Before the first session of a role playing game, be it Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun or Vampire the Masquerade, the Storyteller or Game Master must do a lot of preparation. The entirety of the world or city must be created and populated. The Storyteller must also decide on the structure of the adventures or the hooks that will draw players into the world. Even when running a sandbox style game, the Storyteller has to create the world so that players can explore and develop their own stories. Conversely, prior to taking part in an RPG, players only have to generate their own character’s stats and perhaps a character history, if that. The bulk of the pre-campaign work lies on the Storyteller’s shoulders.
|Dwarven Rogue? It'll never work!|
Prior to the start of any chronicle, the players can reduce their Storyteller’s burden by doing some simple tasks. These tasks include: selecting an appropriate character concept, writing a character history, determining a character’s goals, and finding a reason why the PCs work together. Each of these items requires that the players work together as a group when they construct their characters and work with the Storyteller so that all the characters fit into the shared World of Darkness created by the Storyteller and the players.
Selecting an Appropriate Character Concept
In a setting as broad as the World of Darkness which encompasses technocratic super science, a plethora of shape changers, reality twisting magic, evil, corrupt corporations, the restless dead, and the fae, every person’s view of the setting is going to be different. When generating a chronicle for a setting that has so many options, some of those ideas have to be culled to make the story coherent instead of a mishmash of ideas. Some groups may prefer a game that is grounded in a contemporary world with shades of supernatural elements. Other groups prefer a world that has more fantastic elements such as Technocracy Moon bases. Whatever the group’s preferred vision of the World of Darkness, the characters have to fit into that world.
|He's a cop with body armor! Really!|
The first step in creating a character is selecting a character concept. The concept is the foundation of the character, and all other ideas about the character build on that concept. The players have a vast array of options when imagining their character and his or her concept. However, the concept should fit in with the groups shared vision of the world. In a Vampire the Masquerade Game that is a reflection of the real world but with some supernatural elements, players should choose concepts that would make sense in the real world. For example, a Brujah private investigator who was embraced and now works as a deputy to the city’s Sheriff makes a lot of sense. However, a Tremere who wants to graft metal gun arms onto his ghouls would probably not fit. On the other hand, in a Vampire the Masquerade game where the setting was more fantastic with a stronger emphasis on super science and magic, the opposite would be true. The Tremere mad scientist would fit, and the Brujah P.I. would be out of place.
So when a player starts to build his character, she or he should consider how that character would fit into the group’s idea of the setting. Just having a solid character concept that fits into the Storyteller’s world reduces the workload for the Storyteller because he doesn’t have to shoehorn in a weird character concept.
Writing a Character History
After players have selected a character concept and bubbled in the appropriate number of dots on their character sheets, most stop and consider their character complete. However, no one is birthed into this world without a history. While a character concept is the foundation on which the character is built, a character history provides the mortar that connects all the disparate details on the character sheet together. The character history is a chance to explain that 4-point Enemy or the True Love or the reason the Brujah P.I. has put a few dots in Animal Ken (because he used to breed and train dogs as a hobby) or why the Tremere mad scientist has dots in Larceny (he breaks into the morgue to steal body parts for his creations).
Writing a character history doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. A paragraph or a page is usually more than enough. (I require my players to submit a 1 page typed character history and they receive two XP for doing so.) Some players (like myself) can get a bit verbose and write volumes about characters. Whether it’s long or short, a character history gives the Storyteller a bit of extra knowledge about the character beyond just the statistics on the character sheet. The character history also helps the Storyteller create hooks for individual characters based on the information from the history. These will represent the subplots available that players can explore during the course of a game.
Determining a Character’s Goals
Not every moment of a character’s life is going to be filled with investigating strange houses, spelunking through the Nosferatu catacombs, or parties with Elder Toreadors. There will be plenty of time between these adventures when the Storyteller will look across the gaming table and ask, “So it’s been a few weeks, what did you do with your time?” Have a plan for this moment!
This is a chance to earn some free points in Backgrounds (which cannot be bought with experience points). Mentors, Resources, Fame, and Herd can all be increased during these periods of downtime. Allies and Contacts can be found or a Retainer can be acquired. However these tasks should be in line with the character’s concept. For example, during the breaks in the story, characters can build up their Status by gaining favor with the city’s Harpies or doing a small favor the Prince. Resources be increased through clever use of the Finance or Larceny abilities. The possibilities are endless.
|Skip the Machiavelli, I shoot him with an RPG!|
Also, characters should have long term, in character goals that aren’t necessarily reflected on their character sheets. These goals can define the whole character, such as a PC who wants to rise to the rank of Primogen or Prince. That sort of goal requires acquiring control over mortal institutions, finding Kindred allies, building up resources, and so on. The overthrow of a Prince is not a one night affair, but well timed machinations of a devious social climber. Downtime provides a chance for a character to gather those resources and make those deals that will one day allow him or her to seize an opportunity to take the throne or fail and be blood hunted for an attempted coup de tat (either way it’ll be an interesting story). The goal could also be something much simpler but no less important to the character such as finding the Kindred who murdered his or her sire which would require just as much work as becoming Prince, because the character has to investigate the murder and determine not just who the murderer might be but also who was pulling the strings.
These sorts of things can be handled with a few dice rolls and a couple of minutes to cover weeks of in game investigation or a meeting with a potential ally. Having a goal beyond just completing the resolving the Storyteller’s plot will give characters a life of their own and a chance grow beyond a stats and a back story.
Finding a Reason Why the PCs Work Together
How many Dungeons & Dragons games have started with the line, “You’re all sitting at the tavern, and…”? That is probably slightly more common that “You’re locked in a jail cell with some other people…” Both of these beginnings show how hard it is bring together a random group of strangers to form a coherent group of adventures. In the case of Vampire the Masquerade, Storytellers have the same problem. Why would the Ventrue business man hang out with the Gangrel environmental activist? Even though the character concepts work in the setting, the problem now faced is why would these people work together despite their differences. Many times the players leave this dilemma for the Storyteller to solve.
|I sit in the corner with the darkest shadows and order an ale|
However, the players should take the initiative and solve this for themselves. Whereas in Dungeons & Dragons, groups can be formed around the individual skills of a class and its role in the party (Healer, DPS, Tank), in Vampire the Masquerade those concepts don’t necessarily exist. The best method to do this is for the players to create their characters together. By working together and bouncing ideas off each other, the players can come to a consensus, without much Storyteller involvement, on the dynamics of their coterie. When the players finally sit down at the table, they are a group who know each other, or know of each other.
The antithesis to this approach is when each player comes to the table with a “Lone Wolf” type character who doesn’t trust anyone else. The character sticks to the shadows and is designed to be self sufficient. This is the World of Darkness equivalent of a Justice League full of Batmans or the X-Men with a dozen Wolverines. It sounds awesome, but without the mingling of diverse characters in either the Justice League or the X-Men, a lot of the excitement is lost as each Batman or Wolverine wanders off to solve the problem by himself.
The setting for a role playing game as well as its story is shared and interactive story. The Players as well as the Storyteller have a responsibility to maintain the themes and atmosphere of the setting. However, often all of work is left to the Storyteller who is expected to pull together a random group of strangers to tell a story involving them all without input from the players other than, “Make it fun” or “Entertain me.” However if the players take it upon themselves to help the Storyteller prepare for a game by selecting an appropriate character concept, writing a character history, determining in character goals, and working together to explain why these characters are a coterie, the Storyteller’s work load is reduced and he is allowed to focus on creating the city, generating story hooks and plots, and coming up with interesting NPCs.