Creating Optional Characters

Steve Hatherley

Freeforms are usually written with a set number of characters in mind. This works wonderfully when you get the number of players that you need, but if you don’t have enough players (at a convention, say) then you have one of three options:

  • You run the game with fewer than the required number of players and patch over the holes.
  • You frantically rewrite the game at the last minute.
  • You choose not to run the game at all.

At Freeform Games and we sell freeform style murder mystery games to the public over the internet. We understand that that there can be last minute cancellations (or additions) to our customers’ parties and we cater for such uncertainties by including optional characters to ensure that our games are suitable for a range of player numbers.

I’m not quite sure why optional characters aren’t used more widely, but here’s what I’ve learned from writing and editing optional characters for Freeform Games.

Writing optional characters

An optional character is nothing more than a character who isn’t essential to the running of the freeform. Key plots won’t break if you remove optional characters – although there will be some impact around the edges of the game as there will be fewer characters to interact with. You may find that you’ve already got characters in your freeform who aren’t essential, but you just hadn’t noticed.

I’ve found that there are broadly three routes to writing optional characters. First, you remove characters from an existing game. Second, you can add a new character to an existing game. Third, you can plan for optional characters as you’re writing your freeform.

A note on gender: my preference is that optional characters should, if possible, be gender neutral so that anyone can play them.

Removing characters from an existing game: Personally I think that this is the hardest way to create optional characters. Once I’ve written a game, I find it hard to work out who the optional characters really are. However, I’ve done this more than once and here’s my approach to removing characters from an existing game:

  • First, I work out what the core plots are - the ones I want to keep no matter how few players I have. Then I look at each character and work out who is absolutely crucial to those plots. That should give me a list of the core characters; everyone else is optional. (This is so much easier if the game was written using a plot matrix.)
  • Once I know who the optional characters are, I work out in which order they are optional. Broadly, a character with little impact on the game is “more optional” (ie I’ll drop them first) than someone with greater impact.
  • When I know which characters are optional, I look at each to identify how unique they are. So if a particular character has a lot of money that the game needs, or an item, or information, or an ability, then I need to redistribute that to another character. (In terms of information, I will normally create a separate briefing sheet for the core characters.) I make notes on how this works so that in case I run the game again.

If you’re running a convention game and you don’t get enough sign ups, then I recommend that you work out which characters you’re going to use, and then turn the rest into optional characters so that if you get a late sign up you can add them into the game. I would prepare the game assuming that all the roles will be filled, and only make the adjustments needed to cover missing characters once the final attendance has been confirmed. For this to work you need to have the notes about optional characters to hand and make the final adjustments (information, money, items, etc) while everyone is reading their character sheets.

Add a new character to an existing game: When you have more players than your game needs then you need to add some optional characters. Here’s how I go about doing that:

  • Decide on the extra character that you want to write. Often the easiest route is to build on an existing character by adding an assistant or a deputy – or even a rival. If you already know that one of the characters tends to be very busy, give them an extra pair of hands. For less-busy characters, write a character who will create additional conflict.
  • Characters with self-contained goals and motives are fairly easy to add to any game. For example, a reporter looking for the latest big story or key interview is fairly easy to add into almost any game. However, you still need to tie these characters into the game so that they don’t feel too left out.
  • If there’s a mechanic in your game (e.g. movie making in Hollywood Lies, or any kind of voting/popularity contest) then it’s relatively easy to add a character that fits into that mechanic.
  • If you are writing several additional characters consider grouping them together so that they can have their own plot, but if you do that don’t forget to tie them into the main game as well.
  • Use the same format, abilities, etc that the original characters use. Often you can use some of the same text – such as when a new character’s involvement in a plot is the same as one of the existing character’s.
  • Once you’ve written the new character you need to update the cast list and write extra text for some of the original characters that give them links to the new characters. For example, if you’ve written an assistant for one of the characters, obviously you need to tell that character about their new assistant, Not everyone needs to know about the new characters, just enough people that they don’t seem like complete outsiders.

If you plan to re-run your game at some point, then you might want to think about future runs. For example, say that you need three extra characters for the 2012 run. If you wrote it so that one of the characters would stand alone but the other two worked together, then you create the flexibility to be able to cater for one, two or three additional players for when you run it again in 2016.

Write them as you’re going along: The third approach is that when you’re writing your game, write optional characters into the game from the start. We do this in Freeform Games and my approach is:

  • First, identify potential optional characters from the start of the process so that you don’t give them key roles in the key plots.
  • Use the plot matrix to identify characters with relatively low scores; that suggests that they can be removed relatively easy.
  • Don’t be too fixed on who is optional and who isn’t; it quite often happens that the final optional character list changes by the end of the writing process.

The problems with optional characters

Optional characters aren’t without problems, and the main one is that they can seem peripheral to a lot of the other plots in the game. This can be overcome by giving them strong internal problems to solve, or key resources (skills, money, knowledge) that make them valuable to those plots. You can also work them into a “mechanical” part of a game (such as the Hollywood Lies movie making plot mentioned above), or by adding an amateur detective in a murder mystery or an additional foreign power in a diplomacy/espionage game.

You also solve many of the problems by tieing them closely to other characters – make them friends or colleagues, particularly of those who already have plenty to do. I also recommend giving optional characters lots of good links into the key plots (that they may or may not follow up), and powerful abilities that make them valuable to other players.

When you’ve finished writing an optional character then I suggest you read through it and ask yourself, “Would I be happy to play this character?” If the answer isn’t “yes” then you have more work do to.

Using un-played optional characters during play

As well as using optional characters to help balance player numbers, you can use the unplayed characters in a number of ways during play:

  • As the GM, you can let other players interact with those characters through you. So if the missing characters have key information, money or abilities, they can still influence the game. When I’m doing this I always let the players drive the interaction – I won’t go to them as the characters, I let them come to me.
  • You could let an assistant GM play each of the characters as “bit parts” or minor characters. To do this, give them all the additional characters and let them play all of them. They would only play one of them at a time, and each of them for only a few minutes. Their job is primarily to help the GM by interacting with the “main” characters and ensuring that everyone is having a good time. (They shouldn’t be so concentrated on achieving all their goals, for example.)
  • You can use the additional characters as replacements for those players whose characters meet an untimely demise. This works best for those characters who are killed off early in the game – towards the end of the game I find that there’s often not enough time to get completely into a new character, and it can be more satisfying just to enjoy your character’s death and watch the rest of the freeform.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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