Making Characters Interesting / Making Interesting Characters

Art by Moebius

Sorcerer has Kickers, Hillfolk has Dramatic Poles, Primetime Adventures has Issues, and 13th Age has One Unique Thing which is also used in Jack Shear’s Singular Curiosities. These are all different methods to give characters in games something interesting and to mechanize it.

When you play a game with the intent of making it character focused, you need to ensure each character has a reason we are focusing on them. These aren’t just things a players puts on their character sheet and ignores – these are things that the GM is required to take into account when dealing with the character. It is part of the game!

The games mentioned are already character focused, and already drive a certain style of play. But if your favored roleplaying game is focused on looting and killing, it can be difficult to shift it to be character focused if it’s what your group wants. I suggest looking first at Kickers and then at Singular Curiosities.

A Kicker is a player authored scenario that requires immediate action or reaction and doesn’t have a clean, easy solution. You find a headless corpse in your bathtub; a strange woman hands you something wrapped in cloth and uses your name when telling your to keep it safe; you stumble upon a ornate crate containing carefully worked and expensive looking jewelry; etc. The reason this is particularly useful is that the player is specifically telling you a hook they will bite on.

Singular Curiosities are things that make the character stand out among others and their peers. I have horns on my head; my fists are as deadly as a blade; I am a clockwork automaton in the shell of a woman; etc. Like Kickers, these are things the player is telling you they are interested in and want to see tested in play.

So if you want to try out some character focus in your games, take a look at one or both of these techniques and see if they work for you.


Sagas of the Icelanders – Session 0

Taking a step away from urban adventuring for a bit, I am also running a game of Sagas of the Icelanders. The goal of this run is to see Sagas in long term play – I’ve only ever played one shots of it.

Sagas, if you have not played it, is easily in the top three PbtA games of all times. It is hyper focused on Icelandic settlers fleeing Norway in the 900s. The game centers on the historical gender roles of the time – women do the talking and have the wisdom, men do the physical work and defending of honor. It is a pretty classic division of the genders that survives to this day.

I chose to begin the game with a trio of clans and their family trees (thanks to Max for the work here):

The Three Clans

The players had to choose who in these trees they wanted to play, and choose one of the possible playbooks below the name. The players chose to play:

  • Thord Karisson, youngest Child of the Thorgeirsson clan
  • Thrain Sigfusson, the landowning Man married to Svanhildur of the Hamundarson clan
  • Hildigunn Thrainsdottir, Child of Thrain and Svanhildur
  • Gunnar Hamundarson, eldest and Gothi of the Hamundarson clan, father to Svanhildur and grandfather to Hildigunn

In typical fashion, we started the session with a big ol’ bang. See, this setup is based on an actual saga called The Njall Saga. In it, a family feud over a horse escalates to a death, eventually ending in the burning alive of Njall and his children. But I needed to circle it in towards the characters we chose. So instead of beginning with Hallgerd Hamundarson having Thord Thorgeirsson killed as happened in the Sagas, we began with Svanhildur being found stabbed near to the corpse of Berta, Thord’s thrall.

Thrain and Gunnar took Berta to the Thorgeirsson longhouse and dropped her corpse at their doorstep. Tempers flared, but violence was avoided (in Sagas of the Icelanders, death is a very real and sudden danger). Njall agreed to meet on neutral ground with Gunnar after his daughter’s funeral, to talk this over – this is how the gothar do business.

Meanwhile, Hildigunn was kept away from seeing her mother, but caught a glimpse of her corpse anyway. Her uncle Kehl tried to take her back to the house, but she snuck out a window and headed to Gunnar’s holy grove where the kids play. She met with Thord the Younger there, looking for comfort and finding none. Eventually the two kids decided to seek out Grimma Hamundarson, Hildigunn’s strange old aunt who all the kids fear, who lives in a cave near the sea, alone with her thrall. If anyone can tell them the truth of the matter, it is this old witch.

The session ended with these two things unresolved, as we did character creation before hand. The intent here is to play until this whole situation is resolved in some manner, then elide a year or so as the Sagas are wont to do.

Review: Umberwell

I picked up Jack Shear’s newest work, Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name (affiliate link).

I’m a big fan of Jack’s work on both Krevborna and Cinderheim. He has a signature style when presenting setting information that focuses on brevity and usability. I find a lot of setting-heavy books have effectively played the game for you, telling you what has happened up until now. Jack’s books tell you what is happening, not what has happened.


Umberwell is a magicpunk fantasy city in the vein of Sigil from Planescape, or Throne from Kill Six Billion Demons. This brings it very close to my heart, and there’s a lot of overlap with my own urban setting – the city of Rivage.

Umberwell is built around five islands, but that’s actually not super important – it is an unmappable sprawl of various bouroughs and districts, to the point where geographic specifics are more colorful than practical.

The chapters are laid out by theme (crime, diversions, institutions, etc) and each chapter contains some information and lists of relevant locations, artifacts, or similar – all short and useful. For example, the gang entry for The Redhooks says: “A goblin gang known for burglary and housebreaking. They ply their trade in the wealthier districts and wards, targeting estates and mansions.”

