Gamemaster’s Guidepost: A Novel Approach to GMing, Part IV: A Matter of Character

Guest Post by Scott “Rocketman” Rochat

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
–Anton Chekhov
I’m going to start with something basic, but true. Your players can’t see your characters.
I’ll give you a moment to recover from the shock.
It’s a problem every author has. Some may give their characters a boatload of physical description, others hardly any. But short of a recurring tag – like Nynaeve’s habit of tugging at her braid in Robert Jordan’sWheel of Time series or Sam Carsten’s susceptibility to sunburn in Harry Turtledove’s “Southern Victory” books  – you simply can’t keep reminding a reader of a character’s appearance every five seconds. Even tags can get a little stale if evoked too often: “Oh, she’s pulling her hair again? Must have real strong roots.”
And authors have a huge advantage over GMs. Authors can use the power of print. They get to flash a character’s name like a billboard in front of the reader every paragraph or two and know that something is likely to stick. Meanwhile, how many times has your painstakingly-named necromancer become “that evil wizard dude” to your Saturday night players?
But there is a way to make NPCs stick or at least give them a fighting chance. It’s the same one that’s served writers well for generations.
Give ‘em problems.
Whatever the game, your disadvantage list is your best friend. For a writer, problems create goals. They influence behavior and guide choices. And they create the most memorable characters out there.
What would Scrooge McDuck be without his Greed? Gollum without his Obsession is just an aimless savage, Count Rugen without his Sadism is one more bored and boring nobleman, and Michael Corleone without his Sense of Duty (Family) simply walks out of The Godfather around page 30 and never looks back.
Maybe you never stat out your NPCs. Some GMs don’t. It doesn’t matter. This goes beyond character sheets to actual character. Note a problem. Give them a limit. Set a goal.
Sometimes you’ll discover these things in play. In my “Gritty City” superhero campaign, the conversation of a bantering guard indicated that she was angling for blackmail material – which immediately added Greed to her character sheet. (It also significantly shortened her career; trying to blackmail someone who makes drugs for a Hawaiian mobster is not smart.) By contrast, a police ally started with a Sense of Duty and the Reputation “Straight Arrow”; he was the one honest cop in a very dishonest town. That guided a lot of plans, including an epic stretch where a PC had to figure out how to get his help without revealing that she was in cahoots with an organized crime family.
Tags can work, too, but remember where I started: your players can’t see your characters. That means a tag has to be something you can use casually and naturally. A soft accent like Inigo Montoya’s, or a slow and rumbling speech pattern like Treebeard’s? Fine. A physical habit like Nynaeve’s hair? Reasonable if you’re playing face to face, don’t overdo it, and have reasonably long locks. (My “wavy hair” is mostly waving goodbye.) Some tags can grow into bigger, beautiful problems – a PC’s receptionist had horrible luck with automobiles, a fact that affected the logistics of several 
Many of my games are online chat sessions, so I often rely on speech patterns for my tags – especially ones that can suggest details of character background, which in turn may suggest more problems! In my games, I’ve had characters:
  • Always use de classic Joisy way of talkin’. (The character was very sharp, but self-conscious about her lack of education and working-class background in a high-class office environment.)
  • Always use elaborate courtesy and no contractions whatsoever. (This was an older character – as in a centuries old angel – who largely saw the world through the frame of the ancient knightly orders and their modern-day descendants, the armed services.)
  • Swear casually. Like, every other frickin’ sentence. (Another “street” character, a veteran cabbie with a disregard for rules and an awareness of how to survive a tough environment.)
  • Be completely shell-shocked, with lots of pauses and breaks in their speech. (A woman who had been coerced by a demon into participating in her own gang-rape and was still trying to get her life past that moment.)


Done right, even the simplest tags can turn into pure story fuel
And that’s something no one will have trouble seeing.


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