It’s About The Character, Not The Player Serving Up Characterization Encounters – Part 1

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0363

A Brief Word From Johnn

Article Topic Requests Updated

I have updated my list of article topic requests and ideas. If you are interested in writing an article for the e-zine, send me a note and I’ll pass along the list. You are always welcome to pitch your own topics, as well. Thanks for the help!

“He’s Spending A Year Dead For Tax Purposes”

From an ENWorld thread about a new D&D product was mention of an NPC who is spending a year dead for tax purposes. I thought this was a funny and entertaining idea too good not to share.

I often read about GMs who are burned out or bogged down with prep and planning time. I sometimes feel that way as well. However, it’s fun ideas like these that inspire new stories, encounters, and game moments.

As we get older, I think there’s increased pressure on making things realistic and correct. We become perfectionists, worried about pleasing the players, and providing good games.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen on fiction writing is to ask What if? What if evil won? What if creature xyz made its lair in the parliament building? What if an elemental cult struck a deal and had access to nearly unlimited small air elementals? What if someone tried spending a year dead to avoid taxes?

This kind if thinking is inspirational. It creates renewed interest in setting up such ideas and gaming them out with your friends to see what happens. Rules, details, complex databases that store campaign world info – these things are just there to support your imagination.

It starts with an idea you find inspiring and then just playing a game.

Get some stress-free gaming in this week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

It’s About The Character, Not The Player Serving Up Characterization Encounters – Part 1

Here’s a reader request I received:

Could you put some advice in about roleplaying encounters? Specifically, encounters where players can make choices that are equally valid, so they have to think about what their character would do, not which way is best
– wsawin

This is a great topic. The solution I have in mind comes in two parts. The first is character details. You and each player need good information about their characters to make choices and encounters interesting. You can’t blame players for not roleplaying if their characters have no depth or details.

You also need to develop the right details. Some character information is more useful. For example, you can’t expect different actions from a character with blonde hair and green eyes versus a character with black hair and blue eyes. Develop the proper character details to provide the best opportunities to roleplay.

Part two is good encounter design. Lots of character information equals more choices for you. Based on your options, you can help players roleplay by choosing to design situations where more than combat stats are useful and rewarded.

This week’s tips focus on the character development part. I’ll cover the encounter tips in another issue. Hopefully these tips will help, wsawin.

Readers, I’d love to hear what tips you have to offer on character development and encounter building as well, or if you have another approach to helping players play according to what their characters would do, not what they’d do.

Aim For Character Representation, Not Acting

The first step is to acknowledge there are many definitions of roleplaying, and to communicate and synch up on this topic with your players as soon as possible. Once everyone understands your definitions and expectations, and you address concerns they might have and adapt to their requests, you can build and play to a common purpose.

Keep your mind open to their feedback as well. They might have ideas and suggestions that would help, especially if you ask. Avoid telling them it’s your way or no way – seek consensus instead.

Acting Versus Representation

I’m open to being schooled on this subject, but in my opinion, the various aspects and definitions of roleplaying a character fall under two groups:

  1. Acting
  2. Representation

Some folks feel roleplaying is all about the accents, demonstrating the character in real life, impersonating the character, and acting at the table like the character would. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it often breathes life and creative energy into game sessions. Be sure to communicate to this type of player, though, that you’re looking for character representation as well.

Representation gets my vote for being the more important of the two categories. If I had to pick only one category for a player to game within, I’d choose representation.

With representation, the player puts themselves in their character’s position and makes decisions the character is capable of and motivated to, based on information the PC has available. The character is portrayed. The player does not lend the character meta-game knowledge. The character stays true to himself, though he is capable of change.

While the character is an extension of the player in the game world, the character is not the player, and the PC has his own thoughts, personality, and experiences. It’s the player’s responsibility to represent the character to the best of his ability during the game.

Did I miss anything? If this is clear, then make this distinction with your group. If you want players to think about what their characters would do, and not what they’d do, aim for representation, not acting.

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Top 6 Character Details To Develop

Characters details of any kind are welcome for representation purposes. Ability scores, equipment worn, appearance. Each detail builds a stronger mental image of the PC in the mind of the player and everyone else at the table.

