Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Three Little Words...

posted by Geoff

A couple of nights ago, Bruce and I were having a conversation via email about the first of the WotC D&D Adventures for 3rd edition, The Sunless Citadel. I played it a few years ago, and found it to be just another boring dungeoncrawl (something I despise). Bruce, on the other hand, felt it was a lot of fun to GM, and both he and his players had all found it thoroughly enjoyable.

When I asked him why he enjoyed it so much, one of the things he replied with was that the NPC kobold, Meepo, was a hoot to play. I didn't even remember Meepo from when I played it, so it must have been something that my GM had glossed over. So I commented that it must have been one of those run-time, "you had to be there" kinda issues. Bruce felt that some of the potential for the fun was written up in Meepo's description, but even after I read it, I couldn't see it.

This exchange got me thinking: is there a good, easy way to describe an NPC in an adventure such that a GM can easily figure out what the writer was intending and can quickly bring the NPC to life at game time?

NPCs are a tricky thing for writers to create. They have to be complete enough for a GM to be able to run competently at game time, but also brief enough so not to drown the GM in information. Given this, how can an writer give the GM a solid idea about how to play an NPC, without having to resort to long-winded descriptions and directions which may not suit the GM?

This afternoon, I was reading through some notes for a writing course I bought a couple of months ago. One of the chapters was talking about how to create characters for stories as quickly as possible, while still making sure that you have a solid, three-dimensional character.

In the briefest form, it requires four things: a nickname for the character, and then three words that sum up the character's personality. With the right keywords, someone can easily get a solid idea about what the character is like.

The character's nickname is important because most of us often get labelled with nicknames by our friends (or sometimes rivals) that sum us up pretty well. Quite often they sum up what we look like, or what one of our most distinctive habits is. To give you an example, I used to be known as "Mumbles" (because it's something I happen to do a lot), while another one of my friends was known as "Lurgi", because he tended to get sick all the time.

If you saw an NPC described with a nickname of "Beanpole" or "Scarface", you'd already have a pretty good idea about what he or she looked like. If the nickname was "Bubbles", you'd could take a reasonable guess at what their personality was.

Now, characters's personalities can usually divided into five categories: Really Good, Good, Normal, Bad and Really Bad. Of these five, both Really Good and Really Bad are normally really boring, as people can't relate to them (although sometimes they can be useful as charicatures in RPGs sessions, particularly in pulpy games).

The different categories determine what sort of keywords you choose to sum up your character:

Really Good2 Positives and 1 Neutral
Good2 Positives and 1 Negative
Neutral1 Positive, 1 Neutral and 1 Negative
Bad2 Negatives and 1 Positive
Really Bad2 Negativesand 1 Neutral

A trait is basically a keyword - either a noun or adjective - that can some up a major aspect of the character's personality. Traits, as mentioned in the table above, can be divided into Positive, Neutral and Negatives.

Positive Traits are those that benefit not only the owner of the trait, but also those around them. Some examples might be "altruistic", "jovial" or "caring".

Negative Traits are ones that are normally considered to be disagreeable or not desirable (for example, "violent" or "sulky").

Neutral Traits are — as one might expect — traits that could go either way depending on the circumstances. In some cases, they might actually be an advantage, while in others, they could be a pain in the butt; often, they are considered somewhat controversial. "Impatience" is something that falls into this category, because an impatient person might not be willing to accept the status quo and would take action when needed. On the other hand, they can also stuff things up by going off half-cocked.

To give you a few examples:
Bubbles: Good Character; Happy (positive), Friendly (positive), Shallow (negative)
Stinky: Neutral Character; Hard-working (postive), Talkative (neutral), Overindulgent (negative)
Knuckles: Bad Character; Brutal (negative), Abusive (negative), Loyal (positive)

Why do good characters have negative traits and why do bad characters have positive traits? Basicalyl, it's all about character weaknesses. Nobody is good or bad all the time. Most of us have aspects to our personalities that let us down. Good people have negative aspects that manifests as character flaws that can get them into trouble. Bad people have a positive trait that can sometimes be used as a weakness by the PCs to gain some advantage over them at a crucial part of the story. Normal characters have a mixture, as one might expect.

How is this useful? Well, for a start, it's a very quick process. It doesn't take much to come up with a nickname for a character, and then three keywords to sum up their personality. If a GM had lists of traits split up into appropriate classes (something that I'll admit that I don't have right now, but think wouldn't be too hard to come up with), a GM could put together an NPC's basics in a few seconds while the players were arguing about something else.

The other real benefit for both writers and GMs is that even though the technique is brief, it provides a powerful way of describing a character in such a way that both can (hopefully) have a solid picture of how that NPC should be portrayed.

The technique is also system independant and could be used for any gaming system. Stats for the NPC could be created as needed, but this technique can also provide personalities for those NPCs that the PCs may interact with only briefly (for examples, secretaries or shop-assistants).