Character creation (part two)

30 10 2009

Characters are people really

OK, so characters aren’t really people, but for your players to truly enjoy your adventure, they have to believe they are.

It’s a balancing act. If the person is too ‘normal’ they become boring – too outlandish and they become a cartoon character.

Too stereotyped and they are hackneyed – too individual and they can’t be related to.

Too rounded and their flaws stop any empathy – too good (or bad) and they become one-dimensional.

The best characters are ones that you know intimately – even if you only ever reveal a small percentage of that background to the players. You should know what newspapers they read, what drink they would order at the bar and whom their first kiss was with.


If you never use this information you could argue it is irrelevant. There are two popular counter-arguments to this:

1.  Using the character becomes automatic

The wealth of background data helps to form a more complete character in your mind. All actions that you have the character do are mentally checked against their background – thus making them more consistent and well-rounded.

2.  Your plot lines develop

Having this background data will help your adventure. Once you’ve done extensive research, you’ll have a lot of extra information that you can throw in to make the character more believable.

Ways to develop your understanding of the character

There are many options. I would always recommend first creating a character sheet (see previous blog entry). This starts to get you into the head of the character.

a. Interview the character

A popular way to develop understanding is to pick up a magazine that contains interviews. ‘Ask’ your character the questions and see what responses you get. Sometimes you get information that didn’t occur to you when you completed the character sheet. The best questions are of the ‘what if’ type.

  • What if your character found a wallet in the street?
  • What would they do with it?
  • What if your character found out their best friend was having an affair?

b. Diarise

Some writers keep a fictitious diary for their main characters and use this to flesh out the plain facts from the character sheet into a personality. If you’ve had a good day, make the diary entry light. If it’s a bad day, how has your character reacted to a miserable time?

Use your own mood to help you work it out.

Characters aren’t just a checklist

The checklists and exercises outlined are the starting point of creating a character. Just rolling some dice only starts to create a character, it can take a while to truly flesh out a set of statistics into a living ands breathing Hero.

That’s why character creation shouldn’t be rushed.

Characterisation can be a real challenge for the new adventure writer. When you do it right, you can almost enter into a discussion with the PCs and not have to attribute the speaker – so obvious will it be to the players. It’s fair to devote more time to the major characters but overlook the lesser characters with caution.

Similarly, don’t invest a lot of time working on an NPCs background only to have them interact once and you never see them again. Players don’t want to invest time in characters that are expendable. They’ll feel cheated.

The variation to this rule is the NPC that is mentioned throughout – or casts a shadow over the adventure – but rarely appears. This character should be well-developed. Sometimes the less the player knows about them, the greater the mystery. That’s your judgement call. But don’t forget – you should know everything about them.

Unlike a novel, where the reader can only follow what’s written, PCs can start asking questions you never expected them to think of.

Next time I’ll talk about the pitfalls of stereotypes.


Character creation (part one)

29 10 2009


This is not a blog extolling the virtues of character backgrounds.  Rather, it links from the series on plotting and identifies what a serious adventure writer can (and probably should) consider when creating NPCs.  Most if this applies to novelists, but I have adapted the teachings for the role-playing writer. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the advice could equally apply to a player that wants to really create an in-depth character.

Character worksheets

A common approach by writers to creating characters is to start with some sort of a worksheet.

Broadly speaking it is a sheet of statements or questions that relate to a character’s physical and emotional state – and a lot more besides.

Character sheets are a basic tool. The more detailed the character sheet is, the better your character will become.

Why a character worksheet is necessary

Many fledgling writers create a simple character sheet – or worse a few lines of basic information – and then dive into the writing process.

I’ll not pretend that this approach is guaranteed to do anything except fail.

Skilled writers may have the full character outlined in their head and feel no need to put it all on paper. The key is, whether it’s conscious or not, they know the answers to the questions most mortal writers put on their character sheets.

Knowing how many characters need a worksheet

How many characters need a worksheet? All of them in theory but in practice, as many as are considered integral to the plot.

If they make decisions in the story, their motives are important. Although not every character will require the same level of detail in terms of a worksheet, it is a good idea to have the basics for all key characters.

