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Deep as a Puddle: Character Ties Cubed (3x3x3)

Posted By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 16 Comments

NPCs in Character Driven Play

No matter what system you’re playing, NPCs make things come to life. Some of my favorite advice for creating NPCs comes from Dogs in the Vineyard, which encourages you to create passionate NPCs [via some specific prompts and guidelines], then encourages you to have them strive to accomplish their goals. They’re driven people, so what they do–whether good, short sighted, or villainous– is sure to draw the PCs’ involvement.

Fundamental concepts for character driven play are developed in The Art of Consequences. Character focused play was also an ongoing theme of Roleplay DNA’s first five episode season. Episode 5, Chasing Deadlands, explores the process of building a world from PC backgrounds, with many GM characters joining the plot from back-stories–even spontaneously generated back-stories.

Players appreciate characters and situations that they had a hand in creating. You prevent “wasted background” regret, since you’re bringing their efforts into the game, and you generate immediate buy-in from the player who created the character for you. Character backgrounds come in many forms: sprawling character background fiction, bullet points of key events in a character’s life, or everything in between. Some of the most important elements a GM can draw from backgrounds are NPCs.


Encourage players to create useful NPCs for you by asking for them directly. (Other good methods include combing their back story fiction, discussing their character’s training and writing down NPCs who emerge, or running a prelude.) One great tool/format for NPC requests is the 3x3x3. I first encountered the 3x3x3 (pdf), when preparing for a Serenity game–the linked file was the original source I found.

The above 3x3x3 asks your players to generate nine NPCs for you: three allies, three contacts, and three rivals. As the coversheet describes, each player is providing you, the GM, at least nine character hooks. That’s a lot of interaction and great tie-ins that your players have provided. For a generic version of the 3x3x3 in .doc format, I’ve attached 3x3x3.doc to this article.

Now What?

Once your players submit the 3x3x3s, you’ve got a bunch of NPCs who relate to the player characters.

  • Start by reading them. Fortunately it’s a quick format, so we can skim them quickly.
  • Identify overlap. Are there any characters on one person’s 3x3x3 that sound similar to another player’s? Put them on a short list for merging.
  • Merge common characters.Where NPCs overlap, consider rewriting the two characters as aspects of one character. Often this will require some adjustment: it’s very unlikely that your players came up with the exact same description, race, etc. Identify the disparate elements and see if there’s a way to make them both true. Where that’s not possible, draw on elements from each. Be sure to consider NPCs in different categories. When one PC’s ally is another’s rival, that makes for great characterization.
  • Review their NPCs for setting. If an NPC doesn’t fit its culture, discuss the culture with the player. If elves are deadly terrified of the sea and your player submits a pirate elf, bring it up with the player. Find out if they were intentionally subverting the sterotype, were unaware of it, or perhaps are interested in convincing you to change elves in the setting. This is a great time to discuss it–particularly with a specific character as an example.
  • Review NPCs for fit. If you merged or altered characters, let each player know how their writeup was affected. Hopefully, they’ll take your interest as a positive sign. Just be careful not to modify away the elements that excited them–or restore them, when possible, if they are disappointed by the changes. (For more on changing backstory characters, see Whose Character is it Anyway?)
  • Select NPCs. Identify which NPCs excite you at the moment; try to select at least one from each player’s sheet. Look at your initial location: which NPCs are in the region? From the NPC pool of exciting and local characters, look at the current story arc (if any) and see which prewritten characters you can substitute with provided NPCs.
  • Deploy NPCs. Don’t cram all of the NPCs that you selected into the first session. Players will often find ways to call upon allies and contacts if it’s at all plausible– though a prompt (like “you remember Old Henry wanders these hills in the fall”) is often useful if someone’s neglecting an that NPC you developed. Introduce the NPCs one or two per session until everyone has at least one backstory NPC with screen time.
  • Review background NPCs frequently. When the PCs move to another town, see if their path takes them through a region where they might face someone from their background. If they remain static, review the 3x3x3 sheets every few sessions–one of their NPCs might travel to the PCs’ location.

