Today’s guest article by Ben Phelps advocates taking non-gaming stuff we all watch and read (books, movies, TV shows) and mining it for ways to improve your game. It’s great advice that’s easy to apply to your campaign. Thanks, Ben!

Beg, borrow, and steal. No matter your roleplaying system of choice, those four words guide virtually every bit of game mastering advice in just about every book and on almost every website on the subject.

Characters, stories, locations, set pieces…just file off those serial numbers from your favorite book or movie and presto-chango, instant campaign. Just add water! However, this advice always forgets to tell you to steal the most important tool you possibly could — the actual narrative techniques employed by these media to make the characters and the characters’ story, and not the whims of the dice, the most important part of your game.

When things go bad for your characters, they need to do so in a way that keeps the game moving forward in an interesting way, and not in a way that grinds everything to a boring halt, but this only works correctly if the characters themselves have the required buy-in from the players.

Complicated Failure

The first place we can employ these techniques is the realm of combat. Perhaps you have a player whose character was designed to be a great ax wielder, and who intends to someday be lauded as the greatest warrior in the world. This character bravely strides to the front lines of his first battle…and promptly whiffs with his best attack against a level one orc because he rolled a two. So the next round he positions himself so he can cleave two orcs…and rolls a five, missing both.

This has two negative effects on your game. One, it undermines the player’s concept of his character. And two, it’s just not very interesting for the player to feel completely ineffective at his main schtick.

So what’s a GM to do? The answer is revealed by asking one simple question: who is more important to your campaign, the player character or the orcs? The player character, of course!

So instead of missing wildly, let’s take a queue from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in which at the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep it is revealed that Gimli’s ax is stuck in an Uruk-hai’s nervous system. This is played for laughs of course, but let’s look at the setup for this from an RPG perspective.

Gandalf’s player’s plan has worked, and his reinforcements have arrived just in time! The Uruk-Hai are in full retreat, and the players are having fun mopping up the last remnants of their army. As he bears down on one of the last Uruk-Hai in the area, Gimli’s player rolls the dice and misses. Instead of having the fight, already a foregone conclusion, drag on, you as the GM declare that Gimli hits his target, but with a complication. Gimli’s player is just lucky this didn’t happen sooner in the fight, or he could have been in some real trouble!

Though who says you have to wait for the fight to be a done deal before tossing in a complication? Let’s say that the above scenario of a near miss had happened sooner in the fight. Things could have gotten really interesting for Gimli.

Does he spend 1d6 turns trying to dislodge his ax, risking being an easy target in the meantime? Does he leave his ax and scavenge a new weapon? Does he try to drag the body to cover to work on getting the ax out without being exposed to enemy attacks? Something else entirely? Now, instead of a boring miss, Gimli’s player has a multitude of interesting tactical and narrative choices to choose from, and best of all, they might even lead him to discover something new about his character.

Maybe Gimli’s player decides the ax is an ancestral ax, so he won’t leave it. Maybe Gimli’s player decides to grab an improvised weapon and declares that his dwarven bar brawling experience should give him enough of a bonus to counter the improvised weapon penalty…so go with it!

The Setup

How can the idea of complications add to non-combat situations? Perhaps your players are trying to track down an important contact on seedy side of town, and the failure of a Streetwise roll means…well in most games it would mean simply that the search takes longer. Or, too bad, there is no one with information. Boring! In order to create a more interesting complication, let’s take a cue from the low-powered superhero graphic novel Watchmen.

The character of Rorschach has intimidated a former nemesis — Moloch the Mystic, now retired from crime — into helping Rorschach with his investigation into the murder of a former colleague, The Comedian. Rorschach believes his murdrer is part of a larger conspiracy to target masked vigilantes, but he currently has no proof. Following an otherwise unfruitful investigation (a failed Streetwise roll), Rorschach sees a figure leave a note at the location he and Moloch arranged to use if Moloch had any information. When Rorschach heads to Moloch’s apartment, he finds that Moloch has been murdered! Worse still, the cops are already on their way! It’s a setup!

Now Rorschach’s player hasn’t learned anything directly — he did fail his Streetwise check, after all. However, the plot moves forward in an interesting manner. In the immediate future, Rorschach’s player has a number of ways to deal with the current situation. Try to head to the roof and escape? Fight his way out the front door? Destroy the evidence? Surrender? In the long run, Rorschach’s player has gleaned a few bits of important information — Moloch was probably onto something which got him killed, and Rorschach’s conspiracy theory has gained a lot of traction.

Characters Must be Complicated Too!

