Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #374
- Personality-Driven Encounters
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
From Mike Bourke
Johnn’s article on Characterisation in Roleplaying Tips #363 [http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=363] was pretty good, but I think there is more to be said on the subject, and several different ways of looking at the problem, some of which might be better-suited to some players and GMs. So, here’s one of them.
Note, I use the word personality a lot in this article, as the word character has so many different meanings in the context of an RPG, and could be confusing.
- The Personality Core
- The Emotional Nexus
- Time-Based Objectives
- Morality and Alignment
- Personal Restrictions
- Ignorance’s, Antipathies and Empathies
- Encounters: Exposers, Definers, Allies, Enemies, Inhibitors, Educators, Enlighteners, and Enablers
8a. Morally-White Encounters
8b. Morally-Grey Encounters
8c. Morally-Dark Encounters
8d. Morally-Turbulent Encounters
The Personality Core
You can over-simplify and stereotype all personalities to a single sentence. The first step in defining a character’s personality is to work this magic in reverse, deciding on a personality core for the character.
- Lovable Rogue
- Prince Charming
- Insecure Misfit
- Smiling Assassin
- Rough-and-tumble Brawler
- Dour Pessimist
- Cockeyed Optimist
- Greedy Merchant
- Discerning Mind
- Natural Detective
Notice that class and race are largely irrelevant to these stereotypes.
That said, not all of these might be suitable for a given race or class. At the least, the player should think about how race, social class, economic class, and caste fit into this personality core. Greedy merchant for an elf might refer to the barter of favors and obligations in a proto- Bushido style, for example, instead of to the more common (and human) acquisition of personal wealth.
The Emotional Nexus
Who and what does the character care about more than anything else? This could be individuals, generalizations, ideals, political concepts. The only restrictions on the identification of Emotional Nexi for a character are:
- It be appropriate for the game genre and campaign cultural background
- It be appropriate to the personality core.
A “cold-hearted assassin” is unlikely to have “pro-life movement” as his emotional nexus, for example, just as a “Liberal Democrat” is inappropriate for a feudal Japanese culture.
In discussing this with various people, I found some felt only the strongest personal affiliations should be mentioned, others wanted one from each category, and others thought an exhaustive list to be more useful, together with a method of rating or prioritizing the list entries.
My thought is the answer will vary with game system – for Champions, where the character gets construction for these things, a more extensive list is needed than in D&D. So the extent and handling of this aspect of personality definition is left in the hands of the individual, but is something that should be considered. A better way of phrasing the question is to ask what the character cares about enough to risk death, poverty, or disgrace for.
In combination with the campaign background, this information (plus race and class) should be enough for the player to come up with the bulk of a character’s personal history. There are times when it’s desirable to go to the effort of doing so, and others where that is unnecessary – again, this depends on the style of the campaign. If in doubt, players should consult their GMs.
The combination of the ingredients chosen to date, plus the circumstances and background of the campaign, will enable the player to start defining personal objectives for the character. These should be time-based.
What does the personality want to achieve in the:
- Next week
- Next month
- Next year
- Next decade
- Within their lifetime
Note the character should have a substantial and detailed idea of how to go about achieving their more immediate goals, but might have no notion of how to even begin work on long-term objectives, or even if those goals are possible.
It’s also important to distinguish between the character and the player at this point. While the _character_ might have no idea how to achieve something, the path could be obvious to the player. It’s also important to factor the character’s capabilities, especially intelligence and wisdom, into these plans and objectives.
These objectives are useful for the GM. Aside from facilitating an entire class of personality-based encounters and conflicts, they enable the GM to craft adventures the characters will care about (it has to be hoped these are also objectives the player cares about seeing their character achieve).
Morality And Alignment
Some might find it significant that we’ve come as far as we have without bringing morality and alignment issues into consideration. A character’s alignment is often used as the defining characteristic of a personality. At best, in my view, these provide boundaries that shouldn’t be violated in general, but can be violated in specific cases.
Having defined the character’s objectives -what the character considers important to achieve – the next question has to be, “How far will they go to achieve these things?”
A companion question that often has a slightly different answer is: “How far does the character _think_ he will go to achieve his goals?”
