Review : Red Dwarf The RPG

Red Dwarf as an RPG, from the nice people at Deep7.

By Todd Downing, Deep7, £25/$34.95 Print

Three millions years into deep space…
It must be about a year since I heard about the plans to do a Red Dwarf RPG. To start with I was dubious, the guys with the license were American, they spelled Kebab as Kebob on their web site. Out of interest I got in contact with them, to get the scoop that became this interview. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a strong idea of what Red Dwarf was about. They wanted to remain true to the show. How cool was that!

A year later, and I’ve got the book in my hands. It’s slimmer than some RPGs, but the production values are very high. A mixture of full colour and 2 colour printing (black and red), it’s well layed out and information is well presented. It passes the “decent index” test too, a rare thing in an RPG. There are lots of photos from the series, some of which don’t seem to have converted very well to greyscale (only really noticeable on a few of the darker shots). There’s also plenty of illustrations. These fit the style of the series surprisingly well, reminding me somewhat of the comic strips in the old Red Dwarf Magazine. The best bits of layout work are the wonderfully produced adverts. Similar to those in the old Starwars and Cyberpunk games, these nicely add atmosphere to the book (the small print of the ouroborous Batteries advert is great).

Writing wise the book is a pleasant read. Some chapters are better than others, but generally the writers do a good job of making roleplaying rules interesting and conveying the humour of the setting. There are occasional hiccups (some pop-culture references you may not get, or lose something in the journey over the atlantic). But then most of this is a problem with any comedy writing, and doesn’t spoil the book. it’s obvious that the writers payed a lot of attention to how to run a game in a Red Dwarf like universe. Their conclusion (and the best one to make, as far as I can see) was that your game takes place in one of the many alternate universes of the setting, using your characters, and so you should focus on the core concept: Man is alone a godless universe. Hilarity ensues.

There’re a good introductory chapter answering the questions: “what is roleplaying?”, “what is Red Dwarf?”, and so on. Some nice colour text dragged form the series sets the tone well, and the writing style fills you with enthusiasm. There’s a glossary (useful so that you know the GM is called the AI etc), and for those of us who are used to RPGs, there’s a rules summary. It’s around this point I had some nagging doubts about the system, but more on that later. For newbies there’s an RPG primer in chapter 2, and it’s pretty good.

In chapter 3 we are given rules on how to create characters, starting with some advice on thinking about what you want to play, followed by a series of character types. Here we have a list of the main options for player characters, Humans, Holograms, Evolved Pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, mice and iguanas are given as examples), Mechanoids (Series 4000 or Hudzen 10), GELFs (Genetically Engineered Life forms), Wax Droids (Intelligent wax works) and Simulants (Psychotic military mechanoids). Each type gets a bonus special ability and a particular drawback, as well as particular limits on how high their stats can go.

The actual creation rules are short and summarised on a sidebar. Distribute 20 points between 6 stats and 30 points to skills. You get extra skill points for Liabilities, and you can also buy Assets for points. This is further developed in the next few chapters, which deal with character traits in detail. The six stats are straightforward enough, Agility, Dexterity, Perception, Strength, Intelligence, Willpower. These follow pretty standard RPG lines. The only oddity here is the agility / dexterity split, which seems somewhat stretched (one overall coordination stat might have worked just as well, it’s not like this split is obvious in the source material), and the fact that anything social is based off perception. From these stats, we get derived stats: Initiative, Save and Shrug. Both save and shrug, when introduced, seem to have a remarkably similar purpose (helping deal with damage). Finally, there is a stat called Destiny, everybody gets one point. This can be spent for a re-roll, if you do something heroic, you’ll get it back and an additional point. I’d have liked to see this stat expanded on. It’s one of the few stats that seems to really help with the Red Dwarf, “skin of their teeth”, feel. I’d like to have seen it’s definition expanded to give reward for comedy moments and keeping to the Red Dwarf feel, which I’ll certainly do when running it.

Skills are all attached to a particular attribute, they follow a pretty standard RPG list. Values of 1 in a skill are ranked “loser”, 4 “satisfactory”, and 7+ “What a guy!”. You can take a speciality that gives you +1 to a particular use and -1 to all other uses of the skill, some skills you also have to choose a category for (like Pilot: Transport). The skills are explained in an entertaining manner, and the list covers most of the things you’d expect to see in the RD universe.

