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A Simple 5-Step Approach for Complex Characters

A couple of weeks ago we got quite a response to an article (10 Ways to Run a Better Tabletop Game) and several folks responded with how they implement in-depth character creation—thank you! One of these approaches is so simple that its originator, John Hughes, broke it into a simple sketch. His thoughts on that area of game design are below. Enjoy! 

Image_Portfolio_104_Fantasy Jason Walton 60It’s never easy coming up with a character concept—knowing your character’s goals, hopes, quirks and foibles. Too often we ignore the intangible qualities of our imagined hero and focus on the mechanics of the numbers and abilities instead. During a World of Darkness campaign, a dear friend (but lackluster roleplayer) came up to me one day, proclaiming proudly, “I’ve got a new character concept for a vampire: Dominate plus Telepathy.”

That’s not a concept—that’s two powers strung together—and while that might be the extreme of mistaking mechanics for personality, I believe that all of us occasionally make this trade-off. Whether the setting is a casual pick-up game or a convention event, when faced with a different group at the table and a new piece of paper in hand, the temptation as the player to develop only a cursory profile can be overwhelming. Additionally, other players might enjoy the game for the sake of the combat and don’t want to divert time and effort into fleshing out their creation.

Over time, I’ve developed simple steps that, regardless of playing style, encourages quick but meaningful examination of a hero that more fully invests players in their creations.


Step 1: Five AdjectivesA PC in 5 parts
The first step is to come up with five adjectives to describe your character; the idea is not to just develop a string of five words from the same category: e.g. physical traits like strong, swift, lithe, nimble and sure-footed. Without variety, five adjectives are no better than one. Instead pick one word from each of the following five categories to give a character instant depth:

Past     This should describe something about how the character arrived at today.

  • Where did they come from?
  • How did training or other major events change and shape them?
  • What was their family situation (or lack thereof) and how did it affect their adolescence?

Future     You have one word describing the hero’s formative experience, now imagine the more aspirational facets of this individual.

  • How do they want to be remembered
  • What word best describes what this character hopes to do?
  • What mark do they want to leave or what role would they like to fulfill?

Image_Portfolio_1.27_Fantasy Romans-Robots 01Self     Bringing the time vista back to the present, now we’ll look inward.

  • What word best describes the character in behavior, philosophy, or appearance?
  • Is this a way the hero presents themselves as a facade, or does this represent a true personality facet?


Others     Look around the hero and empathize with how they must feel about the world.

  • What word best describes what your character think about others? (The definition of others could be other tribes, races, traditional enemies, close allies, nations, classes, alignments, religions.)
  • How does your character treat them?
  • What does the hero expect outsiders to think upon meeting?

Stuff     How an individual deals with other people can be completely different from how they deal with objects.

  • What word best describes the character’s relation to goods, services and social bearing?
  • Do they show an interest in tangible objects like weapons or wealth?
  • Does the character prefer intangibles like fame or power?

Gary Dupuis - Kargrin-CRemember, the quality of adjectives count! Why be “happy” when you can be cheerful, joyful, enthusiastic or even maniacal? This step is a great opportunity to break out those words you only memorized for the SAT; you may never use “nonagenarian” in a sentence, but it could be the perfect word for your wizard, who might also be decrepit or wizened (assuming your wizard is a human—for an elven wizard, “nonagenarian” is the equivalent to immature or untried.)

Don’t be afraid to try unconventional words for your concept! Many people can see a cleric as devout, but what if hanging around the temple all the time instead has made the disciple ingratiating or even sycophantic? Words with greater context or specific meaning will produce a more concrete vision of the character from this exercise.

Step 2: Draw Your Character
When describing the five areas above, I’ll draw little pictures to help visualize what I mean—I also draw in an effort to overcome any resistance or fear of this next step. This part of the exercise tends to draw heavily on the class, armor, or weapon of a character, so in some ways the illustration serves only to reinforce the role of those mechanics. Nonetheless, by encouraging the players to draw the character, the image triggers other areas of the brain, giving visual context to both the adjectives and the mechanics. The drawing doesn’t have to be great or even good, but encourage the player to try—the rewards are immediate and the practice makes the next time easier.

Note: I can’t claim to have devised this step entirely on my own—I came across a version of this idea in On The Edge by Jonathan Tweet and have been using it for two decades.

