Best Ways to Crank A Character Up To 11

RPT Reader Fitz asked for tips on making PCs great:

I’m struggling a bit with my player character. Would love a bit of guidance on how to take a boring or underwhelming PC and turn it up to eleven, as Spinal Tap would say.
Here are six ideas on hitting that 11. You can coach your players on these, or you can nab them for use on your NPCs.

GIVE YOUR PC A PERSONALITY TRIGGER

When I first started GMing, my players would stock their PCs to the gills with various tools and items. They’d spend all but their last gold piece, which was saved for one night at the inn when the game started, to pick up hooks.

They’d buy chalk to stop from getting lost in dungeons. They’d purchase marbles to make footing difficult for foes. They’d get fishing line and lures so they wouldn’t starve. All this important stuff that then never got used in the campaign. Because when kobolds and skeletons are making eraser holes in the hit points spot on your character sheet, you’re not thinking about going fishing. Well, maybe you are. But by then it’s too late.

And like others, they’d also buy 10 foot poles. The poles were never used and never remembered, even while turning corners.

As with all this first level equipment, character qualities often get forgotten too.

It’s sometimes not enough to have an interesting quality rolled up or assigned during char gen. You’ve got to put it into play often. That’s one way to get +1 crank.

And here’s a simple system to do that.

Make a list of special qualities PCs have.

Personality traits, feats, abilities, powers.

And don’t forget those ability scores. Note those low scores and high ones.

Beside each, think up an anecdote.

Some interesting time the PC used it, fumbled it, or learned it.

The first time Mordengaxian learned of his incredible intelligence was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six, defeating even Lord Godfrey, in the final match.
The first time Mordengaxian learned of his physical weakness was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six and later suffered a beating by Godfrey’s jealous youngest son.
For each quality, create a trigger.

State your trigger like this:

When _________ happens in the game, my PC reacts by _________.
The trick here is to pick your triggering event well so your reaction comes up in interesting situations every two or three sessions. When you have several events chosen, you are guaranteed to have at least a couple triggers fire every session, giving you prompts and opportunities to roleplay.

Also pick good reactions that open up gameplay and suit the theme of the campaign. Slapstick reactions in a gritty game, for example, would be inappropriate.

Likewise, tie triggers and reactions to the game’s setting. Do everything you can to create integration with PCs, setting, campaign, adventure, and mechanics.

When Mordengaxian sees any kind of game being played, he reacts by joining the game or telling everyone playing the best strategies.
When Mordengaxian sees a bully at work, he gets angry and launches a magic missile in some kind of warning trick shot.
This technique works because of the triggers. You only need to make note of the triggers. Put them on a Post-It on your character sheet. Or make some playing cards, one trigger per card. When one fires, check the reaction and roleplay it.

It’s an active system, as opposed to passive. Try it out.

MAKE EACH MOVE OPEN UP MORE MOVES

Best book I’ve read for gaming in recent times has been Finite vs. Infinite Games.

Finite games like Monopoly, poker, and hockey are designed to end. There’s a winner and everyone else is a loser. The best move you can make in the game is that which gets you closer to the condition where everyone else is a loser.

Treat RPGs like Infinite games. Like the horizon, you have a clear destination but there’s no end. Infinite games are designed to live forever. The game fails if it ends, if someone makes an ending move. The best move you can make is one that opens up great new moves for everyone. Infinite games flourish under choices and moves that improve or benefit other players.

I’ve been treated to gaming with many people over the years who played to benefit others. Their generous natures and lack of ego meant sessions were better for their gameplay. They set other players and characters up for success.

They offered praise, coaching, or just friendship without judgement. They offered me all kinds of help, including taking session notes, drawing maps, showing up with armfuls of pop and snacks, and offering rides.

Their roleplay was generous. They could play the straight man and not feel the need to hog the spotlight. They picked out features of other PCs and roleplayed with that, creating great openings for players to join the roleplay.

They tried to keep the party together. They accepted ideas and plans gracefully even if they thought their ideas were better. They offered rules corrections and clarifications as suggestions and not remonstrations.

They created character backgrounds brimming with hooks. They made others feel welcome and encouraged shy players to speak up.

