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Don’t Skimp On The Characters

I made a mistake and it killed a campaign. It was avoidable, and had I been more patient when I started the campaign, I may have avoided it; but I didn’t. In hindsight it seems so obvious what I did and why it lead to the premature end of the campaign. I forgot an essential element of the game: character formation.

The Quick Story

Ok. Enough being mysterious. Here is what I was trying to do…

I wanted to run a Corporation game using the Japanese Corporation, Shi Yukiro, with a plot based on the 47 Ronin [1]. The concept was that the Division’s (player’s) VP was tricked into embarrassing herself and had to commit seppuku. The Division would then have to find out what happened and avenge their fallen master from the one who tricked her.

What Actually Happened

We were anxious to get playing, and most of the players had played Corporation before. So, we rolled up some characters and talked briefly about them on Hangout. Then on the first session, we lead with the seppuku of the VP. The Agents were on their own to find out what happened and to eventually avenge her death.

What Went Wrong?

There were a few disconnects during the sessions. First, the characters had an uneven mix of detail and background. Some characters had full backgrounds and motivations for their characters, others had very little. Second, there was no team unity. There was an understanding that that players were part of a team, but there was little in the way of teamwork, camaraderie, etc. Third, there was an emotional disconnect from the main theme of the VP and avenging her; no one had strong feelings about it. Combined, the three issues made for some very bland sessions. It just wasn’t there.

Root Cause

While this game was floundering, I had some work trips and a family vacation to take, so the game was on hiatus. I had a lot of time to think while away from the table, and I began to realize that there was a root cause to all the symptoms I was seeing at the table. There was too little time spent on character development and group formation.

Don’t Fool Yourself…It’s Always About Planning

As a Project Manager you learn that planning is the key factor to the success of a project. You plan so that you know what you are doing, why you are doing it, how it’s going to get done, and who will do it. You short circuit planning and your project will fail in some aspect, if not all of them.

The same was true about this game. Character creation and group formation should be major parts of campaign planning. Character creation, aside from your stats, is about coming up with a personality and background for a character. Its about creating the detail that a player will use to portray the character; to make them real at the table. Group formation is the combined effort of everyone to create a functional and cohesive group. Without those elements, the player side of the game will suffer; no amount of awesome GMing is going to save it.

Investing The Time At The Table

In my haste to exit my All For One [2] game and get another game running, I tried to push all of the character side efforts off on the players so that I could focus on getting the initial story arc thought out and the first session prepped. The pitfall in that, is that not all players are equally creative and motivated away from the table.

When you have character generation at the table, the players are all engaged and focused on the game. They are receiving stimulation and inspiration from their fellow players. They can ask questions and they can answer questions during the character creation process. When players are away from the table they are isolated, they come up with things on their own. They are also at the mercy of their own internal motivation and the multitude of other commitments in their lives, and in some cases cannot dedicate the same level of effort away from the table.

Spending time working on Group formation is equally critical. Every playing group needs to develop a group dynamic, understanding their roles, discovering and developing intra-party relationships and tensions. In a game like Corporation, that is even more true because the group is a mission-based fighting unit. In other games it may not be quite as important, but it plays a role in any game. By investing time in letting the players explore the group dynamic, discover the things they have in common, and the things they don’t see eye to eye on, it helps to anchor the team and the individual characters.

Creating Investment In the Plot

Aside from giving the players time to develop their characters and to come together as a group, the other mistake that I made was to not invest each of them in a personal relationship with the VP who would eventually take her own life. Rather, I tried to rely on having the players make a leap of faith to make that connection. In the absence of investing some time and story into this, the effect can be uneven.

What I should have done was take a few sessions and have each player have one or more meaningful scenes with the VP. Things that would have come up from their developed character backgrounds. Those scenes would have created player investment, and then when she is ordered to take her life, they would have felt the loss, and would have had the motivation for revenge.

Lessons Learned

Having learned from my mistakes, for my next game I will be more diligent in setting up the campaign for success. Here are the things I will plan on doing:

Dust Yourself Off and Try Again

Could I have saved my campaign? Possibly, but it was going to require a lot of work, some retconning, and some flashbacks. It did not seem worth the effort; after all there is always another game to play. What is important is that I have learned the penalty for rushing the launch of a campaign, and will slow things down and make sure that the characters and the group form before running the first session.

Have you ever experienced a game where the characters were underdeveloped, or had no connection to the campaign world? How did it turn out? Were you able to turn it around? What do you do in your campaigns to make sure that the players have rich characters, good group dynamics, and ties to the campaign world?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Don’t Skimp On The Characters"

#1 Comment By XonImmortal On July 20, 2012 @ 2:09 am

I have seen many poorly-thought out characters, but the ones that stand out are the ones held by players who had no connection to their character.

One in particular stands out. The player dealt with the character as a flat, uninteresting piece of paper. I and the other players tried to draw him out, to understand what playing your character means, to no avail. I finally put my finger on the character sheet and said “This is who you are supposed to pretend to be.”

He gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look and said, “I don’t know how to do that.”

The other players wanted me to boot him out, and frankly, I regret not doing that. The kid wanted to play an RPG, so that his friends would think he was cool, but he didn’t want to have to understand anything about it. He wanted the title, not the responsibility.

#2 Comment By shortymonster On July 20, 2012 @ 3:27 am

A mate of mine has just posted a blog on the same subject. [9]

Whenever I’ve been either a player in a game or running it, it’s almost always the characters that never had the chance to develop pre-playing time that seem to have the hardest time adjusting to the plot. I know just how you feel mate, but at least you’re taking something positive from the whole thing, and sharing it with the rest of us.

#3 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 22, 2012 @ 10:21 am

Your Mate brings up a great point. Players need to make sure that GM’s get their concept, and GM’s should not rest until they get each player’s concept.

I am planning on doing this for my next game, before anyone puts stats to paper. Have each player make me get their concept first, and then we can work together to find the stats and mechanics that support that.

In addition doing that in a group setting makes sure that the other players get that concept as well, and that it fits with the group as a whole.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On July 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am

You’re absolutely right that it takes a lot of effort and planning to get really deep characters that are involved in the plot. Usually, the players hear that a new game is starting and individually go “oooh, I’ve always wanted to play ….” and they’ve already decided on their core characters before getting to know the game or going to the group character creation and figuring out what the group is going to be like. I’ve overcome that with personal time and talking to all the players beforehand, makign sure they know what I’m working towards. However, that is a huge time commitment and not always possible.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2012 @ 10:18 am

I’ve been in a game that had a similar setup, but the GM was careful to have the NPC guide and help the party (individually and collectively) before offing him. It worked beautifully, and we were all gung-ho to wax some bad guys after the death scene.

IIRC, the NPC was around for about five sessions before exiting stage left, enough for us to gel as a group, and enough for him to be an important part of the story.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On July 20, 2012 @ 11:29 am

I heartily agree with this assessment Telas.

I often wonder why GMs are so slow to understand the need to have interaction between the players and any non-antagonistic NPC in order for the players to feel any investment regarding that NPC.

Everyone understands that the way to get players to hate a recurring antagonist enough to deal with him/her/it/them (rather than wander off on GM boring side quests for loot) is to have him/her/it/them hand the PCs their rear-ends on a platter in some non-lethal way a few times.

Make an NPC an integral part of the first few sessions, then off them and it’s Vengeance Game On!

#7 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 22, 2012 @ 10:22 am

The NPC mentor is also a great tool that a GM can use to help guide players at the start of the campaign. The Mentor can either be killed, retired, fade into the background, turn evil, etc to bring further drama when their initial use is complete.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On July 23, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

Agree 100%.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On July 20, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

I’ve had this happen a few times–once at my suggestion as a player! In my defense, I suggested it for a D&D game, so that the characters would develop at the table. [It’s a variation of “Levels 1-3 ARE your backstory”.]

Over the course of the campaign, the characters developed–but the initial blank slates were hard to overcome uniformly. Some players had a backstory by the end of the first session, while other players avoided producing any backstory for months.

#10 Comment By randite On July 20, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

This is why I’ve made roleplaying through a couple of scenes from each character’s life a mandatory part of character generation for my homebrew system. I also encourage backstory by giving few to no penalties to skill checks for skills characters don’t have but should be somewhat familiar with based on thier backgrounds.
Even in my haphazard stupid-superheroes pick-up games (ala The Tick, Mysterymen), I at least run through an interview with HAM (Heroes Against Madness the city’s official Super Hero Squad) to make the characters feel lived in before the action starts.

#11 Comment By Orikes On July 21, 2012 @ 12:36 am

I know in my games, I try very hard to set expectations for who their characters need to be right off the bat. I’ve experimented with a few different methods. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just not feasible to make characters together. With my group, everyone’s schedule is so crazy, people are reluctant to ‘waste’ a game night making characters when we could be getting into the game.

What I did with my last game was set the expectations of who the characters were right off the bat. I wrote up an e-mail to all the players outlining the general concept of the game and giving them guidelines for characters, including certain things they needed to comply with (i.e. being willing to work for a particular organization). I kept in communication with all of them leading up to the opening game to make sure I had a handle on the character they were creating as well as making sure it would fit in the game. So far, it’s been a fantastic game.. best I’ve ever run.

#12 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 21, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

I generally create available factions that the player characters are associated with. Even if different factions are chosen existing relationships between factions allow a group from multiple factions to work together.

Rite Publishing released 2 faction books for the Kaidan Japanese horror campaign setting (so far): Way of the Yakuza and Way of the Samurai. Both books feature a chapter for GM’s to custom build a yakuza gang, or a samurai house, each with a statblock, using rules similar to the PF City stat block. For yakuza whom ever is your oyabun (boss) and his lieutentant shapes how the rest of the gang is in attitude, honor, scholarly pursuits, how profitable their illicit operations, etc.

