The NHS

Part 3: Colorful Characters

 

Fleshing Out a Player Character

An adventurer or PC can be a casual, sometimes short-lived, acquaintance – defined mainly by the skills set built-up during character generation and the default style of play for such a character within a rule set.

Alternatively a PC can have or build up a past; develop a place and a dynamic within the game-world; and form future prospects and shifting expectations. Many RPGs tend to try to deliver the impression of an authentic character background either with a fairly broad brush or by drilling down into sets and subsets of increasingly specific skills.

RPG Traveler is well-known for quickly stepping new characters through an eventful pre-game career. So a fairly streamlined, event-driven character generation can go a long way towards sketching out an individual, if not unique, character.

Nevertheless, there is nothing quite as authentic or unique as a character background built-up during gameplay. Whether or not a player wishes to start with a clean slate, a mere handful of adventures are usually sufficient to flesh-out a character’s place in events and how the character fits into the game-world as a whole. For many players this can rapidly deliver a sense of ownership and investment in an adventurer’s lifestream - aka the combination of actions, events, in-game relationships and campaign ties that snowball during play.

The content that follows does not attempt to replace a particular system’s built-in character generation; but does suggest a range of informal options for varying, developing and/ or self-selecting character traits and backgrounds.

 

Prior Experience

Making compelling PCs and NPCs is an essential RPG ingredient, as much of a game’s action and intrigue is centered round PCs’ interactions with NPCs.

There are a number of common ways of going about character generation:

  1. Using a character class which outlines a profile of skills and abilities.
  2. Spending an allocation of points on building a PC based on skills and abilities.
  3. Guiding a character through a prior career or life story that accumulates skills and abilities.
  4. Devising a background story/ character history.

Some or all of these elements may be combined and players sometimes have quite firm preferences, e.g. players who enjoy writing up a character history as compared to players who would rather start with a blank canvas and use the game and the PC’s gameplay to form a compelling character during play.

There is no need for rules and/ or GMs to define which steps are involved, as it’s really quite easy to accommodate character customization and personalization in many ways - providing the standard approach of not seeking to gain an unfair advantage is accepted round the table.

It’s certainly well worth taking a little time to offer options, because players will be more engaged with their characters and, therefore, the game as a whole if they are able to feel that they have a sense of ownership over the characters they play.

So, if a player wants a background story or a slightly quirky character class – why not. The story behind, for example, the scar on a character’s forehead, an embarrassing tattoo or a childhood spent on the run can only help to give characters and campaigns more texture and purchase.

Equally, GMs may wish to take a look at how practical it is to build-up information on NPCs. For example, recurring enemies, old comrades at arms and opponents with an eye for an escape route are worth developing as they can be used, and evolve, time and again.

It may seem time-consuming to expand on a game’s character generation rules or to roll a PC through career history tables. Nevertheless, doing so turns cardboard-cutout stereotypes into authentic characters. These PCs are likely to have networks of relationships that can dovetail with events and campaign-wide challenges to constantly refuel RPG campaigns.

Some of the options available for adding detail to characters’ backgrounds are set out below. The list is not exhaustive, but players and GMs may wish to identify and outline those that appeal to them before starting character generation.

The list is presented through three tables to make it easy to incorporate the basic ideas straight into play with balanced outcomes, i.e. a roll for Good Times is balanced out by a roll for Bad Times. This approach can be adjusted to allow players to choose their own level of risk by ordering outcomes by severity and allowing players to select how many dice to roll and then applying the same number to each table.

This should result in a sketchy, relatively uneventful background for those rolling fewer/ lower dice and a more dramatic story for those rolling across a range that can reach the highest scores, i.e. the most severe outcomes on each table.

