I guess I should start out by apologizing for it taking me more than 2 months to get back to this. Life has been very busy and then there was writers block… I also feel a bit weird about writing these things when I’m currently on a hiatus from LARPing. I *did* renew my membership so that counts for something, right? The thing is that in my continued unemployment I’ve been pushing hard on getting my jewelry and accessories business going online at Artfire (see side bar for a link). At any rate it’s well past time to be getting back to this and I will try not to take so long to do part three.
Our actual subject for today is making good one-off/NPC/short term characters for a game setting for which you are unfamiliar (be it LARP or Tabletop). The very first key to success is to find a good bunch of people to game with – people you can feel comfortable with. If the group is entirely new to you then be honest and come right out and say you’re new to the game and the setting and may need some help. How they react will tell you if this group is for you. Are they helpful? Do their character ideas seem interesting to you? Are they patient? If you answered no to any of these questions then this may not be the right group for you. If you answered no to 2 or more of these questions then run, don’t walk, in the other direction and find a new and better group! Any group worth your time and effort will be willing to give some of theirs to help you get started. That said, if it’s a large group of people and you’ve only talked to a few then you may want to talk to at least a few more before making a decision. Also, if you are looking for help at a game, then arrive early if you need/want help unless you have made arrangements in advance.
Start with the storyteller. Let them know what your concerns are and ask them for their suggestions. This is exactly what I did with the Marvel game I was invited to join. I never read comics in my youth. I like the super hero TV shows and movies but they are far from the same as years of reading comics and, really, only a small number of comic characters actually end up being portrayed on shows or movies. It turned out the storyteller had a number of pre-generated characters that he said I could look at and that if any caught my eye I could play them or he’d help me create a new character if I preferred. One of his characters was Warbird – she can fly and shoot poison quills: SOLD! This storyteller/GM had also written a certain amount of back history and background for this character that was helpful for me to start figuring out how to play her. Am I playing her true to character in the comic books? I haven’t got a clue. The storyteller said he likes how I’m playing her and my fellow gamers seem to be happy so it’s all good. I don’t get all the references and sometimes have to stop and ask the story teller to give me a brief explanation. The first few games I would check in about if what I was doing was “right” and he finally got it through my head that this was about me making the character my own, having fun, and contributing to the game in a positive way so I don’t sweat it any more.
What about one-off games? Sometimes I have an easier time than others coming up with character ideas. My first strategy is to get at least a thumbnail sketch of the setting we’ll be in if I’m not already familiar with it. We once played a Firefly one-off that was easy because I’m very familiar with the series. On another occasion our evening’s game was a ‘Don’t Rest Your Head’ game – which I had never played before. The storyteller/GM gave us all a general run-down of the game premise. For those who have not played it’s basically a horror RPG. Your character has some thing happen that causes a psychological break which they are running from and in their panic some “power” reveals itself that leads them to ‘crazy town’. I’m not sure that’s the best explanation but should give you a general idea. I have always been a bit weirded out by pictures/posters where I feel like the people in them are looking at me. It’s not a button pushing phobia – it’s just something I find vaguely creepy or discomforting. I’m not going to go into why that might be – because that’s not the point. I drew on that as something I could build a character around for the game that would be creepy but would not be a give me nightmares level of creepy. So I decided my character was a painter and her psychological break happened when the figures in her paintings started to move and talk to her. Her power, in relation to that, was that she could paint or draw things that become real. She could, for example, draw a door and then open it.
For an NPC type of character the things I want to know from a storyteller/GM (and will ask about if need be) are things like what my goals are for the evening. When possible, I try to know in advance if I’ll be playing an NPC and get an idea of the character so I know how to dress for it. I have done this several times for special LARP games. For one of the games a friend and I worked up dance performances because our NPC’s were part of a traveling show. We worked on the plot points between performances.
I’m going to break for a moment to remind storytellers/GM’s that when people go out of their way to be good NPC’s, to add to the atmosphere of the game, and to make it as enjoyable as possible for the other players – it’s very important to express your thanks and encourage others to thank them. My friend and I worked up costumes, performances, worked out our character relationships, and stayed in character all night – working our asses off and hauling a lot of props with us in the process. While we had a great time doing this we did not get so much as a “thank you” at the end of the night – which was very disappointing and left a bad taste in our mouths. I’ve had this happen more than once. If you want good NPC’s then for give them some appreciation for their efforts!
My other advice for storytellers/GM’s is to give your NPC’s some direction of how you want them to be or react to things that happen in game if you have a grand plan for how things should go down. I once played an NPC for several games and so had time to research the characters powers and abilities. In the absence of clear instructions I quite clearly surprised him by having my character do a smart defensive move rather than just standing there until I was killed – which is apparently what he expected. I was in the NPC penalty box for an hour until he finally just narrated her being killed. Again, no thank you and I got the distinct impression he was irritated with me. Well gee – sorry – but players can only do their best and can’t generally divine from the air what you want. Give your NPC’s some direction if you want a specific result!
Sometimes people make an NPC attached to a character in order to try out a LARP game. I highly recommend playing an NPC of some sort rather than just observing at a LARP game. Observing can be terribly boring. I can see where being a storyteller NPC may seem a bit daunting. If it is, then I would ask the storyteller/GM if they know anyone who has a character you could be an NPC for. You could be a retainer of theirs, a visiting friends, a lackey, the child of a friend, etc and so forth. Some people have done this for a game or two and then either made that NPC into an actual PC or just played it until they felt comfortable enough to create their own PC. This way you get into the game and get introduced around right away. It’s really a more fun way to try out a LARP game and I highly recommend it.
For this type of short term character the main things I try to figure out before starting are why they are there and what their goal is for the evening. Keep it simple. You don’t want to get bogged down in the details for a one night game. When I know why they are there this gives me ideas about who they are and a little background to play off of. The goal gives me ideas for what I should do in game. If you aren’t playing an NPC for a storyteller (which usually comes with a goal attached), figure out one on your own. It can be as simple as surviving the evening without your character being killed or offending anyone. You could try to meet x number of people or try to get into a conversation with x character at some point. It could be to try to get some specific piece of information. Maybe it’s to identify who all the important figures are in the local setting. It’s up to you. A goal will help to guide you in your role play and keep you from being bored.
If you find yourself in a role play challenge with another player then call over the storyteller to help walk you through it. Do not let a player just tell you what happens if they are not a storyteller. Explain to the storyteller that you’re not familiar with the rules and need some help. They should help you or designate a 3rd party to help you. Most players are honest but I got steam rollered a few times by players who knew I didn’t know the rules and didn’t like who I came into the game with. It’s meta-gaming and not okay. Sometimes players take the game too seriously and it’s the storyteller’s job to intervene so all can have an enjoyable time.
Hopefully, what I’ve written here will be helpful to players who are contemplating a game/setting they are not familiar with. A gaming group that wants to grow, expand, and otherwise have an enjoyable game should be willing to help new players jump in and start playing. I have been unfamiliar with the settings of most of the RPG’s and LARP’s I’ve played at some point or another. I’ve learned to be less intimidated and have mostly had a great time with it. In the final section of this series I’ll go into more detail about making a well rounded character for a long term RPG/LARP campaign in an unfamiliar setting.