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?

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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Reading through Leverage, there’s something very interesting to be learned from the section on creating a job. In Leverage, both the show and the game, the crew’s marks are pretty much always rich and powerful, guarded by as much physical, financial, and legal protection as they want. Yet they are all still vulnerable.

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I want to talk for a bit about something I sometimes see in RPGs (and, less often, in other games): mechanics that resolve one thing while producing a side-effect for something else. For example, critical hits in D&D, divine interventions in In Nomine, and the complications/opportunities system in the Leverage RPG. For the purposes of this article, a side-effect mechanic is primarily about one thing (whether you succeed at something, generally) but that produces a side-effect that is taken into consideration elsewhere in the game.

That's the way I roll

That's the way I roll

First, though, I’m not a huge fan of side-effect mechanics. I find they usually add more complexity than benefit. They can be jarring if the side-effect is something fairly removed from the original thing being resolved. Side effects have to be balanced such that they work with the core mechanic, neither ruining its original feel nor making the secondary effect insignificant. In short, the whole concept is troubled from a design perspective. Still, there are times when it’s completely appropriate. Where and when is the key question.

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