My opinion is that nobody every created a weak character because they filled in a worksheet. Many will have been created because the writer decided not to.

Completing the character worksheet

There is no consensus on what constitutes a standard character worksheet. I have compiled the following from adding a number together.

Many of the headings are self-explanatory and don’t need expanding on. Not every heading needs a response, but it’s better to have a good reason not to fill it in than ‘it seems like hard work.’

So, in addition to the stats every RPG game forces you to use to create an NPC or character, you should add:

a. Personal (physical) description

Have you ever considered:-

  • Birthdate – When is their birthday – and what is their star-sign?
  • Birthplace – Not just the country or even town, but also any other details that are relevant. Was there a comet at the moment of their birth?
  • Measurements – What is their body shape?
  • Hair/Face/Eyes/Scars
  • Carriage – How do they walk, carry themselves, sit etc.
  • Voice – Quality, speed, sound
  • Other physical features – This could be make-up or a tattoo for example

 b. Background data

  • Educational Background
  • Occupation/former occupation (they didn’t exit the womb as an adventurer after all)
  • Food/Drink Preferences
  • Car/Transport
  • Pets
  • Eccentricities
  • Clothes (type/style, fit, condition, colours)

c. Personality profile

  • Strong characteristics
  • Weak characteristics
  • Phobias
  • Self perception
  • Others’ perception
  • Ambition
  • Life philosophy
  • Major beliefs (and religious ones – not just the god they worship)
  • Hobbies
  • Kinds of reading material, art, music
  • Favourite colour
  • Description of current home life
  • Moral values/sexual beliefs and practices
  • How does he handle problems?

 d. Problems

  • How does this problem get worse?
  • How does this problem get resolved?
  • Most important thing to know about person?
  • Most important trait to know about person, and why?
  • Does character have a secret? What?
  • Previous relationships and effect on present
  • Synopsis about childhood

 e. Family History

Complete for each of Spouse/dependents/siblings/immediate family/best friend/key friends

  • Name
  • Relationship
  • Age
  • State of relationship
  • Occupation
  • Location
  • Effect on Plotline
  • Other details as necessary e.g. looks, education etc. If they are ‘that’ important, they should have their own worksheet

 f. Who, if anyone? (Events related to the character)

  • Has asked for help?
  • Is offering help?
  • Needs rescuing from trouble?
  • Is a victim of misfortune?
  • Is receiving good fortune?
  • Has been abducted?
  • Is returning home?
  • Is taking from the character?
  • Is giving to the character?
  • Hates the character?
  • Loves the character?
  • Is the character’s rival?
  • Is the character’s supporter?
  • Has a secret?
  • Has ambition?
  • Is successful?
  • Wants change?
  • Wants the status quo?

Next time I’ll cover how to flesh data into a real character.

Plotting adventures (part seven)

27 10 2009

Defining a plot device

 A plot device is something introduced to an adventure to affect or advance the plot.

It ought not to be recognisable to the players that it’s been introduced, it should just flow in with the story.

Its use is to move the plot along, or to introduce a plot element. Used wisely, a plot device will help with pacing.

Some popular plot devices

From various sources, I have pulled the following together:

