Tools for Creating Characters

I’ve been giving some thought to tools and techniques for creating characters over the last few weeks.  I’m going to record a few quick notes on these musings here.

Firstly the technique of asking leading questions to draw out character ideas.

Secondly, possibilities for representing personality traits by reflecting them in the mechanics of a game.

Thirdly, some party composition ideas.

Leading Questions

The technique of asking evocative leading question to draw out ideas of characters (and also the game world) is simple but under-used, in my experience.
Interesting questions can flesh out a character in ways that may not have otherwise been illuminated in the game.  Furthermore, they may provide a great opportunity to increase player buy-in.
The kind of thing that I mean is:

In your backstory, you escaped from imprisonment.  How did you escape; and what (or who) did you have to leave behind?

[As a call to adventure] – Why do you need five hundred gold pieces in a hurry?

When travelling between locations, rather than rolling a random encounter simply ask a player to describe a problem that they encountered along the way; and then ask another how they solved or bypassed the problem.

[Upon reaching a spooky mausoleum] – Is anyone in this tomb a relative?


Paired Stats

Inspired by games such as Pendragon, Smallville, FAE (Fate Accelerated Edition), and most especially by A Dirty World (a noir game), I’ve been thinking about character attributes that are closer to personality traits than to traditional attributes.

I’ve been considering pairs of stats that trade off against each other (thus providing an interesting decision, and a possible source of dramatic tension within characters).
You could have pairs of stats ranked 1 to 5 or d4 to d12, but with a degree of interference with each other (for example, if your Deceit reaches d12, it pushes your Honesty down to d4).

Anyhow, the product of my noodling is this:

Patience vs Cunning (Caution/Deliberation vs Quick Wits; Intellect vs Guile) [Mental/Intellectual]
Demonstration vs Observation (Knowledge vs Awareness) [Info: Notice/Investigate]
Generosity vs Greed (Resources vs Theft/Burglary) [Resources, Property]
Composure vs Defiance (Endurance vs Evasion) [Stress, Damage]
Patience = Analysis?

Empathy vs Persuasion (Understanding vs Manipulation) [Social/Information]
Purity vs Corruption (Inspiration vs Seduction) [Decency/Vice]
Honesty vs Deceit (Integrity/Honour vs Guile) [Truth & Lies]
Rapport vs Provoke (Charm vs Intimidate) [General Persuasion]

Vigour vs Grace (Might/Force vs Agility/Quick; Physique vs Athletics) [Action/Physical]
Courage vs Wrath (Valour vs Cruelty) [Violence, Combat]
Fortitude vs Evasion (Endurance vs Defiance) [Stress, Damage]
Infiltration vs Surveillance (Sneaking vs Seeing) [Stealth, Espionage]

Discipline vs Conviction (Composure vs Defiance; Defend vs Attack) [Arcane]
Lore vs Learning [Scholarship vs Research]
Sense vs Alter [Intellego vs Muto/Rego]
Creation vs Destruction [Creo vs Perdo]

Craft vs Wreck (Engineering vs Sabotage) [Engineering/Technology]
Hack/Firewall (Digital Intrusion/Defence)
Target/Evade (Gunnery/Helm)

Craft vs Wreck (Engineering vs Sabotage) [Engineering/Technology]
Infiltration vs Surveillance (Sneaking vs Seeing) [Stealth, Espionage]
Generosity vs Greed (Resources vs Theft/Burglary) [Resources, Property]

Overt vs Covert (Flashy vs Sneaky; Flair vs Guile; Bold vs Subtle) [Presence/Stealth]
Fight vs Flight?
Conceal/Disguise (Camouflage)


Cast Calculus

I’ve also been spending too much time on TV Tropes looking at pages like these:

As a result, that following table has taken shape in my head. Perhaps I’ll use it to create some pre-gen characters one day.

Fighter/Paladin/Cavalier Rouge/Ranger/Ninja Bard/Sorcerer/Swashbuckler Wizard/Cleric/Arcanist
Combat Stealth Diplomacy Magic
Hitter Thief Grifter Hacker/Mastermind
Mighty “Glacier” Fragile
 of all Stats
Choleric Phlegmatic Sanguine Melancholic
Red/Yang/Red Blue/Yin/Blue Red/Yang/White Blue/Yin/Black
Cynic Apathetic Optimist Realist
Ego Foil? Id Superego
Kirk McCoy Spock
Big Guy/Leader Lancer Heart Smart
Fire/Lightning Water/Shadow Air/Fire Earth/Ice
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13th Age – useful tools and subsystems

I’ve been running through a quick playtest of 13th Age with one of my groups, whilst we are down a player for a few sessions in our ongoing campaign. These are my thoughts so far on the ideas that 13th Age brings to the table.

