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Summing it Up

By Steve Darlington


To quote Stephen Fry, there's chess, and then there's a game of chess. Similarly, there's a character, and there's the playing of that character. And you don't have to play many RPGs to realise the two things aren't always the same.

This is especially true when Joe Gamer turns up at a session with a fifteen page back-history, complete with his ancestral family tree, outlines of his past lives, a detailed birth horoscope and a thorough psychological analysis of how the loss of his father has influenced his entire life. This may indeed be wonderful and important for Joe, and help create a great "inner-game" for himself, and that's totally cool. The inner-game, the game we play inside our own heads with the images we see and the interpretations we make is at least as valid, if not more so, than what goes on at the table. But sometimes, it is good to make the inner-game and the outer-game match up, and that means being able to carry over who your character is, onto the table, and into the minds of the other players.

And one of the best ways to do this is to not write long backgrounds. It may be gaming heresy, but sometimes, the shorter the better. This is doubly true at the start of a game. Obviously, characters have an existence before the first session, but that's totally limited to the inner game. The act of evincing that character into the gameplay will in fact shape them into new and wonderful shapes, things you could never have thought of before. This is partly because the act of expression changes the nature of the character, and partly because the character is being defined by what it reacts to the story you and the GM are telling, the other characters in the game, and just having other people around the table, throwing ideas into the mix.

How then, do you start the game with a relatively blank slate, yet still be able to roleplay? The key is with a simple, punchy summary that focussed the mind and the play on the essential parts of the character.

As the game develops, the character will often become more complex and this is fine because as the game goes on, the player gains a better understanding of the character and is able to play them more instinctively. Yet still, having a core summary is useful. Whether this is the same as the original one or not, having a core to refer to keeps the character focussed and gives you something to fall back on when you need to answer the question "what would my character do now?". Sure, sometimes you know instantly, but sometimes perhaps because you, the player are tired, or are joking around, or perhaps because your character is confused or at a loose end things aren't that clear.

Most chargen systems in RPGs these days feature sections on fleshing out your character, with ten or twenty questions, or asking you if you were a magic potion, what kind of magic potion would you be, and so on. What they rarely provide is a guide to summing up your character and getting an instant handle on how to play them. But as a game writer, I have to do that all the time. Sometimes I have only fifty or a hundred words to describe a location or an organisation, and only ten or twenty to paint a picture of a person associated with it. In those words, I have to give a GM the ability to play that character in a moment. I have to provide a strong physical or personality hook that players can latch on to and remember, and sketch his personality well enough so that the GM can extrapolate how such a person would react to anything the players might throw at him. And finally, I have to inspire the imagination, so the GM gets story ideas from the character as well. The summary must leave a lot of room for expansion, not shut things off.

All of these skills can be harnessed by players too, to sum up their characters and thus make them easier to play yet at the same time richer to experience and enjoy. Here are some of the techniques I've used, both for NPCs I've written, and PC's I've played.


I'm going to drop you in the deep-end first off with the hardest summaries — hardest because it is the shortest. The aim here is to sum up your character in just two words. That's it. Just two. One adjective, one noun. The best way to think of this is that the noun describes the kind of thing you do (so it may likely be a verb with the suffix –er) while the adjective describes how you do it.

This technique is actually used often when discussing tropes of fiction: the Masked Avenger, the Lone Vigilante, the Wise Mentor, while some are used in the fiction themselves: the Super-Hero, the Wicked Witch. It's also used a lot in marketing — marketers know they only have two or three words to make a catchphrase, so we have Batman cast as the Caped Crusader, or the Dark Knight. Sometimes he sneaks in a third as the Dark Knight Detective. We won't hold that against him. Marvel tend to go with more generic adjectives, such as the Amazing Spider-man. It's not very descriptive but we do know two things: he has spider-powers, and he's amazing. It's a start.

