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Diversifying PreGens and NPCs

The incomparable Josephine Baker. [1]

The incomparable Josephine Baker.

Sometime last week, I got a message from a friend who was starting the early stages of his prep for next year’s convention games and wanted some advice. His dilemma was that he wanted to run a Hollow Earth Expedition [2] game that was faithful to the 1930’s setting, but still provide characters that are friendly for a table of diverse players. Looking through the archetypes in the book, he was drawing a blank on ways to include female characters that would make sense in the much more chauvinistic pre-WWII era.

Back when I wrote the article [3] on character gender in RPGs, I mentioned that it was still all too common for convention GMs to come to the table with a cast of only male characters. While it’s definitely not as bad now as it was back in the late 80’s when I first got into gaming, it’s not uncommon to still run into a lack of interesting female characters. Many of the games we play encourage a more egalitarian approach to characters, but not all GMs or players think to bring that variety to the table.

To my friend’s credit as a really awesome GM, he often gets a table full of repeat customers, including many women gamers. Because of this, he’s well aware of the need for a diverse cast of PCs, but in trying to stay true to the time period of the setting, he was drawing a blank on what to do for interesting female characters that wouldn’t feel out of place or anachronistic.

Hollow Earth encourages character creation based on archetypes, so I quickly ran through them, throwing different character ideas at my friend:

I always wanted to grow up to be Marion Ravenwood. [10]

I always wanted to grow up to be Marion Ravenwood.

As a female gamer, and someone who primarily plays female characters, I’m always thinking of ways to make strong, interesting female characters that fit in archetypes that would be stereotypically considered male. For the convention games I run, my pregens are always an equal mix of female and male characters, or characters that could be tweaked to be either gender. The area where I have to push myself is in creating characters from outside my own culture and ethnicity. Players don’t need a mirror of themselves in the characters they play, but it can be nice to have an aspect of familiarity they may recognize or identify with. Since, thankfully, not all the players are going to be exactly like me, I like trying to provide a variety of characters.

Not every array of characters needs to be a rainbow of diversity, but it’s good to bring some variety to the table for the wide assortment of players you might get.
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The idea of diverse characters should also extend to thinking about the NPCs we bring into our games. It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes and tropes that are familiar, but many of those are very homogenous. The friendly male bartender. The stern male blacksmith. The slimy male politician. The hardworking male beat cop. The chatty male shopkeeper. Sure, these are an easy shorthand every GM should have in their mental toolbox, but our games could be so much more textured if we take a moment or two to add some variety and flavor to the NPCs our players meet.

I’m guessing the conversation with my friend helped because he came back shortly with four different female character concepts that will all work nicely with the setting and the game he’s planning on running. Not every array of characters needs to be a rainbow of diversity, but it’s good to bring some variety to the table for the wide assortment of players you might get.

What are your experiences with pregen characters or NPCs where you’ve mixed up expectations and brought a little diversity to the table?


Addendum: When I published the article, I hadn’t had a chance to clear mentioning him by name, but the GM I’m referencing is Ed Rollins who runs for Matinee Adventures [16], a group that runs games mostly at Origins, but some other cons as well. If you get a chance to play with them, I highly recommend it. They give good game.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Diversifying PreGens and NPCs"

#1 Comment By Clawfoot On June 25, 2015 @ 6:28 am

These days, whenever I provide pre-gen characters for a game, I just don’t bother defining gender or skin colour/culture on the sheet (I’d say “I don’t define race,” but if it’s a fantasy world, I have to define elf/dwarf/human/whatever). And I NEVER define sexuality. The sheet provides stats, skills, the mechanics of the character, and a few sentences on background (kept neutral) and personality.

The rest is up to the player. If they want to pick the big, tough, ex-pro-wrestler and say it’s a woman — go ahead! I’m sure there were professional wrestling leagues for women in just about every era (even if they were underground). And you know, even if there weren’t, THERE ARE NOW, in this particular game world at least.

If they want to pick the shy, blushing healer of the party and say he’s a black man? Absolutely! An obnoxiously overconfident hotshot pilot/smuggler who’s also a Japanese woman? Go for it! The fashion-forward socialite who hates getting their hands dirty and is a Latino? Why not?

Does that mean you might wind up with a party that has four women and one man in a sexist world? And/or nobody who is white in a very white-dominated environment? Absolutely.

It might throw up some extra obstacles, but HOW ON EARTH IS THAT A PROBLEM?? 🙂

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On June 25, 2015 @ 11:13 am

I did this with my Doctor Who pregens. They each have a background and some personality (due to the Good Traits, Bad Traits), but name, age, and gender is left up to the player. The only one I put a caveat on is ‘The Historian’ who generally has to be male since he actually fought in WWI. It’s always interesting to see what spin players put on the characters. ‘The Artist’ has everything from a chain-smoking hipster to a ditsy flower love-child.

The open, undefined character doesn’t work for every game, though, especially if you’re running a game where the relationships and connections between the PCs are an integral part of the game. There, you’ll have to define the characters a bit more concretely.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On June 25, 2015 @ 9:40 am

I normally take the same dodge as Clawfoot, and leave name, race and gender for the player to determine on my pregens. That said, when I’m building pregens with a more detailed history or concrete interactions, I try to diversify the cast.