The Assets, Liabilities and Behavioral tags follow a GURPS style “points for problems” system. It’s here that the system adds in some of the setting colour, and so you get liabilities like Smeghead (+3 points) and Gimboid (+2 points). Behavior tags only give you one point each, and are pretty minor quirks that add character colour. My only problem with this aspect of the system is that it’s entirely possible to ignore the liabilities completely. Since part of Red Dwarf’s charm is that everybody in the main cast is a loser of some kind, I’d have like to have seen some compulsory points of liabilities, or some such. Another problem is that by taking lots of liabilities, you get to be really skilled or buy lots of assets. This somehow doesn’t seem true to the setting, where people like Rimmer have many flaws, and no real skills or assets…

The system is pretty simple, you roll 2D6 and try to get under your stat + skill. If you roll snake eyes you get a critical success, if you roll boxcars you get a critical failure. All action results are narrated by the GM, who can give you modifiers for certain situations. Combat follows the 3 second rounds method (something abstract would work better for a comedy game, in my opinion, no time for cool quips if rounds are 3 seconds). Characters act in order of initiative. There’s rules for running, dodging, surprise, targeting areas of the body, damage, wounds, saves, and so on. Again, this is a standard RPG combat system, nothing special, but then nothing seems particularly broken either. My main dislike for the system is that it tries to simulate how the universe works, rather than how the show is written. But this is a personal preference, and probably won’t stop most people having fun with the game.

There’s an example of play in chapter 7. As an example it works. I suppose. It shows how the skills work, how the AI should do its job, and how players should react. It’s not very funny though, and doesn’t really inspire me to play the game. That’s a problem in any play example.

Practically everything that ever appeared in the Red Dwarf series is detailed in the Equipment and Ships chapters. From Starbug to Psiscan, it’s all here. Some nice flavour text, images, and the relevant stats and rules are provided for everything. There’s a deckplan of Starbug too. I’m somewhat dubious about lists of gun stats in a Red Dwarf game, they seem out of place somehow. The creatures chapter details all the critters you are likely to encounter. So if you fancy throwing a mutton vindaloo beast, polymorph, or space weevil at your group, then you have everything you need.

The worlds chapter is particularly well written (one of my favourites in the book). It describes most of the worlds visited in the series, but each has a “Worst case scenario” with it, which is ideal for coming up with scenarios to throw at your players. This is a nice touch, and I think the equipment and ships chapters could have benefited from taking a similar approach, as it gets you thinking about how you’re actually going to run the game.

Speaking of which, the AI section is well done, and covers handling players and such like, along with some sidebars on optional rules. There’s advice on playing the AI like Holly, dealing with causality, encouraging comedy, plus other issues of running a humorous game. There’s a tendency to go for the “GM is God” style of roleplaying here, which spoils the chapter slightly. But it’s not like this is a unique phenomena in RPGs.

The personalities chapter covers everybody you might want to meet from the series, from Rimmer to Nicey Ackerman, along with some generic stats for space corps officers, GELFs, and others. This is useful for providing instant non-player characters, but also for some insight into how to create characters. For example, the list of character traits for Lister match Rimmer’s intolerences, an ideal recipe for comedy.

Finally we get a scenario generator and a sample scenario. The scenarios generator is well thought out, and involves playing mix and match with the situations and personalities form the series. Plenty of ideas to be had here. The sample scenarios “The Red Dwarf Shuffle” should be fun to run, and has the feeling of the series about it. Without too many spoilers,it involves what could be termed “Extreme Golfing” on a GELF planet.

Overall: I have mixed feelings about Red Dwarf as a RPG. It’s well written and the setting information and game advice are comprehensive and entertaining. It has a good take on how to make roleplaying in the Red Dwarf universe possible, and good advice on how to go about it. It’s just that the rules are a little uninspiring. In the end though, the play’s the thing, and whatever system you use, the Red Dwarf universe is going to be a fun place to play.

Review : Tribe 8 PLayers Handbook

A guide and reference for Tribe 8 players.

By Marc A. Vezina et al, Dream Pod 9, £12.99 / $22.95

The post apocalyptic player’s guide

Tribe 8 is a great setting. It’s a post apocalyptic fantasy/horror set in the ruins of Canada. Dream based shamanistic magic, horrific creatures which capture and enslave humanity, tribal societies clawing their way through the dead cities of the world before and a ragtag group of outcasts who may just change the world. Tribe 8’s got it all.

