Part I - Roundtable: Setting
Part II - Roundtable: StoryOk, so you have a setting and a story. All you have to do is populate it with characters. How does this step work? What rules if any do you follow? Templates? Do you have a dedicated "setting support" group of characters who flesh out and explain the setting? If yes, how does that work? Also, how do you turn a cardboard cut-out or a vague concept (we could really use a ninja-pirate here!) into a memorable and "real" character who has a potential to launch his own merchandise line?
* * *Chris Avellone
Well, back to theme and design constraints – the characters in this world need to reinforce the theme and the game mechanic experience you’re trying to deliver to the player. In Alpha Protocol, there are a number of character archetypes the player can encounter that are hallmarks and reinforce the tension and drama of the espionage genre… and make the player feel the theme all the more. In Planescape, most characters were designed to test the player’s alignment and encourage him to explore and learn more about himself by trying to figure out what people he had interacted with before – and what kind of person(s) he was before. In Knights of the Old Republic II, a number of characters in the game have pretty strong opinions about the premise behind the Force – they think it sucks. So we made characters that explore that theme. Kreia has strong opinions about the Force, and she has a reason why she thinks it sucks. The PC also has had an experience with the Force sucking, so you make that part of the PC's backstory, but let the player come to grips with how they feel about the whole situation – all the while giving them a series of characters that either mirror or act as sounding board for the player’s struggles. Have them echo the theme in their own way, from their own perspective.
In addition, characters need to be “smart.” This may be a stupid thing to say, but their motivations need to be presented in such a way that the player can be surprised by their independence but at the same time, it makes perfect sense to them while the character is behaving the way they should – it makes them start questioning and paying attention to the characters in the world rather than taking them for granted as caricatures of quest-givers and info merchants.
Also, each character should have a simple one sentence theme that if you described it to someone, they’d be curious to know more about that character. For example, “this character is a chaste succubus.” Or “a floating undead encyclopedia.” Once you have that one sentence hook, you flesh out the character around that by asking questions. For the chaste succubus… why is she that way? What would cause her to deny everything that’s considered the nature of a succubus? And how do we turn that around to the player’s theme… does turning away from her own nature cause her any internal emotional torment? Has she had to question her own nature and then decide on a course of action that she thinks is better for her lifepath? Does she have any regrets about it? If the player is facing these kinds of struggles as well, then she becomes a sounding board for the player’s own thoughts on the matter. Of course, one could argue that the narrative designer in that case (me), also simply thought that traveling with a chaste succubus as a party member would be kind of cool. Not to mention the high level of sexual tension such a situation could cause. But I digress.
Also (and I swear, this is the last “also”), there should be a game system present in interacting with characters – interactions should be another game system in the world with its own consequences. Part of this was the reason we started developing the influence system through Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and the Neverwinter Nights 2 series… we wanted to make the player’s evaluation of the NPC’s personality and their respect for the PC to be part of the system, with effects that translated into their morale and performance in the game. We’re carrying through with a similar system in Alpha Protocol, but it’s more tailored to the espionage aspects, and we’re pretty excited about it.
* * *Josh Sawyer
I actually think that many of the characters come up during the development of the setting, often even before their role in a story is conceived. They have to be the personification of the themes of the setting, have to express all of those ideas through how they look, how they speak, and how they behave. With support characters, I try to avoid pastiche by giving the characters opportunity to express ideas or idiosyncrasies that are contrary to the tropes typically associated with their "type". At the same time, I think it can be counterproductive or damaging to throw out everything associated with the players' expectations. You can have an elf that acts nothing like an elf and looks nothing like an elf, but... why did you make the character an elf in the first place? This can apply as easily to "real-world" settings as fantasy settings. E.g. you have a French-Canadian character who swears a lot, spewing out litanies of "sacres" when he is upset. Okay, a lot of people would say that's not particularly unusual (sorry if that offends any of the Québécois out there). But make him a former R&D engineer turned pilot. And make him highly moral, but an enormous asshole. You can start to layer on a interesting mix of traits that doesn't seem different for the sake of being different, but complex enough that the player wants to learn more about the character as the story unfolds. Of course, characters really need sounding boards to express themselves, and that can come from the player's character or from other people close to the player's character. These characters can give each other the appropriate opportunities needed to express who they are within the context of the story.
