Creative Differences

If the feeling isn't there, this is what you get.

Two weeks ago I posted a character background I’d written for a new D&D game I’m in (first session is today, there may be tweets later), and the GM asked me a question i’d never considered before. He wanted to use one of the characters I’d made up for a plot hook, and asked me how much I would allow him to expand on her in use. It took me a bit to answer him, and it’s worth talking about. As a GM, encouraging players to invent NPCs connected to their character is a great way to make them part of the setting, and adds some real depth. But when those NPCs come up in game, how far is the GM permitted to go? In what sense do those characters belong to the player, and how can you interpret them faithfully? Today I’ll talk about some of the challenges associated with that, and the best strategy I’ve come up with to do it well. 

If the feeling isn’t there, this is what you get.

There are lots of these characters in any given game. Old friends, family, commanding officers, teachers, et cetera. My players all fill out the 20 questions, which means that my current game has 21 of these characters (three per background, with seven players). You want these characters to come up in a gaming session, because they’re great for the setting and the game, a piece of a PC’s past brought to life, and a good roleplaying opportunity. The biggest problem with introducing them though, is that the player in question might say “They would never do that.” They don’t feel like the character is the character that they wrote in their background, for whatever reason. The reasons don’t matter so much here, the feeling is what’s important, because that’s what you’re trying to evoke. That feeling of familiarity, of what they were feeling when they wrote that character and how their character feels around the NPC. Because they wrote the character, the feeling is stronger, because they have a sense of ownership.

Normally when I talk about ownership I’d talk about stakes, which would make it an ethical issue, but there isn’t one here. NPCs are clearly the responsibility of the GM, and make decisions which, while sensitive to context, are essentially the GM’s. You’re not violating a player’s faith in the game just by failing to grab that feeling. Without that feeling, the NPC is just another name, and the kind of leverage they can exert is about the same as the faceless innkeeper or the stableboy. You don’t have an obligation to play the character faithfully, but you do have an incentive to do so. if you can hit that note you’ll increase their immersion and their investment in the game, and be able to motivate them in a really interesting way. But how do you do it?

First, accept that you’ll never get it exactly right. Never. If someone tells you that you did, accept the compliment, but it’s pretty rare in my experience. Be open about this, too. Tell your players that you’ll never get it exactly right, because you’re not in their head when they create the NPC. So don’t even commit to it. Instead, try and find the three core elements of the character. Maybe it’s an attitude, like cowardice or valour, or a value like family, or just an affectation, like a certain cane or hat. Get these from the player, because what matters is what they think the core elements are, not what you think. Here’s an example right from the site.

The character Ryan asked about was the Lady Ophelia Harkness, my character’s hostile NPC. Let’s take a look at her description.

“Three years ago, at a dinner party in Harkenwold, she offered Simon the hand of her daughter in marriage, hoping to strengthen ties with Fallcrest. He declined gracefully, but when his wedding to Lia was announced the next year, the Lady took offense. Not so much at his marriage, but at having her daughter (and her alliance)  declined because of “one of those filthy forest savages”, whose hunting steals food from the very mouths of human children. She has poisoned the ear of Baron Stockmer against him, and uses his Woodsinger name “Silvertongue” as an epithet.”

From that we can learn that she’s ambitious, because she has the ear of the Baron and seeks to make political alliances. She’s manipulative, wanting to use her daughter and Simon to reach her goals. We might also think of her as haughty, given the way she takes and reacts to offense. And she hates elves, especially the ones that live in the forest near her home. I picked these out, along with a commitment to the upper class, and these are the kinds of things I expect to encounter if I meet her in game. It’s a lot easier to hit three or four key points than nail a whole character.

Moreover, if you use the three points, then everyone wins. The player gets the character they were expecting, or at least a version of it that’s acceptable within their vision, and you get the fun of having them be able to interact with a character from their background.  What are some characters that you got right? How about wrong?


  • I tend to tell the players to not put too much flesh on their NPC creations before the game starts. This gives them the freedom to use the NPC in a way that they may never have considered when coming up with them, and gives me the chance to add some details of my own to the mix that won’t run too high a risk of upsetting the player involved.

    An example of this is the CP2020 life path. there are plenty of opportunities for friends, relatives and enemies to be created, and there should be a little meat on the bones of each of them. But any more than that and they stop being as useful after the initial bonus, say to a skill or getting a contact.

  • I try to avoid putting limits on players when it comes to backgrounds. I work with a lot of new players, so they’ve got enough to think about without worrying about when it’s too much. More importantly, the more they write about a character, the more I can learn about them. If one character has an extra paragraph, I can tell that NPC is really important to the player, or that they’re really interested in them. Adding more meat also helps me understand their vision of the character. Maybe there’s five key points, or seven. I’d rather know about them than not.

    Cyberpunk 2020 has an interesting way of doing it, but I’d want to take the characters from those lifepaths and use them beyond those bonuses, to develop their relationship with the PC. If they pick up Find a Sensei, sure they get a bonus to a martial arts skill, but I’d also want to understand how they relate to the sensei, to see if they’re useful for game. If the character is a dutiful student, having the sensei respectfully seek their help in a matter might be an interesting adventure hook. If they’re wild and resistant to discipline, then they might take the chance to help their sensei to show that their way is better, sometimes you need a loose cannon. I’m always hutning for new ways to motivate people, and the more a player tells me about an NPC, the more I learn about them and their character.

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