The escalation die is a brilliant concept, and I’ve previously incorporated it into other games. The idea is that PCs (and significant monsters) get an incremental bonus to their attacks after the first round of the fight (+1 on the first round, +2 on the third round, up to +6 on the seventh and subsequent rounds), and the obvious way to track this is on a nicely visible d6. I run it that the bonus applies to both attack rolls and damage, although I can’t recall off the top of my head whether that is by the book or a house-rule.
This escalation mechanic stops fights from dragging on, and it also adds a tactical element that dissuades PCs from ‘going nova’ and blowing everything that they have in round one (because if they wait a bit before using their most potent attacks, they have a greater chance of hitting). This emulates the escalation that often occurs over the course of a fight in film.

Recharge Powers
13th Age has a number of powers and abilities which are replenished when a particular number (e.g. 16+) is rolled on the d20 during a short rest. This reduces the bookkeeping of tracking resources that can be used a few times a day, and creates an interesting tactical decision about when to use powers/spells. It means that there is a chance that a power may return before the next battle, which I think adds a pinch of excitement that just counting down a couple of uses of a spell doesn’t offer. It’s a small thing, but it is an interesting idea.

Flexible Moves
Similar to the recharging of abilities, flexible moves are a way to add a touch of excitement with minimal bookkeeping overhead, based on a d20 roll. Essentially, certain powers within the game (such as fighter manoeuvres) activate when the number that you roll meets certain conditions, such as being a hit and an odd number. One of my players has taken several flexible attacks for his fighter, some that activate on even numbers, some that activate on odd numbers, and some that activate on a miss; and now whatever number he rolls on the d20, something cool happens.
These sorts of mechanical tools appeal to me greatly: they are simple and elegant, and add a fun element to the game that doesn’t need much effort to track (and consequently doesn’t impose too much cognitive load).

Monster Stats and Scripting Behaviour
The monster stat blocks in 13th Age are beautiful – they are extremely simple and easy to run.
You are given the monster type & level, the attacks, initiative, AC (Armour Class), PD (Physical Defence), MD (Mental Defence), the HP, and a short snippet of flavour text. That’s pretty much it – take a look:
The monsters are also very easy to run, due to the way that their attacks and typical behaviours are effectively scripted into their d20 roll. This works much like the flexible moves mentioned above, so for example a monster may use one attack if you roll an even number, or another if you roll odd. This reduces the amount of thinking that you need to do when running the monster, which is nice.

The Icons of 13th Age are the pivotal NPCs/factions/demigods which help to define the setting. They have easy-to-grok names such as “The Archmage” or “the Dwarf Lord”, and they represent the major forces that shape the default 13th Age setting.
The PCs allocate points to their relationships with these Icons, be they allies, adversaries, or something more complicated. At the start of each session these relationships are used to produce potential plot ideas, which is a nice touch. However, I think that their greatest utility is simply in being a tool to define the world. Pretty much every NPC of importance is going to know who most of the Icons are, and is going to have views upon then and relationships with them (usually not directly, but for example by working with one of the organisations that are aligned with them). The mechanical support for these relationships helps to keep them focused over the course of play.

Magic Items
The magic items in 13th age fall into two categories: the single-use minor items and the permanent major items. The minor items (e.g. potions) give you a small bonus (+1 to +3, based on your level); the major items give permanent bonuses and various useful abilities. The interesting thing about 13th age is how it handles these powerful magic items – if you have too many (i.e. more than your level) then you develop entertaining/inconvenient personality quirks. This is because the true magic items are somewhat sentient, and if you have too many then you can get a bit overwhelmed as their personalities begin to bleed into yours. They begin to wield you, rather than the other way around. This is a simple and entertaining method of preventing PCs from lugging around a golf bag of magic swords, and many of the quirks amuse me (such as “Constantly checking self out and flexing, and seems to want to be caught doing that”, or “Develops a love of elegant elven poetry”).

Recoveries & Heal-Ups
13th Age PCs gets “recoveries”, which are functionally similar to the “healing surges” of 4E, in that they are additional bundles of hit points that you can use to replenish your health. These mostly serve to somewhat free up the cleric from being called upon to do nothing but heal people, and as such have my approval. They don’t make all that much sense in-universe, but then again neither to Hit Points.
Full heal-ups are similar to resting for the night in other versions of D&D/F20 (replenishing powers and HP), except that in a bold twist the designers have decided to de-couple this from sleeping. Instead, you get a full heal-up after around 4 combat encounters. This removes the 5-minute workday problem, at the cost of not really making a great deal of in-universe sense. I’m not sure how I feel about that; it bothers me slightly, but I can’t think of a more simple and effective way to resolve the issue.


