Characters with no character

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Characters with no character

I have a content production problem and as of write..right now .

I don’t know how to resolve it.

The problem is that my characters don’t have enough character.

Lets set the scene.

Q. What is a great hobby for a content producer?

How about Dungeons and dragons? It, according to me, is a great hobby for a content producer.

Here is my take on what Dungeons and Dragons is. It is a collaborative storytelling game.

In order to tell our stories together, players create characters and the game master creates non-player characters. I am, more often than not, the game master.

What Players Have To Do

Now players don’t have an easy job. They have to play a character faced with tough choices. However, one player = one character

What the Game Master Does

The Game Master who in Dungeons and Dragons are called a Dungeon Master.. Or perhaps a “Dragon Master”. The DM, well they have to create all of the non-player characters (NPC).

How many are we talking here?

What is the average number of NPCs in a game of Dungeons and Dragons?

A couple, a few, a bakers dozen of non-player characters?

While the answer can vary a lot. In my last session I “played”:

  • 3 Yaun-Ti (snake people)

  • 6 Zorbos (killer koalas)

  • 1 captive Kobold

  • 1 exhausted human scribe

That was 11 just last session, however… overall there could be… hundreds of NPCs in a campaign (which is a collection of sessions threaded together with a common storyline)?

Now not all of those 11 or those hundreds of characters are made equal.

Types of NPCs

My problem is to do with the characterisation of my non-player characters or lack thereof. I would like to introduce you to 3 kinds of Non-Player Characters. My problem is with the 3rd type.

NPC Type 1: Background

These characters do not usually directly interact with the Players. Here are a few examples:

  • They are the crowds of a teeming city

  • The shadowy figures that flit along rooftops

  • The patrons of a bar situated at a crossroads

NPC Type 2: Monsters.

Monsters directly interact with the Players. They attempt to do grievous harm to the players characters. Here are a few examples:

  • 3 Yaun-Ti (snake people) who shoot arrows at the players

  • 6 Zorbos (killer koalas) who wanted to eat the players

  • Goblins, Ghosts, Ghouls, Gricks, Gargoyles, Golems, Griffons, and perhaps Dragons

So Types 1 and 2 are easy enough. They are there to do a job. For type 1 they are effectively mood lighting. They set the scene for what comes next. Type 2s are easy enough as well. Their interactions are covered by comprehensive rules covered in Chapter 9 of the Players Handbook (pg189 - 198). The chapter is titled: “CHAPTER 9: COMBAT”.

Type 2s yell, moan, shriek, chitter, glare, shuffle, cry, and roar respectively.

To summarise: most NPCs are one-dimensional characters ( and don’t need any more complexity). They engage meaningfully with the players via the mechanics of the game.

As a side note: game mechanics are rules of the game in action. Each rule is a gear that connects to other rules/gears to make the big mechanical story machine at the heart of most role-playing games including Dungeons and Dragons.

However, there exists a third type of NPC.

NPC Type 3: Characters.

Played by the Game Master they also have a job to do. Like type 1s they set the scene. Like type 2 they interact with the characters. Their job, however, isn’t to combat with the players. Their job is to…Their job is to...this is the difficult part…Their job is to talk with the players. They need to have character.

Here are 2 examples from earlier:

  • 1 captive Kobold who can lead the party to its Boss “Kakarol,The Great Wyrm”

  • 1 exhausted human scribe who can tell the party about “The Legend Of Nine Gods”

Non Player Character Characters are the quest givers, the clue droppers, and the monologue loving villains.

They still have a job to do, for example, to give the players a quest. To do their job they have to talk to the players. I know most DMs will have personal experience with the bland NPC.

Here is an example:

“ Oh hi, players? Right, well you must be here about the terrible curse threatening the land? Yes. Great. Well, I have 2 vital clues for you and 3 interesting tidbits that the writers felt you all would enjoy. Which would you like first?”

Fig 1. Example of a bland “Quest Giving” NPC

This is where I run into trouble. My characters have a job to do... But...

My characters have no character

Not always… perhaps just sometimes… They have my character at best. Imagine a dozen of me all rattling off directions towards the next great evil.

I know this is a fairly common situation for us DMs (DM is short for Dungeon Master). Other Dungeon Masters I know also tell me that they feel, at least sometimes, that their characters could have more character.

Characters need to have character. However, in my session planning notes they are there to reveal a plot point and that's pretty much it. I think partly the difficulty comes with having so many things to attend to, it is easy enough to forget that your characters will need more than a job to do to do their job.

So I don't have a perfect answer for this yet… I am however motivated to find an answer.

In a future post, I will report on my findings.

Here are some of the ideas and theories I will be testing:

  1. The ideals, bonds, flaws approach (from Wizards of the Coast)

  2. 5Ws and an H starting with Why:

    1. Why does this NPC matter to the plot

    2. Hmmm I think this will be too clunky

  3. 3 things approach (something I am playing around with)

    1. One major thing

    2. One minor thing

    3. One secret thing

  4. Whatever else I can find on Reddit or from you dear reader.

Should you have the answers to “Characters with no character” or if you wish to express some form of solidarity with similarly troubled DMs, then please leave a comment somehow.


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