Things I Like

  • Constant adventure ideas. Every paragraph has interesting hooks, and every section ends with lists of adventure ideas – like being paid to break into the Abyssal Embassy to get into contact with a demon.
  • Purple worm trains!
  • I dig the lore behind Machete and Machine, the two central factions behind everything, representing Chaos and Order.
  • The list of slang is a real bite o’ pie.

The Best Parts

  • The city factions, each presented in a full page, with beliefs and goals as well as quests they can give the PCs. I particularly dig The New Progress, the faction working to merge magic and machine.
  • The supporting cast chapter. Not only does it have a pretty solid generator, but the list of notable citizens is top notch. These are valuable enough to justify the book.
  • The Urban Adventuring chapter is a set of tables to generate anything you’d ever need in a city.

Things I Don’t Like

  • It is a bit more wordy than the other mentioned books, though each section has a nice title and is gamable content.
  • The races are cool but there’s a ton of them. I’d have preferred a generator to create a species instead of “elephantfolk”.


Umberwell is quickly becoming one of my favorite books for fantasy cities. It doesn’t shove it’s lore down your throat, and almost anything can be transplanted to your custom city. I’d compare this book to In the Cage for Planescape in terms of utility.

What is a Sandbox?

Image from Wow Images

Max and I had a conversation about sandboxes. He’s said his part, so here’s mine:

First some history: I grew up with AD&D 2e and the Planescape campaign setting. My younger gaming days were not spent with ten foot poles, poking through dingey dungeons, but on strange planes parlaying with powerful creatures. In this style of play, prep didn’t include maps and set pieces, but was focused more around creating interesting NPCs.

What I’m getting at is that, the way Max uses the term “sandbox” is my default assumption when gaming! I have always prepared a scattered amount of stuff and thrown them into a blender when the PCs juke an unexpected way.

So what is a “sandbox game” to me then? To me, a sandbox is game is one that is player-led. The players have created characters they find interesting with drives and goals and they tell the GM what they are doing. This is decidedly not how I grew up gaming – in those days we all sat by looking for The Plot so we could solve The Story. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I think this is the opposing side of a player-led game – a GM-led game with a focus on crafted story arcs rather than character goals.

But often when you talk about a game like this, people hear “railroad.” And that’s bullshit. A GM-led story doesn’t automatically mean the game is railroaded. Railroading is a naughty word in gaming because it removes player choice from play. In a GM-led game, there’s still choices – there’s just right and wrong ones. “Oh well now Hogni is the king. You guys spent seven weeks on that quest…”

tl;dr a sandbox is a game where play is driven by characters with strong goals, as opposed to a game driven by an overarching story.

Mapping the Crawl

Art by Ruan Jia for Guild Wars 2

I want to refine the Navigating by Points system I laid out earlier. I’ll start with some general procedures and add some rules for Torchbearer and other OSR-like systems.

Crawling through a city is a complicated task and it is easy to lose your way and get lost. We can replicate this with the following system.

The Map

For this system to work, the characters will need to maintain a map for each neighborhood. This means that at least one character, our noble cartographer, needs paper and ink handy or some other note-taking means. It is assumed that this character spends free moments jotting down notes about the places discovered.

This character’s player will need to maintain a list as well, but it’s simply a short phrase or name of a place – “The Trindlebuck Inn” and “the shop over by the dirty river” are both fine.

Whenever the character with the map physically arrives at a new location, it can be added to the map. Additionally, more than one character can maintain a map, and they can freely share locations with each other.

Getting From Place to Place

Wandering through a city idly is a quick way to get yourself into a situation you don’t want yourself in. If you’re set on doing this, the GM is going to choose or roll for the next place you find, and it will incur the cost of some sort of hazard or encounter roll – finding a new place this way should always present some sort of trouble.

If you have gathered rumors or directions, and know where you want to end up, look to your cartographer. To get to a place based on directions, it will require some sort of test or skill check based on the size of your map. In 5e this would be an Investigation check, in Torchbearer it might be a Pathfinder or Cartographer test, and in Whitehack this might be an Intelligence test – for every five locations on your map, add +1 to the check in 5e, +1D in Torchbearer, or +1 Int for Whitehack.

On success, you make it, as expected and you get to add the location to your map. But if you fail, it’s up to the GM what happens – maybe you end up lost, or at a different establishment, or you have a run in with some street toughs. The place could even be closed down!

But What About My Map?

The benefit to keeping a map is that you can avoid all of the above. But be warned, events in the city, or other failed rolls can result in removal of items from your map. The city is alive and always changing. You never know when a place might get shut down, or simple cease to exist.

About those Rumors and Directions, though…

To recap the Navigating by Points post: when the players want to get to a new location, or find a new route to a location they know, the GM should impose one or two obstacles or interstitial points in between.

