Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Character Creation and Limitations on Character Creation

            How often have you shown up to the first session and been confronted by a group of players with their characters already built but they have nothing in common?  One player has brought a Gangrel who impersonates werewolves.  Another player has a Tzimisce that is the priest of a pack of Black Hand.  A third has built a Baali intent on “watching the world burn.”  The fourth player got confused and built a Wereshark for some strange reason.  As the storyteller you’re left sitting there wondering how to bring these four characters together into a coherent group.  Even after you get the Wereshark player to build a Vampire, you’re still left with three characters that would sooner set the others on fire than work together towards a shared goal. 
The Jester makes sense, but who plays a Dwarf in a Game of Thrones RPG?
            That example might sound hyperbolic, but it’s happened to me.  Letting players bring anything to the table means that they will bring anything!  Instead of letting players choose anything, I prefer to limit their options during character creation, and I also sit with each player as each character is built.  By limiting the players’ options and watching/assisting with character creation, I begin each chronicle knowing that the characters will fit into the plot and setting of the game. 
            For whatever reason, many players approach character creation as solo endeavor.  They sit down with the game books and create their character in a vacuum without input from other players or the Storyteller.  Yet, this character is supposed to fit in with other characters as part of a group.  The best approach to character creation is to spend the entire first session on just that.  The players can discuss their characters as they are being built.  The Storyteller can provide input and make suggestions on which abilities and so forth will be the most helpful during the game. 
            Players can also ask the Storyteller questions and get a feeling for what kind of encounters or scenes that are likely to appear during the game.  For example, most of my games are based around investigations.  I don’t emphasize combat but I do like having lots of chases.  So, players in my games would be better served by putting points in Investigation rather than other abilities.   I also like to set my chronicles in one city rather than having the coterie travel around the world; so, there is no reason for characters to have houses in other cities or planes to travel to distant countries. 
            However, the Storyteller must realize his/her own tendencies.  It took me a while to realize that I was always running investigation style games.  Knowing that tendency I can give players accurate advice on what they can expect during a game.  However, if the Storyteller doesn’t know what his/her tendencies are, they could give bad advice and the character could end up with abilities that are not used during the game.  If the storyteller tells the players that he is planning on having combat every session, but instead he is only has combat once every 4 or 5 sessions then the player who has put every point into combat abilities is going to be useless.  The same would be true if the Storyteller said he liked running games focused on politics and social encounters but every encounter could only be resolved through punching someone in the face. In other words, don’t give players bad advice.  They might be resentful if they spend points during character creation on abilities that will never be used.  
Why is Dave playing SuperPro in a DC game?
            Storytellers should think carefully about what kind of characters they want to allow in their game.  I am a big fan of limiting players’ options during character creation.  If your chronicle is about a group of Camarilla vampires defending their city from a Sabbat invasion, then you probably shouldn’t allow players to be a group of independent vampires who don’t care one way or the other about the Camarilla or Sabbat.  For my last two chronicles, I have limited players to only Camarilla clans; they weren’t allowed to play any independents like Assamites or Giovanni, nor were they allowed to play typical Sabbat clans like the Lasombra and Tzimisce.  That simple limitation made running the game much simpler because all the players were involved in the Camarilla’s politics rather than each character answering to a different group and having to weave together those politics. 
However, running a game focused on the interparty conflict between a group of vampires from different sects (Independent, Camarilla, Anarch, and Sabbat) forced to work together is a great Chronicle, but it wasn’t the Chronicle that I wanted to run.  That would mean that each player must be of a different sect.  Or you could run a game where every character was from the same clan and the primary conflict of the game is clan politics and fighting against other clans.  So every player must build a character from one clan.  Both of these ideas limit players but in different ways.  Without these limitations, the whole basis of these campaigns would fall apart. 
            Rather than treating character creation as a solo experience, the players and Storyteller should work together to ensure that the character being built fits into the group and chronicle.  Rather than each player building his/her character alone and bringing it to the game, the first session should be set aside for character creation so that the Storyteller can offer input and the players can all contribute to each others’ characters.  Otherwise, you’ll have a group of individuals that don’t make sense, and the Storyteller will have to figure out how to explain why that Wereshark is hanging out with a Tzimisce rather than eating him. 
            I’d like to thank David for sending me the idea for this article.  If you have an idea that you’d like me to discuss, please send me an email. 


  1. While I'm not extremely experienced at DMing, I like to allow players to build whatever they want "within reason" (no weresharks, but minotaurs may be fine), and instead of figuring out why they're together, start the game in a way that they are -forced- to be together.

    In one campaign, I started them out in a prison-- where they could choose how long they'd been there and why, wrongfully or rightfully, etc-- and had their characters chosen for an annual "gauntlet of challenges" created for entertainment purposes. Any prisoners who successfully navigated the gauntlet were rewarded with freedom. (The gauntlet was touted as difficult and that very few had ever escaped.) This made them work together and, once escaping, gave them a reason to stick together for a while.

    A second campaign started with everyone on a ship headed for a new, fairly unsettled land. Again, they chose why and how they were on the ship (guard, traveller, stowaway, etc). The ship was attacked by flying enemies, which brought everyone together for battle, and then an emergency "landing" was made at a nearby deserted island, where they had to work together to survive and get back on track. In addition, they were now in possession of an important macguffin which drew attention to them.

    I'll never start a game with "You're in a tavern. Go." I've been in that game 3 times and it always starts awkwardly and plods along.

    While there are better ways than my methods, as it's difficult to have players build full backstories that can be incorporated, starting with the players forced to work together is a good way to plop a bunch of strange characters together.

    1. None of those are bad way to start a campaign. They get everyone together and working towards a goal (suvival or escape) and things start quickly enough. However, I've played in way too many games where we started in a prison cell and had to escape. I've done that particular starting adventure more times than I've had the "starting in a tavern" opening.

      That's why I prefer for players to work together during character creation so they may all know each other before the adventure starts. They might have a history together or be related, etc.

      One of the easiest ways to start a game has been to have a "Quest giver" who brings the PCs together and requests that they complete a task. Legend of the Five Rings uses a tournament setting where players are competing at a tournament and someone gets murdered.

      But nevertheless all the PCs should have something in common that ties them together. In Star Wars they should all be Rebels (or Imperials). In Star Trek they should all work for the Federation (or the Romulans or whatever).

      The thing that I want to avoid is having a group of strangers at the start with nothing in common who are "forced to work together." They need to have a shared goal and common bond before the game starts which is why I suggest using the first session to build characters.

      However, I think you have made a good point about the difficulty of incorporating back stories into the opening session of a game. That's a good idea for an article.

  2. I've been GM for a number of very different style games and I suppose one of the main things I consider is longevity of the campaign/chronicle.

    If the characters have relatively few common links in their back story but are forced to work together, they will. However this usually only lasts until that goal is completed. As a player, I also find it frustrating when you want to start pursuing goals related to your back story and realize there's no real reason for other PCs to pursue this with you. A really free creation process does allow for really interesting combinations and interactions, though.

    When character creation is a shared process it lets you insert many shared story hooks into the characters back story. It means the characters end up working together for longer and everyone in the group is motivated to follow similar goals.

    One approach I've used is to mix both styles a little. Play a short chronicle/campaign with really open character process and then tweak the character's concept and back story for use in the "real" chronicle which is built for longevity.

    Again, depends what you are trying to achieve, I suppose.

    1. I like that idea of using a short adventure to set up the back story for a campaign/chronicle. I might use that as a shared prelude for my next group.