A D&D example:

Anna Starsmith [Ally] Rebecca the Reiver [Rival] Anna “the Reiver” [Merged]
Anna, the elven master bladesmith, is Erréun’s brightest star. She forges the blades that are presented to each of the wild guard on their promotion to lieutenant; few blades are forged for outsiders. Thickly muscled (for an elf), Anna’s brows have been burnt off by her smithing and her skin is reddened by constant exposure to the forge. - Bandit Queen
– Raids caravans
– Attacked the caravan I escorted to town
– Long green braided hair
– Fought a tense duel with my PC, who barely turned back her attacks, while her raiders killed several fellow guards at my sides. We finally drove them back when the city guard arrived.
Anna, the honored bladesmith of Erréun, enjoyed prestige and respect for decades. She equipped the wild guard with peerless blades until five years, when ago her hometown was overrun by a dark druid. The druid wiped out the elven town one bloody, horrific, night. Only the unbanked fires of her forge drove his twisted servants away long enough for her to gather the children and clan elders and flee. The humans of Estwich turned her ragged refugee party away; afterwards the clan elders refused all food so they clan could continue in their children. Anna now masks herself and leads the eldest children in daring bandit raids to keep what remains of her clan alive.

Developing NPCs from 3x3x3

Your players gave you a great starting point, but particularly in character driven games, you’ll want to add more detail to the NPCs. Sometimes their short story or bullet points are a perfect prompt: reading their description, you want to develop the character. Other times, the NPC will be an enigma–why did the abbot befriend the duke’s son anyway?

When you want to add more depth to an NPC, there are lots of techniques you can employ. The Deep as a Puddle series has some solutions, a thousand faces arise to serve you, or putting them on a timeline might make them feel realistically self-directed. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, draw a conflict web relating them.

Interesting Tangents for Character Driven Play:

A list of experiences that each player wants to see in the campaign can provide a great events to include in your game. Martin introduces the concept in PC Backgrounds as a Roadmap.

In response to Walt’s homework article, Ostof introduced an interesting variation on the 3x3x3:

I ask that they submit a modified 3x3x3 sheet, where-in they tell me 3 things they want to see their character develop, 3 things the other characters don’t know about their character, 3 things their own character doesn’t know about themselves, and a couple others.

In Your Games

Are you great at turning your players’ NPC contributions into vibrant characters at the table? Do you write exciting NPCs into your backstories but your GM never uses them? Perhaps your GM is always changing your NPCs’ backstory? If you have questions, tips, or feedback, I’d love to hear from you in comments.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Deep as a Puddle: Character Ties Cubed (3x3x3)"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On July 26, 2012 @ 8:31 am

FATE-style attributes are the best way to describe NPCs that I’ve come across in recent eons. Can’t say I enjoy the rest of the baggage that system brings but the idea of descriptive character traits rather than numeric ones is brilliant for rarely met but recurring NPC types.

#2 Comment By perseus On July 26, 2012 @ 8:39 am

I’ve played in a few games where the DM would create backstory NPCs on the fly and it was always difficult to react to them. It’s hard to figure out an entire relationship that you didn’t know you had until a few minutes before.

Personally, I’ve never had a set way to deal with NPCs, but I’ve always had a good set of players so it usually fell into place without much effort. The 3x3x3 really seems to be an awesome way to make sure everyone has a strong background and everyone is on the same page.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 8:54 am

Yes, writing NPCs with Aspects is a great way to summarize the NPC’s key attributes. Anna “the Reiver” would have:
– Respected “Starsmith” of Erréun
– Fled Erréun with clan remnants
– Turned away to starve by humans
– The Reiver: terror of caravans

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 9:16 am

If you listen to “Chasing Deadlands”, there’s a discussion about the GM reacting to NPCs that the player introduced without notice. It can be tricky, but it’s a fun kind of improv.

I’m glad you like the idea of the 3x3x3. It did a good job of providing hooks for the GM when I’ve used it, though you can certainly just use it as a starting point: ask yourself if your background provides the GM with all characters types. That way, you can be hooked in many interesting and varied ways.

#5 Comment By BryanB On July 26, 2012 @ 10:26 am

I like this. I could use the 3X3 to spark the NPC creation, the matrix method to flesh them out, and then draw a conflict web to visualize the relationships or lack thereof with each other. Nice.