Using this system the GM has two options when the characters try to find information about a place – whether by asking around, paying for information, or trying to research the topic:

  1. They learn fuzzy or rough directions and must make a navigation test as described above. “Yeah, the Klouse Manse is definitely to the east… I know it’s got a wall around it, on one of the wider avenues…”
  2. They learn solid directions, but there’s something impeding them getting there. “Oh the Klouse Manse? See that taller building there? That’s it. But be careful, that Blue Scarf territory…”

Sometimes, they might learn both! “Oh yeah, them Blue Scarves are liable to knife you at this time of night… though, I think if you went around, it’s beyond their boarders… yeah, you just gotta make sure you loop around far enough!”


This is mostly untested, but I intend to try it out and see what happens. If you try something similar, let me know.

The Planarch Cantos: Take 2

Art by Te Hu

I posted this a few days ago, and have since made some changes (the campaign hasn’t started!).


Out in the great white void of the omniverse, the songs of reality echo outward, creating the Cantos – the worldspheres, holders of infinite realities. Each Canto sits fixed in the void, and those with the right tools can travel that space, alighting between strange worlds and new realities.

There exists one Canto unlike the others, for it is the dirge of the omniverse itself. It bumbles it’s way through the void, devouring the realities in its path, making their remnants a part of it so that it can grow.

This is Rivage – the First City, the Last City, the Great City – an impossibly immense urban sprawl made up of the bones of the dead worlds it has consumed. It is an architectural trash heap, filled with refugees and squatters, wonders and horrors. Every time it consumes another reality, it grows, building a new district – and there are hundreds, if not thousands.

Central Districts

Long ago, the people of the city consolidated major city services into seven of the oldest and largest districts:

    • The Liminal Quay (The Quay) is the market district on the edge of the City where it meets the void and great ships can set out to new realities. Anything in the omniverse can be purchased here if you can pay the price – including travel through the void.
    • The Still Lake (The Lake) is the district of luxury built in the half submerged temples of long forgotten gods. Here all manner of finery and wealth can be found – restaurants, hotels, sedan chairs, and opulent homes for the wealthy.
    • The Chamber of Echoes (The Chamber) is the civic district, full of tall marbled buildings that eerily listen and repeat anything said near or within their walls – prompting most business to be done by hand sign or written word. This is where the Rulemakers and Rulekeepers spend their days, where city policies are set, where disputes are settled, where laws are created – not that anyone listens to what these functionaries have to say.
    • The Exitant Cloister (The Exit) is the entertainment, vice, and pleasure district. A twisting maze of narrow alleyways that give way to establishments much larger inside than they should be. Any manner of wants can be found here, though one is just as likely to be the desired as the one who does the desiring.
    • The Thanic Blot (The Blot) does not so much provide a service as it does a necessity. The Blot is the consolidated slums of the city, in a district dotted with nothing but large cylindrical storage containers made of a foreign metal – stacked hundreds high, they now serve as homes for the poor.
    • The Penumbral Scaffold (The Scaffs) is where things are made – the district of industry and creation. Guildsmiths – the artists, magicians, and other craftspeople all work side by side here – anything that can be produced through creativity and skill, is. The district itself is an immeasurably large indoor space full of twisting corridors and winding stairs. The scaffs, as the individual rooms are called, often have pre-existing amenities like running water, furnaces, or gaslights.
    • The Garden Agglomeration (The Agg) is probably the most important but least appealing district in the whole city. Here Collectors bring refuse, sewage, and the dead into the deep underground tunnels to be processed, burned, or disposed of in any number of ways. These processes keep the massive jungle-garden above alive and thriving – for it is the source of most of the city’s basic foodstuffs and materials.


This feels much better to me. Still not fully settled on the names of these core districts, though. I have a bunch of bullets for each district that I need to organize, and each district also has at least one gang that makes their home there.

Navigating by Points

Art by Astral-Requin

This is a response to Brian Ashford‘s awesome post about wilderness travel by points.

Pointcrawling has been around for a while, but I don’t know where the term originated. In a pointcrawl, the spaces between points are handwaved – play moves from point to point, where the interesting bits are.

What I like most about Brian’s system here is that it’s an impromptu pointcrawl. I like that it can be used to indicate difficulty of a path, by choosing differing points. It reminds me a lot of Chris MacDowell’s Route Mapping in Bastion.

So lemme try to mechanize this with some procedures.

Mapping: As in a dungeon, the players will need to maintain a physical map by making a note of each point they’ve been to, and what other points they connect to. They can travel to any known point through established paths – this may produce events or encounters depending on which points they traverse.

Travelling: When the players want to get to a new point, or want a new path to a known point, the GM provides at least two options – each with one or two obstacles or new points to get through with.

Example: The characters have been in this neighborhood for some time. They have various businesses listed on their map, as well as the sewers where they killed that ratkin, and a tunnel through the walls to the small forest outside the walls.

The characters now want to stealthily get into a rich manse in the next neighborhood over, so they ask the GM. The GM provides three options: 1) you can go through the sewers and travel underneath the city (new point) to get there; 2) you can simply head to the next neighborhood but there’s a ton of peacekeepers patrolling (obstacle); or 3) you can head out to the woods, scale the city wall (obstacle) and take the rooftops (obstacle) to the manse. What should they do?