About a week ago, I got together with two friends to finish what we started previously: rounding out our jungle-based Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting. We met at a downtown coffee shop, and my two players each had a character sheet they had each put together over the break. In the last session, we had laid down some broad strokes in our game world. Now it was time to start getting to specifics.
Looking at their sheets, I had each of them start to tell me about their character. Considering that I had specifically asked them not to draft a background, this may have caught them off guard. But the point was to keep them from coming up with too much in isolation. With a little prompting most roleplayers get into the improvising mood, though, and they were soon putting ideas on the table.
I asked them about the general concept they had in mind when they picked a class, when they picked their skills, when they set their abilities, when they chose their feats. I asked for an in-character reasons their character had a high initiative, why he had a spear for a weapon, why he had a low charisma. Is he impulsive, quick to jump to conclusions? Does he like distance between himself and his enemies? Has he grown up so focused on his training that his social skills have become underdeveloped?
When I'm doing the questioning, I usually aim for the low stats, the weak points of the sheet. Most players have an answer at the ready for why their paladin has great strength, why their fighter is so deadly with a sword, etc. Many players are less prepared when asked to justify a below-average stat, a lack of a key skill, a low movement speed. Almost any reason would be a good reason, and the explanations for bad drum up at least as much interesting material and the explanations for the good. A well-rounded character is made up of both merits and flaws.
The only answer that I always refused was anything involving their sheet. "Because it gave me a bonus to my at-will powers" was not acceptable. "Because I figured it would be a handy skill to have" was not acceptable. "Because I was required to choose from a limit set due to my class limitation" was not acceptable. The sheet already decribes how that all functions within the ruleset. I understand that. I was looking for an explanation in-character, an explanation in-game. A hunting accident when young involved a broken hand, his dexterity never fully recovered. He never trusted his village priest, so he shunned daily sermons and never took in much religion. He's a slow plodding person that takes every step with slow determination... slow being the key word.
What we were looking for was the core of the character the player want to play. Details were not important yet, just a personality, a ball concept that fit the sheet and interested the player. Only once they had a general idea of who they themselves were could they then get a general idea of who everyone else around them would be. Only once I was convinced they had a grasp on their own characters did we more onto creating some NPCs.
First I had both players come up with a single non-player character that their PCs had a good relationship with. I didn't specifically mean a love interest (thought that would have been okay), but instead a person that their character had a positive association with. A loving parent, a trusted friend, an encouraging teacher, a wife, a sister, a co-worker, whatever. This new character didn't really need a name nor a personality, but they should be someone the PC knows well and interacts with. The important thing was why they had a good bond. Was it a family member? Did they share a secret? Was there a long-earned trust? We create a connection between the two characters and hopefully help add a layer of characterization onto the PC in the process.
Second, I had both players come up with a single non-player character their PCs had a poor relationship with. Like above, the background, the name, the motivations of this new character didn't matter. All it had to be was someone that was important to their PC, someone he had a long connection with, but not someone that was villainous. not someone murderous. This wasn't a bad guy waiting to kill him, a monster waiting to pounce. It was like a sporting rival, an overprotective parent, a jealous sibling, a drunk friend... someone they strongly disliked and possibly disliked them.
These cast members were not supposed to be "the villian", "the bad guys", or "the nemesis". These NPCs were not the antagonists in the game. They were the cast members of the adventure, the secondary characters in the story. The extras. Each of them should have a good quality about them, each of them needed an interesting enough hook to stand on their own. We want them to appear, because when they do, that is when our players get some real juicy roleplaying in their roleplaying game. Anyone can declare "i found you at last" and roll initiative. But it's a more unique experience when it becomes "oh no, mother, why did I have to find you here of all places?"
Third, I asked how each player's character knew the other player's NPCs. The only unacceptable answers here was that they "didn't know them" or that it was "just another person". The goal here was to form connections between all the cast members and specifically between the player characters. Having them all know the same people is an easy way to achieve this and it usually ends up defining how they know each other. For instance, if one character has a good relationship with his father and the second character has a troubled friendship with the same man, then that immediately leads to further questions regarding all three... which leads to building clear personalities for all three.
With two players, each having a "good" and "bad" NPC, we immediately have a cast of at least six characters. Usually more as the three of us discussed the interconnected relationships, introducing a few more characters to expand situations we're all interested in seeing. If a player has a poor relationship with a brother, then we asked why... and as some meat started to come of the answers and interest blossomed from the players, I tried to build on that. Are there any other siblings? What about parents, still alive? If not, what happened, did that contribute?
