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You’re Deep as a Puddle: Making More Lively PCs and NPCs

When was the last time your players actually talked to an NPC? Was it a rewarding conversation, or was the NPC made out of cardboard? Or, on the flip side, have you been yearning to have a session where the players do something other than kill people, but the numbers are the only part of the character that they’ve bothered to flesh out? Fear not– a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on the topic.

Question and Answer

One of the most popular methods of getting more detail about a character is asking and answering questions about the character. This can take many forms– take an online quiz as your character, write a diary entry from your character’s viewpoint, or just talk with the GM in character while she throws you curve balls. Players can help each other build up backgrounds just by roleplaying conversations where they ask each other about their past, their hopes and dreams… or even their favorite color. You never know what prompt will inspire a new direction for their roleplaying.

Heather’s questionnaire [1] has solid questions to start with. If you’re looking for even more, follow the link to the giant 365 question list in the post.

Rob Donoghue’s 52 card pickup [2] is a great way to turn a deck of playing cards into interesting questions. (The same questions are generated randomly here [3], if you’re at the computer when the need for inspiration strikes.) These questions make some strong assumptions, so they’re better used early, while you’re looking to incorporate interesting twists into your background.

During a game session, I’ve passed out five questions and asked people to answer the three that interest them the most. That isn’t a good way to do it– they’re at your table to play, not to do homework. Instead, the questions can be worked in as chatter around the fire, small talk at the market, or probing questions from your date. If you pass out questions, it’s better to do it at the end of the session and let them take some time to muse and write as they’re inspired during the week.

For NPCs, it’s often better to pick one or two questions to generate a few “bright spots of detail [4]“. After all, the blade wielding PCs probably won’t pause to let you explain how your villainy was inspired by a hatred of the blue bedsheets your mother insisted on when you were seven.

During Character Creation

You can approach character creation in many ways– from a strongly visualized character that you’re just converting to the system, to a character that starts as a wisp of personality and gets made concrete with stats, or when using the prompt of randomly rolled stats a character emerges. This article [5] explores these and more approaches to developing a character.

Lifepaths can be a great way to add depth to a character. Many systems build in Lifepaths: from Traveller to Cyperpunk and Burning Wheel. If your system didn’t build Lifepaths in for you, several supplements (like the Central Casting series) provide them as add-ons. Lifepaths can be good at guiding a character from stage to stage, helping ensure that you remember that your character evolved over time. Plus it answers quirky questions, like how many siblings you have, and what you did for fun as a kid.

Another handy way to handle character development is in a structured system. Fate 2.0 [6] guides characters through several phases; during each phase the character learns or improves skills and is marked by traits called Aspects. This was refined in Spirit of the Century, with each character going through two background phases and three rounds of starring and guest starring in pulp novels.

Get a Reading

A tarot spread can be a great tool for getting into a character’s head. Heather has a special spread [7] that she uses for characters, but I don’t have the skill to interpret Tarot cards well on my own.

I cheat and use free online tarot readings [8]. For minor NPCs, a quick “Past, Present, Future” spread can suggest twists and experiences that don’t fit the mold. For more significant characters, a Celtic Cross or Ten Card Spread quickly suggests a whole lifetime of events and attitudes. Similarly, a player who is looking for the shape of a character’s life can benefit from any of the spreads– from a nudge to a whole concept.

Characters and Culture

Simon invented a different way of using cards to generate interesting characters. By generating twelve rules or customs for a culture, you can get a handle on cultural expectations. Then you use his NPC generator [9] and develop a character embedded in and reacting to the culture. Mo provides a good example [10].

A nice side effect is that NPCs reflect the culture– even if they turn their back on it at every step, it’s conscious and they’ll be treated accordingly. This can really make a culture appear different and consistent, which I ordinarily find hard to manage without falling into stereotypes.

Borrow an Actor or Friend

A good picture is worth a thousand words. If you have a solid picture of the character in your mind, see if you can find a picture online or in a magazine to match. A good picture of the NPC can really help people visualize the character. You can even skip the picture if you’re group is good at remembering actors– mention that the princess looks like Nicole Kidman, or that the footman looks like Harrison Ford, and see how the players react. If you prefer less well known stars, character actors [11] might be right for you.

You can borrow personalities too– and it’s usually easy to conceal what you’re up to. Jot a note that the character is “like Ross” and you’ll have a nerdy wizard in no time. People that you know (but that your players don’t) can be a great guide to realistic actions for your NPC. If you want the players to love their boss and you have (or had) a good one, copy the best mannerisms and see if it the characters agree.

Other Tools

Heather has fun exercises and games [12] to slowly expand a character concept.

If you want to create several interlinked characters at once, Mo has a great relationship builder [13] that tangles everyone’s lives together. Perfect for a soap opera game or for a love interest in any story. Or fill out a 3x3x3 [14] and see what the character’s friends and foes say about them.

Fiction writing has a lot of great tips for making memorable characters. Give a character a habit– like snacking on gingersnap cookies– and make sure you use it when the players are around. Soon they’ll nickname him “gingersnap man”, and he’s ready to become a great recurring character.

Once you’ve come up with a great NPC, how do you make sure that you remember to bring them up? This handy guide for writing up NPCs [15] helps to make sure that the thought you’ve spent isn’t wasted.

