Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

NOTE: The following is discussion which took place on the forums of Gaming Outpost. It was saved and compiled by Hunter Logan, and is re-posted here with permission from Aaron Powell.

Scarlet Jester (Scarlet Jester) 06/23/01 8:38 AM

            This thread is about creating characters that you can i) readily apply in a game; ii) use to achieve your GEN goals. It also starts to look at the GMs role of catering to the characters and player goals in his game.   There are numerous methods for creating characters in a manner to make a session successful, but we'll take a look at the "Character-driven Session" technique in this first post.

            In a Character-driven session, character creation happens first, the events for that RPG session then being designed to match those characters. It is therefore the job of the Player to create a character that has potential. There are 3 different types of potential, one for each branch of the GEN model.   This post refers to some information presented in the "All You Need to Know About GEN" thread, found in this forum, as well as stealing such terms as "niche protection" from RGFA :).


            The first thing you need to do is get your hands on the Top Tier information for your GM's new game, which includes: Intent (Gamist/Explorative/Narrative), Premise, Mood/Themes, Focus (Character/Setting/Situation), Realism (Gritty <-> Cinematic).   This information forms the superstructure of a game. A superstructure acts as the guidelines and limitations to everything within that game, including the character you are about to come up with. Make sure your character fits within the boundaries of the game's superstructure; i.e. if the premise of the game is about the battle for humanity in a vampire's soul, don't play a psychopathic bloodsucker who couldn't give a shit if he went to hell or not.   With the game's superstructure in mind, we can now go about creating our character.  The most important thing a successful character needs is potential, of which there are 3 kinds: Gaming, Roleplaying & Storytelling. Most characters will have potential in all of these areas. Characters will be able to get away with not having potential in one of these areas only in a game which is completely polarised to one branch of the GEN model.  The potential of a character plays an extremely important part in play balance. If one character has more potential than another, that character will most probably dominate the game. To aid play balance, communicate with the others players to help maintain niche protection (see RGFA as well as 'POLL: play balance or no?' for discussions in this topic).  Quickly looking at each type of potential in turn, we find that:

            Gaming potential is the ability of your character to overcome challenges. Gaming potential is built into the class systems of many RPGs; e.g. D&D's classes or CoC's occupations.

            Roleplaying potential is the ability of your character to produce interesting interactions with other entities in the gameworld. Roleplaying potential is built into the clan/race system of many RPGs, as well as dominant personality trait mechanics; e.g. L5R's/Vampire's clans or Pendragon's Virtue/Vices mechanics.

            Storytelling potential is the ability of your character to be a source for interesting future narrative. Storytelling potential is rarely built into any RPG system, mostly being communicated through written character goals. Let's put this concept into practice. A detailed character background does not by itself provide any potential for a session. Instead, it is good for explaining why the character has the potential that he has.


            Valamir the Stout is to run a session, and has told us his intent to run Pendragon. Asking him for the information we need to create our characters (GEN Top-Tier concerns) he tells us the following: 

            Intent: The Stout One tells us that his game has no fixed intent. There will be challenges (such as the slaying of the Green Giant of Arden Forest), roleplaying (the diplomatic striking of peace treaties with the savage Saxons of Kent), and storytelling (the narrative of our brave knight's deeds, reflecting our game's premise of...).

            Premise: Valamir tells us that his game's premise is about the power of prejudice and hatred upon the desire for peace.

            Mood: Stouty tells us that the mood and themes of the game are to be rather dark. The world is populated by grim-faced knights, afflicted with many wounds of the body and heart. 

            Focus: Valamir tells us that the Focus in this game is upon Setting, such as the mood and premise of the game. This will dictate the characters we play and the situations we find ourselves in, not the other way around.

            Realism: Stouty has chosen to go for a very gritty feel for this campaign, setting it in the early Dark Ages, far removed from the romanticism of King Arthur's time.

            Using this information, I now start to put together my character, who I name Sir Leoric. Leoric of Hertford is a grizzled knight, a veteran of many campaigns. As experienced in the use of force of arms as much as the use of diplomacy, he is usually at the heart of any dealings with the saxons of the neighbouring lands of Essex and Kent.  Although he aspires to the virtuous traits advocated by christianity, his deep-seeded hatred for the Saxons and his desire for revenge upon them dominates his thoughts in everyday life. Leoric's hatred for the Saxons stems from the death of his father during the wars with the Saxons, and the poisoning of his brother (as well as the King and most of the reigning nobility) during the celebration of the Briton's victory at the Battle of St. Albans by a treacherous Saxon dog.