Of course, you may be thinking that your amazingly deep character can't be summed up in two words. But it can. You might not get every nuance in there, but you'll have enough to start. Even Hamlet, one of the most complicated characters in literature could be called a Hesitant Avenger. Watchmen's Rorschach might be a Defiant Sociopath, Deadwood's Al Swearagen might be a Brutal Power-broker. You don't need to note down that you're a costumed hero or a saloon owner, because that stuff is probably already on the character sheet and in the forefront of yours and everyone else's minds. If you choose your vocabulary carefully, each word can say a lot, too. But don't mince words, they should be bold. Even the most timid characters are written in bold strokes.

The beauty of this method is, as mentioned, that it gives you an instant idea not just of who you are but what you do in an RPG. The noun tells you the kind of actions you will take, and the adjective tells you how you will describe and roleplay them. If you ever get lost, those two words will guide you through ANY situation, if you chose them well enough. You might think two is too difficult, but give it a try. Even if you can't come up with two, the very act of trying will help you make your character more concrete and powerful in your head.

Deals, Tics and Goals

It seems that Enantiodromia is no longer hosting the Fudge: Buffy Game but you can still see the rules Steve refers to at the the Web Archive . Its not to be confused with the excellent RPG from Eden Games.

Mike Gentry's Buffy RPG gave us the term "Deal". It's intended in the sense of "what's the deal with Joe?". This is inherent to the definition: a deal is something somebody else notices about you, even after just five minutes of talking. It is no coincidence that the same rule is mention regarding the "tics" used in Paranoia XP. If someone can't tell what your tic is after five minutes (both in-game or out-of-game) it's not really a tic anymore. In Paranoia, these are often both silly and obvious (eg "responds to every question as if it were a romantic suggestion"), which is good for Paranoia. In other games, you might want it to be not quite so blatant or so esoteric. A deal doesn't have to be a nervous tic. If every time your player says a line he is chomping noisily on his famous cigar, that can easily become annoying rather than iconic. A better idea for a deal is something like "I am socially ill-at-ease" or "I enjoy my many bad habits". You can then add tics to these, such as fiddling with your hands, or smoking a cigar, that you do when the situation comes up. Props must go to Over the Edge here, which gave us the idea of "signs": everything on the character sheet in OtE must have an associated visual signifier in the game world. If he is wealthy, he may carry a cane or wear a valuable ring. If he is strong, he may be rippling with muscle, or given to flexing his fists.

Tics or signs are the in-game expression of deals. Deals themselves are just a way of expanding either the adjective or the noun above. If you can't do it in one word, you can use a deal instead. Hamlet's deal might be "confused and doesn't like people messing with him". Alternatively, it could equally be "charged to seek revenge for the murder of his father". Deals can be anything, as long as they are something bold about the character, something striking, something everybody knows, or at least, everyone who would be reading this game as a comic or seeing it as a film would know. Batman's deal is he lost his parents, and swore to revenge them. And that tells you so much about him, in one simple sentence.

Hamlet could have two deals, or you could also use goals. Stephen King once said that the definition of a character is someone who wants something, and that's what goals are: what your character wants. Hamlet's deal is he is hesitant, his goal is to avenge his father. Batman's deal is his childhood trauma, his goal is to protect Gotham. Goals are probably even more important than Deals because they drive characters into the story. They are the reason your PC goes on adventures, fights the bad guy, and risks his life. A good goal is the heart of a PC. Curiosity or not having anything better to do is typically not good enough.

Ron Edwards' Sorcerer introduced the idea of Kickers, which are an extreme form of back-story-cum-goal. Kickers are things that happen to your character the moment before game-play starts, which must be addressed, which cannot be ignored. Perhaps you just got your ex-wife's hand sent to you in the mail, or found out that the evil wizard is in fact your twin-brother. Kickers demand a very flexible GM and playstyle but working with him to shape your goals in that fashion is a good idea.