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Some brief thoughts on fate skills for modes/classes/roles

This it just a quick thought from some notes that I was tinkering around with a few days ago, which I want to get down here for easy access.

I’ve been thinking about the roles/classes that crop up in games. There are four or five broad categories that show up again and again (for example in D&D, Leverage, Wilderness of Mirrors, Exalted, Werewolf, etc.) –

I’ve been toying with how to best split the default Fate Core skill list into these categories. The Skill list is:
(I’m not too worried about Contacts and Resources, because a lot of the potential games in my head treat those as special cases, and they don’t break down readily along class lines)


So I’m thinking that on a 4 class (Thief/Fighter/Face/Hacker) model then I’d probably go for:





The skills marked with a “*” are ones that I’m sure about, those marked with a “?” I’m on the fence about.


For a 5-class model (adding in a knowledgeable leader role), I think:







See also:

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Thoughts on how to “fix” Warhammer RPGs

Thoughts on how to “fix” Warhammer RPGs
(or “better gaming through different dice”)

My gaming group tends to play quite a bit of Warhammer. Over the last decade I’ve played in multiple games of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WHFRP), both 2nd and 3rd edition; and 40K games of Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Only War.
I find the setting reasonably entertaining (more so in the form that we play it rather than by the book – we lean a bit more towards humour, whimsy, and high adventure than the grim-dark default), but I’m not a fan of the systems.

I find that the d100 system of 2E WHFRP and the 40K games (DH, RT, DW, BC & OW) is way too random, swingy, and inconsistent. I appreciate the to a large extent this is a deliberate feature rather than a bug – the Warhammer setting focuses on (bad?) luck, fate, the randomness in its violence and the harsh uncaringness of its universe. However, I find that the end result of the system is that characters are only erratically competent.

Take a character early in their career: 30% is a fairly good stat for a starter 40K character to have in something that they are quite good at, e.g. Weapon Skill for a solider, Willpower for a Psyker, or Balistic Skill for a sniper. Let’s imagine that the sniper character has some beneficial circumstances or assistance; such as close range, a large target, and time to aim. They could probably clock up a bonus of about +50% in very favourable circumstances. This would give the sniper about an 80% chance of hitting a large target, such as the side of a barn. Put another way, that it a 20% chance of failure for the sniper to hit the side of the barn. From a few feet away. And 50% would by an unusually high bonus; shooting some mooks in a corridor as they run towards you with kitchen knives would probably be a +30% bonus, or a 40% chance of failure. And that is before they roll for their chance to dodge, even if your shot is on target.
This doesn’t make it feel like you are moderately skilled professionals who are way out of their depth in a gritty world, so much as an incompetent clown who pulls off the occasional trick shot.

Fine, but basically not my cup of tea.

In order to twist the system to my taste, I’m thinking that I may switch it to a build of Fate if I run Warhammer again; a quick and dirty hybrid system. Basically take out the d100 and swap for for 4dF (fate/fudge dice), stick a zero on the end of the fate ladder numbers, and call it a day.
Maybe 25 ranks to assign across your 9 attributes (two at +40, four at +30, two at +20, and one at +10?), use a default difficulty of 20, and then apply the modifiers from Warhammer as normal. So a character with an attribute of 30 and a bonus of +20 would still rolling on +50, but 4dF rather than d%, with wither each + or – on the fudge dice being read as +/-10 rather than +/-1. Then use all or the weapons, skills and stats as normal. I’d also keep the aspects and fate points from Fate.




I have less beef with the 3rd Edition of WHFRP. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you learn to parse the strange dice symbols the system can be quite quick and light, which I appreciate.
The problem for me is that there are simply too few success/failure symbols and way too many advantage/disadvantage (boon/bane) symbols. This be really tricky to adjudicate as a GM, and after a while it becomes hard to constantly thing off ways to explain your highly advantageous failures. This once again gives the feeling that the characters are incompetent by lucky clowns, rather than professionals. I’d simply fix this by using different dice. You can pick up blank d6’s pretty cheap. I think that I’ll experiment with adjusting the odds of the different symbols, next time I play WHFRP 3E for FF Star Wars (Edge of Empire, Age of Rebellion, Force & Destiny).