            Both of his kinsman died to Saxons of the house of Osric, a mountain of a man who indulges in his love of alcohol as much as his love of splitting Briton's in twain with his great axe. Leoric schemes to have his revenge upon this household at all costs. That's a very short character concept, but communicates enough gaming, roleplaying, and storytelling potential to base a campaign upon. His gaming potential is communicated by the description of his skills, that of battle and diplomacy. His roleplaying potential is communicated by his personality traits, that of hatred and vengefulness. Finally, his storytelling potential is embodied in his desire for revenge on the Saxon house of Osric for the murders of his father and brother.

            Valamir, taking this character concept, designs a campaign based in the year 510, the first year of King Arthur's reign. During this time, Arthur sought peace with the Saxons and Leoric (as well as the other characters) is part of this peace process between the Saxons of Essex and the Briton's of Hertford. Right, now it's time for you lot to do some work. I want you to do one of the following (or both if you have the time or inclination):  Come up with another character that fits with Leoric's concept. Try to make your character's potential support Leoric's, as well as draw upon Leoric's potential to support your own. Come up with a scene for this campaign that draws upon and supports these character's potential. Will your scene aim to support only one branch of GEN, by focusing on only one of the character's stated potentials? Or will your scene blend these potentials to cater to numerous GEN goals?   

The Scarlet Jester lives along the Thames, but 5 minutes from the borders with Kent and Essex. Although the peoples of those lands have long exchanged their steeds for white XR3i's, and their axes for mobile phones and stiletto shoes, the struggle against these crude barbaric scum continues.

A few disjointed thoughts

M. J. Young (M. J. Young) 06/23/01 6:00 PM

            Good thoughts about character design; I'm not going to do your exercises, but rather ask a few questions. One thing that might help your posts would be to include links to previous posts referenced. I see this often on the forums--"go read my thoughts in such-and-such thread"--and it always frustrates me at least a bit because threads are always moving and it's not easy to find them; but the URL's stay the same except when there are major overhauls to the system, which should all be in the past now), so a link is a big help. Mercifully, I've read all the referenced threads fairly recently, apart from the old RGFA stuff which is probably hard to link anyway.

            I can relate to the statement that the game has "no fixed intent", as I think most of my games are that way, shifting between styles during play. But I'm wondering whether the intent question is really an illusion anyway. If my intent is to run a gamist game, does that mean that my players will not be able to create a story or explore an idea? I don't really see that as ultimately correct--players will take the game in directions that suit them, in my experience, regardless of the preferences of the referee; the good referee goes with the flow in that regard.

            Have you ever played Pendragon? I have not; but I was reading through a copy of the rules a while back, and it seemed to me that the design did not really lend itself to long campaigns. If I understood correctly, each game session is supposed to consume a year of the calendar (as mentioned elsewhere, I have trouble with the concept of a "game session" as the measure of anything in the game--if we sat down to play pinochle, we could play one hand, or to a hundred points, or until daybreak, and any of those things would be a game session, but it wouldn't have much affect on which card I lead to the next trick). Players are also expected to run several generations of characters, passing things from father to son as part of normal play. While this is interesting, it also suggests that even if you set the game's beginning around 510, it won't be that long before you've reached the Golden Age of Camelot, unless you run a very short campaign. Then again, I've never played it, so maybe it works better than it looks.   But there are some interesting ideas here.   --M. J. Young  Check out Multiverser  Index of my pages

Re: A few disjointed thoughts

Scarlet Jester (Scarlet Jester) 06/24/01 9:00 AM

            If my intent was to run, say, an Explorative RPG and I communicated this to the players, then that becomes part of the superstructure of the game, and thus part of it's limitations, or boundaries. It means that I'll be configuring the game content (characters, setting, situations) to have solely roleplaying potential, and I won't be giving thought to including storytelling or gaming potential. It basically means that I won't be catering to other goals or desires. If they've got any amount of directorial power they could take the game in a different goal direction, by introducing game content that does have potential for these other goals, but it might be detrimental to the stated Explorative goal.

            I think that I run games differently from you though. Multiverser is basically a never-ending campaign, and thus needs to jump between all goals. This takes more work, as you have to keep adding to the game content so that it supports all goals. I run close-ended short-length campaigns though, allowing me to concentrate on one style of play (or blend a couple) for one game, then totally change for the next. This is quicker to set up but doesn't touch all the bases.   Supporting different styles of play is an additive process. If your game supports all 3 goals then you're doing 3 times more work than a game that only supports 1.

