Dec 21

Tabletop RPGs: Writing Characters for Character-Provided Events


You want to craft a set of characters that the players care about, are
interested in, and can quickly step into. You also want characters that
interesting things can happen to. Here are my goals when creating a set
of PCs for a character-provided event.

  1. Interesting. The PCs should be interesting. It should
    be clear from the sheet what they are like, and what makes them unique.
    They should have enough familiar elements that people can identify with
    them, which enough new stuff to stir the players up.
  2. Capable. The PCs should be useful during the
    scenario. 80-90% of their skills, spells and equipment should have the
    opportunity to be useful during play. Their classes and races should
    not hamper play unless you specifically design an encounter to engender
    Role-Playing around this issue.
  3. Playable. Characters who are “quiet”, “shy”,
    “submissive”, “not much for talking”, or so on are very difficult to
    play. Again, I’ve seen world-class Role-Players?
    do wonders with such PCs, but in general, you want each PC to be able
    to verbally contribute to play. You also want a well-enough defined
    personality that the player has something to work with, but not such a
    weird or hard to understand personality that the player is at a loss on
    how to play them.
  4. Connected. The PCs should have a connection to their
    environment (such as the campaign setting) and to each other.
    Off-camera dependents, relationships, businesses, and other
    responsibilities are a good way of connecting the PC with their world.
  5. Complete. The PCs should have backgrounds, histories,
    recent event summaries, personalties, and opinions of other PCs, as
    well as full stats, equipment, spell lists, etc..
  6. Accurate. Try and eliminate all rules errors prior to
    play. Find your friend the rules weenie, and have him look over the
    stats. Most importantly, make sure that all the prose is accurate –
    accidentally leaving the “and this PC will get mind-controlled later”
    note on the character sheet is a big oops.
The Process

Here is the process that I typically use when developing a set of PCs.

This isn’t a set-in-stone process, but these are the general steps.
They don’t always go in this order, either. Sometimes figuring out one
step congeals enough things to fill out all the info for another step.

  1. The kernel. Often, this is a theme. Such as they party are all :
    • Members of a family
    • From barbarian tribes
    • Spies
    • People who once had a part of Vecna grafted to them
    • Baby red dragons, raised to be good
    • Students in a wizard/cleric school
    • People who lost prized magic items to Disenchanters
    • Survivors of Orc raids
    • About to achieve a prestige class
    • Fallen paladins
    • Pirates
    • Were all in love with one of the other party members who is now a vampiress
  2. The recent past. Where are these people at in their lives? What has happened to them recently that shaped them?
    • This is where you tie into the plot of your scenario
    • Environmental events (earthquakes, rain, purple skies, third moon appears)
    • Changes in relationships (marriage, divorce, new love, new resentment)
    • Political events (Struggles for thrones, wars, border tension)
    • Local mood (racial tension, worries about crops)
  3. Why are they together? What has brought, and
    keeps this set of characters together? Why, despite personal
    differences and individual agendas, are they loyal to the group?

    • An old adventuring group
    • Forced to work together by a government group (weak, avoid)
    • Someone saved someone’s life
    • Have a secret that keeps them here (secret relationship, need, etc.)
    • Parents told them to protect each other
    • Good friends all exiled at the same time
    • Childhood friends
    • Family
  4. Gender Balance. How do we make a group of 3
    females and 3 males? (We typically use this balance, along with an
    extra male PC that isn’t present in all the rounds, but your mileage
    may vary).
  5. Race/Class Balance. What type of races/classes would
    we like to see? How can we make a balanced group that will be useful in
    the environment they are in (or will be in)?
  6. Relationships. How does every character feel about
    every other character, the world, and their situation? I usually use a
    bubble diagram, with a bubble for each PC, each major existing NPC, and
    other important nodes, and then draw relationship lines between all the
    bubbles, labeled with a description of the relationship. See this blank character relationship diagram.

    • Parent/Child
    • Husband/Wife
    • Life Debt
    • Love
    • Hatred
    • Resentment
    • Jealousy
    • Admiration
    • Respect
    • Loyalty
    • Luke, I’m your father
  7. Secrets. Each PC needs at least one secret
    that will probably be revealed during the course of the adventure.
    Nothing in my experience as consistently engenders great role-playing
    moments as when an in-game situation forces the revelation of a secret.

