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?

So, this weekend past I went to NerdNYC’s Recess. Normally, of course, we Transneptune folk are off in Colorado, but I happened to be in town this weekend, and made the best of it. I met some nice folks and played in some good games (particularly one run by the inestimable Jenskot), and picked up a copy of Robert Bohl’s Misspent Youth off the swap table, which is, I think, the most correct way of getting this game.

It was good to get to meet some folks I had only internet-known, but there’s a particular thought about game design that came out of it, for me.

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Et in Arcadia Ego is our game of Regency-era magicians. It owes a lot to Susanna Clarke, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley. It has also been a fickle beast. We’ve been hacking at it, tweaking it, revising it, overhauling it, again and again for the past few months. It’s very much been a case of the tenth point of the Ten Wings.

But we’ve settled on something that seems to be at least in the right direction. Last night, we tried it out, and a few interesting points arose.

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So, without a game from last night to write about, I’ll take the opportunity to take some other thoughts that have been brewing and talk about what I see as the intrinsic elements of a story game, and how to communicate them.

To start with, there are four major elements to a story-game, as I see it, three of which are story, one of which is game:

  1. Setting
  2. Situation
  3. Motivation
  4. Mechanics

The first and fourth are very familiar and pretty much always explicitly discussed in any RPG text. The third became explicit some time ago.[1] And the second? Lately, it’s been getting a lot more attention. I think, traditionally, it has been the bulk of what people think of as the art of good GMing, but games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Fiasco and Apocalypse World have paid some pretty explicit attention to Situation.

Of course, all four of these are heavily, heavily interrelated. Setting provides context and hooks for Situation and Motivation, Mechanics (ideally) provide a system for reminding you of Situation and Motivation, Situation leads to Motivation and Motivation enacted changes Situation. Sure. I’m going to try to set aside the issues of interaction for now, and talk rather about how to communicate these things.

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  1. When John finishes his grand Timeline of RPG Ideas, I’ll have a date that I can actually back up. []
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