First, check with the con; some conventions will specify how many players they want at a table. Normally, this number is five or six. If they have such a requirement, stick to it – it’s there for a reason. (Seating arrangements, mainly, plus it’s a lot easier for the rpg co-ordinator to look at a room full of tables and go ‘right, I need to rustle up two more players for that table, one for that one, and three for the poor guy in the corner’ instead of ‘agh, are there four or seven spaces in the GURPS: Combat Gardening game?’) Let’s assume six player characters.
What goes into them?
At minimum, each player character needs to have:
- A roleplaying hook (even one as simple as ‘arrr, you’re a pirate’)
- A reason to be in the game (why is this person here? What’s his role? Why does he not walk away in the opening scene)
- Something to contribute to the game (can this character actually do anything in the game?)
- Enough stats to be usable in the system being used. (pity the poor spellcaster in the D&D game who’s not given any spells)
Ideally, the character should also have some or all of:
- A hook into the plot (‘my cousin’s been turned into a werewolf?’ or even better ‘agh! I’ve been bitten by a werewolf, and I’m doomed unless I find a cure in 24 hours!’)
- Descriptions and connection to the other player characters (again, the number of games where my character has allegedly worked with the other player characters for years, but doesn’t actually know their names yet, absolutely beggars belief)
- A full character description (keep this short, but evocative)
- A full character sheet (all necessary stats, ideally with an explanation of what they mean.)
- Copies of the necessary rules (spell writeups, equipment descriptions, etc)
- A nametag or other props
Now, all that should fit onto two pages, at most (not including any copies of additional rules). You want the players to be able to read and digest all this information within ten to twenty minutes, and ideally much less. Some of your players will show up early and be sitting ready to play for half an hour before the last stragglers show up, so give them something to read. Your stragglers, though, need to be able to play the character with a very quick glance through the character sheet. It’s something of a balancing act.
Player characters do not exist in a vacuum – the interrelations between the characters are vitally important. How will the player characters relate to each other? There are two aspects to consider – the functional and the interpersonal.
Functional relations are all about what the different player characters do. D&D breaks this down nicely – you’ve got the fighter, the cleric, the mage, the rogue and so on. The roles in the group are clearly defined. Other games aren’t so upfront about it, but it still boils down to Fighting Guy, Stealthy Guy, Talking Guy, Rich Guy, Computers Guy, Sniper Rifle Guy, Medic Guy, Driving Guy or whatever. Each character’s role should be clearly defined enough for another player to be able to say with confidence ‘right, this is clearly a job for Strong guy’.
That said, don’t overspecialise a character so much that he can’t contribute in other scenes. Just because I’m playing Fighty Guy doesn’t mean my character should have to sit there and be quiet when Talky Guy is talking. You want to give every character their own niche, but not pigeon-hole them so much that they can only do one thing and nothing else.
Don’t create characters that have nothing to do. If I’m playing Talky Guy, then I want opportunities to talk to people. Talky Guy works really well in a political game or an investigative game, but sucks in a dungeon crawl. Similarly, if I’m playing Archery Guy, then I need a chance to shoot people, or at least threaten people with a bow. Make sure players aren’t left out.
(Oh, it’s almost as bad to have one and exactly one encounter that’s specifically designed to be one player character’s chance to shine. If I’m playing an engineer with no combat skills in a Traveller game, then I’m not going to enjoy a game where I spend 95% of it sitting in the corner while the combat munchkins shoot bugs, but then there’s a Big ‘Dramatic’ scene where I’ve got to make one really hard skill roll that only the engineer has a chance of succeeding to boost the engines as we escape. It’s obvious, cheesy and doesn’t address the underlying problem at all.)
So, what are good functional dynamics for a group? Again, D&D has it easy – you need a few fighters, a healer, a thief, a mage and so on. Faction-based games like Vampire or In Nomine or L5r – y’know, the 90s – also make it easy enough, as each faction has a clearly defined gimmick that’s enough to hang the character’s hat on. For other games, the different functional roles depend on the style of game. Call of Cthulhu groups might break down into Occult Guy, Doctor Guy, Fighty Guy, Police Guy, Credit Rating Guy, Forensics Guy, Academic Guy. Make sure everyone has some functional role in the group.
Different styles of play will emphasise functional over interpersonal relationships. A dungeon crawl is all about the functional relationships – it’s not a huge deal that Brog the Half-Orc thinks that Effetto the Elf Mage is a wimp, as long as Brog holds the monsters off with his axe while Effeto casts fireball. Other games do the opposite – Effeto may be the only character who can interpret the clue that Brog found, but if Brog completely distrusts the elf, then Brog’s player may choose not to pass the clue onto the elf, thus stalling the game.