One of its problems however, is that the main book had a lot of setting material shown via character monologues. This made it somewhat difficult to use as a casual reference, or a player aid. Much to their credit, Dream Pod 9 have realised this and produced a players handbook to distil the setting information for easy access for players.

The book itself is a slim volume with a nice cover and a well layed out interior. The sidebars that are scattered throughout the second chapter are a good example of the use of layout. They contain a good deal of information about the 7 Tribes, the Z’Bri, and the Fallen Outlooks, in a very compact way. The artwork is of high quality, of the decayed pseudo-manga style the game line is famous for. I did notice that quite a few pictures were lifted from the original book, but since this material is mainly a repackaging, that’s hardly surprising.

Chapter 1 is a basic introduction, explaining why the book was written, and how it can be used. It also goes into some detail on how Tribe 8 can be played, and what your characters should actually do. This chapter sets up the aims and objectives of both the game and the book, and so is ideal reading for anybody who may be confused about either.

Chapter 2 is a rundown on the Tribe 8 background. This includes everything a player needs to know about the setting. The history of the tribes, and the structure of tribal life. Information on becoming one of the fallen, an how this affects a character. There are also sections on religion and spirituality, crime and punishment and the trading that goes on in the bazaar. The chapter is a nice compact rundown, and should set any player straight on how the game world works. As mentioned above, the chapter is full of useful sidebars

In chapter 3 we get a look at character development. This starts off by providing some basic archetypes for new players to develop concepts from. These are probably very familiar to anybody who has played a certain fantasy game before: barbarian, bard, fighter, druid, thief, cleric and mage. I’m not convinced this is a good idea for any experienced roleplayer, but if you’re coming to the game from D20 (see later), or you’re a new player in need of a starting point, then they’re probably quite useful. I can’t help but feel they do a disservice to the quality of the setting though.

The next section covers character backgrounds, and gives some tables of background ideas with suggested perks and flaws. Again, these are more useful to those who don’t have a strong idea of the character they want to play, but reading them certainly helps inspire you.

Next we get a rundown of the various outlooks amongst the fallen: The Doomsayers, Herites, Jackers and Lightbringers. This is an excellent section, giving details of the major outlooks and more importantly how to approach playing them. Everything is succinct and to the point, covering core ideology, who joins the groups, what they do, internal and external politics and some handy tips for playing each type. The chapter rounds off with a look at the mechanics of character creation.

Chapter 4 covers equipment and the economy of the setting. The equipment section covers encumbrance and the typical weapons and armour used by the fallen, useful but ultimately dull information. The economy section is the star of the chapter, this gives a nice overview of the barter economy, including a section on who wants what, and a handy example. This is followed by a table of items and their typical barter values. Oddly, while there’s a full breakdown of armour, there’s no table of weapons… (This is fixed in the errata)

Chapter 5 looks at combat in more detail, covering the typical tactics of the different groups in the setting, mass combat and some maneuvers that make combat more interesting. If you like your combat abstract, then this section won’t hold much for you. If however, you have an interest in the more tactical aspect of systems then this will probably be required reading.

In chapter 6 we learn more about synthesis, the magic of the Tribe 8 setting. The chapter has a rundown of the various eminences (spiritual affinities) and how they can be used with synthesis to affect the world. Again, the explanations are brief and to the point, and cover the system very much from a players point of view. There are brief notes on other magical systems like aspects (more specific powers), technosmithing (for the keepers, another group in the setting), ritual synthesis and dreaming. But these are not covered in as much detail.

The final chapter takes a look at using the Tribe 8 system with Open Gaming Licence. The chapter is quite large (30 pages out of 128) and does a good job of converting Tribe 8’s setting to the OGL system. How useful this will be depends on your rules preference. Personally I don’t think it’s is particularly suited to Tribe 8, but then again if you like D20, and it suits your play style, then this material will be ideal.

Overall: This book has an aim, to make Tribe 8 more accessible to players. It succeeds at this admirably. The condensed material is very handy for existing Tribe 8 players in need of a reference, or for players who are new to the system and need to find their feet. The OGL material will make the book more useful to D20 players looking for a very different setting. If you play Tribe 8, or just want to dip into the background, then this is a very useful book.