The answers to these questions, in general, are defined by the character’s alignment, and in specifics, by their morality. This is also where racial prejudices rear their ugly heads. A paladin who considers orcs to be so morally-corrupt they are exempt from any restrictions due to honor can be quite a surprise. Such a character will cheerfully break his word after giving it to an orc, would happily perpetrate acts of genocide against an orcish population, would never trust an orc under any circumstances (though he might pretend to), would attack orcs from behind – with none of it troubling his conscience in the slightest.
This brings in another important consideration: the imposed moral code. Society imposes certain aspects of morality upon its citizens (it can be argued this is the definition of a society). These often give different answers to those decided for the individual, lines in the sand that, if crossed, will bring undesirable consequences for the character. If powers or abilities are obtained from some form of superior being (clerics and paladins), then this forms yet another boundary. While nothing stops the character from crossing these boundaries, once again, there will be consequences. This point in the personality-generation process is the right time to highlight the differences between these externally imposed moral codes and those of the character.
Finally, a catch-all category for any other personal restrictions that might impact the character. These can come from anywhere, such as a campaign restriction (e.g. PG13), a personal dislike for certain types of action or activity by the player (“my character hates to humiliate himself”, “he hates bullies”), a referee-imposed restriction, whatever.
Into this category should also be placed any restrictions that are known to cause other players to react badly (“will not betray party” is a common one, “dislikes immature humor and practical jokes”‘ is one that I have found to apply to one of my regular players).
Any violation of these latter restrictions might have consequences that are broader than the campaign, and the GM should be prepared to veto any inappropriate action choices – friends are harder to replace than characters!
Ignorance’s, Antipathies, And Empathies
This section should be completed in consultation with the GM, who has had very limited input into the personality generation thus far.
It’s all about future interactions between the character and the campaign world.
- What subjects is the character ignorant of?
- What prominent groups and individuals (and races and clans and castes and…) is the character aware of for which his personality would create a particular empathy or antagonism, and is this emotional bias justified or not, and to what extent?
- What types of people would the character choose to hang around?
- What types would he try to avoid?
This is important information, because it deals with issues that can drive an adventuring party apart. Each PC should have some reason for hanging around with the other PCs both individually and collectively.
There may need to be exceptions granted to some of the character’s general precepts, or the player may request (and design) a sequence of subplots in which he learns to overcome a prejudice against one of the other PCs. (I have once had one player request an encounter in which another PC saves his character’s life for the specific purpose of generating such an exception).
The character’s personality should be well-defined by now. The player should have all sorts of notes that offer guidelines for how his character will react – or will not react – to all manner of situations, either specific or in general.
The final step is for the player to go through all these notes and place some level of priority on them. A character who hates and mistrusts dwarves, or drow, or priests, or whatever, might rate that prejudice as more important than achieving his goals. alternatively, it might be the other way around: despite his prejudice, he may be willing to work with the devil himself to achieve some noble (or ignoble) end. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. This section is all about sign-posting which particular roads to hell the referee can draw upon.
Once this is complete, the player should rewrite his notes tidily (they are usually all over the place in the first draft) and give a copy to the GM.
The fun comes when the GM uses these details to construct encounters and scenarios that impact different characters in different ways. A passionate seeker of justice and a puritanical law-enforcer will usually be in accord on most issues, but there will be times when justice is better served by a technically-illegal act, putting the party on two sides.
With the option of betraying each other excluded by personal restrictions, the two have to find some means of reconciling their differences. Perhaps the law needs to be changed?
Personality-based encounters can be summarized into 8 categories:
1) Ex-poser’s exist purely to permit a PC to display his prejudices, empathies, Ignorance’s, or priorities. They don’t challenge any of these personality elements, just reveal their presence.
2) Definers help a PC clarify his thinking on an issue or subject, and raise issues the player had not considered when crafting his character’s personality. Where does the paladin stand on the issue of slavery, or of a species that he is prejudiced for, or against? How about an evil NPC who perpetrates acts of generosity to bolster his public image and weaken himself to the point where the noble orders must defend him against his enemies?
3) Allies are encounters who have something in common with the PC. What if they are morally reprehensible in some respect? Or perhaps they are too good to be true? Maybe they are so dogmatic that they really are that good, but the slightest lapse from their self-imposed standards results in an imposed punishment?
The saintly old man who cares for orphaned children and happens to be a religious fanatic? How about someone who renders children down to spare parts to keep his daughter alive? These are people with whom the PC can cooperate in the short term, but whose long-term prospects might or might not be as bright.