- Should be hooks for roleplaying. Talky Guy and Fighty Guy who just happen to be working together is much less interesting than Talky Guy and his brother, Fighty Guy, or Talky Guy who stole Fighty Guy’s girlfriend six months ago
- Should keep the group together. Talky Guy trusts Fighty Guy because they’re brothers.
- Should give the players who aren’t directly connected to the plot a stake in the outcome. (‘You’re cursed to become a werewolf? But…I’m your wife. Maybe I should help you find a cure.’)
- Should promote conflict and debate – you want the player characters to have interesting arguments and divisions, but not so intense that the group tears itself apart in the opening scene.
For a convention game, you should write the plot around the player characters. Instead of being hired by the King to slay that pesky dragon, then have one of the player characters be the prince, another the captain of the royal guard, another the royal wizard… hell, send the Pope into the dungeon, why not? It’s a one-shot con game, you can push the boundaries. You can give the players a much more personal stake in the outcome than normal.
Not all the characters need to have such a hook, but they should all be connected to such a hook. For example, in one Cthulhu scenario (Black Roots), three of the player characters were targeted by the evil cult (and were living mandrake roots, but that’s another matter), while the other three were each connected to one of the first group (army buddy, wife of army buddy, brother). The opening scene dragged the first three into the plot, while the interpersonal relationships brought the rest into the game.
The aim here, by the way, is not to determine every aspect of the character for the player; it’s to give him a springboard. Never state what the character will do, never use absolutes. ‘You’re a low-down, untrustworthy bastard’ is good; ‘you will never keep your word and always betray people’ is too limiting.
(An aside: An enthusiastic player will take a scrap of paper with the word ‘fighter’ on it and turn it into a compelling and interesting character. A bad player will take your brilliant two-page write-up of compelling character background and read it out in a monotone).
Player characters must be the ones who are involved in solving whatever mystery or problem there is. This means that they must either be:
- The only ones who can do it (D&D adventurers, superheroes, etc)
- Employed to do it (40k Inquisitors, hired mercs)
- Personally involved in the problem (my cousin’s been abducted by aliens, and no-one else will believe me), or
- The only ones present (we’re trapped in this isolated hotel).
Why aren’t the police/the army/the gods/the elder vampires etc handling this? Why the player characters?
In a few games, you can assume that the whole party will move as a single (six-headed, dodecapedal) entity. Most of the time, though, you can assume that the group will split up for at least a few encounters. Having one player off on his own for too long is bad; it’s much better to have pairs of player characters who will naturally work together, giving each person someone to talk to. Try to have two or three natural partnerships in the group, making sure that no player is isolated from the rest. This is especially important if the player characters do not all know or trust each other.
SECRETS & CONFLICT
Giving a player character a secret agenda can lead to wonderful intrigue. Player characters make the best adversaries, and it’s great when the conflict is internal to the player group. However, be very careful when writing such secret missions into a character background. In a con game, you want to have the players working together for at least 2/3rds of the game. Ideally, conflict between players should be restricted to the finale. Up until this point, low-key bickering is fine, but outright conflict between player characters should be avoided.
One common manifestation of this is the ‘weird’ or loner character. For example, one of the player characters might be a spy for the Evil Overlord. On its own, this could work very well – the player can rely the occasional message to the bad guys, the players can wonder exactly how the bad guys are prepared for them, and so forth, and in the final battle, the evil player character can have a nice dramatic ‘mwhahaha’ moment. The trouble is when the evil character is also the untrustworthy or bizarre character. If the obvious and best course of action is to kill one of the other player characters from the opening scene, that’s a badly written character.
Another common issue is putting player characters in positions of authority or responsibility over others. This is problematic enough in most games, but can be absolute poison in a con game. Many players will chafe at having to obey the commands of a stranger, especially if you’ve got a wide disparity in play styles or maturity levels. Ideally, all the characters should be equal, or have a non-player character within easy reach who can resolve disputes over whose in charge. Avoid situations where, twenty minutes into the scenario, Captain Tightpants is attempting to court-martial Sergeant Munchkin for shooting an unarmed civilian.
A variation on the authority problem is to have several player characters be agents of a corporation or government, where it’s in their interest to stonewall the other player characters. This is especially common in disaster scenarios. Say you’ve got six player characters on board a space liner – three of them are crew of the liner, and three of them are passengers, and then the liner is attacked by pirates. The crew are going to spend the first hour of the scenario telling the other player characters to go back to their cabins and wait for the authorities to deal with the situation, don’t panic, everything is under control.