 

Hard Times Table

D20

Background

Details

1

Battle Fatigue

 

2

Battlefield Injury

 

3

Betrayed

 

4

Demoted

 

5

Disease

 

6

Embarrassing Tattoo

 

7

Enslaved

 

8

Exiled

 

9

Gambling Debt

 

10

Imprisoned

 

11

Indebted

 

12

Injury

 

13

Life Force/ Energy Drain

 

14

Marooned

 

15

Outlawed

 

16

Press-Ganged

 

17

Recurring Enemy

 

18

Scar

 

19

Vendetta

 

20

Wanted

 

 

Lifestreams Table

D20

Background

Details

1

Accident

 

2

Betrothed

 

3

Bolt Hole

 

4

Business Opportunity

 

5

Expulsion

 

6

Graduation

 

7

Headquarters

 

8

Inheritance

 

9

Invasion

 

10

Killing Time

 

11

Laid-Off

 

12

Lease

 

13

Legacy

 

14

Narrow Escape

 

15

Natural Disaster

 

16

Practice

 

17

Promoted

 

18

Property

 

19

Sanctuary

 

20

Voyage

 

 

Good Times Table

D20

Background

Details

1

Battlefield Promotion

 

2

Battlemaster

 

3

Benefactor

 

4

Comrade-at-Arms

 

5

Epic Party

 

6

Hallowed Ground

 

7

Heroism

 

8

Last Stand

 

9

Lucky Win

 

10

Magical/ Digital Tattoo

 

11

Magical/ Technology Item

 

12

Mentored

 

13

Minor Magical/ Technology Item

 

14

Miraculous Event

 

15

Sponsor

 

16

Sporting Triumph

 

17

Tournament Win

 

18

Tutored

 

19

Valuable Item

 

20

Victorious

 

 

Of course, there is nothing to stop players from adding a further layer of detail/ personalization with sub-options under each heading. However, the tables shown above offer plenty to work with while leaving lots of room to float a story on top of any specific bonuses, or penalties, attached to each option.

Making a mini-game out of rolling on custom tables can appeal to players all the more if they’re involved in customizing the tables’ options and outcomes/ effects.

Using tables quickly puts more flesh on the bones of raw characters. However, for those who wish to go further or take a less random approach there are lots of factors that could contribute to a backstory.

 

Character Backgrounds Table

Background

Details

Celebrations

 

Childhood Experiences

 

Childhood Memories

 

Costume

 

Dark Secrets

 

Deeds

 

Enemies

 

Equipment

 

Favorite Locations

 

Flaws

 

Friends and Enemies

 

Holidays

 

Locations

 

Military Service

 

Passions

 

Pastimes

 

Personality

 

Pets and Companions

 

Preferences and Pet Hates

 

Physical Features

 

Relationships

 

Secret Missions

 

Sidelines and Secrets

 

Superstitions

 

Traditions

 

If GMs and players wish to turn this into a largely mechanical process it can be helpful to allow a certain number of ‘nudges’ where the player can select an option one place higher or lower on a table. Occasional ‘tilts’ where the player is allowed a re-roll may also help to arrive at a balance between random elements and a PC with characteristics a player is interested in play. The following table expands one type of background.

 

Sidelines and Secrets

These kinds of detail are likely to be hidden or sleeper talents that may come to light during the course of play.

 

Sidelines and Secrets Table

D20

Sideline or Secret

Details

1

Assassin

 

2

Collector

 

3

Conspirator

 

4

Cultist

 

5

Embedded Reporter

 

6

Forger

 

7

Gambler

 

8

Gardener

 

9

Hunter

 

10

Murderer

 

11

Pickpocket

 

12

Revolutionary

 

13

Secret Agent

 

14

Secret Police

 

15

Secret Society

 

16

Serial Killer

 

17

Sleeper

 

18

Veteran

 

19

Warlock

 

20

Witch

 

Some players will want none of this, but for others it helps to make characters and gameplay more fully-realized. Whether or not the story or lifestream is randomized to various degrees through rules sets and/ or emphasizes a personal or group story is up for negotiation.

 

Skills

Negotiations and diplomacy are typical of areas of RPG gameplay where rushing to apply a dice roll to arrive at a fixed outcome can undermine the gameplay. It is, therefore, often best to hold back - and sometimes blur the line between players’ skills and the skills or attributes their adventurers possess - until an event or situation invites a decisive dice roll.

Checks for success and failure may take account of a mix of characters’ natural attributes, their learned skills and players’ skills. The type of basic skills system outlined below demonstrates a flexible approach that allows both PCs and NPCs to gain and use a wide variety of specializations.

