19 Dec GMing Tips #16 Character and Context
I’ve been stumbling around slowly learning how to make great adventures. You’d think it’d be easy, but it’s not. Particularly if you don’t take stand alone modules but instead let a story grow organically, based on the problems the players are faced with, and then their responses to those problems.
However, in recently playing a variety of game settings to test out Immersion RPG (British Mafia, Dark Steampunk Australia, and finally Star Wars – yee haa!) I’ve come up with some really important guidelines that have helped me make really memorable and compelling adventures and story arcs. Funny enough, these guidelines have a lot in common with writing novels, or screenplays!
The first, most important thing in creating your adventure is to work out who your player characters are, and then get them deeply involved with the world around them. This can be done in countless different ways, but to be honest I’m not such a fan of the “I’m an orphan with no friends and no ties to anyone or anything” storyline. Of the “I’m a bounty hunter with no family, no ties and few scruples.” Meh. That gives you as the GM little to work with, and while it can be done well, it usually isn’t.
The thing you’ve got to ask is where do your characters come from? What’s their history? How did they get that way? You should work this out for all key NPCs as well. They should be people.
If you really develop who a character is, and how they are involved in the world that they’re in, you will inevitably come up with some interesting concepts. Some that I remember were, “A post-apocalypse survivor who liked to live it up and had been steadily selling drugs to his community so he could live in the lap of luxury…but the drugs were running out.” Another one was, “An orphan who was ‘won’ in a card game by a mad explorer and inventor, who considered the orphan his son, but frequently mad very bad decisions.” And yet another recent one was, “A security guard and part time mechanic indebted to a cruel corporate government, who forced him to police his own debt-enslaved people so his family could survive in moderate conditions.”
Out of all of these, you have context. You really know the situation they’re in, even if it’s just a nutshell. The explanation, the concept, can be very brief. In essence, you should ask your players questions like, “How do you survive day to day?” or “You’re in blah situation (debt, orphan, single parent, mercenary, soldier), how have you managed that? Do you like it? Do you fight it? Do you endure it?” All of which gives keys to the player character’s actual character.
Being tied to the world gives the world more character as well. Suddenly it’s important to them. Their income keeps their whole family afloat…so how big is their home? How do their parents behave with this situation? Are they grateful or demanding? Sick or well? Frustrated or relieved? Etc. Also, having conflicts between the NPCs will give more character to them once again. The pc’s mother is grateful that he supports them and worries about his hard, violent life. His father is frustrated by his own inability to support his family, and also hates his child being a sell-sword, when he himself fought for the king’s own men! Where’s loyalty these days?
These can all be very small exchanges. And if there are heaps of characters, don’t try to give them all lots of detail at once. A simple, single line is enough. Taciturn, hard-nose stick in the mud. Fat, lazy, extortionist who has contacts. Small optimistic girl who won’t let anyone condescend her.
Who cares if these on the surface appear simplistic? You don’t need them to be uber detailed at this stage, because they’re just someone the players have to understand in a couple of seconds, and then remember. Dizzying them with deeper info of each character will end up making them remember none of it.
The important characters you can also detail slowly. One scene at a time. Give them some interactions between each other, show a couple of traits in a stressful situation. One person’s terrified his family will suffer if he dies. Another person amps up and gets agro. Another person freezes. Etc.
Context is the situation the character is in. Their circumstances. This is the plot, but in reality the plot is the skeleton of the story. The context is the meat around that skeleton. Context makes the bad guys seem real. It makes the battles important and intense. It makes the players sweat when they’re in a firefight, rather than just go, “Ah drat, I died…(yawn)…oh well, next character.”
Character and context are built simultaneously, the context is what brings out the character and shows it for what it is, but also the character is also what builds the context. Characters make their own situations… really it’s like some sort of philosophical revelation. You mean we are all inherently necessary for our own situation? Woah dude…
In any case, you should build the context for the situation the characters are in. The more angles and elements involved, the better it will be. You could have a firefight in a drug-lord’s den…yep. That’s intense enough. But then you could also have the drug lord have one of their friends prisoner. Hoo boy! Now what? If they go in with guns blazing their friend is likely to be capped. So what do they do? The story completely changes, and definitely for the better. What if their friend is a prisoner, but he has also given up information under torture to an assassin of the drug lord’s, who is even now heading off to rub out their families (which they may or may not know). And what if they were ordered by their superiors not to attack this drug lord?
Now you’ve got the elements of a great story.
To be honest, a great way to run an adventure or story is to have at first one simple element. They have an anonymous tip-off of a wanted drug dealer in town. They attack said dealer and take him in, which could be a short, intense action scene. Simple so far. But then you add another element – he’s more important than they thought. He’s part of a cartel. One of the untouchables. Uh oh. Then you escalate the plot by having the cartel react. One of their friends are taken hostage. Release the dealer, or the hostage gets it…okay, so this is still fairly simple. They could get their friend back if they arrange the swap. But it can’t be that easy. Twist it again. Their boss won’t release the dealer, but they are ordered not to go after their friend, because he’s across the border in another country. Leave it up to the negotiators (yeah right!). So now it’s getting really intense. They need to rescue this guy, even though they’re not allowed to, and it’s across a different country’s border… and little do the know that an assassin is even now being briefed on their families…
This situation will force the players to think very carefully, and will no doubt result in some intense combats. Why will the combat scenes be so intense? Because they mean so much. If they are attacking the cartel, and there’s too much noise before their friend’s safe…he’s dead, and they’re probably as good as dead too. This will also tend to make your actions scenes really unique, and far more about the situation than just about killing the enemy.
It’s all about that context, baby!
I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me, and I hope it also gives you great games and storylines!
~Oliver R. Shead
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