Saturday, November 15, 2014

What does the Protagonist Want? Because I usually have no idea.

(title of the blog post stolen from the incredibly awesome What Does the Protagonist Want? which is well worth a read)

     Thinking about Numenera character creation, my frustration with D&D 5E backgrounds (and Dungeon World bonds and alignments to a lesser extent) and consider several GM advice books which suggest using sentence pitches for campaign planning and adventure design, I've been thinking about how to apply sentence summaries to more things, like PC motivation.
     Toying around with the idea of running a Numenera one shot sometime in December/January and realized that the Sentence Character creation could be extended ever so slightly to add a character goal or motivation to the current structure.
     As a reminder, Numenera character creation boils down to " I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]." So a former commando turned mercenary who recently discovered that she has a supernatural or technological knack with animals might be "I am a Stealthy Glaive who Controls Beasts". Why not add a want clause, like "Who wants to [motivation/goal]." So then if the former commando woke up as the only survivor of a battle and that's when she had this new connection with animals, perhaps her character summary sentence would be "I am a Stealthy Glaive who Controls Beasts and wants to Discover Why She Has this new Power." Hopefully a compelling character and it certainly gives the GM a few ideas of what the PC can do and what the player would like to do. It also provides an easy reminder to the player for their motivation, ie, their PC should be working to understand or uncover why she has this new affinity with beasts. One advantage of this, is that it forces the player to distill down a few things that they know they are interested in exploring in the game.
Let's try this out with my other PCs, adapting the Numenera character sentence structure to other systems.

Dungeon World

  • I.S.H. Mael - "I am an Elven Dungeoneer who uses a whip and 10' pole and who wants to recover things from underground that are useful even if they're not valuable."
    • Here I've adapted the Dungeoneer Neutral Alignment XP condition "Recover something from underground that if useful even if it's not valuable" to function as the "Want". But maybe I could make Elven Dungeoneer more of a compound noun instead of both the adjeective and noun and apply another adjective that does more than descibe my character's race. Let's also tweak the verb clause, who uses a whip and 10' pole, to improve it instead of merely describing the equipment used by the character.
  • I.S.H. Mael v 2.0 - "I am a Resourceful Elven Dungeoneer who explores the underground with his trusty whip and 10' pole and who delights in finding uses for the things he finds even if they're not valuable."
    • Yeah, okay, it's a long sentence, but it's still a 10 second summary of my character that probably gives the GM and other players a much better idea of what my PC does and what I want to do in the game.


  • Horatio - "I am a scholarly human magic user who wants to learn things by exploring the world instead of staying in a library."
  • This one's not great, but I'm still trying to get a handle on setting and what my my character does. So far Horatio scraped some mold into an empty flask and caused a dim blue light to be cast 5' out from him. And the game is much more focused on the old-school dungeon crawling/hex mapping wilderness than in depth roleplaying, so this one will probably serve for the time being.


  • Here's where I really see how much this would help, as Tallow, my abortive first PC was extremely difficult to try to sum up in one sentence…
  • Tallow - "I was the only Troll to make Detective but only so the force could hang an unsolveable case on me, an orphan raised by the Hmong community, who only fights with his fists if he can help it, doesn't do well with VR and AR and wants to take care of his wife and son."
    • Trying to plot out all the points that I thought were important to my conception of the character (ex-cop, troll, only promoted to serve as a scapegoat, avoids fighting with any weapons other than his fists, uncomfortable with VR/AR, part of a minority comunity, has a wife and son to take care of as dependents) really pointed out to me just how muddled it was and how much I was trying to cram in. Probably a bigger problem was that as I was trying different sentence summations, as I cut things, I wasn't comfortable with any of the cuts I made. 
  • Let's try again with my new Shadowrun character concept…
  • Devlin Spencer - "I'm an Innocuous Looking but never Unarmed Elven Conman who's willing to Get a Little Dirty as he Looks for a Big Payoff to Settle his Massive Debts."
    • Much more succinct and covers the things I want my PC to be good at (looking unarmed but carrying deadly weapons, being a face/conman, moral laxity in search of wealth to pay off debts).

Older Characters:

  • How about my first D&D 4E character?
  • Amleth "I am a Commanding Barbarian who charges into combat and wants to kill his uncle to avenge his father's murder."
  • How about Kam Clovertail?
    • "I am a Fearless Halfling Monk who Never Walks When He Can Jump or Run and who wants to Prove He Is an Awesome Hero."
  • How about notorious PC turned Villain for several entire campaigns?
    • "I am a Creepy (formerly) Human Psion who Invades the Minds of Friends and Foes Alike and who wants to Share the Metamorphic Glory of the Star Ulban."
  • Follow up PC, Uwain the Betrayed?
    • "I am a Relentless Revenant Paladin who Serves the Raven Queen Completely and wants to Punish those who have Committed Injustices."
Playing around with this format, I think the sentence character summary will be something I'll be trying to bring into future games, Numenara or not.

Now to what will probably be the controversial section of this post (if anyone actually reads it).  Notice above, that I've only used my own characters as examples... That's because I had a much harder time thinking of good examples from PCs in games I've run.  There have been memorable PCs but only a couple where I could summarize them in a sentence using this technique with [adjective] [noun] [verb] and [motivation/goal].

For most of the PCs in my games recently, I just do not know what the character's [motivation/goal] is or even the kinds of things the player wants to PC to do often (where the [adjective] [verb] would help), and this has been a problem for me as I run games and try and tie plots into character motivations.  I know a few player motivations (kill things, have PC have a cool death when the inevitable death comes) and there are some memorable personality traits (yelling, crotchety old goat man) but I still couldn't really summarize many of the recent PCs in my games very easily.  Not knowing what the PCs motivations were, I was more less stuck stringing along the players, hoping that the plot hooks would be interesting enough or the railroading strong enough, to keep them moving along.  Thinking about this for several days, there were really only two PCs that I could come up with good summaries for from the last year of running games.  Keep in mind that this is probably my interpretation only and may not be reflective with how the actual players saw their PCs.

  • "I am a Swashbuckling Drow Bard who is Risks her Life to do Good and wants her Heroic Deeds to be Recorded in a Glorious Fashion"  
    • PC in question often tried to take the most swashbuckling/acrobatic action possible, generally sought to do good and was willing to risk herself (often with low HP) to do so and commissioned at least one portrait to be painted of her exploits. 
  • "I am a Stealthy Halfling Rogue who Revels in Chaos and Seeks to Increase Entropy and Decay Whenever Possible."
    •  Didn't even need to put in the summary that the character was a Doomguard and anyone familiar with Planescape could have probably told from the summary.
Ideally, for my next campaign or re-booted campaign, I'll refine this a little and get my players to buy in to creating sentence summaries of their characters, even if those summaries change through play, having a summary I can look back at and know what two things the player wants the PC to be good at ([adjective] [verb]) and what the player sees as the defining [motivation/goal] of the PC as seems like it would be an immense help to me as I try to craft adventures and plots that are motivated less by GM fiat and railroading and more from motivations that the PCs themselves have.   

1 comment:

  1. I feel like I need to work on campaign-starting and character-making checklists... I definitely didn't ask as many questions as I should have before creating a Gnome Trickster cleric as our party healer, but I had just read War for the Oaks and felt like I had a good trickster inspiration...


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