“Why do I hang out with you again?”: The importance of group character generation

I am a huge believer in doing group character generation at the start of a new RPG campaign. I don’t just mean getting all the players in the same place to do character generation, but actually doing it together. Of the RPGs I’ve played in, nearly all of the ones I’ve enjoyed most have made character generation a group activity.

First, a quick explanation

Traditional RPGs seem to work in this way: 1) each player goes away and makes a character, 2) the GM throws all the characters together in the first session and gives them a reason to work together. To an extent, that’s fine, but there are hundreds of stories online about games falling apart because the party isn’t cohesive. It’s not a single unit, just a collection of individuals. In a D&D context, I’m talking about the Rogue who constantly steals treasure from everyone else, or the Paladin who refuses to support the party’s “evil” actions, or what have you.

It’s because, by making character separately—even if you made them separately while sitting around the same table at the same time—you don’t know what the relationships of the characters are going to be like until you start playing. I’ve been in games in which other players have tried to tell me, after character generation was already done, what my character’s opinion was of their characters. And, funnily enough, their assumption of my character’s opinion ended up being wrong.

Group character generation is a process, before or during individual character generation (but not after), of determining collaboratively how the party will act as a unit and how the characters will interact with each other.

Next, some examples

Group character generation doesn’t have to be complicated. Before we started the Unknown Armies game I’m currently playing in, for instance, our discussion about the group dynamics boiled down to: “Let’s be friends. Old school friends, reunited years later. Who drive around in an RV solving mysteries. With ferrets!” That was literally it, and it has produced one of the most interesting group of characters in one of the best long-running campaigns I’ve ever been in.

But that’s the bare minimum of what should happen at the start of a campaign. What else can we do?

A lot of games nowadays explicitly include an element of group character generation:

Fate Core has instructions for the Phase Trio, in which everyone comes up with a previous adventure for their character in which two other characters were also involved. Other players then contribute their sides of the story. The idea is that these adventures will say something about your character, and you’ll write an Aspect for it (a short statement that contains a fundamental truth about the character), but actually it’s a worthwhile exercise even if you decouple it from Aspect creation. (Ryan Macklin discusses decoupling here.)

Apocalypse World has a specific stat called Hx (as in (medical) history), and a whole section of character generation is devoted to it. Every character has a stat, between Hx-3 and Hx+3, for every other character. You determine Hx in the first session by deciding something concrete about your relationships with other characters, picked from a list on each playbook. This then informs the personalities and backstories of both characters, your own and the person you’re connected to. Hx is probably the most important stat in the game, even though it doesn’t get as much use as other stats do during actual play. Other Powered by the Apocalypse games have similar stats, like Dungeon World’s Bonds. (I haven’t played Monsterhearts, but I understand it goes even further. I really want to play Monsterhearts.)

Sure, ok, those are better. Anything more than this will lead to a heavily dramatic game with lots of character focus.

And I love heavily dramatic games with lots of character focus, so what’s out there that makes group character generation even more central?

Good question! Glad you asked. My gold standard with this is Smallville, the most amazing RPG ever based on a mediocre TV show. I will geek out at length about Smallville, also known as Cortex Plus Dramatic Roleplaying or sometimes Superpowered Teen Soap Opera: The Game. But maybe another time. For now, the most important thing is also the thing that Smallville does best, which is Pathways.

Pathways is a step-by-step guide for making your character in the Smallville system. At each step you make choices that inform your character backstory and your stats on the character sheet, and you also draw on the Pathways map, a great big diagram that lists all the main characters, all the supporting characters, and all the locations they care about, and what the key connections are between them. Pathways is a long damn process (it took about 8 hours with a group of 6 people, but fewer people is usually faster), but I dare you to try it and not have every player enthusiastic about the game you’ve just created together. Please try it. Smallville needs more love. (It’s out of print, dammit, but if you can’t find the original book you can get the rules in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide!)

That’s all well and good, but how does it affect me?

Ok, I appreciate that Pathways is kinda specific to the Smallville system, but there are definitely elements that can be pulled out. It would be very easy to go through Pathways, using any game system at all, ignoring any instructions except ones that affect the Pathways Map. “Gain a new Ability? Don’t care, wrong system, but yes I will connect these two supporting characters, thank you!” (This would also be a lot faster than doing the whole process. Much less than half the time, I would think.)

Fate Core’s Phase Trio can also be easily imported into any campaign you care to mention. Just write down an adventure idea on an index card (or similar), pass it to the left and accept a new one from the right; on the new card, write down how your character was involved in the adventure, then pass it to the left and accept a new one from the right; finally, on the last card, write down how your character was involved in resolving the adventure. Done! Easily applicable to any RPG with an adventuring focus.

Oh there’s just one more thing…

I’ve got one last suggestion for adding an element of group character generation to your new campaign. Have you played Fiasco? It’s a game of high abition and poor impulse control. It’s not for long-running campaigns, but it’s good for producing enjoyable one-shots. No? Come on, it was on TableTop and everything!

Fine, ok. Any given Fiasco game is generated (partly randomly) based on a whole bunch of dice rolls and the specific Fiasco playset you use. There are hundred of Fiasco playsets out there, each one for a different setting, genre and tone, and most of them available to download for free. Here’s a cool list! There will almost certainly be something thematically appropriate to whatever campaign you want to run. Heck, there must be at least a dozen fantasy-themed playsets on the list that would be appropriate for D&D or Pathfinder.

Once you’ve got at least one playset that you like, have a look at the Relationships and Needs. Even if the playset is appropriate, some of the Relationships and Needs will not be. That’s just because Fiasco is all about inter-party conflict, and that’s pretty much what you’re trying to avoid. So cross out the options that you don’t want, like ones that say two player characters are mortal enemies. Maybe you want to take out other options, like the romantic and family Relationships that are in almost every Fiasco playset… but at the same time maybe consider keeping them in there, as long as all the players are cool with the idea. Having player characters that are related can be really great fun! If you cross out some options from one playset but you have another playset that is also suitable, maybe consider splicing some options from the second one into the first?

Then roll a bunch of d6 and generate a Fiasco scenario. Establish a load of Relationships and Needs (Locations and Objects can probably be skipped). Ideally this should be before the real character generation, because the purpose of this Fiasco exercise is to give you ideas to make your party more cohesive. You don’t have to use any ideas you don’t like! But maybe something will come up, and it will seem interesting, and you’ll try it, and it will bring the whole group closer together and make the whole game more fun.

I actually did this in a game of Necessary Evil, a Savage Worlds game in which supervillains resist an alien invasion of Earth that has already wiped out all of the heroes. In our case, it didn’t work exactly as hoped because we didn’t roll the Fiasco stuff until character generation was almost over, but there was one nugget that was perfect. It turned out that two of the characters, Professor Erebus (my character, a sorcerer) and Doctor Nebulus (a mad scientist), were actually clones of each other. Sorcery and mad science are basically the same power anyway in Necessary Evil, except mad science has to be prepared in advance.

Suddenly, because of this little exercise we tried out, we had this whole backstory, and a reason to know each other. At the game’s climax, the GM introduced a whole cloning facility and an army of clones of us with functionally similar powers of different sources (the mutants and the D&D-style clerics, etc.). None of that would have happened if we hadn’t tried a little group character generation. So maybe you should try it out during your next game. If you do, let me know how it works out.


6 thoughts on ““Why do I hang out with you again?”: The importance of group character generation

  1. Pingback: Step into RPGs

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