In our last three posts we've discussed how to create non-player characters (NPCs) for your campaign that will engage your players and bring out the themes of your campaign. In today's post, we will be flipping the coin to discuss how you can best prepare your players to build characters that will be both useful and thematically meaningful to your campaign.
As part of this discussion, we will also discuss a type of NPC that is useful in bringing out these traits in your players: the "Speedbump NPC," whose existence is tied very much to the player characters in your party.
1. How to Guide Character Creation
There are many ways to create a character, and your campaign may require greater or less structure depending on the genre and theme. If your campaign caters to specific types of characters (if the campaign is a massive heist requiring good Con or Sneak ability, for example), tell your players upfront. There is nothing more frustrating than finding out halfway through the campaign that one of the things that your character is terrible at is critical to the game (trust me: I've been there).
Similarly, if there are restrictions on options or choices, make that known at the outset. If you limit item selection, alloys, access to magical or other gear, etc., let your players know early in the process.
For the campaign I'm currently designing, we only have two requirements: players may not build a minotaur (because the character would eventually be executed by the elves as the story plays out), and they must want to help the elves (no turncoats: your side is fixed). So in preparation for the campaign, I sent a document to the party in advance of character creation laying out the character restrictions as well as a list of new items for the campaign (as all of our campaigns here at Zurn give new items, magic lores, or other things that are unique to the campaign: you cannot find them in a sourcebook). This way the party knew upfront what was available and unavailable.
I also included a short background on the campaign. I set the stage for them about where they were going and what was happening around the initial events of the campaign, and the result is that the players could build characters that fit into where we were in Zurn's history, making it easier to connect with the story we are telling.
So my girlfriend built a knife-wielding human whose village had been destroyed by one of the minotaur captains in the campaign. Two of my players built wood elves from the villages of Cael, so now they were defending their homes, not just a troop of elves (and gave me ideas for non-player characters I could add that were friends of theirs in town). What this allowed for was a more organic campaign: they had a reason to be there.
Now some campaigns may require a very hands-on approach from the game master: you might even have a list of pre-built characters that you hand out to your players. And that can work too (and it allows you to build backstories into the campaign more easily). But at the very least make sure that expectations are clear (the subject of our next post).
So how do you know that your players have good characters for your campaign? Here's how.
2. What Good Characters Should Do
If a character is well-constructed for a campaign, three things should be true: they should have a reason for being there, good contributions to the team, and an end goal. We will walk through each in turn.
A. Why Are You Here?
Why is your character on the quest? If a character has a good reason for being with the group, they are 1) more likely to work with them, and 2) more likely to be engaged with the story as it progresses, as this is now part of their story.
In the campaign I'm currently creating we have a traveling alopen (fox-human mix) bard who has been to these villages before and makes his living by playing for strangers. So when war threatens a place he knows, he has a reason to help the people of the villages. This is a double bond to the campaign: a pragmatic reason (work), and a sympathetic reason (he doesn't like seeing people hurt or killed).
We also have a priestess who serves as both healer/support and ranged damage dealer (a fun character concept). She is from the House of Cael, knows people in other villages, grew up in this forest, and has heard of the enemy leader before (and particularly his brutality in war). This is a triple bond: not only does she have the pragmatic and sympathetic reasons to be here, but she also has personal reasons to participate in the campaign.
The more bonds your players have, the more likely they are to be engaged in the story, so make sure people are asking the question early up: "Why is my character here?"
B. What Do You Contribute?
Every player character should be contributing something to the group. Now there are many schools of thought in this regard: should everyone contribute something unique? Is overlap okay? Is it okay to leave gaps in the party's proficiencies?
A lot of this will depend on the campaign, so I will not provide an overarching statement here. I will say, though, that what player should contribute is something helpful to the party, specifically in three contexts:
In Combat: The most common situation where rolling high is important, players should have something useful to do in combat. This includes damage, healing, supporting an ally, or hindering opponents, so there are many options. But have something to do in combat other than hide, or combat will be boring.
Out of Combat: In the vast majority of campaigns, you are not constantly in combat. So if there is downtime between swinging swords, have something useful you can do. This could be in the form of a Charm roll (Persuade and Impression are always good choices, as is a good Con roll), a niche Lore roll (knowledge of Cultures, Languages, Value for item identification, etc.), and assistance rolls (repairing things, lifting things - the kinds of things you can do when you come across someone in town that needs help that will make them more amenable to talk to you) are a good start. This will keep fighting characters from getting bored outside of battle, and could become the mainstay of your character (I once had a player who deeply embraced cooking after using it to assist an NPC - shaped the way he built that character from then onwards).
On the Road: When you're traveling, have something to do. This includes mobility rolls (being able to ride, fly, run, jump, or swim quickly can be a helpful asset in a mission, because we don't know what we will come across), perception rolls (searching, detecting, prophecy, and the casting of magic spells to warn you of danger), playing music to boost party members if you're a bard (yes, bards have their uses!), and niche identification rolls (tracking ability, identifying sounds, creatures, or artifacts along the way) are all good options.
