For roughly how long have you been playing with Phoenix and its predecessors?
Based on when I saved Brandon's file, I joined AJJE in late May or early June 2010. Not long after that came the Schism, and for many reasons, one of which was that Ash and Deb welcomed me unreservedly when I first joined, I followed them to Phoenix. Since then I've started a few Sims of my own, taken over GM duties, made all those characters I mentioned before, ran for office (and was thoroughly beaten, and rightly so), and have taken over the Phoenix wiki. I have also taken on the position as the Awards and Rewards Officer.
Not only do you play different characters in different sims, but you also have a few NPCs that you have created and control as the GM of a few sims. Could you tell a bit about these NPCs and how they came to be?
One of these NPCs is Jane V. Johnson on the Firefly sim Odyssey. Designed as a recurring antagonist for the Odyssey crew, Jane is a cold businesswoman whose ambition sometimes blinds her to danger. She is based off of the wonderful Jane Badler and the V character, 'Diana', she portrayed (both in the original series and the short-lived reboot).
As a player on the Odyssey myself, I've had the pleasure (although my character certainly wouldn't use that word) of running into Jane. I immediately got the impression that you've taken a lot of time to design this character and the company she represents. Is that true? Would you say that she took about as much time coming up with as other characters, or did it take you longer, or perhaps shorter?
Actually, Jane came to me rather quickly. I knew when I took over as GM for the Odyssey that I wanted to introduce some kind of pirate or bounty hunter type that would be a recurring nemesis for the Odyssey crew. This idea came out of my brainstorming how I was going to get one of the characters in that sim, Ayla, ‘home’ to find out that her stepfather was still alive and looking for her. I figured if I were Buddy, an important person in Ayla’s background story, the easiest way to find her would be to put a bounty on her. So that's how I came up with the concept of Jane, although I didn't know who she'd be then. One night I was watching the remake of V with Jane Badler in her role as Diana. As a kid, I remembered being intrigued by the original Diana (also played at that time by Jane Badler), and knew that she would be just cold and heartless enough to pull off what I wanted to do with the character. It was also my homage to Jane and the overall V series (Jane's middle initial, for instance, points directly to the series), and because I knew the new series was soon to be cancelled because the writers were just terrible. The company Jane Johnson works for is also a nod towards the series (and the other major actor in the original V, Marc Singer), and her ship (The Devils Double) is named after the musical album Badler released [You learn something new every day – Ed.]. The company itself took longer than Jane's character, since I was already using the Diana character as a template (although Diana was a seductress, she never actually fell in love with anyone, but I wanted Jane to have a bit of vulnerability as well, especially after the Captain sweet talked her a bit). I spent an evening researching bounty hunters and how one gets into the business. Since the company is relatively new to bounty hunting, I needed to know how a small company would organically grow into it. The idea that they were originally dealers of information made sense, as gathering information is probably the most important step of trying to collect a bounty (that is, information on where your target is located).
Another group of NPCs I’ve created is Edward Carter and the NPC senior staff on the Star Trek sim USS Repulse. All of these NPCs were pre-designed prior to Phoenix, because they were used in one-off Star Trek tabletop adventures I have run. I actually have a full set of senior staff that were used as pre-made playable characters, each with their own backgrounds and motivations, but I have limited playing roles that are already filled (such as the Tactical and Science officers). Each has their own personality and background.
An entire NPC-staff? Wow! You had already created these NPCs before you joined Phoenix. So before you joined you already had experience with RPG gaming, although tabletop and screen RPGs aren't of course exactly the same. Nevertheless, do you feel that your experience in table top RPGs helped you a lot with creating characters? Or was it different to create a character for computer than for a tabletop RPG?
I've also had previous experience with freeform simming. They really aren't that much different, especially if you've done ‘old’ table top RPing that actually requires imagination and creativity instead of pushing miniatures around a grid on the table. Some of my favorite RPGs have been Cthulu games, because it is almost ALL roleplaying - there is very little combat involved because in a Cthulu game, you have no chance to fight the monsters! So that experience has definitely helped me. I've had the pleasure to know a lot of really good role-players over the years, from tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs (I spent a few years following the development of Neverwinter Nights, and met a lot of great friends during that time). I've role-played with kings of the RPG industry (living so close to the Wizards of the Coast HQ helps - for those that don't know, WotC is the company that produces D&D ever since they bought TSR back in the 90s), and those experiences have all helped. I also took quite a few acting classes in high school, enough that I considered majoring in Drama in college and pursuing an acting career (the desire to actually make money and put food on my table made me decide on a different career path, though). So, to answer your question, I don't think that creating a character for a table top RPG is much different than for an online sim. Both characters will have motivations and aspirations, life lessons they've learned and mistakes they've learned from.
Both your playable characters as your NPCs are very detailed in regards of background story and personalities. Could you describe the difference in creating a playable character and an NPC?
