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if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Instant Names: Mythic Flavor

Another instant name trick, this one for making up mythic titles on the fly while maintaining a strong cultural flavor. We just played a pre-Conquistador Aztec game (and by “pre” I mean, “hey, what’s that white sail on the horizon?”) so we got to whip it out. And now I share it with you.

First, think about the setting you’re going to be playing. Just imagine it. Now write down ten or a dozen words that come to mind. You’re looking for evocative words that really capture the flavor of the environment. Limp words should be cast out. If you’re GMing you may be doing this by yourself (particularly if you’re going to be the only one using it), but in a GMless game you can brainstorm your list together.

For our Aztec game, we had something like:

serpent, feather, obsidian, mirror, gold, blood, sun, smoke, jaguar, knife

Now any time during the game, when you need a cool title for a temple, a sacred place, or a god, just pick two random words from the list and combine them: obsidian serpent, feathered mirror, blood sun, smoke serpent, feather knife, and so on. Would you cross a warrior known as the Knife of the Sun? Dare you enter the Valley of the Golden Smoke?

These are names or titles, not necessarily the literal object (not everything in the world are mirrors, knives or jaguars). Pretty much any combination should come up with something fairly cool that also feels right for the setting. There’s a natural urge to divide your list into adjectives and nouns, but that isn’t necessary. If you’re feeling bold, number your list and get some dice ready.

Let’s try a different setting, something a little more Teutonic. Here’s a list off the top of my head:

iron, wolf, bone, grave, hammer, eye, storm, frost, axe, blood, rune

Just looking at that list, you probably have a good idea of the vibe I have in mind. It’s a recipe for the flavor of the setting all by itself.

Need a cool name for a warlord? Easy. Stormwolf, Bloodhammer, Wolf-axe, Bone-eye: they’re all good. Combine this with the one-letter name trick and you’ve got Lord Jharles Stormwolf, bearer of the dreaded sword Gravehammer.

Instant Names: the One-Letter Trick

This trick is really too simple to even mention, but when I bring it up at games I’m always surprised that people don’t know it, so I’ll record it for posterity.

Say you’re stumped coming up with a name for a character in your average fantasy / sci-fi / not-modern-day-Earth setting. Here’s what you do:

1) Take a normal name

2) Change or drop one letter

Done.

Robert becomes Rolert, Rubert, Obert, or Roberi
Frank becomes Brank, Urank or Frunk (half-orcs in the house, yo)
William becomes Illiam, Willia, Welliam, or Wixliam
And so on.

Try it. If you pick random letters you may get unattractive results (like Zrank… hmm, maybe that one isn’t so bad after all) but with a minimum of effort you can weed out losers and score good names. You can use this trick as a GM trying to brand random NPCs on the fly, or as a player struggling to find a good character name. If you’re the GM, don’t tell anyone this is what you’re doing — it’ll just distract everyone.

You’ll be surprised how quickly names look nothing like their original version. If a name does look too much like the original you probably want to ditch it so it doesn’t break the mood (Jonathan => Jomathan might be too close). If you wind up with a homophone ditch it and try again (Bill and Byll look different but sound the same, so no go).

Changing the first letter or a major vowel will usually have the most impact. Linguists can step in at this point, but I suspect you’ll get the biggest results by altering letters in the emphasized syllable of the name — just a theory. You don’t need to worry about that, just experiment and trust what sounds good.

If one letter is not enough, you can go completely crazy and change two letters. You are now in the completely unexplored frontier of rapid name generation. You have been warned.

Making the Party: Wedge Issues

“You’re playing a grizzled veteran detective? But I’m playing a grizzled veteran detective!?!”

Simple stereotypes are great starting points for character creation, but it also means it’s super-easy for two players to wind up with character concepts that look identical. Increase those odds by an order of magnitude in class-based rule systems (“but I’m playing a paladin!”).

