Player Character Libraries



Gamemastering is a labor of love. Which is the same as saying that it is an obsession and a compulsion that should probably be reconsidered. But what this lesson in the Gamemaster’s Art is going to focus on is the labor. Gamemastering is a lot of work in limited time, so you want to do the most work in the least amount of time and get the best return on your hours. One easy way to do this is to keep a Player Character library.

To create a PC library, make a character sheet on Word, or another word processing program. Use that sheet each time you create a new PC, but modify it for each character so that the it only contains the relevant information. Most RPG character sheets are badly designed because they list every skill in the game, not just the ones the character has, or they have a space for spell lists even if the character can’t cast spells. This creates useless clutter in small print. Don’t use those templates.

Take your template, and build a player character. At first, you want to build ones that are common to the gameworld. In Shadowrun, you want gangers and corporate security to begin. In Pathfinder, Fighters and Rogues are a good start. Usually it is best to start with human PCs, because they can most easily be modified into other races – in fact, that is one of your first labor-saving tricks. If you build a human ganger using the character generation rules, that will take maybe forty minutes. But once you have that character, you copy and paste her to the end of your document, and in ten minutes, you can push a few statistics around to make her into an ork ganger, and now you have two PCs in your library.

You’ll be using these first basic templates as the chassis of lots of different NPCs, so avoid anything unusual. It would be a little weird if every town guardsman the PCs encountered was proficient with an aklys, or if every human ganger in Seattle had a cyberleg. You can get into more exotic variants later.

Building these template PCs will make you more practiced at character creation, and you’ll learn about the rules as you look for the best character builds. When new expansions come out, making characters with the new options is a great way to learn the ins and outs of those options. It also integrates those options into your campaign very quickly, because now your NPCs are using them.

Do not go to the trouble of complete equipment lists. You’ll assign equipment later, as the need arises.

Take that Shadowrun ganger you just built, the human. You can trade points around in a matter of minutes to create new variants – a tough ganger who is good with a submachine gun can become an agile ganger skilled with a netgun very quickly. Save that new variant to the end of your document, and your library grows.

Once constructed, these templates brim with versatility and almost unlimited mileage. They can be used as PCs – whenever a player needs a character, you offer your library. The player can save themselves a lot of time by choosing to use an existing template with a few of their own modifications instead of building a whole new one. This is especially handy for players new to gaming or new to the game system, for drop-in games at cons, or for out-of-town visitors.

And they can be used as NPCs. And one template goes a long way here, especially when you disguise it with cosmetics. The PCs might encounter four road-worn NPCs on their wilderness trek – two of them are female, one of them is tall, one of them is missing an ear; two have spears, one has an ax, one has a bow and a blue cloak. The players will neither notice nor care that they all use the same Fighter stats. Nor will the players notice when those same stats reappear three adventures down the line, with slight modifications, in six soldiers in resplendent uniforms guarding a castle gatehouse.

And dialing the power up or down is easy. In level systems like Pathfinder, you just make a new variant at a different level, and your library grows again. In experience buy systems like Shadowrun or The World of Darkness, you just add or subtract points from the dice pools for your particular encounter. Of course, the power of an NPC can also change a lot depending on their equipment.

Variable attributes, like Shadowrun’s Edge, Vampire’s Blood Pool, or Werewolf’s Rage, offer a very easy way to adjust NPC power from one encounter to the next, too. Just add or subtract as necessary.

When you need a recurring NPC, there’s probably a character in your library that can be made to serve, maybe with a few additions or modifications. If there isn’t, make one – your library grows by one, and your new NPC is ready to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. But remember to make a legal PC with the character generation rules first, then add power later.

A note here. Many game systems have rules for Goons or Minions, NPCs by the dozen who use a simplified version of the rules intended to reduce GM bookkeeping. This is always an example of bad game design. Yes, they use a simplified version of the rules – but it’s still another version of the rules to keep straight, another set of characters to produce and handle. Goons can’t be converted into major NPCs or PCs, and they rarely provide any kind of challenging or interesting encounter. Don’t use Goons.

Keeping a PC library will teach you about character creation and the game rules, while providing you with a never-ending spring of every kind of NPC. This saves the most valuable gaming resource a GM has – time.

Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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