* * *Kevin Saunders
I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this much myself – not at a game- or IP-wide level, so I don’t have an established procedure. I’d approach it the way I attack many aspects of game design and development: through iteration. Come up with some characters you like, start to flesh them out, see how they fit with the setting, modify them to better work with the world and each other, cut and combine those who are too similar, add new characters to fill in “gaps.” Things like that.
It’s important to make sure that each character is distinct and that each serves a purpose. Each character should have a “hook” – something that makes them stand out. Develop a voice for each – some sample lines and quotations that help define what they’re like. Brian Mitsoda and George Ziets both wrote one-liners for how characters felt about the other major characters in the game and I think this is a great way to develop the characters and their relationships. One designer told me that they’d make up MySpace accounts (not necessarily actual accounts – more like: if this character had a MySpace account, what would it look like) to help them think about the characters in different ways.
One thing George pointed out to me that struck me as important is that there’s a big difference between a quest giver type character and a companion. The quest giver is much easier to develop and write as they can largely be a one-sided character. They need to feel real and believable in the context of a specific setting and situation. The companion who is with you throughout the entire game has to have more facets, more depth, or they won’t come across as believable. In some games, even these more prominent characters will be one-sided and I think the game suffers. Kaelyn from Mask of the Betrayer (written by Chris Avellone) is a great example of a distinct yet deep character (and superbly voiced by Catherine O’Connor).
More experienced character writers might have better established procedures, but for me it would be a lot of trial and error, a lot of iteration.
* * *George Ziets
Character development is a pretty organic process, and it almost never happens in one fell swoop – not for me, anyway. Characters emerge gradually, as design documents are created, as I’m writing their dialogue, or as I’m musing about them over breakfast. In initial documents, they’re usually nothing more than a name and a role in the story – and then they flesh themselves out (as quests, setting, and other characters are developed), a little at a time. By the time I’m sitting down to write their dialogue, I often know a good deal about them… but not always.
Having said that, however, here are a few methods I’ve used to develop characters that are (hopefully!) interesting.
1) A lot of times, characters arise from the needs of the story. Many of my characters are designed to represent a particular point of view – of the PC, the storyline, the setting, or the theme. Once I have a good idea of a character’s opinions and point of view, it’s relatively easy to find that character’s voice, and to develop more details about him or her. Often, the finer details (the ones that really make a character memorable) arise while writing the dialogue.
As a very simple example for those who‘ve played Mask of the Betrayer: in the early design documents, I knew I needed a couple of witches in the main town (Mulsantir), who would each represent a different viewpoint about the player’s curse. I figured that the player’s main contact should be the most even-handed and experienced of the lot – deeply suspicious, but willing to give the player a chance to prove that he wasn’t completely vile. To play off the even-handed leader, I needed another witch who’d hate the player no matter what he did – it’s always good to have an antagonistic character to maintain tension in a scene. And I’d round out the lot with an innocent, naïve witch who wouldn’t know what to make of the player. Thus were born Sheva, Kazimika, and Katya.
2) Some characters – especially minor ones – emerge through their relationships to other characters. For example, to liven up a scene, I might need a character who will play off a more important NPC. The results could be comic or serious, but it creates dynamism in the scene, and it often leads to the emergence of unexpected minor characters… and a better understanding of the more important NPC. Personally, I find it easier to write scenes with multiple characters who play off one another than writing a single character alone, so this technique can be very helpful.
3) For major characters – companions, for example – I’ll usually write a long background document, detailing the character’s backstory, role in the plot, likes, dislikes, family, friends, etc. Included would be some sample dialogue, which gives me a sense of how the character should sound. A lot of this stuff may never be used, and even the dialogue may change, but I think this approach is needed for crucial, story-centric characters, especially if I know that multiple designers may end up working on that character’s dialogue.
It’s worth remembering, too, that a character should only be as complicated and multi-dimensional as he or she needs to be. I don’t find it productive to write long backstories for shopkeepers or minor quest NPCs – sometimes, a single trait or two will be enough to make them entertaining.
* * *David Gaider
These are a lot of different questions. I think I'll tackle the last, since that's what I do most often. Short of making a character able to launch his own merchandise line (you can never tell which character is going to hit that kind of chord -- honestly, I wrote HK-47 as a one-note hoot and never really thought much about him, yet somehow he just seemed to click for a lot of people. Go figure, right?) turning one from a cardboard cut-out into a memorable character isn't always easy. If I had to offer advice to a fellow writer? I would say give them one thing -- give them one aspect and punch it up as much as you can. If they are distrustful, then make that VERY distrustful. If they are quirky, then make that VERY quirky. This will work for small characters that don't get much "screen time". Subtlety won't do much for them, whereas with larger characters you have room for some nuance.