Earlier I mentioned a character’s main schtick — let’s explore that idea further. All characters are going to have their main schtick, their primary methodology for dealing with problems that arise, and, in game terms, the skills and abilities they have that others don’t, or at the very least that they do best. This makes sense — after all I’m a better computer technician than I am a car mechanic. I personally lift the hood of a car and see nothing but “parts.” I believe that is what all that is called, though I could be wrong.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But having a main schtick is very different from having simply a single schtick. Stop me if you’ve played with these characters before, or tried to craft an NPC based on these descriptions: The hothead who is prone to violence; the “loner”; or a paladin (this is a joke…kind of). These ideas are hardly unrepresented in other media, but whether there is more to the character than just this schtick is a pretty good indicator of the quality of said media.

For instance, in the television show Burn Notice, the character of Fiona is a grade-A hothead. Her description during the show’s opening sequence is “the trigger happy ex-girlfriend.” However, unlike the last guy who played a “hothead” in your last game, Fiona doesn’t look for inconvenient moments to just start blasting enemies. Sure, Fiona’s first suggestion when debating plans is usually a straightforward brawl, but she doesn’t look for any excuse she can find to turn every situation into a gunfight just because that’s her strong suit, and in the process steal the thunder from everyone else who was trying to perform their main schtick.

Or perhaps your last game contained a “loner.” The best example of this idea done right is Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. Han isn’t a true “loner” thanks to Chewbacca, but if we said Chewbacca is an Ally advantage that Han’s player has spent points on, let’s look at how Han fits in with the rest of the party. He thinks Obi-Wan is kind of a kook, and Luke is just some dumb kid who doesn’t appreciate Han’s fine spaceship, and Han doesn’t really care about fighting the Empire, or the greater good, for most of the movie. He’s certainly not an official member of the Rebellion, and he and Leia can barely stand the sight of each other. However, in the end Han’s heart of gold brings him back to the fight at an opportune time, and a well placed shot ends up saving Luke, and subsequently the entire Rebellion.

For an example of a paladin we turn to Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead. Rick will frequently put himself in grave danger to save other people, some of whom do not deserve such mercy. Rick will not allow others to put themselves in any danger if there is any way he can shoulder the burden instead. When was the last time you played a campaign with a compassionate paladin?

The common link between these characters is that there is always more to them than just their schtick. Fiona is a gun-toting hothead, but she’s also concerned for her friends’ safety, and she likes to make money, so she keeps her hotheaded tendencies in check when a job or a friend’s life is on the line. On a mechanical level, in addition to a gunfighter, we learn that she is also a melee fighter, bomb technician, driver, seductress, and has numerous underworld contacts.

Han is a loner, but he still comes to care about the other characters as his own character develops. On a mechanical level, in addition to being a pilot, he’s also handy with a gun, charming, a quick thinker, a smuggler/con man, and a mechanic.

Rick Grimes is a paladin, but he is not just out to smite some undead. On a mechanical level he is smart, resourceful, endlessly enduring even against unthinkable odds, and authoritative, in addition to being pretty good at smiting undead.

Getting Your Players To Ante Up

So how do you get your players on this page? Hoping everyone took the time to read your 200-page setting document and come up with a solid, deep, interesting character on their own time is an exercise in frustration. As GM, it is your job to steer character creation, so you must encourage complex character development from day one and make your players think beyond their mechanics.

Personally, I prefer to use group character building to foster the player buy-in I am looking for, which also has the added benefit of the fact that I can answer any questions that may arise. In my Legend of the Five Rings game, I started by asking the “20 Questions” of character creation (if your games doesn’t include such a list of questions, this list is fairly universal) and had the players answer the questions out loud in front of the group so that everyone knew all the characters in the group.

I also had my players, on a note card, write down the story of the event that got them noticed by the Empress personally. Then, I had them pass the cards to the right, and the next person had to write down how they were personally involved in those events, without discussing it with the original author. Some players used the opportunity to create alliances between their characters, while others took antagonistic roles in each others’ stories.

Finally, I had them pass the card one more time, and the next player had to write how their character’s life was personally touched by the events described on the cards, but they could not influence the events on the card. Lastly I had the players write down archetypes of NPCs associated with their characters — three friends, two enemies/rivals, and one former friend turned enemy (a mutation of John’s 3-3-3 approach to planning).

I then gathered up these cards and found places where I could link their ideas, so that sometimes NPCs may be mutual allies of multiple characters, but sometimes one player’s close ally might be another character’s bitter rival. This group character discussion went on for over three hours before pencil ever touched character sheet, so that by the time mechanics got involved, players knew their characters (and each others’ characters!) well enough to select their skill sets organically, with their character’s personal histories at the forefront.