Some details help representation more than others though. If you are looking for players to make decisions according to what their PCs would do, here is my top 6 list:

Why is the PC Taking Action?

Is starts with motive. Why is the PC here? Why is he on this mission, in this place, doing what he is doing? Being an adventurer is not a strong enough motive if you want players to make representational roleplaying decisions for their PCs.

Some players are able to work with little and carve a solid, independent character out of a general motive like gaining fame, wealth, and experience. Most need more.

Survival plots also make it difficult for players to roleplay. There’s not much fun in making a sub-optimal choice that increase chances of character death just to stay in-character. You need to serve up encounters that cater to more than just the survival character motive.

Characters should have more than one motive as well. This is the best way I know of to create a dilemma. You set up options where a character can advance one goal or the other, but not both. Another version is where you jeopardize at least two character goals, but the character can only defend, protect, or save one. Great gaming moments erupt when a player figures out how to accomplish both goals or save all goals when it looked hopeless minutes ago.

Character motives should come from the player. They’ll bond to them better and are more likely to play them in the game. Ask what’s important to the PC. Why are they an adventurer, law enforcement agent, pilot? If you don’t get an answer, work with the player to flesh out some character motives. Last resort is to assign motives, but don’t expect compliance.

The best motives are reward-based. Players are more likely to chase a dream if there’s something in it for their character or themselves. It helps to know what each player’s and character’s preferences are so you can work with rewards you know they’ll want.

For example, a player might decide his character wants a powerful weapon that’ll do tons of damage. You can see the fire in his eyes as he envisions rolling ten pounds of dice and cackling with glee as the numbers add up into the millions. Well, it’s a start at least. 🙂 And you know the player is motivated to get this equipment monstrosity. So, you explore the motive a bit and ask questions to flesh it out:

  • Why does the _character_ want this weapon?
  • Who does he imagine he’ll use it against? Why?
  • How did he hear about it? How does he know it exists?
  • Will the character automatically know how to use it, or will it require new skills or abilities?

Hopefully the answers generate more questions. If you focus questions on external factors, you’ll generate details about the game world, locations, NPCs, and things. But, if you can keep questions focused on the character, you’ll generate juicy PC details.

What Is There To Lose? (Ask: What Do They Have?)

Knowing what a character has to lose, or what’s at stake for the PC in any given conflict, is a seamless way for a player to represent his character.

  • It provides clear direction about what choices their character should make. Often, characters are under- developed, and players just need a basis to make in- character decisions.
  • Players are often motivated not to let their characters suffer setbacks, so character hooks such as having something personal at risk synchs up player and character motives. Even though the player is not technically thinking outside of themselves and representing their character, it helps players empathize with their characters in new ways, and gives them practice and examples of thinking like their characters.

Asking players what their characters have to lose will result in squinted eyes and guarded answers. It’s more fruitful to ask what the PCs have. The best solution is to provide rewards during gameplay that the PCs can choose to accept.

Your goal, then, is to give each PC many things they are unwilling to lose. To repeat myself here though, these attachments must stem from player choice, as mere GM assignments will be brushed off, ignored, or rebelled against.

Players are often reluctant to create ways their characters can be harmed, setback, or made vulnerable because they are worried about GM abuse. Perhaps they’ve been bitten by past GMs, or they find save and-protect plots boring. The good news is you can use gameplay to develop such character hooks without player angst.


a) Precious equipment. As described in past issues, instead of handing out +1 swords, provide memorable and distinctive treasure that captures the pride and imagination of the character and player.

It starts with a good description. Give key pieces of treasure significant details and special features. These things don’t have to translate into more character power either. Because it’s treasure – their treasure – players are more receptive to the fluff. Perhaps the magic wand is embedded with valuable gems (bling!), or the shiny suit of armor comes with a celebrated history and a bit of respect.  Be sure to give this treasure vulnerability as well. These will be your back door into setting up situations where the PCs will face risk and loss.