Elve_ThiefI discourage names from movies or books when players flesh out the last part of the character. An original name reinforces ownership of the hero—names like Bob or Fred can disrupt the fantasy mood—so put some effort into a plausibly authentic name.

Hopefully this quick, easy exercise will help make characters more interesting for both you and your companions during your next adventure!


Submitted by Jonathan Hughes [who also submitted these pictures as examples]
[Edited by Mike Myler]

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Confessions of an Evil GM: Sandbox vs. Railroading

B1_map_GMWhen I started playing RPGs, railroading was the only way ahead. Then something called a sandbox came along. I initially thought, “isn’t that where children play and cats do their business?” That’s only partly accurate; sandbox design is a way of making the campaign world more alive.

More alive? I just wanted to kill things with my character. Still, over time I came to love the new, open worlds previously unavailable to me – it was mind-blowing just thinking that I could go anywhere. I ultimately found sandbox design to be amazing and used (or perhaps abused) it for years. I went off the track just because it was expected that I could, and I could have been a better player if I hadn’t.

To this day I still expect a GM to know the proprietor of every tavern in the campaign setting. Now that I’ve taken up the gamemastering reigns myself, my views on the sandbox approach have changed…or have they?

renaissance-clothing-5Let’s consider it against its most polar counterpart: railroading.

I hate pure sandbox; learning everything in a campaign setting by heart? No thank you. Because I have a life, you ask? No, because there are too many cool campaign settings for me to reasonably do that (although I might add that I do have a life). For me the sandbox is of infinite size, both as a player and a GM. The player side of me loves the opportunities, but the GM part of my brain despises it, as the party can run everywhere and expect you to be prepared. This might be because my players are an evil lot, but in my opinion it is because if you give them a possibility, they will seize it. I know I would, so it is only fair that they do so when I’m the GM.

To combat the infinite size of the sandbox, I turned back to railroading. As we played around in the sandbox, we discovered the failings of railroading; it was restrictive and often proved to an impediment rather than aid to the GM. Basically, there’s a good way of railroading, and there is the bad way of doing it. Let me give you examples of both.

Morsain Castle interiorThe wrong way:

The party is summoned to the count’s castle. A railroading trick, the players are summoned by a powerful NPC so that no one tries anything, because the NPC is so powerful.

You must go to X and before the next full moon. Another trick, make sure the distance and time given allows for no or little leeway.

Carry this treasure/ransom/document to X. Make sure the item in question is so valuable that the party will not take any chance that might endanger the item.

Arrive at X, and sit in an antimagicfield and watch the villains take off with the ransom. This is the result of bad railroading; now we can wait until next time, where we will be sent off to somewhere else.

Did this actually happen to me? Yes, and I hated it; it was boring and restrictive.

The right way:

THE TORESTUS FULLGive the players an awesome handout. A map, a prophecy, or a book, if you are so inclined (I am looking at you Mike Myler, giving them a book, talk about raising the stakes for the rest of us.) Seriously with a handout like a map you can control their most likely path of travel (and compensate for going off the trail) and the same goes for a prophecy; any handout that controls some of or any part of their whole journey will help you narrow down your sandbox, which will help you make the passage to the destination more believable. You can prepare a few encounters and read up on the most likely towns they will visit, thereby making sandboxing a breeze.

I must admit that I don’t make handouts for all campaigns, but putting together an intriguing verse or prophecy gets easier with practice.

Checklist for a successful sandbox campaign:

1) Get familiar with or prepare a couple of backwater villages, including a small inn where the party can stay should they go too far from the path.

2) A list of names for quickly naming minor NPCs, so we can avoid the Hanson family of farmers, and the brothers Jonas.

3) You should know where the clerics that are capable of raising and resurrecting are located in the world – there is no free resurrection in every little village.

4) A list of rumors with details conveniently located on or close to the path you want the PCs to take.


5) Lists of the various city guards and mages might come in handy as well.

 To sum up my ramblings:

Narrow down the sandbox.

Use an awesome handout (prophecy, map or otherwise) to influence the PCs path.

Prepare lists of useful details for the campaign.

Submitted by Brian Wiborg Monster

[Edited by Mike Myler]

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An Alternative Approach with Myth and Magic

jormungandr-3Myth & Magic is from a company called New Haven Games; I was one of the many backers of the Kickstarter for the player’s guide (there’s a free starter guide available here) and DM guide. As with many of these projects out there, things have been slow and the fate of the ultimate outcome doesn’t look too promising but as a backer I got a PDF copy of the aforementioned player’s guide, a PDF of the player journals that were made and I simply use a copy of the DM starter guide. I sent it all to Kinkos and use these as my primary books, along with my old 2nd edition AD&D tomes and the Pathfinder rule set.