The system shown is very straightforward and based on adding a skills system to Old School takes on Dungeons and Dragons. It serves to outline an approach to offering players the option of highly customized characters without applying skill checks to the point where the rules exclude the use of players’ own skills.

For straightforward and obvious tasks no check is needed, e.g. chopping firewood or climbing a ladder. However, more difficult tasks, (including the specialist skills of some followers), may suit a skills check involving a quick chat over which modifiers might apply – followed by a GM’s ruling.

When a roll is used success results from gaining a total of 20 or more on a D20 roll – and any additional modifiers the GM considers relevant.

A natural roll of 20 usually allows a successful attempt at using the skill at the baseline level required to succeed in tasks requiring professional or specialist expertise. Rolling a natural 1 usually results in an automatic fail.

The standard of work is expected to be professional in the same manner as a Ranger or a Fighter is a professional warrior. Skills can be tested close to the limit in attempts to achieve spectacular results – and there is no reason why skills could not be tested for miraculous results.

 

Specialist Skills Table

Skill

Professional

Spectacular

Guide Price

Alchemist

Prepare acids and alkalis, or ready a potion for enchantment

Prepare a magic item for permanent enchantment or a material, such as glass

1,200gp/ month and a 1,000gp laboratory

Animal Trainer

Train pets or animal companions

Train monsters such as war elephants and Worgs

400gp/ month and cages

Archer

Fires bows quickly and accurately at short or medium range

Fires bows quickly and very accurately at short to long range

75gp/ month

Armorer

Produce good quality weapons and arm

Produce weapons suitable for enchantment

200gp/ month and a 200gp forge

Artisan

Produce saleable soft goods and furnishings

Produce luxury goods

75gp/ month and materials

Battle Triage

Stop an unconscious, wounded humanoid from losing blood while unconscious

Stop an unconscious, wounded monster from losing blood while unconscious

25gp/ month

Blacksmith

Produce good quality metalwork

Produce high quality metalwork

20gp/ month and a 200gp forge

Brigadier (1 for every 600)

Capable of conducting battlefield operations with command of up to 600

Capable of conducting battlefield operations with command of up to 6,000

Twenty times the cost for a soldier*

Captain (1 for every 60)

Command five squads of 10 soldiers and 2 sergeants in combat operations

Rally your troops and take temporary command of up to 600 troops

Six times the cost for a soldier*

Charioteer

Race chariots - and fire from chariots and wagons in battle

Control and fire from war elephants and similar moving platforms

120gp/ month and chariot with horses

Cook

Cook a fine meal for twenty guests

Prepare a lavish feast for up to 50 guests

30gp/ month or higher

Diplomat

Negotiate a regional political stalemate

Negotiate a compromise in a regional political crisis

1,500gp/ month and a 5,000gp entourage/ mission

Escapologist

Slowly untie a single knot or binding

Escape a single set of chains

Its own reward

Explorer

Outdoor navigation, survival, hunting, shelter and tracking

Outdoor navigation, survival, hunting, shelter and tracking in extreme conditions

60gp/ month or higher

Herald

Signal using flags, banners, beacons and smoke signals

Signal using codes, tattoos, wildlife and sign language

40gp/ month or higher

Interrogator

Use leverage to gain a confession or admission

Use persuasion to extract useful information/ secrets

150gp/ month or higher

Jeweler

Cut and set gems and jewels to +10% value

Cut and set gems and  jewels to +20% value

400gp/ month or more

Lieutenant (1 for every 20)

Command two squads of 10 soldiers and 2 sergeants in combat operations

Rally your troops and take temporary command of up to 60 troops

Three times the cost for a soldier*

Merchant

Trade or value at a fair and accurate price over a local area

Trade in luxury goods across borders, using caravans, shipping or other forms of transport

500gp/ month or more – and transport

Miner

Dig and maintain safe mines and tunnels

Dig and maintain safe underground rooms and chambers

25gp/ month or higher

Pioneer

Improvise basic defensive devices, traps and barricades

Construct substantial defensive positions and prepare battlegrounds

60gp/ month or higher

Sage

Able to interpret sections of ancient texts and familiar with most magic items

Able to interpret ancient texts with some accuracy, advise on the construction of rare magic items and comment on most unique magic items

2,500gp/ month and a 2,000gp library

Sailor

 

