Using gaming resources to help your writing. – PART 2 – Characters

Well here we are at part 2 and I promised that I’d talk about how to use GURPS to generate characters quickly.  This is not going to be a full rehash of the GURPS character generation rules, (for one thing, we don’t need the full ruleset to help us with writing), so if you get a bit confused you may want to look at the first few pages in the GURPS-Lite ruleset which you can get for free here.  A very useful tool is a two-page character generator crib sheet that is a little outdated.  It applies to GURPS 3rd edition, but for our purposes it works like a charm.  It is called “Instant Characters” and you can get it here.

Now there are three ways I use GURPS to help me with characterization.

The first is just using it for brainstorming.  Really easy. I’m sure all you writers out there have heard that your hero must have some kind of flaw?  GURPS lists tons of them.  They’re called “Disadvantages” in the GURPS system and just leafing through the manual can get the juices flowing.  GURPS breaks them up into social disadvantages, physical disadvantages, and mental disadvantages. There are advantages too, but usually our protagonists don’t need too many of those.  We generally have a pretty good idea who our protagonist is going to be before we even know what the plot is going to be (at least I do anyway).

So we have our story.  This is going to be a hard-boiled modern-day detective thriller.

Our protagonist, Marty Stu, is the kind of butch Übermensch action heroes dream about. Women want to mother him / make love to him and men want to be him or be his sidekick. He is the master of no less than 4 very exotic martial arts (the names of which would mean nothing to the uninitiated) and is an ex-Marine/Green-Beret/SEAL/and what-the-heck Ranger. Every part of him is a weapon. But he’s also a member of MENSA and, fed up with the government, he decided to put his skills to work as a private eye.

 

This character is perfect already and there is little the GURPS system can do to help.  But just for laughs lets just start leafing through the Disadvantages section in the core rule book. Nothing from the social disadvantages jumps right out.  We’re going to set this story in modern times, so none really fit except maybe “Stigma” but we don’t want to go there.

Let’s look at physical disadvantages. “Age” is the first one.  Ooh, let’s think about that.  Let’s make Marty Stu, old.  Let’s say he’s almost 70.  Well that certainly changes the character a bit huh?  He’s still a bad-ass, but now maybe he’s popping pain killers to deal with the arthritis that acts up all the time.  Let’s keep going.  Oooh.  Found another one.  ‘Stuttering”.  So he’s a stutterer.  But not all the time.  We need to keep it in mind because it is going to matter if he ever wants to talk his way out of things.  Nothing else jumps out in the physical disadvantages (there’s plenty there, but we don’t want to saddle him with too much).

So we’ll move on to mental disadvantages.  The first one that jumps out is “Code of Honor”, but that seems a bit played out.  So I’ll skip that.  The next one that jumps out is “Combat Paralysis”.  Whoa.  So now, Marty has some serious PTSD. He might not be able to trust himself in a fight because he just doesn’t know if he can bring himself to do it anymore.  Let’s grab one more.  “Pacifism”.  Wow.  So yeah, Marty is so horrified by what he’s seen and done in the war-torn places of the world that he’s adopted a pacifist world view. (I don’t mean to imply that pacifism is a disadvantage.  But it certainly would be for the kind of macho hero Marty started out as and it will be a hindrance in the situations we’re going to throw him into.)  We’ll further tailor his pacifism so that it isn’t complete non-violence.  His brand of pacifism will just be that he never kills anyone and he’ll only act in self-defense. In fact, even though he’s really good with all manner of firearms, he’s promised himself he won’t ever use a gun again (which is another disadvantage “Vow”).

Now let’s take a look at our character.  Nice.  In a few short minutes, Marty Stu went from a clichéd macho caricature to a somewhat nuanced (if still somewhat trope-ridden) more realistic person. Instead of “Rambo 2″, we’re maybe working with “The Equalizer”. And now when we drop him into some hairy situations instead of Judo-chopping his way out of them, he’s going to have to do something else.

Also, if we need additional advantages and disadvantages, there are more in every GURPS sourcebook which are pertinent to that world/genre and some of the books like Compendium I, include a whole lot more.

