So you’ve got a great idea in mind for your next game — how do you handle PC creation? Not in the sense of, say, point buy vs. rolling for stats, but in terms of making sure you wind up with a fun, playable party of PCs.
Most GMs have their own ways of handling this, and I want to look at a few of the more popular ones here — but I’m also interested in a completely different approach: having the players collaborate on character creation.
This is a delicate issue, because in most RPGs the only thing that the players have control over is their characters. So why would anyone want to give up some of that control? Let’s work up to that by looking at some of the ways that GMs can encourage the creation of a non-random group of PCs.
Themes: Most games have a theme — for example: “Mercenaries who were hired to fight a proxy war between two spacefaring merchant houses.” This gives the players good idea of what kinds of characters will be viable, fun to play and useful to the group. Some GMs prefer to dictate the theme, while others allow player input to mold the concepts behind the game.
Restrictions: If you’ve played D&D, you’ve probably heard this one: “No evil alignments.” Even though D&D is typically about a party of heroes, there’s always that one guy who wants to kill babies and steal from the other PCs — and in most games, this just doesn’t work. As long as you’re not too restrictive, setting some limits is generally a good idea.
Pregenerated Characters: For most home games, this is a bad idea unless you’re running a one-shot (although it’s perfect for conventions). While it’s nice to know that every aspect of the party will dovetail perfectly with your game (making scenario creation a breeze), it’s also pretty boring for the players.
A Character Gen Session: It’s pretty common practice to sit down before the game and talk about characters, share books and exchange ideas, and this can work quite well. Having a session for character generation is an easy way to make sure the party doesn’t have four bards in it, and the players don’t lose any creative control in the process.
Some games take that approach — the character generation session — one step further, and have the players work together to build their characters, not just talk about them. That’s the idea that I’d like to explore here.
Primetime Adventures (PTA) is a perfect example of this: the PCs are all part of the same TV show, and the players collaborate to create not only their characters, but also the supporting cast and the framework of the show. PTA is definitely an exception, though — most RPGs aren’t set up this way.
But there’s nothing stopping you from using this approach in the games you already play — and it sounds like a lot of fun to me.
So when wouldn’t this approach work? It wouldn’t work in games that are built around intrigue and infighting between the PCs (like Vampire or Paranoia), where in-character secrets are paramount. (Edit: John pointed out in the comments that the above is only true if you’re into immersion — if not, separating player and PC knowledge isn’t an issue, and this approach will work just fine in both Vampire and Paranoia.) I also can’t see it working well with players who don’t like coming up with character ideas on the spot — but apart from those two exceptions, I think you should be able to fit collaborative PC generation into most RPGs.
What would be involved? Not a whole lot in the way of mechanics, for one thing: I’m not suggesting that every stat and skill be micro-managed by the whole group. The idea is to collaborate on the broad strokes, with an eye to what choices will make the game more fun for everyone.
This would include sharing ideas, thinking about themes for the party — and connections between PCs, and between PCs and NPCs. (It’s reasonable to expect a bit of give and take, as well, but I think on the whole that open compromise is better than quiet frustration.)
That said, I can see this idea falling flat with some of the folks that I’ve gamed with over the years, which is okay — it’s not for everyone. If you propose this idea for your next game and just hear crickets, it’s probably best to leave it at that!
Since I’ve never tried this out, I’m curious to hear about your experiences with collaborative PC creation. Have you given this a shot, whether in a game that’s built for it (like PTA) or one that isn’t (like D&D)? If you haven’t tried it, what do you think of the idea? And what have I overlooked?
It wouldn’t work in games that are built around intrigue and infighting between the PCs (like Vampire or Paranoia), where in-character secrets are paramount.
Gotta disagree here. PC vs. PC games can work very well if the players know more than the charaters. In fiction, it’s called “dramatic irony” and it’s a powerful storytelling technique. If immersion is not one of your goals (it’s not for me) then a delicious separation of charcter and player knowledge can make for a wonderful back-stabbing game experience.
See The Mountain Witch for a game that takes this tactic to the extreme.
It’s interesting that you mention Paranoia, too. In that game, the characters know they must destroy all mutant commie traitors. The players already know that all the characters are mutant commie traitors. It works great.
Good point! I suppose my experience with both games (Vampire and Paranoia) has been that as a player my enjoyment of the game is increased by not knowing what the other PCs have up their sleeves. Sure, I know that they’re all commie mutant traitors — but I don’t know their powers (etc.). I guess I am coming at it from the standpoint of immersion, you’re right.
