December 30, 2019

The Five Core Elements of Your Character Map

On last Friday’s GM Advice post, I discussed how using a character map for your NPCs empowers you as the GM to better channel your characters during the course of the story. This week’s #worldbuildingMonday post is an extension of that topic and drills down into the specifics of the character map and how best to develop it during your tabletop RPG worldbuilding.

Zooming out, a character map is essentially a glorified character sheet/card for your NPCs. Common descriptors like name, age, role/position/class, skills/abilities, and basic stats are certainly present. But what brings the “map” element to a character map is diagramming how your NPC fits into the broader story world as a hole.

There are a number of different angles from which to approach the mapping but the most effective for a wide variety of stories is the following:

Major Life Events

These “Core Five” character elements form the nexus of your character map for each of your major NPCs. Each category allows you to “plug in” the NPC to the broader context of the story and story world.

Taking for example Obi Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars, if you were to write a super basic “Core Five” character map for him at the beginning of A New Hope, it would look something like the following:

Goals/Wants/Needs: Restore the Jedi. Defeat the Empire. In an ideal world, redeem his student, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.
Loyalty/Allegiances: The Jedi. The Republic. Luke Skywalker.
Enemies: The Sith. The Empire. The Emperor. In some ways, his former student Dark Vader. “Scum and Villainy.”
Major Life Events: Lost his Jedi Master too soon. Lost his dear student to the Dark Side. Lost the Republic to the Empire. Watches out for his student’s lost son, Luke, as a hermit.
Temperament: Even-keeled. Wise. Experienced. Doesn’t get rattled.

Mixing the “Core Five” with the name, role/class, abilities etc. paints a great picture of your non-player characters and will serve as the foundation for their choices, what they say, and how they say it. Instead of figuring all that out live as the GM, this character mapping step during worldbuilding makes all that downstream work easier. You’ll find that you have to focus less on thinking and get to focus more on feeling as these characters. Your ability to channel them increases because you’ve taken away a lot of the work with this worldbuilding preparation.

And of course, you can customize the “Core Five” Character Map elements to meet the needs of your story however you’d like; just remember: this exercise isn’t there to generate more work for you. It’s there to ultimately make your role as the GM easier and certainly more effective. So get mapping! You won’t regret it!