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Once the general plot of a game has been defined I create a list of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) who might be important in the game and define their relationships and the scenario’s main areas of conflict.
I should probably mention a little conceit I work into my pulp games. Because role playing usually involves teams of heroes I have invented an umbrella organization to which they belong and which can be trotted out when I need a convenient reason to get them involved in a story. The League of Adventure seekers is a loose affiliation of adventurers who join together in the pursuit of adventure. Most of the time the organization leaves its members to follow the siren call of adventure wherever it may lead, but occasionally it will asks its members to intervene in a particularly threatening situation.
The NPC List
Okay, the first thing I do after the plot has been defined is I begin by looking through the plot outline and figuring out what characters I will need and giving them names and a role. I also include any notes regarding significant relationships between them.
- Heroes friend, Tegan Rodriguez (Socialite and wife of Martin)
- Heroes friend, Martin Rodriguez (Industrialist and husband of Tegan)
- Adventuress and Aviatrix, Miriam Ribbensberg (president of the League of Adventure Seekers)
- Psychic, Marianne Ribbensberg (Sister to Miriam)
- Detective, Tony Wells (honest cop and secret supporter of the League)
- Police Commissioner, Walter Doogan (opposed to vigilantism)
- Ace Reporter, Claire Templeton (opposed to vigilantism)
- Mob Boss, Jerry Falcone (opposed to drug trade)
- Falcone Cappo, Tommy Boscone (Ambitious lieutenant to Jerry and spurned suitor of Jocelyn)
- Falcone Socialite, Jocelyn Falcone (daughter of Jerry)
- Mob Boss, Eadie Tremere (Inherited the crime business from dead husband)
- Tremere heir apparent, Marco Tremere (son of Eadie)
- Tremere Cappo, Dillon Tremere (Jealous brother of Eadie – bitter that control went to Eadie instead of him)
- Tremere Thug, Cinqo Tavolli (ex-member of the Falcone criminal gang – now sycophantically working for the Tremeres)
- Medical Examiner, Theo Tyrone
- Mob Boss, Caesar Cordova (New comer but growing in power. Avoids turf wars and has an interest in maintaining the status quo – for now)
- Mayor, Frank wright (corrupt politician owned by the Falcones)
- Arch-Villain, Lt. John Whistler – alias The TECHNO-MASTER
The initial list is only a starting point I expect it will grow as I work through the process of creating a scenario. I also try to state a goal for each character.
I also identify any groups that these characters belong to. These will be factions (of lesser or greater importance) and will help define the political backdrop to the game. Determining what the goals of the factions are helps define the points of conflict in the game.
At the moment the factions represented seem to include
- The League of Adventure Seekers
- High Society (including the adventurer’s friends)
- City Hall (Mayor’s office, Police, Coroner’s office etc)
- The Crime Families
- The Falcones
- The Tremeres
- The Cordovas
- The Press
Once I have this basic list determined I look for the central conflict of the scenario. Some scenarios have more than one, but usually there is a central conflict around which the story revolves (eg. rescue the townsfolk, kill the monster etc). Sometimes there are some minor conflicts that are worth noting as well.
In the case of our example plot, the central conflict surrounds gaining sole control of the city’s crime businesses. A secondary area of conflict lies between the authorities and the league with regard to the exercise of vigilantism.
As is true for the development of fiction, a good understanding of the NPCs, their goals, and (most importantly from a plot point of view) their conflicts, is crucial to the development of a good game. A couple of tools really help me out here. The first is the relationship chart, the second is the relationship map, and the last is the conflict map. I first came across these tools in an online video blog (which I have since been unable to locate and so, can’t provide a reference for) but have seen it turn up in a number of different rule sets (including the surprisingly good Smallville RPG – not my favorite system but with some really useful ideas).
The Relationship Chart
To create the relationship chart I list all the NPCs along the top of the chart and then down the side. At each intersecting point I put a sentence reflecting the view held by the name at the top of the column regarding the name at the left of the row. Any instersection between characters who don’t know each other or don’t have a strong opinion of one another is left blank (as is the character’s view of him/herself). I rarely use this anymore, but in the early days I found it very helpful.
As an example Jerry Falcone has this to say about Eadie Tremere; “She’s an evil witch. Her husband knew the rules. She thinks she can do whatever she wants.”
By putting a sentence in the mouth of the characters I get a feel not just for their relationship to one another but also how they think and express themselves.
Personally I find using a spreadsheet can make this easier, but a big piece of paper works just as well.
Attached is the completed Relationship Chart (pdf 80.3kb).
The Relationship Map
These days I tend to rely on a tool called a relationship map for defining the relationships between the characters.
I begin by placing the primary relationships on show. Usually these are the League and the antagonist. It is rarely the case that the relationship between the heroes and the villain is direct. More often than not it is mediated through other NPCs. In the plot outline above, the villain launches an attack on the president of the League of adventure seekers and kidnaps the heroes’ friends, thereby creating a series of events that leads to the game’s conclusion.
I represent individuals with circles and connect them with arrows which I label to reflect the nature of the relationship.
I generally group related individuals together into factions by drawing a shape around them. In the above case, it is the League of Adventure Seekers.
Next, lets add the individuals kidnapped by our villain, the Techno-Master.
Now we’ll group them as members of High Society.
Detective Tony Wells informs the heroes of the kidnappings so lets add him and his relationships.
This grouping of relationships belongs to City Hall.
The Falcone crime family can be added next, followed by the other two crime families.
Note that the addition of new elements to the map creates links back to existing elements (such as Jerry Falcone’s proprietary relationship with the Mayor, Frank Wright).
The competing crime families can be grouped together as well or taken separately. As you can see I try to use color to link members of groups within groups.
You can also see how I represent overlaps between groups (in this case between the high society individuals Jocelyn and Marco and their respective criminal families).
Finally we’ll add Claire Templeton, investigative reporter (and at this point the sole representative of the Press as a faction) to complete the map.
When I’m creating a relationship map I find it helpful to use Powerpoint (as I can move the nodes around while keeping the lines etc in place to find the best fit, but paper and pencil will work just fine.
The Conflict Map
As well as the relationship map I find it helpful to create a conflict map to clarify the major lines of conflict in the game. Without conflict there is no adventure so its important to have the conflict clear in my head.
First I mark out the primary conflict between the heroes and the villain.
I start by placing the thing that the various factions in the game are fighting over in a circle in the center and define the heroes and the villains relationship to it.
I then add any other factions who have an interest in this thing.
Finally I add any minor conflicts to the mix and the conflict map is complete.
I have friends who can easily run a really cool game just on the basis of a relationship map and/or conflict map. I’ve never been able to run a good game without adding a few more steps myself – and that’s what we’ll explore in the next post.