For example, thieves can plot to steal the character’s gem- studded wand, and a can monster threaten to mar the PC’s armor with acid and corrosion.

b) NPC attitudes. Most characters will not refuse a growing reputation or respect from NPCs they respect or admire. Other coveted NPC attitudes are willingness to help or comply, friendship, acceptance, and friendliness. Once received and accepted, this become something characters can lose.

I think this is the most important category for helping players make in-character decisions. NPC relationships create gameplay that flows well and encourages roleplaying. They don’t ruin your game’s power economy like excessively valuable treasure would.

Most important, situations where PCs jeopardize valued NPC relations are often self-created and self-corrected by players and their characters. For example, just as a PC is about to plunge their sword into the bound orc prisoner, they see horror on the face of their staunch ally and hesitate. Do they murder the prisoner and risk the friendship?

c) NPC contacts. Try to build a cast of NPCs who provide value to the characters. Once accepted and relied upon, these NPCs become sources of PC motivation. The key is not to directly jeopardize these NPCs; otherwise the PCs will withdraw, rebuff new relationship offers, and seek to become even more self-sufficient.

Instead, you want to threaten the relationship, as mentioned above in managing NPC attitudes. Create NPCs with their own motives, characteristics, and ethics. If the PCs cross any of these, then the relationship is at risk. If you make the PCs aware of how potential actions will ruin NPC relationships, they’ll learn the boundaries and roleplay accordingly. Sometimes a contact isn’t worth it, but your job is to make the PCs increasingly dependent on the contacts they cultivate.

As always, player choice should drive these relationships. Having an NPC control the recipe of the serum that’s keeping the PCs alive isn’t much of a choice. However, the PCs are not likely to turn down the friendship of a wizard who gives them first-buy opportunities of any new magic items he makes or acquires. If the wizard hears in the future about illegal PC activities, such as attacking the town guard or stealing from others (albeit evil NPCs), he might share his concerns with them and warn he isn’t willing or able to do commerce with thugs and criminals.

Another example is a valuable NPC informant with distasteful minions. The PCs get questions answered and valuable plot hooks from a shadowy figure who only deals with them through employees and messengers. Some of these NPCs are rude, evil, and aggressive. However, if the PCs don’t want to lose their contact, they have to put up with the underlings.

This is a great set-up for pitting the underlings against the PCs in future encounters. Perhaps the characters foil a bank robbery and unmask one of the robbers to reveal he’s an important servant of their informant. Do the PCs hand him over to the law? Kill him? Let him go? Chase after him, kill him, and then hand him over to the law when he laughs in their faces and warns his boss will be very angry? All these choices are made possible because of a valued NPC relationship that you indirectly threaten.

d) Privileges. Special perks, benefits, rights, and abilities are great rewards – and things characters will not want to lose. After a victory against the thieves’ guild, the mayor might hand over a key that gives the PCs free food and drink anywhere in the city. Perhaps the cleric’s god rewards for vanquishing evil with an extra domain spell once a week. Citizenship might be awarded after the PCs defeat an enemy raid.

Privileges are best jeopardized by attaching conditions with their acceptance. It’s up to the PCs whether to break these conditions, so the choice is theirs, but you now have more character elements for players to work with when making in- character decisions. Citizenship is revoked if convicted of a crime; the extra spell is not granted if the cleric commits an evil act; the free food stops when the PCs anger the mayor.

What Is There To Gain?

The opposite of character loss is character gain. Work with your players to figure out what goals and desires their characters have. Create several carrots for them to chase after and numerous incentives for them to pursue.

I advise putting PC goals in all-or-nothing risk situations often. Instead, flesh out conditions for achievement and parameters for success, and try to craft more than one path the PC can take to accomplish each goal.

Each condition and parameter becomes a thread, step, or stage you can offer as a reward or jeopardize. As above, it’s best if these requirements become character choices and opportunities to roleplay. In case of failure or PC refusal, there are other paths to follow.

For example, a character might want a device that lets them travel faster. You could throw a flying carpet in a cave along with a monster, and point the PCs in that direction. Alternatively, you could let the PC know that, if they earn the respect and trust of the retired hero down the street, the NPC has a carpet in the garage the character could use when needed. Perhaps the NPC wants to make sure the PCs are responsible folk, so he has a task or two for them so he can judge.

