Creating characters is perhaps the most important part of my process these days. It used to be that I would primarily start by looking up appropriately challenging monsters, drawing a dungeon map, figuring out treasure, and all of those aspects first, and story would either be ignored or just sort of broadly washed over it. But as I’ve grown as a GM (and storyteller) I embraced the idea that good stories come from good characters, and that good GMing is about weaving all those fun game aspects into an immersive roleplaying/story experience. Plus, just like there’s players who prefer to metaphorically “skip the cutscenes” and just play the fights, there’s also players who are mostly there for story and roleplaying, and don’t get into the combat as much, so it’s good to have both.
So, as mentioned before, I like to make around 7 characters. I use a “Soul Sheet” to define the core of the characters, and as I start building up the characters, an idea of the story and adventure premise starts really taking shape. My normal “Soul Sheet” is more complex, but for simplicity I’m going to use a simplified version, closer to a previous incarnation. It’s designed to be something you can partially fill and still find it useful anyway.
For each character, I like to define Goal, Motivation, and Setting Connection/Formative Context. I usually put their name at the top, and then some sort of 2-3 word summary of what their character is or their role in the story.
The reason these fields are important is because they define the most fundamental core of the character, and, what drives them. A quick glance at the Soul Sheet can give you a sense of what they would most likely do in a given situation, and gives you a basis to add details to as you like. I don’t like to smatter on details about a character without a sense of what their core is—it helps me avoid plot holes, and makes the whole thing more logical to me. It also makes it far easier to improvise their reaction on the spot—the players are going to surprise you, every game, and while a detail may never come up, the core of the character informs everything they do.
This is also how I start stories—whereas the players are going to surprise you in a tabletop roleplaying game, the characters and turns of the plot are going to surprise you when writing a story. Defining characters and allowing the story to grow organically out of them makes writing a story an experience of discovery, and makes for rich interactions. It certainly makes the process far more enjoyable to me—and thus far more likely that I’ll finish what I’m working on.
What happens if you get stuck? Well, then it may be to go back to the Inspiration step. Going back and gathering more raw material, exploring the world, and using random stimuli is a great way to move past writer’s block. Often, the process is an ebb and flow until you’ve got something practicable.
Side note—Also, if you’re just writing a tabletop adventure, you can blatantly steal things from pop culture. If you’re just imagining things with your buddies, then plagiarism really isn’t a big deal—thankfully, imagining whatever you want is perfectly legal. Sure, publishing a story is a whole different ballgame, but we’re talking about hanging out and playing a game with buddies.
Now, I’m not saying only have seven people in your game. It’s mostly just a guideline for the amount of important npcs. You’re going to need to assume there’ll be other characters in the game, like shopkeepers and town guardsmen and peasants and anything and everything else. The players may end up talking to these people and you may need to make them up on the fly. Sometimes a cliché personality will do—if the character becomes woven into the story, you may find it helpful to jot down their goal and motivation real quick… Or you can make a note to do so later. But seven NPCs in my experience gives you plenty of characters to draw on to advance the story, and has the side benefit for being about how many things people can hold in short term memory at a time.
Next time, examples.
The latest version of Legend of Luth is available for download here.
All images, writing, characters, artwork and related indicia are (c) Earl Isbell
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