Front-load Your Characters


So I’ve been playing a lot of small press games on and off and reflecting on how to “write” a scenario for some of these – especially when it differs in many ways from your more traditional method of gaming or writing. Games such as Hot War or Dead of Night require very little in the way of story for a good game, all they really need are some strong characters with motivations and a good starting point – maybe with a few more “bangs” to keep the story moving when a scene goes stale. This sort of tactic can work well for a traditional game too, but whatever style of game you’re running it relies on good players and there’s no accounting for that…

What do I mean by “good” players in this case? Well, ones that will get engaged, be proactive and take the story somewhere. Is there anything we can do to help out those shy and retiring types at the gaming table or guide those that like to talk just that little bit too much? What about people who seem intent on derailing things – you get all sorts at conventions don’t you?

Well, first things first you need a good meaty situation – last survivors of an apocalypse, investigators in a high profile case, whatever, but your scenario (such as it is) should have a strong starting premise, and preferable start with a bang – in media res is always good, but not necessary – a good start is to kick off with a big “This thing is happening, what are you going to do about it?”.

This of course isn’t the first thing first – it is for the session, but before that, before you’re even at the gaming table, you’ve made the characters and front-loaded them with ideas and motivations, so that when that Thing happens, they’ve got a handle on what their character might do about it. Every player is different and might do their own crazy thing no matter what the situation or what is on the sheet, but if you’ve planted enough seeds then is gives the quieter players some ideas what they might do, and the more lively players some guidance on where to head.

I’ve lost count of the number of Cthulhu games where the GMs laid out some scary situation with a half-glimpsed figure and then my dilettante or elderly professor is expected to wander into the frightening woods in the dead of night for no apparent reason. Generally I do, but it feels forced and other people will happily use the “my character wouldn’t do that” excuse. Quieter gamers might sit there waiting for someone else to make a move. Now, if you’ve taken the time to load your characters with motivations or goals, the whole job becomes easier… The dilettante is looking for her fiancé and that could have been him, the professor sees visions of his dead wife and she always leads him to clues, or maybe its just the opium… Putting some meat on the bones of characters though gives your players something to, well, play with, and also a button that you as a GM can push to nudge them in a certain direction if they’re being reluctant.

Of course, if you interlink the backstories of the characters (and why wouldn’t you) a lot of story can happen right there at the table, without the characters physically going anywhere. Ex-lovers, unrequited affection, blame for someone else’s death or injury, jealousy, blind hate, competitors for the same prize, etc., there are many reasons why the characters have some connection. Ideally you’ll want to pick one positive and one negative for each character and create a web of alliances and rivalry (no need for a full list of what each character thinks of all the others). You don’t have to make these too aggressive in nature of course, or you’re in danger of the game exploding within the first 30 minutes, but enough that there’s something to play with is good.

A great way of creating some ready-made story is to give characters different viewpoints of the same situation. One character thinks he’s getting back with his ex-wife and another character is sleeping with her. The wife walks in and needs help – straight away we’ve got a sticky situation before we even know what the wife wants – if one or two other characters have a hook into the love triangle you’ve got some meaty roleplaying going on without having to talk about a plot yet.

So I’ve talked a bit about pre-loading your characters with story, but what do we do about those pesky players?

Too quiet: As we’ve given the character a list of goals or motivations you can always ask your player directly what their character is going to do. “Are you going to let him talk to your girlfriend like that?” / “The last guy heading into those swamps never came back, are you okay scouting them on your own?” / “You’re going to get penalties for withdrawal soon, are you really leaving those drugs on the table?”

Too noisy: One tactic is to get a clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve and then ask around to see if everyone else is okay with that. If your loud player wants to grab the artefact and hold onto it you can typically get behaviour like “I grab the artefact and put it in my pack”, but don’t be frightened of winding back their narration a bit, “You reach for the artefact, what’s everyone else doing?”. This is a good time to engage the quieter members of the group and push the “You really want the artefact” button on their character sheet. Don’t be intimidated by a louder player, and make sure everyone else is getting a look in at the table.

Too disruptive: Aside from all the usual ways of shutting this guy down, if you’ve not got a plot you’re precious about and its more up to the players to generate the story, then there’s not much plot to derail. You’ve just got to make sure the places it goes are interesting and when a scene goes stale, throw in a bang and change things up. If the guy decides to plain ignore what’s on his character sheet and go crazy anyway, there’s not a lot you can do constructively with that – but – at least if you’ve got some guidance there, and other people with hooks into it, there is more to the session than just you as GM trying to keep him to one path, other players should all be pushing story and including him one way or the other.


3 thoughts on “Front-load Your Characters

  1. andrewkenrick

    Some good, solid advice there. There’s no accounting for the players, but I reckon if you start with a group of strong characters with a lot invested in the story, you’re half way there. You’ve built in ready-made buttons to press when the game slows down; add in some good players and you won’t even have to use them.

  2. Scott Dorward

    I cannot think of a single thing in this essay I’d disagree with. It mirrors my own conclusions based on the various con games I’ve run over the years.

    Quiet players are the ones that are most likely to cause me problems in a game. I try to draw them out by asking a lot of open, leading questions. If things are really stagnating, I’ll suggest a variety of specific courses of action, but I prefer not to do this. This usually helps get things moving, but there’s no real substitute for having a group full of engaged, proactive players. Happily, UK cons seem to be quite good at providing these.

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