In a nutshell, Myth & Magic keeps the 2nd edition feel by using weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. Classes have choices, but less than they have in Pathfinder; they’re more structured as opposed to ‘pick anything you want’ and the spells are a bit more old school than the more polished Pathfinder magic.

091-Costumes-of-Priests-01-priest-q97-642x1096The are two reasons I looked for a new system (and don’t get me wrong I love Pathfinder) ; first off, I was spending too much prep time before each game, especially at higher levels and if I didn’t prep, I wasted time looking up rules and page flipping at the game table. Secondly I noticed that my group was going through the motions when playing. Sure, we had fun and laughed but I wasn’t getting the old excitement from the games like I used to back in the day. So I started looking at my old stuff but over the years we’ve advanced too far to go back to something too simple like 1st edition D&D, and while 2nd edition D&D was my big chunk of gaming it was clunky. At the Paizo boards I came across Myth & Magic and it’s great; it puts the DM back in charge without too much rule searching and I can make more things up on the fly.

Currently I’m running my players through the Pathfinder Adventure Path “Carrion Crown” and we are having a blast, and I use the stats mostly as written in the books. Since it’s Paizo’s attempt at a gothic horror setting I’m also incorporating old Ravenloft games/characters into the plot as well; when I use the old stuff, it easily converts. I’m spending less prep time for each session which helps me focus more on story elements, and by having a few less rules it puts most of the decisions back in my hands and my players have gone back to being more creative.

The Pathfinder/3.5 feel of the system comes from using ascending armor class, the three saving throw stats and instead of feats, they have class talents (and there are not as many of them); all in all I like it. They’ve also created the Base 20 system, where the DM sets most of the DC numbers (referred to as TC for Target Complexity). The challenge of the task to accomplish is chosen to be Basic (a TC of 5); Average (a TC of 10), Superior (a TC of 15) or Exceptional (a TC of 20). There’s also a Legendary category with a TC of 25. Proficiencies are ranked and provide bonuses to rolls rather than regular skill ranks. This isn’t true of combat, but applies to pretty much everything else.

medieval-clothes-5BASE is the acronym in use here. To search a room a PC can use the nonweapon proficiency (NWP) Perception or simply make a Wisdom check, depending on which system you use (as proficiencies are optional). You can have Basic, Average, Superior or Exceptional skill level in each NWP (+2, +4, +6 and +8 respectively) although no first level character can be more adept than Average. Attributes are treated as 1-for-1 in terms of providing modifiers, making an 11 +1, a 12 +2 and so on and so forth.

For example, a first level thief with an Intelligence of 14 gets a +4 modifier. He spends his NWP points to take Average skill level in Perception. When searching a room, he rolls D20 + 8 (+4 Intelligence and +4 Average level) and is trying to beat the TC the DM sets (which is based on how easy or difficult it would be to find something hidden.) Meanwhile a cleric with a Wisdom of 18 has a +8 modifier to search the room, simply rolling an attribute check (which comes out to the same D20 + 8 to roll.) Please note that Myth & Magic has charts for each ability and the ability check modifiers are higher than either 2nd Edition was or Pathfinder is. For example, a Wisdom of 18 gives you a +8 to all Wisdom ability checks, but only a +3 to your Fortitude Saving Throw. There’s separate columns for each of these under the relevant attributes.

dire rat

Instead of the party’s thief taking 10 to search for traps, then opening the door, seeing giant rats, make a hit to throw torch at them and so on, we were treated to him making a Perception roll, spotting the beady red eyes, throwing open the door and making an acrobatic leap up onto the tower walls to get out of the way as he hurled the lit torch at the pack of rats scurrying out to attack. Later he stylishly did a back flip over the party (being in the front and landing at the rear) to avoid the oncoming haunt approaching them, the sneaky bugger!

There are enough options to keep the players happy but more structure to keep character creation and leveling changes to a minimum. True, most of what’s described above is just that and easily mutable, and I can do that with the normal Pathfinder rules, but this new hybrid is working out better for us and ultimately that’s what matters at the gaming table.

Dennis Pascale

(edited by Mike Myler)

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