So, having recently worked up a number of characters for one shots at Gen Con, I needed to figure out a way to make a lot of characters quickly. If we ever print a revision to Becoming Heroes, one thing I want to change about the book is to write a lot more advice about choosing traits. Until then, however, I want to share a “quick generation” pattern that I think works really well.
Choose your arc first. This will help you with the next bit. Also, some arcs have special trait requirements, and you’ll want to keep that in mind.
Next, choose traits to fit specific aspects of your character, as listed below:
- Power: A thing your character can do that others cannot. You might be Attuned to the Forest. Or you could be a Demon Summoner.
- Feature: A mundane aspect that is really useful. Are you a Shrewd Merchant? Maybe you have The Luck of a Fool.
- History: The background you come from. Were you trained as a Forest Guardian? Perhaps you’re a Former Assassin.
- Weakness: A character flaw. Perhaps you have an Uncompromising Devotion to the Faith. Maybe it’s an Endless Hatred for Monsters.
- Quirk: Some tick or habit that others will notice. Are you a Zen Gardener? Are you a Wicked Gossip?
- Disposition: How you come across to others. Are you an Eternal Optimist? Perhaps you Brook No Offense.
- Description: How people describe you. Do you have a Gallant Bearing? Or are you a Master of Deception?
- Physicality: How you physically interact with the world. Maybe you have Tattoos of Arcane Power. Maybe you’re Born of Giants?
After that, choose ties:
- Someone you love
- Someone you hate
- Someone you need
Then choose circumstances and a virtue—I find these go pretty smoothly after the rest. With this mould, I was able to create six characters in a few hours by myself. If you’re doing this as a group, I’d recommend going down the list with each player creating one trait at a time.
While we’re generally all about Becoming Heroes, we’ve recently hit upon one part that is harder than it needs to be—character generation. Right up front, we ask you to decide eight traits, three circumstances, and three ties. We don’t give you a lot of guidance around selecting these traits and people get stuck around six traits in.
Now, I don’t think getting stuck is a fatal flaw—it usually clears up when you talk about it as a group—but we’re going to add trait suggestions to each arc in our next revision. For instance, the Lost King should probably have some trait relating to their nobility. The Dutybound should have a trait related to where their duty comes from. Lots of places can inspire traits; the system just doesn’t yet help you find them.
In designing Piece of Work, we’re addressing character generation directly. We’re using a Dread-esque questionnaire that walks you though building your character. It works phenomenally well. First, it breaks up tasks like “allocate your skill points” or “pick your gear” into a series of discrete steps. Because those are smaller decisions and those decisions have context, they’re much easier to make.
Second, it lets us gently reinforce the tropes and setting of the game. Instead of just picking a random piece of gear, you have an item you picked up when things started to go wrong. Instead of just knowing the person to your left, you’re childhood friends. This added context pushes characters to create conspiracies, attach nostalgic meaning to things, to have conversations with other characters fraught with historical subtext—all staples of the noir genre.
I’m now on the hunt for other systems that use smaller choices to reduce the strain of creating a character. Dread is obviously one. Spirit of the Century‘s phases works this way. And Leverage not only has bite-sized char-gen steps, but moves some of those choices out of char-gen and into actual play. What are some of your favorite char-gen systems, and how do they help create a character?
One thing we haven’t talked much about here is character flags—things about a character that signal what kinds of story elements interest the player. For example, if one of your players has a character with lot of skill in picking locks, then probably you need to throw some locks at that character. This is a major difference between a simulationist take on RPGs and a narrativist one. In simulationist play, the challenges are all laid out in advance, and if you want to excel, you need forethought, scouting, and planning. In a narrativist model, you know what the challenges will be because they’re tailored to your characters, and you should expect that if you’re good at lockpicking, you’ll need to pick a lock.
(Caveat: I’m not a huge fan of GNS, but I find it useful in discussing larger-scale issues such as character flags.)
Obviously, I’m a proponent of looking at character flags to figure out how to structure play. But flags are just the beginning. Russian playright Anton Chekhov has an adage about guns that applies equally to characters in an RPG. That is, the characters created for a game should strongly influence the events of that game.
More specifically, when someone plays a wizard in your game, not only should you let them decipher some runes, or throw in a mystic library to explore, but magic should become a central theme to the plot of the game. Perhaps there are people tampering with the structure of magic, or the old magic is returning, or magic has gone wild and uncontrollable. The point is, the story is about these characters because these are the characters that matter, which we know because these are the characters that were created by the players. They matter because of who they are and what they do.
In Becoming Heroes, we do this mechanically, because each character has an arc and the arc points are specific events that you should expect to see in the game. In Piece of Work, we’re using a system we call Clocks that allows a player a more freeform way to specify what they want to see. But every system has some way for the players to shape the story, if you’re listening for it.
It’s an ineffable quality. I think of it as traction, or grabbiness. It’s that quality that makes you just want to play something, and not just want to, but to know what you need to do in play. This character has to do this, to want this. This situation needs to explode in this fashion.
Imagine for a moment that your brain is a pseudo-random-number generator. Presented with a blank page, it will produce more or less the same results. A great way to spark creativity is to give yourself something other than the same blank white page to start with. A great way to stifle creativity is to start with something complete. You want some suggestive marks, but nothing excessive.
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We just played through Leverage and it has me thinking a lot about a lot of different pieces. On balance, we had a ton of fun with it, even with only a passing familiarity with the rules. I’m sure our second play through will be smoother.
As a license-based game, the system captures the feel of the original show amazingly well. You don’t play the original team; instead there’s a very compelling system of generating a few details of your character and having the rest revealed through your first job. I’ve not really thought deeply about the many ways to construct character creation rules, so this was fun to play with. Many of the bits left undefined are textual descriptors, which can be challenging to define without having played the character (as we’ve found with In a Dragon-Guarded Land). Defining them slightly later helps provide inspiration.
Nominally, the rules suggest that these details should be provided via flashback scenes, which is very much in the show’s style. However, we struggled to break out of our pre-conceptions about play needing to be done linearly. A lot of this game’s challenge lies in figuring out what to focus on and what to gloss over and fill in later with a flashback. The thing that’s most interesting about flashbacks in this game is that those scenes can be used for retroactive narrative positioning with no other mechanical effect. In theory, that’s a tool that could be used in any game.
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