I've never served in the military, neither in my native country England nor my adopted country Australia. However I do run role playing games that contain worlds with soldiers in them. I play those soldiers to the best of my ability without really knowing how they think or feel. Sure, I can look at the characterization of service people in the movies but I have no idea how one movie character or another compares to real people who have seen action in the military.
So when trying to get ideas for how to characterize a military NPC I searched around for a bit of inspiration and found that there is a new research paper from the Pew Research Center that takes a look at the attitudes and challenges of American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It gives some simple statistics that, while interesting on their own, can give some inspiration for military characters. I'll present a few of my ideas to start you off from a few of the statistics there. I'm using the same subset that was presented in the freakanomics.com blog post where I first found about the paper.
- 96 percent of veterans are proud of their military service.
This is a high percentage. Most recent American veterans are proud of their service. Yes, it's a rather general statement but it's still useful for the games master. If you are going to put a soldier NPC in your campaign that is somehow ashamed of his military service then you had better have a damn good reason, and it had better be story appropriate too. The soldier being ashamed of their service is not the norm. There are plenty of good story ideas for that 4 percent but they should probably be quite prominent in the story rather than detracting from it.
So the average military character should be proud of their service. That doesn't mean that they haven't seen, done or known about anything that they are ashamed of. Nor that they have a great opinion of their superiors, inferiors or the way the service is run in general. But at the end of the day they can hold their head up high and say they were a soldier. You don't need to emphasise this in a character, just have them have a consistent vague sense of pride in their military service.
- 90 percent said they gained self confidence.
This gives a great bullet point for the traits of a military NPC. Whatever other facets of their personality they should probably be played with self confidence. This is especially true if you want the players to meet someone before and after they joined the army.
Again the flip side is that you will find a few vets who didn't gain self confidence during their service. What will that mean? Ignoring those that considered themselves to have already been supremely self confident you might have those who were traumatised by what they saw and now shrink away from society. How about those who can't talk to commoners but since leaving the army has tried to run a farm when he can't sell wares to local hobbits and elves? They feel especially alone because their old comrades have no issues.
- 37 percent say that, whether diagnosed or not, they have experienced post traumatic stress.
The way this is worded it's clear that this is how the soldier feels about his experiences, it's not about what a doctor thinks about how he is dealing with it. The story ideas here are plentiful, and the movies give us plenty of examples to choose from. If you don't want to draw too much attention to it then this is the time for the brooding type.
I would try not to draw too much attention to this if you are playing with an actual combat vet though until you talk about it with them. I can see opportunities for offending people are abound here. But if you have a real combat vet in your group and you are creating military characters you should probably be talking to them anyway.
- 44 percent had problems readjusting to civilian life.
This one bears a lot more investigation to find out some interesting ways to involve this in your stories. I would expect there to be a lot of subtle and extreme issues that people face when leaving military service that you could introduce to an NPC to make them much more interesting or involve them into the characters story.
- 34 percent say that (given the costs and benefit) the wars were worth fighting.
This one is interesting and, again, is very general and doesn't give us a lot of depth of information about what the vets were saying here.
In your campaign we would be talking about different wars, but lets assume that the answer would be the same. It suggests to me a couple of different types of NPC that would say that a war was not worth fighting. One is the soldier who has seen war and decided that it's a brutal place that nobody should ever experience and has dropped out of it for a life of peace, maybe they are now a druid in a grove, a steward on a star ship or has taken their vows as a priest in the inner city. Another is the soldier who has seen war and decided that it's a brutal place that nobody should ever experience and so he's going to do his duty and fight the wars so that nobody else has to. He knows that it's not worth the cost but it's been committed to now and it needs to be fought, and they are one of the ones to do it.
- 11.5 percent were unemployed in 2010.
While it's interesting to characterize some NPC vets as people who either can't find work or don't want any, or turn to crime, remember that most will be working. The military doesn't turn out shirkers in general. This is especially true seeing that the unemployment figure is much smaller than the next statistic.
- 16 percent were seriously injured while serving.
This is a great opportunity to give an NPC a distinguishing mark that might help to get even the least interested player to remember them. War creates some of the most hideous injuries to a body that you can, or can't, imagine. A fantasy campaign might have people with eye patches, wooden peg legs or hooks for hands. A sci fi campaign might have cybernetic implants, replacement limbs or minds from broken bodies uploaded to computers or robots.
More subtle serious injuries can also aid in characterization of your NPCs though. Everything from a limp that's immediately noticeable to a twinge that the characters might only notice after being in the company of the NPC for some days can add to the character. Whether these injuries started out like that or are only this subtle after years of therapy or bloody-minded grinning and bearing can come out slowly as the story of the NPC unfolds.
- 84 percent think the American public has little to no understanding of the problems that the military faces.
This suggests a few things for your game. One is the soldier who is misunderstood, or believes they are, and is frustrated by the ignorance of the commoners. Another is that there is something that needs to be done to save the city, country, world or multiverse that the characters need help with resources for but it isn't popular with the general population so they can't just do it. In fact there is a whole campaign there for the political types. See the Critical Hit podcast from www.majorspoilers.com for an example of this on the multiverse scale.
There are a few ideas that were inspired by these statistics and I'm sure you can think of many more. Follow the link to the Pew site for more inspiration.
These are obviously statistics that are specific to contemporary America and won't necessarily be reflected in your game world. A halfling civilization might not have a high regard for military service in their conscripted army while House Kurita might find they have a 100% pride rate in their army. A fantasy campaign might have a seriously hideous maim rate for soldiers, or the clerics might whip everyone back in to shape quick smart. A Hunter:The Vigil game might use these statistics to generate the outlook of an Afghanistan vet NPC. I was just using them for inspiration of different ways that a soldier or ex-soldier might think in an RPG.
Do you have any others ideas for getting into the heads of military NPCs? What about other types of character who's occupation we don't have experience with? Please leave a comment if you do.