That was a quick summary of the first way I use GURPS to help me with characterization.  Now onto the second way.

I’ve got my protagonist pretty fleshed out.  I know who my Antagonist is going to be as well. But what about secondary characters? You know the other blanks in the Driver and Passenger Quads I remember someone briefly mentioning in a workshop.  The Sidekick? The Mentor? The Skeptic? All those Jungian archetypes folks are supposed to embody.  Well, one way to do it is to sit here staring at a screen until the muse decides that I have earned some inspiration and I can jot them down.  There are a bunch of exercises to come up with these characters. Tarot, Myers-Briggs, etc… But why not let GURPS do it?  GURPS can give you a really good starting point to go off of.

Right now seems like a really good time to briefly explain how character generation works in GURPS. There are two ways to do it.  Randomly (not very useful to us now, will come into play later), or by design. The first thing you decide is how many character points you have to work with.  The amount of points you get depends on what kind of character you want to work with. A below average character gets only 15 points or less, while a superhuman gets 300 or more. For our purposes we’re going to assume that Marty Stu associates with above-average folks.  That gives us about 50 points to work with.

Very basically, the way these points work is that you subtract points for taking “good” things and add points for taking “bad” things.  So if your secondary character is, say, wealthy.  That will cost us 20 points. Leaving us only 30 points to work with.  However, if we go the opposite way and say that the character is poor. That gives us back 15 points and now we have 65 points to work with.

So without messing with attributes yet (We’ll get to that in Part 3), you can go through the GURPS character creation for each separate character you need to work on.  Giving them advantages and disadvantages and crafting who they are going to become.  The GURPS books have all kinds of tables to help you.  You can even go all the way through to skills and equipment if you want, though I usually stop before then.  We’re not going to be playing with these characters (well not until Part 3 anyway), so we just need some prompts to help us figure out who they are.  Also, you’re going to want to set a limit on the disadvantages.  We want these characters to be balanced, not so damaged that it is unbelievable that they can function in society.

In my experience, it takes me about 30 minutes to generate each character.  So it can take some work.  And sometimes you don’t need to go all the way through.  Sometimes you just grab some advantages/disadvantages/quirks and drive on.

That brings us to the third way I use GURPS for character generation.  Remember how I mentioned there was a way to randomly generate characters built into the system?  Well, the core rulebook has a way to do that where you roll on tables for different qualities until you generate a character. Now this results in a character that is not as satisfying and not as fleshed out, because no thought went into choosing the different characteristics.  I would not recommend using this method for any significant characters.  Still, you can, and you may surprise yourself.  What I use this for, is to generate someone who might only show up for a single chapter or a maybe even a single scene.  What does that waiter look like?  Or what about the guards I need to describe that our hero is about to run into.  Boom.  Random character generation.

But, some of us don’t want to sit with dice and tables and generate this stuff.  Especially in the middle of our writing.  It can kill the muse.  Isn’t there some easier way to make up these random characters?

Well writer friends, you’re in luck.  These minor characters are, in the game world, generally referred to as NPCs. Non-player characters. That means that the GameMaster (GM), the primary storyteller of the game, is figuring out all their actions and motivations, etc… Often, GMs are running several NPCs at once.  Now sometimes the adventure will have stock NPCs ready for reference, especially if it is a pre-printed adventure.  But many GMs make up their own adventures, and more often players go where the GM wasn’t planning.  Well, that works in our favor.

Because lots of tools exist for randomly generating these NPCs.  Here’s one of my favorite ones. You can choose what genre you want, relative power level, and then generate.  And Voila! In mere seconds you have a brand new character.  Complete with skills, quirks, advantages, disadvantages, skills, and appearance. Crazy huh?

Well, now what about those basic attributes.  You know Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), Intelligence (IQ), and Health (HT)?  Are we going to do anything with those?  Do those matter for writing?

Yes and no.  YOU don’t have to use them at all.  Many folks I’ve spoken to never use the GURPS system beyond what we’ve already spoken about.  Most of the time, I stop here too.  But sometimes, especially when a scene needs a little extra oomph, I go a little further.  And we’ll talk about that, in Part 3.