Putting a magnifying glass on these points also starts to bring to focus other story elements. Significant props, reoccuring locations, important events. If these things start to get mentioned, if players and GM start showing interest in them, they are worth working on. The more characters involved in the thing, the more it will mean to the people behind the sheets, the more it will hold interest and excitement when it comes into play. If the parents are dead, how did they die? How did the player character react to this? How did the other players hear about the event? How did they react when they found out?
There's a little bit of GM cheating that happened when posing these questions. Like in the previous two questions, I just skipped to the assumption that the other player did hear about it, that they were affected by the event. This wasn't an accident. Building connections. Maintain connections throughout the background.
The only thing I had to veto in the process were any background elements that would have driven a long-standing wedge between the player characters. It's all right if they disagreed about things, conflict breeds excellent roleplaying after all, but in the end we wanted them to be working together. Sharing the spotlight in their story, not fighting for it. As the characters gained definition, we had to be careful of plot elements that led to reasons for the characters to avoid interacting.
If one player suggested that his character grew up in a different village, then that could lead to a separate cast of NPCs that they would know, less opportunities for their backgrounds to intertwine, less reasons for them to trust each other and work together. It may seem a little heavy-handed to out-and-out forbid some ideas, but I found that when I explained the reasoning, then the players were okay with it and could usually come up with an agreeable compromise. In the above example, just having them live in the separate neighbourhoods would help. Or better yet, the same neighbourhood, but a few houses down. They were still raised separately, as intended, but we maintained the opportunity for them to interact.
When tossing out so many ideas, not everything is going to stick. Everyone had to be flexible enough to let things go if no one else seemed excited about it. Also, it's important not to over-develop anything. Once it's clear everyone was excited about it, that rich plot hooks and potential roleplaying moments are bursting out from it, that's when it was time to cut it off and move onto the next item. Leave some of that creativity for the actual game.
As we wrapped up, I found two great things happening. The game setting had really crystallized, and everyone at the table was part of a clear agreement as to what it was. It's like we all read the same book and all loved it... any differences of opinion made for rich discussions, not heated debates. The other thing that happened is that a multi-game subplot took form. This happened in both my dwarf game and this jungle game. The first couple games' plots come from the PCs' goals, but all that background stuff and intertwined cast members and connected situations... in both cases it was easy to find perfect things that both player characters shared to put on the horizon as big campaign moments.
Unfortunately, we had to wrap up early so we didn't get a chance set instincts and goals for the player characters. Instincts and goals are two ideas I nicked from the Burning Wheel and Burning Empires games, though their "goals" are called "beliefs". Same general idea, just brought into D&D. They are a terrific way for everyone playing to keep the game on track. If a player is not acting on his instincts, maybe he's not engrossed in the character? If plot hook doesn't lead toward any of the players' goals, maybe that story direction is a bit off course?
Instincts are like simple if-then triggers, personality quirks that give color to the characters actions. They are usually fairly specific and involve a situation that defines a response. They can be either positive or negative, and give everyone at the table reminders of the character.
One instinct might be "when my character gets more than X amount of money, he'll start gambling it until he is reduced down to Y" or "my character will not allow any person to tarnish his family's good name". The first example is very specific and could lead to some interesting troubles for many people down the line. The second is a little more vague but is just as ripe with good possibilities, both for the chance to roleplay and for the GM for throwing a monkey wrench in proceedings.
Goals are just things the characters want to accomplish, short summarized reminders of what and why the character is risking life and limb. "I want to earn my freedom" or "I will retrieve my family heirloom from the lich" or "I will not rest until I have overthrown the tyrant king and restored peace to the lands". I usually prefer to have the characters always have three at all times... a short term one that can be accomplished within two or three levels, a medium term one that should can an entire tier, and a long term one that should only be accomplished upon completion of the campaign.
I'll have to remember to get both players to come up with a few at the beginning of our first game session. They are valuable enough that I don't want to risk running the game without them.
Before breaking for the night, we had a short conversation about this collaborative method of starting up a campaign versus the more traditional way: the players each submitting written backgrounds and the GM presenting his envisioned setting. There's the seed of a really good analysis in that somewhere... but we just didn't have the time left to go into it.
Having put some brief thought into it, though, I would still prefer the shared method we went through. Being a part of two setups, one of those campaigns electrified with entertainment and creativity, I can no longer imagine trying to build a Dungeons And Dragons game any other way.