Sep 14

GMCs as Onions: Building Personality in Layers


Shrek: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.
Donkey: Example?
Shrek: Example . . . Uh . . . Ogres are like onions!


One of the hardest tasks for a GM is to populate their world with interesting GMCs.


Yet, by adopting the layered approach, this need not be such a difficult task. We are all onions, made up of layers that we reveal to different people in different ways. There is no reason why the inhabitants of a RPG setting should be any different.


This technique can give you faster prep and more story, as it both simplifies the creation process and suggests greater depth to the world. As an example, let us follow the story of Isander.


Layer 1: The Passer-by

The Heroes first meet Isander on the streets of Pyraeus, as they are looking for directions. The Heroes are newly arrived in the bustling town, and have no idea where they should be going. The tell the GM that they are asking a passer-by for directions. Enter Isander.


At this point, Isander is just an improvised GMC. The GM reacts to the Player’s request by announcing that they stop a random man, who gives them the necessary information. The Heroes thank the stranger, and continue on their way.


At the first layer, Isander need not even be named. All he has is a basic description, human male, and a home, Pyraeus. For the moment Isander is the equivalent of an extra in a film, and little more than just a face in the crowd. This layer represents GMCs as background. If the Heroes are in a town, then the town must have inhabitants, even if they are not individually fleshed out in game terms.


Layer 2: The Barfly

Let us take Isander onwards another step, and introduce him to the Heroes properly. Suppose the Heroes have gathered in a drinking establishment for some reason. There is a lull in the conversation at the table, and one Player asks who else is at the bar.


The GM decides that the Heroes recognise the passer-by from earlier in the day. One Hero wanders over to talk with him, and the Players are properly introduced to Isander. At this point, he now has a name. Or rather, he always had a name, but as we are reaching the second layer of Isander, when his name is given to the Players.


As the Player has a conversation with Isander, more details are revealed. Perhaps he has been unlucky in love, and is drinking away his coin. The GM can use this opportunity to pass on some rumours or other information that needs to be given to the Heroes. Along with the transfer of information, more about Isander is presented.


There is likely to be a more detailed physical description, perhaps his lopsided grin and unkempt hair. Likewise, his mannerisms may be revealed, such as taking a long pull of his drink before answering a tricky question.


Finally, some of his background and personality are revealed. This is not a complete character portrait, but at this point Isander has progressed from being just a face in the crowd. Now he has a name, some motivations and snippets of background and personality. In film terms, Isander has progressed to being a bit-part, one that has a speaking role, and is named in the credits, but may only appear in a scene or two.



Layer 3: The Shopkeeper

Let us suppose that the Heroes stay in Pyraeus for several days, or return there regularly. Either way, they certainly explore a lot more of the town and wander into the leather-worker’s shop for equipment or trade goods. There they meet Isander, but now in his role as shopkeeper.


The GM has now elevated Isander to a recurring role. He is a drinking companion to at least one of the Heroes, and now appears in a different situation in his primary job. This is a good way for the GM to revisit GMCs, to reuse them in different roles to maximise their function in the game, and make the most of the time spent preparing the character.


Isander’s mannerisms have previously been established, but this layer deepens his backstory and adds nuance to his personality. Isander has moved from being a slightly one-dimensional barfly into a more rounded character, with a job, staff, residence, personality and likely some elements of background.


In film terms, he has become a supporting actor, who appears in several different places in the story, and can fulfil different roles. The GM can use him as a friend to the Heroes, a Patron or as a source of information about Pyraeus. As the layers of Isander are revealed, he gains functionality and depth.


Layer 4: The Lover

Finally, let us take Isander to the last stage, and make him a lover of one of the Heroes. This would have developed out of the drinking companionship, and would not progress without the agreement of the Player concerned. Although, this could be unrequited love, which pushes Isander into the role of antagonist as he initiates events in pursuit of his love interest.


Howsoever it happens, Isander has grown to take a more central role in the story. Further elements of his personality have been revealed, and by this stage the GM has created some game statistics or abilities for Isander. If Isander progresses to being the significant other of one of the Heroes, then he may even merit a full write-up, and thus become as detailed as the Heroes themselves.


In film terms, Isander has become a regular character, virtually one of the central roles in the story. At this point, he would almost certainly be cast as a famous actor, although not quite as the star of the film. His role has grown steadily, as the layers of his personality have been peeled away.


Layers and Faster Prep

Applying the principle of layers to your GMCs brings you several advantages. Firstly, it streamlines the process, giving you faster prep. Only create those layers that you need for the given role, or current role of a character. If you can cut your workload to a bare minimum, and do not over-prepare, then the process will be a lot faster.


Of course, there is no reason why you cannot return to a previous GMC and bring them back in a bigger role. Again, this saves you time, as you have already put in the work on the character. Just as Isander developed in the examples above, so too your GMCs can put in repeat appearances to build up their presence in your story.


Such repeat characters build a greater sense of community for the Players. Yes, it could have been entirely new people at the tavern or in the leather-worker’s shop, but that could make a town seem disjointed. Instead, by having Isander fill all those roles, there is a sense of Pyraeus as a small, living community.


Layers and More Story

Yet, the biggest advantage of the layers approach to GMCs is to present the Players with the sense that everyone really does have personality and story. As the Players learn more about a GMC, they find that there is more to discover, more background and a more complex personality. This suggests that this principle is true for all of your GMCs, which it would be.