            Final point on this is that the process of introducing potential (either gaming/roleplaying/storytelling) is applicable to all game content (character/setting/situation). Game content which doesn't have potential is pretty useless in a game. I point to a whole load of sourcebooks for games such as L5R & Vampire as an example. I've played Pendragon quite a lot, but I didn't actually mean that the Pendragon system would actually be used to run that game example. I was mainly referring to the setting. As for whether the game design works or not, start a new thread called "Pendragon Sucks" and I'm sure you'll have a few essays off Valamir before you can say "frenzied response" :).   Don't worry about not doing the exercises. I don't really expect anybody to do them as I doubt anyone would give that specific example enough thought to write anything. Hopefully, though, they'll have the inclination to apply it to their own game situations and get some benefit out of the method.

Happy 7000 posts Crit Hit.

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

GreatWolf (Seth Ben-Ezra) 06/24/01 3:47 PM

            Okay, just to prove Jester wrong.... :-)   Anna is a commoner who lives in the forest near the border with Kent. (I'm assuming that there could have been a forest there. Cut me some slack, okay? :-] ) She is only fifteen but has already become proficient with the bow and has learned the ways of the forest. Her parents are dead, and she, being the oldest, has been left to care for them. When Leoric was beset by bandits in the woods, she came to his aid and rescued him. He was haunted by her beauty and oft made excuses to pass through the woods on his missions in order to see her. She, in turn, has offered him aid in his quests, as she feels that Leoric is destined to bring peace to her homeland. However, she bears a dark secret. She is, in fact, the offspring of a Saxon who raped her mother. Upon discovering Leoric's unreasoning hatred of Saxons, she tries to cover her origins. While she continues to aid him, she lives in fear that he will discover what she is. Again, not very in-depth, but at least it's an attempt.  Seth Ben-Ezra Great Wolf Dark Omen Games

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

glandis (Gordon Landis) 06/27/01 11:10 PM

            Jeez, so many websites, so many interesting threads, so little time . . .   I'm gonna cheat, and ask a question or four based on the characters put forward so far - does Jester(the player) know about Anna's secret? How is that decision made? By who? How does GEN effect/inform these decisions?   Gordon C. Landis   PS - BTW, Anna is a GREAT fit for the parameters put forward. Nice job.

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

Scarlet Jester (Scarlet Jester) 06/28/01 3:37 PM

            Whether I know about Anna's secret and use that information to create better scenes is independent of GEN, but fully dependent on technique, specifically the stances allowed for this game. If Author stance is allowed, then I would know about it, and use that knowledge just as much as Seth does to create interesting scenes for the enjoyment of the group.  When I say I use that information to make better scenes, this is where GEN comes in to affect. If the information makes for a more powerful IC experience, then we're achieving Explorative goals. A more powerful story achieves Narrative goals. Using it to add more meaning to the resolution points supports Gamist goals (see the link to Brian Gleichman's "Definition of Gamism" below).

            It's highly likely that roleplaying out the scene of Leoric's revelation will achieve both goals at the same time, but I'll most probably be too in-character to appreciate the creation of narrative at that moment. I'll probably look back on that scene, or at the events that are produced by it, in author stance and appreciate the narrative then, but during that scene I will most probably only support my Explorative goals. The other players though, maybe even Seth too, might be enjoying the narrative as it is being created by that scene, although Seth might also be too much in-character, like myself, at that moment.

            Let's take a quick look at what potential Anna has for the game.  On the gaming level, she compliments Leoric well. While Leoric get's to do all the diplomatic and dirty close-combat work, hacking limbs off, falling into rivers and getting mud and blood all over his armour etc. (see the ambush in Excalibur), Anna brings archery skills to the group, as well as a knowledge of the forests and woodlands of the region. Most importantly though, is that her revelation adds a huge amount of depth to the upcoming resolution points of negotiating a peace or going to war with the Saxons (see further details below).

            Anna is actually lacking a bit in roleplaying potential. Her narrative potential will most probably drive towards a scene that fully supports Leoric's roleplaying potential, but you get little sense of her personality. You get a strong sense of what the story would be about if she were a major cast member, but you get little sense of what Anna is actually like as a person. Obviously, that would most probably be filled in during play to best match the other players. Anna's narrative potential is obviously very powerful, and will most probably have the biggest effect on the game when Anna's secret is revealed to Leoric (assuming these are our only players).