This exact setup obviously does not work for every game or setting (or even all L5R games!), but the idea of group character building with a less mechanical focus is solid for pretty much any campaign.

The Magic Bullet

In truth, there is no magic bullet for running a flawless campaign. But if you embrace the positive elements of other media, such as multidimensional characters and plots that move forward even in spite of failure, you’ve at least gotten halfway there. The rest is just relaxing and putting the players and their characters first. Everything else takes care of itself.

About  Guest Author

The article you just read was written by a Gnome Stew reader. We can’t say which one in this bio, since the bio appears with all guest articles, but whoever they are we can all agree that they possess supernatural beauty and magical powers, and are generally awesome. Gnome Stew readers rock!



22 Responses to Learning from Other Media: Using Non-Game Media as a Roleplaying Lens

  1. Your examples are excellent ways to help everyone visualise character concepts, and I like the way you advocate non-binary failures as opportunities.

    The dwarf warrior who is feared with the weapon of his people has to think fast when the enemy runs off with said weapon embedded in his shield. I think a player would see this as far more interesting than a swing and a miss, and it can give us the chance to see a behavior we wouldn’t normally. How does he react? How does it make him feel? It could even be something of a Chekhov’s Axe, used by a savvy opponent to manipulate said dwarf in the future.

    • Exactly! Sometimes a miss is just a miss, especially in combat. But sometimes it needs to be more than that. Sometimes the player should know the complication ahead of time so they know to spend their Bennies or Plot Points or whatever if they think they need it, such as the lockpick example in my comment below. But sometimes it is way more fun to spring a surprise on them. Keeping players on their toes is fun for everyone!

  2. The “pass to the left, write something new” aspect of this is my favorite part — that’s brilliant.

    • Glad you like it. Best part: the players did not know this was going to happen. They thought they were just writing these down for my use. Ot got a very positive response from my players! I highly recommend trying it – you get some pretty unexpected results and the creative juices really get flowing. The players had almost all played L5R before, but I don’t strictly follow canon – I believe the players enjoyed the chance to leave a personal stamp on the worldbuilding process.

  3. Another great guest article. Thanks Ben.

  4. Diaspora (and Dresden Files, I think) also have collaborative backstory generation. If I’m not massively mistaken, so does Prime Time Adventures. As you note, it’s a good way to expand background characters as links between PCs. Anything that helps a party gel early on is usually a benefit, in my experience.

  5. Glad you all like the article. I actually haven’t heard of Prime Time Adventures, though I do own PDFs of Dresden and Diaspora that I have never read. Early on in my roleplaying history, I became bored with the concept of binary failures – I quickly learned to stop putting points into things like Pick Locks because lockpicking was almost invariably the party standing behind me while I rolled once or twice, then took 20. But if something had been in place where the question was not if I succeeded at picking the lock, but rather whether I did so before or after the guards rounded the corner, it would have been a lot more interesting. I also have preferred group character building for some time now. My gaming group is now playing L5R, but before that started in September or so, we had spent the last two years running 4-8 week mini-campaigns, just to try a bunch of different systems and pass off GMing duties and such. The difference between the quality of the games where we built characters as a group versus games where we didn’t was quite distinct. I’m sure my other groupmates would agree with that sentiment.

  6. Great Article!

    I especially liked the note card passing idea. Anything that helps make characters feel lived in before play is wonderful plus you’ve got the added bonus of tying the party together. I like to sans-dice roleplay through one or two formative experiences with each player as a part of the character creation process. I think I’m gonna steal that notecard concept next time I run for a large group. Getting 3 strangers to work together is difficult. Getting 6 strangers to come together as a team is a herculean task.

    On the subject of Complicated Failure, I actually posted about a similar concept on my Blog. My post was about a way of making failed rolls a positive thing. In part by not letting good planning go completely pear-shaped just because of one bad roll, and also by helping players to realize the fun and/or unique opportunities of failure. If anyone’s interested the post can be read here http://www.violentmediarpg.blogspot.com/2012/12/advice-for-gms-rolling-with-ones.html .

    • You aren’t kidding! The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. My group is five players, and the note card thing worked really well for it. It gave enough connections between characters that I didn’t have to contend with a party that didn’t trust each other, but it also didn’t create a scenario where they knew each other so well that no one could have any personal secrets or disagreements over how to proceed in any given situation.

      Your blog also illustrates the possibilities of creative, narrative descriptions. That’s certainly an important element of non-binary failures.