The Quote and the Image

The Quote is a special kind of tic, perhaps, but deserves special mention. These are used heavily in many RPGs and with good reason: one good quote can tell a GM everything he needs to play an NPC. The text of the quote can sum up a deal, a goal, or both, but more important is the nature of the dialogue. Tabletop RPGs are, after all, an exercise in conversation, and so harnessing the flavour of that conversation is at least half of portraying a character. Actors often use this same technique, having a key phrase they recite before performing which gets them into their character.

Not only can you recite the dialogue (mentally or out-loud) to focus your mind on your character, the act of inventing a signature or signifying phrase will sum up your character well. What does he always say? Why does he say it? And most importantly, how does he say it?

There are other good ways to sum up your character's style and personality in one idea. A picture is a good one. Even if you have no artistic talent, drawing a picture is a very good idea because it helps you identify the essential parts of his appearance. Even if the katana end up looking like bananas, you still get a much clearer idea of how key those katana are. A picture tells you what your character always carries and wears — which can define a character a lot. Look at Superman's S, or Batman's batarang.

Also, by using a different part of your brain — the drawing part — you engage with your character in a completely different way, and that makes him more solid in your head. Seeing him as a picture engages a different part of the brain as well. If you want to go further and get a kinaesthetic sense of your character, you could always model him out of clay, or adapt and paint a specially chosen miniature. And again, even if the mini just comes out of a standard box, playing with him in your hands provides an instant and unique connection. This is why it's important to choose a GOOD mini, if you use them: you don't want your summary to remind you of the wrong thing.

Three Things I Do

A quote tells you what you tend to say, a picture what you tend to wear. The next step up is to define what you tend to do. For discipline and focus, I find three things to be the absolute maximum, even for a deep and complex character. Most characters only need two, or can assume that the third one is "kick ass". Things you do typically reflect the things you are good at — everyone likes to succeed — but also the things you prefer to do. You may, for example, have a ranged weapon just in case, but if you only reach for it when there's no other alternative, then it shouldn't be one of the three.

A barbarian fighter's list might be things like "Attack with my sword", "tend to my horse" and "not understand civilised ways". Note that these give us a good picture of the character's entire life — what he does in a fight, and out of a fight, how he deals with different types of situations — and mentions what he cannot do. Most of all, they tell us the kind of things he can usually be found doing, the things he does most often. Almost all literary characters have this — we all know that when Batman's in trouble, out comes the batarang, or something else from the utility belt. And we enjoy that, because it's familiar. Familiarity is at the heart of strong characterisation; your character is at its richest when your fellow gamers can anticipate your moves (but not, however, be bored by the same thing over and over again).

Sometimes, it may take a few sessions to discover what you do most often but once you have them, jot them down. Again, this is a great memory aid. If you ever find yourself unsure about what to do or what you want to do, a quick look at your list gives you the three standard options that your character falls back on, and that you have established as their standard behaviour in the drama everyone is helping unfold. Sometimes, too, the GM will run out of ideas, or present a situation where what you are doing isn't working. A quick look can give you something else to try which he might prefer. Maybe killing the goblins is getting repetitive and dull. Perhaps if you instead go back to town and not understand something, the GM can give you the clue he's so desperately trying to work in.

Three Things I Am

This is the rule I most use when writing NPCs in game books, and it stems from the three things I do. Generally, players encountering an NPC will either kill them, hide from them, trick them or talk to them. The first three can be handled by stats, which the RPG usually provides elsewhere. The last one needs to be summed up quickly, and there is a short-hand way I use to coalesce someone's deals and goals into a single sentence.

The first step is to define their common emotional state. The next is to describe an exception to that rule that occurs sometimes. These are simply listing the "two things they do", as above, but restricting it to social states. Generally they are X, sometimes they are also Y. Batman is grim, but gentle with the innocent. It might also be an expansion of that condition: Superman believes in fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, and will never compromise his own morals in that fight.

