Tell me if this is familiar: you’re playing an RPG, it’s the first session, and you’ve just wrapped up all the background stuff—who your characters are, how they’re related, where they fit in the world. You are ready to really start playing. The GM (maybe that’s you!) opens their mouth and… wait a minute. How do we actually start?
Not every game feels like this, but it happens often enough that I wanted to talk about it. This is something I’ve experienced mostly with very ensemble-oriented, dramatic games. Things like Cortex Plus Dramatic, or Powered by the Apocalypse games. In things like D&D, you have the trope of “You’re all in a tavern, and a mysterious stranger…” to kick things off, plus strong norms around picking-up-what-the-DM‘s-putting-down. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you’ve got “You roll into town” and then meeting someone who starts to show you the town’s problems. In Lady Blackbird or Poison’d you have a single opening scene baked into the game. So, yeah, not all games are shaped quite like this, but even in a game with a stronger or more established start, it can be hard to figure out just where the camera opens.
I’ve been there, in that moment, as both a GM and a player, so I wanted to meditate a bit on what I find works in that situation. None of this is Answers, or Pronouncements, of course—just what I’ve found works.
I find that owning it is best. “Give me a moment, I’m thinking about where we start.” Don’t try to cover, or fake or anything. People will be tolerant, and understanding. Even better: collaborate. Open the conversation up: “I think that I can see Alex getting hooked in if your mentor is threatened, but Lily, why might you get involved in that?” If someone has an idea, see what you can do with it. Maybe take a short break: “Hey, why doesn’t everyone take a break, get a snack, while I think about this?”
Another thing to do is think about what notes you have to hit. It’s often important to put characters in situations where they can interact with the mechanics of the game (in Masks, for instance, it’s no good putting them in a board-room discussion for a long first scene, when the mechanics focus around vulnerability, identity, and punching supervillains). For extra points, put them in a situation to show off their strengths and sell their failures; seeing both parts can be really instructive, and really drive the story. For example in Apocalypse World, think of a situation where the Brainer gets a chance to Open their Brain (which they’ll probably be good at), and maybe a chance to do some violence (which they’ll probably be bad at). In the first case, they get to show off how they’re awesome, and in the second, they get to show how they go head-first into failure, or work around it. So, this means that the mechanics can give you a great step up—in Masks, again, instead of simply asking “what are they doing?” you can narrow that to “who are they fighting, and why?”
If you don’t have a sense of what these characters want before starting, get one. What they want, and why they can’t have it yet, provides a great way to start. If you don’t know this at this point, ask. Often having trouble starting is a symptom of not enough information, so get to know these characters and their situation in more depth. To really do this well, don’t just scattershot ask questions, but see if you can ask questions around the particular area you’re uncertain of: “why you?” or “what’s broken and insufficient about your current situation?” or “what do you need?” or whatever.
Finally, of course, steal. Find a show, a book, a movie, hell, a burlesque act with an opening you like, and just use it. I promise you your game will not somehow be the same, or derivative. In any case, your specifics will have to be different, as you’ve got a different set of characters!
So, to recap: be honest, think about your mechanical goals, figure out what you need to know and ask about it, and steal. Hopefully this will help you. Are there other techniques you like? Anything you particularly like or dislike about these? Let me know!
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.
When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.
Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.
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More and more these days, I am fascinated by the power and role of decisions. Decisions create buy-in, generate unexpected outcomes, and provide drama. As I’ve come to see it, most of all, decisions provide meaning.
But not all decisions create meaning—to do that, a decision needs to be personal, needs to have weight, and has to be visible. Each of these things is challenging to engineer reliably. I’ve been trying to take stock of what works for me. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
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