Operate the sails and steerage of a boat or galley

Operate the sails and steerage of an ocean going ship

12gp/ month

Sergeant (1 for every 10)

Organize a squad of soldiers and fight with a variety of weapons

Raise squad  morale and fight with any weapon

Three times the cost for a soldier*

Servant (Domestic)

 

Carry-out duties effectively and gossip

Carry out duties effectively and avoid gossip or scandal

2gp/ month

Ship’s Captain

Maritime command, navigation and sailing

Maritime command, navigation and sailing in stormy weather

350gp/ month and a ship

Siege Engineer

Design and build a siege catapult or short bridge

Design and build a trebuchet or similar device, organize mining operations or prepare a battlefield

1,200gp/ month and siege engine repairs and upgrades

Soldier

March and fight according to orders and with good morale. Use a limited range of weapons

Fight in formation, with solid morale and using a variety of weapons

2gp/ month in camp or castle*

Spy

Gather information about troop positions and meet contacts with local information

Intercept messages and extract reliable information. Create a convincing disguise

25gp/ month and 500gp or more/ mission

Steward

Oversee the operation of a castle or a similar stronghold

Oversee the operation of a royal court, a region or a city

400gp/ month

Torchbearer

Underworld navigation, open doors and entrances, and identify common and uncommon monsters

Underworld cartography, dismantle doors and entrances, and identify rare monsters

2gp/ day and basic equipment

Treasurer

Interpret local trading, currency and property rights and customs

Understand and negotiate local trading, currency and property rights

700gp/ month

* - Soldiers based in a secure castle or fortification cost 1gp/ month. On the march or at war the costs increase to 6gp/ month for infantry, 10gp/ month for archers and 20gp/ month for cavalry. Mercenaries cost twice as much and may cost significantly more if they are to stay loyal under difficult circumstances.

The cost of training from 1st level is twice as many XP for each extra level or + gained, i.e. 250XP, 500XP, 1,000XP, 2,000XP, 4,000XP, 8,000XP, 16,000XP, 32,000XP and 64,000XP to 10th Level. There is no fixed limit to skill levels, but a roll of 1 typically remains an automatic fail when using a D20.

Players can gain skill levels using combinations of cash and XP. This can be done through building on their existing skills and by taking opportunities to practice their new skills. For example, a Fighter that regularly works at fixing armor or a Magic-User who cooks the party’s meals every night.

These skills may be assumed to be present for characters working in/ with experience in practicing a skill as their ‘day job’ at +10, i.e. 10th Level. Players can seek XP through working on skills as their ‘day job’, but the pay/ XP will be low until they reach roughly 10th Level. At that stage a craftsperson or professional has a high basic chance of success - but this can be modified by a number of factors:

 

Skills roll calculations include:

  1. Skill modifiers for levels gained in a skill.
  2. Below 5th Level instructions can add +2 to rolls.
  3. Below 5th Level help from a more skilled instructor adds +5 to rolls.
  4. A match between the skill and an adventurer’s class gives a +2 class bonus.
  5. A matching ability score of 15+ gives a +2 ability bonus.

 

Deductions may also include:

  1. Rushed work on tasks that take time and care alters rolls by -5.
  2. Substandard materials or equipment reduces rolls by -5.
  3. Trying for spectacular results alters rolls by -5.

This basic system uses what’s known as an unopposed roll, which means there are no fixed factors such as an opponent’s armor to check. Instead modifiers are applied on an ad hoc basis, i.e. striking a heavily armored, lethal opponent starts out as a spectacular task.

 

Skills Table

Skill

Level Bonus

Class Bonus +2

Ability Bonus +2

Rushed Work

Alchemist

 

Magic-User

Intelligence

-5

Animal Trainer

 

Ranger

Wisdom

-5

Archer

 

Thief

Dexterity

 

Armorer

 

Fighters

Strength

-5

Artisan

 

Bard

Intelligence

-5

Battle Triage

 

Cleric

Wisdom

 

Blacksmith

 

Fighters

Strength

-5

Brigadier

 

Fighters

Intelligence

 

Captain

 

Fighters

Wisdom

 

Charioteer

 

Thief

Dexterity

 

Cook

 

 