4) Another entertaining category is enemies who (under different circumstances) might have been – or might yet be – an ally. Any number of good men have given their word of honor to someone less scrupulous – and have chosen to honor their word over their own repugnance. Every villain should have some redeeming aspect to his personality if he is to recur more than once.
5) Inhibitors are encounters that are designed to block an objective of the PCs, perhaps for the right reasons. Forcing a PC to choose between a cherished goal and betrayal of a fundamental principle is always fun. Is it morally pure to rig an election to place a good but undervalued contender in office instead of the secretly-corrupt incumbent?
6) Educators exist to forge a relationship between an area of ignorance of the character and some other group or ideal over which they have strong feelings, in effect converting an ignorance into a prejudice, which might or might not be well-founded.
7) En-lighteners overturn prejudices or counter misconceptions on the character’s part. Perhaps they reveal the difference between an ideal and a dogma. Maybe they reveal the true cost of fulfilling one of the character’s goals as being more substantial than they are willing to tolerate. Placing a character in a position where he is forced to choose between two things he cares about always prompts a little soul searching.
8) Finally, Enablers permit a character to achieve an objective; whether or not the consequences of doing so will be what the character wants is another question.
All of these encounter types are notable for their capacity to force personal growth on the part of the PC. Not every encounter should be one of these. Most should be straightforward and exactly what they seem, but the occasional head-scratcher is good for a PC.
8a. Morally-White Encounters
These offer the PCs, collectively, a choice between two desirable goals, as mutually-exclusive as the GM can make them. A lover of justice must choose whether to release a murderer who is innocent of the actual charge on which he was convicted? What is more important, justice, or keeping a monster off the streets? Feeding the hungry or freeing the slaves?
Little lets players feel ownership of a campaign more than letting PCs achieve their goals, permitting that success to have the desired effect, but also having some undesirable consequence after the fact. Remember that road to hell….
8b. Morally-Grey Encounters
These are encounters that are neither good nor bad, but are a little of both. Compromises often leave characters feeling dirty. Most such encounters involve a conflict between short-term and long-term goals, such as doing the politically-expedient thing. Politics are a notoriously dirty business.
8c. Morally-Dark Encounters
These encounters force the PCs to choose the lesser of two evils – a subjective value judgement that might or might not be borne out by later events.
8d. Morally-Turbulent Encounters
Finally, there are encounters in which different members of the party have priorities in conflict. These are dangerous, because they can lead to party members turning against the party, but short-term conflicts can be the source of the most exciting play
The important things to bear in mind before introducing such an encounter are each affected player’s ability to distinguish between character actions and player’s actions, and ensuring there is some means of reuniting the factions before the conclusion of the plotline, preferably without a dues ex machina.
Ultimately, personality-driven encounters are all about conflicts between what two characters have decided concerning their personalities, or between two things that one specific character has decided. Anything that was noted in Tips 1-7 can come into conflict with anything noted anywhere else in those sections. These encounters can be as significant or trivial as you desire, with consequences ranging from the insignificant to the campaign-redefining.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Review of Khaas
Khaas is a massive game world bound within a single volume, published by Emperors Choice. It’s a huge product with big ideas, but it also has a wealth of details that will flesh out any fantasy / alternate universe campaign to a high degree. This book was obviously a labour of love, and the ideas within it are inspiring.
Continue reading for more info, thoughts, and pics:
5 Room Dungeon Contest – Excellent Chances of Winning
Thanks to everyone who has submitted their 5 Room Dungeons. There have been about 20 entries so far, which is awesome. It also means every entry has a great chance of winning a prize. The contest deadline is September 26, so time is running out to get your entry in.
In the Readers Tips section of this issue are two entries to give you an example of the format and ideal length.
Use tips from Issue #372 as a short format template for making quick 5 Room Dungeons. Send your designs to [email protected] for a chance to win great loot.