    • Relationships
    • Businesses
    • Past deeds
    • Current deeds
    • Disease (lycanthropy, etc.)
    • Love
    • Hate
    • Dreams
    • Phobias
    • Current/Past lies
    • Equipment
    • Motivations (secretly looking for the Eye of Ra while party is looking for food)
  8. Something Unique. Each PC needs to have
    something about them that is unique. This may have gotten covered
    above, check it now. Would you want to play each of these PCs?
    Equipment can count for this, but should rarely be the only unique
    thing for a PC. More like personality, class, relationships, secrets,
  9. Tournament Balance. Is each of these PCs equally
    playable? Is there one that is clearly “better” than the rest? You are
    trying to look for “quiet” characters, or characters that “always do
    what the leader says”. You need to make each character equally strong,
    so that people don’t feel that one (or more) of the PCs is the “winning
    PC” that they “have to play”. In our experience, truly great players
    can make the most of any PC, but effort spent on this step will save
    you complaints from players later.
  10. “Can’t we all get along?” Often, I see parties that
    are made up of PCs that all hate each other’s guts. The truth is,
    unless you have a massive plot hook, why would anyone put their life on
    the line for a bunch of people they hate? You need to make sure that
    each PC has a reason to be there, and if they are unlikable, that there
    is a compelling reason for them to be there. You covered this in step 3
    – check it again.
  11. Cliche/Stereotype Check. Make sure that your PCs
    aren’t overly cliche, stereotyped, been-there-done-that. If they are,
    find some way to tweak them a bit to make them more interesting.
  12. Connectedness Check. Are each of the PCs connected to
    the world, the story as you know it, each other, and to themselves? You
    need to make sure that the PCs aren’t on the periphery of the story
    – they need to be in the thick of things.
  13. Detailed Personality. Write the detailed personality
    for each PC. You need 3-4 major personality traits that people can take
    advantage of during the course of the scenario. “Easily distracted by
    green books” is not a good personality trait if there are no green
    books in the scenario. You need 3-4 so that people can pick an aspect
    of the PC to make their own. One master trait is important, when you
    are writing the opinions of others about each PC, you don’t want things
    to be all over the map.
  14. Stats. Write up the character stats at this point,
    including a first pass at equipment. I highly recommend using PCGen or
    something equivalent – it saves oodles of time and errors.
  15. Usefulness Check. Is everything about the PC going to
    be useful during the course of the scenario? Did you give them a bunch
    of stuff they won’t use? Make sure that each PC has useful skills,
    abilities, languages, equipment, spells, traits, weapons, etc..
  16. Recent events. Write up a first pass at recent events that the PCs have experienced.
  17. Opinions of other PCs. Write up what each PC thinks about each other PC. Keep it simple at this point. Later passes will add more detail.
  18. Playtest. If you can, now is the time to playtest. If
    you don’t have that luxury, I suggest you at least have someone else
    look them over at this point.
  19. Do it all again. At this point, you make successive
    passes at the PCs, refining things. You should also be writing the
    scenario by now, so you might need to adjust the PCs to better fit the
    scenario. Did you write in a pit trap? Do the PCs have rope? Do you
    want them to? The hardest thing to keep correct is relationship stuff –
    if you make a little change, you need to check all 36 entries for how
    PCs feel about each other to make sure nothing else needs to be
Dec 21

Tabletop RPGs: Plotting a Character-Provided Event

  1. What would be interesting for the PCs to do? What
    situations do you want to see them in? Is there some type of encounter
    that one or more of the PCs would excel in, or have interesting
    difficulty with? Is there a particular type of encounter you are
    craving? Make a list of the “coolest” encounters you can think of.
  2. Climax. What will be the climax of this event? Will
    it be a battle, a revelation, a confrontation, a
    sneak-in-and-blow-it-up, or what? Think about how to incorporate the
    PCs into a scene like this – what elements can you include that the PCs
    will be able to use their special abilities with, activate their
    phobias, etc.? Describe the climax.
  3. Introduction. Where are the PCs when this all starts?
    I believe that the first encounter should give the PCs a bit of time to
    role-play, but should also give them plenty to talk about. If the
    introduction is a major event, then they can talk about it. Sometimes
    starting with a battle is good, sometimes starting with a chase it
    good. Just saying “you are all in a room – go!” is not good. The PCs
    need events to discuss.
  4. Event Filtering. Now you have the Beginning, End, and
    a bunch of possibilities for the middle. Based on your first and last
    encounters, pick your favorites from the first step. For a 4-hour slot,
    you need 3 hours and a little material. This usually works out to 6-10
    encounters. It’s a good idea to have a balance of trick/trap
    encounters, negotiation encounters, combat encounters, and
    investigation. You also need some down time for the PCs to chit-chat.
    Add a few, and remove a few to get to a good number.
  5. Event Chain. Chain the Events you picked into a
    logical order. If the event is non-linear, that is, the PCs could play
    the events in any order, then put the parallel ones at the same level
    in the chain.
  6. Pacing. Think about the pacing of the event. If you
    start out with a battle, do you immediately crash into another? Do you
    need some downtime in between? The main thing is to keep people
    interested. Too much downtime is worse than none. Look at rearranging
    things to keep the players interested.
  7. Plot check. Look at your overall plot. Do the
    encounters you have fit the plot? Can they be made to? Each encounter
    in a convention scenario should advance the plot or be a major piece of
    character development.
  8. Something cool for each PC. Does each PC have
    something cool that they can do during the course of this adventure?
    Make sure they do! You may have to adjust the encounters, or the PCs.
  9. Connections. Time to link each encounter to the next.
    Look at the entry and exit of each encounter and make sure that it is
    clear how each encounter feeds into the next.
  10. Encounter Level. Make sure that each encounter is of
    appropriate challenge to the PCs. You need to look at the “relative
    encounter level” as well as if the PCs have just come from a big battle
    that is at or above their ability, a relatively weak encounter may be a
    lot more of a challenge – sometimes this can be fun. After getting
    their butts kicked by the trolls, the kobolds seem like a lot more of a
  11. Add another Layer. Take a look at each encounter, and
    see what you can do to add another layer of interest to it. For
    example, if it is a combat encounter, how can you tweak the environment
    to affect the combat (multiple height levels, cover, mist, storm, etc.)
    You can often make an encounter a lot more interesting just by mixing
    up the “standard” stuff a little. (Thanks to Todd Landrum for
    inspiration on this step).
  12. Playtest. If you can. If not, have at least one other person try and make sense of what you have.
  13. Refine. Go back through and tweak everything. Often, I
    have to edit out encounters, reduce the number of monsters in an
    encounter, add more clues to connect encounters, etc.