For me they are one in the same, at least for NPCs that I know I'll be using a lot or that will be interacting with the party a lot. There will always be bit characters that are background, which may have only a line or two in the story. I don't detail them out unless they start becoming more prominent in their roles. The idea is to provide a believable backdrop, not detail everything completely. So many have little more than a name and the role they play, and perhaps a few lines about their personality or relationships. Most other details that may be needed can be made up on the spot, but usually it doesn't come up. As much as I'd like to do have full backgrounds on everyone, I just don't have the time! So I provide the illusion that the world is very deep in detail, when in reality if you peeked behind the wrong curtain you'd find an incredibly blank slate.
How did you come up with each character? Are they for example something you’ve worked on for quite some time, building them bit by bit, or did they simply come to you at one point, or is it something else entirely?
Some of them I've worked on over time - the entire crew of the USS Repulse, for instance, I worked on over a long time. Most of the others just kind of came to me. I usually start with at least a basic character concept, then I find a picture to help me get a visual image of them. Sometimes I don't fully flesh out their backgrounds, only giving it a slight structure so I can fill in details as I go. Some of them, such as Carolyn or Elizabeth, inspire me so much that I do create very detailed backgrounds for them. Most of the time the characters form in my head as I'm researching their backgrounds. I think about small details such as where they went to school, what kinds of friends they had, how did they grow up. I can spend a lot of time researching backgrounds for characters if I let myself. Doing so makes the character more believable, and I can portray the character in a much more consistent manner the more I know about them.
You mention pictures to go with characters. You say that finding a picture might help you get a visual image of the characters. So when you set out to design a character, you only start out with personality and not with a rough idea of how the character will look like?
I generally have a rough idea of what they look like when I start my search. That's what makes finding the picture easier. Long hair or short hair, handsome or ugly, tall or short. As I'm creating their backgrounds, the come into my head and I begin to formulate a sense of who they are, and what their appearance is.
Has it ever been the other way around with a character for you? That you started out with the idea of how a character should look and then build the rest from there?
I'm sure there has been some time in the past that has happened, but not with any of my current characters. Fiona Sang may be the closest, I knew she would be Chinese, but I also wanted to capture the western flare of the Firefly universe. You'd be surprised how few images there are of Chinese actresses in Old Western garb. So I had the image before fleshing out her background, although I already knew the niche she was going to fill in the Cydonia sim. Maybe the closest to having the image first was Ensign Roux, one of my NPCs on the Repulse. I think I found her picture when looking for some of the other Repulse characters, and it was such an intriguing, alluring image I had to make her into a character. At least, that's what I think happened; it's been a long time. It's also possible I simply had searched for "French Model" and her image came up. That's how it tends to work.
Where do you find inspiration for your characters? For example, are they based on existing persons, or are they completely original?
I take inspiration from a lot of sources, such as TV (V, Castle), movies (Hamlet, Galaxy Quest), and video games (Alan Wake). However, much of the time as I develop a character I get a certain sense of what I want them to look like in my head, and then I go out and find pictures to match. Sometimes those pictures can really help define more details about the person - especially if I am using an actor or actress that has done a lot of TV or film work that I can use stills to define their history. That's how Carolyn's detailed background came about, from me searching around the web for pictures of Kate Beckinsale [Background research? Is that what they’re calling it these days? – Ed.]. However, I never tie myself to that, and in fact most of the time I already have a rough idea of what I'm looking for when searching for pictures. But occasionally a picture is so good I'll want to use it, and so I'll add or modify a bit of something to make the history fit the picture. Even so, I feel all of the characters I have are completely original. Some who share similar names to their inspiration (Richard Keep) may look alike, and at times even act similarly, but I could just as easily have separated the two completely to begin with (i.e. not used the same name or image) and I don't think anyone would necessarily know just from the characters behavior who I took inspiration from. In fact, most of my characters aren't inspired by anyone, but I simply find the images to represent them after they are fully fleshed out (Mei-Ling, for instance, was this way, although I am really happy with using Zhang Ziyi for her portrait, she is just gorgeous).
Again I get the impression that you spend a lot of time coming up with characters and 'tuning' them. Have you ever come up to a point where you said: 'no, this isn't right' for a character? Have you ever had to throw away some of the things you'd come up with and rethink those traits for your characters?
Oh, I'm sure there has been, although I can't think of any examples off the top of my head. I usually tweak the backgrounds as I'm writing them, so instead of a major overhaul of a character, it usually winds up being a bunch of small changes along the way. One small example came with a recent character submittal for a sim, where I had created an event around an aspect of the sim that didn't mesh as well with the world. The GM/SO let me know, and I had to tweak the encounter so it made sense for the behavior of the inhabitants of that sim. This happened as well for the After the Turn sim - Sarah hadn't originally been abducted by a demon, but working with the GM/SO it made sense for the sim (and to fit her into a more modern world). That's generally the nature of the changes. Since I try to make the characters develop organically, it is difficult for me to say ‘no, that's not right’, because I'll usually not get into that rut to start with - trying to shoehorn in something that doesn't fit.
And this concludes our interview. Thank you Jason for letting us get to know a little bit more about how all these wonderful characters of yours have come into existence.