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A little TLC for OPC (Other People’s Characters)

Caring about characters is a tricky thing. Many GMs struggle just to get players to like their own character–to treat their character as a person, with coherent thoughts and feelings, instead of viewing their character as an attractive array of powers and stats.

Once you do reach that lofty pinnacle of caring about your character, there’s a further step awaiting. Now that your character is becoming vivid and real to you… what about all of those other characters at the table? Unwinder’s question [1] touches on that topic…

Hi, I’m starting a new campaign soon, and I’ve noticed sort of an issue with some of the campaigns I’ve run in the past – Nobody cares about anyone else’s characters.

Sure, they’ll rescue each other when they’re in trouble, and sometimes they’ll strategize with each other in particularly rough combat situations, but aside from that, they’re completely unrelated characters who just happen to be on a team together. Whenever roleplaying occurs, it’s strictly PC/NPC, and never PC/PC. Looking at all the PCs from my last campaign, I can remember their character concepts, their trademark moves, their personalities, but I can’t remember at all how any of the characters related with each other.

I’ve got a few ideas (which I’d love to share) but I’m wondering if you’ve got any tips for encouraging characters to work as an ensemble rather than a group of six totally insular protagonists, at character creation and beyond.

Before I begin (and possibly forget to extend the offer): I’d love to hear your advice Unwinder! Please share your ideas in comments.

As for my own answers… they’re a scatter shot. You can approach character identification from a lot of different directions.

First, Love Yourself

Not to be all ‘Dr. Phil’, but getting players to care about each others characters probably won’t happen before they care about their own. If they spend all of their time calculating deflection angles and visualizing the circumstances that net the largest attack bonuses, they’re probably not ready to spend their characterization on interpersonal bonds. So, step one is to make sure that they care about their own characters. (I’m going to just assume that this step is taken care of. If you need help with this, the Stew has a lot of articles on the topic. I’d love to recommend a dozen.)

By Design

One way of creating characters that interrelate is to make their relationship part of character generation. There are a lot of ways to tie characters together–heck, I wrote a whole article [2] exploring some methods to create binding ties. But binding ties or group character generation don’t necessarily involve player level interest–interest is a deeper level of buy in.

So why did I bring it up? Because before the game begins is the perfect time to get people interested in each other’s stories. During the game, players have a lot to keep track of–their character’s thoughts and motivations, the math behind their powers and abilities, puzzling out your mysteries (with their flashlight [3]), plus keeping track of each other’s health and combat status, tactical analysis, and so on. Before the game begins–before all of the distractions crop up–you can identify a character’s core story, their sine qua non [4]. If the player has an interesting core story for their character, this can be the moment that everyone buys in as an audience for the story.

If you have characters with similar backgrounds, picking good wedge issues [5] to set them apart should interest both players. They already know that their characters are fundamentally the same at one level… so hopefully they’ll pay particular attention to their dark twin.

In Early Play

If your game has a prologue, where the GM runs a scene or two with each character as individuals before the game starts and the characters meet each other, think twice about sending the other players away. I know that as a GM, my first instinct is to run the prologues 1-on-1 (if nothing else, to prevent everyone else from twiddling their thumbs or talking to each other during the prologue) but you’re passing up a great opportunity to develop player level interest in other character’s stories.

As the Campaign Continues

Often, it’s not PCs who have the information you need. If you need a copy of the blueprints, you’ll chat up the architect to find out where the plans are stored. If you’re trying to figure out which nobles are aligned into factions, you need to talk to the nobles, their servants, and so on. At that level, talking to NPCs is about advancing the plot.

Fixing this [NPCs have the information] has the fun solution of making PC backgrounds key to the plot. This is great for a host of reasons (player buy-in is guaranteed, given that it’s their idea; players love it when their work is acknowledged), but it also gives players a reason to feel like a PC/PC conversation isn’t holding up the game. Sometimes even this will be shorthanded–“I tell them all about X”–but providing them an opportunity and a prompt is a good way to encourage deeper interactions.