RPG, WHFRP, 40K, Star Wars, Fate, Dice, Hack

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Icons Lists from Mythology, Fiction, and Games

When creating the setting for a scenario or campaign, it can be helpful to come up with a list of people or factions in the settling, as the powerful movers and shakers the the PCs will be interacting with.  Fate would call these “Faces”, and 13th Age calls them “Icons”.

Half a dozen of these major NPCs/GMCs (Non-Player Characters, also know as Game Master Characters in some circles) are ample for most short campaigns, whilst a dozen is a good number for a longer campaign with deeper setting detail.

The default Icons list from 13th age (more info here: is:

The Archmage

The Crusader

The Diabolist

The Dwarf King

The Elf Queen

The Emperor

The Great Gold Wyrm

The High Druid

The Lich King

The Orc Lord

The Priestess

The Prince of Shadows

The Three


So, I got to thinking about who the Icons/Faces would be in various stories/settings –


Star Wars:

The Empire (The Emperor, Darth Vader, Moff Tarkin)

Rebels (Mon Mothma, Organa, Admiral Ackbar)

The Hutts (Jabba the Hutt)

Separatists (Count Dooku, Nate Gunray, General Grievous)

Jedi Council (Yoda, Mace Windu)

Others, such as Mandalorians, Chiss, Dark Sun, Nightsisters, can be added to suit the needs of the campaign.


Arthurian Legends:






Morgana Le Fay

Lady of the Lake/Niviane

Other Knights: Gawain, Galahad, Tristan, Bors, Percival, Bedivere, Ector, Kay, etc.


Robin Hood:

Robin of Locksley

Sheriff of Nottingham

Maid Marion

Guy of Gisbourne

King John

King Richard


Three Musketeers:

Cardinal Richelieu

Milady de Winter

Compe de Rochefort

King Louis XIII

Queen Ann

Captain Treville

Duke of Buckingham


Elder Scrolls – Morrowind:

House Dagoth (Dagoth Ur)

The Tribunal (Vivec, Almalexia, Sotha Sil)

House Hlaalu (Duke Vedam Dren)

House Redoran (Bolvyn Venim)

House Telvanni (Gothren)

Camonna Tong (Orvas Dren)

Morag Tong (Eno Hlaalu)

Ashlanders (various Ashkahns)

Twin Lamps (Ilmeni Dren)

Blades (Caius Cosades)

Imperial Legion (Varus Vantinius)

East Empire Company (Carnius Magius, Falco Galenus)


Elder Scrolls – Oblivion:

The Blades (Jauffre)

Mythic Dawn (Mankar Camoran)

Fighters Guild (Vilena Donton/Modryn Oreyn)

Mages Guild (Hannibal Traven)

Thieves Guild (Gray Fox)

Imperial City Watch (Hieronymus Lex)

Dark Brotherhood (Ungolim, Lucien Lachance)

Countess Umbranox (Anvil)

Count Terentius (Bravil)

Countess Carvain (Bruma)

Count Indarys (Cheydinhal)

Countess Valga (Chorrol)

Count Goldwine (Kvatch)

Count Caro (Leyawiin)

Count Hassildor (Skingrad)

Elder Council (Chancellor Ocato)


Elder Scrolls – Skyrim:

Stormcloaks (Ulfric Stormcloak)

Imperial Legion (General Tullius)

Companions (Kodlak Whitemane)

College of Winterhold (Savos Aren)

Thieves Guild (Karliah, Maven Black-Briar)

Dark Brotherhood (Astrid)

Bards College of Solitude (Viarmo)

Blades (Delphine)

Thalmor (Elenwen)

Dawnguard (Isran)

Silver Hand (Krev the Skinner)

Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun

Jarl Elisif of Solitude

Jarl Skald of Dawnstar

Jarl Siddgeir of Falkreath

Jarl Igmund of Markarth

Jarl Idgod Ravencrone of Morthal

Jarl Laila Law-Giver of Riften

Jarl Korir of Winterhold

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Random Openings

Inspired by Rob Donoghue’s great “Getting into Trouble” tables for his quick Fritz Leiber-esque “Two Guys with Swords” game at I offer:


Where you Are Now

  1. On the roof of the tower
  2. A mountain pass, during a storm
  3. Busy marketplace, with suspicious figures in the shadows
  4. The duke’s wine cellar
  5. Wilderness shrine to one of those unusual gods
  6. Bandit country
  7. Burning building
  8. Volcano, which is starting to rumble
  9. Edge of a dark lake, where ripples have disturbed the surface
  10. Backstreets of the city, surrounded by fog


