Six Ways To Crank A Character Up To 11

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0621

Six Ways To Crank A Character Up To 11

RPT Reader Fitz asked for tips on making PCs great:

I’m struggling a bit with my player character. Would love a bit of guidance on how to take a boring or underwhelming PC and turn it up to eleven, as Spinal Tap would say.

Here are six ideas on hitting that 11. You can coach your players on these, or you can nab them for use on your NPCs.

Give Your PC A Personality Trigger

When I first started GMing, my players would stock their PCs to the gills with various tools and items. They’d spend all but their last gold piece, which was saved for one night at the inn when the game started, to pick up hooks.

They’d buy chalk to stop from getting lost in dungeons. They’d purchase marbles to make footing difficult for foes. They’d get fishing line and lures so they wouldn’t starve. All this important stuff that then never got used in the campaign. Because when kobolds and skeletons are making eraser holes in the hit points spot on your character sheet, you’re not thinking about going fishing. Well, maybe you are. But by then it’s too late.

And like others, they’d also buy 10 foot poles. The poles were never used and never remembered, even while turning corners.

As with all this first level equipment, character qualities often get forgotten too.

It’s sometimes not enough to have an interesting quality rolled up or assigned during char gen. You’ve got to put it into play often. That’s one way to get +1 crank.

And here’s a simple system to do that.

Make a list of special qualities PCs have.

Personality traits, feats, abilities, powers.

And don’t forget those ability scores. Note those low scores and high ones.

Beside each, think up an anecdote.

Some interesting time the PC used it, fumbled it, or learned it.

The first time Mordengaxian learned of his incredible intelligence was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six, defeating even Lord Godfrey, in the final match.

The first time Mordengaxian learned of his physical weakness was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six and later suffered a beating by Godfrey’s jealous youngest son.

For each quality, create a trigger.

State your trigger like this:

When _________ happens in the game, my PC reacts by _________.

The trick here is to pick your triggering event well so your reaction comes up in interesting situations every two or three sessions. When you have several events chosen, you are guaranteed to have at least a couple triggers fire every session, giving you prompts and opportunities to roleplay.

Also pick good reactions that open up gameplay and suit the theme of the campaign. Slapstick reactions in a gritty game, for example, would be inappropriate.

Likewise, tie triggers and reactions to the game’s setting. Do everything you can to create integration with PCs, setting, campaign, adventure, and mechanics.

When Mordengaxian sees any kind of game being played, he reacts by joining the game or telling everyone playing the best strategies.

When Mordengaxian sees a bully at work, he gets angry and launches a magic missile in some kind of warning trick shot.

This technique works because of the triggers. You only need to make note of the triggers. Put them on a Post-It on your character sheet. Or make some playing cards, one trigger per card. When one fires, check the reaction and roleplay it.

It’s an active system, as opposed to passive. Try it out.

Make Each Move Open Up More Moves

Best book I’ve read for gaming in recent times has been Finite vs. Infinite Games.

Finite games like Monopoly, poker, and hockey are designed to end. There’s a winner and everyone else is a loser. The best move you can make in the game is that which gets you closer to the condition where everyone else is a loser.

Treat RPGs like Infinite games. Like the horizon, you have a clear destination but there’s no end. Infinite games are designed to live forever. The game fails if it ends, if someone makes an ending move. The best move you can make is one that opens up great new moves for everyone. Infinite games flourish under choices and moves that improve or benefit other players.

I’ve been treated to gaming with many people over the years who played to benefit others. Their generous natures and lack of ego meant sessions were better for their gameplay. They set other players and characters up for success.

They offered praise, coaching, or just friendship without judgement. They offered me all kinds of help, including taking session notes, drawing maps, showing up with armfuls of pop and snacks, and offering rides.

Their roleplay was generous. They could play the straight man and not feel the need to hog the spotlight. They picked out features of other PCs and roleplayed with that, creating great openings for players to join the roleplay.

They tried to keep the party together. They accepted ideas and plans gracefully even if they thought their ideas were better. They offered rules corrections and clarifications as suggestions and not remonstrations.

They created character backgrounds brimming with hooks. They made others feel welcome and encouraged shy players to speak up.

Have more fun at every game by being fun yourself and playing an infinite game.

Create A Foreign World View

I was listening to the radio one day driving home from work. A caller asked why he never gets thank you waves from taxi drivers. The caller always waved thanks in his rear view mirror when someone let him into their lane. Why don’t cabbies have the same courtesy?

The radio guy said it was because cab drivers don’t think like the caller. They have a different world view. Cabbies feel they’ve EARNED it. Meaning, through great driving like it was a video game or competition, they make those tricky lane changes and get into their desired spots because they’re pros. They’re paid drivers. They earn their lane changes, and don’t feel it’s because someone gave them the room. They carved that room out themselves.

That blew me away. I can totally see it. I feel like I’ve earned a lane change sometimes too. I can relate.

And this opened up my eyes to the whole concept of world views. One person thinks they’ve earned it and don’t wave, another feels grateful and give a friendly wave.