Does that sound formulaic? You used that word in the last question, and I suppose there's always a process involved even if we don't like to associate something as mechanical as a formula with a creative endeavour. I suppose the only thing I have to say regarding that is that a formula should only be treated as a good place to start. From there you want to start selecting your moments to tread some new ground, successfully or not. Stick to the formula too closely and the mechanics are going to start to show -- if that new writer took my advice too literally and made every single minor character show some extreme characteristic it could start to get a bit cartoonish. So, yes, you need to use your judgement, but an established process definitely helps get you going. Especially if you regularly are handed projects with hundreds of characters to write (if not more).
* * *Alan Miranda
When I typically think about main characters at the start of the story process, they aren’t cardboard, but they do have a very limited amount of depth and background. Those aspects are fleshed out by our writers, and you’ll have to see what they say about character writing below since they’re the ones who bring our characters to life.
* * *Luke Scull
A setting should be shown and not told, so characters standing around purely for the purpose of explaining the setting is a bad idea. Dialogue between NPCs can work wonders for imparting information to the player without a clumsy and mechanical list of questions. In Mysteries of Westgate, for example, we have an encounter almost from the start that shows exactly what kind of city the place is.
With any character, it's vital to have an interesting personality to match the wacky concept. Making an NPC some bizarre, racial hybrid can often be used as a crutch for a lack of character. It doesn't help that it's very difficult for the player to relate to, say, a half-solar/half-dragon. The best characters always have something a player can relate to and empathize with. Even if they have inhuman personalities, give them understandable goals and motivations.
Character growth should be organic and believable. Show it through their actions and the opinions of others rather than stale back-and-forth exchanges between the character and the player. Nobody really shares their history and personality in convenient bite-sized chunks. As with setting information, it's more effective to share this information naturally than with awkward question-and-answer sessions.
* * *Mat Jobe
3) Major characters are so intertwined with the story that it's hard to even talk about them separately. Pretty much everything that happens in Mysteries of Westgate, for example, is driven by characters behaving in a way that typifies their personality. In other words, the story wouldn't even exist if the characters hadn't been thoroughly fleshed out beforehand. For these characters, there's not really a consistent process. Sometimes you imagine a character and that drives the story; other times you imagine a story and that dictates the personality of the character.
For minor characters who are part of the story, I usually just think about the role they're serving. Is this a serious moment in the story, calling for a serious character? Or is it an appropriate time for comic relief? The story really dictates the personality of the character. Sometimes it's not even appropriate to give a character a memorable personality, as it would detract from a larger goal you're trying to accomplish at that point in the game.
Of course, for the remaining characters that fill out the game world -- and I suspect this may be what the question is really getting at -- it's pretty wide open. I usually start with the character's occupation and imagine what sort of person would be doing what they're doing. If it's a common role seen over and over again in CRPGs, I usually try to put a unique spin on it. For these types of characters, humor works really well.
* * *Russ Davis
3) I’m going to take this to mean ambient characters who have little, if anything, to do with the main story, as the characters that actually do have something to do with the core path are planned out at the same time as the critical path is. That said, I’m afraid my answer is going to mimic my last one in that I try to get into the game world and think what kind of characters would be in each locale. That suggests the initial concepts. The kinds and numbers of characters you’d expect to find in a forest is obviously different than what you’d expect in downtown Westgate.
In general, I’m not fond of data dumps. I don’t like to have one or two characters whose purpose is just to be a setting encyclopedia. I think it’s much better if you have a good personal knowledge of the background of your setting so that you can frame your characters within the setting, allowing them to only state the information they would know. I also often use Lore checks in cases where the character (to be differentiated from the player) might already know something so that when it comes up in conversation, I can write an additional “thought node” that further explains things. Finally, I’m fond of writing dialogs for environmental objects like paintings or statues that may have signs or plaques that give small details. In this way, the setting information trickles out in a believable way. All this is probably easier to explain by example.
My last solo mod (the last in a series) was set partially in Cormyr, an area rich in Realmslore. In my initial scene-set, the protagonist explained the objective the player was going to try to achieve. At one point, he said, “the military situation has degraded without any king to speak of.” If the character had a high enough Lore skill, I flashed a conversation node that let the player know that the character had heard of events in Cormyr: namely that the old king (Azoun IV) had died, leaving a child on the throne. Without passing the Lore check, no such information flashed, though the player could then ask, if they so chose, what the protagonist was talking about. At another point, the player could overhear a conversation between two characters in which one growled that Vangerdahast had gone and that Caladnei was a weak replacement. The context of the conversation let the player know that the former was the very powerful head of the Cormyrian War Wizards. There was also a Lore check attached that could lead to additional information. One line in a conversation gave the detail I wanted at exactly the point it was relevant to the story without banging the player on the head with a mallet.