Suddenly, instead of cardboard characters named Willam, your world is seen as being full of individuals who would have stories to tell should the Heroes speak to them. So long as the Players believe that your setting is full of story, then you have a story-rich environment providing you reinforce this idea when the Players go looking for these stories.


My previous article about Heroes as “nexus of change” presents a different approach to support this concept.



Building your GMCs as layered characters both saves you time and brings more story potential to the table. The Players will be rewarded for interacting with your world, and many characters will grow organically through the story.


How would you present the layers of your GMCs? Share your ideas in the comments below.


Happy Gaming


Something for the Weekend next week: RPG Blog Alliance Carnival

Sep 11

Prep in Progress: Chapter 25, Part 2


Real Life & a Chapter title


The Prep in Progress entries are short summaries of my prep for my ongoing campaign The Tales of the Hero Wars.


Sadly, Real Life got the better of me yesterday, and my game prep amounted to little more than deciding upon the Chapter title for the next Session. This is really not good enough, and if there was a game this week, then I would be in trouble.


So, I need to juggle my schedule for the rest of the week, and try to squeeze in some extra game prep, assuming that real life does not intervene again. It is important to be flexible with a schedule wherever possible, especially if it involves young children. Yet, having already fallen behind on the Wiki, I know the problem with needing to catch up. I shall try to make room elsewhere for the game prep that was missed yesterday.


Therefore, with very little achieved yesterday, there is not much to write about today. I shall cut this short, and hope to have better news for you next week.


Happy Gaming


Sep 11

Kickstarting Spirit of 77: Funky 1970s RPG

Spirit 77



The previous Kickstarter I recommended was Designers & Dragons, a history of the RPG industry written by Shannon Appelcline.


September is gearing up to have some awesome crowdfunding projects, and this is the first one.


Spirit of 77, by David Kizzia and Bob Richardson, uses the Apocalypse World engine created by D Vincent Baker. The campaign page describes the game as follows:


Spirit of 77 is an over-the-top, pedal-to-the-metal, nitro-burning, action adventure role playing game about an alternate history 1977. Richard Nixon has made a deal with aliens, and is still in the White House; renegade rock gods from another galaxy have shared with us the power of Glam; kung-fu bad-asses wander the city streets righting wrongs, and everyone is trying to stick it to The Man.

Spirit of 77 is about recreating all the classic action and adventure TV shows, movies, and comic books of the 1970’s. It draws inspiration from movies like Shaft, Smokey and the Bandit, The Warriors, Barbarella, Rocky, and Enter the Dragon; TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files, and Charlie’s Angels; and music like James Brown, KISS, David Bowie, Jerry Reed, and Isaac Hayes.


This is a very stylish game, with great attitude. I remember enough of the source material for this to offer me a real nostalgia trip. My Players are a lot younger than I am, so this could be a hard sell to pitch it to them.


However, I am also interested to see what the game does with the Apocalypse World engine. Spirit of 77 promises to amp up the power, and encourage the same over-the-top stunts that I want to see in my HeroQuest 2 games. As to be expected, there is only a brief summary on the campaign page of the proposed rules modifications, but I like what I see. I am especially interested in the inclusion of character motivation as an ability. This idea could easily be adopted into my main game.


Funding for Spirit of 77 closes Thursday, October 2nd. This Kickstarter is already 300% funded with three weeks remaining. There is a sample scenario to download, and the Stretch Goals include more art and bonus scenarios.


Support Spirit of 77 for all the best parts of a bad decade.


Can you dig it?

Sep 09

Prep in Progress: Chapter 25, Part 1


New Player, delayed Chapter & new prep schedule


The Prep in Progress entries are short summaries of my prep for my ongoing campaign The Tales of the Hero Wars.


It was another good game on Saturday, although with not quite the same level of improvisation as last time. This was the climax of the current story arc, but did not see the same degree of Player-input as before. I do not see this as a fault of the narrative systems we have in place, just a change in pace. There will be plenty of chances for brainstorming in the next session, so we should see a return of strong Player-led input.


It was also great to have a new Player observe our game. Even if the new addition is to be more of a part-time Player, our style of play can accommodate a Player who can only make some of the sessions. I think we could cope with four regular Players, but the step up to three from two will be a big help, and change the inter-Player dynamics.


The rest of the weekend was not as productive for me as I would have liked. I wrote the Song, but not the Chapter part of the write-up. This is yet to be complete, and I would prefer to have uploaded both of them to the Wiki by now. So, I need to sort those out today, if I can. That will then leave me with the standard game prep for tomorrow. However, with no game this coming weekend, I shall switch instead to focusing on the framework for the new Hero to be brought into the game next session. Then, I shall turn to the inevitable Wiki backlog.


I have changed my schedule, so that I shall be working on my game prep tomorrow afternoon, rather than the usual morning slot. I am hoping that this will be just as productive for me.


Happy Gaming


Sep 09

Famous Dice 01: Anne Boleyn


The previous Of Dice and Geeks was Bad Weather.


Anne Boleyn


It has been a while since I a new series of dice “jokes” were added to Tales of a GM. Today is one of those days.


So, here is the first part of another infrequent series of dice in strange poses. Now, with added accessories, thank you Playmobil.


Happy Gaming


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