Wednesday, June 22, 2005

If you hum a few bars I'll fake it...

New ideas to write about in this column, seem to be getting harder to come by. Nevertheless, I may have stumbled onto a new way to work. It's called a Fake Book.

To a musician, especially a career musician, a Fake Book is an invaluable tool. It is a large book containing hundreds of basic standard songs with just the notation for the melody. It gives the musician, the tonic, time signature, the words and the melody line. Nothing else. That way they can jam lots of tunes into a single book and leave any harmony parts and ornamentation up to the individual artist. Either to write in himself or to improvise as circumstances permit. Fake books are often filled with the most pedestrian melodies. (Happy birthday to you, old Elvis songs,Christmas songs. and so on.)

For a GM, A Fake Book, would be a large notebook with every single character made for a specific game. Now if you're like me,terrifying though that thought might be, You are the sort of GM who really digs making interesting characters for your players to bounce off of. But sometimes it might seem like making a whole lot of characters can be a huge amount of work. But with a bit of sneaky bastard creativity. A Fake Book can make it seem like you are an utter genius and do the work of twenty writers.

Not every antagonist needs to be a custom job.
It is shocking but true: It's actually much easier to back and fill than to be really creative in the first place. Case in Point: My players are about to run afoul of some enemy that wants them very dead but I've not had time to slap together a villain that will make them sweat for this specific scenario. Not to worry. Leafing through my Fake Book, I find an old nemesis who hasn't made an appearance in a while. The mere shock on their faces might be fun. " Chuang Shen!?! What are you doing in Iceland?"

As I said, backing and filling is easy. Either Chuang Shen was hired to whack the characters by the main villain because he knows that the wily mandarin bears a grudge against our heroes. Or perhaps Master Chuang is attacking the characters because the other villain has kidnapped his little daughter Jasmine. (If the players beat him, he'll confess and maybe gain their help in stopping the mutual enemy. Interesting turn, No?)

You can also consider the history of certain campaigns. Say that you play both "Vampire: The Dark Ages" and "Vampire: The Masquerade." The possibility to use characters in both is very useful. You can also create the occasional con game and bring characters from them into your regular game, or vice versa.

Filling off the serial numbers
Some GM's get all bent out of shape when you dust their pet villain. Not me. I always consider the possibility that maybe the villain that the players dust is merely the baby of the family and is maybe the least powerful and/or the least subtle sibling or child. Thus you can always use a villains sheet as template for other family members. If the villain had no family, well heck, even serial killers inspire copycats. Sift through the graveyard, every once in a while and you might find gold. It might be interesting to have the players have to deal with a plot that is already in motion started by a villain that the players whacked some time ago. Perhaps the villain was smart enough to plan his own resurrection in his old body or in some new,more hideous, form.

If a villains powers were from some gadget or other, that gadget is some other hands now. If it's in the player's hands then nutcases of the same stripe as the past villain will come out of the woodwork to claim it. If the gadget is not in their hands it will find it's way into the hands of some mental case who is bad as the original.

In certain types of games you can make a template for certain types and use it as much as you dare without the players finding out. Superhero games are usually pretty good for this. ( The fast guy, the strong guy, the mentalist...Etc.)

Crowd Scenes
There are times when it becomes necessary to throw a whole bunch of bad people at the players and make their lives unpleasant. Nazis, Ninjas, Gangsters, Gangstas, and Police are perennial favorites. Usually one sheet can accommodate a whole mess of goons, mooks, and miscreants. Keep a few pages of basic mook types appropriate to your game's genre and you'll never be at a total loss. Makes sure you put everything you need on these sheets to run full on combat. It useless to have a skeletal sheet and then be forced to use a dozen books for reference when the fight breaks out. That saves no time or energy. Spend the time to make them complete now.

Also make multiple tracks of Health levels or hit points or whatever and give each one a name to help you keep account, even if the names are just Moe,Larry, Curly, Shemp, and Curly Joe.