To all of this we might add one additional category (depending on the campaign) and this is crafting. Most roleplay campaigns generally don't have crafting (in fact, a lot of roleplay game systems don't even have a system for crafting), so it may not come up (hence our list of three must-haves, not four). But if your campaign does involve crafting (there are a number of crafting opportunities in the campaign I'm designing), having something you can do to contribute to the party is helpful.
But the point, I hope, is clear: have your players think through ways that they can help the party in a host of situations. If you have a party where everyone is only built for combat, they will murder everything because that's all they are good at doing (been there, done that, have a head collection from a past party to prove it). If you have a party that only has one combat-capable person, that person will be bored as the rest of the party attempts to talk their way out of everything (seen that happen too). So encourage everyone to have something useful to do in whatever setting they find themselves.
C. What Is Your Goal?
Does the player character have a goal? And when I ask this question, I should specify that this should go deeper than than just "the goals of the campaign." So for example, in the case of the campaign I'm designing, the goal of the campaign is to help the elves escape certain death. And that's important for each character to want (it's part of our requirements for character creation), but it's not enough - there should be something personal that drives the character when the going gets tough.
For example, one of my players (one of the party healers) is playing an elf from a different clan who loves the forest and all living things (so she's a gifted healer, forestress, tamer, and herbalist). Her goal in the campaign is not only to save the elves, but to also attempt to save the trees and wildlife as well, giving her clear direction (and a clear opponent) in each session because her character's goals are tied to more than just the campaign goals.
So ask your players what their personal goal is. Do they want to be the person who stands by the princess in the face of danger? Do they want to be the last one to leave a fight because of a past blood feud? Do they want to die for the cause? Knowing all of this upfront will help you build a better campaign experience, as well as give your players more enjoyment and connection to your story, because they see their place in it with greater clarity.
3. Drawing Out Strengths: The Speedbump NPC
Now all of these comments are player-centric: the players are going to need to come up with the answers (unless you pre-build the characters). But there is one way that you can guide the continued formation of the characters along the way, and that through what I like to call "Speedbump NPCs."
What is a "Speedbump NPC"? It's a hostile NPC (grunt, elite, or villain, but mostly elites) whose purpose is to burn through limited resources held by player characters. So in a game system like D&D this might include an NPC who exists to force out a Domain power from a cleric, consume a powerful spell slot from a sorcerer, chew through a substantial number of hitpoints on a barbarian, etc.
In Zurn, this might take the form of burning through Character Points, Channel Dice, a few wounds on a durable tank to threaten his resilience, etc. Note that the goal of Speedbump NPCs is not to kill the characters - it is merely to consume resources to put the players on the edge, trusting to their strengths and wits to get them through what comes after the Speedbump NPC.
The Speedbump NPC makes it so that when the players hit the difficult part of the mission (where the going gets tough and their weaknesses are exposed) they are going in without a lot of cushion. This does three things:
Encourages Growth: There is nothing like coming just shy of death to encourage someone to enhance their defensive capabilities, be that dodging, parrying, armor, or stealth (that which cannot sense me will not attack me). So you can use Speedbump NPCs to encourage players to enhance traits that need help before they hit a villain.
Foreshadowing: Have you ever run into the fear that there's a steep damage curve in your campaign, and thus if people don't invest more heavily in defense you'll end up with a total party kill? Are the grunts in the campaign going up in armor value, and you want to signal to the party that they need to increase their damage output? Throw in a few of these higher-end NPCs as Speedbump NPCs. They should be beatable, but it helps to show the party that they are moving into a new weightclass, and that means preparation even in areas of strength.
Deflects Frustration: By using a Speedbump NPC, it explains why a character might lose to a villain (as that can make for an exceptional turn in a story, intensifying their second meeting), why a person might miss a crucial shot, or why the main villain escapes: if we had more resources on-hand, we could have won. But because of the Speedbump NPC, we were unable to do so. Suddenly every character is okay with the loss, because in the back of their minds they are thinking, "Next time, things will be different." And suddenly the player has another bond: a motivation to do better in the next session, engaging them further with your story.
Speedbump NPCs are very useful - they fill a unique role in that they are your way as the game master to guide and shape the progression of your characters. We will have a whole post discussing other ways to do this, but as we talk through what goes into a good player character, just know that part of how you can keep those characters sharp and relevant to the story is through your choice of NPCs.
The player characters are the main characters of the story. This means that, as we said of our allied NPCs, that the show is about them and their story, not the NPCs we've created. At the same time, just as you want to case your leads well for a film, you want the player characters to be a good fit for the campaign as well. So spend time making good leads for your "film": it will deepen and further your story.
In our next post, we will discuss how to best run a "Mission Zero," a session where the party meets up to build its characters, talk about the campaign, and set expectations before actually playing the game. This is integral to a successful campaign, so keep watching this space!