Finally, I’m perfectly fine with having some of these extraneous characters just be cardboard cutouts. Not everybody needs to sell a merchandise line; they just all need to serve their purpose. Sometimes just having a generic cardboard beggar or mugger stresses the right aspect of the setting I want to.
* * *Jeff Vogel
I start big and go down. I make the whole world and plot in a vague way. Then I break it into chapters and populate those chapters with major characters. All of this is on paper before I do any development. Then I make game sections one at a time, filling them with minor plot lines and characters as I go.
* * *Thomas Riegsecker
This is a good question in that I think some RPGs put a greater emphasis on NPCs than others. Looking back, games like the early Ultima and Might & Magic games had NPCs with very limited personality; Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder essentially had no NPCs at all. My point to this observation is that NPCs are just a small part of a game; exploration, character development, quests and goals, combat and puzzles are all equally critical in providing the overall role-playing experience. In fact, based on these examples you can obviously have a deep role-playing experience without any NPC interaction at all, yet removing any of the other aforementioned elements would seriously impact the enjoyment factor of an RPG.
Having said that, NPCs can certainly be important to an RPG. They make cities come to life and can add emotional content to the storyline. The games we design begin with an essential cast of NPCs complete with a basic set of traits, but their personalities may not be completely apparent to us until we design the location where they will be placed. It's easy to say that in this shop works a "cantankerous old blacksmith", but it isn't until after you design the shop itself that you see why he may be grumpy. Perhaps it's the smallest shop in town, or it's away from the main street, near the sewers, or has a leaky roof and moldy walls. These are important elements in shaping his dialog, personality and even what quests we may have this NPC give the player.
* * *Jay Barnson
Wow, if you get a really good answer to this one, please let me know, because I'd love to hear it.
But my real answer is to give the player a hook, and leave the rest to his or her imagination.
By way of explanation, I submit Boba Fett. Boba Fett, for a short period of time, was really, really cool. He had all of one line in The Empire Strikes Back, but Star Wars geeks loved him. He was a total fill-in-the-blank character, and once those blanks started getting filled in with the second trilogy, he lost most of his coolness.
I feel that our role as storytellers in computer games is different on many levels from that of traditional, linear storytellers. And a big part of our job is actually to engage the player and encourage them to bring their own storytelling, their own imagination, to the table.
* * *Jason Compton
For our cast of joinable NPCs, as well as for the primary antagonist, one of the very first things we did was make up a list of behaviors and goals that the characters would value and those they would disdain, from a list of something like two dozen aspects. This helps not only with the mechanics of "when will NPCs complain about your behavior" but also with the development of their comments, their interactions with one another, the types of dreams and skeletons they may be hiding, and so forth.
Past that, we run dangerously close to "Where do you get your ideas from?" territory—sometimes these things Just Happen. Some of the more memorable character traits I have created over the years have come from coincidence or subconscious repetition rather than a clever plan. Or sometimes there's a single hook which, halfway through the dialogue design, ends up producing an interesting angle, so you end up going back and updating the earlier material to suit.
As we develop plot outlines and support characters, a lot of the process is addition by subtraction. Being alert for problems of leaning too heavily on genre stereotypes like drunks, pushy wives, shining-armor avengers, and so forth helps—people have other problems, other motivations, other relationship problems, etc. Remembering that being "non-evil" does not mean that you cannot be deceptive or lie. Remembering that characters don't have to exist simply in "pre-quest, during-quest, and after-quest" states—so far I've stumbled into two interesting later uses for a Cella caravan leader who is already at the heart of a meaty little quest, simply because she pops into my head as I'm designing quest resolutions or pondering ways the PC can spend a little quality time with someone.
