Providing Ammunition for Your Game Master
First published 9/16/2002; last edited 1/11/2005
When people write up backgrounds for their characters, they often don't stop to think about what their game master (GM) would particularly like to know. There are certain things that can, in the space of just a paragraph or two, give your GM plot hooks, ways to pass information to your character, and the means to turn what would otherwise be an ordinary plot into something stunning, emotional, and personally compelling. Here, then, is a list of things you could include in your character write-up. Some of them could be considered ammunition for the GM to use against your character - but then, how better to have a tense and exciting game? There's no need to use all of these; pick one or two that appeal to you and enjoy!
#1. Daily Schedule
By providing something of a schedule for your character detailing where she goes, what she does, and when, your GM will have a better idea how he can get information to you and have other things happen. If he knows your character goes to the gym, then someone trying to spy on her can go through her locker. If he knows she goes to Church every Sunday, he can have a significant event happen to her on her way to or from services. If he knows she reads the newspaper every day, then he can more easily slip news and clues in via that route.
Besides, working up a quick schedule for your character can, oddly, help you to get a better handle on her personality. Does she always sleep through her alarm and go to work late? Is she a night-owl? Does she go out with friends, or stay at home reading? You don't always have to keep to that schedule during game; just remember to tell the GM when you deviate from it significantly. You also don't have to give exact times for everything. "Reads the newspaper every morning" should be good enough.
Schedule details should fulfill two criteria:
- They're minor enough that it's plausible that they might not put in an appearance in the game before the moment at which the GM wants or needs to use them.
- They're familiar enough to the character that they don't come across as a deus ex machina or as overly suspicious.
Creating a schedule for your character acts much like the tricks we recommend in our old article, "If you don't know what to do, go for a walk," except that you don't have to specify what you do each time. You also give the GM the chance to plan things out in advance.
#1b. Media Bias
A wonderful related note to hand your GM is a quick break-down of which news sources your character gets her information from. Some people watch the nightly news. Some people read the daily paper. Others read the tabloids. A character might have a favorite conspiracy theorist magazine they like, a subscription to "New Scientist," or even subscriptions to trade journals. Different information sources have different editorial biases or spins, providing a golden opportunity to slip information into the game - true, suspect, and blatantly false, depending on the bias of the writer.
#1c. Familiar Faces
Familiar faces aren't people you know well enough to call them contacts, but if the GM wants a new face to exploit for a purpose, they're easy to pull into the role. This could be a cashier at the supermarket, the proprietor of your character's favorite small bakery, or her cat's veterinarian. If the cashier recommended a particular kind of produce your character would give it a look; if the bakery man needed a hand hauling a cart-load of stuff out to his car for delivery, she'd pitch in. If she saw the veterinarian at the store, she'd probably stop to say hi.
The difference between them and total strangers is that if they give you a tip, gentle warning, or reminder, you know them just well enough to not immediately suspect them of having appeared out of nowhere to set you up. Other examples might be a doorman at an apartment where the characters live, a friendly fellow guild-member in a guild, or one of the personal trainers at a health club.
Familiar faces are listed under daily schedule instead of friends and acquaintances because your character has probably met most of these people simply by going through her daily routine.
NOTE TO GMs: If you don't want info from one of these familiar faces to seem too suspicious, it can also help to have them put in occasional one-line appearances, even if it's jut the waitress warning the characters not to have the soup today. That way, when they do have a clue to slip in, it won't seem as though there's a neon "PLOT HOOK HERE!" sign flashing over their heads.
#2. Goals & Drives
Knowing your character's goals and drives is useful to you as well as your GM. When you write out these things before the game, it helps you to see whether your character has enough ambition, curiosity, responsibility, or specific interests to draw her into the game's events. If you try to write out her goals and drives and find out that she really doesn't have any, then you know you'll probably have trouble getting involved in plots! Time to work something your character cares about into her background.
Writing these things out also provides easy plot hooks for your GM. If he knows your character has a goal of eliminating all the members of a certain conspiracy, then all he has to do to get you into a plot is to hint that the conspiracy might be involved. (It also serves as a nice reminder to him that he might want to work that conspiracy into his game in order to play with your personal plots.) He can glance at your list of drives and goals and know pretty much immediately whether your character will fit in with the sort of campaign he imagines, giving him a chance to have you change things, or to alter his campaign's direction a bit. Comparing drives and goals with other player characters can help you to determine whether the group will be compatible.
