One thing that can make or break a video game, or a film, is its characters. It’s important to be able to believe in them, to like them (or really hate them), to feel that there’s a sense of realness to them. They can be tools to tell stories, help players relate, and even give players real agency in the actions going on around them.
In an FPS, you don’t need to worry – much – about the main character, as that’s usually player-controlled, but if you think of the shooters that feature strong central characters (Halo and Max Payne come to mind), they can make a good experience even richer.
In an RPG, where the player has a lot more control; the trick lies in being able to make that control integrate with the world. BioWare’s great at that kind of thing, and while the ending to Mass Effect 3 might have ruffled some, there’s no doubting that players all over the world felt an unrivalled investment in the game because of their perceived control over it.
And a supporting cast in any game is important – it’s the NPCs that you interact with that will make the world seem real.
In a tabletop (or, freeform, if you want to pick nits), characters represent no less of a challenge. In a game with the depth that I’m aiming for in my Star Trek campaign, I’ll need to create crew-members for my players to interact with, Admirals to give them orders, villains to hate... a whole cast, pretty much. But there’s the added challenge of then integrating the players into that world, and at the same time giving them enough choice and structure to, a) make exactly the kind of character they want, and b) feel that their own story is a part of the wider story happening in the world around them.
A cast of thousands
One of the bonuses of using an established and well known setting like Star Trek for a game is that you’ve got a lot of characters that already exist that you can use as NPCs. The TV shows are full of Admirals and other officers, named villains, random travellers, and all the rest. You don’t want to overdo it, but there’s nothing like having your players get their orders from Captain Picard every now and then. This counts just as much for any setting, really – from Star Wars to historical settings, using characters that your players will recognise helps anchor the story you’re trying to tell.
And, again, it’s a lovely shorthand; you don’t have to over-describe every little thing about the character for the players to understand who they’re dealing with. With a series like Trek, even minor characters have a wealth of detail dedicated to them on sites like Memory Alpha.
But, to make the game your own, you need your own characters – ones designed to tell exactly the stories you want. NPCs don’t need a lot of detail, but you do need enough so that they can stand apart – stuff like build, hair colour, a few details on background and demeanour. You’ll need to describe it all to start with, but eventually the PCs will learn these characters too, so that the Beta Shift Transport Chief, the one who lost his wife at Wolf 359 and now has bit of a crush on one of the players, becomes as important to the game as the ones you’ve lifted from canon.
It can be tough to get this kind of subtlety across when you’re sitting around a table, though never underestimate the power of a dodgy accent. However, when you’re playing ‘live’, you can mess about with body language. Nothing says Picard like confidently tugging your shirt into place, or suggesting a character like Will Riker by using his confident swagger. If you come up with similar signature habits for all your important NPCs, they’ll be even easier to portray.
One of the reasons I’ve chosen a Saber class vessel for the ship the game’s set on is it only has a crew of forty. I have a roster of each crewmen, their rank, race, and what they do on board. It’s going to really help.
It’s also worth pointing out to aspiring GMs, that you should always try to be comfortable with whatever NPC you’re trying to play. The big challenge of running a game is playing the whole world, but you can at least make it easier on yourself by not making it too hard. Personally, I know the kinds of characters I’m good at, so they tend to populate my games. Play to your strengths.