  7. Fantastic Article!

    I’ve always wanted to do a more organic approach to group character creation. My players always tend to have a ‘character concept’ in mind before reaching the table (which is good most of the time), but I think other times it blinds them to be 2 dimensional in relation to the other PC’s.

    Any suggestions on doing a group Character Creation method though electronic means? It’s hard to get those interactions when not face to face and most of the time once we all get to the table it’s too late.

    • Thanks!

      A character concept or two is almost always going to be formed before reaching the table. Maybe one player knows he wants to play a spellcaster of some type. Or maybe they want to use a certain weapon, or maybe they know exactly what class they prefer to play, or maybe they know the setting, and know they want to be from The City of Thieves or some such. Any of these things are a good starting point. I’d definitely suggest talking through personalities and such as a group before pencil touches paper. What are your character’s personal goals? What do they think of other races/clans/factions? What’s their opinion of some societal norm, such as Bushido in L5R? Why do they go adventuring? What is their physical appearance? Even little things get players thinking. What’s their favorite food? When is their birthday? What’s their favorite holiday?

      Then, go step by step through creation together, so players can ensure they have good coverage on the skills they deem important. Players are great at sniffing out skills that are more important than others. Key weapon skills? Check. Underwater Basket Weaving? Not so check. So how do you encourage characters to diversify a bit? Maybe give some bonus XP to use on Knowledge, Craft, Artisanal skills, since these skills tend not to be as prominent in games (and you certainly aren’t liable to take down a boss with your impressive knowledge of Ancient Dwarven Literature, even if it does help with a challenge or two here or there), but they do flesh out a character’s education, history and interests.

      So how to do this online? Maybe a group Skype call? But the players knowing each other’s answers before moving on to the next question is key. Certain questions may stick out as more important to certain players, or spark character interactions and connections.

  8. @jpmg90
    If there’s a scheduling conflict that makes something like Skype unfeasible, try a shared document via a cloud service, like Dropbox. It could also be a good way to virtually pass the note cards around.

  9. This article is getting bookmarked. Great job!

  10. Nice article.

    Complicated failure (combat as non-combat) is easy to create a system around, but why haven’t more games done that?

    When it comes to group created characters, your variant reminds a lot of Spirit of the Century, where the players write a blurb about their characters and then pass it on for the next player to write in their character as a guest star. Brilliant. And in that game, it’s you extract aspects from the blurb, so it’s a part of mechanically building the character as well.

    In Star Wars d6, it’s even simpler. The GM just asks how they know each other. It’s usually enough to create relations between the characters.

    • That’s neat! I’ve never played or read SotC, but that sounds similar to what I’m talking about.

      Sometimes you can do something as simple as ask how everyone knows each other. For my L5R campaign, that didn’t quite work – the characters had all been assembled by the Empress for a secret mission. So I had to come up with a way to create some connections between the characters, but not have them all be best buds for life as it were. Thus the card idea was born – what did you do that was so above your station that the Empress herself knew about it and picked you for her plan? Then I thought I’d spring the card passing on the players to create the links between each other’s stories.

      Certainly not the best way to start every game. Sometimes the characters not knowing each other at all is a great setup. Sometimes they need to have total trust in each other. But this worked really well for a good in-between start to a campaign.

      Halfway related note – have you looked at Fantasy Flight’s upcoming Edge of the Empire Star Wars RPG? I’ve heard it’s lighting a lot of d6 Star Wars fans’ fires. I know from its beta document it includes a system for complicated failures, and partial successes. Interesting stuff.

  11. My favorite concept to come out of the Mouse Guard role playing game is the failure as success with a condition. For those of you that do not know Mouse Guard the rule goes like this: If a player fails a roll the GM can decide that instead of failing the action the player succeed, but is now hungry, tired, or angry (all of which are conditions that effect play). This is very useful for those times when the player should/must succeed, but wiffs. Keep the story moving, but give the character some damage.

    Like everybody else I think the note passing idea is awesome, I am going to have to file that one away.

    • I love Mouse Guard! That game more than any other has informed the way I look at GMing. Also it was literally the first (and to this day only) gaming book I’ve ever seen that you can sit down and read cover to cover, and feel like you know exactly how everything works without flipping back and forth or needing to go online to find a For Dummies version! Luke did a great job on that one.

      I actually had about 80% of what was necessary for a Mass Effect hack (which I affectionately dubbed “Mouse Effect”) on the Mouse Guard website – it may still be out there. Never quite did get to finish that.

  12. Funny you mention Mass Effect. I finally re-finished ME3 with the extended ending a couple of hours ago. Mass Effect is also one of the many properties I did conversions on to see how different concepts worked in the game system I’m writing.

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