            I'm guessing that during the whole adventure, Leoric will be jeopardising the peace process with the Saxons, trying to lead the area to war, when he suddenly finds out the truth of his beloved companion's lineage. I have absolutely no idea what will occur.  Will Leoric take this as the ultimate betrayal by the saxons he hates, ruining the 'purity' of the last loving relationship he has left (after the death of his father and brother)? Or will he go the other way and realise that he can love and accept the Saxons, and bring peace to the land?

            Personally, I'd love to hear the immortal words of "But Leoric...Osric is my father!", then Leoric goes nuts, kills Osric, kills Anna, finally collapsing and dieing alone and insane deep in the forests, stained by the blood of the many wounds inflicted on him by the Saxon scum. ("Merlin! Why didn't you tell me?! Merlin! Ugh!" slump). But that's where a love of tragedy gets you :). Either way, it fully supports the premise of the game, and thus the narrative goals of the players.

            Now take a look at that information from the eyes of Valamir. Exactly what does he need to do to make this adventure work? Not that much actually...just provide a backdrop of events that lets the players drive towards their own scenes and support their goals. The goals set up in the game that someone with gamist aspirations might enjoy working towards might include trying to sabotage the peace process. This is a resolution point in the game which a gamist player could get to grips with, and recognise whether he succeeded or failed in making this happen. All of the character traits of Leoric become the reasoning behind the goal of sabotaging this process. Anna's revelation becomes another obstacle that must be dealt with. Does this knowledge drive Leoric away from going to war, or strengthen his desire for revenge on the Saxons for taking his loved ones away from him?

            I point you to Brian Gleichman's Definition of Gamism, where he notes that Setting, character, role-play and the other components of a RPG are seen as the means to justify and bring into being these resolution points. Thereafter these 'supporting components' are a method to add meaning to the Resolution Point and by extension the decisions of the gamist.

            Please note how much this highlights how Gamism is not defined by characters being only as deep as their statistics, or nothing but hack-and-slash scenarios etc. Setting details, personality traits, roleplaying etc, are all extremely important to add meaning to the adventure goals that must be resolved. What other types of resolution points could you introduce that take into account the characters and setting at hand?

            To support Explorative goals, Valamir needs to introduce scenes which allow Leoric and Anna to play out their most interesting personality traits. A meeting between Leoric and Osric to negotiate a truce would be a perfect example of this. I get to roleplay out the dilemma my character has of duty to his King to negotiate peace, and his own personal motivators of hatred and revenge. What scenes would use Anna's roleplaying potential to support explorative goals?

            Narrative wise, Valamir get's to do less pre-game work. We've basically written the story for him, we now just have to play it to see exactly how it turns out. As I think I've shown above, the outcome of this story is completely unknown, which destroys the common argument laid against narrative games of being "pre-scripted". The specifics of the conflict has been pre-scripted, yes, but the outcome of that conflict definately are not.  Valamir really get's left to throw in plot twists during the game, control the pacing, enforce some sense of narrative structure, and play the supporting cast. Anything else you think Stouty should do to support the narrative?

            Mainly note that we could very easily play this game and achieve all of these goals at the same time. Although I may be enjoying the gamist aspects of the adventure with the narrative of the game going over my head, the player next to me may be fully appreciating the narrative being created, the gamist aspects that I'm enjoying going over his head. As long as we use the same techniques to achieve our differing goals, there shouldn't be any conflict between us.

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

Valamir (Ralph Mazza) 06/28/01 3:48 PM

            A more thorough destruction of the idea that the -isms are tied to various mechanical concerns could not be written. BTW SJ, your name has now been invoked twice on the Forge. Once more and I think the laws of the universe will force you to answer the summons ;-)

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

Scarlet Jester (Scarlet Jester) 06/28/01 5:39 PM

SCARLET JESTERS, Lesser Servitor Race. "Our attacker...was a short ruddy demon, dressed in the clothings of that insipid ancient order, with eyes that, though glazed, shined with a fire...akin to that of his master. This...attacker fell upon the party, hurling rocks and uttering such abhorrent insults against our holy Gygax that few of us that survived that fateful journey would forget...haunting the figments of my own mind even as a write this transcript. - Gareth Hanrahan, "The Dice That Came to Sarnath".

SUMMON/BIND SCARLET JESTER: the sacrifice of 8lbs of cookies or Yorkies is needed. If the sacrifice is of raisin and nut flavour, increase the chance for the spell's success by 10 percentiles per extra lb offered. The chanting must finish at exactly midnight (by her Majesty's time!), and must not be attempted in any location which is predominantly blue in nature, as this clashes greatly with the creature's scarletness, making it's bum look big. The jester simply forms out of the air, accompanied by a jingling of bells.

