RPGaDay August 25

What makes for a good character?

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgGood characters need a few things. First, the player has to want to play it. Seems pretty obvious, but I’ve run games where a player ended up playing a class they weren’t fond of because the group needed it, and hated every minute. If the player isn’t excited about the character, they’ll never play the character to its potential. Second, the character should fit the setting and tone of your campaign. If I’m running a high-fantasy campaign in a Tolkienesque setting, maybe you need to wait to play your gritty samurai character. Or give me a pretty fantastic reason why your special snowflake fits in after all. Without that, I’ll either have to come up with some justification for the samurai’s existence when there is nothing inherent to the setting to support that type of character, or we’ll have to just ignore the fact that the character is a samurai (and then what’s the point of playing one?). The same thing would apply to building an obvious comedic character when the campaign’s tone is super-gritty and dark, or vice versa. You should get a sense of both the tone and the setting during the pre-campaign discussion with the group. Don’t do one of those? Great time to start then, because it saves so many headaches down the road.

One thing I don’t think you need for a good character is party balance. Opinions may differ, but as a GM I don’t need my players to check off the fighter-rogue-mage-cleric checklist during character creation. I am entirely comfortable with an “off balance” party. No one wants to play a cleric or spellcaster? No problem. No front-line fighters? Great! I’m happy to make some adjustments to accommodate, emphasis on “some”. I’ve found it interesting to see how an asymmetrical party handles encounters designed for a balanced group. Some of the most imaginative player solutions come from that, I’ve found.

RPGaDay August 19

Best way to learn a new game?

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgI don’t know if it’s the best way, but it works for me. After I’ve skimmed the rule book to get an idea of the mechanics and setting feel, I roll up a character. I don’t worry about min-maxing or making the “best” character for the game. Instead, I focus on making the character I want and I see how much the system “fights” me. If I’m getting a lot of push-back from the game, I look at why. Is the game not what I thought it was? Am I missing some aspect of the system? Is it just a clunky system? If I’m not getting any push-back, I also look at why, because maybe I’m still not getting some aspect of the game.

I’ll make a few characters of different types, just to get a feel for the different aspects of the game’s mechanics and setting. Taking D&D 5e as an example, I rolled up one character for every class and tried to keep an even spread of the races throughout. Each class’s abilities make you focus on different aspects of the rules, and gives a good basic grounding in the game.

There are also two benefits to this from a game master perspective. One, I can see what each class is going to be focused on in-game, what that class will want from the world around them at least in general terms. That can help me figure out what will entice/repulse my players, since they picked that class for a reason. Two, I now have the bones of an NPC of each class, ready to be fleshed out and dropped into my game. Why yes, that stone did ricochet off that bird and hit another bird. Fancy that.

Plus, I really enjoy making characters. I remember sitting in my room when I first got a hold of the Star Trek RPG from Fasa, making character after character. I filled a binder with my starship crews, all ready to explore new worlds. When it came time to run the game, I amazed my players by having this fully realized crew for their ship.

What do you do to learn a new game? Drop it in the comments below.

For the Players: Five Ways Your Characters Know Each Other

At the start of every new campaign, players struggle to come up with interesting backgrounds for their characters. Most often their character is a lone wolf, who lived a varied and interesting life before meeting the other characters as a complete stranger. That is certainly fun, and the “band of strangers bonding through adversity” is a pretty standard trope in fantasy and sci-fi lore.

But what if your character wasn’t a stranger to everyone? Interesting background possibilities open up when you involve another character in your back-story. The most common method is to make your characters related, and I have had a lot of fun playing the sister/brother/parent of another character. It adds a great dynamic to your role-playing. But sometimes the familial relation can be over-used by players, to the point where you might wonder if adventurers all come from the same extended family.

Luckily, there are myriad ways for characters to have known each other before the first adventure. All it takes is a little imagination and a willingness on the part of both players to use that common background. That last is important, because none of these backgrounds will work without the participation of both players. Though I’ve written five, really there are ten backgrounds here, because you could play either of the roles in each example. Feel free to use these backgrounds as written, tweak them to fit your campaign, or use them as inspiration for your own shared character background.

1) Your character’s family worked as servants for another character’s noble/wealthy family. You had no intention of becoming an adventurer, but when the noble character left to start his/her new life, you were sent to take care of him/her. Like it or not, you are stuck travelling with and protecting this adventuring scion, or your family may suffer for your failure.

2) Your characters served together as lay members of a church, before you lost your faith. When you were devoted you were close friends, but harsh words were spoken when you left and you’ve carried that with you. Now that adventuring has brought you back in contact, can you find a way to work together? And is there a chance you could be friends again?

3) You are a wanted person, a fugitive on the run from your home town. You’ve managed to stay ahead of the law by taking up the adventuring life in a foreign land. Much to your chagrin, one of the other characters is also from your home town. You’ve changed, but it’s only a matter of time before he/she recognizes you. Will he/she betray you? Or will you deal with the situation pre-emptively?

4) You served faithfully in the town guard for years. Until, that is, you were investigated and wrongly accused of abusing your position. You avoided going to jail, but your name was ruined and with few options you were forced into the mercenary life. Looking around the table at your new band of adventurer’s you see a familiar face: the investigator who ruined your life.

5) An orphan, your character grew up on the streets. He might not have survived except for the friendship of one of the other characters, a fellow orphan. Inseparable growing up, you were lucky enough to be plucked from the streets and given a life. Maybe you were taken in by the church, maybe you apprenticed with a prosperous merchant. Regardless, you haven’t seen your friend since you were pulled apart. Until, that is, you answered a call for adventurers and saw him/her at the table.

Do you have an interesting shared character background idea? Share it in the comments!

When a Game Master Gets Lost

It can happen to any Game Master.  There you are, mid-campaign.  In an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it is only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

But it’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people and events important to their characters.  They are providing you with the bones of people, places and situations that you can then build into encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn*  Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring about an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television, make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and remember my advice.  You can get untangled.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’ve got a place for those…