Additional entry guidelines:
In conjunction with the fine folks at Strolen’s Citadel, the 5 Room Dungeon contest gives you a chance to have fun wielding your creativity, help other GMs with your designs, and win any of the following:
3 x D&D modules:
- DCC #46 Book of Treasure Maps
- DCC #47 Tears of the Genie
- DCC #50 Vault of the Iron Overlord by Monte Cook
From Goodman Games
5 x Adventure PDFs:
- 1 on 1 Adventures #5 Vale of the Sepulcher
- #6 Shroud of Olindor
- #7 Eyes of the Dragon
- #8 Blood Brothers
- Advanced Adventures #3 The Curse of the Witch Head
From Expeditious Retreat Press
1 x D&D Icons Gargantuan Black Dragon
From Legend Games
3 x MyInfo Personal Reference Software licenses
From Milenix Software
Get some gaming done this week.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Pros and Cons of Designing a W.O.D. Campaign in a Fictional City
First up, I would like to say that I have ‘grown up’ on Roleplaying Tips weekly. So thanks. Here’s my tip.
When I suggest the idea of designing a fictional city to most veteran World of Darkness players or narrators, they recoil like I just said something terribly apocalyptic. But hear me out.
Benefits of fictional settings:
1) It gives you the power to create a setting that fits in with your campaign.
If you want a city where everything is close together, you can make it an urban center, but you might also want that city to seem cut off from everything, so maybe that urban center is out in the middle of nowhere. Now, you have to compensate in other areas for why an urban center is nowhere, but you are all talented enough to do that I’m sure. 🙂
2) It’s cut off.
This is the main advantage to GMs is travel in and out is regulated, which is restricting, but not prohibitive, to players. After a few sessions, the players cottoned on to the in-game bus time table and the level of mischief increased.
The player advantage consists of using the same principle to hide from people on the outside world, and while NPCs can find a way in, my players feel like they have a Home Field Advantage right when their enemies get off the bus or train.
On that note, GM and PC advantage: a closed setting makes my players feel at home. They have taken an ownership of the area, and rightly so, since they have made almost all the fluff for me through their gaming.
3) I haven’t travelled overseas, nor do I know much of what is out there. I can barely remember the layout of my local shopping center. For this reason, I prefer fictional home settings for my players just so I know what everything looks and feels like.
Problems with fictional settings:
- Player reaction is the number one problem. Once they get over the fact that this isn’t a real city the game runs much smoothly. To aid in preventing this, I only have two fictional settings for all my W.O.D. The history for the main one is mostly in-game PC actions from previous campaigns (and the resulting aftermaths). This makes my players feel very familiar with my cities.
- Its isolation makes many GMs and players nervous. It doesn’t have to be completely cut-off; you can allow the PCs to travel where they want to if you like. I have my small, backwater fiction area connected to a large fictional city, which is connected to the real world. I find this helps transition from fake to real. This also helps put new players at ease, and I get an early warning to prepare before they go into the real world.
- You have to design a whole area by yourself. I was lucky in that my first fictional campaign started out as a lock-down in a mansion, and the players slowly broke out into the world and spread. That area was then the basis for the next campaign, and so on, enabling me to develop it piece by piece.
I love running my fictional W.O.D. setting, and adding a little more history to it. The setting has transformed due to a spread over two versions of vampires, mortals, mages, and more. Though I always make sure the players are okay with it being fiction, and if even one person is not willing to give it a try, I run something else. At least every other adventure involves something outside of my setting to keep players fresh and connected to the real world, as well.
5 Room Dungeon: Thieves’ Guild
From Aki Halme
Entrance And Guardian
The Invitation To break into the thieves’ guild, the PCs need to get an
invitation. Contact can be made by entrapment, bribery, or tracking low-level thieves into safe houses. Regardless of the method, the challenge at this stage is the guild’s internal security.
Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
New members of the thieves’ guild are not cleared for sensitive information – big crimes, major meetings, more important safe houses, crucial contacts, etc. Advancement is kept slow as a safeguard against infiltration. By the time a member advances to positions of access and responsibility the guild leadership will have accumulated a considerable file of information on him, and the new member has been implicated in enough heinous crimes there is no easy turning back. Here the challenge is to defeat the catch-22, getting access without getting stuck in the guild web.
Trick or Setback
Digging deeper, the PCs will get hints that not all is as they expected, not in the guild, the town, or their mission. Are the thieves truly a wicked force, or a heroic resistance to oppression from the ruling class, helping the weak with some portion of their funds? Are they the true patriots of the town, and the corrupt leadership under the influence of a foreign power? Are the ones who sent the PCs also in the employ of the thieves’ guild, and the mission a part of a power struggle?
