Here’s the Kicker: Character creation and plot hooks

Sorcerer_CoverLast weekend I had my first experience of the game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. Sorcerer was originally self-published in 1996, and it was at the vanguard of the indie RPG movement. I’m not going to discuss the game extensively, but there was one thing in particular that got me thinking.

I want to talk about Kickers.

A Kicker is an unexpected event that shakes up a player character’s life. It forces the player character to react, but does not dictate how they should react. It is the set-up for the player character’s opening conflict during play.

Kickers in Sorcerer

As defined above, Kickers are not new and not revolutionary. They are basically just plot hooks. Most long-running campaigns start with something similar, usually at the start of the first session of play, to get the players invested and the characters moving. Even the standard D&D trope of being commanded by the local ruler to sort out those bandits chop chop almost meets the definition (except for not dictating how the players should react).

But what Sorcerer did that was new and was revolutionary was this: it put the Kicker into the hands of the player.

In Sorcerer, each PC has its own Kicker. Creating a Kicker is an integral part of character creation. It’s the last part, sure, but it’s vital to establish (for yourself and the group) not only the character you’re playing but also the nature of the story you’re interested in telling. Before creating a Kicker, the PC already exists. Their background, beliefs, stats and supporting NPCs have already been created. (In Sorcerer, this means that they have already summoned and bound a demon, which is how the pre-Kicker character gets whatever they want.) Only then does the player think up a Kicker to compel their character into action.

The importance of getting Kickers right

Making players responsible for Kickers is wonderful, because it gets players invested not only in their own character and the other player characters (this is what group character generation is for, as I’ve discussed several times already), but also in the story that is going to be told.

Other games tend to drop the responsibility for plot hooks in the lap of the GM. This can go wrong in many ways, and I’m sure there are plenty of scare stories out there. In a Smallville game that I am running at the moment, which I pitched as “teenage X-Men in a British, Hogwarts-style boarding school”, I made a blunder in the first session by starting with an earthquake. It definitely shook things up (literally), and the game itself is still fun, but the earthquake shut down the school. Even six sessions later there have been no lessons, no classroom rivalries, no overbearing teachers. My plot hook got things moving, but the story we’re telling isn’t the story that I (and at least some of my players) had been aiming for.

But if a player comes up with a Kicker, then the player is sending a message to the GM that “this is something I’m interested in”. The Kicker might seem very simple, but by making it a Kicker the player is promising that it will be meaningful to their character and that it will therefore get them moving.

Advice for good Kickers

Sorcerer says a lot about Kickers, and a lot of it is advice for making sure they’re good. For example, Sorcerer suggests there are three main types of Kickers:

  1. Shockers (e.g finding a corpse in your shower),
  2. Opportunities (e.g. finding a million dollars in your suitcase), and
  3. Mysteries (e.g. why did the victim write your mother’s name in his own blood?).

There are also some DON’Ts, which I’ve kinda already covered, but I will quote from the text since it is important:

Kickers should not (1) present a total mystery with no personal significance; (2) dictate a character’s actions (e.g. in the suitcase example above, the character could respond in many ways, ranging from keeping the money, spending it right away, or going to the police); or (3) present something he or she may react to casually.

Players can come up with as much or as little of the meaning behind their Kicker as they like. Perhaps they know (perhaps out of character) where the money came from, or whose corpse it is, or how the victim knew your mother. But maybe the players don’t know. Maybe they prefer it to be decided by someone else (the GM), so they can discover the truth along with their characters. That’s fine too.

Using Kickers in other games

From now on, whenever I start running a new campaign, I will think about asking the players to contribute Kickers. The Kicker rules in Sorcerer are so tenuously connected to the actual mechanics of the system that there’s really no difficulty in using the same process on any game.

But I don’t necessarily want a Kicker for each player. A single Kicker for the group would also be useful. Of course, this assumes that the group did character creation collaboratively (as discussed here and here), and it probably would work better if the group is already on the same side.

In Sorcerer, there is no group character generation. All characters can be created separately, and players are explicitly (in the game text) not required to tie their Kickers in to any of the other characters. If there’s more than one player character, it is entirely the GM’s responsibility to weave the various characters’ Kickers together.

But a group Kicker would work just as well. Players can collaborate on their inciting incident just as well as they can collaborate on their group dynamics. It just needs to be something that they agree will impact all of their characters. Every PC must be put into motion by the same event. The players must all implicitly promise to be invested in what happens as a result. “If this is the hook, I will bite it.”

If players haven’t gone through group character generation, this becomes difficult, but still possible. The old standard “You All Meet in a Cell” is a classic Kicker for disparate individuals to bring them together. And that’s the important point: if you only have one Kicker and a group that isn’t already connected, then the Kicker needs to get them all moving in the same direction. This is much easier with the players’ input than without, and it avoids the risk of GM sins like railroading.

The alternative to Kickers

There is one last thing I want to bring up: the one and only alternative to Kickers and plot hooks.

IF your group has done group character creation, and IF your group is already dynamic and interesting, then you could also try the Day In The Life opening. Just follow your dynamic and interesting characters around an average day in their dynamic and interesting lives. Apocalypse World suggests this type of opening for its first session. It works because Apocalypse World‘s Hx stat process is a form of group character generation, and because the characters in an Apocalypse World game can’t help but be dynamic and interesting and set on a collision course with drama.

It works in traditional games too. A standard D&D adventuring party is understood to be dynamic and interesting, as long as you’re interested in dungeon crawling, monster killing, and stealing treasure. If they’re already formed into a party (group character generation againit’s important!), then just drop them in the middle of a dungeon somewhere and throw monsters at them. And I do mean in the middle. In media res openings work really well for dungeon crawlers. (It sure did in the first session of the Dungeon World game I’m running.)

Whatever you try, best of luck. Let me know if you ever use a Kicker in one of your games (other than Sorcerer), and if so how it works out.

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