What Won’t The PCs Do?

What are the PC’s values, morals, ethics? For some, an alignment system handles these questions. For others, you and the player will need to develop the answers manually.

This information creates a player road map to follow so they can make character-based decisions instead of player-based ones. Often, the best part of RPGs is playing characters who think and act differently then you would in real life.

Some players won’t find this type of character development interesting. You can try another approach by asking what their character won’t do. You might get joke responses, but in those will be a few kernels of possibility. Answers might range from phobias to trivia to ethics.

If you get poor answers, or if the player responds there’s nothing the character won’t do, then you might need to prompt with questions. A great approach is to start at extremes, as they’re easy to picture and speculate on:

  • Will your character kill the good and innocent?
  • Will your character steal from his fellow party members?
  • If presented with the choice of sacrificing himself to save the world or letting the world be destroyed, what would he choose?
  • Is there anything your character would do that you wouldn’t?

Asking Why? after receiving answers can yield further details and boundaries.

Drilling down into grey area questions might not be profitable; it depends on the player. The main point is to establish a few things the PC will not do, to create an example of such thinking, and to set things up for future character development.

What Is Your Backstory?

A backstory offers a plethora (a cornucopia, even!) of potential character details that you can highlight to help players make in-character decisions.

Backstories create a pattern of past behaviors and actions players can use to decide how their character would act.

They also give you a chunk of material to explore character motives with the player. Even short backstories will cover a few past character actions and decisions. Just ask Why? And let the player come up with his character’s reasons and motives. Ask How? to uncover more material to delve into.

What Is Their Personality?

The last area to explore is the PC’s personality. You can get into deep detail at the time of creation, or establish a few touch-points and let the character develop over time. It’s up to everyone’s preferences.

The important thing is to get at least two or three personality details sketched out immediately so you create a base to build upon during gameplay, and an expectation between you and the player.

The Mother Of All Character Questionnaires has over 300 potential questions you could ask.

A favorite approach of mine is to start with a look at the character’s ability scores and chat about the high and low ones. Having great strength or willpower, for example, should be more than just a number. Work with the player to imagine how the character uses their ability in everyday life and what others think about it.

Next, check out the character’s skills and abilities and try to put together a mental picture of the PC’s capabilities, ideas on how those might have been important in the past, and the character as a whole package.

Have the player pitch you their character like a script writer would a Hollywood producer. Encourage the player to brag about their PC. Ask the player to tell the PC’s present-day story, like they were making a book cover character snap-shot.

Whether you use a formal process, such as a character survey, or an informal one, such as a casual chat, you want details and personality traits that stem naturally from the character’s make-up.

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Create Backstories As You Play

I’ve found developing backstories and character details as you play is one of the best methods to encourage roleplaying and in-character thinking. It also shows you are a fair and flexible GM, which keeps things relaxed and flowing well at the game table.

During games, players will ask whether their characters would know about something, or if they can do something a bit tricky that doesn’t translate to an entry on their character sheet.

An answer that has worked very well for me is to ask in return:

“Is this something your character would have experienced before?”

Not only does this encourage the player to think about their character as an individual, but it also breaks rigid, rules-bound thinking.

The key is to let them answer yes. While this gains them an advantage in their current situation, and you give up a bit of control, it has the huge, long term benefit of adding a new piece of information to the character’s make-up. You don’t have to allow it, but this tip only works if you do, from time to time or more frequently.

If there’s time during the situation, ask for a bit of explanation. Have the player make up a quick story about how their character got this knowledge or ability. If there isn’t time, ask the player between sessions – and let them know you’ll be doing so.

Let players create or flesh out their PCs’ backstories as they play, and allow them advantages if that’s how they tell it.

For example, they decide their character has indeed heard of the creature they’re fighting and therefore know – or have a better chance to know – information about it that would help in the current encounter.

In my years of GMing, I haven’t had a player abuse this. Many players actually give themselves disadvantages, and are happy to do so! For example, a player might ask if they recognize any of the NPCs in the room. You ask back: would they have met or be familiar with any of the city’s nobility? The answer might be yes, because the character has a noble relative whom he has visited often. The answer often is also, in my experience, no, because the PC has an impoverished background or they are strangers to the area or some other great reason.