At other times NPCs are interesting for different reasons. Sometimes your scientist PC speaks with scientific peers to underscore that the character is important in the world of science. Or a PC talks with a stay-at-home NPC to emphasize how widely traveled the PCs are. When PCs talk to each other, it’s hard to evoke these differences–everyone was involved in fighting the dragon. It was cool when you got Mr. Johnson’s fingerprints with the smart-glove, but let’s not rehash the details… This same abridging is often seen in movies and fiction, where the director drops into a bonding or retelling scene in motion, usually joining the action just before the scene’s end (or transformation into conflict). You can mimic this by starting a scene with heavy direction, saying ‘go’, and cutting once it’s played out. For example: After the third watch relieves Tristan and Diana; the camera zooms in on them a few minutes later, warming their hands at the fire, and conversing in low voices so they don’t disturb the watchers or wake their sleeping friends. Go.

Party games can suffer from “the PC blur”, where characters cease to have different motivations and takes. By the third or fourth mission, they often get hired as a whole–as “the team that solved X”. In many ways, this is realistic–and on the player side, 17 sessions of common history swiftly outweighs a few days of months old thinking about your character before he joined the group. While the character may have lived for 25 years before joining the elite seal team, the player has experienced most of his character’s life at the same table, undergoing the same experiences, as the other characters.

Varying this can be tricky. One way is to approach different PCs with hooks appropriate to their background. We got into this mission because the nun had a vision of vampires taking over the city. The next mission is a standard contract, relentlessly negotiated by the lawyer, who got the client over a barrel and is landing us a great fee. The next story begins when Jamie’s sister comes to her bawling because her boyfriend was seized by suits in a limo…

A different approach is to run a non-party game. When the PCs only overlap each other’s activities lightly, there’s more reason to be curious about what they’ve been doing. This can work particularly well in games centered on each character individually, where their common ground is a theme they’re exploring, or different reflections of a similar problem. (Conversely, this style of game is terrible if they can’t appreciate each other’s stories, because their character will be spending even more time out of the spotlight than normal.) Reluctant allies make for better PC/PC conversations than deeply committed allies–if only because there are more chances for something interesting (disastrous!) to crop up when they talk. The audience is on the edge of the seats, whispering “Don’t mention what you did to Mr. X, wait, no, don’t talk about your boss…” when mentioning it could have real repercussions. (Tabulazero has a good response that delves more into harnessing player conflict to this end.)

As a Player Responsibility

In the end, you can provide the opportunities, but it’s up to the players to take advantage of them. Sometimes, players show up to the game completely unprepared–they haven’t thought about the campaign since the they walked out the door at the end of the last session, their character sheet is at home, and they don’t have their pencil. Or they’re at low ebb because they’re exhausted by a week of work, and are just able to keep attention enough to respond when it’s their initiative count.

Sometimes, though, it’s because they’ve never thought about what it means to be a better player [6]. Being interested in other peoples’ stories often requires more effort than things that involve you directly–like reading your book, checking your email, or starting a side conversation. In many ways, a player has to commit to paying attention to the other characters before they earn the reward–getting to watch more cool stories being told at the table.

Tips, Tricks, and Pearls of Wisdom

How have you encouraged more attention to OPC stories at your table? As a player, what marks another character’s story that you want to pay attention to versus the stories that you can’t wait to end? Am I way off when I babble about “the PC blur” that often takes over party style games? Please share your observations and help us out!

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "A little TLC for OPC (Other People’s Characters)"

#1 Comment By unwinder On September 22, 2011 @ 3:06 am

I just did the group character generation session for the campaign in question the other day, and it went astonishingly well!

I established that the characters had been a part of the same organization for several years, and that they had all known each other for some time, and then all I did was just ask them all to define what their characters’ relationships to each other were. Anything from “indifferent” to “common interest in horse racing” to “spouses”. I wasn’t sure how it was going to fly, but they got really into it, and the party is now tangled with siblings and cousins, unrequited love, professional rivalries, best friends, a master/pet relationship (long story), and one stern orphanage caretaker and his orphan. I’ve never had a group this excited to get into their characters before.

Of course, getting it on paper is only about a tenth of the story, and I’m much more nervous about my followthrough.