Maybe the PCs will get followers – adoring youngsters or a romantic interest, who sees a PC as an awesome robin hood style figure. In a situation like that, it will be hard to betray the guild and invite a sweeper team to torture and maim or execute everybody. Intrigue, doubt, betrayal, and mixed motivations make it hard for the PCs to continue effectively.
Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
The mission will involve a battle with a highly skilled thief, possibly an assassin, possibly with other capabilities, and maybe a killer team of his own. This might be a security chief, another highly skilled thief, perhaps even the crime boss himself or family member thereof.
To get this far the team must have made the battle necessary, perhaps by shaming the boss into a duel that he needs to restore his grip on the guild, or perhaps this is a vengeance.
In any case, the battle ground and/or the time may be chosen to enhance the strengths of the NPCs and make them shine, giving the PCs a serious fight. Shadows and traps and secret passages could well be a part of this. Further, the strengths of the PCs might be largely known to the enemy, whereas the enemy might have kept something (or everything) hidden from the PCs.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
The PCs might have contributed to making the town a better place, and their patron might reward them for it. Or, they might find themselves drawn into guild power struggles that tend to involve severed horse heads in the bed, garrote attacks, poisoned food, and mysterious accidents. If there is little monetary reward, they will at least learn more about the place they live or work in.
5 Room Dungeon: Isles of Ice
Entrance And Guardian
The challenge is set within a group of floating-in-air icebergs on another plane of existence, possibly a pocket dimension or demiplane of icy winds and bitter cold. Alternatively, the ‘bergs can be placed in a polar region of the campaign world.
While the PCs can attempt to navigate the treacherous air currents and sudden blasts of ice, there is a race of flying whales somewhat friendly to the adventurers and their goals that can safely bear the party in their mouths to the ‘bergs.
Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Not only do the players need to figure out which floating iceberg is their goal, they must convince the whales to carry them there. Will all the characters trust these enigmatic creatures enough to ride forth inside their mouths?
The icebergs float through the air and occasionally collide, causing quaking and breakage. The frozen masses are honeycombed with tunnels and chambers, created by the inhabitants – frost salamanders.
The icy walls of the tube-shaped passages are incredibly slippery – an issue ignored by the frost salamanders that negotiate ice as easily as solid ground. Many of these passages slope and twist crazily, threatening to shunt intruders right out of the ‘berg if they slide out of control.
Trick or Setback
The heroes will find that a previous impact has broken a large portion of the iceberg free, and the entire structure is in two pieces. They must cross a wide gap of empty air and whirling shards of razor-sharp ice to reach the other portion. Savage winds and the erratic motion of both icebergs further threaten the crossing. It is always possible the two halves will collide at any time, or that another ‘berg will drift too close for comfort.
Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
A large chamber houses the lair of a pair (or as many as necessary) of unusually large frost salamanders and their nest of unhatched eggs. A piece of an item that is the heroes’ goal might be found here, but the greater portion lies elsewhere. Alternatively, an item belonging to an individual to be rescued might be discovered, but the victim is somewhere else. Some treasure will also be collected here, from previous intruders.
The salamanders will fight savagely to protect their eggs, possibly gaining morale bonuses in combat. If more tension is needed during the battle, another iceberg could collide with this one – hurling the characters about, but not the salamanders. Adventurers who rely on fire effects in battle will find themselves suffering falling ice and sudden flash floods.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
The final great chamber at the heart of the iceberg is dominated by a steaming pool of water and an enormous mass of dark ice. A large shape can be seen within the ice – it is a truly massive frost salamander (possibly part dragon or enhanced with elemental properties) lying dormant within. Also noticeable is the object of the quest…frozen within the grasp of the monster. Whether an object or a person, this thing is grasped firmly by the monstrous frost salamander and frozen deep within the mass of ice.
The heroes will have to risk freeing the gigantic salamander to reach their goal. The mass of ice is in the middle of the steaming pool, and the water is melting it in any case, as well as undermining the structure of the ‘berg. Time is running out. Of course, there is some sort of fire-enchanted item at the bottom of the pool that is causing the melting – an object that can be used to great effect against the salamander if it can be reached in time.
During the final conflict, the ‘berg will probably begin breaking up – whether due to supernatural melting, or the collision of another drifting mass of ice. A faithful whale, or nearby iceberg, might be the PCs’ only hope for salvation.