It’s just like any shared story. The rules and boundaries are created along with the details, and keeping things consistent and fair ensures the story progresses along with greater depth and involvement.

After doing this a few times, you create a more complete character background that will further guide and encourage players in making in-character decisions.

It’s important to keep a PC’s details and facts straight. What you are doing, over time, is filling out a box that represents the character’s past experiences, personality, and general knowledge. This box informs all future character roleplaying. It also starts to fill up and it’s not as easy for players to abuse, if they are inclined to do so. New advantages are more difficult to weave in because facts laid out before limit possibilities. Things balance out in the end.

However, I’m glad when a player creates a new bit of backstory, even if it’s to gain extra knowledge not provided by character points or skill levels. A GM wields unlimited foes, traps, and dangers, if needed. I don’t feel threatened with players giving themselves small boons. As mentioned, my experience is players treat it as a fun exercise and don’t abuse it. YMMV.

Ask: What Would Your Character Do?

While GMing, encourage players to seperate themselves from their characters. Get them to view things through their PC’s eyes, think like their PC, and make their PC perform actions the PC would likely take without the benefit of player game knowledge.

Create a distinction if you think that will help a player make better in-character decisions. Create a conscious divide in players’ minds between them and their character when it seems like players are representing their characters more as themselves rather than as distinct game personas. This might ruin immersion for some players, so pay attention when you do this to see if it helps.

For example;

  • Address players by their character’s name when you want in-character thinking. Address players by their real name when you want out-of-character thinking.
  • Ask about character actions, not player actions. “Ok, what does Zem do now?”
  • Be direct, if required. “Bob, what do you think Zem would do in this situation?”
  • Reintroduce PCs at every opportunity to keep players’ mental images of the character fresh. Get players to focus again on their characters as people, not just numbers and abilities.

During the reintroduction’s, have players describe who their PCs are, what they look like, their demeanor, and any other PC-personal details they want to share.

Example opportunities to reintroduce PCs to each other:

  • When a new player joins
  • When a new character joins
  • During roleplaying encounters with important NPCs met for the first time. Have players paint a verbal picture of how their characters might seem and appear to the NPC.
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In part 2, I’ll look at tips on building encounters that assist in character representation. I’ll also present tips on this topic from you and your fellow Roleplaying Tips Weekly GMs. Looking forward to your e-mails!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

GURPS, Iron Kingdoms, Constructs

From Chris Whitcomb via GMMastery

I’d highly recommend GURPS Steampunk. Also, if you’re using the d20 system, I’d highly recommend Iron Kingdoms. They have mecha combining steam-tech with magical control systems. Along the same lines you might look at the Eberron campaign setting. There’s also an older book from Mongoose called Encyclopaedia Arcane: Constructs. It was all about golems and constructs, including construction rules for making your own (both in-game and out).

Steampunk Resources


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Castle Falkenstein

From Wolf Bergenheim via GMMastery

A year ago I read a Castle Falkenstein novel, Masterminds of Falkenstein, by John DeChancie. I liked it. I’ve never really considered the setting before reading the novel, but afterwards I found myself thinking of perhaps at some point running a steampunk setting.

Steampunk Workshop

Cool site with instructions on how to make steampunky stuff, such as a steampunk keyboard and monitor. Ideal if you game with a computer at the table.

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Steam-Tech, Factory, TOH III

From Andy Goldman

Hi Johnn, I suggest GURPS Steampunk and Steam-Tech (by Steve Jackson Games) and Factory (by Perpetrated Press) for ideas. Also, the Tome of Horrors III (by Necromancer Games) has a Clockwork template to be added to any creature and is 3.5-compliant.