#6 Comment By Nojo On July 26, 2012 @ 11:45 am

I thought I first found out about 3×3 here in the Stew, some time back?

Anyways, I found it *kicked ass* when I used it in a Rogue Trader game and combined it with that system’s Origin Path.


The origin path causes players to outline high points in their back stories. Overlap on the path allows the players to start with shared history.

Two of my players had been prisoners of the Dark Eldar (evil space elves in 40k) from the Origin path. Of course this showed up in the 3×3 as well. A certain sexy dominatrix Dark Eldar pirate captain (they were just piling it on!) was a shared enemy. And a great villain was born.

Another player chose an ally who only appeared to her when she was aboard a ship in the warp (where daemons come from). Nice!

With 9 NPCs, and six players, I found a way to bring in someone from someone’s 3×3 almost every game. As I did my prep, I looked over the 3×3, and thought, “who can I bring in this time?”

When my adventure needed a certain type, such as a powerful Tech Priest, I had all these nice NPCs that the PCs already had a connection to.

Ex-wives were found stranded on alien planets. Enemies bribed starport officials to arrest players. And so on.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 26, 2012 @ 11:46 am

Rebecca the Reiver? I don’t think I like her. She attacks CARAVANS! ;)
Actually, a really practical article. Just getting players involved in the creative side of the world-building process is always filled with some incnredible possibilities.

#8 Comment By Nojo On July 26, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

Replied an hour ago, but don’t see it, so here goes again. Sorry if this is a double post.

I found 3x3x3 kicked ass when I used it a Rogue Trader campaign. I combined it with the Rogue Trader back-story tool: the Origin Path, which requires players to choose highlights from their history. Like the 3x3x3, overlap lets you tie PCs together.

I had two players with a shared enemy: A sexy dominatrix Dark Eldar pirate captain (they just piled it on!). Thus a great campaign villain was born.

I had a player with an ally who only appeared to her when she was in a ship in the warp. The warp is where daemons come from….

During game prep I’d look over the 3×3 NPCs, and bring in one or more if I could. With 9 NPCs and 6 players, I had a nice cast to choose from.

When my adventure needed a powerful Tech Priest, or an expert in ancient alien cultures, or a fence for stolen goods, done! And if they happen to be an ex-wife, so much the better. :)

#9 Comment By shawnhcorey On July 26, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

With all this effort by the GM and players, when do you have time to play the game? I never tried anything like this but it sounds like it may take weeks.

#10 Comment By BryanB On July 26, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

I’d bet that the time actually needed would be no more than one gaming session or perhaps a group e-mail discussion before the game ever starts. Considering the kind of results that are possible when using something like this, I’d choose to do this sort of thing every time a campaign was about to launch. I feel that it is well worth the time invested.

Other people will have to decide if that time is worthwhile for themselves. I know I’d rather run or play in a game that did something like this though.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

Yep. There’s a lot of moving parts, but hopefully there are a reasonable number of NPCs spread out over terrain and time, so that you don’t have 50 people on your map.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

Sounds like a great campaign! I’m glad that the 3x3s, especially combined with the origin path, worked for you.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On July 26, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

When I played in the Serenity game, we provided our 3x3x3 NPCs at the end of the character creation session. A few players didn’t have 9 characters ready–that was no problem. They submitted what they had (at least 1 character from each category), and added more as they came up with them.

When GMing, you really don’t have to do anything more than skim the submitted NPCs at first–you only invest time developing NPCs when they’re “waiting in the wings”.

That said, this is geared toward a player driven plot, so much of your NPC development and villainous planning time can be shrunk–or shifted to submitted characters instead of developing everything from scratch. If your players rove wildly, rarely interact with NPCs, and are just looking for the fight of the week, you can garner some benefit from a 3x3x3–but it might be less worth your effort.

#14 Comment By Nojo On July 27, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

Oops. Now both my posts are there, sorry. :)

As Scott says, 3x3x3 is done at the end of character creation session. I had emailed them all the blank 3x3x3 pdf before the session, so they knew it was coming and had given it a little thought.

When we finished the campaign and moved on to Trail of Cthulhu, the players were asking if they should do the 3x3x3. They loved it.

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