Wisdom

-5

Diplomat

 

Bard

Charisma

-5

Escapologist

 

Thief

Dexterity

-5

Explorer

 

Ranger

Constitution

 

Herald

 

Ranger

Intelligence

 

Interrogator

 

 

Charisma

-5

Jeweler

 

 

Dexterity

-5

Lieutenant

 

Fighters

Charisma

-5

Merchant

 

 

Charisma

-5

Miner

 

 

Constitution

-5

Pioneer

 

Thief

Dexterity

-5

Sage

 

Magic-User

Intelligence

-5

Sailor

 

 

Constitution

-5

Sergeant

 

Fighters

Constitution

 

Servant

 

 

Charisma

-5

Ship’s Captain

 

 

Wisdom

 

Siege Engineer

 

Fighters

Intelligence

-5

Soldier

 

Fighters

Strength

 

Spy

 

Monk

Intelligence

-5

Steward

 

Bard

Wisdom

 

Torchbearer

 

Fighter

Strength

 

Treasurer

 

 

Intelligence

-5

 

Clearly, the class-based elements can be adapted or stripped away to provide the basic game engine required to run most RPGs.

Nominate a Skill

There is no reason why a player can’t nominate other specializations - so long as these don’t eclipse any overlapping skills or abilities. For example, if a player wished to learn to prospect for gold and gems the GM and the other players could discuss the types of ‘professional’ and ‘spectacular’ outcomes that might be linked to the new skill.

 

Playing To Win?

In many videogames, most wargames and the majority of boardgames playing successfully is defined by the rules as playing to become the sole winner or king of the castle. That’s a fairly narrow definition of success, which breaks down if a player uses rules knowledge to win, e.g. the adult who bludgeons a kid at the Monopoly table, because the kid doesn’t know the most effective tactics.

RPGs simply don’t work like that and gameplay that claims to be RPG-based while promoting a simplistic win-mentality disconnects players from long term motivations, fully-developed characters and becoming caught up in storybuilding.

RPGs work more like free running, where ‘winning’ is about pushing your own limits, sharing ideas and having a laugh. In other words, open-ended RPG gameplay focused on player choice is not so much about winning, as about winning in style.

There are plenty of suggestions on running gameplay spread through the text, but these key points may be helpful for new players:

  1. If your character isn’t in the same place as the action you’re not able to pitch in – unless magic or technology helps out.
  2. Equip your characters with the attributes to operate as an adventurer, i.e. give them enough intelligence to be able to survive as an adventurer.
  3. Trust your GM to balance play. A few bad calls by the GM are not a deal-breaker and a poor GM can show you what to look for in other GMs and/ or what to avoid as a GM.
  4. Play off the other players, i.e. if someone comes up with an interesting idea help them to run with it.
  5. Build your own story and feed the events in that story into your character.
  6. Don’t be too quick to kill off a worthy opponent. The next one may not be quite so interesting.
  7. Connect to the people, places and events your PCs encounter. Have them buy a property, go home for Midwinter every year, bump into an old flame at an awkward moment, . . .
  8. The GM is a player too and the easiest way to avoid a railroad is to set out options and boundaries before a campaign starts.
  9. You’re a 14th level Paladin/ Assassin multi-class Half-Orc with a +3 Frostbrand – it might be hard, but you can still try to share the limelight.

 

Pets and Animal Companions

Pets and animal companions play a part in many tabletop RPGs. The most common animal companion has probably always been the trusty mule, which serves as an inexpensive option for transporting large amounts of gold out of dungeons. War hounds are another familiar choice, as they can do a lot to increase the chances of survival for a party of new PCs.

Clearly these very practical pets or companions can be of considerable immediate value to players. Otherwise, interest often ends as players find more convenient ways to move goods around or stay alive. This seems an inevitable process, because players prefer to concentrate on roleplaying their character and any hirelings rather than paying attention to animals which can't progress in the game.

The generally low use or lowly status of pets at mid- to high levels of RPG play is hardly a problem, as there's more than enough going on to keep players busy. In addition, it's also often simpler all round to lend a party a flight of griffins to take them on a journey instead of presenting them with a litter to stable, raise and train.

