Character Design Requirements

Years ago, a friend online told me of the guidelines she was given in designing her character for a supers campaign.

  1. Have a way to get to the fight.
  2. Have a way to be useful in the fight.
  3. Have a way to survive the fight.

It occurs to me that with only the smallest abstraction this can actually apply to almost any kind of RPG, setting, and scenario.  Change ‘fight’ to ‘action’ and you’re done.

  1. Have a way to get to the action.
  2. Have a way to be useful in the action.
  3. Have a way to stay in the action.

Courtly Intrigue

1. Have a Way to Get to the Action

In a campaign regarding court intrigue you might have

  • A grant of minor nobility.
  • An oath of service to a higher noble.
  • A position as an ambassador to the court.
  • And of course, any of the above, but counterfeited.

‘Have a way to get there’ probably does not mean ‘hire a carriage’ or ‘ride a horse’.

I considered other options such as ‘infiltrate the palace’, but this would probably be a difficult way to keep the party integrated.  It might be good for a particular scenario where it helps to have the party separated.

2. Have a Way to be Useful in the Action

Now that the PCs are in court (or at least, in the palace), they need to be able to do something.  Among other things, they might

  • Gather information.
  • Manipulate others for personal benefit or someone else’s detriment.
  • Have the ear of a powerful patron.
  • Use violence, judiciously (and probably discreetly).

I find that players with nothing to do tend to get bored, and understandably so.

3. Have a Way to Survive the Action

In a supers campaign, or many standard combat-oriented fantasy campaigns, this might be done through a combination of armor, damage absorption, ‘simply not being in the wrong place’, and so on.  In a courtly campaign these considerations might not be so important, but the following might help.

  • Be too difficult to kill (as above); poison resistance and immunity might be valuable.
  • Be too dangerous to kill.  What secrets will come out?  Will someone powerful feel compelled to avenge your death?  Will careful plans and plots come unraveled if you die?
  • Be too valuable to kill.  People will try keep you alive — for their own benefit, of course, and possibly only until they get a better offer.

‘Survive’ here does not necessarily mean ‘not die’, but ‘do not be removed from the action’.  Exile or imprisonment could both count as being removed, and for the purposes of this discussion count as ‘not surviving’.

Investigation or Mystery

I honestly haven’t had much luck with mysteries in my last group, mostly because they weren’t interested (I was told specifically “just tell us where to find the princess we need to rescue”) — they were into the tactical game, killing monsters, and taking their stuff.  However, the same principles apply.

1. Have a Way to Get to the Action

How do you get involved in a mystery?  Or a series of mysteries?  Off the top of my head, be directly involved.

  • Victim.
  • Suspect.
  • Investigator (might need groundwork to get this role, or might be assumed as part of the setup).
  • Other stakeholder (victim’s heir, someone interested in the stolen macguffin, someone who will either gain or lose by what has happened).

Being a witness might work for a single scenario, but probably is not so useful in a recurring role.  I would probably consider an ‘expert witness’ (someone with specialized knowledge) as part of the investigation team.

2. Have a Way to be Useful in the Action

Again, to take part in the scenario you need to have something to do.

  • Expertise with specific skills useful to the investigation, which might include violence/bodyguarding.
  • Knowledge might be a big one here, being able to provide information outside what is directly observed).
  • Additional resources, such as money or contacts.

Nathan Fillion’s character Rick Castle, from the TV show Castle, has at least some of all three.  He is not useless in a fight and has some impressively useful skills (including verbal manipulation — in one episode he manages to trick a suspect to give away his involvement in a particular death).  He also brings a scary amount of knowledge and obscure facts (knowledge of Chinese proves useful at least once, learned from “a TV show he used to love”).  He also brings some useful resources — he is rich, he knows a lot of people with other skills and knowledge, and he has the distinct value of not actually being a police officer.  In one episode they want to track down a person of interest, a prostitute.  After her website is found and the police are about to work through the legal processes needed to find her, he applies a more direct method.

Uses his cell phone to leave voice mail for her.  “Hello, my name is Richard, and I am a very lonely and very generous man looking for some company….”  He didn’t mention that he was bringing another woman (Detective Kate Beckett) to dinner with him.

3. Have a Way to Survive the Action

The general ways to survive are much the same in this case as for the courtly intrigue case above.  Be too hard, too dangerous, or too valuable to remove from the scenario.  Being able to take a beating can be more important here.  Most the PI stories I’ve read seem to involve the gumshoe getting knocked unconscious from time to time, beaten by people trying to scare him off the case, and so on.

In Rick Castle’s case he can take a beating, he can fight and act when needed (and can be lucky in doing so), and the Mayor can be counted as a powerful patron supporting him in his current position.

Closing Thoughts

I think that as long as these three guidelines are met, a character will probably be reasonably well-rounded and playable.  They may or may not be interesting, but fitting a character with these guidelines means they will likely have

  • At least some engagement with the campaign or scenario, because they have to consider how to get involved and have a reason for doing so.
  • Something they can do, at least some or most of the time, if not all.
  • Limited vulnerability to being removed.

Ever since I heard these guidelines and tweaked them, I’ve found they lead to more useful, playable, credible characters.  Glass cannons are kind of fun, until they shatter, but if the GM takes steps to ensure this things tend to not work so well.

The guidelines work well for NPCs also, of course, but there is some more latitude there — the DM Fiat is a useful vehicle sometimes, but you’ll want to limit how much mileage you try to out of it.


  1. David Lamb

    This looks pretty good to me. I’m not sure what to add. I wasn’t happy with “survive the action” for the same reason you suggested alternatives for what it might mean. Perhaps “stay in on the action” or “keep acting” or “get to the next action”? Resurrection serves this purpose just fine in a deadly campaign.

  2. Pingback: Adventure Design Requirements | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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