If the scenario calls for the characters to have authority, make sure that this authority does not extend to dictating the ‘correct’ actions of other player characters. Anarchy is one of S. John Ross’ Five Elements of Commercially Viable RPG Design for a reason (as an aside, that essay at http://www.io.com/~sjohn/five-elements.htm and the Big List of RPG Plots at http://www.io.com/~sjohn/plots.htm are both absolutely wonderful resources).
Even if your game is a political drama without any combat at all, you should still provide at least some character stats. The players will try stunts you never anticipated, so give the GM at least some numbers to play with. If you’re running a combat or rule-heavy game, then you must provide the necessary rules. I have played D&D games where the scenario writer forgot to include spells for the spellcasters and hit points for anyone else. I’ve played in games where there weren’t any stats at all. If you’re going for the arty freeform end of the spectrum, that’s great – but don’t call it Call of Cthulhu and then forget the Sanity values for the PCs. You don’t need to do up a full character sheet, especially in the more complicated games (no-one ever gave a damn about encumbrance values), but you should have all the necessary information on the character sheet.
If the character has unique powers or abilities – including Merits/Flaws or Feats or Stunts or whatever – then these should not only be listed, but also explained. If you’ve got a D&D character with Combat Expertise and Improved Feint, then try to put a brief synopsis of the power on the character sheet. (Alternatively, give each player a rules reference document). Even if you can’t describe the power in full, give the player an idea of what the power does so they’ll know when it’s appropriate to ask the GM about it. This is especially important if the power’s name is misleading or cryptic. (For example, in one Conan game, I gave a PC the Deceitful feat, which gives a bonus to Disguise and Forgery skill rolls, but I didn’t explain it. As a result, the player kept asking if he could ‘use his Deceit’ for bluffing, tricking foes in combat and so on.)
Special note for In Nomine scenario writers: Putting Corporeal Song of Matter or whatever on a character sheet is worse than useless. Give me at least a vague idea what the power does.
(There’s a debate – and I’ll be returning to it later – about the importance of rules in a con game. Certainly, keeping the action moving is much more important than getting bogged down in rules disputes, especially when you’re trying to cram a whole adventure into a three-hour slot. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the rules of the game system you’re writing the scenario for. A lot of players use con games to try out new systems, so you should always include the most distinctive bits of the system even if you elide some rules. You can simplify the convention character sheet a little, but you shouldn’t treat the rules as an optional extra.)
Remember how I said that we’d assume six player characters? That’s the ideal, but players are, well, not the most reliable. You might get six players for your game. You might get five. You might get only two, then three more show up, then one of the first two suddenly remembers he’s got to leave early half-way through the slot. You should be ready for missing players when you write up the characters.
There are several ways to minimise the impact of missing players:
- Write one or two characters who are not directly involved in the plot. Sir Chumly’s been bitten by a werewolf, and the plot of the game is that Sir Chumly must find a cure. Great. That’s the plot of the game, and it won’t work without Sir Chumly. However, Sir Chumly’s alcoholic brother Kevin can be dropped from the player group without significant impact if you don’t have a sixth player.
- Provide graceful exits for characters: Some player characters can become non-player characters very easily. A cowardly thief in a D&D game can become so cowardly that he hides during a fight, and shows up only to open doors and search for traps. A Nosferatu spy can be converted into a sinister NPC information broker.
At minimum, provide a list of the PCs and note which ones can be dropped without impacting the game.
EXAMPLE: A GOOD GROUP OF PLAYER CHARACTERS
I’m going to use my own scenarios as an example of both good and bad design here. We’ll start with the simple Conan romp Sacrifices of the Well, where a bunch of PCs are chucked into a dungeon to be sacrificed to a sea god. It’s basically a dungeon crawl with a bit more pulpy action, and can be downloaded from: http://www.irishgaming.com/scenario_storage/gh/sacrifices.zip
The PCs are:
- Sun and Moon, twin Cimmerian barbarians and sellswords.
- Athenos, a Zingaran knight-errant and protector of…
- Mara, a Shemite scholar and demon-hunter
- Jan Three-Knives, an acrobat and thief from Aquilonia, here to steal the temple treasury
- Corac the Reaver, a pirate. His rival, Red Ubar, is in league with the priests of the well.
