Thursday, February 7, 2013

Character Creation III

I’ve been thinking about character creation and party building as I plan the hijack Citizen Ben’s second D&D group that he’s starting up this month.  I think he thinks that I’m just joking about hijacking the game, but I’m actually deadly serious.  I’m taking the opportunity to apply to this new game what I’ve been thinking about RE: Characters, backgrounds, goals, plots and party cohesion from the two games I’m running, my Gritty Fantasy Last Rest Reign campaign and my Future Noir Fading Suns, plus Citizen Ben’s first D&D game that I’m playing.  If I’m going to disappoint my girlfriend by dedicating time to a fourth RPG game, bringing my monthly RPG sessions that bite into our time from five up to six I intend to get exactly what I want.

I know of course, that I won’t get exactly what I want, since it’s a collaborative thing, but I’ll be damned if I don’t at least try to get as much as I can of what I want.  With the player group including several players who will be playing D&D and Role-playing for the first time, I especially wanted to apply many of my theories about what makes a good first game/campaign for a new player to the campaign as well.  What do I want?  I typed up a Declaration of Intent to Hijack email that I sent last month to the three players from the first game that are coming with me to the second with the demands I intended to make as I declared myself, for all intents and purposes, as Player Dictator in Chief.  Those ‘demands’ were:

  • That from Session 1, all the PCs of the party share at least one known, common goal. 
    • This is utterly lacking in Ben’s other D&D game, which makes party politics quite fractious, as each PC has their own loose goals and often times it is only the goodwill of the players that keeps the party together as a party.  It has worked in that game, so far, though that facet of that game does bother me, enough so that I created Uwain just to see if I could inject a bit of a center into the party.
    • I thought I had this tackled in my Reign game, but I failed as a GM to make the goal explicit and specific enough.  Loosely the players are all part of a company dedicated to help the larger rebellion against the Ashen Kingdom, but in practice each player and PC has a different idea of what that means and even different ideas of what the company goal should be.
    • I feel like I nailed this with my Fading Suns game, though largely, it must be admitted, through GM fiat.  By having an NPC employ the PCs to solve a mystery their goals and drive have, so far at least, been nicely uniform.
  • That at least 50% of party have a pre-existing relationship with at least one other PC defined during character creation. 
    • Intra-party relationships, more than anything else, have always been for me one of the biggest drivers of my enjoyment, both as a player and a DM.
    • @Ironsolo and I tried this when we joined Citizen Ben’s first D&D game when we joined as the brothers Sid and Maxallion, but because we were both playing PCs with secretive backgrounds we neglected to tie our characters together enough and we never really took the time to roleplay and create any kind of sibling dynamic.  This was in stark contrast to the first time we played in one of Ben’s games when we played the Clovertail siblings to enormous effect and enjoyment.
    • This is another factor that seems lacking in my Reign chronicle, as only three of the characters have any relationship that precedes the first episode of the game.  Fortunately, as the chronicle has gone on, the three players of the PCs who all spent time in the same prison still try and play off that existing relationship, even if it isn’t always as prominent as I might like.In the Fading Suns game, three of my players came up with the most perfunctory of pre-game relationships, that is, that they all knew each other from working together/serving in the military intelligence together and were drinking/gambling buddies.  Fortunately, to my great delight, the three players seem to be dedicated to role-playing out a nice sense of camaraderie and building with each session more of the relationship.
  • That the Game Style be one of High Adventure, swashbuckling and able to be Light Hearted.
    • The first D&D game is often fairly somber as the PCs deal with Devils and aberrations and frequently being at Death’s Door and while the players are often jocular, there is rarely a chance for their secretive PCs to be.
    • My gritty Reign chronicle is often overly dark and grim, entirely through my doing, but my players and their PCs do their best to liven things up.  But as it is a very dour and dingy setting by my design it feels that part of me that wants dark and bloody fantasy.
    • My Fading Suns game is also fairly dark, drawing as it does on the Noir tradition of grimy streets and dirtier deals, though it has, as does the best Noir, the ability to wink and joke as well.
  • That the plot be propelled by character/group goals, and specifically that the main plot be driven by a common, shared goal.
    • See my comments on point one.
  • That there be plenty of room for intra-party role-playing.
    • As established in point two, part of what I love about role-playing is the interaction.  If I just want a straight forward tactical game, I'd dig out my old Playstation and play Final Fantasy Tactics for a dozenth time.  And now, I have to admit, I kind of want to play Final Fantasy tactics for a dozenth time...
In addition to my above demands, I also suggested many things, like potential relationships, thoughts about what my character might be and possible common goals.  One of the things I suggested was that the group be based around a Search for a Legendary Treasure, a common goal I stole shamelessly from Robert Low's excellent The Whale Road.  A book I quite enjoy (and whose sequels only get better).  Click below and buy it already, damn it!