Standard reaction: quiet gnashing of teeth, followed by someone feeling slighted and deciding to play something different. Or worse, both players muddle forward but feel like they’re playing clones. Bad vibes at the table.

Here’s a better solution: let both players keep their concept, but find a wedge issue that differentiates them.

Brainstorm for a moment and think of two alternatives that fit the stereotype but are basically opposites. Ask the players if that is the difference between their characters. What you’re looking for is a case where the players pick opposing sides or traits — that becomes the thing that clearly tells them apart.

Two veteran detectives? Is one burned out and the other grimly determined? Does one think the legal system is broken and the other think most people are just scum (system at fault vs humanity at fault).

Two wizards? Does one want to unearth ancient secrets while the other wants to invent new arcane techniques (archaeology vs invention). Is one a member of a magical guild, brotherhood or tradition while the other is an isolated loner or self-taught magi? Is one young and the other old?

Two hotshot pilots? Is one looking for fame and the other thrills? Is one well-trained and the other a natural? Is one precise and the other flying by instinct? (yes, Iceman vs Maverick)

If you throw out an idea for a wedge issue and neither player cares or both come down on the same side, that’s not your wedge. Forget it and suggest another. Make sure the players know you are fishing for differences and they’ll start coming up with ideas of their own. It’s a negotiation, so let it play itself out. If you’re a player and find yourself caught at a table with a clone, feel free to do the same thing: engage the other player and work out a wedge issue.

You’ll know you’ve hit the spot when both players light up and embrace the idea. A good wedge may shed light on the character they envisioned in the first place or at least move in a direction they really like.

Unity and Conflict

Any time you’re starting from a stereotype (and at some level you always do) it’s a given that your character is going to turn out to be more than that stereotype. The character is going to gain depth and individuality and eventually be a unique snowflake, but that takes time. Finding a wedge issue is just a way of speeding up the process.

A good wedge often becomes the relationship between the once-similar characters. It gives them a sharp difference out of the gate, something to bicker about or call each other on. It gives them something to talk about, which is the best thing you can have between two characters when a game starts (seriously, go read Instant Rivalry and Instant Consensus). Those players understand each other’s characters from square one.

Taking it a step farther, a party works best when the characters are in agreement about one large thing (why they are together or what they are doing) and disagree about lots of secondary things (differences in personality). Too much agreement on the little things leads to a boring vanilla party: no personality, no tension. Too much disagreement on the big thing prevents it from being a party.

Note: I said party. Some games don’t have or need the concept of a party because the characters are in conflict instead of cooperating. Those characters can and should disagree about all sorts of things, particularly what they want to have happen, the big goals. That’s the opposite case: in that situation agreement about the main goal kills the game because there is no conflict.

Embrace the Sameness

Want a challenge next time you are making characters? Play very, very similar stereotypes.

Big character differences are child’s play. Anyone can play the elf differently from the dwarf. It takes fine detail to make two similar character concepts but play them with sharp contrast. It makes you pay attention to who they are as people, instead of their race, class or adjectives.

Game Plugin: Instant Rivalries

[What's a game plugin? Go read the working definition. Basically it's a rules add-on that can work with any game system, so whip it out when you play D&D, Traveller, Ars Magica, Vampire, Fudge, whatever]

The Instant Rivalries game plugin establishes relationships and dramatic tension between player characters in any game system. Rivalries can be friendly competition or they can be bitter enmities — it’s up to the players and the desired tone of the game.

Brainstorming a few rivalries can jump start the character creation process and give characters solid personal connections right off the bat. Subplots write themselves.

Defining A Rivalry

A rivalry is defined by who the rivals are (two or more player characters), what type of rivalry it is (love, fame, wealth, etc.), the specific object or topic of the rivalry (Princess Buttercup, white crane kung-fu, the Swedish scientific community), and how important the rivalry is to each character.

