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Story Forge – The Four Card NPC

I have in the past (here [1] and here [2]) talked about my love for the Story Forge [3] Cards. This is going to be another one of those moments. If you have not gone out and gotten this great inspirational tool, I beg you to read this article to see another example of how cool these cards are, and then go order a pack. If you are already a card carrying member of the Story Forge, then let me take a few minutes to show you a quick technique for creating the background of an NPC.

Infinite Possibilities = Limited Selections

As I have come to study the creative process, I have found over the years that my best work does not come from a blank sheet and an infinite possibility, but rather when I am given a pile of odd pieces and asked to join them together under one theme. This was most true when I worked on both Eureka [4], where we used the 36 Dramatic situations, and Masks [5] where we used a series of tags that we had to combine and use. In both cases having to be creative “in a box”, as I call it, created much richer content than had I just written anything that came to mind.

When we are given a blank page, we tend to fall back on things we are familiar with, old habits, and past stories. The blank page does not actually make us more creative, but rather through some form of analysis paralysis we reign ourselves in and go with what we know.

When we use random elements, we bring about two levels of creativity. The first is that we can get an element that is out of our safety zone, forcing us to now use that component in our creation. The second is that when we have a random assortment of elements, we have to find a way to connect them, and in doing that we exercise that creativity.

Types of NPC’s

There are two types of NPC’s that I create in my campaigns. The first is a plot purposed NPC, a character who’s purpose is to advance the plot of the game. The plot purposed NPC is easy to create a background for, because I need them to have the necessary back story and personality required to keep the plot moving. They often don’t need to be multidimensional because their purpose is tied to a specific plot.

The second is the general purpose NPC, someone who exists in the campaign world, but does not have a specific impact on a plot (at that time). The general purpose NPC is different. They can be anything, and have any kind of dreams, desires, faults, etc. These are the blank sheet of paper for me, and so many of these turn into my own mental stereotypes. I have a gruff but nice bartender, the honorable captain of the guard, the enigmatic wizard, etc.

Four Components of an NPC

So to make these NPC’s more varied, I needed to get away from the blank sheet of paper, and get some random elements into this process. I wanted a few elements, but no so many that it would take too long to work them into the fabric of an NPC. I started with personality and immediately had to riff off of the White Wolf old World of Darkness system.

One of my favorite things in the oWoD system was the concept of Nature and Demeanor. Nature was what kind of person you were on the inside, and Demeanor was the kind of person other people perceived you as. Soak that in. This alone makes for some incredible NPC’s as you can have aligned or even better nonaligned Natures and Demeanors. You could have the Police Officer who’s Demeanor is Justice, but his Nature is Sadist. He loves catching people who break the law, but has a habit of excessive force.

So I took those two components, but I also wanted some kind of motivation. What drives this NPC? In thinking about that, I decided on two motivations: what is that person pursuing and what is pursuing that person. The first represents what the NPC desires, is seeking, etc. The second represents their past, someone who has an interest in them, something they have done in the past, or the thing that haunts them. We are as much motivated by the thing that we want, as we are by the things that have happened to us in our past.

Casting The Cards

I figured a simple four card casting would work. The first card would be the NPC’s Nature, then a card laid on top of it would be their Demeanor. The third card, to the right, would represent what they are pursuing. The final card, to the left, would represent what is pursuing them.

As with all the uses of the Story Cards, you lay out the cards and then reflect on their meanings. The meaning of the card coupled with their position gives you the elements of their background. From there, some good old creativity links them together into a narrative that tells about the NPC.

So to give this a test run, lets cast an NPC for a campaign I am working on. This will be a female bartender who works in a run down hotel. I cast the cards and get the following:

2013-01-13 10.35.30 [6]

Here is what we got:

Lets take a crack at this:
Tina was once married to what she thought was a good man. He was a liar and eventually he cheated on her, then left her. In the divorce proceedings he convinced the judge that she was an unfit mother and got sole custody of their child. The divorce was a disaster for her and she lost everything.

Eventually she got the job at the bar, where the money was enough to live on and to save some, but not nearly fast enough. She discovered while making small talk with the patrons that she had a knack for gambling, all based on her good instincts.

Through her gambling the money came faster and she is well on her way to getting enough money for a lawyer who can reverse this situation, get her child back, and get her what she deserves. In the background is the husband who jilted her who’s actions are a constant backdrop.

That gives me a lot to work with in the campaign: the need for money, an angry ex, and her quest for justice. I now have all that available to me as I work on future sessions. It is doubtful I would have come up with something like that on my own.

Wild and Draw 4

Not every NPC needs to be complex and detailed, but the more depth your NPC’s have the more possibility they will either fit into your story or generate their own stories. The use of random elements being combined into some structure is a powerful tool for maximizing our creativity.

The Story Forge Cards are a great tool of random elements and their tarot-like use makes them multidimensional. I cannot say enough for them..go and get a deck.

So what short cut methods do you use when creating personalities and backgrounds for your NPC’s? How do you avoid going back to the well too many times, and force yourself to be more creative when working on NPC’s?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Story Forge – The Four Card NPC"

#1 Comment By Delvidian On January 18, 2013 @ 6:00 am

I share your enthusiasm for the Story Forge cards. I’ve been using them for months to generate NPCs and help add color to my stories. They’re more fun to work with than tables because they suggest strong concepts but are completely setting agnostic. I used them to generate history and motivations for rival factions recently with the Train Crash casting. Worked great.

I’m going to try your simpler Four Card casting instead of the seven-card Quick Pick. Seven cards are a lot to juggle.

After I’ve got the NPC concept down, I layer on a way of speaking or gesturing to bring them to life at the table. My favorite tactic (and I forget whose advice this was) is to visualize an actor and use them for my characterization. Normally, my impression is so bad or the actor unrecognizably vintage that my players don’t pick up on what I’m doing. Who would suspect that the merchant running the magic shop is the gnomish Jimmy Stewart?

#2 Comment By witsend On January 18, 2013 @ 7:35 am

Anyone know of a UK /European re-seller of Story Forge Cards? ($30-odd and 4-6 weeks delivery is a bit much to buy direct). I did a quick google search and didnn’t turn up anything. 🙁

#3 Comment By B.J. West On January 18, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

Sorry witsend, at the moment I’m a strictly local business. For what it’s worth, the shipping cost isn’t inflated at all, and the eta usually comes up a lot less than 4-6 weeks, that’s just the “worst case scenario.”

#4 Comment By witsend On January 18, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have to see what I have left after my wife and kids have fleeced me and then just pony up. 😉

#5 Comment By Suspense On January 18, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

I’m pretty much a brand new GM, and Story Forge has been a great tool for me. Personally, I really like the seven card quick-pick. It’s true that seven cards are a lot to make work together. If I’m creating an important NPC, I’ll just replace cards I can’t make fit with the overall theme presented by the rest of the cards. For less important NPCs, I’ll just ignore those cards and make a simpler character. I still usually end up with someone that has a couple layers to them; and if not, no big deal. Some people really are just one layer deep. But I’ll certainly give this spread a try as well!

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On January 24, 2013 @ 12:14 am

I like your four card layout; I’m tempted to try it with [7] and meanings. Though, given my lack of tarot card reading skill, maybe it’d be smart to shift over to Story Forge cards instead of relying on online readings…

Nature, Demeanor, What You Chase, and What Chases You. Should be interesting.