Brass Goggles

Brass Goggles : The lighter side of steampunk

Fantastic, Mysterious, and Adventurous Victoriana

An index of Victorian characters and places:

Wikipedia Entry

As always, Wikipedia brings us great info goodness: Steampunk – Wikipedia

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Supernatural Weather Ideas

From: Donald Qualls, aka The Silent Observer

There’s one area with consistent supernatural weather in The Empire of the Star; west of Whiteharbor is a compact range of rugged mountains called the Olympic Range, after the Mount Olympus of Greek myth. Almost always visible from higher ground in and around Whiteharbor when the local weather is clear enough, despite a rough distance of one hundred miles, these mountains are high enough to carry glaciers and snow caps but cover an area of only about forty miles, roughly circular, and stand on a broad peninsula between the large, deep inlet on which Whiteharbor faces and the greater Western Ocean.

Despite the near distance, asking around the city will reveal that, while there are many tales of what lies within those mountains, it’s impossible to locate anyone who’s actually been to their interior.

This is because, though one seldom sees the Olympic Range swathed in cloud, as one approaches them (through dense forest composed of genuinely immense trees – firs well over a hundred feet tall and up to a dozen feet in diameter, cedars even larger at the base, blackberry brambles in which progress can be measured by the handful of miles per week) the weather grows steadily wetter. Rain becomes more frequent and heavier, from the already-damp general climate of the area where it usually rains a couple times a week and may drizzle for days on end, to the point of raining hard for hours every day and never becoming dry enough not to see patches of fog in hollows, weather in which seventy degrees is as stifling as a ninety-degree summer day in Washington, D.C.

If explorers persist, they’ll eventually climb to a point where the rain is continuous and comparable in rate to the downpour beneath a high waterfall. Every step leaves a deep track in the soft, mossy ground, and that track instantly fills with rain water, overflows, and starts a rivulet that is quickly lost in the general runoff. The runoff somehow never produces serious erosion or forms gullies and washes though.

The occasional fallen tree forms a major barrier here, for one won’t see it until quite close (visibility in this downpour zone is a few feet to a few yards). The trunk will be large enough to seem like an overhanging cliff, and it’s a major detour to slog around either the root ball or crown.

The constant soaking will rot ropes, tents, and clothing; spoil food (even invading supposedly sealed ration packs and magical larders); cause skin and foot problems; and make sleep almost impossible.

This is the region in which any explorer the PCs manage to find will have turned back, for weather magic that might dry conditions enough to permit travel at a rate above a vigorous crawl becomes steadily less effective (along with magics that would offset the effects of the rain and damp) the deeper the rain zone is penetrated.

What lies within? Only those who manage to win through the densest part of the rain zone will ever really know – and they likely won’t be believed, any more than the other wild tales of what lies within are believed….

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From Michael Tumey, Gamer Printshop

The weather sometimes affects our moods – rainy, gloomy days bring melancholy behavior. What about a specific rain or mist that preceded an event or the coming of an enigmatic threat? The rains cause despair, and perhaps a great number of suicides occur during such weather, affecting the PCs traveling or fighting under such conditions?

And, just as dawn brings renewed strength with its own powers, there should be weather that brings positive affects to rejuvenate the populace and characters.

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From the Ploogle

Why’s it raining indoors?

The strangest kind of weather comes from inside a barrier from the elements. “Weather” it be raining inside the castle or snowing deep in the ogre’s lair, indoor weather is sure to arouse player interest. Is there a mage in there? Maybe it’s a punishment to the cave-dwellers from their god?

This is a good plot device, but like anything else, use it sparingly. No one wants to be rained on every time he opens a door, or sets foot in a cave. Lightning does not exist in every underground chasm, just like it does not exist in every inch of air above ground.

Smoke on the water, Fire in the sky

Downpour doesn’t have to be limited to water, ice, and lightning. What about fire? Condensed air? Maybe even acid rain. If the fire from heaven is foreseen, then local priests might take advantage of the townspeople and take up a special offering to appease the gods. What if a faked weather forecast, like fire, actually happened? Or, what if the downpour started as rain, but in a slow transition of hot steam became fire?

Raining Cash

Heck, you could have it rain gold! Is it a blessing from the gods? Is it the work of a wizard? “Who cares?” But, what if this gold was cursed, or disappeared after 24 hours. Or perhaps this gold will melt, burning a hole in your player’s pockets or bag, leaking or destroying precious items or documents? Maybe some enchanted swords fell straight down, blade penetrating ground. Are there any additional effects? Will these blades turn on them when they’re needed most?