I like your list of woman exemplars above; while the 1930s wasn’t the least progressive era, it’s cheering to see how many interesting interpretations there are for dynamic, fun to play women.

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On June 25, 2015 @ 11:29 am

The 1930’s definitely weren’t progressive, but it’s interesting to see how some women hung onto the gains of the 1920’s during such a tumultuous time. 🙂

#5 Comment By black campbell On June 25, 2015 @ 10:10 am

Stop! Historian time!

From the beginning of the teens until just after WWII, females were seeing a sharp expansion in their ability to enter the work force, but the sort of extraordinary person that you would see in a pulp setting was, surprisingly, very very possible, especially in certain fields of endeavor: science and academics was one place women were making serious inroads, but in the new fields of aviation, car and motorcycle racing and stunting, women were a frequent sight.

From the amazing Bessie Coleman (also black), the flashy Jackie Cochran (who would later screw over the Mercury 13 female astronauts) to the funny and ballsy Pancho Barnes –women were onthe forefront of aviation; to Bessie Stringfield, the illustrious Dot Robinson, and the Van Buren sisters who broke boundaries on motorcycles; and check out Violetta Morris — boxer, car racer, and Nazi puncher. I can think of dozens of improtant female explorers and sicentists in just the ’30s alone…

The trick with any historical setting — no matter how much verisimilitude you want to maintain, the PCs are EXTRAORDINARY…they’re the people that buck convention, or use it to their benefit.

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On June 25, 2015 @ 11:21 am

Some excellent examples, and some that I didn’t even know about. 🙂 I’ve got some wikipedia cruising to do later on.

The hard part with historical games is finding the balance the essence of the setting with the modern sensibilities of the players. I want the characters to be extraordinary, but I also want them to exist within the setting of the game. If we’re not careful as GMs, the PCs can feel like they’re time travelers who’ve just happened to end up in that time period rather than characters that are from that time period. I’ve seen this happen in Victorian games before, and it’s always a little disappointing.

#7 Comment By black campbell On June 26, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

True enough, but if you’ve got good player buy-in, they should be willing to make a break between their sensibilities and those of the period. So maybe a gentleman in the Victorian sic-fi game might seek to protect the sensibilities of a female character, who in turn doesn’t give a fig the heathens are naked; a post WWII agent might get to hold down the fort outside while male agents storm the bad guys base…then she goes around the back and stops the bad guys from escaping, anyway; she might still get called “toots” or “doll” but still be respected…it’s just the way they talked then.

Similarly, maybe you’re running a game in a period where racism is de rigeur. An example for how to handle this I might throw out would be “The Ghost and the Darkness” where the lead white male character still treats the natives as scenery, save for those he’s befriended — this would be a period appropriate example for ho PCs of different races might react to each other. White characters in foreign settings might find themselves the target of not-so-subtle racism in return. (I used this in my ’30s Shanghai game — there was an amount of racial tension between the Chinese and American characters, even though they liked and respected each other. Worse was the treatment of the half-English/Chinese gangster by the Chinese population; the white folks treated him with much more respect. He could “pass.”)

#8 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On June 25, 2015 @ 10:21 am

Thanks for the article. I am in the process of polishing up a World of Darkness (modern) offering for a local con in a few months and I will be offering pre-gens. (Players can come with their own characters, too, but I expect most will not create a whole new character for a con one-shot.) I intend to offer six options for a five-seat table. Half of them will be female, and at least two will be non-white. Each will have connections to the adventure built in to their concept or background.

Here’s my question: Do you think I should anticipate any push-back from players who might feel stuck playing a race or gender with which they do not identify? (As in: “Wait, I have to play a girl? I don’t want to play a girl!”)

Of course, my first impulse is to say that those sorts of responses should be un-welcome (though I would never say so point-blank). My more reasoned sense is that such a character offers players the opportunity to play a role they might not otherwise choose…

Still, should I anticipate any problems, and if I do run into those sorts of responses, how should I deal with them? I do not want to implicitly condone sexism or racism (and I will carefully avoid possibly offensive stereotypes, as the article recommends); on the other hand, I do want the players to have fun!

#9 Comment By Angela Murray On June 25, 2015 @ 11:05 am

I don’t think you’ll see any push back. If you get any, it might be from a less mature player, but I’ve played in quite a few con games in recent years and never seen anyone get visibly upset for having to pick up a character of the opposite gender. In fact, it might surprise you how many guys are willing or wanting to play female characters. I’ve played in games where I’ve ended up with a male character because I got there late and guys had already taken the female characters.

I find there are two types of players when it comes to picking pregens at a con game. The ones who jump on what they want right away and the ones who hang back and take whatever’s left.

On the player made characters, make sure to give them a good look before letting them into the game. I’ve seen some games go sideways because the GMs allowed a player to bring in their home character and didn’t look closely enough to realize how unbalancing the character was. Usually pregens are pretty balanced to work as a group, and having a twinked addition tossed in can really throw the dynamic off.

Good luck with it! 🙂

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