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

GreatWolf (Seth Ben-Ezra) 06/28/01 5:48 PM

            Hey! You forgot the SAN cost of viewing a Scarlet Jester. :-)   Offhand I'd say 1d8/1d20. But then again, I always was a mean CoC keeper.  Seth Ben-Ezra Great Wolf Dark Omen Games

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

glandis (Gordon Landis) 06/30/01 2:18 AM

            So, I was talking about Bertmund over in another thread . . .   . . . a somewhat naive young Saxon lordling who's been fostered out to a Briton household since childhood. He's far more interested in the exciting new spirit of Adventure and Glory this young Arthur guy is fostering in the land than he is about any Saxon/Briton clash. Of course, his "real" family is counting on him to betray his foster-family when things heat up again, as they always do. Bertmund is heading for some serious encounters with reality, and he may not have what it takes to handle the collision well.   Or maybe he's already been there.

            There's another Bertmund, a middle-aged man-at-arms, recently released from service due to an injured leg ("doesn't slow me down at all, I says. You're out anyway, they says"). He's had two families - two villages, really - burned out from under him in the ferocity of the Briton/Saxon conflict, and secretly wishes a "plague on all their houses". Osric was behind the raid that wiped out his first family - but Leoric was part of the alliance that caused the second disaster. And it is Bertmund's judgement that the steadings in Anna's forest are the likely next "victims" of the unending conflict between Saxon and Briton - between Saxon Lord and Briton Lord, if one were allowed to be honest about it.   OK, I got that out - maybe he'll stop pestering me now.   Gorodn C. Landis

Re: Character Potential - A Path to Successful Gaming

Scarlet Jester (Scarlet Jester) 07/06/01 12:07 AM

            What I really like about that character (the older one), Gordon, is that he really comes across to me as the narrator of the story. I reckon he'd be the guy that survives and learns from the tragedy that unfolds for the other protagonists of the tale (Anna and Leoric).   Now that we've got our cast, anyone got any ideas on how you would go about setting up a scene which actually takes the great potential we've come up with for our characters, and smashes them together for interesting interactions in the game? (Gordon, see if you can get Bertmund to pester you with some ideas on what scenes would be best for him :)).

Narrative Potential

Mithras (Paul Elliott) 07/06/01 6:36 PM

            I'd love to know why narrative potential *has* been so badly neglected in RPG design over the past 25 years. Cyberpunk impressed me greatly back in 1989 with its plot path system which sort of created narrative potential for you. It's always the same (or used to be!): characters are given almost infinte detail as regards their basic task resolution potential, maybe a little bit of guidance on personality and how that might come into the game, and *nothing* regarding personal storylines.

            Of course I've always insisted on them, and my players always came up with them after poking and prodding from me. "What do you wanna be?"  "Errm, a Yakuza gangster ..."  "OK - why did he leave the Family and join the Corporation?"  "Dunno ..."  "Well, maybe he nicked off with a load of Yakuza money and went on the run..."  "Yeah that sounds good ... I can make him a master of disguise, and a great get-away driver".  "OK. So the Yak send guys after him I suppose. What about his partner?"  "Yeah, that sounds good - his partner has been charged with finding him and killing him - I like it!"

            And *then* we move on to character creation. I'm sure you all do this with your games. I always refer to it as 'story threads, waiting to be picked up and used by the GM'. Everyone needs at least one. Unresolved story arcs from the character's past that can be resolved in the future.

            My players were an unimaginative lot when it came to character creation and enjoyed that 2-way process of creating narrative potential. Plus I got to input ideas that a) I could exploit within the game I'd written, and b) I could ear-mark for later exploitation.   Adios   Mithras   Zenobia the Roman RPG at:  Zozer Game Design at:

Story Hook

xiombarg (Kirt Dankmyer) 07/25/01 2:25 PM

            I have to admit that despite in no way pretending to be a "deep" game, one of the things that impressed me about Feng Shui was the "melodramatic hook", essentially something in the character's past that can be used to bring them into the story if they start to stray from it. Every character had to have at least one.   It's such a simple and good idea, even in a hack n' slash game of D&D (it can be used to get the character into the dungeon, if you're into that sort of thing), that it's almost worth doing no matter what you're running, assuming the system doesn't already encourage that sort of thing. In fact, "my Yakuza gangster nicked off with a load of Yakuza money and went on the run and his partner has been charged with finding him and killing him" is practically a textbook example of such a hook.  ---  love * Eris * RPGs * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada -- yet another homepage -- support indie RPGs  Dance, damn you, dance!