My gameplan is, every session I’m going to randomly select a pair of characters, and, as a group, come up with some kind of mini-roleplaying-crisis for them to face together in a side-plot that runs alongside the main story arc. Something simple that doesn’t necessarily take all that much time away from the main party, like a quarrel between friends, or a father-figure getting overprotective of a younger character, or a less experienced character trying to win the respect of her idol.

The side-story presumably runs in the background for the rest of the session, and at the end of the day, if the players can resolve it in a way deemed “not a complete cop-out” by all present, they get mechanical rewards (xp).

I’m trying to get kind of an ensemble TV-episode feel, where there’s generally a big plot arc going on, but every “episode” also focuses on a smaller, character-driven arc. That kind of outcome is my best-case scenario.

Worst case scenario is that nobody likes it, and I quietly drop it after one or two sessions.

Part of me says it’s too mechanical, and part of me says it’s too freewheeling, but my game would be nothing if I wasn’t willing to experiment. Maybe I’ll let you know if it goes OK.

#2 Comment By Tsenn On September 22, 2011 @ 3:22 am

That was an excellent post. Lots of information and plenty of good links, just the way I like it!

Unwinder: that sounds great. My advice would be to watch a bunch of Star Trek TNG or see if you can get the GM’s guide for the game – I forget the exact name. That show pretty much defined the notion of A and B plotlines for me.

#3 Comment By mcmanlypants On September 22, 2011 @ 7:26 am

I always encourage my players to make interweaving backgrounds if they want. I have a completely open, hands-off, play-anything-you-want-to-play approach to GMing on the rare occasions I’m on that side of the table and I want them to show up with someone they want to play with the other people who are at the table. Two members of our group are a married couple so their backgrounds are often interestingly intertwined and that always enriches the experience for everyone. I’d love some way to build that network of relationships for everyone else, though, and I got an idea at Dragon*Con:

During one of the panels I heard some great advice for building strong PC-to-PC relationships: spend the first session or some part thereof making them tell stories about one another rather than themselves. The example they gave was of setting the first scene in the classic inn-in-town-where-adventurers-hang-out and having an NPC engage them in telling tall tales about one another. In a comfortable, free-form group it might be something like:

Character A: “Hey, Character B, remember that time you went to jail?”
Character B: “Uh… sure! Sure, but we all know I was framed.”
Character C: “That’s not what the townsfolk thought when they found you standing outside the burning warehouse with a torch in your hand!”
Character B: “But we all know the ringleader was your cousin, Character C, and that they framed me because they knew it would make you show up and pay your debts!”

That’s great, but it sounds like something that might not quite achieve ignition and might not work for every group. It made me wonder whether one might do something almost Fiasco-esque: distribute some random cards with incomplete narrative prompts and spend the first hour of the game having them finish whatever cards they draw. The cards could be, “Tell everyone about the time the character of the player to your left did something heroic,” all the way down to, “Ask the character across from you to tell you about the worst prank they pulled in college.” The answer from the other character might be, “Prank? Sorry, I’m a priest of Helm, we don’t *do* pranks,” but even a non-answer like that reveals something about the character as long as it’s a character response and not a player response. If you build in that these conversations are something along the lines of a “Last time, on Buffy…” for the party, and that at some point or another in the past these conversations have happened and characters do know anything that is said, that gives them a foundation of information shared that they’ve created together.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On September 22, 2011 @ 10:24 am

After running RPGs for years and playing a few very illuminating games of Fiasco! I realized that one problem affecting group cohesion was that people involved in character generation approach their relationship with other characters *from* the character perspective – they try and develop the relationship as an “outwardly progressing property” of the characters themselves (sorry for the awkward phrasing; I lack the vocabulary to properly discuss this in a learnéd fashion).

Fiasco! gives us a very different approach that can be instructive in a wider context: it starts with relationships and develops things about those relationships that in turn suggest character qualities that would either produce them or play into them – in other words, the relationships tend to define why they exist by virtue of their properties as opposed to springing into existence as a result of character qualities.