  • Chase scene — a scene interjected between plot points that does not develop the plot, but serves to heighten tension in the conflict; in film, often used purely to display special effects.  It can really help pace.
  • Chekhov’s Gun — object introduced into a story but not used until much later.  When it’s used, players will say, ‘Oh, I remember that…’
  • Cliffhanger — abrupt ending presumably allowing the story to be continued in another adventure.  Used widely to bridge between adventures in a campaign.
  • Deathtrap — overly complicated method of killing a character, typically used by a villain.  Has some comic effect. 
  • Deus ex machina — strange or unusual means of resolving a story, such as having an event turn out to be a dream (rarely works well – avoid at all costs) 
  • Discovery — sudden realization of events or relations with other characters.  ‘Luke, I am your father.’ 
  • Eavesdropping — surreptitious listening to others’ conversations.  Every tavern has eavesdroppers. 
  • Exposition — explaining prior events that occurred in the story without having to role-play them.  Again, common in taverns. 
  • Fictional ‘fictional’ character — a fictional character known to be fictional by the characters in the story.
  • Flashing arrow — explicit and obvious reference to a person or object in a story.  You really are telegraphing this one to the players. 
  • Foreshadowing — giving subtle hints of events yet to come in the story (every adventure should have these).  
  • Frame story — a main story being told in the form of smaller stories.  This is in many ways what adventures and campaigns are.
  • Framing device — a single event or object having heightened significance.  Get the PCs attention. 
  • MacGuffin — a prime motivation for the characters that has little other relevance to the story.  The PCs are asked to fetch a scroll but it’s the fetching and returning of the scroll that’s important – not the scroll itself.
  • Mexican standoff — where two or more people are trapped in an impasse where neither can win.
  • Plot coupon — obvious object needed to resolve a conflict in a story.  Do the PCs need that emerald in order to…
  • Plot twist — an event which completely reverses the plot or story.
  • Predestination paradox — where someone travels back in time and could conceivably change history or their past (needs to be used sparingly – if ever)
  • Pyrrhic victory — where someone wins an outcome, but the result of the “win” is disastrous.  The PCs win the battle but lose the war.
  • Quest — complicated search for capture or return of an object or person.
  • Quibble — following the exact terms of an agreement to escape what would normally be expected.
  • Red herring — a person, event or object which deflects attention from the real thing.  Unlike a MacGuffin, this serves absolutely no useful purpose, other than throwing the PCs off the trail.  Read Sherlock Holmes and the pygmy/club-footed man for the use of a red-herring at its best.
  • Reversal — a change in the action or circumstances completely reversing them.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy — a prediction of a future event, where the prediction of the event causes the event. 
  • Sexual tension — where characters desire each other but either can’t fulfil their desires or they are delayed.
  • Side story — additional story taking place at the same time as the main story.
  • Story within a story — where one story is being told as part of a larger one.
  • Twist ending — unexpected conclusion to a story.

 More plot devices – learned from a master

 These are all courtesy of Agatha Christie and show how ingenious plot devices can be.  Of course they don’t have to be linked to murders, but her plot devices invariably were based upon them, so:

  • A character notices something odd, but cannot identify what it is (how long do the PCs take to puzzle it out?)
  • Attention is drawn to something that should be there and isn’t (I remember the Sherlock Holmes story where the dog didn’t bark).
  • The detective draws an inference from something overheard or unconnected (but goes down the wrong path or by chance down the right path).
  • The murder proves to be an opportunistic crime complicating a complex one (it was a burglary and the murder was to cover it up)
  • A significant item is hidden ‘in plain sight’ (the diamond is in the chandelier).
  • ‘No one ever notices the waiter’ (the lowly NPC is actually the main bad-guy).
  • Identities are concealed (the PCs don’t know whom is who).
  • A character who is considered unreliable or untrustworthy speaks the truth, but nobody listens to him or her (the NPC you set up as mad tells the truth but nobody listens).
  • The criminal is the one who calls in the detective (who would suspect him?).
  • The murderer appears to be the intended victim (by a stroke of luck they didn’t drink from the goblet but another NPC did).
  • The murderer appears to be an actual victim (in a string of murders).
  • The murderer is the hero or heroine of the story (the goody-goody NPC is actually the bad guy).
  • The murder has been committed by all of the suspects (Orient Express anyone?).
  • The murderer is a policeman (whoever suspects the forces of law and order?)
  • The murderer is the detective (who is called in to solve the crime).
  • The murderer is a child (or helpless person).
  • The conspirators in a murder appear to hate one another (always throws PCs off the scent).
  • The murders are unconnected (but the PCs look for the common thread).
  • The murder takes place after the corpse is discovered (body discovered ‘apparently dead,’ the alarm is raised, then the person is actually killed.  Instant alibi for the murderer).
  • The murderer is … exactly who it appears to be (PCs love to disprove an open and shut case).
  • The murder was a ‘dress rehearsal’ (when will the real murder take place?).


Plotting adventures (part six)

26 10 2009

pentagondiagramWhat are the basic plots in literature?