Here are six types of rivalries, but you can add more or omit ones that don’t fit your game setting:

Ability – I want to be better at something than you. My kung-fu is better than your kung-fu! Your theories of the natural sciences are juvenile compared to mine!

Fame – I want to be more famous than you.

Love – I want someone to love me more than you. It could be an actual lover or a friend, parent, child or mentor.

Respect – I want people to respect me more than you.

Station – I want a better position than you or the same position you want. It might be a political post, a military promotion, or a noble rank.

Wealth – I want to be richer than you. I might want to find the ancient treasure before you do or make more money on the stock market.

The object is the target, topic or scope of the conflict — the would-be lover that both are courting, a field that both want fame in, the military order that both want a promotion in. Whereas the type is a broad concept, the object tells you exactly who or what the rivals are competing for in the game world.

Those details are the same for both rivals, but each player individually decides how important the rivalry is to their character. Rate the importance on a scale of 1-3, with 1 meaning it’s a minor concern and a 3 meaning it’s intensely important to the character. Don’t like abstract numbers? Use descriptive terms instead — minor, moderate, strong. Players should know what importance their rival is assigning, and as usual they can negotiate to make sure it works for both of them.

The difference between the values tells you a lot about the dynamic of the rivalry. If one character in a Love rivalry has a 1 and the other has a 3, it tells you that one character is thinking about it a lot while the other isn’t concerned. Does that mean one character already thinks they’ve won the person over or do they just care less? Is the high motivation character obsessed or over-protective? It’s up to the players to decide.

One (and only one) of the characters could instead have a 0 value, meaning that rivalry is actually one-sided and this character is not concerned about it at all — what we call an “unrequited rivalry”. You intensely want to prove you’re better than me and I don’t even know you exist or I’m just not willing to compete.

When you write down the rivalry always include how important it is to your rival:

Brother Wu’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 3 vs Brother Po 1 (white crane kung-fu)

Brother Po’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 1 vs Brother Wu 3 (white crane kung-fu)

Ulterior Motives

“It was never about the girl! It was her fortune I was after you fool!”

A rivalry may appear to be about one thing but really be about another. It may seem like I want my kung-fu to be better than your kung-fu (an Ability rivalry) but really I’m doing it to win the affection of our teacher (Love) or to show others that I’m better than you (Respect). The value of the surface rivalry is really the value of the ulterior motive — the character is pursuing or appears to be pursuing the first to get the second.

Any player can choose to add an ulterior motive to their rivalry when it is created. You can make it public knowledge or if your group agrees you can keep ulterior motives secret until they are revealed in play.

Make sure the ulterior motive still involves the rival. It’s fine if I want to win the love of someone who might love you instead, but if I’m trying to win the love of someone completely unrelated to you there isn’t really a rivalry there.

Brother Wu’s character sheet:
Ability rivalry 3 vs Brother Po 1 (white crane kung-fu), ulterior motive Love (old Master Fong)

Establishing Rivalries

There are several ways you can decide on rivalries during character creation. The default “pell mell” option is to just let players figure it out — let them pair off as they prefer, and pick whatever type of rivalry they can agree on. You could also pair up player randomly, or have each player secretly choose a type of rivalry first and then look for obvious matches (“You wanted a love rivalry? Me too!”).

Because rivalries are part of character concept, it is important that players like their rivalries. If you want your character to vie for a lover’s affections but that doesn’t interest me, the rivalry is not going to work. Players need to negotiate until there is mutual agreement.

Depending on the game premise you might require all characters to have rivalries. If you have an odd number of players you can let one character have two rivalries of different types with different rivals.

If players are having a hard time agreeing on a rivalry type, encourage them to consider an Ulterior Motive. One player wants a respect rivalry but you want love, so you are only appearing to vie for respect to win someone’s love.

Playing Rivalries

So what effect does my rivalry actually have? Mechanically, none. It’s a guideline for your roleplaying and an overt agreement between you and the other players (GM included) about what kind of plots and tensions exist between your characters. You chose it, so we assume it’s something you want to play.