Rama’s Rules of Running an RPG

Article by Jason Rama
This is primarily advice for first time Gamesmaster’s, those noblest and most fragile of creatures (rather like papier-mâché Dodo’s). In no particular order:

  1. If you don’t want to be the sort of fixed-minded GM that makes roleplaying a lackluster experience for the players, then before you even start writing scenarios and settings, talk to the players about what they think a ‘fantasy’ game, a ‘sci-fi’ game or whatever type of game you intend to run is. You can then all agree what expectations or limitations the game should have, that way, theoretically at least; everyone stands a good chance of getting what they want out of the game.
  2. Always prepare your game well. Have contingency plans and spare scenarios ‘lying around’. These will save your bacon on more than one occasion. Never underestimate the speed at which players can resolve a scenario that took you months to think of. This particularly happens if you write a linear ‘plot’ for the players to ‘follow’,rather than a ‘scenario’ allowing for many projected courses of action. If you don’t tie yourself down to ‘making’ the players follow a story, you give yourself flexibility which allows everyone will have a lot more fun.
  3. Always write detailed background information on your setting. Plot can come from the players interacting with the environment. It is important to note however, that the background information and setting should be tailored to the players and player character’s motivations and desires, this will make it more enjoyable for the players to explore and adventure in your world. Always remember though, that you don’t have to use all the background information and detail for your players, take what you want, depending on what you need in the session.
  4. Always have control over the environment. Wherever you role-play make sure you have everything you need to set the mood; Music, lighting, snacks and beverages. These can become vital in long sessions as they set the mood and sometimes the pace of what you are trying to achieve.
  5. Always leave the players alone in the room before you start the game, for no more than 5 minutes, leave your selected music running and before you leave the room suggest to the players that they need to think about what they want to do tonight. This will get the players in the mood for the nights festivities. Be careful not to give them too much time to set definite plans, those should really be done ‘in game’. After all, players are supposed to role-play making plans. You don’t want the players turning up and handing you a dossier and saying ‘This is what we want to do, see you next week!’ and then leaving.
  6. Always recap what happened last time you played – this gives the players a chance to remind you of what you might have forgotten, and vice versa, but also to indicate to you, the GM, what the players are focused on doing in the session.
  7. If you want the players to visit a particular place, don’t give the place you have in mind a name. Give the player’s a selection of names to choose from and then just use the place you have designed, this is particularly useful for first time GM’s. For more experienced GM’s, open your scenario up a little, have LOTS of places your players can visit, with different cultures, customs and intrigues. Who knows what your players may uncover? Well, you hopefully
  8. Try and keep the group together as much as possible, letting them have their own storylines is good, but try and keep these instances as short as possible if you’re a first timer. Otherwise you may have players sitting around doing nothing for long periods of time and getting bored. If it is absolutely necessary to do this (The more experienced at GM’ing you become, the more likely this is to happen as player confidence grows in you), give the other players NPC’s that are with the ‘lone’ player to play, and brief them on their temporary character motivations. And if ‘solo’ scenarios aren’t working out or are not very interesting, then talk to the player involved and say ‘I don’t think this is working’ or ‘How can we make this more interesting?’ If two of you can’t resolve the problems, then it’s time to ditch that ‘strand’ and move on to the next one or back to the group.
  9. If you think of an idea of making your job as GM easier for you, then do it, particularly if it involves the players with the story more. There are various ways of doing this; Have players create NPC characters for the game and get them to play them (This can be tricky as players can end up talking to themselves!), get players to write journals of their gaming activities ‘in character’ and read them (This can be soooooo funny!), have players writing scenario ideas and background info for you, encourage players to provide you with research that they have done on your setting (This can save you A LOT of time), the list goes on and on.
  10. If you have created a setting that is unfamiliar to the players, give them a pre-generated character each and role-play a few sessions in this new environment, this will help the players develop ideas and understand the world before they generate their characters.
  11. Never underestimate the power of player paranoia, ideas, and gullibility. Exploit this whenever it is practical to do so. If a player is role-playing their character in a particularly ‘nervy’ way because the setting and atmosphere are creeping the player out, play up to it a little, one player really getting into the scenario like this often ‘raises the game’ of the other players and makes for a better experience.