First of all, you have to know how many basic plots there are.

I’ve read enough books and Internet articles to know the answer to this one:

 It’s 1 or 3 or 7 or 7 different ones or 20 or 36.

Confused? I was. I list them all below but find that in many ways the definition is academic.

Use the suggestions below as that – suggestions. Don’t consider them defining works and don’t let them drive the plotting process.  Use each tip (or just pick the one you like best) to help you in your plotting process.  They give you a background to what constitutes a plot and may give you some ideas too.

Using the concept of 1 Plot

The single plot is…conflict.

Often described as:

“Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement”.

There is a conflict, there is some action rising to a climax. The conflict is resolved and we all calm down again.

Using 3 Plots

These have been defined as:

  • Happy ending – the PCs make a sacrifice for the sake of another
  • Unhappy ending – the PCs do the right thing and therefore choose not to make a sacrifice
  • Back to front – we start with the ending and work backwards and lament the path that fate has played on the PCs (doesn’t work for adventures unless you’re really creative)

 Using 7 Plots in your plotting process

a. Version One

These are:

  • [wo]man vs. nature
  • [wo]man vs. man
  • [wo]man vs. the environment
  • [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  • [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  • [wo]man vs. self
  • [wo]man vs. god/religion

 b. Version Two

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

 Using 20 Plots to aid the plotting process

There is also a suggestion that there are twenty basic plots:

  • Quest

The quest is the search for a person, place or thing. It is just as likely to be intangible. Whatever is found will change peoples’ lives. This is a character plot. The PCs change as a result of the quest.

  • Adventure

The adventure, in contrast, is an action plot.

  • Pursuit

The basic premise of the plot is simple: One person chases another. The chase is more important than the people who take part in it.

  • Rescue

The PCs must go out into the world, searching for someone or something, and often involving chases. It is usually a physical plot.

  • Escape

The escape plot is physical, and as such, concentrates its energy on the mechanics of capture and escape. Escape is literal.

  • Revenge

Here we have retaliation by the PCs against an NPC for real or imagined injury. The players must want to see the injustice corrected. And often simple retaliation is outside the law.

  • The Riddle

Riddles, puzzles and conundrums. The answer should have both surprise and cleverness. Many mystery style adventures fall into this category.

  • Rivalry

A rival is a person who competes for the same object or goal. Each has their own motivation. The possibilities are endless. Whenever two people compete for a common goal, you have rivalry.

  • Underdog

The underdog plot is a form of rivalry, but here the strengths aren’t equally matched. The PCs are at a disadvantage and are faced with overwhelming odds. This plot represents the ability of the one over the many, the weak over the powerful.

  • Temptation

The PCs are induced or persuaded to do something that is unwise, wrong or immoral.

  • Metamorphosis

Here we have a change that belies our usual laws. The change is abrupt and for the players unexpected.

  • Transformation

The plot of transformation deals with the process of change in the PCs as they journey through one of the many stages of life.

  • Maturation

This is about growing up – and is always optimistic. There are lessons to learn and the PCs become better characters for it.

  • Love

This is ‘Boy Meets girl, but…’ The story hinges on the ‘but.’

  • Forbidden Love

The power of love is enough to make some enter forbidden territory.

  • Sacrifice

Sacrifice comes at a great personal cost. Your PCs should undergo a major transformation.

  • Discovery

This is a character oriented plot. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?

  • Wretched Excess

We are fascinated with people who push the limits of acceptable behaviour regardless if it’s by choice or by accident.  The characters find themselves on the margins of society.

  • Ascension and Descension

This could be someone who falls from grace or someone who undergoes a rags-to-riches experience.

I actually like these ones best and use them to form my idea or provide sub-plots.

