Creating new characters in seconds is one of the most challenging aspects of running a roleplaying game. If you can do it well and quickly your children will love the characters you provide for their heroes to interact with. Here’s a simple trick to make creating memorable characters easier, I call it Two Word Characters.
Let’s say your players have their heroes go to a shop where they encounter a shop-keeper. Assuming they just want to buy something this should be an easy encounter to manage. Ask them what they want, decide if it’s available, name the price, complete the transaction. That’s how shopping works in the real world. But it’s not memorable. It’s not the sort of thing that should be in a story. In a game for grownups you might just skip the whole thing and say ‘You buy the goods. Now, back to the action…’
But kids aren’t great with that kind of hand-waving. If they’ve decided to do something they want to do it. And besides, when you’re five going to the shops is exciting. So now imagine it again, but this time instead of ‘shopkeeper’ we have the ‘lazy shopkeeper’, or the ‘excitable shopkeeper’ or the ‘forgetful shopkeeper’. So when our heroes walk into the shop you say
“The shopkeeper is asleep at the till”
“The shopkeeper bounds across the floor towards you. He grabs your hands and shakes it. ‘Customers’ he shouts. I love new customers!’”
“The shopkeeper greets you. “Welcome to Bob’s Sandwich shop, or is it a shoe shop? I can’t remember. What does it say on the door?’”
For a simple interaction a single adjective is all you need to make a character interesting. Especially if you make sure to bring it right out in the character’s actions, appearance and environment. The lazy shopkeeper isn’t just slow, he’s asleep. Once he’s awake he’ll talk slowly. He’ll try and get the heroes to do all the work ‘Do we have horseshoes? I don’t know. There’s a list of all the things we have in that book. Why don’t you take a look?’ When it comes to paying him he can’t be bothered to make change so he’ll round the price up to the nearest large number. He’ll be dressed in his pajamas, and everything in his shop will still be packed in the boxes it was delivered in. His extreme behavior will make him memorable and quite probably funny.
Single adjectives work well when they’re not clichés. Everyone expects pirates to be fierce and princesses to be kind, so mix it up. Introduce your heroes to the kind pirate and the fierce princess.
And don’t feel you have to stick to words your young players will know. You’re never going to say ‘This is Bob the lazy shopkeeper’, you’re going to show how lazy he is. So feel free to use adjectives that belong in a grown up vocabulary.
Here’s a list of ten adjectives and ten fantasy roles. Pair them up at random for great results.
Write yourself a list of adjectives before the game starts and whenever the heroes encounter a new character pick an adjective for them. If you want to give yourself a challenge use your adjectives in the order you wrote them down and see what happens. Then your heroes might find themselves confronting an affectionate bank robber, or discovering that they have just rescued an irate unicorn. Whatever happens next, it will be memorable.