Characters and Depth

No matter what game you play, a constant is characters. Players have characters that they can lavish attention and development on, while the GM often has numerous characters, great and small, to juggle. Whether you’re new to roleplaying, an experienced GM creating a monster who gets a few lines and expresses personality before the hacking begins, a player looking for tricks to get inside her character’s head, or anyone else looking to add some pizazz to their humble fighter, I have some tricks to share.

Two Techniques

Way back in 2009, I wrote a few articles for a series titled Deep as a Puddle, with advice and techniques for building a quick character–PC or NPC. Let’s try out two techniques and see if they’re still useful.

First, we need a setting for our characters to inhabit. While Star Wars offers a well known setting, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts is still on my mind. Let’s use the tools to create characters that fit that world well.

Characters and Culture

We’ll start with Characters and Culture. The fantasy world is centered on a post-Genghis Khan Central Asia, with Temur’s people strongly based on the mongols. Let’s build cultural rules, inspired by his people. (If you’re familiar with the books, I’d be curious to hear which traits you’d switch out.)

2: Is an excellent horseman
3: Tremendous endurance, can ride for days
4: Bold leadership is expected and required
5: Loves wide open spaces
6: Other cultures exist to provide tribute
7: Blood ties are key
8: Frequent skirmishes and rivalry between clans
9: Peerless archers
10: The dead are given to sky, vultures are respected
J: The empire is vast, leading to familiarity with many cultures
Q: Women control the house, men the herd
K: The Khan’s seed is widely sown

Now that we know what the culture as a whole values (or what rules it obeys), we’ll draw a card for each character. The value tells us which trait is at the character’s center; the suit tells us how the character interacts with the rule.

Hearts: The character embodies, enacts, or enforces the rule.
Diamonds: The character twists, alters, or avoids the rule.
Spades: The character’s life is altered (for good or bad) by the rule.
Clubs: The character breaks the rule.

For names throughout, I’m going to raid the Story Games Name Project‘s Mongolian Names page. Let’s draw!

Khidyr Arbis: 10 of Clubs. Khidyr is a renowned bandit, a leader of a group of desperate outlaws. His attacks are known for his strange practice of building cairns over his fallen foes. While his companions assume that he’s been influenced by foreign priests, or cynically muse that his cruelty extends into tormenting his victims by denying them a return to mother sky, he was actually traumatized by a vicious vulture in his youth, leaving him with an abiding loathing of carrion birds.

Puntsagiyn Dashyondon: 7 of Diamonds. Puntsagiyn rides at the right hand of Khidyr, living a bandit’s life, despite her family’s wealth and power. Her father’s dispute with his brothers kept him distracted while Puntsagiyn drifted into Khidyr’s camp. She is a woman divided, using her influence to steer Khidyr away from conflict with her clan–and against the more lucrative trade of the Celadon Highway .

Minghan Tserendjav: 5 of Spades: Minghan comes from a line more likely to organize a caravan than to strike at it. In Minghan, however, steppe blood flows thickly–he finds the confines of a city dismaying. He fell in with Khidyr after fleeing to the great steppe; it is his advice that keeps the bandits roaming instead of taking over a village or fortifying a stronghold to store their ill-gotten loot.

So, that’s the first technique. It does a good job of establishing a cultural baseline–you can brief your players on a culture in 12 quick bullet points. It helps ensure that characters relate to their culture, rather than having perfectly formed 21st century viewpoints…

On to testing: Myers Briggs

We all have different approaches to interacting with the world, often based on an innate understanding and bias. One test that tries to classify how we see and approach the world is Myers Briggs. Those broad categories can be adapted to roleplaying, as Deep as a Puddle: Myers Briggs addressed.

Let’s take our group of bandits and add Eiji Ochirbat to the mix. We’ll roll on the quick table from the article… a 15. That’s ENFP – The Inspirers. Clicking on careers for each personality type, then ENFP in specific, gives several traits. The following sparked when I read them: Warmly, genuinely interested in people; Dislike performing routine tasks, Need approval and appreciation from others, Well-developed verbal and written communication skills.

Eiji Ochirbat is the group’s counselor; the glue that holds the band together. Eiji is a former smith, a highly respected position within Temur’s people. He couldn’t stand the tedium of forging iron; five years ago he rode out to “gather ore” while the warriors were out raiding, and never returned. That began a lone and hungry time; he never imagined leaving his people and joining bandits.

Khidyr piqued his interest, asking the smith about captured texts. Together, they reviewed the captured documents and discovered the pattern and timing of the next caravans. Eiji joined the bandits; at first as a kind of mascot, but his warm and friendly manner made friends. Eiji evaluates new arrivals and advises Puntsagiyn on their fit–often spotting loners who can’t conform to even bandit society. Many brigands have found themselves cast out after crossing Eiji–or someone Eiji cares for.

Building Your World

Have you used the Culture Builder or the Myers Briggs assessment to guide character development? As a player, giving your character a different fundamental view/approach to the world can create a vivid character. (For example, if you value concrete and perceptible facts [sensing], create a character who lives in the world of theory and the abstract [intuition].)

As a GM, defining cultures by Mo’s Simon Says post gives you a concrete tool to set cultural expectations–and create characters who embrace and break those expectations. That can provide players with valuable guidelines when they’re creating characters to match–or turn their backs on–their culture. Plus it’s great for quickly generating NPCs who reflect the culture–for good and bad.

What techniques do you use to add more depth to your characters, whether PC or NPC?

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.



4 Responses to Deep as a Puddle: NPC tricks

  1. Hrmm… I’m not personally feeling the use of Myers-Briggs as a random assessment tool for characters… However, I do find that making new NPCs is one of the fun parts about a DM (even if they’re background dressing). To each their own, but a very nice use of the culture generators… Those I do enjoy for quick one shots :).

    Slainte,

    -Loonook.

  2. I like the use of cards in conjunction with the cultural traits that you laid out. Very cool. I can see this working for a lot of different situations, but especially for NPCs from cultures that are well developed.

    I could see this working particularly well for something like Dogs in the Vineyard, where you could spell out the tenants of “the faith” and then see how an NPC in a particular town views or is living by those tenants. Perhaps the corruption in a town is due to someone twisting, altering, or avoiding a particular tenant of the faith. Something for the Dogs to handle.

    Of course being a Star Wars nut, I could see this working for a selected enclave of the Jedi Order. Hmmm Which Jedi are following the code to the letter and which ones are being more “flexible?”

    Very nice! :)

  3. @Loonook – Myers Briggs is a good technique to take an already hazily imagined character and add depth and provide diversity among your NPCs.

    That said, if you have a situation in mind–or a group in need of another member– M-B allows a quick fleshing out of role-in-group, relations-with-group, and suggests what the character contributes (via profession and aptitudes). Try it!

    For an interesting twist, Mo has a roleplaying specific (but similar to Myers-Briggs) post here: Character Diversity Classification System.

    @BryanB – Thanks! My first instinct was to churn out example characters for Star Wars too. Delving into which Jedi are struggling with (or exemplifying) each tenet of the Jedi code is a very interesting application.

  4. I really like the one with the culture and cards! It looks like a great way to develop an individual personality using a set of relatively broad statements about a particular group. I’m personally thinking about TNG Klingons.

    I’ve dabbled with Myers-Brings in the past, but often had difficulty linking traits to behaviours for my NPCs to express. Maybe I’ll give it another look.

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