I always appreciate your perspective, John, because you make your points eloquently and we often come at things from a different POV. I’ll edit your comment into the post. 🙂
I’ve done, or participated in, collaborative character generation several times. In fact, I daresay it’s the rule, not the exception, in the groups I’ve played with. Some games, such as Star Trek, nearly demand collaborative character generation–you just can’t have two captains on your starship, no matter how hard you try.
On a few rare instances, groups can also help design the campaign, its themes, and some of the basic story elements. In one supers game, players at the table helped other players create their characters, suggesting powers and background elements. This lead to several characters having tie-ins with other characters, by virtue of the fact that the players were working together. End result? A team of characters (and players) keyed on working together as opposed to “lone wolf”-ing it. Pretty important for a supers game, if not *all* games.
Characters built in secret tend to sow seeds of discontent, hushed mutterings at the table (“how’d he do that?”), and engender a fair degree of mistrust. That’s not a pleasant gaming experience, IMO.
I completely agree with Abulia.
Characters created as a grup (in opposite of “lone wolfs” as Abulia called them) are usually more playable are enjoyable, both for GMs and players. In one hand, GM doesn’t have to “fit” the characters in the campaing as this work already has been done in the creation session with all the players involved. On the other hand, for players, ties between PC are usually exciting, powerfull and a good way to roleplay.
My best game experiences as a player had been since in my group we started a collaborative PC creation politic. We have done it with D&D (no just for classes distribution, but for instance, creating a whole gnomes maffia family willing to infiltrate in the Freeport underworld) and of course, Ars Magica, where all the grogs are created in a brainstorming/creation session.
On the contrary in other groups it just doesn’t works, I stronghly recommend to try it.
Just my 2 cents.
Quim (sorry for my bad english)
PS: I will also like to mention Orcworld where groups have a points pool to distribute to the PC, so every player has to agree.
I generally use the Character Generation Session method in my games.
First, I inform my players about the starting region, or about the main theme of the region (if it’s unknown to them) and ask them each to think about what sort of a character they would like to play (personality, life’s ambitions, contacts, etc…)
I agree that in some games, collaboration is a must. It helps to group the PC as a party and allows them to “grow and mature more harmoniously together”.
I don’t enforce collaboration in my games for one reason: Freedom of choice.
True, in a StarTrek game, there should only be one captain of The ship, but what if another player wants to be a captain? he can be a captain that was rescued from another ship and that could cause some great RP encounters between the players themselves.
I’ve noticed that enforcing collaboration amongst players, can really take away from their personal fun, to let their PCs grow the way THEY like to shape them (of course, it must adhere to the rules of the theme or they might find themselves outcasts).
My only enforcement is that of the “Choose your side of the story”. I don’t mix Good/Evil PCs in the same group. Not because I want an all HERO party, but because my players have asked me to not allow such a thing, they can either choose to play the heroes or the villains, but not a mix.
(quim)PS: I will also like to mention Orcworld where groups have a points pool to distribute to the PC, so every player has to agree.
Ok, I might be accused of being an Objectivisionist, but I’m up for individualism. giving the group a pool of points and letting them distribute it amongst themselves is not something I’ll encourage. Heck, I even don’t encourage the “Party Bank” pool or distribution of treasure according to Need vs. Greed.
Sure, it might be helpful in some games, but I let my players do things the way they want to. If they wish for a party bank, it’s up to everyone to agree on it and if they don’t and instead have a roleplaying debate on the topic, that’s where the fun really shows.
I have used collaborative chargen in my D&D games to great effect. My most recent campaign has five players. Four of them are siblings, all children of the king of a small towerland (kingdom). The fifth is a servant to one of the princesses. The built-in relationships give the group a lot of cohesion and a lot of material to play with.
The process was interesting. I described the world I was working on and asked for contributions (they added little things but mainly left the world to me). I talked about the towerland I wanted to use for the game, and they liked it. We bounced ideas around and the idea of princelings and princesslings came up and we liked it. The king was a human and a number of players wanted elves. One player wanted a human. We decided on a king who had two wives (one now deceased) so the characters are half-siblings. It’s a crazy Brady Bunch family, but it works.
Games like My Life with Master not only encourage collaborative character generation, but also require collaborative world generation. That is, the group as a whole in MLwM invents “The Master” and his demesne.
Collaborate pc creation helped me when the Iron DM competition at gencon this year.
The point of D and D is teamwork vs. the environment and it really helps if pcs work together to build a team. What I don’t allow at my collaborative pc creation sessions is any other player telling another waht they should have. I let them all talk about the kind of character they want to create and the brainstorming sessions usually flow from there.
The best part is the background relationships that develop from the session. Characters can talk about the histories of their families and common enemies. It helps me as a DM understand what they want out the campaign and write adventures that focus on those aspect.
The people I DM’d at gencon had never had a dm do this. They were always either told to pick a kind of character or given a few minutes before a campaign to begin.
