Role playing games, properly understood, are not stories. They are imaginary events resolved by game mechanics which stories emerge from afterward. However, role playing games have a lot in common with stories. One of the most obvious commonalities is characters. I’ve talked a little bit about player characters here on the blog before but I want to talk bit about how I build non-player characters (NPC’s) and why they are critical to a great game.
I mentioned yesterday that I have been studying some screen writing resources for techniques that apply to RPG’s. One of these is a book by script doctor Karl Iglesias. His book, Writing for Emotional Impact really has me thinking about how I approach game mastering and has, sadly, reinforced my belief that most RPG adventure writing is terrible. In the following quote, he is talking about how to build characters before you actually start writing a screenplay.
One of the leading models for character development is what we could call “The Frankenstein Method,” which relies on stiching together various answers from character charts. Under this method, you sit down with a chart and fill in the blanks in the physical, sociological, and psychological sections. How old is the character? How tall? What’s his occupation? What are his likes and dislikes? Name, check. Birthplace, check. Hobbies, check.“
Kind of sounds like a generating a character, be it a PC or NPC, at the beginning of a campaign, right?
He goes on to reccommend that a screen writer ask five key questions about their characters. I’ve made the last one optional and converted them from their screen writing context to how we might think about an important NPC in our campaign. I’ll go deeper in subsequent posts. For now here is a summary. These apply to both friends and foes of your player characters.
- Who is this NPC?
- Class/Archetype and Power Level Relative to PC’s
- Traits: Appearance, speach patterns, emotional state
- Values: Point of view, attitudes, what they value, what they hate
- Flaws: negative traits, fears, resentments, lack of objectivity, wounds
- What does he want? The NPC has to want something.
- Why does he want it? What’s his motivation? Your players will certainly speculate about this to no end, especially if you are playing an investigative type of game.
- What happens if he fails? You need to know what are the stakes. The farm? The village? The kingdom? The world?
- How does he change? Optional In a film, most protagonists change in some way from the beginning to the end of the film. Your NPC may not change in any significant way from the beginning of the adventure/campaign until the end. They might and that should be considered.