  12. Warn players that their characters can die! Character death, I believe, is important to RPG’s. I always give the players a chance to do something fatally stupid once and survive, barely. However, you must always stress to the player that ‘they were lucky’ this time and that may be a more considered set of actions would have been appropriate. Then have all the players start thinking of concepts for a second character that they might play if their first character dies. This makes scenarios much more interesting, dangerous places. It won’t stop stupid ideas, but at least they won’t moan too much about the consequences.
  13. Make sure that your NPC’s are interesting characters. Don’t just have them there to provide players with information. Give them their own goals and agendas. A good NPC will be approached again and again by players for interaction value alone (if the character is interesting enough) rather than just for information. As a player, I have many NPC ‘friends’ for precisely that reason. If players ‘cultivate’ these relationships, maybe the NPC’s involved will look on the player’s characters as ‘friends’ too. How would the players react if an NPC friend were killed by an NPC villain? There might be devastating emotional consequences for the player’s characters. NPC villains themselves can make interesting characters to keep around. It’s not always necessary for the villain’s death to be the ending of the story – maybe the villain gets away, the next scenario could be the PC’s reforming as a group and trying to bring him/her to justice, or the villain might not turn out to be the villain after all, just someone who has been badly misinformed, how will the players handle this anti-climax and the supposed villains guilt at all the crimes that they’ve committed?
  14. Make sure that player’s characters have friends and family that they have written about or at least planned. No one exists in the world alone. These can be useful for the GM in terms of hanging scenarios from (“Mr. Mysterio? This is your daughter’s housekeeper. She’s been kidnapped by The Cult of Flatulence!”). They can also be used to motivate the player’s characters in interesting ways and create interesting storylines (“I’m sorry Miss. Edwards, I’m no longer Mr. Mysterio, I’m retired. I’m getting married. If you want help, ask The Wedge. What’s that? The Cult of Flatulence, the people who killed my daughter!!?? Postpone the wedding, I’ve got some ass to kick!”).
  15. Use props, drawings, maps, graphics, sound effects, music, etc. to accentuate game play, but NOT to dominate it.
  16. If you run out of scenario or ideas for one night, or you think the players have done enough for that sessions play, then cut the session short. Better to have a short, good session, than a long, patchy one.
  17. Always spend some time after the session asking the players what they thought was good and bad about the session, it’s the only way you’ll improve. Also, every couple of sessions, ask the players how they see their characters developing. This is a good way of developing plot.
  18. Never be afraid to ditch whatever plot or scenario ideas you have planned in favour of things the players are interested in. You may have spent months designing the plot and NPC’s for the story of the Martian Smurg Beast, but if the players are more interested in chatting up the barmaid, use that!
  19. Let players commit to stupid acts, try and subtly warn them they are about to do something silly, but if they don’t take the hint let them run with it. However, there is one proviso to this, stop the idea dead in it’s tracks if it means the whole group of characters are going to get wiped out (Player: “Mr. Mysterio decides to save the group by using his pocket flame thrower.” GM: “You’re on a petrol station forecourt!”).
  20. Most systems have some method of handing out ‘Experience Points’. These are generally handed out for role-playing well, staying in character, completing missions successfully. However, another good way of awarding experience (Particularly if you’re a first time GM) is to have players set short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for their characters. Short-term goals change from session to session, mid-term goals every scenario, and long-term almost never. It’s useful in terms of judging character success, and it also has the benefit of involving the players in what THEY say they have to do to EARN experience. Goals like this also have the benefit of not being bound to ‘solving’ the mystery or killing the ‘villain’, you can give your own experience ‘bonuses’ for that, they can be aimed at developing skills or obsessions that the characters may have (GM: “Mr. Mysterio gains 20 experience points for finally getting married with a bonus of 10 for apprehending the evil Cult of Flatulence.”).
  21. Finally, and this is one that I think most GM’s forget, have fun! It isn’t only the players that are supposed to have fun, the GM is too! If you get stressed by GM-ing a game, then don’t GM. I know lots of players who have tried GM-ing and have decided they prefer to play rather than GM. There’s nothing wrong with this, but make sure that in your group that there are at least a couple of GM’s. That way, you won’t spend the rest of your gaming life designing scenarios instead of playing them. Also, if you’re a player, support your GM. Help them out, they are a commodity to be valued. Playing one character can be hard enough, but playing a world?

