer other ideas)”

Yes!  Well, maybe! Give me some ideas!

Ok, then it’s a good time to roll the dice.  Here’s some ways to get worthy failure.

Four Types of Worthy Failure:


Risk is not necessarily damage or harm.  Risk opens you UP to the potential of those things.  So, jumping across a gap?  Failure isn’t falling, failure is hanging by one hand, precariously, while the enemies are shooting at you.  Risk is losing your lead on escaping danger.  Failing a risk roll means the GM takes the lead and the next roll involves harm, injury or capture.


Information failure means you accidentally let slip some kind of clue or information that those who would harm you can use.  Your location, your methods, your intentions, your allegiances, where your resources come from, what you are lacking, your vulnerabilities, your secrets.   This could be leaving behind a clue, accidentally saying the wrong thing, showing too much of your hand too early, etc.


Resources are things like gear, equipment, food, tools, mounts, hired allies, etc.  Mostly logistical resources.   Losing these makes life harder and some things impossible.  It can also create other problems – being in the wilderness without food or proper clothing can become a hazardous problem very quickly.


Standing is how NPCs see you.  And not necessarily society at large – just one NPC’s view of you can be everything.   Your King no longer believes you are capable of the job, your best friend isn’t sure they can trust you, your contact in the secret society doubts your commitment…    Or maybe it’s a small group – the people in a village, the wizard’s society you spent so long getting in good with.   Standing loss isn’t instant hate – but it means you have to work harder, do more, and get less and expect less support.


Dogs in the Vineyard’s “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”, Inspectres & octaNe “When should we roll dice?”, Apocalypse World’s “Hard Moves”, Mouse Guard’s “Conditions”.