That's the two things. The third is reserved for physical appearance: short, tall, fat, thin, old, young, bent, straight, sickly, strong, clumsy, or an obvious character tic: exuberant, aloof, friendly, distant, avuncular, staid, authoritarian, and so on. These provide the tic or sign that helps the GM express the character, and helps the players lock-on to the character in their minds.

Thanks to commas, I can generally fit all three of these into a sentence, perhaps something like this: "The mighty barbarian is confused by the things of civilisation, so prefers the company of his faithful horse." Or "Batman is a grim figure whose terrifying mien freezes the blood of criminals — but he is gentle and kind to the innocents he protects." That's three things — a grim personality, with moments of gentleness, and a dreadful mien when angry. We also know, by the way, that he fights crime and protects the innocent. Trying to write your character in similar terms is once again, a great exercise in conception, and a great tool for playing the game. Aim for one sentence, or twenty five words. Any more is no longer a summary. You can then compare them to similar write-ups in published RPGs and see if a GM could pick up your character and run it in a moment. If he could, it means you can too — only better, since you know that little bit more to give it that extra depth.


Although the goals of the characters drive the story, adventurers are a reactive lot. Generally, trouble had a way of leaping upon them, monsters try to kill them, there are strange noises in the attic, a shadow rises in the east — and they have to do something about it. As such, many people find it useful to summarise what they react to and how they react to them, to better allow them to play their character.

Unknown Armies has perhaps the best example of this with its Stimuli stats. Every character lists their Fear Stimuli, Rage Stimuli and Noble Stimuli: what makes you frightened, what makes you angry and what makes you feel inspired. To be really useful, however, it can help to also suggest what you do when you feel these things. Or simply list the reactions to more general stimuli, ie "when I am afraid, I tend to talk too much". Or perhaps "when I am attacked, I tend to go rushing in with my broadsword screaming for blood". Not surprisingly, this is similarly to the Three Things I Do, but with just a slight expansion if that feels to limiting or does not provide enough information.

A combination of stimuli and response might look like this: "Dark places scare me, and make me talk too much". A more complicated example could be "When I'm attacked, I charge in with my axe. When I'm attacked by whoreson goblins, I charge with my axe in a beserker rage, screaming about the crimes against my ancestors.". That's a nice summary of a standard operating procedure, and an extreme operating procedure.

For those whose games involve fairly standard situations or encounters (going into a dungeon, or a bar, or a crime scene), such things can also be a stimuli, and go well with standard operating procedures and exceptions. For example, you might say that you check every door for traps, or that you always sit with your back to the wall when playing poker. Conditions can be built in for exceptions or extreme cases, such as "on a mission, I always take point with my sub-auto — unless we suspect magic defences, in which case the mage takes point". Getting the party to agree with these things and telling the GM doesn't just speed up gameplay, it is also a great way for to communicate to your fellow characters and your GM who you are individually, and how you work as a group.

Which is of course a very good point: all of these techniques can be applied to the group as a whole. Who are you? What do you do? Why do you do it? Strangely enough, a lot of groups have trouble answering these questions, and that can lead to problems. If nobody knows exactly why you went into the dungeon, how do you decide when it's time to leave, or what you will sacrifice to go on? You might all know, but the act of summing it up will make it clearer in your minds, and thus make the group all that more solid as a fictional concept. It can change a loose group of individuals into a narrative — and destructive — powerhouse. It also helps you and the GM ensure that everyone knows the kind of game you are playing. A list of things you do is a simple way to make a game contract, thus avoiding the GM producing inappropriate storylines, or players making useless characters.

Games always go better when everyone is on the same page. Summaries are a great way to make sure everyone knows what page that is. That doesn't mean you should stop writing your fifteen-page back-stories with twelve different nemeses and five dark secrets, especially if your GM likes that. But consider also the challenge of saying the same thing in just a very few words. Because all too often in roleplaying, less is definitely more, and short is very sweet.

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