Social Contract Gaming

Thoughts and musings on the nature of rules and the social agreement they represent.

It’s amazing how often I hear roleplayers say something like “We had a great game of D&D last week, we went the whole session and never used the rules once!” This kind of statement puzzles me. How, if you’re not using the rules, could it possibly be considered a game of D&D? Sure the trapping are there, the setting, the rulebooks, the character sheets, the dice, and so on. But if they weren’t used, then the actual game certainly wasn’t D&D, it was something else entirely.

What they were actually playing, to my mind at least, was their groups social agreement. That often unspoken part of the game, where players agree where the limits are, who can contribute when, and what the limits of the setting and story are.

Now at this point you may be saying, “but we always go by the rules!” And if so, then good for you, that probably means your group’s social agreement fits quite nicely with the rules you are using. But think back, when was the last time your GM fudged a dice roll instead of killing a character? Did you let it slide, accepting that this is how things are done, or complain that he cheated? This is a prime example of the social agreement that players should be heroic characters who don’t die arbitrarily, overruling the system’s rules of character death.

Does your GM allow other players to interject with cool story ideas? I do, it’s not part of the rules, but it’s an accepted part of the games I play in. If I did it in some peoples groups they’d probably look at me funny, why is he suggesting how his Call of Cthulhu character dies?

Many roleplayers seem to ignore the fact that large amounts of the game rules are un-spoken. That the rules are built into the social dynamic of the group, rather than the rulebook of game they are playing. Long term gaming groups tend to adopt a style that they are happy with, and stick to it. It doesn’t matter if they’re using Fudge, D&D, Vampire, or GURPS, because they have this unspoken agreement on how they play. In fact it really doesn’t matter which game they are using.

For a long time this led me to believe that any new RPG was only useful for acquiring new setting ideas, since most groups would just ignore the system and only play the bits that they liked (i.e. the bits that worked best with their social agreement).

Then I had an idea. What are rules if not a social agreement on who gets to say what happens and when?

So perhaps all those games with rules you don’t like, or can’t find the sense in, are just the game designer trying to give you their model of the social agreement to play with. To try differing levels of control among players and GM, to try games that focus more on the game, or more in the story than you normally would. As long as the players agree that they want to accept the system’s priorities, they can try out a new approach. Of course what normally happens is that players take one look at a system, decide before playing it that they don’t like it, and ignore it, returning to their default social agreement.

So what is my conclusion here? Not a great deal other than this: Play a game as written before you fudge or tweak anything. Just because it doesn’t seem to work on paper, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, just that it’s trying to encourage a style of play that is different from your current prefered style. Try it, who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised.

The Problem with Character Backgrounds

Some thoughts on character backgrounds.

Padding is for Lunatic Asylums…

I have come to the decision that I really hate character backgrounds. Let me re-phrase that: I really hate those overly long, badly written, pieces of florid prose that people write as justification for their character. Don’t get me wrong, I like characters to be well conceived, and to have a feeling of depth about them, it’s just that I rarely see that in character backgrounds.

Part of this, I imagine, comes from having played and run many a LARP. “Give us a character background and you’ll get experience”, says the storyteller, not knowing what is awaiting him. The logic initially seems good, if the storyteller knows about your character’s past, then he can map the future with greater ease, and know what kind of plotlines will interest you. The logic seems fine, until the storyteller in question gets handed a fifty page essay, filled with, well, padding.

You see the problem is that for many people it has become ingrained in them that a character background, no matter what it actually contains, is a good thing. I would certainly disagree with this. As a storyteller/Referee/GM, I have little concern with what your character had for breakfast the day before he was made into a vampire. I don’t care about the annoying minutiae, or useless facts like “My character doesn’t particularly like cheese, except edam.”

Conflict and Motivation

What I want are the key points, the motivators, the conflicts, the interesting people your character knows, the things that will kickstart your character into the action. Who does your character love, who does he hate? What unresolved conflicts are there in his past? These could be anything, from the enmity of the Dark Lord™, to an unresolved disagreement with the character’s brother. These conflicts are the things that can be woven together to make an interesting story, and one in which your character is an integral part. If I can quickly create a conflict based on what you tell me, you’ve got adventure waiting to happen.