The basic set up is one rivalry per character with one rival, but you can make things a lot more complicated:

- If you are involved in more than one rivalry, are you willing to sacrifice one to win at the other? What’s more important to me, winning the hand of the woman I love or proving I’m the finest scientific mind in Prussia? Mean GMs (aka good GMs) will inevitably set up situations that pit one rivalry against another.

- Several people could be part of the same rivalry, like three students all wishing to prove they were the true inheritors of their dead master’s kung-fu. If there can only be one winner, that means a lot more potential losers. Do you side with one rival to bring down another?

Rivalries will often change over time, erupting into serious conflict or fading into irrelevance as the game moves on. Players should always be allowed to raise or lower the importance of a rivalry by one between games or at some other reasonable interval to reflect events in the game if they want.

If a rivalry is eliminated for some reason, either by being won, resolved or put of reach by events in the game, you can let the players just drop the rivalry or they can opt to transform it into a new rivalry based on what happened. You were named the queen’s champion instead of me (completed Station rivalry) and now I bitterly want to show that I’m really the better swordsman (new Ability rivalry). The world may laugh at me, but you will know I am your better!

Screening Player Characters

Player character creation is the most important step of your game. It is more important than any NPC you have prepared or any plot you have in mind. Decisions made during PC creation will determine the entire outcome of the game. I really can't stress how important it is. Good character creation stacks the deck heavily towards a good game, and bad character creation does just the opposite.

If you carefully screen PCs during the creation process, you can relax control during play. You can give the players free rein to do whatever they want because you have already set the boundaries and agreed on them.

What's the alternative? You let in characters that can do things you don't want them to do, or who have personalities that you don't like. You vaguely hope the players won't play their characters as written and wreck the game you have in mind (“sure she can speak with dead, but maybe she just won't talk to the murder victim, because that would be a short mystery”). Which is entirely unfair to the players, because when they do play effectively you are going to hold it against them instead of rewarding them. You are being dishonest in approving the characters in the first place. The player may not even realize they are wrecking the game until it is too late.

Common wisdom is that NPCs are the domain of the GM and that PCs are the domain of the players. The GM prepares the game, the challenges, the skeleton of a plot, and the players bring the protagonists and cope with all the stuff you came up with, boldly forging their own destiny out of the chaos.

Character creation is the first contribution players bring to the game, while the GM has probably been hard at work for days (or weeks, or months) in advance. Which should tell you something right there: the GM knows more than the players do. The GM knows what kind of a game is in store, at least in vague optimistic terms. Therefore the GM has a better sense about what kind of characters will work, and what kind of characters will take all the fun out of the game. You can reveal some of those criteria, but it's impossible to list everything that _won't_ work without revealing too much about the game (“err, ah, no you can't have protection from vampires. No reason.”).

The players start off owning nothing except their characters. There is no shared experience until play starts. This can lead to players only thinking in terms of what they want to play, not how it will work with the other PCs (which is why group character creation can be such a big help). On the other hand the GM is looking at the big picture, the group as a whole. The GM is biased towards making sure the characters fit the game, but that's good because it serves everyone's purposes.

Are you stepping on player's toes by getting involved in the character creation process? It may seem that way, but the goal is to play a game together not have players make their ideal characters — they can do that at home at their kitchen table. You could give each player everything they wanted during character creation, indulge every possible whim, and they would be happy right up until they started playing and everything was too easy or just a bad fit.

When you reject a character that is going to wreck the game you are doing your job of making sure everyone has a shot at having a good time. You are doing the other players a favor, and more often than not you're doing a favor for the player with the trouble character too. Players have to like their characters to enjoy the game, but in the end they will have more fun with a character that fits.

Character Creation: Second Line of Defense

The first line of defense for good character creation is the player's good taste, the second is the rules, and the last is the GM.