To crank your character up a notch, create a different world view like this and play it out. You get to roleplay something different and interesting, and you create an entertaining PC sure to surprise your group as you see things through the PC’s eyes and play in accordance with an alien world view.

For example:

  • The PC sympathizes with monsters, even the evil ones, and thinks each can be redeemed.
  • NPCs must earn the right to speak with the PC. Until respect is shown, earned, and given, the PC ignores NPCs.
  • Death is holy. The PC only kills as a reward, and they perform a small ritual before any anticipated killing blow. All other times they strike to subdue.
  • The player thinks the campaign is going so well because they’re such a great player. The GM thinks the campaign is going well because they are such a great GM. 😉
  • Spirit beings govern the world. Gods, angels, devils, and elementals are the real reason behind natural events. Supplicate to the spirits for success.
  • There is no good or evil. Just magic.

Create An Elevator Pitch

Jot down a one or three sentence description of the character’s identity and plot or purpose.

This gets you clarity fast on who the PC is and potential gameplay opportunities.

You can add a mission, personality, beliefs, or anything you like that solidifies in your mind who the character is and what they’re about.

Be generous with adjectives. Use descriptors, tags, aspects. Your elevator pitch won’t win writing contests, but using lots of adjectives gives you more inspiration and guidance for gameplay.

Also create a pitch that makes the character want to take action. What drives the PC onward through dark passages and miles of monster intestines? What does your PC stand for or stand against? What can’t they abide? What’s the void in their soul they’re trying to fill with the campaign premise?

A great and fast way to create character pitches is 3 Line NPCs => Appearance, Portrayal, Hook.

Get Some Character Art

Find a fantastic image for your PC. Then study the image.

Make notes of details that catch your eye.

Use these details in descriptions and for roleplaying cues.

Show the art to the group from time to time to remind them.

Use the art for your desktop wallpaper and contemplate on it once in awhile.

The Seven Rules Of Character Creation

Awhile ago I saved an article from the Blackshield Gaming website, which appears to be just a shell site now.

The article offered these great tips on making characters:

The art of building characters is not as simple as one might think. Every rulebook has the steps. Many of those rulebooks even talk about meta-gaming issues, background, personality, or whatever other pet theories the authors happen to have about what makes good characters.

But let me simplify it just a little bit. Good characters are those characters that are fun to play. Not just for the player, but for the whole group (including the GM). This may sound like just a trademark of a good player, but really, what great player does not always come up with good characters? Even things that seem simple or sketchy just seem to come to life in these players. They know how to make good characters.

Here are the basics: the seven rules of creating characters in a campaign setting.

  • The character must work in a group
  • The character must be fun for the player and the rest of the party
  • The character must be good at heart
  • The character must have a reason to go adventuring
  • The character must fit the campaign style
  • The character must have long term goals
  • The player must be able to actually play the character

The seven rules represent the most common (and most disastrous) mistakes players make when designing characters. Sometimes these are just overlooked, or missed in the heat of character creation, but if the GM and the player can apply these rules to a character (and agree that they are applicable to the character) then any subsequent problems lie on the shoulders of the player and the GM, not on the character.

“But that’s what my character would do…” is no longer an excuse for destroying party chemistry or backstabbing a fellow party member. The rules have been set.

Eating Monsters

From Joel Roush

Thanks for yet another great newsletter. I’m a chef, so I was very interested in your section about using food in-game. I thought I’d add an interesting idea to this.

The great food writer from the 18th & 19th century, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.”

This is profound because what a person eats gives cues to their ethnic background, financial level, class, religion, geographical location, and overall health and well-being. Even a person’s mood can be guessed at based on their diet.

Taking all of this into account, imagine the PCs venturing into a foreign, unexplored territory with a desert terrain. With just this small description I can make a few assumptions about the diet of the average native of this land:

  • Collecting potable water is of the highest priority, so elaborate collection and storage systems would be necessary.
  • Desert-dwelling cultures would eat a lot of insects and lizards since deserts don’t have large amounts of mammalian animals roaming around for hunting.
  • On a similar note, only the wealthy families of a desert culture could afford fresh meat, since it would mean slaughtering a precious live animal or importing meat from other areas.
  • It is likely that chilled food would be nearly impossible to find except in the wealthiest households.

I’m sure I could make other assumptions about this land, but consider these ideas when introducing food into your games.

Now, if the PCs spend a substantial amount of time in a monster-heavy area, such as a large dungeon, they may have few food choices and might be forced to eat a monster or two just to keep their strength up.

Imagine if the PCs were forced to eat a rust monster. Would the meat absorb the iron in their system and make them anemic? Pretty wild idea.

On the subject of poisons, remember that humans evolved their sense of bitter tastes to cue them to toxicity. Most poisons will taste bitter, especially naturally occurring ones in plants and animals.

You know that spell Create Food and Water? I’ve often wondered exactly what kind of food it creates and how it is delivered. Is the water delivered in a silver chalice or does it simply fall from thin air in the area above the caster? Is the food some kind of flavorless but nourishing porridge, or is it a several course meal? These questions may be best answered based on the god who grants the spell. The food granted by the goddess of the harvest would be much different from that granted by a druidic nature spirit.