#3. Dreams & Fears
If you can't think of any dreams or fears whatsoever for your character, that's a possible warning sign. Everyone has things they want; everyone is afraid of something. Without dreams why would your character embark upon all of these difficult adventures? Without fears, how can she possibly be human? (Or a reasonably sentient and emotional humanoid, depending on your game.) If nothing occurs to you when you think about these things, then something vital may be missing from your character.
Keep in mind that dreams and fears don't have to be conscious. Your character might not even realize that she has a deep-seated fear of imprisonment until someone arrests her and puts her in jail.
By knowing your character's dreams the GM knows how to pull her into plots, as well as how to give your character moments and rewards that will appeal specifically to her. It makes the game more personal. By knowing your character's fears, the GM can also play on them to draw your character into a more personal and interesting situation. He can find ways to make plots difficult without always having to resort to bigger and better monsters, which can get a little monotonous after a while.
#4. Favorites & Least Favorites
Take a moment to list a few of your character's favorite and least favorite things. Try something simple along the lines of:
- Favorites: Sunshine, hot days, excitement, new discoveries
- Least favorites: Having to stand in line, rain, boredom, wasps
This helps the GM to tweak the mood and atmosphere to have certain emotional effects on your character.
#5. Acquaintances & Friends
Acquaintances, contacts, and friends serve several purposes. First, if your character has no acquaintances and friends, then this might be a sign that you've created a loner. Such a character can end up tearing apart a party in the long run. Making sure that your character is capable of having and keeping friends is one way to keep yourself from accidentally creating a loner.
Acquaintances and friends are also automatic plot hooks for your GM to make use of. They're resources for your character, a means for the GM to interject information and clues into the game, and a way to make sure that your character is emotionally attached to and involved in the game world.
Write up a brief paragraph or two explaining which of your character's family members are still alive, where they live, and how much contact your character has with them. The GM can use family members in any number of ways to keep things interesting. Remembering that your character has family is also a quick way to make sure that you think of your character like a "real person" - creating a character with no family can be fairly unrealistic.
#7. Hobbies, Interests & Collections
Listing a couple of interests for your character gives your GM an idea of what an NPC might walk up and talk to your character about in order to catch her interest. It also gives him a way to know which news stories and other tidbits might appeal to her. Hobbies are similar, and may provide handy plot points for the GM. If he knows your character enjoys oil painting, then he can provide an NPC who loves good paintings who might be willing to help such an artist.
If your character collects something, then your GM has a ready-made way to put items into a plot that your character will want. Instead of putting some random thing you don't care about at the center of the dungeon he wants you to explore, he can place something your character will truly desire. This makes things easier for him, and has the side effect of making things more personal and interesting to you.
Level of Detail
You can write out the category(s) you choose in just a few words, or devote a page to them. It can be as simple as:
- Goals: Recover missing memories; find family
- Drives: Intense curiosity; friendliness and wish to help others; love of learning new things
Or you can write out a paragraph explaining each item. Remember that you can write up one or two of these things at the beginning of the game, and now and then write up another during the course of the game. This keeps you from having to write up too much at once. It keeps the GM from having to read too much at once. It also gives the character a chance to "gel" - I don't know about you, but I sometimes find that a character's personality ends up being a little different than I predicted once the game starts. And finally, it reminds you to take a step back now and then and think about where your character is and how she's doing.
Keep in mind that which category(s) you pick might be at least partially determined by the game or genre you play. For a horror game, fears & dreams is a big one; friends or favorites might help as well. For a modern-day game, daily schedule should be appropriate. For a hack-and-slash game, something you can write up in a quick sentence or two might be best: favorites, hobbies and interests, or family.
Remember that your character's drives, goals, interests, etc. will tend to change over time in response to things that happen during the game. She might recover her missing memories and discover that aliens killed her family. Now her list could become:
- Goals: Prove the existence of aliens; destroy all aliens
- Drives: Revenge; hatred; bigotry
Remember to update her motivations now and then during the game.
Hopefully these tidbits will help you to have a more personal and exciting game. Hopefully they'll also help your GM to plan game events that will appeal to you and keep things interesting. Many of these items are aimed at giving the GM credible ways to slip items, events, plot hooks, and information into the characters' laps without having them fall out of the blue. Some of them will help to give the game world that "lived-in" feel - it'll seem more like a living world that moves and breathes even when the characters aren't looking.
Don't expect that just because you've written these things up they'll make frequent appearances in the game; the idea is to provide opportunities for the GM and allow him to make use of them as he sees fit - not to force him to shape the game to your every desire. Hopefully the result will be fun for the entire gaming group!