Last week, I talked about the importance of group character generation at the start of long-running campaigns. I gave examples of lifting mechanics from games like Fiasco and Smallville to improve cohesion of adventuring parties and make campaigns more character-driven. When I submitted the post, I had no intention of writing anything more on the topic, but in my natural internet wanderings I found several things this week that build on exactly the things I discussed last time, and I was drawn right back in.
What is the point?
Something that I did not explicitly articulate last time was why this is so important. Imagine you’re about to start a long-running game. You’ve perhaps already got your character—maybe you were even sitting around a table with the other players when you created your character—and you’re super excited to play this character because they are awesome!
Then the first session happens, and sure your character is awesome, but the campaign you’re playing in isn’t really giving your character to express their awesomeness to the fullest extent. What’s worse, the other characters are so different that you’re not sure exactly why your awesome character would be spending time with them. You start having to play your character ever so slightly differently (and, alas, make them less awesome), just so they don’t leave all these other player characters behind. You could easily have made a different character, one that was equally awesome but fit it better with campaign’s tone and the rest of the party, if only you’d known earlier what the game was going to be like…
This isn’t going to happen in every campaign, but when it does it can be disheartening and leach away your enjoyment for a game you should otherwise enjoy.
As such, there are two vitally important questions that you 100% must answer before or during character creation for any long-running campaign:
- How do the player characters know each other and why are they going to work together—and continue to work together!—in the foreseeable future?
- What is the tone and focus of this campaign? (The GM and all the players should have a shared understanding of what they want to see in gameplay, and characters should be created with this in mind.)
Number 1 is worded that way because it is really hard to bring together characters who don’t know each other at all and expect them to work together indefinitely. It’s much easier—and I would say preferable—to have the characters know each other beforehand, even if they only know each other by reputation, or because they are gainfully employed by the same organisation.
A Fiasco playset needn’t cause a fiasco
Last time, I suggested using playsets from the game Fiasco to help inspire connections between players. Pick a playset appropriate for your campaign (useful list again!) and remove or ignore any options that you don’t like. Focusing on Relationships primarily and then Needs if you want more complexity, roll a number of d6s, and take turns building your connections. Ignore or manipulate the dice if there’s a specific connection you want, but otherwise try using what the playset gives you and see how it tightens up your game.
Unfortunately, one of the risks of this approach is that your game will be wound so tight that it starts to fracture. Some Relationships are explicitly antagonistic, and even ones that aren’t can drive wedges between people. Some Needs might also not be appropriate for your campaign. Fiasco is designed to pit players against each other, and this is obviously the opposite of what we area trying to accomplish.
Fortunately, I am not the first person to have thought of this idea, and Christopher Allen has produced a setting-less Fiasco-style Generic Relationships Playset that looks ideal for webbing up a party of adventurers in connections, complications and plot hooks. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I surely will for my next campaign.
If you don’t own a copy of Fiasco yourself (and you haven’t watched that one episode of TableTop), then here’s a quick rundown of what you do:
- Take as many six-sided dice as there are players, roll them all, and put them in a single pool in the middle of the table.
- Each player in turn then takes one of the rolled dice from the central pool and uses it to select an option on the Relationships Playset. You first establish the category of Relationship, then the specific nature of the Relationship, between any two adjacent players. You only have an established Relationship with the players to your left and right when you play, but connections between other players will often follow organically.
- The last die is wild. The last player can spend it on anything (although all of the broader categories by this point will be established, so the wild die can only be used for the detail).
That’s it! Straight away, you can see how the characters know each other, and there should be enough inter-connectedness to keep them interacting—productively!—for the whole campaign.
The Pathway less travelled
Another thing I suggested last week was using Smallville’s Pathways system of character and setting creation, stripped of the Smallville-specific mechanics, to build up the locations and key NPCs that the campaign will feature. The GM will have to invent fewer things themselves, and it helps get everyone on the same page. You know what the players are interested in if they have put things on the Pathways map that they want to explore.
Once again, someone else has already gone further with this idea! Jeramy Ware used the Pathways system as inspiration for his Campaign Mapping process, which is currently in playtest. It’s a lot more versatile than Pathways for generic games, and a lot more suitable for establishing shared understanding of focus and tone, since it allows not just characters and locations but “people or organizations (represented by circles), events or broad concepts (represented by diamonds), places (represented by squares), or items (represented by triangles).”
Jeramy’s Campaign Mapping even uses Fate Dice to determine whether connections are positive or negative (blank dice rolls let you add new Connections).
I think this is great, and although I would probably lay things out differently, I note that this is only a playtest document and hasn’t been substantially edited yet. It’s another thing that I’m eager to try when I get a chance.
Bring it all together
Either of these two methods (the Relationships Playset and the Campaign Mapping) can be used for group character generation, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use both of them together. Try establishing the relationships in your group using the Relationships Playset and then building up the rest of the world using Campaign Mapping. Then, why not try Fate Core’s Phase Trio as well, to show how your inter-connected characters function in this world you’ve designed?
If you’ve tried any of these, please let me (and, of course, Chris and Jeramy) know how it went. Also, please let me know if you have any other methods for running group character generation, and what you think about the idea in general. See you next time!