Lastly, remember that nearly every celebrated occasion, regardless of culture, is associated with food. Sometimes even dark or disturbing events are marked by feasts. Think human sacrifices followed by cannibalistic acts to appease the gods. Even a Passover Seder dinner, as common and mainstream as that is, commemorates a disturbing moment in Biblical history.

Food and drink has the potential to play a part in every corner of every campaign. Happy eating!

Magic Item Miscibility

From Mark Douglas

Related to the issue about making magic items interesting, here’s a link to the Greyhawkery blog discussing Potion Miscibility from that grand old tome – the 1st Ed. DMG

It might give rise to speculation about what and how other magics interact.

Thanks for all our stuff!

How To Roleplay Better

First of all I want to congratulate you for the awesome site. I begin roll playing in January with 4 friends, only one experienced rollist in our team, and I was designated game master. We had a lot of fun and everyone is satisfied with my mastering, and we owe it to your site. Great help!

Still, I have an issue I wish you can help me with. I don’t know how to use social skills, and the characters who lean toward social skills are at a disadvantage.

When a player wants to shoot with a gun (we play Dark Heresy), no problem. Roll the dice, apply the modifiers and then we look at the dice to know if he succeed.

But when he wants to convince someone to do something, or barter, or inquire, or seduce, and so on, I require of my players that they role play the situation, which is difficult. It isn’t easy for the players to be as witty as their characters are meant to be.

I don’t really know how to solve this problem. I don’t like the idea of rolling the dice instead of role playing social interactions, but as we play an adventure which leans more on plot and inquiry than on action, it makes it hard for them to advance.

Do you have any suggestions?


Here was my response to Raphaël, and I thought you might find the link list helpful too:

Thanks for being a GM. 🙂

You might start by offering bonuses for good roleplaying. Then players will be motivated to try more.

Over time, as roleplay skills improve, you can phase out the bonuses and die rolls and just let the roleplay determine the outcome.

You can also try starting out with 3rd person roleplay. Ask your players what their characters do and say. As their comfort levels increase, you can switch to first person and ask, “What do you say?”

Also lead by example. Roleplay your NPCs well and in first person.

These tips might also help:

Use Travel Stress Check To Overcome Over-Resting PCs

From Lars Sundstrom

I use the following method to combat PCs who rest too much and are always at their peak:

In the morning, I check to see how well they rested. This roll is only invoked if there was an encounter during the rest.

  • Travel type sets the difficulty and skills required, usually Physique.
  • Modified by weather and terrain.
  • For overland movement I also roll for a modifier roll based on “campsite” where staying at an inn always is counted as a success. Otherwise, the scout/ranger character has to make a campsite roll with similar modifiers for weather and terrain. If she/he fails, the failure becomes a modifier on the resting check for everybody in the party.

This means, if the PCs travel in any way, there is always risk of adverse effects independent of how much rest they try to take.

Players can minimize this by travelling when the weather is nice, etc.

In my games in Fate, if they lose any stress due to travel they don’t get refresh on spells. This also means players sometimes uses their Fate points on the overland check result to ensure they don’t come into an encounter with Stress. Either way, it is harder to come in fully loaded.

The biggest advantage is players only have to roll if there is an encounter. They also understand that travelling in bad weather at high speeds is not that good for them. In some cases, they don’t even travel full days because they need the ranger to be able to look for good campsites (the ranger gets an attempt per 1d4 hours of travel).

I have had cautious player groups leave for a dungeon, gotten bad weather, and returned the same day to the inn they were staying at. Where the NPCs of course made fun of the “monster hunters” that turned around because of a little rain….

Ocean Travel Example

Blagrog travels at sea as a paying passenger in conditions similar to the crew hold. After bad weather the ship is attacked by pirates. Blagrog will have to roll his Sailor skill against Fair +2 (Bad weather +2, crew conditions +0).

Blagrog has no Sailor skill (Mediocre +0) and rolls -1. He misses by 3. Blagrog chooses to take a physical stress 3 hit. When the fight with pirates start, his third physical stress will already have been used up. Note Fate rules.

Overland Travel Example

Blagrog survived the pirate attack and is now travelling on camel hard across a flat desert. He is attacked by bandits. Blagrog will have to roll his Riding skill against Good +3 (hard travel speed +1, Desert is open land +0, desert counts as bad weather +2).

Blagrog has 2 in Riding skill (Fair +2) and rolls 0. He misses by 1. Blagrog chooses to take a physical stress 1 hit. When the fight with pirates starts, his first physical stress will already have been used up.

Overland Camp Example

Blagrog is forced to camp in the desert during his travel as there are no inns or other places to stay. Blagrog’s Survival skill is +2. Desert counts as +2 harsh environment with little protection, the weather have been bad for an additional +2 difficulty with a strong wind and blowing dust. Blagrog rolls +1 adds his +2 skill, but misses the 4 required for success. His Measure of Failure is 1 and he will therefore get an aspect of “Couldn’t sleep in the blowing sand,” which would incur -1 on his next Overland Travel roll.