Sure, a bit of extra info is fine, but if I have five (for a tabletop game) or fifty (for a LARP game) backgrounds to read, it can get really dull going through them all, and I’ll end up skimming, looking for the interesting bits. Once I start doing that, the chances of me missing cool stuff goes up dramatically.

The important thing is not to hide the interesting parts of your character’s background in fluff; don’t barrage me with appalling Goth poetry, or a diary that accurately describes the last ten years for your character. Instead write a list of bullet points. Think of the key factors that I should remember when writing scenarios to involve your character.

Making it Easy for the GM

What should you write? Well, it depends on the game, and personal tastes. The easiest thing to do is look at the films or novels that inspire the genre. Think of how you would sum up the characters in question. To give an example, do we know about Han Solo’s background? Not really. It’s not important to the role he plays in the story. My current preference for character backgrounds is that they contain some of the following:

  • Concept
  • Important events
  • Motivations (including one recently acquired)
  • Connections
  • A statement of intent
  • Internal and external views

The first thing I like to see is a simple summary of the core character concept. Something that tells me exactly what your character is about. “Happy go lucky trickster”, “hate filled ex-cop”, just a basic summary, nothing too flashy. One of the reasons this is useful, is that by distilling down all those thoughts you have about your character into a single sentence, you become aware of the core traits you’ll want to roleplay. As a GM it tells me which way you are likely to jump if presented with a particular situation, ideal for planning plots. A good thing to build in here is an idea of your characters approach to a solving problems. Is he a cautious strategist or a both guns blazing kind of guy?

Important events come next, in my mind, as they help to build the motivations. How many you give will depend on the character, but the important thing here is that they are events that have changed the character’s life. Take Batman, the turning point in his life is when his parents are murdered, it sets him on his path and provides his core set of motivations. Again, keep it short and sweet. The details probably don’t matter, only the event and how it affected the character. If an event didn’t have a profound affect on the character, then what is the point in your GM reading it?

Motivations are a key part of a character background, and most will spring form those events you just described. Again, because they help a GM work out which way a character will jump if pushed. If your character is motivated by greed, then pulling him into the story by offering him money is an easy option. Motivations can be vague, “believes in justice”, to specific “searching for her brother’s killer”, but they instantly give the GM an idea of what sort of story you want the character involved in.

Another key thing here is that motivations that have only recently come to the fore can be a real advantage. They kickstart the story, especially if the GM is aware of them beforehand. Particularly good motivations of this kind can kickstart a whole campaign. Unless all the player characters happen to know each other anyway (and how cliched is that), such recent motivators can provide an ideal way of drawing a disparate group together.

Who you know, and who you care about should be written down. All too often characters in RPGs seem to exist as islands, not actually having anybody they know or care about outside the group.The archetypal brooding loner seems to be a common RPG character, and this can be a wasted opportunity. Every character should have family, friends, colleagues, associates, and minions; people who an be kidnapped or betray them, because these are the things that make for interesting plots.

The most important element of any character background though, is telling the GM either explicitly or implicitly, where you want to take the character from here. I call this the statement of intent. It’ll avoid those moments of “My character has no interest in this plot”, that occasionally occur. Or at least it should if you have a good GM. If the planned game has a literary bent, then think of the theme your character will address ,phrasing it as a conflict or question helps: “Family vs Personal Honour” or “What will you do for power?”. If your game is more concerned with pure action and adventure, then imagine your character doing something cool, what would it be?

Finally, a good practice is to note down how your character views himself, and how others view him. Getting a handle on this will help you play the character, and help the GM fit him into the world.

On the Fly Character Creation

Something to remember is that it’s often more fun to discover things about your character through play, to make them up on the spot and run with them. If it’s all predefined, it leaves you little room for maneuver. Sometimes it’s fun to have gaps to fill in later, or during roleplay. It can take a little work – “What do you mean you are the son of the dark lord, didn’t you think it was worth mentioning?” – but it allows you to learn from playing the character, and then apply that knowledge to the background, rather than the other way around. After all, you won’t always come up with the good ideas all at once, and this method can also allow you to introduce new plot elements should the character need a new direction after a few sessions.

Conclusions

While this form of character creation isn’t suitable for all roleplayers (or indeed all forms of roleplaying), I find it more helpful in story orientated games than the bloated, over-written character backgrounds I’ve too often seen. Hopefully you will too.