Using 36 Plots

These are similar to the ones above:

  • Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
  • Deliverance
  • Crime Pursued by Vengeance
  • Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  • Pursuit
  • Disaster
  • Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
  • Revolt
  • Daring Enterprise
  • Abduction
  • The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
  • Obtaining
  • Enmity of Kinsmen
  • Rivalry of Kinsmen
  • Murderous Adultery
  • Madness
  • Fatal Imprudence
  • Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
  • Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
  • Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
  • Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
  • All Sacrificed for Passion
  • Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
  • Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
  • Adultery
  • Crimes of Love
  • Discovery of the Dishonour of a Loved One
  • Obstacles to Love
  • An Enemy Loved
  • Ambition
  • Conflict with a God
  • Mistaken Jealousy
  • Erroneous Judgement
  • Remorse
  • Recovery of a Lost One
  • Loss of Loved Ones

Next time out I’ll conclude by talking about Plot Devices.

Plotting adventures (part five)

24 10 2009

A little known secret about plotting is the use of the MICE quotient

Understanding the MICE quotient

Many writers will tell you that all stories contain four key elements:

  1. Milieu
  2. Idea
  3. Character and
  4. Event

All should be present in an effective adventure, but most writers tend to focus on one to be predominant.

Sometimes the adventure writer has a favourite and will always allow it to dominate. In truth, the one that is most relevant to the story ought to lead the way.

Using milieu from the MICE quotient

This is just a fancy word for the world the story is set in. Some writers start an adventure just because they have created a city and want to set an adventure in it.

For others, the setting is key to the story. It may be the weather or the society.

Often the main NPC is secondary to the setting. Typically the setting in some way changes the characters and this is the growth and transformation that the adventure is about.

And don’t think this is an area exclusive to the landscape or creatures present in a science fiction or fantasy adventure. Class, religion or culture are equally appropriate subject matter for milieu led stories.

Using idea from the MICE quotient

Here the characters find out information that raises a question. Solving the question is the climax of the story.

Mystery or detective style adventures are typical idea stories. Finding out who committed the murder, or why, is the whole crux of the story.

A question is raised – the question is investigated – the question is answered.

Using character from the MICE quotient

Although all adventures have characters and most have a main NPC (the antagonist), the story is not about the characters as much as about them interacting with the world.

A character adventure is one where the transformation of the PCs is exactly what the adventure is about.

Action and adventure may go on, but the issue to be resolved is actually how the characters develop.  Do they change alignment or class or their beliefs?

 Using event from the MICE quotient

In an event story, something is fundamentally wrong with the world. This could be the arrival of a monster or a corrupt government.  A large proportion of simple adventures follow this route.

The solution is that the monster is killed or a new government is formed. The adventure does not have to begin with the monster arriving or the government being corrupt. Rather it starts when the PCs become involved with the event.  The rest is just back-story.

Typically the characters aren’t aware of the monster or corrupt government until they interact.

Some guidance in making your choice

1.  As a fledgling adventure writer, pick one and stick to it.

Trying to incorporate two or more main elements is going to end up messy.

Having said that, don’t forget that all stories carry an element of all four – but one is the driver.  You must make sure you are consistent.

2.  Follow the simple rules outlined above and make sure you deliver what you set out in the opening of the adventure.

You should ideally choose the one that’s most reflective of the story you want to tell. Again, by considering the simple explanations above, you should know which fits your idea best.

Next time out, I’ll cover all the plots you could possibly have for an adventure.

Plotting adventures (part four)

23 10 2009

If I could sum up structuring your plot in four steps, here is what they would be

Start with your main NPC

For some people, the idea for the adventure is all about a particular place, or perhaps an event – or even an ideal. When it comes to constructing a plot, you should start with your main NPC.

This character should be in conflict with someone or something (or both).

The end game

Most adventure writers now consider how the characters will overcome the NPC. This is typically how the adventure will end.

The road ahead

Next you should consider how soon the characters will be aware of the problem, how complex the journey to overcoming the issue will be and what clues you will plant to ensure that the resolution is credible.

Two plots

A lot of successful stories have two plots. This is not to be confused with a single plot that has two strands that meet up en route. That is still a single plot. A second plot is typically revealed after the first plot has been concluded and can, in fact, be considered the main plot.

Consider Luke in Episode IV. For most of the story the plot was to return R2D2 to the princess. Only when that was done was the true plot revealed – to destroy the Death Star.

Despite understanding the reasons for an outline, many adventure writers fail to understand how to create one

Why should you outline?

