Inspiration often comes when you least expect it. For the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling with getting the third edition of Victoriana to press as well as getting Cubicle 7’s slate of events ready for Gen Con. I haven’t had a lot of time to think about unrelated GMing, as my weekend games are currently playtest sessions. During a conversation with my editor, we began reminiscing about our RPG experiences and I casually mentioned that we often translated our characters to multiple systems.

Reflecting on that, I realized that I learned a lot about my characters when adapting them to other systems. To take but one example, one of my earliest PCs was Stalker. I initially designed him for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) as a half-elven ranger (props to any Gen-Xers out there who know why I named a ranger “Stalker”). When my group moved to Rolemaster, I chose to make his human heritage Northman and learned that he had some psionic ability (we ignored psionics in AD&D). I also discovered that he preferred hardened leather to heavier armors and what his skill list would look like.

Later, we moved onto Palladium. Their ranger class lacked spellcasting abilities, so I had to decide whether it was important enough to multi-class. It wasn’t; I realised that Stalker had always been a warrior first and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice combat effectiveness for a few spells. When we moved to GURPS, I really looked at his advantages and disadvantages. For the first time, I saw some flaws in Stalker’s personality. I also lost the psionics, realizing that they were never a good fit and not worth the points.

When it came time to bring Stalker back to AD&D, he retained most of these elements even though the system didn’t support it. In many cases I never would have considered these elements had other game systems not made me consider them. Stalker was a better, more three-dimensional character for them. Heck, he even came back to AD&D with a real name, as somewhere during the translations I decided that ‘Stalker’ was a nickname.

Translating characters through multiple systems is a good way to really get to know a character, not only for PCs but for NPCs as well. Most iterations of D&D don’t dwell on disadvantages; translating the NPC to a different system may make you consider what they are. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space uses a minimalist character sheet. When I translated PCs for a playtest (which I wrote about here), the system made me consider what was really important about the PCs that made them tick. Taking a character from that game and putting it through GURPS or HERO would really fill out the details that a minimalist system won’t capture.

You don’t have to design entire character sheets in order to use other games to fill in details. It’s something we do all the time subconsciously. A particular RPG may only tell you that a character is a martial artist, leaving it to us to decide what the martial art is. That said, flipping through another game that has a list of 50 or so martial art forms may help a GM determine a truly fitting and distinct martial art form, rather than the usual suspects of karate or kung fu (capoeira has become a particular favorite in my circles).

So the next time you want to design NPCs, put them through a couple of game systems to flesh them out. You may be surprised at what you discover!

Have you ever translated characters from one game to another and been surprised by the results? Did you find that something you thought was really important to a character disappeared when you translated him or her? Did you discover that something you didn’t think was important became essential during translation?