"You know, that guy that we met that time..."
Here's a thought. I've always been one to advocate the use of a stable of characters. Not only can you have a passell of beginning characters stuck in your book for use by new players, but you can also use those beginning PC's as NPC's until a player comes along to fill his shoes. The only tricky bit is that you have to put every interaction with the party on the PC's sheet so the new player knows the backstory when he starts playing. That way he won't get blindsided by the fact that the players seem to know him and seem to know about him too. A player can take a former NPC in an entirely new and interesting direction. You really should however avoid having too many people playing a particular NPC. If two or three players have played someone without taking the character on permanently, then go ahead a kill the character and fill his role in the campaign with another character who is not so easy to get along with.

Increased utility
Whenever you've made a character, unless he's some really basic combat meatball, you should give some thought to how you are going to use him in a story. You should try thinking beyond the immediate needs of the story. While a character might have a very specific role in a story or campaign, take some time and try to think of alternate ways to use the person. When you make a villain you should consider under what circumstances that villain would work with the hero.(Few villains think of themselves as bad people. They might respect your heroes if they weren't so damn naive.) Perhaps, your players try making characters that are a little on the shady side and the old villain might actually be an acquaintance, ally or mentor. This give you an unprecedented opportunity to show things from that villain's side. Heroic allies of former characters can be implacable and misguided enemies of the new shady characters. Each new character I place on my webpages, I try to think of at least 3 possible ways to use them in a story.

This also has the happy side effect of forcing you to see whether or not your characters are three dimensional or not. Although, I should say that there is nothing wrong with a character being less than fully fleshed, as long as they compelling in some way. Like say, Darth Maul. Plus, as I said, it's easier to back and fill than it is to be creative in the first place. The next time the players encounter the person you could have a great deal of time to fill in his backstory and make him into something more. Darth Vader seems 2 dimensional in Star Wars. But with the advent of the first trilogy movies we really begin to understand his true nature and depth.

Suppose, you have an NPC mook who manages to escape a bad beating at the hands of the players. This guy has seen them work,knows what they are capable of. Suppose that this guy starts growing in power. He might see the players as a serious threat that his bosses might miss, to their peril. If the former mook becomes the boss, he might want the players out of the way...From small things you can find great plots.

The cornerstone of this whole mess is that it forces you to consider the lives of the various characters in your fake book. Once you have a good understanding of the character motivations, you can get adventure ideas just by leafing through the book. The numbers are useful, but only as a tool of the agenda. The agenda enables you to improvise.

Organization is key. After a while your fake book can take on epic porportions what with villains, Allies, interested neutrals, capsule description of contacts and whatever (which should metamorphose into full blown characters eventually.) While it may seem anal retentive to an unbelievable degree, tabbed pages and color coding can save a lot of hunting time. You might even consider printing certain types of characters in different colors of Ink. Some people also swear by palmtops and laptops. But these tools can be as big of an impediment as they can be a labor saver if they aren't organized neatly. If you are using a regular notebook or dayrunner for your Fake Book make sure to leave a bit of space for clean paper for note jotting, a pocket for writing implements, and a pocket to hold your screen. I've found that I can get to a game with nothing more than a game's core book, my fake book (with it's heavily annotated sheets) and a poke of dice. I remember all too well the dark days when I felt I had to bring a metric Jesus-load of materials to a game in order to be prepared.

Genre Diving
If your game has a specific sort of genre that it adheres to, then you might want to sit down and write up a list of the various roles that you'll need to fill in that game world. For instance, I'm wildly crazy about Aeon Adventure and I've got a list of character types a mile long of people to create. Including gangsters, mysticks, career criminal specialists, nutjob villains, smart and dangerous villains. And so on and so forth. a list can help direct what you end up making. This is of course a good excuse to purchase movies and books for "research" purposes.

The whole point of this is to anticipate possible needs in a campaign. Let me give you an example. At some point in nearly every game I've ever run it's been a good idea for players to acquire a new ID. I try to create a guy that fits into that shadowy world of the criminal specialist. Half "Meg Colburn" and half "Louis the Gnome." I don't have to drive characters to meet this guy. But I've got him made for when they need to get out of Kabul with forged documents.

Sono Finito


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