I appreciate that some writers can pen an adventure organically. Great for them. Most mere mortals need some help. Even if your adventure deviates from an original outline (mine always do) you have given yourself a framework to hang your story on. It allows you a rough route-map that you can keep adding detail to until you have a fully formed story.

Back to the main NPC

If you’ve never outlined before, the best place to start is with the main NPC. Write a paragraph explaining the overall story from their perspective.

Adding and adding

My advice is that you build up from your one paragraph to a full outline by a number of steps – rather than one jump.

Beginning, middle and end

Your outline can start with as few as three steps, but you may need a few more to convey all the key steps. Here I stick to what actually happens and what the plot point is about.

So, for example, the king dying is what happens. The prince’s life being thrown into turmoil is what we actually want to write about.

It’s a kind of cause and effect situation.


Next I develop the key steps into a series of encounters. I consider what needs to happen along the way, and add the key scenes in.

Final plot

Now you can develop each encounter into as many ‘scenes’ as necessary. You should detail what is going to happen in each scene and consider such things as:

  • Where is the scene taking place?
  • Who is present?
  • When is it taking place?
  • What is the setting for the scene?
  • What to do if the story refuses to follow the outline?

This last point is a common reason that writers don’t want to write an outline in the first place. Many are worried that it will force the adventure down a path that will be at odds with what flows organically when it is actually being written.

Some just use it as an excuse not to outline – as it seems like hard work. Take it from me – writing an outline will actually help the organic process. As you continue to flesh out your plot, inconsistencies will become more apparent.

Your brain will ask, ‘but why would he go there?’ long before you hit that spot when writing. Better still, you can spot these problems better when looking down holistically rather than when you are in the flow of writing.

Having said all of that, there will be times when the story goes off in a direction that your outline didn’t account for. What should you do? Go with the flow is my response. Change the outline to reflect where your writing is taking you. But make sure you make the changes to the outline. That way, you can be sure you smooth out all of the logical problems that ensure you end up where you need to be in the end.

One of the main reasons adventure writers fail to turn an idea into a story is that they don’t know how to manage the intermediate step – how to plot

Inorganic development

Most writers will tell you that the hard part is coming up with the idea. If you have the idea, turning this into a plot and then a story ought to be a piece of cake. Except that isn’t always the case. Some people are great with ideas but can’t translate that into the cake. If that’s you, then this section will help because, like any cake, it can be made with a basic recipe.

The recipe

Take your idea and turn it into a one- sentence (or at most two) summary of the story. If you can’t, the idea isn’t yet fully formulated in your mind and I would review the idea until you can turn it into a one-liner.

Now expand your one-liner into a paragraph. Cover the truly key points in the story. Now you have a plot. You now have a simple cake.

How to add the icing to the cake

Give half a dozen cooks the same recipe and the likelihood is they’ll come up with six different tasting cakes. There is an art to following even simple recipes. Regardless of that, the cake isn’t complete until you’ve given it some flavour, perhaps some icing or even a cherry on the top. This is where the writers’ art comes in. An outline can only do so much. Without decent characters, puzzles, setting etc. you will have a very boring cake.

Next time, I’ll take about MICE…

PbP – an update

22 10 2009

As something of an interlude between writing about adventure plotting, I thought I’d give an update on my Play By Post exploits.

I’m involved with three games – all through the Paizo boards.

In the first I joined, I got to roll my own character and I’m playing in the Council of Thieves campaign.  I’m a rogue (and a wannabe assassin) and the game is going well.  The pace of the action means I get to post most days and I feel I’m getting into my character.

In the second, I picked up a character that the player stopped running.  It feels a little awkward being the newbie and playing someone I didn’t create.  The GM said I can change when the time is right, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.  Should I abandon a character that’s been in the campaign (Shackled City) since the outset just because I’m inflexible?

In the third, I’m running Rise of the Runelords as a GM.  I actually enjoy this the most – putting together maps and the like and the pace is brisk.  It’s overtaken the first game in terms of the number of posts and it’s over a week younger.

Overall I’m enjoying my PbP experience – and lets see how I fare after I experience players not participating or dropping out altogether.