* * *Gareth Fouche, lead designer on Scars of War
Well, if I have a setting and a storyline then I probably already have the major characters. I'm a strong believer in "build your story around your characters rather than your characters around your story". But I should probably mention at this point that I consider factions, power groups, even kingdoms themselves to be a form of meta-character. They too have histories, personalities, motivations and opinions. I have design documents on all the factions, nations, power groups and characters in my world; and all of those documents share a similar format. I write up descriptions on their history, their goals, how they operate and what motivates them. I describe what their current circumstances are and their opinions on other "characters" if any. I write up little pieces of flavour, quirks, mannerisms. And I try to describe what their future path will look like. This last part tends to describe possible branches, especially for the main players in the plot. If event X happens then they will respond in this manner, if they achieve goal Y then they will be able to complete their plan for Z, etc.
As I go about this process I weave these characters into the greater pattern of the narrative. In fact this is a two-way process. The narrative will affect the characters, suggesting actions and events they can participate in. But they in turn will affect the narrative itself. Their personalities and motivations will suggest alterations and new outcomes to the plot. Story elements that may have been vague become much more defined and concrete as I work the characters into the pattern. Overall it is a pretty organic process, a growing in all directions rather than along one single path.
In terms or rules, well, I have explained the template description I write up about each of my characters/meta-characters. The only real rule I have is that characters must have those details filled in. It seems a simple enough thing but too often characters in RPGs seem to be flat, two dimensional. Existing only to further a plot point. By fleshing out those background details you are forced to give the character some sembalance of life. Characters aren't motivated by "serve as a plot hook for the player" so having to sit down and think about decent reasons as to why a character would be doing something helps you to bring them to life when the player interacts with them, avoiding that sense of artificiality.
Since characters are, in a sense, my setting, I don't focus on building a dedicated group of support characters to explain the setting, the revelation of such details should occur naturally, the player learning about the setting through interacting with the characters and observing the way those characters interact with each other.
As to launching a merchandise line, well, I can't really tell you how to achieve that. I think it is rare to find a complex character that is truely brandable. Simple, clear, easily categorised characters are the most marketable I think. The kind who you can look at and instantly know who they are and what they are all about. However, if a line of action figures is not your primary goal then I'd say the best way to create memorable characters is to focus on creating a real being with realistic motivations outside of the plot capacity they serve. While creating compelling and interesting characters is as much an art as a science, simply forcing yourself to think about these details will help you in your goal of creating believable NPCs.
If that fails then just give the character a wicked-ass, glowing sword. Everyone loves swords. You don't need depth of personality if you have a cool sword.
* * *Michal Madej, lead designer on The Witcher
Our case shows how important and helpful it can be to acquire a good license. I encourage every developer to use existing settings, as they provide a wide area of proven ideas, characters, stories and background. In our case the characters, in particular, were outstanding and unique - foremost the witcher, Geralt of Rivia. The majority of our NPCs were taken from books, and we created new ones only in specific cases. For example, if a character was going to die, we would invent a new one, as we didn't want to modify Sapkowski's world and enrage his fans. This also applied if the character was going to change his role in a revolutionary way - for example, a good friend was turning into a traitor and villain. In those two cases we decided to create our own NPC, and we always tried to imitate the original way of creating a character, as Sapkowski invented. This resulted in a variety of very charismatic and memorable characters.
It's not a problem to make an "epic level hero;" it's much more difficult to make people believe he is real. Our method is simple yet unseen in most fantasy or SF games. If you have a NPC, let’s take a druid healer, try to imagine that it's a character from a TV series, like "ER" or something, with all problems they usually have. Immediately it changes all problems from epic – but hard to believe – into more earthly and everyday issues. That trick makes the character much more believable, as we can more easily identify with a guy who is afraid of losing his job than with a one that saves the world by carrying a ring into some volcano.
* * *Leonard Boyarsky
After the ninja pirates (which are mandatory in any game wishing to be taken seriously), I would have to say that the characters are mainly suggested by the intersection of the story and the details of your setting. Any believable world has an in depth history, whether it is exposed to the player or not, and believable and intriguing characters suggest themselves just from looking at the setting and the story you're trying to tell. If you know your world, the people's attitudes, the different cultures that live there, etc, etc, then characters will evolve to fit your needs and you really don't need to search for them.
Also, anyone who reads, watches movies, or just generally absorbs stories from the world around us usually has a wealth of characters just waiting to get a chance to escape from their brains, whether they know it or not. And one of the great things about game development is that there are always side quests for those characters you're just dying to put into a game somewhere, even if they don't fit into the main story line – and sometimes, it is better that way. You can make side quests and sub plots all about a fascinating character without it overshadowing the themes of the main story arc. Of course, the more your side characters (and main characters) mirror the themes you're developing in the game the better, but sometimes it's more fun to just cut loose first and revise later.
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