What Brought You to This

  1. A series of poor life choices in the recent past, regarding who to trust
  2. A job went sideways
  3. The captain of the Guard didn’t have a sense of humour
  4. How were you to know that the painting was a counterfeit?
  5. Wandered off the path, whilst drunk
  6. That wizard was quick to anger
  7. Blackmailed with an antidote to a slow poison
  8. A spell backfired, spectacularly
  9. That drunken boast may have been unwise
  10. Misunderstanding regarding the ownership of an idol


How It Is About To Get Worse

  1. Someone delved too greedily and too deep
  2. That ritual chanting probably isn’t a good sign
  3. The creature has your scent
  4. Rising water/gas/lava
  5. That supposedly sure-fire spell you just cast didn’t work as intended
  6. The people surrounding you are holding sharp objects
  7. The dead have risen. Again.
  8. The sun is about to set
  9. Those druids are rather touchy
  10. Huh. Aren’t those things immune to swords?
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Links to RPG Resources

I’m going to regularly update this post as I add links


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RPG ideas, resources, and projects

I’ll start this blog off with a summary of the RPG ideas, links and notes that are currently floating around my mind and notepads.

Systems of Interest

I have broad interest in the RPG hobby, but my interests are primarily in:
Pathfinder/D&D: This is the game that my group play the most, and that we have by far the most experience with, first as D&D 3.5, and then as Pathfinder.  It is the go-to system for most of my regular players, largely because we invested the time and energy to grok it when our brains were young and plastic.
Fate: This toolkit system has captured my imagination, it is supremely flexible, and its design is elegant, simple, and powerful.  Probably my favourite system.
GUMSHOE: Designed for mysteries, I enjoy the way that this system handles the competence and characters, and has a simple mechanic which controls the spotlight focus in the game with regards to character skills, by liking it to a resource management system.  In particular, I find NBA (Night’s Black Agents) to be a masterpiece.
13th Age: This is a game that takes the core ideas of D&D 3rd and 4th edition, and then strips away the complexity and turns up the dials for combat speed, narrative flexibility, and fun.
Cortex: In its CortexPlus and CortexPrime incarnations.  This is reminiscent of Fate, but with pools of various polyhedral dice.

We also have plenty of play experience with nWoD (new World of Darkness) and Warhammer 40K; but for various reasons those systems don’t grab my imagination as much.  World of Darkness nicely simple and fairly flexible, but is a bit bland for my taste since I started tinkering with Fate.
Warhammer 40K (Dark Heresey, Rogue Trader, Only War etc) are too prone to randomness and PC failure for my taste (which I appreciate may be a intentional feature rather than a bug, for the 40K setting), so a character will frequently fail at even things that they are supposed to be good at, until a great deal of XP has been spend.  Much hilarity ensues from the clownish flailing, but that doesn’t suit most genres/stories that I want to run a campaign of.


Whilst I’m making lists, here are the settings that I tend to gravitate to frequently:
Star Wars
Warhammer 40K
Dresden Files (and other urban fantasy, including the World of Darkness)
The Elder Scrolls (from games such as Morrowing, Obilivion, and Skyrim)
D&D’s generic setting (a weird European Medieval Fantasy, with inspiration from Greyhawk etc)
I rarely run by the book, I tend to play fast and lose with default settings, allowing for a healthy dose of artistic licence.


The ideas that are floating around my head currently, most of whilst are unlikely to reach fruition:
Become better at creating story/scenario ideas.
Tweak a game to focus on the area that gives my group the most enjoyment, which I believe is solving challenges with cunning; particularly in finding innovative ways to solve/bypass problems with spells.
Create a scenario with pre-made characters that have good dramatic character traits for a team/ensemble, e.g.
Create a short campaign, focusing on heists, cons, intrigue, and covert opps.
Crate a short swashbuckling campaign, focusing on mysteries, honour, and daring deeds.
Run an Elder Scrolls Game.



Also, I’m cross posting here and

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New Year, New Blog – Meanderings Around Games (and other geeky topics)

I’ve been meaning to start keeping a blog for a while, and now that I’m sitting here on Christmas holiday with nothing urgent to do, it seems like a good time to start.

I’m thinking that I will probably use this space to record my thoughts on whatever random topics I’m dwelling on, which will probably mostly be tabletop RPGs.1

I’m going to try to post at least once a fortnight2, I think, and hopefully more often than that. I’m probably going to mostly use it as a place for organise my RPG-related ideas in a chronological and semi-coherent fashion.  I’ll possibly record thoughts about other topics here as well, and maybe use it as a journal of interesting facts etc.

1 There may be footnotes
2 Interesting fact: Apparently the word fortnight comes from the Old English fēowertyne niht meaning fourteen nights, according to:

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