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?

A Piece of Work has a long, sordid history. It originally started out as a zombie “survival” RPG called Do Not Go Gentle—a game which might get made at some point, but which we had trouble nailing down. Then it became a kind of straight up cyberpunk game with heavy existential themes. Finally it settled nicely into a genre that seems to call itself cybernoir. I’ve made reference to it in my last post. The term is by no means RPG-specific, and is used to describe a lot of different works.

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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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