Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mining for gold

Character creation is one of those things that I feel like I really excel at. (others are free to differ) I'm not strong on plotting but I can put together compelling characters and throw them together with the players and mix in complications until the whole mess turns into gumbo. Just keep adding ingredients and stirring. You WILL get gumbo.

As a result, I am always keen to discover good places and thing from which to derive new and interesting characters. I am always looking for a rich vein of potential story. I am always prospecting the human condition...(Goddamn, I do go on, don't I?)

With this in mind, I've got a few tips on how find new ideas for characters

People Watching

I am a professional actor by trade and a gamer/writer by avocation and I have found that my tendency to people watch feeds both. I guarantee that you will learn new things every time.

Every once in while it is a very good idea to throttle back, close the mouth, and watch what others do. It is very instructive it can teach you all manner of things about the human condition. It can give you experience of lives outside your own...And maybe even make a better person out of you. It can give you scenes. It can give you characters and NPC's. Sometimes, it can give you plots and complications because everyday life can be pretty goddamn dramatic.It would be remiss of me (and you too) not to take advantage of this happy state of affairs

Here are some of the best places that I know of, to people watch:

-On the bus/ subway/plane ( people in transit tend to be more fully themselves)
-In bars (alcohol has interesting effects on primates.)
-Any government office (DMV,Employment office, health department)
-At the hospital ( I once worked as a security guard in a hospital and these places are a hotbed of drama. Why do you think there is so many shows on TV about them?
-In court (don't get any ideas, I'm talking traffic court here. Of course, what I said about hospitals goes just as well here)
-While shopping (I understand this is also a good place to meet women.)

Get yourself some black shades (because it is rude to stare or at least to appear to be staring) and go out into the world and watch. Here are a couple of things you can try:

-Try to figure out as much as you can about an individual by just watching him/her. Note the little details. Watch the body language. Listen to the voice and the speech. Really look at the clothes. What do their shoes tell you? What put those wrinkles there, Smiles or frowns?
-Try to make up a story about this person.
-Would this person become an adventurer of some type? And if so what and how?

In the news

In recent years, I've become something of a news junkie. News is a great way to people watch, especially since it means you don't actually have to interact with them or go anyplace. I mean, I'm not like some Poli-Sci major who sits down in front of the tube with a bowl of popcorn and watches 6 hour chunks of C-span, but I do catch the T.V. news. And I do read the local paper and the USA Today whenever I can, and I do subscribe to a couple of Email news services because I like to keep up with what is going on the world. Why? Because, very simply, there is no better source for game material. Plots and characters abound and if you can read between the lines at all, you can see conspiracies everywhere. Dramas play out on the large canvas of Media and you are a fool if you don't strip-mine this rich vein for everything it is worth. If this doesn't make you a student of the human condition, nothing will.

As a player of Top Secret S.I.,Champions,The Storyteller System and CoC it has long been my habit to run games set in the here and now. It is very easy to do this if you have a bit of the news junkie in you. But even fantasy gamers can use the news with a the tiniest of adjustments... Consider:

There is a King who is having an affair with a serving girl. Ordinarily, this wouldn't even raise an eyebrow among the peasantry. Such things are expected after all...But the House of Nobles wants to be rid of this young and popular king and so they appoint one of their own to investigate the king and see if they can depose him on some grounds or other. The serving girl tells one friend who blabs it to the nobles and suddenly the town criers are telling the tale. The Church gets into the act condemning the king for his sins and the nobles call for his abdication on the grounds that he has endangered the kingdom. (suppose the wench had gotten pregnant and then we'd have a war for succession.) Have your players wander into that and see if their heads don't get turned around.

For those of you who might need cliff notes, what I have just described above is the Monica Lewinski scandal.

Exploiting your friends for fun and profit

Here's another possibility...Have you ever created characters loosely based on the people you know? I have gotten great mileage out of my family alone. But when you add in teachers,People at work, friends, acquaintances.... The trick is to let the person in question supply the basic vibe for the character but to change all the details so that the NPC doesn't resemble them. This also has the lovely tendency to create character that you can predict the reactions of.

There is one golden rule for this kind of thing. Do not EVER portray an NPC that is just like one of the players. Very few people can take this as anything other than mockery.

I've seen friendships end over this kind of thing. You have been warned.


Use a time honored method of creative types everywhere: Steal from everything you read,watch or hear about. The trick of this method is to change it enough so that the basic vibe of the character is there but the details are different and you don't identify your source. You never want to be caught saying something like,"He's like Neo from The Matrix."

Your goal is identify what you like about that character and isolate it and find a way to put into another skin. For instance; I like Phantom Menace . It features one of the all-time great bad guys, Darth Maul. My mom and I went to see the movie together and we got to talking about what a shame it was that he was dead. He was such a cool villain. My mom said that he was like a pit bull. And I had to agree that she was right

What was cool about him was that he was quiet, competent, tough, and absolutely utterly relentless. Either you would die or he would. And even if he did there was the likelihood that he would go to his grave with his teeth in your throat. He wasn't a talky-explain-the-entire-plan-kind of bad guy. He just did the job. Heck, "The Terminator" had more lines.

Maul kind of got me to thinking of types of bad guys and their basic vibes and I've started to create a shorthand of types based on villains I've seen before. Anytime I use a Maul-style villain, he shows up, he doesn't talk or explain himself, and then he does his level best to kill you.

A Hannibal Lector style villain would play mind games with you before destroying you, A Rhas Al Ghul style villain doesn't really want to destroy you but you stand in the way of everything he's doing....And so on.


I've gotten in the habit of creating groups of characters at a time: It's actually easier than it sounds. A basic idea for a group will occur to me and that will often suggest the basic types of characters possible in such a group and it's basic dynamic. After that it's all just number crunch.

One of my best examples is the Working Stiffs Pack. I came up with them while working third shift at an all night gas-n-go. I was thinking about making a Garou pack and the idea of a bunch of Bone Gnawers appealed to me. The only gripe I ever had with them was that I never dug the whole Urban Primitive angle that the books seemed to play to. I thought it would be more interesting to have to deal with working in a dead end job in order to make ends meet. Once I had the premise of working in a dead end job it was simple enough to extrapolate. (I've worked a lot of dead end jobs.)

Crimson Heaven was much the same way: It was a pack of youngish Sabbat Vampires who were into Rave culture, and who were trafficking in a mix of Heroin and highly addictive blood. I actually came up with the idea for the drug first and then the characters came about as a way of explaining how the drug came to be in the junior high of my players.

Sono Finito.


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