Something we all know intuitively but I suspect that few actually think about explicitly is that the interesting thing about any group of people, be they real world or imaginary, isn’t the people themselves but the things that hang “in the air” between them. Those spaces are what produce the stories we tell around the campfire at night.

I would like to bring up just one small issue with respect to the “group character generation session” (of which I’m not a great fan myself) in the context of public arena play. When the cast of a given campaign is subject to change over time even the best-knit groups can end up with little reason for staying together from an in-game perspective.

Not sure how one goes about alleviating that. It was a big problem in my Dresden Files game, not so much for me but for the players as they became increasingly distanced by unmeshed backstories.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 22, 2011 @ 11:34 am

[7] – It sounds like you’re doing incredibly well! Congratulations on encouraging more interaction between the new team members.
[8] – Thanks! And you’re right: watching Star Trek: TNG (or many other TV shows), you can develop a feel for running primary plots in the foreground, and still having meaningful background subplots. [The Star Trek Narrator’s Guide has good advice on this, as do games like Primetime Adventures.]
[9] – Round robin commenting and creating each other’s backgrounds would be a very interesting way to build it in. Of course, if you have players who are happy to tell stories about each other off the cuff, you’re probably on the right track already!
[10] – I think you’re made it clear in a way that I didn’t realize when reading Fiasco earlier this week. Something we all know intuitively but I suspect that few actually think about explicitly is that the interesting thing about any group of people, be they real world or imaginary, isn’t the people themselves but the things that hang “in the air” between them. Great point.
You’ve got another good point when you bring up changeover in groups. When you spend some time linking everyone now, but future characters just join the game mechanically (instead of getting similar TLC and links), it can create a two tier “deep and shallow” feel to the two. Latecomer characters have to redouble their weaving into the established character backgrounds, or the lengthy play at the table will overwhelm their character’s supposed bond to the group members. As you mention, if you switch out enough characters, there’s not much linking left…

#6 Comment By BryanB On September 22, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

I happen to like the character creation process for the FATE-based games which I have read, which help tie characters together in a meaningful way. You might not care that much about this Jack the Pilot fellow if that character is newly introduced to your PC without any prior connection, but if Jack the Pilot once pulled you away from the danger of angry cannibals in his speedy seaplane once upon a time, then your PC might care more about Jack and what goes on with him.

It is pretty easy to not have TLC for other PCs when attending a one-shot or a game where people are just tossed into a situation and have to work together, but you will likely care more about other PCs when something cool has connected you in your back stories.

It can be pretty fun to have those games where people get tossed into a situation: like everyone is in the cafe with no connection to the others and zombies attack. You will probably get along quite well once you are all on the zombie menu. But I really like the pre-game connections whenever possible. It adds more depth to the PCs and to me more depth means an enhanced play experience for everyone at the table.

#7 Comment By Orikes On September 25, 2011 @ 1:35 am

I love this discussion. It can be one of those things that makes or breaks a game. On one hand, it can be cool to get to know the other characters in-game, but very often this gets shoved to the side to chase the plot or the crunch of battle.

It’s one of the reasons why I love one-shots where the GM has put effort into crafting characters that have reasons to be together and interacting. The players get to dive right into the story and pc interaction. Of course, this really only works for one-shots and I know some people dislike this style (which explains the prevalence of BYOC games).

In a regular game, I’ve played around with a few different methods as GM. One of the most successful was having a character design session before actually playing. I laid out rules that stated each character had to have connections with at least two other characters. They didn’t need to be close, but they had to have at least one other character’s cell phone number. Everyone really appreciated the method, since it also gave them an opportunity to flesh out who their character was going to be.

In some ways, it really depends on your players. If you have players who are interested in the story and the characters, this gets a whole lot easier. One good roleplayer, though, and that can completely change the group dynamic.

#8 Comment By unwinder On September 29, 2011 @ 12:28 am

Update: Session one of the campaign went really well. My material was a bit thin, but the players really had fun with the characters, and the main “side story” was really fun and bizarre (We explored the strange master-pet relationship, in which the pair disagreed about whether the pet should be allowed to roam freely out of doors), and lots of players got involved and had a great time.