Your Advice

The preceding advice and tools are only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure many of you have great ideas– how do you make your characters more complex, PC or NPC?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "You’re Deep as a Puddle: Making More Lively PCs and NPCs"

#1 Comment By Scarecrow On May 28, 2009 @ 5:22 am

The biggest hurdle I’ve come across with developing a third dimension to a character is “what’s the point?” – especially with D&D4.

I love D&D4, and I’ve heard many folk say that you don’t need rules for roleplaying, but D&D4 rewards you primarily for killing things and – to a lesser degree – for making successful skill checks. It doesn’t care about your character’s back story or personality. So why should the players?

I’m all for more rounded, more interesting characters but I think a game should reward players for it, simply to make it worth their while. There should be mechanical benefits not only for developing their characters but for also playing in character. This is something a lot of indie games do (and I’m thinking specifically of Mouse Guard) and some mainstream games (particularly D&D4) could learn from them.

#2 Comment By Rafe On May 28, 2009 @ 6:19 am

I agree with you, Scarecrow (I’m a Burning Wheel player and GM): The best systems are those which not only incorporate such background/personality efforts into the system, but also reward them for being played out and used.

That isn’t to say other games lacking those elements can’t have fully fleshed out characters but, again, I agree that there’s a lot of “Who cares? You’ve got the campaign idea and story arcs already. My background won’t have any relevant effect, so let’s just get started with the fun!” Hell, there have been times when I (and my players, in 4e) have done up backgrounds with hooks and such… and nothing. It never comes up. The only thing that matters is that you’re a Wizard, he’s a Fighter, she’s a Cleric and the other guy’s a Warlord. That’s where the onus is.

Creating complex characters and backgrounds can actually cause bitterness and resentment when such efforts go completely unheeded and the game progresses as though nothing had even been attempted, depending on the system being played and the person playing it.

#3 Comment By Nicholas On May 28, 2009 @ 7:15 am

You briefly mentioned writing a diary from the point of view of the character. This works out really well. I kept a journal through the eyes of my character and posted it online. The DM was interested to see how he interpreted events and the other players wanted to see how their characters looked to him.

While we’re heaping love on Burning Wheel, I have to join in and say that the lifepath system is a thing of beauty. It sometimes forces you to make hard choices but you come out at the end with a full, rich back story.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On May 28, 2009 @ 9:52 am

[16] – The point is to enjoy roleplaying. I often sing the virtues of indie games, but roleplaying a good conversation or discovering new things about your character is a great reward entirely unconnected to system.

[17] – I have lived the “bitterness and resentment” when I pour effort into a character that the GM then ignores. Even so, I got to know my character better and enjoyed roleplaying around the table from a more solid viewpoint. If everyone commits to interesting characters, you can create a different kind of fun (roleplaying) to enjoy.

[18] – I love writing about an event from the character’s point of view– it really highlights the absurd dangers characters face every week. While I kept a diary for an Amber game, my favorite entry was written by my bard Alanora after a near death experience with green slime.

#5 Comment By BryanB On May 28, 2009 @ 11:13 am

[19] – I want to second your thoughts about roleplaying awards or experiences being unconnected to system. Certainly, there are systems that are more “roleplaying friendly” than others, but mechanical limitations do not need to get in the way of a character having more depth than just the numbers on his player’s character sheet.

Even systems that are prone to being encounter based for combat experience can be enhanced with character depth and roleplaying opportunites.

There is very little difference in how I try to prepare NPCs and encourage PC depth, no matter what system I am working with. I like combat just as much as the next D&D player, but there is so much more to the game than that, if people want there to be.

#6 Comment By DarknessLord On May 28, 2009 @ 11:15 am

Aye, here’s to giving lots of love to Burning Wheel!
I personally can’t wait until the summer when I’ll have time to run both that and my current D&D 4e game.

But yeah, I really like the idea of PC to PC idle-not-important-to-the-plot-unless-the-GM-hears-and-uses-a-hook-in-there conversations, and while they are harder to start up from behind the screen, I might try to get a few going as a player in this D&D 3.5 game I’m gonna play in. I think it might help make my Paladin seem more sociable and can help on both sides of the equation with the problem with Paladins in 3.5. ^.^

#7 Comment By Rafe On May 28, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

[19]If everyone commits to interesting characters, you can create a different kind of fun (roleplaying) to enjoy.

That’s the key. By definition, a GM who ignores background, personality, goals, etc., is not committing to it, which is my point of contention with systems in/for which roleplaying/backstory/etc there is no mechanical or system-driven role.

I agree that doing the act for yourself and for its own sake does help, but again… if it isn’t being endorsed and encouraged by the other players and GM, it can be a lot of effort for no reward. I’m not talking about XP or other game rewards — I’m talking about the satisfaction of great interaction at the table, in character. You can’t roleplay in a vacuum and, when you do, it’s not much fun. 🙂

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 28, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

[20] – Yup. Thanks!

[21] – Cool! Hope you have several fun conversations.

[22] – It can fall through and often does when it’s not supported by the system or eager fellow players. Still, I remember roleplaying for many years before I encountered a system that rewarded it at all, and I still enjoy it even when we remove differential XP rewards for “best roleplaying” and the like.

#9 Comment By Nojo On May 28, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

Nice overview, and what a great set of links. I’ll be bookmarking this one.