Have more fun at every game by being fun yourself and playing an infinite game.

CREATE A FOREIGN WORLD VIEW

I was listening to the radio one day driving home from work. A caller asked why he never gets thank you waves from taxi drivers. The caller always waved thanks in his rear view mirror when someone let him into their lane. Why don’t cabbies have the same courtesy?

The radio guy said it was because cab drivers don’t think like the caller. They have a different world view. Cabbies feel they’ve EARNED it. Meaning, through great driving like it was a video game or competition, they make those tricky lane changes and get into their desired spots because they’re pros. They’re paid drivers. They earn their lane changes, and don’t feel it’s because someone gave them the room. They carved that room out themselves.

That blew me away. I can totally see it. I feel like I’ve earned a lane change sometimes too. I can relate.

And this opened up my eyes to the whole concept of world views. One person thinks they’ve earned it and don’t wave, another feels grateful and give a friendly wave.

To crank your character up a notch, create a different world view like this and play it out. You get to roleplay something different and interesting, and you create an entertaining PC sure to surprise your group as you see things through the PC’s eyes and play in accordance with an alien world view.

For example:

The PC sympathizes with monsters, even the evil ones, and thinks each can be redeemed.
NPCs must earn the right to speak with the PC. Until respect is shown, earned, and given, the PC ignores NPCs.
Death is holy. The PC only kills as a reward, and they perform a small ritual before any anticipated killing blow. All other times they strike to subdue.
The player thinks the campaign is going so well because they’re such a great player. The GM thinks the campaign is going well because they are such a great GM. 😉
Spirit beings govern the world. Gods, angels, devils, and elementals are the real reason behind natural events. Supplicate to the spirits for success.
There is no good or evil. Just magic.
CREATE AN ELEVATOR PITCH

Jot down a one or three sentence description of the character’s identity and plot or purpose.

This gets you clarity fast on who the PC is and potential gameplay opportunities.

You can add a mission, personality, beliefs, or anything you like that solidifies in your mind who the character is and what they’re about.

Be generous with adjectives. Use descriptors, tags, aspects. Your elevator pitch won’t win writing contests, but using lots of adjectives gives you more inspiration and guidance for gameplay.

Also create a pitch that makes the character want to take action. What drives the PC onward through dark passages and miles of monster intestines? What does your PC stand for or stand against? What can’t they abide? What’s the void in their soul they’re trying to fill with the campaign premise?

A great and fast way to create character pitches is 3 Line NPCs => Appearance, Portrayal, Hook.

GET SOME CHARACTER ART

Find a fantastic image for your PC. Then study the image.

Make notes of details that catch your eye.

Use these details in descriptions and for roleplaying cues.

Show the art to the group from time to time to remind them.

Use the art for your desktop wallpaper and contemplate on it once in awhile.

THE SEVEN RULES OF CHARACTER CREATION

Awhile ago I saved an article from the Blackshield Gaming website, which appears to be just a shell site now.

The article offered these great tips on making characters:

The art of building characters is not as simple as one might think. Every rulebook has the steps. Many of those rulebooks even talk about meta-gaming issues, background, personality, or whatever other pet theories the authors happen to have about what makes good characters.

But let me simplify it just a little bit. Good characters are those characters that are fun to play. Not just for the player, but for the whole group (including the GM). This may sound like just a trademark of a good player, but really, what great player does not always come up with good characters? Even things that seem simple or sketchy just seem to come to life in these players. They know how to make good characters.

Here are the basics: the seven rules of creating characters in a campaign setting.

The character must work in a group
The character must be fun for the player and the rest of the party
The character must be good at heart
The character must have a reason to go adventuring
The character must fit the campaign style
The character must have long term goals
The player must be able to actually play the character
The seven rules represent the most common (and most disastrous) mistakes players make when designing characters. Sometimes these are just overlooked, or missed in the heat of character creation, but if the GM and the player can apply these rules to a character (and agree that they are applicable to the character) then any subsequent problems lie on the shoulders of the player and the GM, not on the character.

“But that’s what my character would do…” is no longer an excuse for destroying party chemistry or backstabbing a fellow party member. The rules have been set.