I recently wrote about connecting your character to the world, and muttered at the end that I'd like to see if I could get my friends to do guest posts. Two of them were very pleased to - here's the first, from someone who more often GM's for me than plays, and he's written from that point of view: making NPC's real. (I didn't play in his GURPS game, but know Noleski and Sam Spade from Pathfinder, and Alastair from Aberrant. Once you've read what he has to say about Alastair, I'd love you to read this post here, because it talks about how I dealt with the emotions a scene he mentions conjured up).
Over to Rich!
Characters… Christ, where do you start?
From a Storyteller/DM/GM/Ref point of view what can start as a gimmick, has frequently, developed into a staple character of the story. Anyone who has run a game, they have certainly been in the moment where you are put on the spot, the players look at you for what’s next and… the character has a lisp, they’re 5’4”, dresses colourfully, and has eyes that take in too much, a smile never moves past their mouth… Oh you want to know what they’re about… Ermm they’re a warlock, down on their luck and are one disaster from homelessness. From that you know they owe all sorts of cash to all the wrong types of people. So, they’re desperate, hey they just might be willing to help the players out… as for what they want in return depends on who they are… Are they smart, devious, manipulative, straightforward, blunt, several bulbs short of a full metric Blackpool Illumination? Are you starting to see the problem?
Where do you start?
There’s a few characters in my games that have stuck out to me, likely for entirely different reasons than they might for the players. (or one hopes they do anyway)
GURPS, it was my first game, and the short campaign (technically my second campaign using the system), was a pretty big deal for me in formulating how I’d run games in future. The premise of the game was a couple of people were hired by a Ford exec to drive one of the first four door model T Fords to California. The car, however was sentient, and a magnet for the supernatural… From dragging the group into a hair-raising adventure in a town dragged into hell for all of a day, culminating in a rather civilised cup of tea with a demon… Anyway, this was years ago, point was they didn’t find out the car was supernatural, or the reason they were kept alive through a series of convenient happenstances. Point is, my feeling over the game has informed how I tell a story; I like to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that the players only realise was a trail when they look back on it.
Pathfinder. There’s a couple of characters here that really stand out to me. As a “brief” bit of background, the campaign began as the Kingmaker adventure path which was quickly discarded in favour of my own spin on Golarion and its goings on. The advantage of an established world is that you have less work to do, and for a dungeon master with enough to do as it is, having a list of already created characters is a godsend. Noleski Surtova, Regent of New Stetven, was originally written as a cruel and hard person. When I approached the campaign, I knew I wanted him to be present in the story, so I deconstructed the character and started from the ground up. His childhood teacher, Sylvester Malliard, who is an old Wizard who seemed ancient in even his childhood and served as the previous king’s teacher. Then I moved on to how he became regent, the previous king and childhood friend, disappeared mysteriously (still not unveiled in the story, so… as I’m writing this for one of my player’s blogs… You’ll appreciate my reticence) naturally this disappearance tears him apart. Then how does he feel about the Stolen Lands? Noleski sees himself as a caretaker for Brevoy, and her people, therefore reclaiming it from bandits was an exercise in bringing strength to the country in a time of depression. He also is an aging man, old for a bachelor ruler, and his sister (who was supposed to be a Machiavellian manipulator) had attempted to set him up with other prominent members of the court. How does this inform his character? My conclusion was that he was married to his country, to his job, he hadn’t even considered taking the throne until the Stolen Lands had been reclaimed. Those were my thoughts going in. So, who is Noleski? He’s someone that has been influenced by his teacher to show kindness and wisdom in dealing with his people, though he won’t hesitate to make the “right” decision, even if it seems harsh. He knows how to get the most out of people, and will delegate when necessary, and is not afraid of picking up the sword when necessary. That should be enough to work with, right? Yes, and no. Progression makes up everything else. Whether it’s a marriage to one of the players, or the occasional letter, reminding the players of their obligation as rulers of a vassal state.
In truth, many of Noleski’s traits were designed to make him a useful ally to the players… Though with limits…
Sam Spade, yes, I probably stole the name somewhere, don’t look at me like that. He started out as a gag character to help the players in an investigation when they hit a wall. Sam Spade is a gumshoe, he talks the walk, and walks the talk. When Sam is around, the world is Noir, fading to greyscale. The music is audible, the players and other NPCs around appear in appropriate attire, think those silly long cigarettes and fedoras. Sam is bound to a sentient artefact detective agency that appears “when it is needed”, and he is dragged with it when he is done. Oh, and he narrates everything. So yes, it’s another trope, but the character who has a comical overlay, the somewhat darker side of the coin is the few hints I’ve dropped, hinting that his bound status is less than voluntary. He largely speaks for himself, and everyone else.
Annnnd now for the hard part… Alastair Benedict St John. He’s one of the NPCs from my Aberrant campaign. So, Alastair is the product of two NPCs, the enigmatic Benedict, and the equally mysterious Jennifer St John. He’s a Nova, and for those in the know, a second-generation Nova. His childhood was… brief, due to his nature, both full mental and physical development took a matter of a year or so. Through various circumstances, Benedict died in the line of duty, which prompted Alastair to start considering revealing himself to the world, which would have meant subjecting himself and the team that had been built up over years of effort to extreme danger… I should probably elaborate, in my version of the Aberrant world Novas (evolved humans with super powers, about 6000~ worldwide) the relationship between baselines (humans) and Novas is strained at best. However, with Benedict’s death it meant the shadowy organisation, think of a mix between the X-Men and James Bond, operating under London had suddenly lost much of its protection. This means that the organisation, the Nova Initiative, was very vulnerable, which lead to the kidnapping of one Jennifer St John when things started going wrong. I won’t go into the circumstances, they’re largely irrelevant, times were indeed dire. At his lowest point, when the character was having a crisis of faith and near giving up, the players who had never given up hope that Benedict was indeed alive, (and were very vocal about it in his presence) he stated, “If he’s alive, then where is he?”
It was a protest, imagine if you had mere years to get to know your father, had to deal with the grief of losing them too soon, imagine if you had such a huge burden of responsibility placed upon you (Benedict was a pretty big deal). Imagine the world you’re fighting to protect is resisting your every attempt to help, now imagine two trusted friends fighting the reality you were desperately grappling with. How would that make you feel? Angry? Hurt? Yeah, probably. If you want connections to a world, there you go.
In summary, characters aren’t just a mask you put on for a couple of hours. They’re people, they have lives, they have families and they’re usually complicated, what family isn’t? (for god’s sake don’t do the whole, “I’m an orphan” thing, it’s grossly overdone) I suppose it’s the same with any form of storytelling, for a few hours as a DM you present your players a window to another world. That world has its own history which shapes it and the characters in it, like Noleski. That world has mysteries all over it for players to find, like ol’ Sam. That world has a part of you, which makes it sometimes a little scary. Truth is, of all the characters I’ve written, Alastair has the biggest part of me in him. I’ve felt the loss and frustrations he has. Ok, sure, it’s acting… or drawing on personal experience, you write what you know, all that sort of thing. Ultimately, I don’t think where you start is terribly important, you can write their history to inform the character or have the character inform their history, but humans are the sum of their parts… Take that how you will.
For me it boils down to this, if you can know the shape of your story and commit to it, let the character guide your choices, rather than you guide theirs… Then your character is in the world, rather than just your puppet.