At the same time it seems worth keeping pets and companions around as an option, because they can become as central to a character as a character class or a comrade-in-arms. For example, pets can be very helpful when it comes to encouraging kids to take part in basic, story-focused RPG play. This is in part because kids generally like pets, but also because GMs can use a pet to prompt younger players without repeated direct interventions from the GM.

Pets or companions can have even more to offer if kids or young adults are playing in any kind of school, apprenticeship or college type scenarios. For instance, the competitions, rivalries, wizardry and aerial combat training that might be found in a school for PCs learning to ride dragons is one obvious way to upstage Harry Potter's broomsticks and griffins.

There's no need to introduce a raft of new rules to start making more use of pets, as most RPGs have basic rules for the speed and range of a wide variety of creatures. If a particular player's preferred pet or companion isn't among them, just look for the nearest equivalent and base your version on that.

Special powers, such as a chameleon's tongue or a dragon's breath needn't be problematic, as few players can argue for a companion that gives an overwhelming advantage compared to other characters' options. Equally, if everyone wants a powerful dragon it's going to be pretty obvious that it's necessary to either limit the dragons' power or scale-up the opposition. Pets which can easily be given abilities and/ or training include:

 

Pets and Companions Table

No.

Pet or Companion

Details

1

Birds of Prey

 

2

Chameleons

 

3

Dolphins

 

4

Dragonflies

 

5

Giant Spiders

 

6

Hunting Dogs

 

7

Magpies

 

8

Timber Wolves

 

9

War Hounds

 

10

Watch Dragons

 

11

Wildcats

 

12

Wolves

 

 

Advancement is the commonest way to turn PCs' abilities into a series of steps and the same technique works well with most pets and companions. A chameleon might be particularly good at concealment and collecting items, but only able to learn a few simple commands. Alternatively, a wildcat might be trained to follow several commands, while remaining prone to cutting loose and savaging other peoples' pets or livestock. Key commands which players might try to teach to most pets probably include the following:

 

Training Pets and Companions Table

No.

Command

Details

1

Attack

 

2

Call

 

3

Fetch

 

4

Follow

 

5

Hide

 

6

Hunt

 

7

Leap

 

8

Search

 

9

Stay Away

 

10

Stay Put

 

 

More complex creatures like a dragon or an intelligent familiar are harder to limit. Equally, a pinch of magic dust might be needed to explain how a dragonfly could manage to learn commands. Nevertheless, with a bit of negotiation players can usually end up with an amusing and, at times, useful companion; without GMs having to reshape the overall balance of play.

For younger players it's quite easy to trade durability for special powers. This suits everyone, as neither the GM nor the players want the pets to come to any harm. Older, more cynical players can be more pragmatic and it's probably necessary to offer a relatively useful and bright companion if you want to avoid watching a succession of pets being fed into traps.

Niche pets can be particularly useful if players are seeking a reasonable advantage, as a hawk capable of mapping out wildlife across a wilderness through the prey it returns is spider bait in an underground tomb. A mighty war elephant stacked with war drums and archers offers a similar option. The expense could be justified by the animal's value when exploring jungle or scrub land wildernesses, but you're not going to want to march it across a swamp.

Pets are no more a requirement than any other RPG option. However, they can be especially useful for young players and groups of players without enough numbers. They also lend adventures and campaigns an extra layer of familiarity and authenticity. With that in mind the following selection of rare transport options might be found in any major fantasy city's animal bazaar. Clearly, rare creatures with valuable skills would be expensive to buy and keep, so rental might often be the best option:

 

Rare Creatures Table

No.

Creature

Details

1

Chariot Horses

Chariots for 2 or 4, with optional scything blades

2

Dragons

Legal restrictions on using breath weapons and claws

3

Griffins

Fast, fierce and hard to tame

4

Hippogriff

Fast but limited to carrying a single passenger

5

Mammoths

Slow, steady and able to carry large weights

6

Nightmares

Fast and impressive, but very demanding

7

Pegasi

Offer speed and maneuverability

8

Spiders, Giant

Brave, agile and temperamental

9

Unicorns

Offer speed, loyalty and, possibly, magical powers

10

War Elephants

Slow but almost unstoppable with armor on

11

War Horses

Fast, resilient and capable of trampling opponents