At first I had been thinking about playing a barbarian leader, ala Orm the Bearslayer, but after mainlining every available episode of Thrilling Adventure Hour in less than two weeks, I decided to keep the barbarian class but ditch the rage flavor and play a deadpan Goliath in the style of Croach the Tracker from Sparks Nevada.  This will let me play a sidekick, a role I quite thoroughly enjoy, with the added benefit of I'll have whoever's sidekick I am will have to deal with me constantly forcing them to role-play.  Needless to say, I've spent many an otherwise mindless hour at work coming up with plenty of background and business for Guðleifr the útlegð AKA Gleb the Exile.

But this has also gotten me thinking about how to help the other players, about half of them first time plays, come up with rich and rewarding characters.  To this end, some hints:

  • When in Doubt, Borrow and Steal
    • Joss Whedon and George Lucas aren't going to come break your legs if you base your character's personality off a bastard love child of Malcom Reynolds and Han Solo (and their lawyers won't know either, unless you really make me angry...).   I listen to a ton of animation DVD commentaries, I used to be able to quote almost all of the commentary from Futurama seasons 1-4 from memory, and other things were great voice actors like Billy West and John DiMaggio talk about where good voices come from and they always talk about using bad impressions as a starting point.  Start with a ripoff of Wesley from the Princess Bride and because the D&D plot isn't going to exactly follow the book/film's soon your character will be its own living breathing thing and not just a pale imitation.  Especially when you're just starting coming up with an 100% original character is much harder than you'd think, so let a character you love do the heavy lifting and borrow.
  • Think about What You Want to Do In Game
    • It can often be fun to play against type, but D&D is also a game, especially for starting players, that rewards you for playing with type, so it's great to think about what you want your character wants to do in the game.  Don't want to have to deal with traps, then you probably don't want to play a rogue and have all the other PCs (and players) always expect you to disarm the traps.  
    • Though often maligned, the 4E roles are a great tool for Class Choice triage.  Want to play a character that can take a licking and still keep ticking, start by looking at Defenders.  Want to just kill things and have the glassjawed joy of just dealing immense damage, take a gander at Strikers.  Want to be helpful or be able to bring the party back from the brink with buffs, blessings and healing, Leader is for you.  Want some versatility and lots of options and don't being forced to think extra tactically, you can consider a Controller.  The nice thing about 4E is, with many classes and builds stradling the roles, and with the multiclass feats, it's easy to build a character that combines two of the roles without becoming the XP sink that multiclassing in earlier editions often was.
    • Another thing to consider is Complexity.  4E has lots of options, especially in combat, which is honestly part of its attraction for many people, including myself, who sometimes felt like in earlier editions you were stuck doing one thing over and over (Fighter SMASH! or Cleric Cure Light Wounds).  However, the later Essentials Classes are a great option for newer players as they work to streamline options without eliminating them all together.  From playing and running them, I'd say that it's less that they take away options during play than they take away options during character creation and leveling, where it's easy as a new player to be paralyzed by the over-abundance of choices.  
  • Use the Tools Provided
    • I have a love/hate relationship with the 4E character builder, but I have a love/love relationship with the Personality Traits presented in the 4E Player's Handbook (as I discuss in my Uwain intro post).  I am definitely going to make sure this new group goes through them.  Even if you're borrowing/stealing a personality from an established character in another medium it helps you boil down some of the defining characteristics. 
  • Don't Worry About Everything Up Front/Leave Some Things for Later
    • There is a subset of more experience Role-players, myself among them, who can have a character and a 20 page backstory and a mix of theme music and an accent and character schticks all done and ready and picked out for a new PC within 5 minutes of coming up with the concept, I exaggerate of course, but not by as much as you might think.  Joining a game with a character heavy player can be intimidating, but don't sweat it.  It's alright to build things as they go as long as you give yourself a framework to build upon.  In the example of this game, with the party goal being the re-discovery of a legendary treasure horde it's okay to just decide your Wizard needs a Magical Tome from the horde at character creation.  Then later you can flesh it out, deciding that the Tome was your mentor's obsession and you dream of her ghost coming to you and imploring you to find it so she can rest.  It's alright to decide that your character and another player's PCs are drinking buddies and then to build up that relationship and story each time the party gets a rest and the two of you can hit the inn for ale.  
    • This doesn't mean that you can't go hogwild and write a 10pg background, et cetera, if you're inspired to come up with plenty of meat for your PCs metaphorical bones.  Just remember that you need to leave yourself a little leeway and flexibility for your PC to change and grow as you play them and the campaign continues.
I plan on following up this post with a couple of character creation examples but this post has gotten long enough, so I shall bid adieu before I wear out your patience. 

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post, I've linked it to the D&D games, and it is 'Required Reading'. As for hijacking, I'm all for it. I look forward to being the John McClain of DMing to your Hans Gruber of PCing.


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