In the competition they had an hour to create a band of heroes. This allowed me as the DM to craft an adventure suitable for the characters.
These are great comments! 🙂
(Don) Some games, such as Star Trek, nearly demand collaborative character generation–you just can’t have two captains on your starship, no matter how hard you try.
My only Trek experience has been at GenCon, but I can see why this would be highly desirable in a home game. I can’t remember offhand whether or not the rules explicitly encourage this — do they?
A team of characters (and players) keyed on working together as opposed to “lone wolf”-ing it. Pretty important for a supers game, if not *all* games.
Agreed — but I don’t think the level of collaboration that you mentioned for this supers game is standard in a lot of groups, or something that many rulebooks make reference to.
(Quim) I will also like to mention Orcworld where groups have a points pool to distribute to the PC, so every player has to agree.
Quim, how does this work in Orcworld? I’m not familiar with that game, and it sounds interesting.
(DM T) I’ve noticed that enforcing collaboration amongst players, can really take away from their personal fun, to let their PCs grow the way THEY like to shape them (of course, it must adhere to the rules of the theme or they might find themselves outcasts).
I’m not sure how much impact collaborative PC creation would have on character growth in most games, since growth takes place during the course of play. Or do you mean the growth of PC-related ideas during character generation?
(Adam) I have used collaborative chargen in my D&D games to great effect.
The meta-creation you described from your D&D game sounds very similar to what’s in PTA (which I’m almost done reading — one of my best GenCon purchases!). It’s good to hear that it can work well in D&D. 🙂 (And welcome to TT, Adam!)
(Nathan) The people I DM’d at gencon had never had a dm do this. They were always either told to pick a kind of character or given a few minutes before a campaign to begin.
In the competition they had an hour to create a band of heroes. This allowed me as the DM to craft an adventure suitable for the characters.
Congratulations on your Iron DM win, Nathan (and wlecome to TT)!
With regard to this group, did you encounter resistance from any of the players, or did they all take to the idea pretty quickly? Did anyone not take to it at all?
I’ve only tried cooperative chargen once and it turned out wonderfully. The team of dwarves we ran through RttToEE was immensely succesful, memorable without peer, and the only group of PCs I’ve ever known to have a group name. I generally DM, and we only settled on cooperative chargen as a lark, but now I know that this is the ONLY way to go. I tell all of my groups that they should generate a party in stead of generating characters, and I regale them with stories of the success of our RttToEE dwarves, but no one seems interested: they all have their own character concepts that they want to try and they don’t care what kind of characters the other players want to make. I usually get four-rogue groups, but this time I ended up with a somewhat balanced, though still disjointed party. I believe that next time, I will require collective chargen.
(anon) I believe that next time, I will require collective chargen.
After reading your comment, I can see why! It sounds like you had a really good experience with it, and you’re using that experience to inform your future games — that’s great. 🙂
Before I post my methods, I will say that I find the PC’s “Creating a party as opposed to a character” is an intriguing idea. It’s so simple in concept that I can’t believe our group has never done it.
My method is that I come up with the story and world with a lot of proto-concepts. Nothing set in stone, just a pool of ideas and one “hook” per class. If someone uses a non-core (D&D-centric group) I just use the closest core class “hook” and modify it. The players and I usually start trading emails when it’s clear the current DM is winding down their game. First I ask the usual “what class and concept” questions and we start working together to graft the hook and concept together. It’s a very fun process and it inspires plenty of new ideas for me. One guy’s concept was so good, I built a whole island nation around it that was a part of the game.
To get the party to gel together, I usually have a few characters have tenuous connections to each other in the backstory so it doesn’t have that sorta cliched “you all meet at X as total strangers” thing going on. I dont think it hurts the game to have a Char know another Char before the start.
My only caveat is that I don’t allow evil alignments (unless thats the thrust of the game) as it always becomes disruptive sooner or later. It’s like a ticking time-bomb. The “all evil” games tend to denegrate into a “greatest hits” session of who killed the most/best NPCs. Thats just my group, your results may vary.
I like doing group character creation (as opposed to individual creation) and strongly push for it from both sides of the screen.
I usually have greater success in gaming when then players understand how the PCs relate; there’s less “meta-gamey” keeping a party of strangers tensions when you all have ties. Plus, a time or two I’ve either tried to introduce people mid-campaign (always harder) or with the GM reponsible for tying things together.
This is another responsibility– one more than a GM typically needs, so I’m all in favor of coming up with things as a group.
(Scott) It was pretty jazzing; that one change (making it an all fighter type) game changed the outlook of the whole campaign.
That sounds neat, backsliding notwithstanding! Thanks for sharing that story. 🙂