Using the Samurai book’s rules for house creation – while designed for use in a feudal Japan-like setting, could be adapted to another game system – and easily fit your 47 ronin theme, BTW.

As ab aside, the Kaidan Campaign Setting Kickstarter began a couple days ago and halfway to Tier 1 already. Wish us luck for success.

#13 Comment By danroth On July 21, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

I wouldn’t take it too hard–I’ve had groups where everybody has a clear idea of their characters, but they STILL don’t work as a team very well.

#14 Comment By Gigermann On July 23, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

Given the specifics of the campaign, and assuming that the Players already know the premise (42 Ronin), I would simply start the story a bit later, with the suicide, and have all the Players explain (preferably, via background) why it is that they care about this person enough to avenge her. I’ve found this method—giving the Players the situation and having them explain why it is so—works far better than trying to play it out in-game, where it may or may not develop the way it’s supposed to.

#15 Comment By BryanB On July 24, 2012 @ 11:03 am

In three decades of roleplaying, I have found that taking a little bit of time during character creation to cover some sort of background info on the character and their relationships with the other PCs at the start will pay HUGE dividends over the course of a series or campaign. I think that Phil using the term “investment” in his article could not be more apt.

One of the proudest campaigns I have been a part of were two Star Wars Saga Edition games set during the Old Republic era. Prior to the start of the first arc, before character sheets were even filled in, I talked to my players about what sort of characters they wanted to create. Then I asked them some direct questions. I got a lot of creative feedback. We also made connections between the PCs and how they met or how they knew each other. I did very little, except to add to or help polish the fine work my players did.

Doumar Creef was a native of the planet Taris. Taris was ravaged by the Sith during the Jedi Civil War. Doumar lost most of his family during the atrocities, including his beloved missing sister. Doumar’s Uncle Jaxis survived. A merchant and freight hauler, Jaxis took Doumar in and made him work hard for a living. Jaxis seemed to place profits over finding any lost family, something that Doumar grew to resent before leaving Jaxis and striking out on his own. Doumar hated the Sith and all that they had done to his family and his world. He would meet Jaris Nakor while working on the freighter Nebula Fire. They would become fast friends, often enjoying friendly rivalries over the pretty women that would cross their path. The woman that broke both of their hearts was Sonja Ornellia, the daughter of Senator Ornellia of Onderon.

Jaris Nakor was a silver spoon. Raised in the elite ruling class on the planet Corellia, it was likely that Jaris would end up as a politician some day. The step-son of a powerful and influential Senator, Jaris was a troubled child. He often had nightmares that would wake him in the night. A masked figure with red eyes would torment him. Little did Jaris know that he was receiving visions from the Force. Jaris’ mother would not discuss his father only telling him that “He was a guard for an ambassador when he was killed.” In truth, his father had been a Jedi Master. Jaris grew tired of a Corellian noble’s life. He had some thinking to do and thus took a job on a freighter where he met Doumar Creef. The two became fast friends. Over the course of the campaign, Sonja came back into their lives – finally admitting her love for Jaris and marrying him.

Isao Shin was taken into the Jedi Order as a Padawan learner at the age of seven. His uncle Masaaki was one of the Jedi Masters charged with training young Padawans. Shin was a little impatient in his studies but he strived to please his uncle and make his parents proud of him. During the Jedi Civil War, the Jedi Order was devastated. In the following years, bounty hunters and assassins began the Jedi Purge. It was even thought that only one Jedi Knight remained for a time. As the order fell into chaos, Masaaki took Isao on a long pilgrimage to the most remote regions of the galaxy hoping to avoid the Sith. Isao and his uncle kept a low profile, often taking passage on dirty old tramp freighters like the Nebula Fire. Isao met Jaris and Doumar during this exodus, joining them in playing Sabacc to pass the time. Isao would become a Jedi Knight, vowing to help rebuild what had been lost.

Taking the time to lay the foundation for our first series was instrumental in making the two series such a success. Doumar found his lost sister and reconciled somewhat with his uncle. Jaris discovered his abilities with the Force and became a Jedi Knight like his father before him. Isao proved his merit as a Jedi, helping Jaris and his sister Katrina avoid the Dark Side, and then taking a Padawan learner of his own. The three would be joined by Geoff Tristar a Republic soldier and war veteran, which would only add to the dynamics of the group. Later, Brant Corbin, a Force Sensitive NPC Engineer on Doumar’s ship would become a PC and Isao’s Padawan. Together, they would overcome and stop the threat of three Sith Lords, even redeeming one of them in the end.

I felt that the series was truly worthy of film cans. The campaign was certainly one of my most successful runs. It was the investment of time during character creation that made such a splendid campaign possible.

#16 Comment By BryanB On July 24, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

I couldn’t agree with Phil about this topic anymore than I do. I especially like the term “Investment.” The greatest games that I have been a part of have involved player buy in both in game interest and the time invested in making characters for the game. By adding connections, relationships, and additional depth to the character’s mechanical side, the characters really come alive during actual play.