It’s a combat-heavy scenario, so five of the six player characters are pretty good at fighting. They also all have their own style – Sun’s a big bruiser, Moon’s an archer, Athenos is a swordsman, Jan backstabs people, and Corac’s a swashbuckler. Mara’s the only character who isn’t a front-line fighter, and she’s got enough spells to be interesting in a fight (plus, she can make zombies, which is always fun).
The PCs are divided into three groups of two – Sun and Moon are siblings, Athenos is Mara’s bodyguard, and Corac and Jan are both rogues who know each other. Everyone’s got an ally, which is important as the groups don’t know each other when the scenario begins.
Mara’s secret mission is to kill the demon who lives in the Pit; Corac wants revenge on the pirate who betrayed him, and Jan wants to steal the treasury. The Cimmerians just want to escape, although they’ll fight for gold if hired by another PC. All three groups, then, have largely parallel goals, but there’s the potential for conflict at certain branch points.
Everyone has a minimalist character sheet written up that describes their basic abilities and skills; any unusual abilities are noted and explained. There’s space to write down armour and weapons, as the group starts the game without any gear.
It’s not the most complicated bunch of player characters, but it worked very well.
A BAD GROUP OF PLAYER CHARACTERS
These are from a Call of Cthulhu scenario I wrote called Curtain of the Mind; it was a 60s spy game where both sides in the Cold War are using Mythos sorcery.
The PCs were:
· Kyle Wayland: The head DOA agent on the mission, Wayland is a bit of a cold fish.
· Nancy Grey: One of the DOA’s best sorcerers, this is Grey’s first field mission. She’s learned a lot of magic, but has little experience in the horrors it evokes.
· Elijah Snow: He was a sniper on the original team who retrieved the Necronomicon. Now he’s part of a necromantic program – if killed, he’s merely reduced to his essential salts, and can be revived using a spell.
· Tad Delwood: A CIA agent, Delwood’s an expert at handling extractions and defections. He’s made a terrible mistake on this mission, though – he’s having an affair with the wife of his current assignment.
· Akaky Davatrovitch: A Russian archaeologist and occultist, Akaky was involved in excavating Bektrict’s laboratory beneath Berlin. He’s increasingly alarmed by what his work is being used for, and wants out.
· Olga Davatrovitch: Akaky’s young wife, Olga comes of old peasant stock, and knows much about the Old Gods and why they should not be trifled with.
The DOA, by the way, was the Department of Arcana, the secret American group using Cthulhoid magic to fight the Cold War. The plot is that the three DOA agents are sent to Berlin to make contact with Akaky, who knows about this laboratory under Berlin with those damn Commies are doing evil stuff. The DOA guys go into the laboratory, find out about nastiness in Siberia, and go off there to stop it. The twist is that the DOA guy in charge is actually planning to betray them and use them to nuke Russia with Azathoth.
From a rules perspective, the characters were ok – each of them had a full character sheet, background notes, and even the characters with spells had a workable description of each ‘formula.’ They’re all moderately interesting to read. The problems arose in play.
Firstly, Olga has absolutely nothing to do. She knows a little about the Mythos, but that’s all. In play, she was ignored by everyone other than her husband Akaky and her lover Delwood, and even they just wanted to keep her safe and quiet.
Secondly, Elijah Snow is much too passive. His schtick is cool – a soldier who can be resurrected from his essential saltes time and time again – but he’s got no real personality to go with it.
The real problem, though, is that the DOA agents have no particular need to interact with the other three characters. As written, they go to Berlin, learn the location of the laboratory from Akaky, and then… well, logically, they say goodbye to Akaky, Olga and Delwood and head off on their little commando mission. There’s no reason to keep the other three player characters in the loop at all. Delwood might be able to muscle his way in, but there’s no real reason for the DOA agents to let Akaky and certainly not Olga go along on the rest of the mission.
Worse, the main subplot – Olga’s affair with Delwood – is entirely irrelevant to the main plot, and is affects only those three sidelined player characters. This means that while the DOA agents are running around Berlin blowing stuff up, the other three are sitting in the safe house having their own little domestic dispute.
To fix this scenario, the second group of three characters need to have a much better reason to work with the first group. Akaky should have some knowledge that’s vital to the mission; maybe Olga could be the only one who can guide them to the ritual site in Siberia.
So, what have we learned?
- Character stats are good; full character sheets are better; specially written character sheets with explanations of unusual rules and abilities are best
- Make sure that the characters are uniquely suited to the adventure, and have a stake in the outcome
- Make sure the characters have a reason to work together, but optionally sow seeds of dissent and conflict
- Make sure that everyone can contribute to the adventure, but stay away from having one-note characters